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Sermon Illustrations For Epiphany 3 (2020)

Illustration
Isaiah 9:1-4
The war in Afghanistan goes on (even though the media and most Americans keep ignoring it). The tensions with Israel and Iraq have our attention. Someone working full-time at the federal minimum earns an annual paycheck of just $15,080 – below the poverty line for even a family of two. For the minimum-wage earner with a family of four, a full-time paycheck falls almost $9,000 below the poverty line, which is $23,850. Even a $10.10/hour full-time job – an annual $21,008 – falls short. Not much justice and not much peace in America today. These are questions that the Iowa caucuses and the 2020 Presidential election need to consider.

Famed social analyst and theologian of the last century, Reinhold Niebuhr, offers some interesting observations pertinent to our situation today, and also about what kind of politics we ought to seek:

In our collective activities there is egotism in regard to race and perhaps to class, and certainly in regard to our own nation. Not only our enemies or detractors, but our friends and allies, are inclined to say that we think too highly of ourselves... We stand for justice and freedom, not for self-interest [we say]. It is basically impossible for a nation to do so. Nations more than individuals know that about their own interests, and we ought to realize that if we have any virtue, it is not pure unselfishness but the virtue of a relative justice that finds a point of concurrence between our interests and those of the larger world. (Justice & Mercy, p.42)

Martin Luther made a related suggestion we might heed today:

God’s justice is different from that of the world, which does not punish greed. But rather regards it as a virtue. God, however, does not want the poor thrown off their property but that they be helped by a grant or loan. (Luther’s Works, Vol.16, p.61)

Niebuhr also offers sound advice on how to preach this word of peace and justice:

A preacher is a mediator of God’s judgment and of His mercy. He may claim to preach with great courage, but he also must recognize how he is himself involved in the sins against which he is preaching. Mercy, humility, and charity must come out of this recognition. (Justice & Mercy, p.134)
Mark E.

* * *

Isaiah 9:1-4
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.” I recently attended a concert of our local Bach choir, the oldest Bach choir in the US. They sang the first part of Handel’s Messiah in which this scripture is prominent. This scripture verse is an Aria sung by a Bass voice, a magnificent melody and a magnificent scripture. The concept, too, is vital to we people of faith.

This past week we celebrated the birthday of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. This Isaiah verse reminds me of a MLK quote and it seems appropriate to share it with you. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches)

Isaiah reminds us that light has come into the world. MLK reminds us to bring the light of love into the world. Two prophets calling us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and change the world.
Bonnie B.

* * *

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
The worst natural disaster to strike England and Europe was the bubonic plaque. The plague lasted five years, from 1347 to 1352. During that period, an estimated 25 million people died, one-third of the population of Europe. In England, 70 percent of its population died due to the plague.

The plague came to Europe on ships with rats, the host to the fleas who transmitted the disease to humans. The ships arrived from the northwest shores of the Caspian Sea. On board the ships were dead sailors and sailors who were dying.

The disease caused painful swelling in the lymph glands. Soon spots appeared on the skin, first they were red but they quickly turned black, which gave the disease its name the “Black Death.” The Black Death was also known as the “Great Mortality” or simply “The Plague.”

After an individual was bitten, there was an incubation period of three to five days. The disease would then spread to the lymph nodes, which would swell into large-blisters, usually in the thigh, armpit, groin, or neck. Of those infected, 60 to 80 percent would die within another three to five days. The large-blister like “buboes” gave the disease its name of the “bubonic” plague.

In some villages if it was known an infected person was residing inside, a brick casing was constructed over the entire structure to prevent anyone from leaving the home who might be infected.

If an individual coughed, someone would say to that person “God bless you.” This was because the cough indicated the individual was infected and would soon die.

At this time, the Roman Catholic Church was the predominate religion across Europe. Because of its teachings, the populace was more afraid of going to hell than catching the disease and dying.

Pope Clement VI was protected from the disease. He left Vatican city and took up residence in an obscure rural village. For the next several years he was surrounded by candles to prevent any fleas from contacting him.
Ron L.

* * *

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Letters were written in the ancient world with the understanding that they were not at all private. The recipient of a letter might well be educated but illiterate and so a letter, such as those we have from Paul, would be read aloud in a public setting, with any number of people listening. At the same time some letter writers might, like Paul, be literate, but be unable to write, just as prior to the digital age there were many people who could read and write but who were unable to type. That meant that an individual like Paul did not compose a letter by sitting down with papyrus and ink. A professional scribe took the dictation and would write down what she or he heard – and it might well not have been exactly what the sender spoke. Indeed, scribes may have exercised a good deal of freedom when it came to writing what another person was composing.

We see that in operation in this letter. The letter is from Paul and Sosthenes. Perhaps Sosthenes was the scribe. And towards the end we see that Paul took the pen and wrote, in his imperfect letters, a personal greeting: “(I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. 1 Corinthians 16:21)

But it is most apparent in this passage when Paul makes the bold assertion that he did not baptize anyone in Corinth except Crispus and Gaius. Oh, and Stephanus. I wonder if someone there, perhaps Sosthenes, interrupted him to remind him that wasn’t exactly true. Whoops! Two thoughts come to mind. First, slavishly depending on the exact literal wording of one of Paul’s letters is a mug’s game. Second, Paul did not collect baptisms as trophies.
Frank R.

* * *

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Our Daily Bread, in October of 1992, told this story. During World War II, Adolph Hitler commanded all religious groups to unite so that he could control them. Half of the Brethren assemblies complied, and half refused. Those who went along with the order found it much easier. Those who did not, faced harsh persecution. In almost every family of those who resisted, someone died in a concentration camp.

When the war was over, feelings of bitterness ran deep between the groups and there was much tension. Finally, they decided that they had to try to heal the situation. Leaders from each group met at a quiet retreat. For several days, each person spent time in prayer, examining his own heart in the light of Christ's commands.

After that retreat, they came together. Francis Schaeffer, who told of the incident, asked a friend who was there, "What did you do then?" "We were just one," he replied. As they confessed their hostility and bitterness to God and yielded to His control, the Holy Spirit created a spirit of unity among them. Love filled their hearts and dissolved their hatred. When love prevails among believers, especially in times of strong disagreement, it presents to the world an indisputable mark of a true follower of Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters living together in unity, as one, united by the gospel, is important. Joni Eareckson Tada once said, "Believers are never told to become one; we already are one and are expected to act like it." True for Corinth and true for us.
Bill T.

* * *

Matthew 4:12-23
This story of a call to repentance by Jesus is problematic for many American Christians. Poll reports indicate that most American Christians think we have to do something when responding to Jesus’ call. A poll conducted prior to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by Pew Research Center found that not just 81% of Catholics, but the majority of American Protestants (52%) believe that both good deeds and faith are necessary for salvation. (The Reformation has not taught American Protestants much!) The great preacher of the early church, John Chrysostom well describes our sinful condition and reeling that we can’t really repent:

For in truth our present life is nothing better than a prison. But as when we have entered into the that apartment, we see all bound with chains; so now if we withdraw ourselves from outward show, and enter into each man’s life, into each man’s soul, we shall see it bound with chains... (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. First Series, Vol.10, p.90)

Under this bondage, only God can get us to repent, through the working of the Holy Spirit. Medieval Mystic Julian of Norwich compellingly describes what God’s love does to us, overcoming the chains about which John Chrysostom speaks:

Thus I saw that whenever we see the need for prayer, then our Lord is with us, helping our desire. But when, of His special grace, we behold Him plainly and see no further need of prayer, then we are with Him; for He draweth us to Him by love. (Elmer O’Brien, ed., Varieties of Mystic Experience, p.185)

Another medieval mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux, is no less moving in his description of how moving it is to receive Christ’s call to repentance:

The mind is drawn along by the ineffable sweetness of the word, and, as it were, it is stolen from itself or, better, it is rapt and remains out of itself there to enjoy the Word... (Ibid., p.106)
Mark E.   

* * *

Matthew 4:12-23
How tragic for Jesus to discover that his cousin John has been arrested. Jesus heads home to Nazareth and seek the comfort of God. But Jesus doesn’t rest. Rather he echoes the words of his cousin, calling on the people to repent for heaven is near. Jesus begins his public ministry and the calling of the disciples, calling Peter, Andrew, James and John. They decide almost immediately, to follow him. I have always wondered about how they felt, what they saw in Jesus’ face, and heard in his voice. My own call to ministry was neither that quick nor that certain. As I entered seminary, I still had a lot of questions about my call. I wasn’t certain I could follow.

What about you? Do you feel called, if not to authorized ministry, to some other vocation or faith expression? Are you hesitating, uncertain it is really a call? Are you grappling with a new expression of your faith? If so, re-read these call passages and know that God calls us ordinary people to do works of faith. Just as fishermen follow Jesus, teachers, lawyers, laborers, moms, dads, clerks are also called to follow. What expression will your following take?
Bonnie B.
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Psalm 98

Let the floods clap their hands;
    let the hills sing together for joy
 at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
    to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
    and the peoples with equity.
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In the mid-1960s, a popular song declared, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It's the only thing that there's just too little of.”1 It was an era of both national and international unrest. And the American landscape was reeling from the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and opposition to both. Amidst headlines so marked by unrest and division, therefore, the sentiment of the song struck a chord with an American audience. 
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Acts 10:44-48
Prejudice is always wrong. Nat King Cole is a well-known artist who was the first African American to host his own national television program. In 1948, he purchased a beautiful home in an exclusive Los Angeles neighborhood. When the local neighborhood association confronted him and informed him it didn’t want any undesirables to move in, Cole responded, “Neither do I. If I see any coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.” He lived in that house until his death in 1965.

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John Jamison
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (vv. 9-12)

Hi, everyone! (Let them respond.)

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Janice B. Scott
Call to Worship:

Jesus gave up his life for us. In our worship today let us explore how to love one another as he has loved us.


Invitation to Confession:

Jesus, sometimes our love for each other is thin and pale.
Lord, have mercy.

Jesus, sometimes we pretend to love but fail to care.
Christ, have mercy.

Jesus, sometimes we don't know how to love.
Lord, have mercy.

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John E. Sumwalt
Jo Perry-sumwalt
One evening, when I was 26 years old, beleagered by guilt for acknowledged sins, I was deep into an hour-long prayer of repentance. In despair, I grieved that I had broken the commandments and that I was not worthy of God's love.

Near me lay the Bible, unused and unfamiliar. I had never, ever read from the Bible. Yet my hands reached out and took the Bible to open it. I knew not where, nor why. But my hands knew the way. They opened to John 15:9-11 and as my eyes began to read, my mind knew the meaning with clarity. My eyes read verse 10 first:
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Theme of the Day
God's love brings us together.

Collect of the Day
It is noted that God has prepared great joy for those who love Him. Petitions are then offered that such love may be poured into the hearts of the faithful so that they may obtain these promises. Justification as a reward for our deeds (love) is communicated by this prayer.

Psalm of the Day
Psalm 98
Stan Purdum
(See Christmas Day, Cycles A and B, for alternative approaches.)

Richard E. Gribble
Once upon a time a great and powerful king ruled over a vast territory. There was something very strange about this kingdom, however -- everything was the same. The people ate the same food, drank the same drink, wore the same clothes, and lived in the same type of homes. The people even did all the same work. There was another oddity about this place. Everything was gray -- the food, the drink, the clothes, the houses; there were no other colors.

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