Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In the Name of the Lord

1 Sam. 17:45; Ps 9:9-20; 2 Cor 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41[1]

It may seem strange to hear a preacher say this, but Scripture can be dangerous. Of course, like any generalization, that depends on one’s point of view. Looking at the story of the people of God in Scripture itself, it becomes clear that the “danger” factor in Scripture applies primarily to those who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. The poor and oppressed delighted in Scripture’s promises of justice and the reversal of fortunes. The prophets burned with zeal for the Word of God as they called rich and poor, high and low alike back to faithful obedience to God’s covenant. On the other hand, that kind of talk threatened the establishment priests who indulged themselves on the Temple’s vast resources and the court prophets who made their living pleasing the king!

The book of Acts is no exception to this quality of Scripture. When we read about the amazing vitality in the early church that was the work of the Holy Spirit, we may initially find ourselves fascinated by it or even drawn to it. But remember: that kind of vitality can be incredibly unpredictable, as unpredictable as life itself! When we hear how they devoted themselves to prayer and worship, cultivating the presence of the Spirit and opening themselves to new directions and new impulses, again we may initially feel captivated by their story. But remember that the Spirit compelled them to cross boundaries with the Gospel that took them way outside their “comfort zone.” After thinking it over, we may feel afraid about seeking the presence of the Spirit in our midst. Think about it: we have no control over where the Spirit will lead us. When we hitch onto the Spirit, it is impossible to know what the future will hold. The bottom line is this—given the choice between the familiar and the unpredictable, most of us will choose what we know every time. Most of us are simply afraid to let go of familiar ways.

It’s easy to understand why that’s the case. There is so much about faith that is ambiguous. It is reassuring to hold onto those tangible, external aspects of faith—like which songs we sing, or which Bible we study, or the routine we follow in worship. But fear is not what enabled the first churches to thrive, and it will not enable this church to thrive. Fear is what keeps churches from thriving.

The kind of faith that we see reflected in our Scripture lessons for today can, I think, help us to move forward in new directions. For example, look at the contrast between fear and faith in the story of David and Goliath. As long as the army of Israel believed Goliath’s boasts about his prowess, they remained immobilized, paralyzed by fear.[2] Suddenly, a very young David, who is one of the army’s “water boys,” arrives on the scene. When he hears the Philistine’s mockery, he is dumbfounded that no one is willing to accept the challenge. He volunteers immediately, despite the fact that he seems an unlikely challenger to the Philistine champion. But David goes not in his own strength or military prowess; rather he is confident that the “living God” who delivered him from danger many times before will once again deliver him from Goliath. Goliath comes to David with his impressive size and armor and his vulgar and boastful mouth, and David meets him with five smooth stones “in the name of the Lord of hosts” (1 Sam. 17:45).

Now if I were in David’s shoes, I think I would prefer a sword and spear and javelin to words—to be sure they are bold and courageous words, but still words. Or perhaps it would be better to say that he came with one word—the name of Yahweh, the all-powerful God of all the armies of heaven![3] David’s weapon was a “weapon of righteousness” (2 Cor. 6:7)—David was armed with trust in the God in whose grace and love he had lived his whole life.

When it comes to our faith, I think we too have the choice of whether we will live in fear or in trust. That applies to all aspect of our lives, but especially to what we do at Church. It’s my opinion (and not mine alone) that church growth is fairly simple. If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten. It seems that many think that the way to promote the vitality of a church is to take old familiar ways and just push them harder. But that reminds me of the definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result! I think there are many well-meaning church leaders in our day who are doing all they can to validate that as the definition of insanity!

Seeking new vitality requires new directions—that’s just as true for church as it is for life in general. And stepping out in new directions takes courage and faith. Unfortunately, many of us act as if we think that our living Lord Jesus the Christ is asleep somewhere in the back of the boat and all we can see are the waves crashing all around us. I think Jesus would ask us as well, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mk. 4:40)

It takes faith to step out into the unknown—the same faith that enabled Abraham and Sarah to leave the land of their ancestors and travel to a place they didn’t even know, the same faith that enabled the children of Israel to leave the house of slavery in Egypt and set out on an Exodus journey, the same faith that enabled the first Christians to preach the gospel throughout the Mediterranean world as they were scattered by oppression and hardship.

We don’t know the outcome of the new directions we are pursuing in an effort to re-vitalize this congregation. We can work as hard as we possibly can and we still can’t control the results. But what we do know is this: “those who know your name put their trust in you” (Ps. 9:10). [4] We know the one in whom we have placed our faith; and we can trust that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6). In that spirit of faith, we too can have the courage to do what may seem impossible (for us in our own strength alone).

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/21/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 127-28.

[3] Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 132: the name “the Lord of hosts” which David uses “allude[s] to the entire memory of Yahweh’s deliverances of Israel in the past.” Cf. Brevard S. Childs Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, 355: “the content of [God’s] name is filled by what [God] does.”

[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 75—what the Psalmist trusts in God for is “to live in a world determined by the justice of God’s reign”—which is no small matter! To put it more concretely, the Psalmists trusts in God to “hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more” (Ps. 10:17-18; cf. also H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 199).

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