Sunday, September 16, 2018

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

Out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.

Praise, supplication and thanksgiving: this is how we approach God in prayer. We see this in the psalm for today; it follows a pattern. First the psalmist praised the Lord for listening. Then the psalmist described his difficulty. Finally the psalmist spoke words of thanksgiving and praise. This is a powerful pattern for us to follow. We are to begin with a hope-filled prayer, praising God for His compassionate mercy. This is based on faith and trust that God is present and that He hears, even if it seems He is far away. We know by His promises that He is near and we trust that He hears our cries. Once we worship Him and acknowledge His presence, then we approach Him with our needs. Finally, we sing thanks and praise to God for His mercy knowing that He is faithful.

The psalmist talks of death but death is not always the end of our physical bodies. We all face death in different ways throughout our lives. Broken relationships, unemployment, illness and other difficulties are types of death. We experience a type of death can happen when our circumstances change. Hope can die when nothing is as we think it should be. We often find ourselves crying out to the God who is present, knowing that He is listening to our cry. In praise, supplication and thanksgiving, we trust that God will deliver us from death by His mercy and grace.

Unfortunately, our mouths are not always filled with praise, supplication and thanksgiving. I had a very bad habit when I was a student teacher so many years ago. I tended to get frustrated and angry with my classroom filled with children who were constantly making noise. In anger I would raise my voice and shout “Shut up!” This did not go over well with the teacher who was mentoring me. “Shut up” does not help the situation and yelling is even less helpful. My attitude made the children respond negatively, rather than positively. Instead of getting quiet, they got louder. Instead of listening, they turned on their neighbor. My teacher had a very quiet voice and could somehow calm the chaos with a whisper.

There is a modern day proverb that says, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Those who live by this proverb will do everthing in their power to make Mama happy because if we keep her in a good mood, she’ll do the things that make our lives better and we will feel comfortable and satisfied. However, if Mama ain’t happy, she’ll make our lives a living nightmare.

I like to think of this proverb in a different way. I have realized that if I am not happy, the atmosphere around me will be unhappy. My attitude affects the world in which I live. So, if I make a willful attempt to be happy, under any circumstance, those around me will feel comfortable and satisfied. If I had learned that lesson earlier in life, I might have had the peace and patience to be a teacher who could calm the chaos with a whisper. I don’t use the phrase “shut up” very much anymore, but we all have certain words that we go to when we are frustrated or angry. What word do you use to describe bad drivers on the road? What word do you yell when the referee calls a play against your team? What word do you use when things just aren’t going right in your world?

These might be words that you can’t say on television, or they might be words that are g-rated but stand for the same thing. We all know what someone means when they say “gosh darn” or “fiddlesticks” or “son of a gun.” While that driver who just cut me off might deserve to be called whatever word is on the tip of my tongue, I have begun asking God for forgiveness every time I do so. I’m trying to learn how to, to take a breath first and to think about what to say. I am trying to learn how to hold my tongue and respond with self control.

James writes, “Out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.” We are all saints and sinners at the same time, but this is not how we have been called to live. I used language in that classroom and words still come out of my mouth that was both unhelpful and disturbing. Yet over the years I have become more aware of the words that come out of my mouth. I’ve had a positive impact on children, including my own. I’m sure there were many days when Mama wasn’t happy, but it wasn’t the responsibility of the little ones to make my world seem good. It is much better for us to live in a way that brings forth blessing from our mouth rather than cursing. The world around us will be better for our good words.

It all begins with recognizing the presence of God in our lives and staying connected to Him through prayer. That awareness will help us to know what God is calling us to do and we can trust that He will give us all we need to do that work.

I was once acquainted with a young lady on the Internet who had decided that she was a prophet. I’m not sure what evidence proved this, but she sought out others she thought were prophets in chat rooms to discuss the things of God. She was impressed one day with the things I was saying and we struck up a conversation outside the chat room. She was young and willing to learn, and for some reason had decided I was a prophet, too. She looked to me for advice, and understanding. Though I have never considered myself a prophet, I saw the conversation as an opportunity to help her understand her vocation in God’s kingdom.

She sent me several teachings that she had written, and quite frankly they were horrific. Not only was the theology questionable, but the writing was terrible. She had no grasp on spelling or grammar. Her sentences were confusing and sometimes incoherent. She was young and passionate, and she truly believed she was doing what God had called her to do. I encouraged her, but since she had sent me the writings for review, I gave her some honest opinions about them. I believe I was gentle but firm, showing her ways she could make the teaching stronger and easier to understand. I showed her biblically where she was in error. I even rewrote some of the text to make it usable for her ministry.

She was shocked. In the end I realized that she wasn’t looking for advice. She wanted me to fawn over her wonderful work and tell her that she really was a prophet. I couldn’t do that; she needed to hear the truth because she would be judged by her teaching. She was playing a dangerous game and if she was going to play at being a prophet, she needed to know her errors and experience God’s grace in a way that would help her to be merciful in her teaching. She responded with an attack on my own writing, but she did so with no foundation in the scriptures. Her faith was eclectic, and mix from many different religions and she based her rebuke on teachings from outside the Christian faith. It made me sad to think that someone might be led astray by her teaching and that she would discover the judgment that comes from teaching a false gospel.

James writes, “Let not many of you be teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive heavier judgment.” Prophecy and teaching are closely related and are often mentioned together in the scriptures. Some people are gifted at proclaiming the message of God’s 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. These are gifts, not something we can grasp for ourselves. They are given by God, and though we can develop the gift, we can’t learn how to be a prophet or teacher if God has not first called and gifted us to that work. We might think that we want to prophecy and teach, but we won’t succeed if God is not calling us to that vocation.

Too many people try to be something they aren’t called or gifted to be. They try to teach, but leave their students confused and doubtful. The young lady in the chat room boasted that she was a prophet, but her words proved her wrong and she refused to accept the words of others. I was not the only one who tried to encourage her to seek God’s purpose for her. She most certainly had other gifts that would glorify God, but she was so focused on being a prophet that she missed the blessed life God had for her.

She probably had people who were encouraging her to continue to do this work, ignoring the reality. “Follow your heart” they say. We’ve all watched the auditions for those reality shows with people who appear so sure that they are the best performer in the world. They’ve been told to that they are wonderful but we know that they should never have been allowed on a stage. They end up being the joke, making us laugh. We wonder how they could possibly think that they are good enough to be there. I know I will never, ever try out for a singing show because I can’t sing, and though I’ve had people compliment me, I’ve also had people tell me the truth. I have plenty of other gifts; I don’t need to pretend that I have that one.

Finding our place in God’s kingdom requires a connection with God. We have to listen to Him, trust in Him and let Him guide us in the way He wants us to go. We had a problem in the kitchen of one of our former houses; we didn’t have enough electrical plugs for all our appliances. We had to unplug the toaster to plug in the can opener. It was often frustrating, especially when I forgot to switch the plugs. All too often in the morning rush, I put two pieces of bread in the toaster then moved on to some other quick task. After a few moments I checked on the toast to find that it hasn’t even started. I forgot to plug in the toaster, and it won’t work without electricity.

Jesus, Peter, James and John were on the Mount of Transfiguration when the crowds began to gather around the rest of the disciples. A man approached hoping that they might heal his boy who had been possessed by a demon. Jesus and his disciples were quickly gaining notoriety because of the miraculous works they were doing. The disciples had been sent out earlier to heal and preach the kingdom. When they returned from that experience, they were excited by the power and amazed at the things they could do. They saw people transformed before their eyes. They thought they could do anything. People were flocking to these men who could do such incredible deeds, even without Jesus around. The disciples were basking in the glory.

This was a particularly difficult demon. It rendered the child speechless and often threw him to the ground in violent convulsions. It has even tried to kill the child by throwing him into dangerous situations such as water or fire. The disciples were unable to do the work. When Jesus came back down from the mountaintop, He asked what was happening. The man was desperate, so Jesus rebuked the evil spirit and it left the boy. It left so violently that the child fell to the ground and appeared dead. Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet. The boy was healed.

Later, the disciples asked why they were unable to cast the demon from the boy. As is true with all human effort, the disciples lost sight of what gave them the power and began to take for granted the gifts given to them. They were not asking God to heal him through prayer; they were trying to do it on their own volition. Just like the unplugged toaster will not work, the disciples could not bring healing without that connection to their power source: God. The disciples needed to pray, to stay in constant touch with God. They were seeing and doing incredible things, but they were being distracted from the work of faith by the glory of this world.

The disciples were so confident of their ability to do the work from their previous successes that they forgot the most important thing: that Jesus is the source of their power. They did not take the time to pray, to ask God into the situation and to call on Him for the power to do His work. They tried to do it themselves. We do the same thing.

There are many things we can do as Christians every day to bring the Kingdom of God to the people who are dying in this world. We can love, serve and speak the Word into their lives. We can step forth in faith and do the work of the Kingdom in this world. Yet, we should never forget the source of all we have and look to Him in prayer. We can do nothing without Him. Jesus reminded the disciples that they need to turn to Him, that it is not their own power or authority that brings healing and peace into the lives of those who suffer.

The text from Isaiah is a servant song a song spoken by one who had been chosen to bring hope to God’s people. The prophets were often given a word of warning or a word of discipline, but this prophet was given a word of hope for those who were weary from living in the midst of suffering and pain. The singer knew what it was like to suffer, just like those to whom he was speaking.

I worked in retail a number of years ago. I started as a cashier but eventually became an assistant manager. I always felt it was important to be an example to the employees. A retail store requires people to do all levels of work. We need people with accounting skills to take care of the money as well as people who can mop the floor and clean the bathrooms. We need people who can unload a truck or unpack a box. A well run store has people who can determine future needs, ordering the right amount of merchandise that will sell through each season. All these tasks are vital to the success of the store.

Sometimes it was necessary for management to be “every-man.” In other words, there were times when the janitor was not available to deal with an emergency, so we grabbed a mop to clean up the mess. If the crowds were overwhelming the cashiers, we would jump on a register to help ease the load. If a truck with an extra large load showed up at the back door, we would lend a hand. A willingness to experience the hard work gave the management credibility. If some smart aleck kid refused a job saying, “You do it,” I could easily answer, “I have; now it is your turn.” There is nothing I didn’t experience and the employees knew it. They also knew that I was the boss, and they had their own job to accomplish.

This singer of the servant song knew what it meant to live in suffering. He not only received the gift of the word, but he also lived in the midst of pain. He was persecuted, humiliated, insulted. He was shamed, but without shame. Though he experienced this suffering, he never turned from his calling. He persevered through it, trusting that God was there with him.

Through the eyes of the cross, we see this song as sung by our Lord Jesus Christ. He was the suffering servant who was persecuted, humiliated and insulted. He was even crucified on the cross. Yet, He never wavered, standing firm on the word that had been given to Him. He spoke those comforting words to the people and those who had ears to hear and in His words His people found hope in the midst of their own suffering and pain.

God is about to impact the world through us, just as He did with the suffering servant. It takes prayer, of course, because without Him we can do nothing. Not by our strength or knowledge or abilities, but by God’s power, word and Holy Spirit can we do what He is calling us to do. We will certainly disappoint those who have expectations beyond our ability; we might even face persecution, rejection and even death. They will chase after us for all the wrong reasons. And unfortunately, we’ll use our mouths in ways that won’t always glorify God. So, let’s live in a way that brings forth blessing from our mouth rather than cursing. The world around us will be better for the good words we will speak by His power to share the grace of God.

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