This is the the message I gave at Alexander Chapel UMC (Brighton, TN) for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), 28 September 1997. The Scriptures were Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10; 9: 20 – 22,; James 5: 13 – 20, and Mark 9: 38 – 50. (Edited to reflect proper liturgical date.)
Every day when I log into one the computers at work, I get a message telling me how many days are left until the year 2000. Now, I am not sure if this is just a programmer having fun or if it is a subtle reminder to the programmers of how many days they have left to fix the year 2000 problem.
The year 2000 represents a major problem to “big” computer users because, in early computer design, years were based on 2 digits, i.e., ’97, ’98, ’99, rather than 4 digits, i.e., 1997, 1998, and 1999. When the time comes, computers using the 2-digit program will think it is 1900 rather than 2000. And this will cause a great deal of trouble for companies who have not done anything.
The year 2000, or perhaps more appropriately the next millennium, also represents a challenge for many people who do not use computers but rather see the time as the Second Coming of Christ. When the year 999 turned to 1000, there were many people who felt that it was time prophesied in the Book of Revelations and prepared accordingly. There have been commentaries that the same thing will occur with the coming millennium.
Now, Christ told us that we would never know the exact time of his coming and that we should always be prepared for that time. So the changing of a calendar date should not be considered anything extraordinary. Still, it is interesting to note that every time there is a big event in world history, be it the new millennium or a war or famine, people have felt that it was the time of the second coming and have acted accordingly.
For us, this is a time to consider the place of the church in today’s society. For it was during a similar period in history, when all the events suggested that the end was near, that John Wesley started the Methodist Revival. But when the world around you is falling apart, especially when everyone else seems to be succeeding, what can you do? Who can you turn to?
When I read today’s scriptures, I got a sense of community, of the church’s place in society. Throughout his entire letter, James was speaking to the community, encouraging them to work together, to help each other.
The Old Testament reading for today comes from Esther. Esther was part of the Jewish community in Babylon during the Jewish exile but was married to the Babylonian king. At the time of the reading, a plot was being developed to kill all the Jews in Babylon, as one commentary suggests, as part of annual celebration which required a sacrifice to one of the Babylonian gods.
But when the king asked his wife, Esther, if there was anything she desired, she took the opportunity to ask for the freedom of her people, the captive Jews. Thus the plot to kill the Jews was stopped and the chief plotter was killed instead. The closing portion of the Old Testament reading spoke of what the community, having been saved, did in celebration.
Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.
Contrast that to the actions of the disciples upon hearing that someone else was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They were apparently in an angry mood because someone was doing something they felt that they only had the right to do. But Jesus told them not to complain when someone else did work in His name because such work was good. And as he noted in verse 39, having done good made it impossible for that person to speak ill of Jesus later.
For whatever reason, the disciples viewed their community as the twelve disciples and Jesus, yet Jesus knew that the community was much larger. As Jesus told his disciples, if someone was for the group, they could not be against the group. In verses 42 – 48 of the Gospel reading for today
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you stumble, cut it off; it is better for you toe enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off;’ it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies, and the fires is never quenched.
Jesus told us what would happen if we ignored the community around us. John Wesley saw a community downtrodden and forgotten, not only by the government but by the church as well. To him, action by the church was needed and it was by his actions, in starting that the Methodist revival that conditions improved.
“What can we do?” you ask. At this point, I remember a prayer that has the line “my ship is so small and the sea is so big.” But James told his community to consider prayer, and not just a simple request but rather prayers done in faith. The person that the disciples were upset about healed through his faith in Jesus. If he had healed through deceit or trickery, then the person who was sick would have not been healed, nor would Jesus have been as understanding.
Prayer is our means of communicating with God.
Norman Harrison in “His in a Life of Prayer” tells how Charles Inglis, while making the voyage to America a number of years ago, learned from the devout and godly captain of an experience which he had had but recently with George Miller of Bristol. It seems that they had encountered a very dense fog. Because of it the captain had remained on the bridge continuously for twenty-four hours, when Mr. Miller came to him and said, “Captain, I have come to tell you that I must be in Quebec on Saturday afternoon.” When informed that it was impossible, he replied: “Very well, if the ship cannot take me, God will find some other way. I have never broken an engagement for fifty-seven years. Let us go down into the chartroom and pray.”
The captain continues the story thus: “I looked at that man of God and thought to myself, ‘What lunatic asylum could that man have come from. I never heard such a thing as this. ‘Mr. Miller,’ I said, ‘do you know how dense this fog is?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘my eye is not on the density of the fog, but on the living God, who controls every circumstance of my life.’ He knelt down and prayed one those simple prayers, and when he had finished I was going to pray’ but he put his hand on my shoulder and told me not to pray. ‘Firstly,’ he said, ‘because you do not believe God will, and secondly, I believe God has, there is no need whatever for you to pray about it.’ I looked at him, and George Miller said, ‘Captain, I have known my Lord for fifty-seven years, and there has never been a single day that I have failed to get an audience with the King. Get up and open the door, and you will find that the fog has gone.’ I got up and the fog was indeed gone. George Miller was in Quebec Saturday afternoon for his engagement.” “I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes” by Glenn Clark
Who can we turn to? When you pray, whether it be in your private daily devotions or as part of the church prayer each Sunday, from where do the prayers come? When we turn to God, when our prayers come from faith with our eyes turned to the Living God, then we know that our prayers will be answered.