“What Time Is It?”

This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany (23 January 2005).  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 9: 1 – 4, 1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18, and Matthew 4: 12 –23.


There are times when I read Paul’s letters to the various churches that he established and I get a sense of frustration. I don’t know if it is because he is not there while the churches are struggling with the issues that all churches must sometimes go through or whether it is because the churches are struggling.

Anyone who has ever begun a project knows that it cannot be completed overnight. Yes, you get the groundwork in but it still takes a couple of years before it is fully operational and self-sustaining. The operation of the Billy Graham Crusades can tell you that. The planning for a visit, such as the one that is coming to New York in the next few months, is an example. The people associated with the Crusade don’t just rent an auditorium and then let people know. There are planning meetings with local individuals, groups and churches so that people know what is happening and what to do when it happens. The Billy Graham Crusades are an epitome of planning and organization in addition to being one a classic evangelical event.

So too were Paul’s visits. He probably didn’t come to Corinth uninvited. His successes elsewhere probably cause the Corinthians to send a note inviting him to come. And his stay in any of the towns where he established a new church was never short. So, the preparation and effort to insure the success of the church were there.

But then you have the letter to the Corinthians that we read last week, today, and will read next week as well. Here is the frustration of Paul. He had left Corinth to continue his ministry at Ephesus when he received two letters from Corinth.

One of the two letters was a set of questions about marriage and singleness and Christian liberty. The second portion of 1 Corinthians provided answers to these questions and offered additional instruction in the areas of worship, the solemnity of the Lord’s Supper and the place of spiritual gifts.

The second letter was a disturbing report from the house of Chloe (mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1: 11) about divisions and immortality in the church. It is noted that the young Corinthian church had failed to protect itself from the culture of the city. Religious and sectarian events were mixed and the result was confusion. As we read today, the believers in the church were identifying themselves as followers of specific leaders (including Paul) rather than as followers of Christ.

There were four different factions in the church; each aligned with a prominent Christian leader. One group identified itself with Paul; this group may have been attracted to the church because of Paul’s emphasis on a ministry to the Gentiles. A second group identified itself with one of Paul’s fellow missionaries, Apollos. As noted in Acts 18: 24 – 28, he was an eloquent speaker and this allowed him to attract a following. A third group was identified with Peter. They were probably of Jewish background.

The final group associated itself directly with Jesus. Now, in the context of what Paul writes, we might consider this group the "godly" group but this was probably not the case. Paul commends none of the factions, pointing out that their professed allegiances were causing division and discord.

Paul’s response in the letter was to pose three rhetorical questions:

  1. Is Christ divided?
  2. Was Paul crucified for you?
  3. Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Each of these questions would be answered with a negative answer. In doing so, he hoped that the people of Corinth would seek the absurdity of their divisions. Paul pointed out that in the act of baptism, a person identifies himself or herself with Christ, period. Baptism does not align the believer with any human leader or with any faction of Christianity, but with the Lord Himself. The Corinthians, who prided themselves on their wisdom and understanding, had misconstrued the truth. They had begun to identify themselves with the ones who had performed the baptisms rather than with Jesus Himself.

The commentary (The Nelson Study Bible) that I use notes that we might be tempted to write off this problem, attributing it to "those silly, immature Corinthians," if it were not for the fact that the tendency to exalt dynamic leaders is still prevalent today. Witty, engaging, Christian speakers and vibrant, charismatic spiritual leaders still have the power to mesmerize and motivate believers today. And there is nothing inherently wrong with such power. The danger comes when the speaker or leader, and not the message, becomes the focus of attention.

Christian speakers and leaders (and that includes all of us, not just a select one or two) are merely vessels through whom God’s Word is communicated. Exalting them for the message they proclaim is a misunderstanding of their purpose. We must guard ourselves against identifying too closely with human leaders or placing too much emphasis on them. Our loyalty and identification belong only to Jesus Christ and His message

If we take our focus away from the Gospel message, then we run into problems. And if we allow the problems that we run into, then we are apt to lose our focus. The one thing that I think dominates modern church thinking, at least from the standpoint of the person seeking a church home, is that focus on the Gospel message. If they do not find that focus in one church, they will go to another church until they find it. The problem for many churches is providing the true message of the Gospel.

It is the loss of focus that Isaiah speaks to in the passage that we read today. At the conclusion of chapter 8, Isaiah spoke of the coming darkness that would surround Israel. Though the term "darkness" has come to mean a moral and spiritual blight over the land, it also referred to the invasion of Israel by other nations. In this case, the darkness came from the armies of Assyria that would take away liberty and bring oppression. This invasion comes because the people have lost their focus. No longer are they focusing on God but rather on other gods and idols.

The first line of today’s reading completes the thought of the last verse of the previous chapter. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were to be the first to bear the brunt of the invading Assyrian armies. But against this gloom, this darkness Isaiah promises that a new light would come to illuminate the world. In a world of darkness and oppression, there would be a King to set the people free, to bring light into the darkness. Of course, in the light of history we know that Isaiah is speaking of Jesus.

We have to see those few days of Jesus’ ministry, those days when he calls the disciples to follow Him in the same light. We have to see that Jesus has a focus to His ministry that is communicated to the disciples from the very beginning.

That focus is evident in the response of the disciples. When called, they followed. But as Mark Ralls pointed out, not everyone followed. Are we to assume that when Jesus came to James and John and make the commandment to follow Him, he was only speaking to them? Matthew points out that the two "sons of thunder" were working with their father that day and we have to presume that the invitation to follow was given to him as well. But he chose not to follow.

The problem, perhaps, is one of focus. When Christ calls, He offers us abundant life. But with this offer comes a certain measure of risk. There cannot be change in the world unless we are willing to move beyond the safety of our known existence. For many, change is hard. We tend to think in terms of that which is familiar, that which is safe. But holding on to that which makes us feel safe makes it difficult for us to move forward. Our souls remained tethered to something other than the love of God. We hold ourselves back from what we were meant to become. We choose to stay where we are, safe and secure, even when the Son of God appears before us.

We cannot say what happen to James and John’s father Zebedee. We know that despite their intial enthusiasm Peter, James, and John were far from perfect followers. When the chips were down, Peter denied Christ. James and John fought over who would sit where by the throne of God instead of concentrating on what Jesus was trying to teach them.

There are going to be times when Jesus calls us. Sometimes we are up to task; sometimes we are not. When He does calls us, he beckons us beyond the point of familiarity, asking us to risk us doing something we don’t know how to do, to become someone we’re not yet sure we know how to be. It is a risk to do this but then again Christ is taking that same risk when he calls us. (Adapted from "What about Zebedee?" by Mark Ralls, from "Living by the Word" in Christian Century, January 11, 2005)

The title of today’s sermon is "What Time Is It?" And that is exactly what we have to ask ourselves. It is noted that in the final lines of the Gospel message for today, Matthew said that Jesus took the disciples and went through Galilee preaching the good news, the Gospel message.

For unbelievers, Jesus had but one word: "Repent!" It’s a tremendous word and one worth examining. We think of it mostly in terms of repenting our sins but the Greek word from which it is translated means "to change one’s mind for the better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins." So when Jesus called on people to repent, He really demanded that they change their way of thinking, abandon their false concepts, forsake their wrong methods, and enter upon a new way of life.

This must have come as a great shock to many people who heard him preach. The Pharisees, for example, who felt that because of their "good behavior" and "trust in the Lord’ assured them of divine favor must have really been disturbed. They felt they were already saved and just about the best people God had on earth. Jesus also felt that the wealthy, aristocratic, unscrupulous Sadducees needed to change their way of living. He called on the reliqious Zealots to change their attitudes.

Now, no one has a right to call on others to change their ways unless he or she has a more excellent way to offer. Forsaking the wrong way is only half of repentance; accepting the right way is the other half. So the call for repentance is accompanied by the announcement that kingdom of God is here. For Christ, it was the way, the only way, for people to live. (Adapted from "The Sermon on the Mount" by Clarence Jordan)

So what time is it? It is time to repent, to change our way of thinking, to change our attitudes, to change how we view others and ourselves. Gordon Atkinson, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio and host of the website RealLivePreacher.com writes:

I keep getting e-mails from people who say, "Your church sounds nice. I wish I could find one like that." So Atkinson responds: "Let me guess. You’re looking for a cool church, filled with authentic Christians who aren’t judgmental but also have convictions, and are hip and classic in just the right mixture. A church where people forgive each other, love children, and worship in meaningful ways. A church with a swingin’ preacher who makes the Bible come alive, tells great stories, is a wonderful inspiration — plays, too. A church that isn’t liberal or conservative, but seems to transcend weak-ass categories like those. A church where the hunger for truth is honored, and people can disagree but still love each other and share a plate of tacos.

That’s what you’re looking for? I got ya. I understand. Here are some tips to help you in your search:

  • You won’t find that church.
  • Surely, I don’t need to say anything about churches that have billboards and commercials featuring preachers with $200 haircuts.
  • Let’s talk about my first point again. As I said, you won’t find the church you’re looking for. Go ahead and grieve. You’ll have to make do with a silly bunch of dreamers and children prone to mistakes, blunders, and misjudgments. (Printed in the February issue of Context (originally from Christian Century, 11/16/2004)

The people looking for a church must change their way of thinking. But, by the same token, the churches these people are finding must make sure that they are focusing on the Gospel message. Too many churches today try to offer something for everyone but not offering the Gospel.

And, as Dennis Winkleblack pointed out in a message to the Town and Country Breakfast at last summer’s Annual Conference, the focus of too many churches in the New York Annual Conference is gone. He noted first "that we are confusing a tool for ministry – namely the church building – with Jesus’ call to be the church." He also noted that a few people in far too many churches are choking their church to death.

These individuals mean well but they insist on getting their own way. As he said in his remarks printed in The Vision, no one in history has lived long enough to see what happens if they are crossed, there is a great unspoken fear that these individuals will stop giving or leading or doing all the work. Or, worse, they will explode in anger as they have in the past.

The third crisis facing the churches of the New York Annual Conference is a crisis in the pastoral ministry. Too many of the pastors are staying in the ministry when their hearts are not. This is a question that not only the pastors of this conference need to look at but the people of the many churches that make us the conference. For what reason do we seek the ministry of the church? Is it for the money that is provided? (An interesting thought considering the salary and benefits for many of the full-time pastors in this conference.) Or is it because it is an expression of our faith?

The fourth point that Dennis pointed out was that there is a crisis of imagination. Be it the local church with all of its differences and problems or the Annual Conference with its own collection of differences and problems or the General Conference, where the differences and problems make national headlines, Dennis noted that we so caught up in fixing our problems and managing our finances that there is little energy left to imagine a whole new way of life.

When you read Dennis’ comments and you think of what you know is happening, you have to wonder if there is any hope. There are those who say that all that has transpired in the past few weeks, the earthquakes, the tsunamis, the floods, are signs of the coming apolycapse. But, if God really wanted to wipe this destroy this planet, we would certainly welcome earthquakes and floods. Perhaps we, once again, being given a sign that there is time to do what is right.

Jesus brings forth a message of hope and peace. But he begins that message with a call for repentance, a call to change one’s thinking, one’s attitude, and one’s behavior. What time is it, you ask? It is time to repent.

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