Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Not By Sight

1 Sam 16:7; Ez 17:22-24; 2 Cor 5:6-17; Mk. 3:20-27[1]

One of the recurrent themes of philosophy is that there is a difference between “appearance” and reality. Beginning with Socrates and Plato, most of the philosophers in the Western tradition have dealt with that problem. Appearances are always changing, always fleeting. There’s no real substance to them. It’s not a lesson that only the learned and the erudite can discern. Think about it—how many times have you learned the lesson again that appearances can be deceiving.

For example, based on appearances, this country waged a “Cold War” with the Soviet Union for 40 plus years, believing them to be a threat to our freedom and safety. We saw them as the “Russian Bear” waiting to pounce on us and destroy our way of life. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, we began to realize that the Soviets may have built a massive military machine, but they did so to the detriment of their economy, their infrastructure—to their whole way of life. Appearances can be deceiving. During that “Cold War” we built up stockpiles of nuclear weapons, thinking they were making the world “safe for democracy.” But in reality, all we were doing was threatening our very existence, as well as that of our children and grandchildren. Appearances can be deceiving.

That applies to church as well as any other aspect of life. The vast majority of churches in the US are like this one—under 100 members, struggling with finances, working hard to cover all the jobs with fewer volunteers. From the outside looking in, anyone evaluating the role of the church in our society would say that it has become largely irrelevant. Unfortunately, most people subscribe to the “bigger is better” philosophy when it comes to church. From that perspective, based on appearances, it would seem that “church,” with a few dramatic exceptions, doesn’t really have much going for it. But remember, appearances can be deceiving!

Our Scripture lessons for today, each in their own way, remind us of that. In the story of Samuel and David, we find that Saul’s reign has come to a tragic end. Samuel is directed by God to the house of Jesse to anoint a new king, and he begins by judging Jesse’s sons by appearances. But the Lord tells him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). As it turns out, the Lord directed Samuel to anoint David, the youngest and least likely of Jesse’s sons to become king. While it may seem like a surprise, the fact of the matter is that story after story in Scripture demonstrates that God delights in choosing unlikely people to accomplish the work of the Kingdom! God delights in working contrary to all appearances!

Our lesson from the Gospel of Mark makes a similar point, but backwards. By all appearances, Jesus was “out of his mind” or “demon possessed” (Mk. 3:21-22). But Jesus also reminded his critics that appearances can be deceiving. He wasn’t casting out Satan by the power of Satan, he was invading Satan’s territory and plundering it!

What this means for us is that, as Paul reminds us, we must walk by faith, not by sight. When Paul first wrote those words to the church at Corinth, it was a church that, based on outward appearances, did not seem to have much going for it. The church at Corinth was so divided against itself that you might say they were really four churches instead of one! They even publicly humiliated Paul himself, their founder and mentor. But Paul didn’t give up on them. He kept right on patiently teaching and correcting them, above all by his own example. One of the things taught them was that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). For Paul, the key to that was to focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. And from that vantage point, Paul could discern the reality behind the appearance: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

What Paul could see was the kingdom of God had already begun. It is the kingdom that Ezekiel envisioned—it begins as a tiny sprig but grows into a huge Sequoia that towers overhead. And this is because God plants it, the God who says, “I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish” (Ez. 17:24). And in case there are any lingering doubts, Ezekiel adds, “I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it”!

A small church like this one may seem insignificant to some eyes, but appearances can be deceiving! In the eyes of God this church and every other small church is like a sprig of cedar that can become a giant tree! Beyond all appearances to the contrary, churches just like ours are demonstrations of the new creation. Just like in the early church, the vitality of this is the work of the Holy Spirit. If you question whether that’s the case, remember that God’s intention all along is this: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh”! I think what that means is where God’s renewing Spirit is at work, any congregation can be a “giant sequoia,” regardless of outward appearances!

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/14/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

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