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Sermon Illustrations For Epiphany 4 | OT 4 (2023)

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Micah 6:1-8
Micah both calls us to and reminds us of the expectations of God. It is not burnt offerings. It is not insincere expressions of faith. Micah reminds us that God wants us to live out the values and precepts that honor him: to do justice, to love kindness and to live humbly. We often use this scripture in the United Church of Christ, the denomination in which I serve. I think we all agree to the kindness part. Often, we disagree about what it means to do justice and for whom the focus of justice should be practiced. Yet, I think the most difficult part of many of us is living humbly. We like to make our choices and proclaim that we are right. We want to proclaim our opinions. We want to do things our own way. Sometimes we make choices based on our egos and not in humility to the teachings of God. Humility might be the way to move together in peace and kindness and then to be able to do justice.
Bonnie B.

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Micah 6:1-8
Famed 20th-century Catholic monk Thomas Merton once claimed that “pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.” Research findings by Justin Kruger and David Dunning seem to bear out this observation. They observed that most competent people in many disciplines are those who underestimate their abilities. While the least skilled are those who believe themselves to be superior or accomplished in the field. Martin Luther offers good and comforting news to the humble:

First and foremost, the prophet... must be heard; that is, when we thoroughly humble ourselves, yea, when we bring ourselves down to nothing; for it is the very beginning of worshipping and glorifying God when men entertain humble and low opinion of themselves. (Luther’s Works, Vol. 9, p. 184)

Elsewhere he explains what real humility is:

The holy scriptures call for a humble reader, who is reverent and trembles at the words of God, one who is always saying” Teach me, teach, teach me! (What Luther Says, p. 676)
Mark E.

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Micah 6:1-8
In the ancient world, those with a grievance sought out the wise, and hopefully impartial, elders of the town to adjudicate their disagreement. That’s why in the Book of Ruth, Boaz the landowner sought out the old guys sitting by the city gates to adjudicate the legal question of who was eligible to purchase his kinswoman Naomi’s property. One man stepped forward to claim priority, but then in a surprising twist, Boaz revealed that whoever purchased the property had to marry Ruth, one of the hated Moabites, in order to perpetuate her father-in-law Elimelech’s name. No thank you, he said, abandoning his claim to the land. He did so because he wanted to preserve his name, not provide descendants to preserve Elimelech’s name and heritage. Ironically, this man’s name is lost to history, while Boaz claimed Naomi’s land, Ruth’s hand, and in doing so became the great-grandfather of the illustrious King David.

Job, in the biblical book named after him, makes the claim that he can’t get a fair trial when it comes to his complaint against God. His so-called friends keep insisting that he must have done something to deserve the death of his children, his household, and all his possessions. According to them, the calamities prove he’s guilty of something. However, in chapter 38, God takes the stand and gives startling testimony in the form of the biggest multi-media presentation imaginable, as God uses the cosmos, from the furthest stars to the hidden lives of bird and beast, to demonstrate that Job’s misfortunes are not related to the tremendous drama of the creation that is constantly going on all around us.

Then there’s Micah 6:1-8 – Talk about gamesmanship! The Lord bypasses those city elders and calls as jurors none other than the hills and mountains, “…you enduring foundations of the earth… (6:2)” to hear this case against “my people.”

God’s opening argument begins: “O my people, what have I done to you? (6:3)” besides bring you out of slavery and preserve you across the desert! God calls as witnesses Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and Balaam.

The case is obviously open and shut. Time to plea bargain. Micah ponders what size offering will cause God to settle out of court: yearling calves, rivers of oil, or even (shudder) human sacrifice?

But the only settlement God wants is for us “to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with (our) God.” (6:8) This text is paired with the Beatitudes for a reason. Sounds like we’ve been sentenced to community service!

Case closed.
Frank R.

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1 Corinthians 1:18-31
In a November 2, 2009, article called “Ancient Geek Wisdom Inspires Guidelines to Good Life” on the Voice of American website, there is a fascinating discussion of Greek wisdom. “The wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers is timeless,” says Michael Soupios. “The philosophy professor says it is as relevant today as when it was first written centuries ago.”

He continues, "There is no expiration date on wisdom. There is no shelf life on intelligence. I think that things have become very murky these days, lots of misunderstanding, miscues, a lot of what the ancients would have called sophistry. The nice thing about ancient philosophy as offered by the Greeks is that they tended to see life clear and whole, in a way that we tend not to see life today."

Soupios’ assertion that the Greeks “see life clear and whole” is interesting and hard to reconcile with the passage today. Despite their dedication to wisdom and clarity, they missed the simple message of salvation through the cross. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (vs. 20) At his birth, wise men sought him. Do wise men still seek him today?
Bill T.

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1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The Apostle Paul, though he would have spent much of his childhood in Tarsus learning the family trade of tent making and repairing, would have also attended Hebrew school near his home. Later he was sent to Jerusalem to for further studies under Gamaliel. The core of his education was reading and discussion of scripture. It was not enough to know the scriptures. Paul was expected to take a side, take a stand, discuss and defend his viewpoint, and engage in dialogue with others.

Rhetoric, the ability to eloquently stake out a position and defend it in a well-crafted speech with logic as well as emotion, and in so doing sway a crowd that appreciated the finer points of this rhetoric, was at the heart of education in the Greek speaking world as well. Considering that today not everyone listens to the truth and bases their belief and practice on facts, one wonders how Paul would have done today.

Judging from the Acts of the Apostles and from his letters, Paul seems capable of doing both. And that lends context to the great question he asks in this passage: “Where is the great debater of this age?” In other words, who is willing to debate me, based on the facts of faith, scripture, and the resurrection! Addressing both Jewish and Gentile methods of debate, and as I’ve just said, Paul proved himself a capable opponent in both, Paul introduces us to a mute but eloquent debater — the cross.
Frank R.

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Matthew 5:1-12
It is tempting to think that we can accomplish what The Beatitudes teach. But people tend to have inflated views of themselves and their abilities. A survey by C. L. Downing conducted in earlier decades observed that individuals with a lower IQ are more likely to rate themselves higher than they actually score. This helps explain why many of us think the behaviors described in The Beatitudes are things we can accomplish on our own.  

Martin Luther warned against reading Jesus’ words incorrectly, without recognizing that we cannot perform the deeds prescribed in the lesson on our own but can only do so in Christ. Concerning the text, he wrote:

With these words, He [Jesus] shows that no one can understand this unless he is already a real Christian. This point and all the rest that follow are purely fruits of faith, which the Holy Spirit Himself must create in the heart. Where there is no faith, there the kingdom of heaven also will remain outside; nor will spiritual poverty, meekness and the like follow, but there will remain only scratching and scraping, quarrels and riots over temporal goods. (Luther’s Works, Vol. 21, p. 15)

In a sermon on these teachings, John Wesley commented, “This is the spirit of religion, the quintessence of it. These are indeed the fundamentals of Christianity... Let us not rest, until every line thereof is transcribed into our own hearts.” (Works of John Wesley, Vol. 5, p. 294) But in the spirit of Luther he adds:

This power, indeed, belongeth unto God. It is he only that changes the heart, without which every other change is light than vanity. Nevertheless, it pleases him who worketh all in all, to help man chiefly by man; to convey his own power, and blessing, and love, though one man to another. (Ibid., p.285)
Mark E.

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Matthew 5:1-12
The Beatitudes are some of the most often quoted teachings of Jesus. Whether we read them in Luke’s Gospel or Matthew’s like we do this Sunday, we understand the precepts shared with us. We understand the “upside down” nature of the sermon message from Jesus. And still, it is hard to live into the beatitudes. Few of us would choose to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, or to be persecuted. Few of us regularly choose to be merciful, pure in heart or peacemakers. These are tough requests for human beings to honor. They are, however, the root of our faith – to act in ways that sometimes seem the opposite of what is comfortable for us, to seek God’s way, rather than our own. What a different place the world might be if we chose the uncomfortable, beatitude choice.
Bonnie B.

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Matthew 5:1-12
One of my favorite movies is the 1963 comedy classic It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The comic geniuses in that movie are amazing. The movie begins with a simple plot. A group of motorists witness a car crash in the California desert, and after the driver's dying words indicate the location of a hidden stash of cash, they race across the state to get to it. What ensues is a madcap adventure that turns normal conventions upside down. It truly becomes a “mad, mad world.”

When people don’t act like they are expected to act, others notice. In the movie, it is the bizarre antics motivated by greed that attract attention. Living out the beatitudes will attract attention as well. Being meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and being persecuted are not the ways people normally choose to live. As Christians, though, we are called to be different. A.W. Tozer wrote, “No man should desire to be happy who is not at the same time holy. He should spend his efforts in seeking to know and do the will of God, leaving to Christ the matter of how happy he should be.”
Bill T.
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P: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.
C: Amen.

P: God calls us from our rebellion, from our bondage of sin to seek him and to delight in his ways. He calls us to fast in humility, to serve our neighbor, to share our bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into our houses. He calls free the bonds of the oppressed. Let us, therefore, examine our hearts in the light of his commands.

Silence for reflection and confession

P: Gracious and holy God,

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