First Sunday after Epiphany:
If You Claim the Name
10 January 2021
This sermon does not follow the lectionary. On January 6, 2021, a group of rioters instigated by Donald Trump invaded the Capitol building. Five people were killed. Others died afterward. Several officers who defended the Congress that day later committed suicide. The worst thing? The whole debacle had “Christianity” clearly stamped all over it.
By the way, here’s the video of my preaching the sermon to an empty sanctuary because of COVID-19. Yes, we canceled services because of a real pandemic. As I said, we’ve had enough nonsense.
Scripture Reading: Ezekiel 22:23-31.
22:23 Again the word of the LORD came to me: 24 “Son of man, say to the land, ‘You are a land that has not been cleansed or rained on in the day of wrath.’ 25 There is a conspiracy of her princes within her like a roaring lion tearing its prey; they devour people, take treasures and precious things and make many widows within her. 26 Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. 27 Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain. 28 Her prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations. They say, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says’—when the LORD has not spoken. 29 The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.
Ezek. 22:30 “I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one. 31 So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.”
Sermon text: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Years ago, I read a story about Alexander the Great. After a battle, a young soldier was brought before the conqueror. Alexander took one look at the young man and, for some reason, instantly took a liking to him. He asked the frightened soldier, “What is your name?” “Alexander,” the soldier replied. This endeared the man to Alexander even more.
Alexander turned to the commander with the soldier and asked what had happened. The commander told him, “Cowardice. He ran from the battle.” Alexander glowered at the young soldier and shouted, “Young man, either change your behavior, or change your name!”
That story flashed back into my mind this week as we witnessed the seditious behavior of the criminals who stormed our Capitol building this week. America is a nation and an ideal, not a religion, but if we have sacred secular space, the Capitol is one of those spaces. That space was desecrated this week.
Even worse, as I later saw pictures of the event, I saw a woman holding a bright sign — so bright no one could miss it — that said, “Jesus saves.” With that one sign, the holy Church was tied indelibly to an attempt to block the orderly transition of power on which our very democracy rests.
We’ve seen a lot of nonsense in American Christianity over the years. But frankly, I’ve seen nothing like the nonsense I’ve witnessed over the past 4 years at any point in my life, and I managed to survive the apocalyptic nonsense of the 1970’s and late 1990’s.
Over the past few years, I’ve heard many people proclaim something along the lines of, “God sent us a Cyrus,” tying a current leader to Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia who allowed the Jews to return home to Judea in 539 B.C. These people apparently know little about history.
Cyrus, as were all other Persian kings of his dynasty, was called “Shah Han Shah,” the “King of Kings.” Cyrus didn’t save the Jews so they could worship God. Cyrus, ever the masterful politician, knew the best way to keep conquered peoples happy was to repatriate them to the homelands from which the Babylonians and Assyrians had exiled them. (It worked, too.)
Cyrus died in 529 B.C. Two hundred years later, Alexander the Great visited the tomb and Cyrus’ sarcophagus. Cyrus was dead then, and he’s dead now.
Christians, we need no “Cyrus.” We need not seek a “Cyrus” when we serve a Savior. Cyrus called himself the “King of Kings.” Christians, we live as children of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
As children of the Most High God, I think it’s time we came to grips with the nonsense.
The sermon text today comes from one of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Nonsense isn’t new to the Church, nor is it specific to American Christianity. In fact, the Corinthians excelled in nonsense. In his letter, St. Paul called the Corinthian Christians back to faithfulness to their Lord and to serve Him in a way that drew others to Jesus. In our times, fewer words are needed more than the words of St. Paul we read today.
The Corinthian Christians had fallen badly back into worldly ways. You can read the details in the letter of 1 Corinthians. Part of the worldly system into which the Corinthians had descended was the “worldly point of view” of Roman society. According to their society, class distinctions governed every facet of human interaction. As a result, wealthy Christians had begun worship before the slaves and poor could arrive so they could participate in the weekly dinner without the “riffraff.” Had the Corinthians thought about it, however, they would have realized that Jesus himself qualified as the “riffraff” of society. After all, Jesus was an unemployed, homeless Jew, not a sophisticated Greek and certainly not a patrician Roman. St. Paul told the Corinthians he, too, would have “once regarded Christ in this way,” but “we do so no longer.” Jesus had changed him! Now, when St. Paul saw another person, he saw that person not as slave or free, Jew or Greek; “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.” Every believer stood as equals before God; every believer stood not as the “old,” but as a “new creation.”
One of Christianity’s greatest achievements has been its ability to level societies. Every Christian, regardless of wealth, race, or social status, stands as equals before God. We all stood equally in our sin. Through Christ, God “reconciled us to himself… and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
Because God reconciles us to Himself — we sinners, we transgressors — He no longer counts our sins against us. No one stands as innocent before God, but He chooses to see Jesus’ righteousness instead of our wickedness.
Because we stand in Jesus’ righteousness, God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” We have a duty to perform, and that duty demands that we speak reconciliation to our society. That duty demands that we live as reconciled people, reconciled to God and to others.
This leads us to an important point: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.”
For centuries, nations have sent ambassadors to represent them to other nations. For most of human history, the ambassadors couldn’t pull a phone from their pockets and talk to their monarchs, so the monarchs had to send people they could trust would negotiate with the kingdom’s best interests at heart. The ambassadors might attempt to understand the other side’s point of view, but in the end, the ambassadors represented their sovereign governments. Any decision they made reflected on their governments.
Christians, we serve as ambassadors for Jesus. Every decision we make, every action we perform, every word we speak represents our King.
How have we represented our King lately?
When we seek political protection rather than believe that God can work through political persecution, we tell the world we don’t trust our King.
When we treat others with disrespect because they don’t look like us or don’t worship like us or don’t speak our language, we tell the world our King didn’t mean what He told Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17).
When we divide congregations and denominations over political philosophies and demonize those who disagree with us, we tell the world Jesus didn’t mean it when He prayed that we may be one (John 17).
When we refuse to listen to the oppressed and invite them into our family of faith, we tell the world we serve a different god than the One who came to earth as a Middle Eastern Jew, was crucified for the sins of the world, and rose again to defeat sin and death for humanity.
So, what do we do?
First, we take seriously our responsibility as ambassadors for Christ. That responsibility means we say nothing, we do nothing that will bring shame and dishonor to our King. That responsibility means we must weigh our words and actions and use wisdom to speak and act rightly. Fortunately, God promises us wisdom. St. James wrote in his letter, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). Seek wisdom, and use wisdom to guide you in your life.
Secondly, as ambassadors for Christ, we must speak truth. We claim to serve the One who called Himself, “The way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Frankly, there’s a lot of garbage in our society nowadays being peddled as “the truth.” Christians, as those who follow the Truth, we don’t get to pick and choose our “truth.” From this point forward, every believer must seek to comprehend whether what we hear online, on the TV or radio, or from wherever is truth. Don’t merely parrot something because your favorite personality said it.
This is especially prevalent in social media. I hesitate to open Facebook some days because I know some well-meaning believer will have posted some unfounded rumor about someone (usually a politician they don’t like). As one of my favorite politicians once said, “Trust, but verify.” The Church is ill served when Christians spread falsehoods and malicious gossip online.
This brings me to what, I think, is one of the most important things we can do as ambassadors for Christ: Spread peace.
When Isaiah prophesied the coming of Jesus, he used the title “The Prince of Peace” to refer to Him. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:10). St. James wrote, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18).
From this point forward, speak peace. Spread peace. If that rumor you saw on Facebook or cable news will demean someone, don’t repeat it; post something peaceful instead. If the rumor you heard on Main Street or at your favorite restaurant or at the grocery store will destroy someone’s reputation, keep it to yourself and speak words of peace instead. I’ve known people in my life — in my family — who aren’t happy if something’s not happening, and they’ve sometimes worked hard to start something to keep them happy. Don’t let that be said of you. Instead, let people see you as a peacemaker, as a child of God — as an ambassador of Christ — instead.
Christians, we’ve endured some difficult times over the past year or so. We’re not in the clear yet. Our nation faces a reckoning, and it has just begun. Unfortunately, American evangelicalism also faces a reckoning, and I fear it will take the complete humiliation or total destruction of many so-called leaders to accomplish the purifying of God’s people. Many will not endure it. Others will turn away in disgust unless they see godly people serving as peacemakers and ambassadors of the true Lord. Therefore, I issue this call to all Christians: If you claim the title “Christian,” make your behavior fit the title. If you claim the name of Jesus — the Prince of Peace and the Reconciler of humanity to God — live in His victory and bring peace to our nation in the dark times ahead.