Happy New Year! It’s nice to see you again. I hope you had a good Christmas celebration, and I hope you had a good New Year’s celebration too. I hope that 2015 is a wonderful year for each of you.
In terms of the secular, cultural end of Christmas, one of the things that it is usually nice to be done with is the gift-giving. Not that I don’t enjoy giving gifts, or receiving gifts, but sometimes it’s a challenge to know what to give someone. I’m often not sure what to get Julia when it comes to gifts, be it Christmas, birthday, or even just “I love you” kinds of gifts.
It used to be really, really hard. When we got married it wasn’t that I was not sure what to get Julia; it was that sometimes I had no idea. What made it easier and what helped me to learn was to listen. If we were at a book store in August and Julia said she liked this or that book, I’d listen and make a note. If we were driving around and she saw someone wearing a piece of clothing she liked, I’d listen and make a note. If she said something about a commercial on TV, I’d listen and make a note. Come December, or April if it was for her birthday, I had a good list of ideas of what she might want for a gift.
But there was still some work involved, even though I had this great list. Instead of saying “What does she want”, now I was saying, “What should I get?” It’s a subtle difference. Since I’d been listening, I had a pretty long list of things Julia had admired and mentioned. I couldn’t just get everything on the list. I had to think about what she really liked, really wanted as opposed to something she might have mentioned in passing. I had to think about what was possible, what we could afford, what we had room for, stuff like that.
Not to mention, of course, that I still had to actually go out and buy the gift, whatever it was. I had to listen, then I had to make decisions, and then I had to act.
One of the key verses in our scripture reading this morning is verse 10a: “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away.” What a good verse to look at on the first Sunday of a new year. This verse offers one description of the process of ministry. It’s about what individual Christians should be doing, and about what congregations should be doing.
When we receive a gift from someone as individuals, we’ve got to do a few things. We’ve got to open the gift and see what it is, and then we have to make use of the gift, and then if we’re really doing it right, we’ve got to make a response to whoever gave us the gift. We’ve got to send a thank you note or give a call or something. We’ve got to open the gift, we’ve got to use the gift, and we’ve got to do something appropriate in response to the gift.
A lot of times as Christians we know we’re supposed to be doing something. We believe in God, we believe in Jesus, we believe in the Holy Spirit, we believe in grace and the forgiveness of sins, we believe in love the Lord your God and love your neighbor, we believe all these different things and we accept the gifts that God has given us and we know we’ve got to make a response.
We know we’ve got to make a response, and since we’re Christians and we read the Bible and we know Jesus and we’ve read this verse from Jeremiah, we know the right response is to share the gift, to share the good news of Jesus Christ. So we can look at a verse like this one and say, “Alright! That’s it! Proclaim the Gospel! Declare it on the coastlands far away! What we’re going to do in response to all of God’s good gifts is to share the Gospel.”
Now that’s a good thing. Never let it be said that I am against people sharing the gospel. But our verse this morning says something else. Our verse talks about more than just proclaiming to the coastlands. Listen again: “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away.” Jeremiah says that first we’ve got to hear the word of the Lord.
You may think that’s not too hard. In fact, you may think we’ve already done that. What is the word of the Lord? In John 1 it says that Jesus was the Word, that Jesus is the Word. The word of the Lord is a word of peace and justice. The word of the Lord is that God sent Jesus to die for your sins. The word of the Lord is that God so loved the world. The word of the Lord is that you can be forgiven. The word of the Lord is that you can know eternal life.
So if the word of the Lord is faith and peace and salvation in and through Jesus Christ, let’s get out there and preach Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ, born, crucified and resurrected. Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine. Jesus Christ, the son of man and the son of God. Jesus the light of the world. Jesus the savior of us all. Let’s get out there and preach Jesus Christ to all the nations, to the farthest coastlands, to the entire world.
Now that’s all true – we do need to preach the love of Jesus to the farthest corners of the world. We do need to live the love of Jesus to those around us. We do need to share the love of Jesus in any way we can. There is, though, one more question to ask: how? How do we preach that Gospel, how do we share that love, how do we proclaim the word of the Lord?
That question is not as easy to answer, because we each share that love in different ways. Billy Graham in his ministry shared the love of God in a different way than Pope Francis does in his. A Christian musician shares it in yet another way. An editor at a Christian publication like Guideposts or The Upper Room shows that love in yet another way. Whatever our job, whatever our role, each of us have different ways of proclaiming the love of God, each of us have different ways of sharing the word of the Lord.
That’s because each of those people, each of us have heard some different words. We’ve all heard the word of the Lord through Jesus Christ, we all believe in God and Jesus, but God has spoken some other words to us as well. God has spoken slightly different words in slightly different ways to each of us. God has given each of us individual gifts that we do not share with other people. Each of us has discovered, or is in the process of discovering, what those gifts are and are working on finding ways to use them for the glory of God.
So what is your way to proclaim the Gospel? What is my way to share the gifts that God offers? How exactly do we go about proclaiming the word of the Lord in our own circle of friends, let alone from coast to coast?
There are dozens and dozens of ways to answer that question, but I’m going to talk about just one this morning: prayer. Prayer. Remember the talk about Julia’s gifts and how I listened to her for a while before deciding what to get for her? That’s what I suggest we do with God. Pray for guidance, for instruction, for direction, and then listen to what God says in reply.
Bob Penrod was a colleague of mine back in Southern Ohio. He used to say that everyone knows the old expression “prayer changes things,” and that the expression was true. But what was more important, Bob would say, is that prayer changes people, and more particularly, prayer changes us. Prayer changes us.
Prayer has changed me. Years ago I was a disc jockey in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I wanted to do God’s work, I wanted to proclaim the word of the Lord, and so I had an idea. I’d find a job at the local Christian radio station. And that’s what I did. I worked at WFCV – Fort Wayne’s Fundamental Christian Voice.
I hated it. I liked the people I worked with – the best boss I ever had was at WFCV. I listened to a lot of good preaching. Still, I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t feel fulfilled. I didn’t feel like I was where God wanted me to be.
So I prayed about it, and tried to listen to God’s leading instead of my own idea. I went into a time of prayer, especially asking for God’s guidance and for the patience to wait and listen to God’s answer. It was not long after that I began the journey that took me to Bethany Theological Seminary and that has brought me to this pulpit in this place at this time.
I could tell the same kind of story over and over again, about a lot of different people. I know that I’m not the only one here who could tell this story. There are people here this morning who have shared with me how prayer has made a difference in their lives, how God has touched their lives and the lives of people they know and love.
As we enter a new year, it’s a very natural time for us to look at our lives and think about what we find. Are we happy with where we are, with what we’re doing? Are we the kind of people we want to be? Are we doing what God wants us to do? Are we truly listening to God’s word in our lives?
We also need to think about all of this as a congregation. We have decisions to make as a congregation – decisions about what kinds of ministry we should be doing and what the best way is to do it. Like people, not all congregations have the same gifts. A program or ministry that does well in one place may fall flat at another, and vice versa. We as a congregation are called to look at what the needs of our community are, what the needs of our people here are, and what our resources are to meet those needs.
We can sit down and make lists and form goals and accomplish some good things, I’m sure. But the first step is to pray. The first step is to listen to God’s will in our lives.
I’m calling us to a time of prayer. Some of us are pretty regular in our prayer lives, and some of us, well, not so much. I’m asking each of you to be sincere about prayer for the coming days, to try if you can to find at least a moment or two each day to share with God, even if it is just a sentence or two, silently or aloud. If you have the time or the discipline to do more, well, that’s wonderful. We need it.
I’m calling each of us to pray for ourselves, for one another, and for this congregation. God has put this church in this place for a reason. And God has brought each of you, each and every one of you as individuals, to this church for a reason. Some of us may know what that reason is and some of us may not. That’s why we need to pray.
And even if we do believe we know why God has brought us here, we may not know what to do about it. That is also why we need to pray. We need to pray for forgiveness, for ourselves, for those around us, and for the congregation. We need to pray for healing, for ourselves, for others, and for Washington City. We need to pray for God’s guidance, for ourselves, for others, and for the body of Christ in this place.
And then we need to listen. We need to listen and hear God’s answer. Feel God’s Spirit. Claim God’s grace. Do God’s will. As individuals and as a congregation.
And when we hear God’s answer, when we hear the word of the Lord, we need to be ready to act. We need to be ready to go. We need to be ready to hear the word of the Lord and declare it in the coastlands far away. We need to seek God, we need to pray, we need to listen. Amen.