Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 50:4-10
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 9:14-29

And he said unto them, This kind can come out by nothing, save by prayer.

There's a picture that is making the rounds on the Internet of an iceberg from the side. The water level is near the top, showing only a small portion of the iceberg. The overwhelming majority of the iceberg is normally unseen below the surface. The words on the picture state that a pastor's sermon is just the tip of the iceberg, and that the preparation is a majority of the work. In other words, you pastor put hours of prayer and study into that twenty minute sermon you heard last weekend.

I was talking with a friend who is a pastor and who has done some mentoring of pastors in training. He approached one in the days leading up to a preaching opportunity and asked to see her notes. She didn't have any, explaining that she would let the Holy Spirit speak through her. She approached the podium that day with great expectations, but stumbled over every sentence and left the congregation bewildered and unfed. She was disappointed and asked my friend, "Why didn't God put the words into my mouth?"

She forgot that it takes more than confidence and opportunity to share God's Word. We have to be prepared through prayer and study. We have to be familiar with the text and everything about it. We have to know who is speaking and who is listening. We have to know how the thoughts fit together so that we can apply it to the world in which we live. We have to be prepared. God doesn't just fill us with words in our mouth, but through study and prayer He fills us with His Word in every cell of our being. An adlib sermon can work, but not without hours of preparation.

I have had the privilege to preach about a dozen times over the years. My first opportunity happened when we lived in England. We were getting close to moving back to the United States and the vicar of the local church we attended asked if I would give my testimony at our last service. I agreed and began thinking about what I would say. The vicar and I met one day to discuss my message, and it was that meeting that Antony first used the word "sermon." I was a bit taken aback because that word put so much more pressure on what I needed to say.

We talked about the lectionary and the focus for that Sunday. It just happened to be the story of the feeding of the five thousand, where Philip argues that they don't have the resources to get enough food to feed them all, but Andrew points out the boy with five loaves and two fish. I talked about how we don't think we have enough but if we trust God even our miniscule gifts will be more than enough. I shared this lesson in the midst of my story, encouraging others to grasp onto every opportunity to serve God because He can use our meager portions in extraordinary and miraculous ways.

That's what basically came out in the end as I stood before the congregation, but I have to admit that I struggled for more than a week on that message. I tried to write a sermon. I tried to put words on paper, even an outline, so that I would be prepared. I prayed. I read. I studied. I thought it out and talked it out, but it never quite came together. I was extremely nervous when I stood up that Sunday, but the words tumbled out of my mouth and God spoke through me to those listening. As we left church that morning, many asked, "Why didn't we know you could do that?" and I laughed because I didn't know how I did it. I do know that I would not have been able to do it without the hours of preparation and the help of the Holy Spirit.

I have never relied so much on the Holy Spirit in the pulpit since that day, but I know that even when I have every word written on a piece of paper that the sermon did not come only from myself, but that through the hours of prayer, study and God's grace. And those who hear God's word when I speak do so because the Holy Spirit is helping them to hear. We can't do it alone; we can't rest on our own gifts and power to do God's work in the world.

We usually focus on the work Jesus did in healing and casting out demons, but the disciples did amazing things, too. In Mark 6, Jesus sent the Twelve out into the countryside to take the message of the Kingdom of God. Their work made an impact and many followed them when they returned to Jesus. There was so many that Jesus had to find a way to feed them all. I've always thought that they were simply coming because Jesus was there, but Mark tells us in 6:33 that many who saw them recognized "them." It wasn't just about Jesus any longer, it was also about them.

In today's story, however, they get a little kick in the butt because they can't do what they had done. They couldn't heal the child and they did not understand. Where was their power? Why couldn't they do this one small thing after they had done so many other amazing things? Jesus answered, "This kind can come out by nothing, save by prayer." The disciples who had been so recently successful had forgotten that their power did not come from themselves, but from the One who has all the power. They approached the problem without first seeking God in prayer. We all do sometimes, don't we?

We were in California and the rumors were that changes were being made in the Air Force that would require us to move to another base. We were worried because there were no definite answers to our questions about timing or placement, and we had a house to sell. The ambiguity of our situation made it difficult to deal with it all. When do we put our house on the market? What if we end up in an awful place? How can we make this move work to our best interest? I was stressed. Then one day I gave up; I prayed and I turned it all over to God. That's when everything fell into place. Our orders came, our house sold, we moved to a good place. It was still hard work, scary and exhausting, but prayer lightened the load because I began to trust God.

You might say, "But that preacher trusted God and He let her down," but did she? Did she seek His Word through prayer and the scriptures? Did she trust that He speaks to His people through the process of preparation in prayer and study, or did she think God would bless her in a miraculous way without bothering to do the hard part? The disciples knew what it was like to heal and cast out demons, so they didn't go to Him for the power to do His work. It is easy to lay hands and say "Be healed," especially when the crowds are following you because you've done it for others. It is much harder to stop and pray, to listen, and to trust that God will accomplish His work through you. We can't stand on our own, but much, much too often we try.

It is no wonder that James warns, "Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment." It is so easy for us to get caught up in the glory that surrounds us when God makes miraculous things happen. It is so easy for us to forget that it is God who has accomplished these works and in through us. Teachers make an incredible impact on those who listen to their teaching, and it can be frightening to think that we might say something that has a negative impact. We are imperfect no matter how knowledgeable and capable we are as teachers. We can be wrong. This statement makes us think twice about putting ourselves in the position to be judged by our failure to rightly preach and teach God's Word to the people.

Yet, this fear did not stop the disciples. They went out into the world sharing the Kingdom of God in word and deed, impacting those lives that crossed their path. After Jesus ascended to heaven they went out further into the world, into places where they never thought they would go, speaking to people they never thought they would meet. They didn't always get it right. Peter and Paul argued over specific doctrines. Later generations spent ages discussing, deciding, writing and teaching about the Kingdom Jesus made incarnate in this world. They didn't always get it right. The church today continues to discuss, decide, write and teach about God's Kingdom, and we continue to make mistakes.

James warned against becoming teachers because those who do so are judged more harshly. Teaching affects lives; teachers can cause people to change both for the good and for bad. We all fail, and our failures can affect the lives of others. This is no reason to fear the responsibilities we have been given with our gifts. We are cautioned to beware how we use our gifts and talents, always remembering the effect we can have on another, but also encouraged to step out in faith, to speak God's Word into the world. The key is to remember that it isn't about us; it is about Jesus. We are to enter into any opportunity to teach or preach, to heal or cast out demons with prayer, setting God in front of us to do His work within and through us. He is with us. He will help us through when we trust in Him.

The psalmist writes, "I love Jehovah, because he heareth my voice and my supplications." This seems upside down, because we know that we should love God without condition, but the psalmist puts it into perspective. He writes, "Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live." God is first in this equation. He loves so we love. He listens, so we pray. He heals, casts out demons, and speaks His Word, so we take His power and grace into the world. In His mercy and grace, we receive the healing we need, whether it is in body or soul, and we respond with love. We cry out to God because we trust Him. We trust Him because He is faithful to His promises. He hears our voice. He is near. Thatís how Isaiah lived. It is how we are to live, even if we are called and gifted to do the hard thing.

Isaiah knew what God wanted him to do, and he recognized it as a gift. We can see in his story that prophet is not a good position to covet. After all, he faced difficult times. He was humiliated, beaten, rejected. Yet, he knew that God sent him to speak His word to the people, and he didnít let the persecution stop him or lead him to respond in ways that did not glorify God. He trusted in God, and he did what God sent him to do, no matter how the world responded to him.

Prophecy (preaching) and teaching are closely related and are often mentioned together in the scriptures. Some people are gifted at proclaiming the message of Godís Kingdom, while others are gifted at explaining it. It is vital that churches find those who are gifted in teaching, so that the congregation will learn how to apply the lessons learned from those who prophesy. We cannot be afraid to do the work we are sent to do. Isaiah was a prophet. He faced incredible trouble, life threatening difficulties far worse than any modern preacher or teacher. But Isaiah trusted God. Isaiah accepted whatever persecution he faced. He accepted the strikes to his cheek and the pulls of his beard. He accepted those offenses because he knew God was by his side. God has heard his voice and answered his prayers. God made an incredible impact through Isaiah in the world.

He can and does make an impact through us, too. We simply have to remember to seek Him in prayer before we try to do His work. After all, it isn't our power or knowledge or abilities that makes anything happen. It is God's power, His word and the Holy Spirit that does. We will be judged when we speak, sometimes by the very people to whom we are speaking. We will certainly disappoint those who have expectations beyond our ability, but we might even face persecution, rejection and even death. Whatever we do in word or deed in and for God's Kingdom, let us always begin with prayer, seeking God's purpose, word and power. It takes so much more than what we see on the surface to accomplish God's work; the world might follow us because they see tip of the iceberg, but we know that without the unseen majority of the iceberg we would be nothing.

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