Prophets, Then and Now
I am offering a series of sermons on the prophets. I am doing this because I believe God expects his church to be a prophetic church. The first Sermon, “Old Testament Prophets,” presents a short history of Prophets in Israel, which God from choose from all the nations to be his people. The second sermon, “New Testament Prophets,” explores the history of the church, (whose members all posses the Holy Spirt) as a prophetic community. A third sermon entitled “I Walk the Line,” is a personal follow-up to my paper “My Response to Same Sex Marriage”. None of the ideas expressed herein differ greatly from what I have taught through forty years of ministry, and none are original to me, . I am indebted to my friend and mentor, the later Robert Lyon for my doctrine of prophets and prophecy, especially prophets in the New Testament and in the church of today. WNG
I. Old Testament Prophets
By definition, a prophet is someone who speaks on behalf of another. In Bible, the prophet sometimes speaks for God and sometimes speaks for the people of God to which he or she belongs. The first person to be called a prophet is Abraham, who is the patriarch of Israel and the father of all who have faith. In Genesis 20, the LORD God speaks to King Abimelech is a dream telling him that though Abraham has not always been entirely truthful, “…he is a prophet, and he will pray for you.” Abraham proved himself when God called him to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house, to go to a land he would shown him, and Abraham went out, in obedience to God, not knowing where he was going.
People have the wrong Idea about prophets. They think that the primary task of the prophet to foretell the future. That is not so. The primary task of the prophet is to forth-tell God’s word to God’s people in times of moral or national crisis. God alone knows the future. God sometimes reveals the future to the prophets, who then tell the rest of us about it, but the prophet must still face the future, a day at a time, as it is being revealed. The prophet suffers an additional anxiety: If what the prophet has spoken comes to pass, the prophet is a true prophet. If it does not come to pass, the prophet is a false prophet. Ouch!
Now the greatest prophets don’t just predict the future, they help to shape it. The greatest prophet in the Hebrew bible is Moses. It was Moses God sent to Pharaoh saying, “Let my people go!” And it was Moses who led the people out of their Egyptian slavery, and through the desert to Mt. Sinai, where God gave them the Law that bound them together and made them God’s witnesses in the world. In Exodus 33 we learn that the LORD God spoke with Moses “face to face” as a man speaks with his friend. Then, later in the same chapter, we learn that God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock while God made his glory pass-by, but God allowed Moses on a glimpse of his glory, from the backside, for no human being can look upon the face of God and live. So what do we learn from all this? Perhaps, we learn that Moses knew God imperfectly and only in-part, yet Moses knew God better than anyone before him. Therefore Moses was the perfect conduit through whom God gave the Law that became not only the foundation of Israel, but the foundation of Western Civilization.
This might be a good place to add that not all prophets were men. Miriam was a sister to Moses and the Bible calls her a prophet, too. After the Lord’s deliverance of Israel at the Yom Suph, Miriam took a a tambourine in her hand, and began to beat upon it and cry, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea.” [Ex. 15:20-21] And all the women of Israel follow her example, and they beat on tambourines and danced. I suppose that mean they were not yet averse to dancing. By the way, scholars say this little snippet of text is among the oldest in all of scripture.
The LORD God never left his people leaderless too long. After the Death of Moses God said to Joshua, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” And God seldom left his people comfortless. For a period of 300 years God raised up a series of prophets, which the people called Judges. The Judges not only spoke God’s word, but enforced it. Some of them were men, like Gideon—who got his start in a winepress, and some were women like Deborah, who held held court under a palm tree between Rama and Bethel.
The last and greatest of the Judges was Samuel. When Samuel was old the people of Israel came to him and asked for a king to rule over them, so they could be like the other nations. Making use of his prophetic imagination, Samuel warned the people that they were better off following God without a human king. He said, “A king will take your sons for charioteers, and your daughters for perfumers and bakers, and he will take the first of your crops and the best of you land.” The people would not listen. So Samuel anointed two kings over Israel. The first Saul looked like a King, but ended up a failure. So Samuel did something truly risky, he anointed David to be King while Saul still lived.
The Bible never calls David a prophet; but we do, for the beauty and truth of his Psalms. The Bible does teach that David surrounded himself with prophets like Gad and Nathan. Nathan was fortunate to be a prophet to David, for David was a wise man, and he listened to what Nathan had to say, even when it was not what he wanted to hear. For example, the LORD sent Nathan to tell David a story about two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which gave to his children as a pet. This little lamb would eat from the poor man’s plate, drink from his cup and nap in his bosom. The poor man loved his little lamb like a daughter. Then a traveler came to visit the rich man, and rather than take a lamb from his own flock, he took the poor man’s lamb, and set it on a plate before his guest. When David heard the story, he was enraged! He said, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!” Then, remembering mercy, David said, “The rich man will give four lambs to the poor man!” It is a good thing that David had second thoughts about capital punishment, for immediately Nathan lifted up his eyes upon David and said, “You are the man!” And, no doubt lifting a bony finger, he continued:
“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives, and I gave you Israel and Judah. If this was not enough, all you had to do was ask for more, I would have given it. Why then have you despised the word of the LORD, and done what is evil in his sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite, and you have taken his wife, Bathsheba, to be your wife.Because you have done this, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives and give them to your neighbors. What you did, you did in secret; but I will punish you before all Israel and before the sun.’”
Did you get that last bit, how God will punish David “before all Israel” and “before the sun?” It is easy to interpret “before all Israel.” God punished David before his own people. What wen say and do in secret will be shouted from the housetops.Papa John should have known that. Still worse, Nathan says that David will be punished “before the sun.” What does it mean that God will punish David “before the sun?” It may simply mean that God is going to punish David in the hard light of day. However, it may mean a great deal more. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and then, for people on the far side of the globe, it rises in the east and sets in the west. It does this, day in and day out, as long as earth endures. The sun shined upon all the days of our ancestors, known and unknown. The sun shined upon us when we were born, and it will shine upon our children when we die. The sun shines upon the just and the unjust. It shines upon our friends and upon our enemies. God’s punishment of David is recorded in scripture. Scripture is read around the world, and this story has been told for almost 3,000 years, and it will be told as long as time endures.
We human beings have the mistaken idea that our actions affect just us, the few lives we can touch with our hands and see with our eyes.That is not so! Our actions have always been like a stone thrown into the still waters of a pond, it creates ripples, and those ripples spread out on the surface of the water. Our actions spread out in space. he Bible teaches that the sin we commit in the world is like leaven in a barrel of flour, the whole barrel is soon leavened. Thus Jesus warned his disciples to beware the Leven of the pharisees who preach the right things but do not practice what they preach. Likewise, our actions spread out in time. The Bible teaches the good and bad we do is passed down through the generations.Thus the prophet Isaiah said, “The parents have eaten sour grapes and set the children’s teeth on edge.” And Moses warned that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation. If Moses were alive today, he revise this estimate upward. Sins are like nuclear waste, they are hard to handle, for a long, long time.
Thankfully, God took mercy on his people, and God sent the prophets not only to warn against sin and disaster but to promises forgiveness and grace and better times ahead. Thus Isaiah prophesied the birth of a child who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. We remember and celebrate the names of some prophets, but the names of other have been forgotten. I am intrigued by the nameless prophet of Judges 6, who simply told the people to remember the God who brought them up from Egypt. This prophet is nameless, even in the Bible, but I believe that he or she is not forgotten by God! In the same way, I believe that God will remember all those small, selfless and secret acts of kindness that never make it onto Facebook. The Prophet of Nazareth said that the Heavenly Father sees what is done is secret, a promised his disciples that the day was coming when God would reward all those secret sacrifices. He said,“Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
It goes almost without sayin that no one ever sets out to become a prophet. No prophet ever received a salary, instead, they end up in caves and cisterns, and in jail. They are sometimes beheaded and nailed to a cross. Their enemies are often members of their own household. Amos did not want to be a prophet. Amos said, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees” And Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet. He pointed out to God that he was only a youth. And Hosea did not want to be a prophet, because God made him marry a prostitute—which was symbolic of Israel who committed adultery against him with false god. And Jonah did not want to be a prophet. Jonah went to the ends of the earth to escape his mission, and when God turned him around, and made him a raging success, he was bitter in his success. Abraham Maslow was right, “Success, we can’t handle success.” Prophets become prophets for one reason only: God sends them and gives them little choice.
Now most of you know that at least 16 books of the Bible bear the names of prophets, and each of those book represent at least one prophet who spoke the Word of God to the People of God. In times of great moral or national crisis. The Jewish Talmud teaches that the last of the great prophets of God were Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, all of whom spoke to the people of Israel when they came home from the Babylonian Captivity, and were trying to rebuild the nation.
Our New Testament does not agree with this pronouncement by the Talmud. Take the example of John the Baptist. In the gospels, even the common people thought that both John the Baptist was like one of the great prophets of old. Jesus himself said that John the Baptist was “the greatest of the prophets,” meaning John had a vision of what God was doing that was superior even to the vision of Abraham, and Moses, and Isaiah. What made John so great?
I suppose there are many answers. First, of course, he got people to act. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and people came out, in great numbers to receive it. No sermon is a real sermon unless it is a call for action. Second, John was practical. When the multitudes who came out to him for baptism asked, “What should we do?” He said, “Let him who has two coats share with him who has none.” In saying this, John was not proposing a philosophy of charity, he was simply proposing a response to the immediacy of human need. And when the tax collectors asked him what they should do, John did not tell them to revise the tax code, that is an issue for other times, he simply told them to be honest, and “Collect no more than what is due.” And when soldiers asked him what they should do, John did not propose a theory of just war, or urge them to become conscious objectors. He said, “Rob no one by violence or lies, and be content with your wages.” John knew that sometimes, the only way that people can cope with our place in life is to leave off the big worries, and concentrate on the little ones, the ones that are right in front of us. In John’s teaching I hear echos the serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Third, John spoke the truth, to everybody. He called the priest who came out from Jerusalem, a brood of vipers, and asked them who warned them to flee from the wrath to come. And he called out Herod for marrying Herodias. According to Jewish law she was not only still the wife of Herod’s half-brother Philip, but she was the daughter of Herod’s other half-brother, Aristobulus. That means Herodias was Herod’s niece, sister-in-law, and wife, all in one. This made Herod and Herodias the most infamous royal couple since Ahab and Jezebel. It was a terrible example for the people,, so John called them out. Finally, John was greater than all the great prophets who had come before him because he stood closest to Jesus. According to the Fourth Gospel, John started preaching to prepare the way of the Lord. And the day came that John pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World!” And it was not long before John’s disciples came to warn him, that all the people were going over the Jesus. John did not get excited, he simply said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The Prophet John the Baptist predicted his own future, and we read about it this morning. Mark this contrast. Nathan called out David, and David repented of his sin. David went on to be Israel’s greatest king. He was called, “a man after God’s own heart,” and he was seen as the forerunner of the Messiah who was to come. By contrast, John called out Herod, and was cast into prison. Then at the behest of Herodias, with the help of Salome, and over the objection of Herod, who like hearing John, John was beheaded. His only crime was the truth.
The New Testament teaches that John was the last of a long line of great Old Testament prophets. Of course, The New Testament also teaches that there is a new, longer line of prophets that begins with Jesus, continues through the disciples and into the church. Someday soon, we will speak of “The Future of the Prophets.” In the meantime, we will do well to remember the words John spoke about Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The late Bishop Jay Hughes grew up here at New Philadelphia. Jay once told me that the hardest thing that he every had to do was to face a sign that the members of Lititz Moravian Church had placed on the rear of the pulpit in which he stood to preach Sunday after Sunday, It read, “Pastor, we would see Jesus.” Jay said the second hardest thing he ever had to do was face that same congregation and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I would see Jesus, too.”
II. New Testament Prophets
Before preaching this sermon, I reminded the congregation that I still consider myself bound to the paper I wrote entitled “My Response to Same Sex Marriage”. I have presented the material in this Message which is the clear teaching of scripture so that people can understand my process of discernment, and further develop their own. eople who have a different hermeneutic, or way of receiving and interpreting Scripture may differ from me, but most will also allow my interpretation. Many people have accused me of sitting on the Fence. I respond that from my position on the fence I can love people on both sides of the fence. Ironically, People on both sides of the argument about same-sex marriage have accused me of falling-off of the fence. They say my way of thinking leads to an inevitable conclusion. Perhaps it does. I do not project my thinking or method on others. I continue to believe I am where I have to be based on the time and place in which I serve. When I was a platoon leader in the Marines, I was taught that when a platoon goes on a long march or run, the platoon does not finish until the last member of the platoon has finished. I love the simplicity of that. I hate divisions between winners and losers, and finishers and non-finishers. I always have; I suppose I always will. As to homosexuality in the church, it is ironic that something we call a non-essential has taken so much of our time, and caused so much anxiety. Of course, for those who are being talked about–and talked around, I hope and pray you will at least rejoice that we have entered a new era of conversation and action. God bless us everyone. WNG
The last time I spoke to you, we saw that John the Baptist was the last of a long line of Old Testament prophets, and that Jesus was the first in a long line of New Testament prophets. Today, I want to remind you that Jesus is the first of the New Testament prophets, but not the last. In the 2nd chapter of Acts we read about the first Pentecost when God poured out his Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus. The house where they were staying was filled with a rushing mighty wind, and tongues of fire stood over them, and they spoke in languages they had never learned, and everyone understood everyone else.
In the words of my dear departed grandmother, “Those disciples raised a ruckus!” And because they did raise a ruckus, they attracted a great crowd, and the crowd thought that the disciples had drunk too much new wine. Then, standing in the midst of the disciples, Peter delivered his first sermon. He said:
“Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem…these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only 9 o’clock in the morning; but this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
It is pretty obvious from this text that God intends the church to be a community of people who all possess the Holy Spirit, a prophetic community, a community that lives in advance of its age.
Of course, that is the idea. In reality the church seldom functions as a prophetic community. Here is the problem. Most of us see the world as a place of change, and we are frightened by change, so we do our very best to make the church a place of stability. That is why we spend more time preserving our old traditions than we do making new ones.
Likewise, the prophetic community often ceases to be prophetic, because the members of the community, especially those of us who are pastor-teachers, are terrified that we might be called upon to do something prophetic. Niccolo Machiavelli defined our fear when he wrote:
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
Now according to 1st Corinthians 12 and 14, God has given some people special gifts of discernment and prophecy. These people are sometimes odd and disruptive, but they do not bother us as long as they use their gifts to affirm all that has gone before. We especially like it when they talk about sins other than our own; and we also like for them to tell us to love one another, and to be kind to one another. However, when these troublesome prophets begin to tell us things that we don’t want to hear, we either ignore them or ask them to leave. “Go trouble the world!” we say, and they do. Susan B. Anthony was a Quaker and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist, but they found their real pulpits out in the world.
Susan B. Anthony first joined the anti-slavery movement, and then two decades later she was a leader in gaining women the wright to vote. Some women embraced her message others did not.
Martin Luther King, Jr. became a leader in gaining African Americans their Civil Rights. Needless to say, members of black church were among the first to embrace Dr. King’s message of non-violent resistance, and thank God they did, or else our streets would have flowed red with blood. However, members of the white church were not so eager to rally beneath his banner. We knew we should. We knew from St. Paul that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. We knew from Bible school that, “God loves the little children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Some of us even quietly hopped for Dr. King’s success, but few of us stepped up to be counted. I don’t know about you, but as a teenager, I was fearful to step out too far because of what my friends might think. I guess you could say that I loved the praises of my peers, not God.
Not surprisingly Dr. King said that his greatest disappointment was the failure of white Christians—especially the clergy, to step up in favor of Civil Rights for non-whites.
Today, that same kind of unrest is once again stirring up the church and the world. I don’t have to tell you about the actions of our 2018 Synod. Some think that the Synod acted prophetically. Others think that the Synod drove a nail in coffin of the Moravian Church. Since the passage of Resolution 14, several people have told me that the church is letting the world change us, when we ought to be changing the world.
I understand how people feel—nobody is more anxious than I; but the truth is that God has often used the world to change the church. In the first Christian century, the world persecuted the church in Jerusalem, and the church had to scatter, but as it scattered it took the gospel to other places, “to the ends of the earth.” Likewise, in the 1610 (or thereabouts) Galileo told the church and the world that the earth was not the center of the universe. The church silenced him with the threat of excommunication, but the world embraced his truth with open minds and eventually forced the church to do the same. Ironically, it was 359 years before Pope John Paul conducted a special service in which he said Galileo had been right. Likewise, in Pre-Civil War America, much of the church was on the side of slavery. Preachers, south and north, extolled its virtue from their pulpits using numerous Biblical texts; and when they were invited to preach to the slaves by their masters, they took texts like Ephesians 6:5, “Slaves be obedient to your masters from the heart….” Small wonder it took a bloody Civil War to abolish that peculiar institution. Likewise, when women won the vote, and then started asking for more and more freedoms, like equal pay for equal work, and the right to ordination, much of the church stood solidly against them. Even today the Catholic Church refuses to ordain women, and many Protestant churches still teach that God made man to rule over woman and not vise versa. Many protestant church will still not allow women to teach men or hold positions of authority over them. Not long ago, a woman I know attend membership classes in one large church and growing church in our community. She had seen no women elders listed on the church’s website, so she asked the pastor leading the class if the church permitted them. He responded, “Well, I suppose we would if the right woman came along….” She went away shaking her head. Though it is hard to accept, the world is still ahead of the church in the area of empowering women. This despite the fact that God promised to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, on his menservants and his maidservants.
So, the church is supposed to be a prophetic community, and we seldom are. How will we ever change that? In Matthew 16:2 Jesus makes a observation that I think is relevant to this question. Jesus said that we often know how to predict the weather from the color of the sky, but we cannot read the signs of the times. In other words, almost anyone can say:
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight;
Red sky in the Morning, sailor take warning.
But very few people can look around at the life of our church, our community, our country, and our world and make accurate predictions about things that are far more important to us than the normal run of weather. Until more of us can read the signs of the times, the church will never be a prophetic community that lives in advance of its age. So, then, how do we learn to be more discerning? I will need several weeks to deal with this question, but, today, I will begin with three suggestions.
1. First, we must begin by examining ourselves. The Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece said, “Know Thyself.” In John 16:8 Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would convince the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment. It was said of Martin Luther that he searched out himself before God, and he searched out God before himself. We must do likewise. We have to know who we are before we can know who we are supposed to be before God. Now this task is easy, and not so easy. Some of our preferences are easy to discern because they are reflected in every choice we make. However, some of our prejudices are so deep that we are scarcely aware of them, and they affect our view of the world almost without our knowledge. If we have unrecognized prejudices, we may not be able to discern God’s truth. You see, most of us do not live by logic, we live by our gut—the ancient Jew would have said “the heart.” Jesus said that God wants us to love him and serve him with not just with all our heart—our gut, but also with all our mind. The gut by itself is not enough.
2. Second, we must know what we know and what we don’t know. In his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari writes that one of the most important discoveries in the history of the human race was the discovery of our own ignorance. He said this discovery made the modern world possible. Until we know what we know and what we don’t know, we will never make any progress in discerning the signs of the times. Far too many of us simply believe what we want to believe with no real evidence. I am constantly guilt of this—in ways large and small, Let me give you a small for instance: I have heart disease, but when I sit down to eat a cheeseburger lathered in mayonnaise and served up on a toasted and buttered bun, I convince myself that I am immune to all the fats in that sandwich, because I eat one so rarely, not more that two or three times a week. Ha!
In the same way we must know what we know about the Bible, and what we don’t know about the Bible. The Hymnists says that the Bible is “the Golden Casket in which the Gems of truth are stored.” That is true, one need only read one of the great texts like John 3:16 or Romans 10:9 or Romans 12: 1 and 2 to see them shine, for they shine in any light. But some texts are like lumps of coal, they shine in some circumstances, but not in others. A good example is Psalm 137 where-in we read that it will make people who called themselves the people of God happy when they dash the children of their enemies against the rocks. That text may have sparkled for a Jew who had just seen his own child killed by a Babylonian, but it does not shine for us, for Jesus told us to love our enemies. How much more should we love their children? No wonder Martin Luther said that the Bible is inspired in direct proportion that it preaches Jesus Christ.
As an aside, some people ask, “Why would God permit such a text in the bible?” I think he did it so that we could know he both understands and loves us even in the depths of our own grief and anger.
3. Third, we must learn to read the Bible so that we can discern the difference between those text that express the great and timeless principals, and those texts which are which are conditioned by the time and place and people for which they were given. The Law of Moses provides us with a ready example. According to the rabbis, Moses laid down 919 laws. Most of them were “commandments in ordinances.” According to the book of Ephesians Christ abolished these laws of commandments in ordinances in his body on his cross, and they no longer apply to us. However, Moses lifted-up ten of these 919 laws for special consideration. We call them the Ten Commandments, and I am pretty sure most of you know them. However, you may not know that Moses also laid down two great commandments that seem to be the basis for all others. The first is found in Deuteronomy 6:4 and the second in Leviticus 19:18. Now, you might not know these two commandments, but Jesus did. In Matthew 22, a Pharisee, a lawyer, came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” And Jesus answered,“The first and greatest commandment is this, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” That is from Deuteronomy 6:4. Then he continued, “And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” That is from Leviticus 19:19. Jesus then concluded, “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” In other words, Jesus said that all the Law and the Prophets—which is his way of referring to the entire Hebrew Bible, is based on just these two great principals. These then are the principals that must guide all our interpretation of Scripture and Life.
Of course, as followers of Jesus, we will add a third principal to the other two, a principal that is both the foundation and outgrowth of all Biblical wisdom. As Christians we always read scripture in light of Jesus Christ!
I have told you before how Herman Weinlick and I once represented the Moravian Church in a conference with a number of other Reformed Churches. One day, after lunch, a member of the conference brought in Bishop Spong’s book, “The Sins of Scripture.” He laid it open and asked, “What would you Moravians say about this?” Herman and I knew what he was talking about, for we had read that book. We knew he was referring to text like text like Exodus 21 where-in Moses lays down the conditions under which a Jew call sell his own children. And Deuteronomy 21, where-in Moses says that the parents of a stubborn and rebellious child are to take him to elders of the city so that they might “stone him to death with stones,” and Deuteronomy 21 where-in Moses says that a illegitimate child (a bastard) cannot enter the assembly of the Lord for ten generation. And 1st Corinthians 14 where-in women are told to keep silent in church. And, of course, the dozens of texts that tacitly approve slavery, including those in the New Testament. Herman and I conferred for just a minute, then we answered, “Well, we Moravians would say that there are some things in Scripture that are pre-Christ and some things in scripture that are sub-Christ, for they do not measure up to him.” I will stand-by that answer. I love the scripture, and live by its authority. However, I would never, ever read scripture without filtering what I read through my knowledge of the Eternal Word of God Made Flesh, Jesus Christ.
Some people say, “But Worth, God never changes his mind When God says something it true forever.” According to the Bible, the first part of that statement is absolutely true. God does not get-up in the morning and say, “What am I going to do today?” God knows the end of a thing from the beginning. According to the Bible, the second part is not true, for people in different generations of God’s people perceive the same subject in very different ways. Consider the dietary laws of the Old Testament. Moses forbad the children of Israel to eat shrimp and oysters and and pork because he wanted them to be peculiar, and stand out in the world as God’s people. But when God cast a wider net—and set his sights on winning the world to Christ, these dietary regulations no longer served the same purpose. In Acts 10 God gave Peter a dream in which he sees a sheet let-down from heaven that contains all kinds of birds, and animals, and reptiles. And a voice said, “Peter, rise kill and eat!” And Peter said, “No, Lord for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice said, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common!” Or take this matter of male circumcision. It was the definitive sign of God’s covenant with Israel. According to Exodus 4, when Moses neglected to circumcise his two sons, God almost killed him, until Zipporah, his wife, did the deed for him. Yet, in Romans 2 St. Paul says:
28 For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. 29 He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.
According to Galatians, “the circumcision Party,” which sometimes included Peter and James continued to argue for it; but they lost out. In Colossians 2, Baptism is lifted-up as a Christian substitute for circumcision.
Obviously, there is more to say. I am going to have to continue this next week, but let me sum up today’s lesson. God wants the church to be a prophetic community, living in advance of the age in which we live, and sometimes we become this, for a time, because God sends prophets to trouble us until we can stand it no longer. When these prophets arise, before we ask them to leave us and go to the world, it behooves us to remember what the great Catholic theologian Hans Kung said in his book, “Truthfulness: The Future of the Church. “ There-in Kung wrote:
Any one who wants the church to die out, to become the graveyard of God, must want her to remain as she is. Anyone who wants her to live, as God’s living congregation, must want her to change. Only by changing does she remain as she is. Only by renewal is she preserved.
I am not sure I have a text for that, but I have a read and apt example in Philippians 3, were-in St. Paul said:
“Forgetting what lies behind (his dependence upon the law) and straining forward to what lies ahead (Jesus Christ himself, and the righteousness that comes from him), I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
I would also mention Mark 2 where-in Jesus says that “…new wine is for fresh skins.” He was of course talking about the new wine of the gospel and the fresh skins of the church. Of course, Jesus went on to explain that when we try to pour new wine into old skins, the skins burst, and we lose both the wine and the skins. Come to think of it: That is exactly what Machiavelli was getting at when he said:
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
This simply reminds us once more that no prophet ever had it too easy, else, they would not be prophets at all.
III. I Walk the Line
This third sermon is more personal than the first two. It is self-explanatory.
Apelles of Cos was a great Greek painter of the 4th century before Christ. Pliny the Elder said that Apelles surpassed all other painters who went before and all who came after. Singlehandedly he contributed more to painting than all the other together. The work of Apelles was so much in demand, and he was so wealthy, that he could afford the rare extravagance of praising other painters. Learning that his chief rival, Protogenes was living in poverty, he sailed to Rhodes to assist him. When he arrived at the studio of Protogenes, Protogenes was away. His housekeeper asked whom she should name as a visitor when her master returned. Apelles replied only by taking a brush and tracing upon a panel, with one stroke, an outline of exceeding fineness. When Protogenes came back he saw the work, and said, “Only Apelles could have drawn that line.” Then he drew a still finer line just inside the line of Apelles, and told his housekeeper to show it to Apelles if he should return. Apelles did return, the next day, and when the housekeeper showed him the work of Protogenes, Apelles marveled at the skill of his chief rival. Then he took up the bush a second time, and drew a third line, between the other two. When Protogenes returned he saw it, and confessed himself surpassed, he then rushed to the harbor to see the master before he sailed.
That is not the end of the story, but I am going to stop fit here, because I am going to piggy-back on this story, and say, “It is easier to draw a line on one-side or the other, where there is plenty of space, than to draw a line in the middle.”
It can be done. It was done by the Southern Province Synod of 1995. The issue was ministry to homosexual persons. There were “insiders” who simply wanted to follow the same line the church had followed for 19 centuries. They said that the main issue was sexual purity. And there were “outsiders” who were seeking to follow a new line. They said that we now know that people do not choose their sexual orientation, and justice decrees that homosexual persons should have the same freedom to fall in love, and make promises as heterosexual persons. Both groups were against promiscuity and abuse in every form. Some said the outsiders were rewriting the Bible; they said, “No, we are reading it with fresh insight.” (If you want to know more about the exegesis of both groups, see my paper, “My Response to Same Sex Marriage”). At any rate, at the Southern Province Synod of 1995, the church drew a line in the middle when it resolved that we would agree to disagree on matters touching homosexuality.
For a number of years the middle-line held sway. In 2002 the Unity Synod affirmed this middle-line, when it declared homosexuality to be, “a biblical, theological, and pastoral issue that does not rise to the level of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Meaning, that there were people who followed the inside-line, and people who followed the outside-line, but both were followers of Jesus Christ.
In 2014 the Synod of the Northern Province voted to allow same sex marriage, and the ordination of homosexuals living in celibacy or committed relationship.
In 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States declared same-sex marriages constitutional and made it the law of the land. Then, in 2016, in reaction to this action by the Northern Province—(And the action by the Supreme Court?), the Unity Synod declared all homosexual acts to be a sin, even those between two committed partners. Several observers who were present at that Unity Synod have reported to me that the Synod passed this resolution at least in part so that members from one of the African provinces could go back to Africa and tell people there that they can continue to do as they have always done despite what those crazy Americans and European might do. In that country, homosexual activity is a crime officially punishable by imprisonment—and unofficially by much worse.
By the way, according to a member of the Unity Board both the Resolution of 2002 and the Resolution of 2016 are “binding* Resolutions,” meaning that both are still in effect, even though they contradict each other. (The term may be other than “binding”* because I am working from memory. The essence is the same.)
The plot thickens. In 2018 the Southern Province voted to let the individual churches decided whether or not to marry same sex couples and accept homosexual pastors. Some people say this was the right thing to do. Some said it was the wrong thing to do. Others objected to the politics of Synod even more than the action of Synod. Still others criticized the Synod for forcing the decision down into the churches because now, every local congregation becomes a law unto itself, which is sure to raise the specter of Congregationalism. Some have dared to say, “Maybe God just wanted to stir the pot, and force us to recognize a large group of people who need our help (Whatever that may be).”
But what is the end result of all this? Well According to the resolution and the Book of Order, the Board of Elders in combination with the pastor, may now choose to allow same sex unions in the church, and the Joint Board can now choose to call a homosexual pastor.
Our board of Elders is working on a statement on Marriage, but we have tentatively agreed that there will be no same sex marriages here at New Philadelphia unless the pastor in question and the whole Board of Elders unanimously agrees we should proceed with that marriage.
As to calling a pastor, the Joint Board does that in combination with the PEC, and the PEC takes great pains to gather information from as many members of the church as they can. You will never be left unable to express your opinion.
All this means that we can, if we desire, simply continue as we have always done until that time when we are faced with the issue of saying “yes” or “no” to a couple requesting a same sex union. The truth is that we may not receive a request for a same sex union for years and years. A decade ago, a large church here in Winston-Salem suffered greatly when they decided to permit same sex unions. I recently asked the pastor how many the church had hosted since. He said, “Oh, just the one….ten years ago.”
We could go the other way. We could just get in one big room go back over the same arguments on either side that we all know so well. I doubt that many would be converted from the position they now hold. Truth be told, I don’t know which way such a scenario would go, or how many people would be hurt by it. That is a shame, for there are a lot of good people walking the inside line and a lot of good people walking the outside line. I walk the middle line, because I believe from the bottom of my heart that this is the position that God wants me to follow, for I believe God wants to maintain the Unity of the Moravian Church. I think God wants us to continue to teach the larger church, the church universal, what we taught it on August 13, 1727. And what is that? Simply that people who disagree on matters of doctrinal importance that do not rise to the level of the Lordship of Jesus Christ can still live and work together.
Now let me change gears. I am proud of what we have done here at New Philadelphia. For almost two decades New Philadelphia has been the single largest worshiping congregation in the Moravian Church. I am talking average attendance, not names on the books. More than that, as your pastor, I regard you as one of the most talented and attractive congregation in the entire Unity. To borrow a phrase from a man I respect who warned me against absolute superlatives, “If you are not the best— you are one of the best, and if you continue to love one another, and respect one another, you will continue to be one of the best, and you will continue to be a leader in our denomination.
I count myself blessed, for I have been privilege to serve this one church for more than thirty years. When I consider my time here, I am reminded of Psalm 16. I am particularly fond of verse 3 which declares, “As for the saints in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.” For me the saints include all who are here—and all who are in God’s Acre. I am also fond of verse 6 which declares, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.” A visitor to our Farmer’s Market summed it up for me when she said, “I think I have stumbled into a Hallmark Movie.” That remark was reported to me. Had I been there when it was made, I would have responded, “Yes, I suppose we are a Hallmark congregation, for when God sent us his son, he cared enough to send us his very best.” How does the author of the 4th gospel put it: “the law was given through Moses,” but we have all received “wave after wave of grace in Jesus Christ.” Most of us agree that grace is all we want, and all we want to give.
Now let me change gears again. Now I am in high. Despite my pleasure in your company, the time has come for me to close this chapter, and retire from this pastorate, and I will do that on Sunday, October 28th, 2018. As I do this, I am sure this congregation will face challenges, but with every challenge, there is an opportunity, and I believe that your best days are ahead. When I came here, I identified with Jonah, the reluctant prophet who was afraid of success, and we still hit new heights in average attendance and built new buildings that would cost more than 6 million dollars to duplicate today. I have told you this before. I have not told you that I also identified with Moses. God permitted Moses to see into the Promised Land, but not to go in. I have always believed myself a transition pastor of sorts, and the real boom is ahead. I believe this congregation is going to reach new heights. I will not be with you when you achieve those heights, but I am confident you will.
Why am I leaving? It is not over any struggle I see in your future. I am leaving for a number of reasons. I am leaving because I am 69, and most of my friends retired before 60, and I am confident that this is the right time for me. I am leaving because my doctor wanted me to do it two years ago. I am leaving because I want to spend time with my wife, Elayne. I am leaving because Elayne and I want to spend more time with our children and grandchildren. My daughter and her husband and one grandson is here. My son is north of Boston with his family, including three of my four grandchildren. My oldest granddaughter is going to be 12 years old in November, and hitherto I have spent only about two weeks with her over her entire life. I want to change that. Likewise, I want to spend time with mother, and help her, as she prepares to make her Exodus to the real Promised Land and the city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God. My mother, Henrietta, has dementia. She is making “the long good-by,” and it is the most challenging thing I have ever faced. Finally, I am leaving because I believe all these things—and others besides, point to my leaving as the will of God. I look forward to a new chapter of life, and freedom, and ministry. Whatever I do, I hope to do the work of a witness, for a long time to come.
What’s next? After my departure, you will have an interim to help guide you into the future. However, I still have almost three months left to set the stage for the better days that are coming. In three decades here, we have learned a few things from our successes and failures. We have a lot to talk about. If you care about your church, please make every effort to be in attendance. I would count it as a personal favor. It will certainly impress those pastors who are already starting to contemplate what it might be like to serve here with you.