..And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
And now you know where the strange sermon title comes from. True enough, the church often DOES provoke us in the wrong way. You may have heard me tell of my father’s response when, years ago, I asked him what the hardest part of being a minister was. I had posed the question just after he had conducted the funeral of one of the great saints of his congregation and thought he would respond with something such as that experience. Not at all. He said the toughest part of being a minister is going to a board or committee meeting, watching people behave in a manner absolutely contrary to everything you have tried to teach and preach, and then wondering whether or not you have made a nickel’s worth of difference in anyone’s lives. Now, with the benefit of some years in the same effort, I know what he meant.
“…let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” As one of my colleagues says, his congregation lives out the first HALF of that verse. Another wag has wondered, not that the church shoots itself in the foot so often, but how it can reload so quickly. Too bad. We know that is not the Lord’s will for the church.
Part of the problem may be that we forget what brought us here in the first place. The writer to the Hebrews has just given us this soaring reminder of the magnificence of Jesus Christ – his once-for-all sacrifice, the final conquest of every enemy, the presence of the Holy Spirit who reminds us of the covenant, and the surpassing confidence we can have as we approach the throne of grace. WE ARE GOD’S PEOPLE!!! Now, let us get to work.
I especially love the reminder our lesson offers about the way we go about the discipling process: “…not neglecting to meet together…” Come to church. Come to church. Come to church. I realize that I am preaching to the converted here, because you ARE in church, but if you have ever needed an occasional reminder about why we bother to get up and get going on a Sunday morning when it would be just as easy to worship with the Fellowship of St. Mattress or the Congregation of the Inner Spring, here it is. We gather together from week to week to remind ourselves WHO we are and WHOSE we are and WHAT we are to be about. Yes, the ideal is to provoke one another IN THE RIGHT WAY — or as the New International Version has it, “spur one another on” — “to love and good deeds,” and to ENCOURAGE one another. YES! We need all the help we can get.
For what it is worth, if we are occasionally DIScouraged by the fact that some of those who should be here are not, the problem is not a new one. Even back in the New Testament days, some must have chosen to sleep in. As the text has it, “…not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some.” Too bad. They do not know what they are missing. We are provoked or “spurred on.” We are encouraged. Ideally, we find both as we gather.
In what direction are we being spurred on today? Well, considering the important day that awaits us next week in Consecration Sunday, a brief word about stewardship is appropriate. We might wish we needed no reminders, but since money/possessions IS such a dangerous commodity (as Jesus over and over and over affirmed) and can so easily control US rather than the other way around, we need that word.
This past Sunday was the day for Stewardship emphasis in the New Jersey-shore congregation of one of my good friends. The preacher that day told of the show business beginning of the late George Burns – in case you did not know, it was in a Presbyterian church. It seems that, when little George was seven years old, growing up in New York City, he and three friends had a singing group they called the Peewee Quartet. Each year, a department store in the city would sponsor a talent contest as part of their annual picnic; local churches were invited to send one act each, to compete in the contest. There was one particular church in George’s neighborhood that had no one to send, so the pastor asked young George if he could arrange for the Peewee Quartet to enter the contest on behalf of that congregation. The boys agreed, and not only did they enter, they won first prize. The church received an elegant purple communion-table cloth, and each of the boys received a new watch, each one costing the (then-) princely sum of 85 cents.
George ran home to his mother, who happened to be hanging laundry up on the rooftop. “I don’t want to be a Jew any more,” he announced.
“And why not?” she responded, without seeming flustered in any way.
“I want to be a Presbyterian,” George went on. “I’ve been a Jew for seven years, and I’ve never gotten anything. I’ve been a Presbyterian for fifteen minutes, and already they gave me this watch.”
“Fine. You can go off and join the Presbyterians,” said his mother, wise in the ways of the world, and not especially concerned at the request. “But first help me hang up this wash.” (1)
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Does young George strike a familiar note? Do we come asking, “What can the church do for me? What can I get out of it?” This is backwards, of course. The gospel begins with GIVING — “For God so loved the world that he GAVE…” — and we respond by giving of ourselves (including our money) in return. That giving then supports ministries of all sorts – ministries of teaching, preaching, healing, feeding, services of amazing variety – with the result that great work is accomplished in the name of Jesus Christ. And that work happens because we give.
OK, enough with the provoking to love and good deeds. What about the second component? What ENCOURAGEMENT is here for us today? Lots, I hope. The lesson from Mark’s gospel offers us something powerful. It begins as Jesus and the disciples are leaving the Temple – one of them remarks what a magnificent edifice it is. This was the third go-round for the Jerusalem Temple: the first had been planned by King David and constructed by his son Solomon and was exquisite in every way. Sadly, that structure had been leveled by Nebuchadnezzar when the nation was carried off into exile in Babylon. Once God’s people were allowed to return to their homeland, a second temple was built, but it paled in comparison to the original, and folks were embarrassed by it. Even so, for 500 years, that had been the center of Jewish worship. Along came the Romans and, at the pleasure of Caesar, Herod the Great as king in Israel. Herod knew that the Temple was not all the Jews wished it were, so, in an effort to curry favor and, at the same time, leave a monument to his rule, he embarked on a Temple renovation and expansion project that would make it bigger and better than it had ever been. His most notable contribution was the magnificent stonework of the Temple platform which was greatly enlarged.(2) Beautiful. But Jesus said that it would not last; “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Quite something to imagine when you realize that the stones were about the size of a mini-van. And with the benefit of our perspective…20/20 hindsight…we know he was right.
As Jesus and his friends continued to walk and talk together, they made their way across the valley and finally rested in one of their old haunts on the Mount of Olives. Off in the distance, the Temple dome dominated the landscape, and the sight prompted the conversation to continue: “Tell us, when will this be (this ‘not one stone upon another’), and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
A fair question. There is something fascinating about prophecy. All of us wish we had a glimpse of the future.
One of my cyberfriends this week reported on a TV preacher recently talking for an hour about his new book that supposedly explained everything we needed to know about the coming of Jesus and the end of time. “You must have this book,” he said over and over again, a telephone number (not even toll-free) constantly flashing at the bottom of the screen. Seems that he was the only one who had prophetic insight into world events, and for a mere $14.95 we could have the benefit of his wisdom. We would not survive the coming terrors unless we had this book. My friend called the number and suggested to the poor operator that if this preacher really thought this was so vital to the survival of the planet, and that the end was so near, he would be giving the book away! I mean, he won’t need the money, right? It’s all coming to an end anyway. Who needs a bank account? True, it costs money to print, but he will not have to pay for it if it goes as he says. The woman on the other end of the line was not amused. “Sorry, sir,” she said, “but I don’t know much about theology,” to which my friend responded, “Neither does the writer of the book you’re selling.” (3)
Predictions of the future? Here are some from folks we could surely trust: (4)
• Frank Knox, US secretary of the Navy, on December 4, 1941: “Whatever happens, the US Navy is not going to be caught napping.”
• Economist Irving Fisher on October 16, 1929: “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
• Thomas Watson, IBM chairman, 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
• Decca Records, rejecting a request for a recording contract with a group called the Beatles, 1962: “We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out.”
Uh-huh. So what WILL the future hold? According to Jesus, some pretty nasty things: wars, earthquakes, famines. Well, we know Nasty. Can you say down-size? Can you say El Niño? Hurricane? Tornado? Can you say sickness? Death? Can you say, “Bad Things Happen to Good People?” Yes, we can say all those things, even though we would rather not. We need no apocalyptic visions of flaming catastrophe to understand Nasty. The question is how can we handle Nasty?
Jesus offers advice: “Beware that no one leads you astray.” When life is falling apart – and it sometimes does, even for the best of us – when it seems as though one stone is crashing down upon another, we are liable to listen to any voice that promises to help. The word is be careful. Be careful.
But then Jesus speaks what strikes me as an incredibly comforting word; he says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Indeed. God’s people understand this, even if we forget it at trying moments. Birth is a painful process, for both mother and child. Yes, many transitions are painful, but we know that blessing awaits when the process is complete. What sustains us in the dark moments is our faith.
Have you ever heard someone say as much? “I would never have made it without my faith.” Probably more times than you could count. And in what fertile soil was that faith nurtured and grown? The church.
…And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
History offers no parallel to the church. When the world is out of joint, when people’s minds are disordered and their hearts are failing them for fear, when it seems as though not one stone is left on another, then the thing of supreme importance is the living church, with all of her sanctuaries of worship and her avenues of service, where men and women come to have their faith strengthened, their thoughts clarified, their ideas uplifted, their convictions born, and their characters created. In an age when communities of all kinds are crumbling and individualism is the prevailing ideology, only the church “can offer a community that was here before any of us were born, that will be here after all of us die and that binds us to one another because it binds us to Christ.”(5)
The church. WHEN YOUR CHURCH PROVOKES YOU…say, “Thanks be to God.” Because that is exactly what your church SHOULD do.
1. Carlos Wilton, via PresbyNet, “Preaching Stewardship,” #1285, 11/11/97
2. Holman Bible Dictionary for Windows (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)