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“First Things First”

Texts: Isaiah 49:7/John 1:29-42

March 10, 2018

Have you ever been to a campaign rally for a presidential candidate? Here’s a suggestion: wear comfortable shoes. Invariably a rally includes remarks by a number of local and state representatives of the candidate’s party, an invocation delivered by a local clergyperson, and a rousing introduction of the candidate by a key party leader. An hour can easily pass before the candidate herself is ushered into the room.

If you are a patient person, or if you are passionately committed to a particular candidate, the long wait to hear the principal speaker might not be a burden, however, that is not the case with many of us. If you attend a rally to hear Kamala Harris or Margaret Warner  you may have little time to give the local party chairperson or the representative of your congressional district.

When you come expecting Harris or Warner the opening acts just won’t do.  The main event must be the main event. 

Distinctions of that sort, however, are not always so clear-cut.  Here is a “for instance.”  The preacher was a charismatic and riveting speaker.  As his reputation expanded people made special efforts, traveling substantial distances, to hear what he had to say.  The man was definitely main event material, everyone who found his or her way into his presence said so.

The preacher to whom I refer may well have capitalized on that popularity, there were certainly advantages to be gained if he chose to do so.  He had already attracted a loyal and dedicated group of followers who were prepared to do his bidding.  Yet the limelight was not something this preacher sought, in fact he shunned the limelight. He understood, you see that he was but the opening act for someone much greater.

He openly declared where he stood, saying “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”  How rare is it for someone to decline a main event opportunity, particularly when the people around you constantly promote you as a main event material.  John the Baptist was just such a man.  

An extraordinary man in his own right, there was no doubt that John was a prophet. His words and deeds spoke for themselves. In fact, so powerful was his influence on those whose lives he touched that some of the devout began to speculate that God was doing something very special in their midst. Had the messiah come in the person of his prophet, John? By word and deed he was building a compelling resume to support such speculation.

There are several possible lessons that can be drawn from the life and ministry of John, but right there at the top of the list would be humility. Humility is the product of honest personal appraisal. Where a lesser man, even a godly man, might have chosen to capitalize on opportunity, John declined.  He accepted the judgment of God, declaring, “he [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.” Putting first things first in John’s world meant leaving the main stage to Jesus, it meant doing everything within his power to insure that the world knew Jesus was Lord, the Son of God.

From the very beginning when John and others began promoting Jesus as the Messiah, Savior of the world, the followers of Jesus have found it extremely difficult to keep first things first.  Other agendas have continually crowded the stage that Jesus was meant to occupy.  Using Christ’s name to validate parochial aims, the church has succumbed to numerous temptations, allegiance redirected from Christ, its founder, to the human institution his disciples created.

A brief history lesson.  Gathering in private homes initially, often doing so at great personal risk, the followers of Christ sought to perpetuate at all costs the gospel of our Lord.  The message was quite simple.  Jesus, crucified by the Romans at the instigation of the Jews, had risen victorious from the grave and would return any day to establish his reign on earth.  Baptizing those who heard and responded to the message, the community of the faithful gathered frequently to pray, to reflect on the Lord’s teachings, and to break bread in his name.

      As the number of followers of Christ grew, and his return to earth was delayed, the Christians felt compelled to organize.  Meetings moved from private homes into meeting places set aside specifically for Christian worship, churches.  As churches in various locations grew it became apparent that the future of the church was a risk if something wasn’t done to forge unity between the separate faith communities.  Church councils were called, delegates representing the various churches in attendance.

Over the course of years these informal councils evolved into more formalized structures with a hierarchy established to bring order to the apparatus.  Seizing opportunity afforded them, various church leaders rose to command great power and authority in the church.  One such leader, the head of the church of Rome, was elected to be the supreme head of the church itself.

With power concentrated in Rome, the other churches in Christendom vied for the various privileges the Roman church could dispense, and there were great privileges to be awarded.  Titles, land, and money flowed to those churchmen who won the favor of the Roman hierarchy.  Unfortunately, the church was not exempt from the greed that power and privilege inspire.  With great sums of money at stake, could corruption be far behind?

The church, greedy to expand its empire, went to war, seized lands, and taxed the people unmercifully.  Using any method it could devise to augment its revenues, the church put clerical offices up for sale.  “You want to be a bishop?  No problem.  A generous donation would be most welcome.”

The greatest cash cow, however, came in the form of what were called “indulgences.”  For the price of an indulgence a person was granted peace of mind.  An indulgence was a church issued insurance policy to secure freedom from punishment for sins committed.  Money talked in the church.  An indulgence certificate was a valued commodity, a down payment on a piece of heaven.

The descent of the church into vile commerce inspired a reaction in various quarters of the church, a reaction that effectively came to a head in the sixteenth century when one of the faithful, an accomplished German scholar and dedicated churchman, made his protest known in a dramatic act.  Nailing his protest on the Wittenberg Cathedral door, Martin Luther unleashed a wave of dissent within the church, a reformation that would eventually split the church.

Luther, John Calvin, Helmut Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger and others believed that the church had broken away from its moorings.  First things were no longer first. Tradition and hierarchy displaced the word of God.

It was not the intent of Luther and the other reformers to found a second church.  Rather, their ambition was to purge the church of policies and practices that were inconsistent with the teachings of Christ. Again, their ambition was to put first things first.  In so doing Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Helmut Zwingli and the others carved out very distinct niches within the church.  Their individual legacies turned out to be so formidable that various Lutheran, Presbyterian and other Reformed denominations continue to perpetuate the theological traditions those men established centuries ago.

Denominationalism would have been a foreign concept to the Reformers, for their intent was to unify the church around Jesus’s Gospel. The Reformers did not view the existing church as a “tear down,” but a body that could be rehabilitated. 

The Presbyterian church in which I was formed is but one branch of the Reformed church, the Protestant church. Our form of government makes sense to meet. Embedded within our confessions of faith are theological principles that I affirm. I affirm the mission of The Presbyterian Church USA as it is expressed in a statement called “The Great Ends of the Church.”  Those great ends are, quote, “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”  Note please that the statement makes no mention of undertaking those “great ends” as Presbyterians, nor are those ends cited as an agenda exclusive to Presbyterians.

Christians first, so why add the qualifier Presbyterian, or for that matter, Methodist, Baptist, or Lutheran?  In claiming a denominational affiliation we acknowledge our formations in specific biblical and theological traditions, and that we have establishing ways of organizing our common life and governing ourselves that most consistent with our theological self-understanding.

Christian first.  No denomination can presume to know the mind of Christ on all matters.  If such claims are ever made in the name of the Presbyterian Church or any other denomination, people of conscience must protest, even withdraw from those churches.

John the Baptist might easily have allowed personal ambition and pride to coopt him, but he did not succumb. “After me [he declared] comes one who ranks before me.” 

The church thrives where people know their roles and are committed to executing them faithfully. Again, not Presbyterian, or Baptist, or Methodist first, but Jesus Christ first. 

Our Fisherman’s Chapel is a unique faith community. We have no denominational affiliation. There is no particular creed or form of government to which we adhere. The hymns we sing favor no one denominational tradition. We have no hierarchy of church office, unless, of course, that be David, the chair of our chapel council.

We are a unique faith community. Not a denominational tie, a common motivation draws us together. We are a community of strivers seeking to live faithfully by putting first things first. First things for us means acknowledging we are children of God, brothers and sisters built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, and baptized in his name to make his gospel visible throughout the world, starting right here in Bodega Bay.

On Wednesday of this past week, Ash Wednesday, Christians around the world began to observe the season of Lent. Why Lent? Ancient in origin it was the brain child of some Christians who believed that the forty days leading to Easter could profitably be set aside as a time for spiritual renewal featuring disciplines such as bible Study, self-examination, and fasting.

Why Lent? It is an invitation for you and I to examine our consciences and, where necessary, reorder personal priorities so as to put first things first. And, I don’t know about you, but there are a whole of second orders things in my life that want to convince me that they deserve first order claims on my life.

Because you might be similarly challenged, I urge you to join me as we use these forty days of Lent to re-examine our life goals and ambitions from the perspective of Christ. If we are willing to make that effort, Christ assures us that first things will automatically rise to their rightful place.  AMEN.   

      PRAYER

      Gracious God, even as we gather for worship this morning we confess that first things are not always first.  We so thoroughly occupy ourselves with other agendas that we forget that our first obligation is to honor you.  We confess, O God, that our progress in faith is stalled because we place lessor ambitions ahead of you. Have mercy on us, Lord.  Reveal how we might shake ourselves free of old habits and amend our lives after Christ’s example.

      O Christ, we thank you for all the faithful who day by day demonstrate their obedience to you through the sacrifices they make. We lift up adult children who devote their time and energies to insure that their elderly parents are well cared for. We lift up dads and moms who coach their children’s sports teams or volunteer to chaperone school events. We lift up all those who volunteer their time in homeless shelters or food banks. All praise be to you, O Christ, who by modeling the servant vocation, have set a standard for us to emulate.

Bless this fellowship, O God.  May all that we do in your name be consistent with your holy will.  Abide with each person who shares his or her time, talents, and money with this ministry, that in return for efforts made, money committed, each person may claim the satisfaction of knowing that their efforts fulfill a just and holy purpose.

      We pray for the church in Africa where hostility to the gospel has resulted in the martyrdom of pastors and church workers. We thank you for the faithful throughout that continent who, with extremely limited resources, are establishing seminaries and teaching posts to equip pastors and church leaders. We thank you for evangelists on that continent who carry the message of hope to their neighbors. We pray for women and men skilled in agriculture, public health, and the building trades who lend their expertise to equipping the disadvantaged to enjoy a better quality of life. 

      O Christ, hear our prayers for those who have special needs today and grant that faith and courage to meet the challenges they face.  We pray for family, friends, and neighbors who face special challenges.

      O Christ, anointed in baptism with the power and authority of God himself, grant that in all we do may be transparent to your light.  Embolden us to live as you lived, and to pray as you prayed.  Our Father,