Year A — The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for February 6, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
 
Alicia Silverstone made the phrase ubiquitous in the film that was to become (sadly, I suppose one could say) the pinnacle of her acting career: “AS IF!” (Clueless, 1995, check it here.) The term is defined charitably in the Urban Dictionary as, “an expression used to display disbelief.” There are probably other similar phrases we could call into service: yeah, right… yada, yada, yada…same old, same old.
 

Isaiah indicts Israel’s empty religious practices by saying, “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.” (v.2) Yeah, right…yada, yada, yada…same old, same old. 
 

When is it time for us to evaluate our practice of worshiping and serving God? When do we need to be reminded of the sacrifices that God truly desires? Verse 7 is pretty straightforward: “share your bread with the hungry…bring the homeless poor into your house…cover the naked…do not hide!” 
 

Let us not be clueless, church!
 
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
 

One of the themes of our times is uncertainty. There’s plenty of it to go around in our world, and sure to be a healthy dose amongst the people in our pews each Sunday. Psalm 112 is centered on the thought in v. 6 — “the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever.”
 
Looking for a little certainty, for a foundation on which to stand? It’s found by those “who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in God’s commandments….[who] are gracious, merciful, and righteous.” (vv. 1,4)
 
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
 
The proclamation (and living) of the gospel is not about “lofty words or wisdom.” (v.1) In fact, writes the Apostle, it’s not really about anything other than “Christ, and him crucified.” (v.2)

In the sermon below, Dr. Chilton explores the seduction and danger for preachers (and congregations) when we think that we must find some other way to proclaim the gospel — to “make it relevant” for our age — than to preach Christ, and him crucified.
 

May your preaching be filled with “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (v.4) as you seek to proclaim Christ this week.
 
Matthew 5:13-20
 

Sometimes, there is a divide among Christians over just how much, and to what degree, we are “under the law” of the Old Testament. We probably make too much of the issue, if the truth be told, but the logic goes something like this: “Christ came to set us free from the law, so we don’t really have to pay much attention to the Hebrew scriptures. They’re just there as a guide, to point the way to Jesus.”
 

Okay, but Jesus himself says, in our piece from the continuing Sermon on the Mount passage in Matthew, that he did not “come to abolish the law or the prophets… but to fulfill.” (v.17) Perhaps we should give that a little thought, eh? How is the foundation of our faith both begun and completed by the Living Word of God, at work by the Spirit through the holy written word of God– all of it?

Sermon
by Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Christ, and Him Crucified”
Have you ever heard the old story about the woman who found her great- grandmother’s handwritten recipe for rabbit stew? It begins with the words, “First, catch a rabbit.”
Or, are you familiar with the sports legend about Coach Fielding Harris “Hurry Up” Yost, who led the University of Michigan Football team from 1901 until 1926? They lost badly at Notre Dame once and the train back to Ann Arbor was silent for several hours as the team waited to be yelled at for playing so poorly. Finally, Yost stood up with a football in his hands and said, “Gentleman, THIS is a football.”
I have struggled with my weight most of my adult life. I frequently launch a new plan to create a thinner, healthier me; especially around New Year’s, after Thanksgiving and Christmas and Bowl games, etc. I have read a lot of diet books, gone on a lot of web sites. 90% of what any of it says can be summed up in four words, the basics of weight loss and fitness: EAT LESS; MOVE MORE.
Paul, in First Corinthians, has come to an “EAT LESS, MOVE MORE,” moment in his evangelism strategy.
He has realized that before he can cook a stew, he must first catch the rabbit, before his team can play the game, they have to know the rules; it’s time to get back to basics,which for the church is Christ, and him crucified.
I have been a pastor since 1977. In that time a new program for making the church grow, for expanding the Sunday School, for getting people to give a lot more money, for starting small groups, for growing a vital youth group, etc., has come across my desk or my computer screen at least once or twice a week.
I’m sure one or two of them worked somewhere, sometime; but really, none of them has ever worked anywhere for me. I don’t know; maybe my heart wasn’t in it.
What I have learned is pretty simple: if the gospel of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, is at the heart and core of a church’s life within the walls and is the motivation and content of its proclamation outside the walls, the church is a happening place full of joyful and motivated people.
And if some other agenda takes center place in a church’s life together and its mission and message to the world, it won’t matter what programs they try; the church will be somewhat unhappy and struggling.
Christ, and him crucified, is the EAT LESS MOVE MORE of the church.
That’s not to say that putting more current and popular themes at the center of a congregation’s life and ministry won’t work for a time and for a season, but it usually doesn’t work for the long haul.
Recently Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy, did you know that? Remember Schuller, the smiling TV preacher with the drive-in church in Garden Grove, California?
Things have gotten tough for him and his church. The magazine Christianity Today had an editorial reflecting on the congregation’s hard times. After exploring the ways the Pastor had adapted the gospel to the “wisdom” current in California in the 1960’s and 1970’s — that is the “human potential movement” — and how the self-esteem issues Schuller emphasized so strongly to build that church no longer ring true to many in the 21st century, the magazine goes on to say:
Robert Schuller is not the problem . . .(he) was only leading the parade of those who believe they are responsible for MAKING the gospel relevant. The lesson is not that Schuller got it wrong or that his theology is out of date . . .The lesson is that our attempts to find and exploit a point of cultural contact inevitably end in bankruptcy. . . .we must repress every fearful thought that suggests that making the gospel relevant and meaningful rests on our shoulders. The mystery of why and how people come to faith is just that – ultimately a mystery. (CT, January 2011, p. 59)
That’s what gets us off base; we don’t trust the simplicity of the gospel. We think it is up to us jazz it up and make it more appealing, and in the process we risk losing the truth in the midst of our hype.
I grew up in Mount Airy, NC, which is the town actor Andy Griffith grew up in. Except for being a small town in North Carolina, there really weren’t a lot of similarities between the fictional town of Mayberry and the real town of Mount Airy, but that hasn’t stopped the Chamber of Commerce from turning Mount Airy into a tourist destination for thousands of Mayberry fans.
My mother lives on a farm outside of town and when I visit her I almost never go downtown but this past Thanksgiving my wife and I decided to have a pork chop sandwich at Snappy Lunch, one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid.
Well, at least the sandwich was the same and still one of the best things you could ever put in your mouth. Most of the rest of Main Street was unrecognizable to me; all the old stores were gone, replaced by places selling tourist trinkets about Mayberry. After a while I had to get away; it wasn’t that it was bad exactly, it was just that the town of my childhood was gone.
This is what Paul warns us against in First Corinthians. We have to be careful about adding things to the basics of the gospel in an attempt to dress it up and make it more exciting.
The real truth is, what’s there is exciting enough. As English mystery writer and amateur theologian Dorothy Sayers said in Creed or Chaos:
We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine – “dull dogma,” as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination…and the dogma IS the drama. (Sayers, Sophia Institute Press, 1949, p.3)
The very words CHRIST, AND HIM CRUCIFIED, say to us that the God who made us has not abandoned us, that the God who made us loves us and wants to be in relationship with us; indeed, wants it so badly that this Holy One, this divine Creator of all that is, came to be with us as one of us, a human being who ate and slept and learned and worked and talked and listened and healed and loved just as we do, only more so.
We had to learn how much we were loved and how we were to go about loving each other, and telling us was not going to be enough. We had to be shown.
And so, this humble holy one, in a mystery that it is impossible to unravel, with a wisdom too deep for words to explain, died upon the cross for us– in the place of us, because of us– to show us how to live and how to die and how to love in the process.
That is what CHRIST AND HIM CRUCIFIED means.
That is the EAT LESS, MOVE MORE of the church.
That is the story with which we will catch the attention and the hearts of the world.
That is the simple thing that is at the center of our life and our life together.
That is CHRIST AND HIM CRUCIFIED!
Amen and amen.

2 thoughts on “Year A — The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

  1. Pingback: Year A: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 9, 2014) | The Lectionary Lab

  2. Pingback: Year A: The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 16, 2014) | The Lectionary Lab

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