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Sermon – November 15, 2009: All Fall Down

Sermon for Sunday, November 15, 2009 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

All Fall Down

1 Samuel 1: 7-17, 2: 1-5; Hebrews 10: 11-14, 19-25; Mark 13: 1-8

One problem with the internet is that it is much easier for people to send and to see

stuff that is not true at all. There’s no real accountability for misinformation, except on certain

self-policing sites. More significant, it’s been established that as more and more sources for

information appear, people tend to limit themselves to those which correspond with their

way of looking at the world. This means that people who are misguided about any topic are

likelier to become even more misguided, because someone like them will post stuff on the

internet which is either slanted, or only partially true, or completely made up, and those will

confirm the wrong thinking person’s ideas.

Here’s a good example of two inaccurate claims made in the space of a few

sentences in a blog criticizing what it calls “bad religion.” Here’s the quote: ” The serpent is

the classic symbol of the Devil in Christian theology. He tempted Eve to eat the forbidden

apple in the garden of Eden, leading to the expulsion from paradise. It is thus a common

practice in rural churches across America to parade around with poisonous snakes in hand as

a sign of religious conviction.” Well, to begin with, so-called snake-handling churches don’t

handle snakes because the tempting figure in the Adam and Eve story is a serpent. They

handle snakes because of a line in the sixteenth chapter of Mark’s gospel which promises

the safe handling of poisonous snakes as a sign which will accompany those who believe.

And it is a ridiculous claim to say that it is a common practice in rural churches across America

to handle snakes. The most recent year for which there was a count had the total number of

such churches in the U.S. and Canada at forty-four. That’s not a big number in all of North

America when you consider that there are sixty-seven churches in Union County.

In the U.S. snake-handling churches are concentrated in Appalachia and in the deep

South. The practice of handling poisonous snakes and consuming poisonous beverages–

anther sign mentioned in the sixteenth chapter of Mark– is a small part of their worship life,

but all their religion is centered in experiencing spiritual power which enables them to

perform miracles. They are a cousin of other Pentecostal churches which seek and savor

trancelike states and consuming spiritual enthusiasm, and regard those as indisputable

evidence of God’s special closeness.

Most people who pretend to read the Bible literally find a way to ignore or explain

away this death-defying application of a scripture. My reading of scripture is that this is a

distraction from the teaching of Jesus and a poor utilization of spiritual gifts, and it has other

faults with which the apostle Paul would be unhappy, including, obviously, that it doesn’t

increase the respect of outsiders for the merits of Christianity. However, since I am going

on to speak a little about this kind of religion, I want to say that I regard it as part of the family

of belief which includes me, and though I might wish to persuade its adherents to find

different things to emphasize from the Bible’s words, I think they’re being sincere in seeking

to lead changed lives because of what God has done. This is all necessary to say because

I am going to use the snake-handling church as an example of a type of religion found

among the impoverished and powerless, and some people may hear that either as a

condemnation of that religion or of those people. Being poor and having little influence in

the world doesn’t make anyone a worse person than another, and the religion of people

with few material or cultural advantages is not necessarily less worthwhile than anyone else’s

religion. However, there is a well-established pattern of religion in America, and it is this:

that the less one’s social status, education, and place in society, the likelier one is to be part

of a church which focuses on emotional experience, personal spiritual enthusiasm, and a

keen interest in heaven, hell, and Christ’s Second Coming. The more of a stake that

people have in this world the way it is–the more prosperity they enjoy, and sophistication,

and status–the more likely they are to have a religion which emphasizes moral and social

duties. At one end of the spectrum are believers who have little to gain from this world and

are eager for evidence that it can be transcended, either in spiritual bliss or by God’s

breaking in upon it conclusively. At the other end of the spectrum are people whose

Christianity is applied to bettering themselves as moral beings and making the world more

just and peaceable.

Well, it’s easy to see that a religion which dares you to drink strychnine will kill you. It

may be harder for us to agree that a religion which doesn’t expect miracles, or have a place

in its heart for God’s initiative, will kill you, too. Wouldn’t God be glad to be able to get a

church which had the zeal and reckless spirit of the serpent-holding church and the realism

and intention to reform society of a church like ours? The snake-handler’s particular

submission to scripture might be misguided, and I’d say it is, but to feel compelled to put

ourselves on the line for what the Bible says to us would make us more fruitful for God.

Hannah, from the book of Samuel, is one of those people who feels unsuccessful.

She is a woman in ancient Israel so her fulfillment will come through family, but she’s

childless, and worse than that, she’s one of two wives, and the other one is always sneering

at her because this other wife has children. The other wife is mean to Hannah because

Hannah’s the favorite wife. Hannah is a have-not in that little society, and so she embraces

a religion which will change things. She’s so eager for change that she’ll resign her child, at a

young age, to the service of God, just for the sake of having had a child. When God

answers her prayer, she comes out with this long exclamation of joy in what God has done,

and it’s all about the ordinary ways of the world being overturned.

She needs a God who changes the rules. She needs a God who ignores

commonsense expectations for how things have to go– which is basically to say, that

things will go the way they have been going. Most of us live in a world in which the

patterns which have been set are going to continue, and we count on that, and usually are

grateful for it. But people like Hannah find the same-old same-old unbearable, and what

they want from God is disruption, reversals, the unexpected. What they can do for

themselves isn’t enough–they need a God with power, who changes things.

Our gospel reading today includes this wonderful exchange between Jesus and his

disciples which reminds us what country boys they all were. “Look at the size of the

buildings! Look at the size of the stones they used to build these buildings!” the disciples

tell Jesus, because they never saw such things in Galilee. Jesus takes the opportunity to

begin a long discourse on how Jerusalem’s monumental Temple may look solid but that it’s

all going to come apart, and the world may look solid but it’s all going to come apart, too.

This thirteenth chapter of Mark’s gospel presents a vision we call “apocalyptic,” and what

that means is that it forecasts God’s breaking into the everyday world and changing

everything, so that past patterns and past expectations all will be overthrown.

Who’s happy to think that God’s going to crash into our reality and cause all kinds of

astonishing changes? Perhaps the right answer should be “everyone who trusts God,” but

if you look at the people in the pews of churches which emphasize the end of the world, it’s

mostly people who don’t have too much to lose if this world were to end. It’s that variety of

Christians which more sophisticated, more big-city believers sometimes find embarrassing.

You and I have more in common with them than we think. We don’t have to think

that carbon-dating and archeology are frauds to support our understanding of God having

created the world, because we don’t read Genesis as a science book. But we believe that

God created the world, and creates it still. We don’t have to think the preposterous “Left

Behind” series of novels forecasts the way God will bring everything to a good conclusion,

but we believe that God will bring everything to a good conclusion. We may not believe in

exposing ourselves to poisoning to put faith in God to the test, but we believe that God

can make things happen which nobody can expect, and deliver people from their troubles

against the odds. We know it doesn’t always seem to happen when we want it to, but we

know it happens.

All of us, no matter how well we’re doing in this world, and no matter if we get all the

way through with things going our way, are limited in our power. Remember Jesus on the

cross, how those making fun of him said, “He saved others, he cannot save himself?”

That’s the best we can do, to do our best to deliver other people from their ills and woes,

and maybe have some success at that. But we can’t save ourselves, in the long run, from

our own destruction. This is a mortal realm; we are mortals. The Book of Hebrews sees

Christ as the Great High Priest whose power to save and renew rests entirely on his being

from another realm, the realm of God, the realm of immortality. Christianity counts on God’s

entering our world to change things which seem to us like they cannot be changed. Christ

already has done that, and is doing that, and will do that, and it is our witness that no matter

how well this world works for us, that we are glad that God has the last word, and grateful

that our future and our fate are in the hands of heaven.


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