Ask Not What Your Church Can Do


This is the message for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 22 October 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY.  The Scriptures are Job 38: 1- 7; Hebrews 5: 1 – 10; and Mark 10: 35 – 41.

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If one reads the commentary for the passage from Job that was read this morning one gets an entirely different perception of the situation Job is in. In verse 2, God asks who it is that would challenge His plan or design for the universe. God also challenges Job to teach Him. In doing so, God alerts Job to the consequences of his actions and complaints against God. The commentary notes that in making these challenges and complaints, Job seeks an equal footing with God and is making a claim to the throne of God.

But, as I see it, and it should be noted that this is only my view of what Job is about, and in connection with the readings from Hebrews and Mark, I don’t think that Job every intended to challenge God or did he ever seek equality with God. All Job was asking for was the chance to come before God and ask God what was going on.

Job felt that nothing he had done warranted such distress and turmoil as what he had gone through. Of course, it was of little help that all of his so-called friends and comforters, who knew Job to be an upright and righteous man, insisted that he must have done something wrong. In the conventional wisdom, remember, sin is a consequence of your action and when bad comes to you, it is because of some sin that you have done. But we know that all that has come to Job came as a result of a test. Satan was testing Job with every sort of evil short of his own death to see if Job would renounce God; something that Job would never do and, in fact, never did.

All Job wanted to was a chance to ask God why things were happening, and in doing so, he challenged the very notion of who God was and is today.

The God of Israelite at that time was seen as a large and omnipotent being, capable of great wrath and anger, someone whose immense power commanded great respect. But at times, this respect came from fear; if you challenged God, you paid a price. This lead to a God who could never approached. No Israelite would ever think of writing God’s name or even saying it; the term “Yahweh” is our attempt to make sense of the manner in which this was done. The power of God was so great that to see the face of God meant almost certain death. When God first came to Moses, it was in the form of the burning bush and God told Moses to take off his shoes for he was standing on holy ground.

When Jacob wrested with God at Peniel and won, he asked to know whom he was wrestling. In Genesis 32:30, Jacob called the place Peniel because “I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.” The very experience of meeting God face to face also changed Jacob in a number of ways. First, as noted in verse 31, God touched Jacob on the hip and caused him to limp. He also changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which meant “for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Both of these changes would have a lasting impact on life of Jacob.

To see God face to face had a special meaning in the terms of the Old Testament. In Exodus 33: 10, it noted that that the people of Israel could not approach God in the manner that Moses did. Moses saw and spoke with the Lord as one would with a friend. During the exodus, the presence of God was seen as a pillar of cloud. The Israelites saw this pillar and recognized that it was the presence of God so they always stayed some distance away. Only Moses could come near the pillar, God’s Presence.

When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, he commanded the Israelites to build the Ark of the Covenant to carry those stone tablets. God also created the priesthood in order to care for the Ark and to provide a link between God and the people.

It was the priest’s duty to serve the people. The reading from Hebrews talks about what it takes and means to be a priest. A high priest was someone called by God to represent the people before God and to represent God before the people. Since the priest represented God before the people, it was important God called him or her to this task. All through Jesus’ ministry, he constantly emphasized that service was the most important thing. To be a disciple of Jesus meant that you were going to be a servant.

In the Gospel reading for today, James and John come to Jesus, perhaps in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God and ask to be seated at the right hand and left hand of the throne. Verse 41 points out that the other ten disciples were not too happy about this request. And one could understand their displeasure when you know that the seat on the right hand of the king was the place of most prominent in the court and the seat on the left hand ranked just below that. Jesus found it necessary to remind them that such places of power and respect came with a great price.

The writer points out that it was God who called Jesus to be a high priest, not something that Jesus did voluntarily.

And so Jesus could fully represent us before God, he first had to experience everything that a person on earth goes through. Jesus had to know for Himself how difficult it is to obey God and how attractive the temptations of life can be. The author of Hebrews also points out that Jesus successfully carried out God’s plan. He endured the suffering and temptations so that He could truly function as our High Priest, understanding our weaknesses and frustrations, and interceding before God for us.

Jesus own obedience to God, the Father, led to Calvary and His own death on the cross. But by that singular sacrifice, Jesus, who was without sin, died for our sins and became our source of salvation. Now we know longer have to have someone do anything for us, prepare anything, or offer anything in our name as the priest of Israel did, provided of course that we have accepted Christ as our Savior. Because Christ died for us, because we allow Jesus to be our Savior we have a better relationship with God. And God no longer is someone to be feared but one whom we know truly loves us.

Now, if we were of any faith other than United Methodists, that would be the end of the sermon. But I am on page 11 of a 9-page sermon, so we have awhile to go.

It is very simple for us to realize that through Jesus that we can come to God; that we have a way to find God, just as Job did. But what about those who have not yet come to know Christ? How will they come to the same path of life, how will they be able to ask God the questions that faced them as they faced Job? If for no other reason than to answer those questions, that is what the church is for.

What is the church, be it United Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, or any other denomination supposed to do?

I think there is always some time in our lives where we are like Job, where we want to talk to God directly. There has been perhaps one time in your own life where being told that it is God’s will that was done just doesn’t wash and until we hear it from Himself directly, we are not going to accept any answer.

My sophomore year in college was one such time. Spring break was coming up, and while I would be going home to Memphis and I would celebrate Easter with my family, I felt the need to take communion at the church that I attended in college since that was where I was a member.

Reverend Fortel was more than a little surprised by this request but he agreed to it anyway. No other student had ever made such a request (in part, I think, because most of the students at Kirksville at that time could go home on weekends and worship at their home church). So he agreed to meet with me the day before the break. Instead of a formal observance of the communion ritual, we sat down together and discussed what the words of the ritual meant. I don’t recall just how I felt when we read the prayer on page 30 of our current hymnal.

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.

But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.

Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.  (The United Methodist Hymnal, page 30)

I remember questioning the statement “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” because I felt that, as a Christian, our worth was such that we could sit at God’s table as his equal. It seemed to me, with all the wisdom of a college sophomore, that it wasn’t fair. Didn’t Christ’s sacrifice on the cross mean that we could sit at God’s table? How can we, who were saved by the grace of God, not be allowed to sit at God’s table? Wasn’t that why Jesus died for us? Wasn’t admission to God’s kingdom granted to us because Jesus died for us? Reverend Fortel pointed out that because of sin we had lost our place at God’s table, but because of His grace, God has restored our position.

The important thing to realize is that I could not have had that conversation unless the church had been there. That school year had not been a good one for me and I struggled with many questions.

But the one light in my life that year was the presence of Jesus. Now I grew up going to church on Sunday. So, going away to college meant that I could sleep late on Sunday morning. But I quickly found out that I couldn’t do that. It was important to me that on Sunday morning that I go to church, to a place where I had a home and security. First United Methodist Church in Kirksville offered me a home and a place of security at a time when it was most needed.

The challenge for us this day is the same. I noted with some interest a comment in Time magazine last week about an on-line church. It only seems logical that with the advent of new technology, someone would find a way to put a church on-line. Now it is one thing to put information about a church or resources for a church on-line but it is an entirely different thing to try and have a church that way. When you remove the human element, you take away that which is the very essence of a church, the people. As one of the songs that we sing points out, we are the church. Even with a strong one-to-relationship with Jesus in our hearts, it is still important that we, as well as other, have a place that we can go in times of strife.

A church is also a community of believers who share. Over the past few weeks, I have spoken about rebuilding the prayer chain. The present outline has sixteen people on it. Is your name one of them?

Last week and this week, we have placed an ad in the bulletin asking for a Sunday school teacher. We have a possible candidate for that most awesome of tasks. But one person is not enough; there needs to be at least two to give us some flexibility and allow for unforeseen circumstances.

There is a need to have a confirmation class for which I will take the primary responsibility. But I would like someone to be my assistant and I would like the students in the junior high and high school to help pick the materials that are needed for this most important class.

You will note in the bulletin that we are beginning planning for the Advent season. You have two ways to help. I will try to have the Advent materials p

John Kennedy spoke of service to the country at his inauguration in 1961. He spoke in terms of what people could do for their country. That phrase has, over the years since, become one of the most overused phrases in America and one has to be careful when using it. But I think that it is most important that we use it today. The church is here for you but it cannot do a lot without you.

I have always said that as Methodists the challenge is what we are to do after having coming to Christ. The challenge today for each us is to serve this church in such a way that the next time somebody comes looking for God, there will be someone around to help him or her find Him. That is what you can do.

 


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