First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

Speaking for Jesus (Isa. 50:4-9; Ps. 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38)

The beginning of a new Fall season is a good time to take stock of some of where we’ve gone together over the last 12 1/3 years. As I look back, some of the most common themes that have marked my preaching have been, first, that the God we meet in Jesus is a God of love, kindness, grace, compassion, and encouragement, not a stern, angry God who simply makes demands…or else. I hope that, when all is said and done, and I am but a memory receding in the rear-view mirror of your experience that you will remember (and believe) this above all about these years. A close second to that one is the theme of “mission.” I have said it and said it: the mission of the Church as a world-wide whole and of this congregation is, primarily, “out there,” in the world. The world is where our work is. As the 20th century Swiss theologian Emil Brunner wrote somewhere, “The Church exists for mission as fire exists for burning.” If we want evidence that mission is “out there,” we only need to think about what Jesus said in Acts 1:8: “…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” God’s Spirit drives us out there into the world.

Now, after churches began to experience “success” and became “respectable” and even the “state religion,” many leaders who enjoyed that status especially began to think that Jesus left out the important part in Acts 1. He didn’t talk about staying inside the church and strengthening the institution. There’s no question that there is work that we need to be together inside the church building to do, but that work is to prepare and empower us for the work outside in our communities, preparing the way so that God may transform people, not so we can be powerful in ourselves. But with what do we go? What do we do? That’s been another commonplace in my preaching. What’s the niche of First Baptist in our greater communities and how do we let people know? This gets us to that messy word “marketing” that some would rather not use. Our scripture lessons this morning set out some things that I think are critical, but they are really scary, and because they are, they can lead people to retreat back into the safety of the four walls here to protect the institution.

The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 50 is the third of four passages taken from Isaiah 40-55 that picture a figure called the servant of the Lord. Early Christian preaching and theology followed a small minority in Late Judaism in referring these passages to the Messiah, and these same early Christians uniformly saw Jesus as a perfect fulfillment of these passages from Isaiah. Such a move has led many sincere Christians to assume that these passages have everything to do with him, but hardly anything to do with us. But, to make what could be a long story very short, these passages are used in both the Old Testament and the New to refer to God’s people as well as an individual, such as the Messiah (Jesus). These words give Christians a basic identity as the Servant of the Lord.

In this passage the servant of God (fill your name in the blank if you like, or the church’s name) speaks as one who is obedient, and taught. The servant didn’t automatically know how to be and what to do, but had to be taught. The servant is taught to know the right thing to say. (And how many of us would like to be able not to put our foot in our mouths – and be able to “know how to sustain the weary with a word.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful?!) How did the servant get this way? By listening, not by talking. God opened the servant’s ear – a metaphor, of course, for enabling the servant to hear and obey.

To sum up what comes after listening, it’s not so much words, whether simple or intellectual, but actions: “I gave my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard, I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” In other words, the servant learned from God to act in open and vulnerable ways out there where it’s dangerous, and not to run when it got tough. And to suffer. None of this may sound very attractive or marketable, does it? Well, whether that’s true or not, the Servant seemed sure that this was the path and that God would set things right, no matter what. The mission was worth the cost. As we read this passage as about us in the present, not just safely about Jesus in the past, God makes it possible for servants like us to be and continue to be vulnerable in a tough world – to serve and keep on serving, but only as we listen and learn.

The hymn we sang as a Call to Worship, based on the first 6 verses of Psalm 19, relates to these ideas when it asserts that the heavens tell the glory of God without words. The psalmist was concerned to affirm that the whole world speaks of God to those who have their eyes and ears opened to see and hear and learn. But our spirits must be attuned to God’s spirit to perceive God in action. To look at the created world and see that God’s at work in it, we’ve got to hear that silent speech or music. Again, just by being, the creation “speaks” joyfully as God’s handiwork.

I am certain that I once told you about my learning about estuaries. Do you remember what an estuary is? It is a joy of my memory to recall learning about these unique places from a friend of mine who was, at the time, a world-expert on these places where the tides from the salt water of the sea meet the flow of the fresh water from a river. It’s a whole ecosystem to itself. I remember sinking in the slimy, heavy red mud and thinking “Ick,” until my friend Dr. Graham Daborn showed me how each handful of that mud virtually teemed with life – beautiful, wonderful life. In a little hand magnifying glass, one could see that, mostly unseen, world with one’s own physical eyes. With my spiritual eyes, all that life spoke loudly and joyfully of its creator. Graham’s spirituality was not the most “conventional,” let’s say, but, given that, it did to him too. In those days I often got a little depressed by the limited views of some of my theological students that were suspicious of anything that didn’t smack of the whole creation in 7 literal days. It was a joy that, at times when I was about ready to scream, I could go have a cup of tea in the biology department and talk to Graham and some of his (and my) colleagues to regain my sense of wonder at the glory of God in the silent speech of the red mud. This led to a number of happy collaborations that I still revere and miss deeply. The point of all this talk about silent speech is that sometimes just by being and certainly by doing and showing the joy of being God’s creatures, God’s servants speak eloquently, sometimes without words, or many of them.

Our lesson from James 3 talks about what it takes to be a teacher – that is, to move from being one taught to one who has the right to teach – and he says, not nearly as many people who do, really ought to. James 3:1 was displayed in my office for many years. Maybe we ought not to be as quick to teach as we are, for we need to realize that those who teach are judged more strictly than those who know better than to try. This passage talks about one terrible and fatal flaw in those who would try it: intemperate words. We must be truthful but gentle.
So, since our mission is out there, we need to realize that our first job is to listen out there as one taught and to be vulnerable and not defensive as we face our world. Second, we must be a little more like the heavens and tell the glory of God silently by our lives, but when we do get around to talking and teaching we must, above all, be careful not to use our tongues intemperately (whether in here, where we practice, or out there in the real world). James made the point that the tongue is a little thing (like a bit in a horse’s mouth, or a rudder on a ship), but it can control the whole body, and, certainly the whole way a relationship goes. The tongue can be, as James says, “a fire…a world of iniquity…it stains the whole person…and is set on fire by hell itself.” We don’t need a demonstration of this. Everyone here has said things that we wish, either immediately or later, that we hadn’t said, but can’t take back. James makes it so simple, again from the silent speech of nature:

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree… yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

But, alas, we do sometimes try to let the same mouth utter blessing and cursing. It seems to me that churches who want to “tell it like it is,” and be abrasive and judgmental, rather than following the way of Isaiah 50’s servant or Psalm 19’s silent speech, would be better just to stay inside the four walls and not worry about explaining who they are, or who Jesus is, out there.

Let’s give Jesus the last word again. In Mark 8, he asked his disciples (his company, if you like) for a marketing survey. Who do the clients say that I am? Various worthy names came back. But Jesus, then, asked the target organization for their own read (this is kind of backwards from most modern marketing studies). “You are the Messiah,” came the answer from Executive Vice President Peter. Jesus, first said, “Now, don’t tell anybody that!” Especially in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was always seeking to keep sensationalism at bay. Would that some of his followers had followed his strategy. Jesus knew that the term Messiah would be marketed in the wrong way – and misread in the marketplace either as a traditional religious or political figure, a mistake that Christians have repeatedly also made. I think Mark wanted the disciples to experience the Messiah as crucified and risen before they started spreading the news.

Funny enough, Jesus, then, began to teach his disciples what it mean to be the Messiah from his perspective. It meant faithfulness, it meant suffering and even death because of that faithfulness to the kind of a life he was talking about. We might agree with Peter, his Vice President, that this was not the right marketing strategy for Jesus or for his followers. Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” Such a rebuke came to Peter, quite literally, from not knowing his place, which was “behind Jesus,” not ahead of him. Jesus said, “Get back where you belong!” Disciples are followers, walking after their master. If they cannot listen before they speak, cannot be open and vulnerable, if they insist on using intemperate words, they are not “behind Jesus,” where disciples belong.

And here’s where it gets to be about more than just Jesus. Mark follows words about what kind of a Messiah Jesus is by words about what kinds of disciples such a Messiah has. Jesus starts, literally, by saying, “If anyone wants to get behind me (the same words he had just said to Peter as a rebuke, usually paraphrased as “be my disciple”), this is what must happen.” As those who, with Peter, confess Jesus to be the one who interprets God for us, we must understand that there is a cross at the heart of what we say and do, just as there was at the heart of what he said and did. By using the word “cross,” I do not mean to concentrate on either Jewish sacrificial theology or a Roman device of execution, but on the sacrificial life that models the sacrificial death of Jesus. This is the spirit in which we say and do things as disciples. It is a lifestyle of open, vulnerable, self-giving love that interprets such life by open, vulnerable, self-giving speech. We listen, learn, and thereby we speak as those who have learned from God, who is speaking through the world all around us; through the scriptures interpreted by our experience, reason, and traditions; through our teachers (co-pilgrims in Christ), and, pivotally, through Jesus of Nazareth himself, the Messiah. We determine who we are and what we say and do by faithfulness to Jesus’ teaching and his life and death; and resurrection on our behalf.

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.