Sunday, January 28, 2018

"Rise Up! Answer" - Sermon, January 28, 2018

Community UMC, Quincy
“Rise Up! Answer”
Pastor Andrew Davis
January 28, 2018
Deuteronomy 18: 15-20

            How many of you like having an answer to every question you are asked?  I know I do!!  Yet, sometimes answers evade us and will admit that I will oftentimes get upset when I don’t have answers.  Any of you find yourselves there too?  Sometimes, we don’t always have an answer to everything, and as I’ve learned the older I get, we don’t always need to have an answer to everything either as frustrating as it can be when we don’t.  As I alluded to last Sunday, even though there is a tongue-in-cheek expectation among many that pastors are to have all the answers to everything, the reality is that we don’t always have all the answers to everything and that’s okay, as we can flesh out the answers together whenever we face life’s greatest questions. 
            This past year, I have gotten into the habit of listening to podcasts, which are recorded radio shows that we can listen to at any time that is convenient for us from our computer, iPad/Tablet, or smartphone.  Some of my favorite faith-based podcasts include one from a group of young-ish clergy in Virginia called “Crackers & Grape Juice,” another by some of my seminary classmates from around the country called “Colloquy Interrupted,” and another by my friends and colleagues Susan Foster and Kris Marshall in Reno called “Sunday Morning Sleep-In.” One of my favorite parts of each of these podcasts that I listen to is that even as clergy, none of us necessarily have the answers to everything, but as Kris and Susan point out in the introduction of their podcast, we as clergy are also on the quest to find the answers to many of life’s greatest questions with our congregations.  I’d even add that we oftentimes find ourselves seeking answers to our prayers, another one that I sometimes wrestle with because it means really having to pay attention and because God does occasionally say no. 
            Answer is one of those tricky words and because we are in various life situations, we may want answers from God faster than others.  When we’ve experienced a shocking life event, a health diagnosis, or an event or loss that completely rocks our world, we want God to respond right away.  We want answers quickly.  We don’t like being held in suspense.  Yet, answers from God can be a little more complex than meets the eye and may come in different forms.  I remember reading a little comic of a person who was stuck in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean after their boat sank and declined any help and kept saying God would help when a ship and plane passed by and offered help.  Yet, when the person ultimately died and reached the pearly gates, God told this person, “I sent the plane and ship to help you!” Perhaps this person was thinking God would speak directly and provide a direct answer or God would just reach a hand down and scoop the person up, hence why it is important that we pay close attention to such signs and have a certain reverence.  In her second New York Times best seller novel, one of my favorite authors, Episcopal priest-turned professor of religion Barbara Brown Taylor writes in An Altar in the World that “the practice of paying attention really does take time.  Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else.”[i]  Looking for an answer may mean having to slow down and even wait, stop and sit, and breathe. 
Just as we talked about how God speaks a few weeks ago, God can answer us through people and through sending various signs or even the ship or the plane to rescue us from our own islands.  Although answers from God may not come to us right away or as we might expect.  When it comes to our text this morning, I’m not really sure how the text from Deuteronomy corresponds with the theme of answer, although through the field of hermeneutics (interpretations), might be able to find a little morsel of how God answers people.  
This particular passage from Deuteronomy is a very short, yet complicated passage that’s situated amidst many of the laws that God has given to Moses, with Moses as the narrator/spokesperson for God, as our text deals once again with prophets.  Like some texts, Deuteronomy is a chapter I tend to struggle and wrestle with at times, sometimes outright cringe at partially because of some of the imagery.  However, today’s text is primarily about how God answers the people, as the Israelite people wanted direct answers from God during their time in the wilderness back in Exodus, especially when they wanted to see a direct sign from God at Mt. Horeb.  God hears the people and promises to raise a prophet like Moses (since Moses won’t be around forever), while also condemning false prophets who claim to have an answer from God.  Even at the time when Deuteronomy was written, the New Interpreter’s Commentary says that “to outsiders and opponents, prophets appeared to be self-appointed speakers, but to their followers they were God-appointed revealers of truth that came through no other avenue of spiritual knowledge,” kind of like the way we saw how God spoke to and instructed Samuel and Jonah these last couple weeks.[ii] 
Hearkening back to the Book of Exodus and how Moses was chosen by God, Moses was reluctant, plus Moses stuttered and was not necessarily the most eloquent speaker.  As Rev. Dr. B. Kevin Smalls explains, in this passage from Deuteronomy,
Moses tells his people that in the same way he was selected, there would be another whose voice would emerge. God would raise him up and anoint him for the work at hand. God would answer the people's longings for a leader. God would provide a leader and would never leave the people abandoned. Never.[iii]

As we read through the rest of the Bible, we will see who the various prophets are that God will raise up.
To me, the struggle with prophecy and who to believe is the voice of God has to do with all the noise we hear from people who claim to be speaking for God, even when their prophecies don’t happen which we see more than our fair share.  We want answers, but whose answers are we to believe and how are we to know the truth, especially if something doesn’t take place as prophesied?  I remember a few years ago how on my way to work at Raley’s in North Highlands, I kept seeing these billboards along the fence facing Elkhorn Blvd. by the former McClellan AFB that the end of the world would be sometime in May 2011, yet it never happened (although as Jesus has said in the Gospel of Matthew, we do not know the time or the place when the son of man will come or when the world will end; maybe we can talk eschatology in another sermon).  There’s still not really a definitive answer.  Yet the group that prophesied this event were certain it would happen based on their research and study of patterns, so they went out and purchased these billboards to proclaim this prophecy, as well as wrote it out on their cars and RV’s.  Even though it’s easy to do, we don’t want to just up and dismiss something or a group of people either, as we still need to listen, even when we may not agree or believe.  It takes some discernment as to what is true and who is a true prophet and who is a false prophet as pointed out in the text.  That’s where answers can be a little challenging to come by.
B. Kevin Smalls further explains that
While Moses is assuring the people of God’s plan to provide for a new leader, he also gives them guidelines that the leader must follow. These guidelines are now in the people’s awareness as they prepare for a leadership shift. “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.” Our theological task as United Methodists gives us a similar guideline to discovering the arrival at truth. Our theological task begins with the question, “Is it true?” What things are true and worthy of celebration as we seek answers throughout our life’s journey of faith?[iv]

            I had asked a colleague a few years back, what is truth these days and that’s one of those areas where we have to discern, where we have to pray, trust God, while also keeping open to answers that God may give us, as it takes listening to God’s voice and even moving into the places we don’t want to go in seeking out those answers. 
When I think about the world today and the fact that things are so polarized, or that you can’t seem to post anything on social media without starting an argument, I find myself turning to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to decipher and discern what is true and to help me in finding answers.  I will oftentimes turn to the writings of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, particularly in how he too found himself in the midst of conflicts and division and came to find the via media, or “a middle way – that found truth on both sides of the theological divide” something I resonate with and can find truth and answers in, even though doing so has also led to accusations of ‘playing both sides of the fence’ because of the ability to see truths on both sides (consequently, we will be hearing a lot more about the middle way throughout this year too!!).[v]
John Wesley even struggled at times with his faith and at one point, felt his faith sink into a total rut, a situation I think we’ve all been in and have prayed to God for answers, maybe wanting God to give us a quick answer or raise up a sign like God would raise up another prophet like Moses.  When John found himself really down one evening after returning to England from a disastrous trip to America, he had a profound experience before a meeting on Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738, in which we hear the famous words of Wesley feeling his “heart strangely warmed,” an answer from God giving him a sense of peace and a new zeal to preach and discern what is true.  Maybe that strangely warmed feeling or sense of peace when we pray is one way we get answers from God. 
            For me, I believe that Jesus came to bring the truth by showing us a new way of living, reinforce loving God and neighbor, and a new way which includes loving our enemy too.  He brought a way of love to the world.  Or, take a look at the Sermon on the Mount, starting in Matthew 5, as Jesus revealed some important truths in his Sermon on the Mount, which we can still learn from today.  That’s just one way I see the answer to what is truth, although being the diverse congregation we are, we all have our unique definition of the truth and am sure we each have a different definition of what the truth, which will be interesting to hear in further conversation. 
We also receive our answers from God differently, just as we hear God speaking in different ways as mentioned at the start of this series.  Yet we’re here together, seeking the truth and answers to many of life’s greatest questions, regardless of where we are on the journey of faith. 
            As the writer of Deuteronomy asks in verse 21, how will we know what is true?  That’s where we need such discernment.  That’s where we need to pray on it, and converse by fleshing the answers to our greatest questions out together.  I know that I’m still learning not to be afraid to say ‘I don’t know,’ although more importantly, am learning to say ‘let’s try to find the answer together.’ We may not know who may be the voice of God all of the time, as that’s where we need to pay attention and discern.  Even in the Bible, “not every prophetic message was from God (such as in Jeremiah 28: 1-4 and 29: 8-9), and only that which was in agreement with the terms and spirit of Moses and the law was to be accepted.”[vi] Kind of a high bar there!! 
 And so, it takes intense prayer and discernment to find the answer to what is true, as well as how God may be answering our own questions, even though the world today is way, way different than it was in Moses’s time.  As we start a new week and a new month (already), what are some answers you have received from God?  At the same time, what are answers you need to hear from God?  And how do you decipher and discern what is true? 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, AMEN.   

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 24. 
[ii] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 429. 

[iii] Ministries, Discipleship. 2018. "Fourth Sunday After The Epiphany 2018 — Preaching Notes - Umcdiscipleship.Org". Umcdiscipleship.Org. Accessed January 25 2018.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Adam Hamilton, Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 25.
[vi] The New Interpreter’s Commentary, 430.  

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