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Sermon – July 19, 2009

Sermon for Sunday, July 19 , 2009 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Did I Speak?

2 Samuel 7: 1-14a; Ephesians 2: 11-22; Mark 6: 30-44

At one time the tourist guide book for cities in northern France mentioned, with regard to

the city of Beauvais, only the cathedral. The cathedral, it said, was ” a monument to pride, folly,

miscalculation, and collapse.” Evidently the architects of Beauvais, in their desire to outdo

Paris, made the roof of their building unusually high and then tried to top it with a spire. It didn’t

work. The spire fell, the roof beneath it collapsed, and a couple more tries only succeeded in

putting a roof back on. Reaching higher had to be abandoned.

William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, specialized in novels of ideas for the

general reader and wrote a book about Beauvais called The Spire. In the book the local

bishop is pressing forward with the work, certain that God has affirmed his vision of a towering

place of worship, heedless of both the human and engineering failures surrounding

construction. At the end of the book an older clergyman explains to him what went wrong.

The Beauvais bishop, it turns out, was just a novice priest when he had been

accelerated through the ranks of church leadership by the string-pulling of an influential patron,

so that he had arrived at his position of power with relatively little experience of life as a leader

on behalf of God. The wise old associate who’d witnessed the whole thing said that it wasn’t

his fault but that he wasn’t seasoned enough in prayer, and so mistook a transport of

excitement in his praying about the cathedral for a signal from the Almighty. Human weakness,

both in desires and perceptions, had interfered with the prayer which had become the basis

for his vision of what God wanted built. If, before being faced with prayer about the cathedral,

he had spent more time with God, he would have learned to gauge the importance of his own

feelings and reactions and recognize how much of his experience of prayer was due to his

own personal needs and hopes and which things more likely were messages from God.

Our Old Testament lesson has a similar story from the life of King David, except in this

case God alerts the prophet Nathan to the misconception and David doesn’t try to build a

temple in Jerusalem. This is a useful story for us, because it reminds us that we can feel like

there’s something we should do as an expression of our love for God and our desire to serve

God, which God would rather we didn’t do.

That seems pretty terrible, because how often do we get motivated to do something

just for God anyway? Sometimes we serve God because something comes up, like the

need to forgive someone, and we are reminded that God wants us to forgive, so we end up

serving God because events require it of us. But how often do we just think, “you know what?

I want to do something for God, and so I’m going to do this.” If we get that far in our devotion

to the Almighty, shouldn’t that be enough? Do we really have to deal with the possibility that

our idea of what God wants us to do might not be God’s idea?

It’s painful, and it’s discouraging, to get interested in doing something to please another

and have it turn out to be the wrong thing. We’ve all gotten gifts for other people that just

struck us as something that other person really would like and learned, even when others have

done their best to reassure us, that the gifts were duds. Then what do we say? We say,

“Just tell me what you want.”

That’s the right approach with God, too, but it is not as straightforward as we’d like. In

David’s case, David nurses this notion he should build a temple but first consults God’s

prophet. He’s being prudent, not rushing in where angels fear to tread. What does Nathan tell

him? Nathan says it’s a great idea. Nathan, who is being trusted to have the word from God,

and who obviously trusts himself as a spokesperson for what God wants, tells David to follow

his bliss. Go right ahead, do what’s on your heart, Nathan says, and David leaves their

conversation feeling the way is clear.

Then God comes to Nathan in a dream, and says no. David shouldn’t build me a

temple. I don’t want David to build me a temple. I like things the way they are. And it’s not

just a “no thanks.” It’s more like, “who does David think he is? Have I asked for a temple?

Who’s in charge here?”

It’s almost enough to make a person give up. Sometimes people do give up. There

must be examples of that in scripture but I know there are examples in church life. People

heed a call, folks put themselves on the line to do something to contribute to the mission of

their local church, and it’s not welcome. It doesn’t turn out the way they hope. They invest a lot

and get a little return, or they try hard and only hear criticism, or any number of things which are

a lot like this: like feeling God wants you to do something and then getting the message that it

wasn’t such a great idea. Now sometimes that’s the fault of your fellow human beings.

People can be ungrateful, shortsighted, and all that. Sometimes it’s just the fact that we all get

lots of chances in life to look back and say, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

There’s not just a caution in the story of David’s feeling he should build a temple.

There’s also hope. A clear message from God comes through despite everything–despite

David’s convincing arguments to himself about the soundness of his aim and despite the

official spokesperson’s initially uninformed instincts. The prophet has been consulted, after all,

and there’s a chance for God to give guidance, and the prophet is enough of a prophet to

have the dream and remember what it means.

Well, that’s encouraging, but how many of us are experienced prophets, with a history

of being given something to say by God? We can find a closer comparison with ourselves in

the story of the miraculous feeding of over five thousand people, because in that story there’s

Jesus’ original disciples.

I call them “Jesus’ original disciples” because there have been plenty since, including

us, and what the New Testament shows us plainly about Peter, James, John and the rest is

that they don’t do as well as they should. They aren’t the toughest role models to follow. Of

course they all become champions of the faith and heroic martyrs and get churches named

after them ever after, but in the gospels, while they’re following Jesus, they’re making the sorts

of mistakes that we would make.

Where they go wrong in today’s gospel story is they know what Jesus wants before

they get there. I’m not being sarcastic, they do know what he wants. They had all been on the

other side of the water working long hours and Jesus had invited them to join him in going

some place where absolutely no demands would be placed on them and they could relax.

Of course, when they get to the other side, all these people had hurried ahead on foot

and are there waiting to get more of what Jesus has to give, so Jesus does. But all is not lost.

It’s getting late, and everybody has to eat, so the disciples know how they’re going to help

Jesus finally get the break he was seeking when they put off from shore long before. They

have a solution. The people going to be sent into surrounding villages to buy dinner for

themselves, and that’s going to get rid of this crowd so that what Jesus wants to happen at last

can happen. They don’t come to ask Jesus if this is a good plan. They are so confident it’s

the only way to go that they take advantage of the fact that Jesus has everyone’s ear to tell

him to send them off to get supper for themselves. It’s like he’s the guy who’s accustomed to

speaking in a loud voice so they ask him to make the announcement.

Well, we know what happens. When Jesus was leaving people behind he was

thinking about rest for himself and his disciples, but now that Jesus has people in front of him

he’s thinking about something for everybody that’s there. Things aren’t the same. Jesus’

nature to serve the needs of other people is engaged by the new reality.

Boy, that’s hard, too, if changing circumstances are going to change what disciples

should do. It goes hard on the disciples, too. Jesus tells them to feed the people and all they

can do is think of their own resources and say it’s impossible. Can’t do it, they say. They don’t

consider Jesus’ resources.

Jesus is there to tell them what should happen, and to make it happen. Their plan is

discarded in favor of his plan because he speaks up and gives them a new direction. How

come? Well, they do give him the opportunity. When they share what they have in mind

with Christ, there’s the possibility of dialogue and communication.

Several of us went to a workshop this spring about churches doing a really good job of

serving their community and serving Christ. All kinds of churches, with all kinds of emphases

and programs, were given as examples. What’s the one thing they had in common? They all

had spent a lot of time praying hard for guidance about what God wanted them to do. They’d

prayed seriously enough and for long enough that it became clear to them that God had a

purpose for them, whatever options they themselves had conceived. They’d been enough

in earnest that when doors started opening and opportunities began arriving they believed it

was answered prayer, and they responded to it as answered prayer.

Our church needs to pray the same prayer. To continue to be true to ourselves–to our

calling as disciples–through the changes that life always brings, we all need to pray that God

guide us, that our common effort be in response to a sense of God’s leading and with a

conviction of divine assistance and encouragement. Pray that God help us know what is the

work of this church, and don’t rush the answer. Today’s scriptures show us that human desire to

do may go wrong, but God will answer that desire with a way which is good.