My mother seldom let us off with easy answers. After the Bible reading that followed family meals, she would often wonder about the meaning of an obscure text by peppering our family with "why" questions:
Why does God act like a general in an army that is responsible for slaying thousands of Israel's enemies?
Why would God ask for the human sacrifice of Abraham's son, after the manner of pagan religions?
Why does Jesus curse a fruit tree for having no fruit in a season in which it was not meant to bear fruit?
Even though these questions made us squirm a bit, they were good for us. They allowed us to be honest about the ambiguities of faith and the challenges of living as people of faith. They led us to search for answers, and in so doing, we discovered the richness of God's Word and will.
Healthy questions and curious searching are the basis for this preaching series. Spawned horn several books of the same title (among them Hard Sayings of Jesus and Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, published by InterVarsity), the sermons in this series explore texts that are in some way bothersome, obscure, or difficult to put into practice.
During the weeks when this series structured our liturgy, we used prayers and songs that gave voice to questions of faith and let us address the challenge of understanding and doing the Word of God. We included the following in our bulletin as a preface to the series:
During the next few weeks, our pastor will be preaching on the hard sayings of Jesus. Various texts will focus on teachings that are either difficult to understand and/or hard to practice. In our study, we pray that God will inspire us to know and do his will.
During the summer months, you may want to try some of the following ideas:
- Ask children (with the help of their parents) to create a children's activity page for a specific Bible reading. This works best for stories and parables, though most passages lend themselves to fill-in-the-blank, word searches, crossword puzzles, or responses through drawing or writing. On the appropriate Sunday, distribute the activity page to all the children in church.
- Invite children to design a bulletin cover. This should be done in black (felt-tipped pen/marker for clear, smooth lines) and white for best reproduction, or in color (markers) if the cost to reproduce is not prohibitive. Kids love to see their work in print.
- Consider having older children read the story or parable as the Bible reading for the day. Identify those who have clear, deliberate reading voices.
Using Teens and Young Adults as Worship Leaders
- Young teens can do a fine job of offering bidding prayers if the prayers are written in language that suits their age. Some may be able to write additional stanzas in their own words.
- Teens and young adults can be encouraged to present a drama. Give them every opportunity to succeed (so they won't become embarrassed and self-conscious) by finding a coach who will rehearse them meticulously without losing the joy of creativity and community.
Note from the Editors
A more complete version of the sermons in this series is available on e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask for RW 44 sermons.
Most parts of the liturgy (call to worship, prayers, confessions, benedictions) are tied to the theme of the series and may be used with any of the four services.
FIRST SUNDAY: UNLESS YOU HATE YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER ..
Text: Matthew 10:24-42
Call to Worship (from Psalm 121)
I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber.... The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.
To introduce the text and the message, I told the story of two students. Carla, a non-Christian, goes to the university armed to address contemporary culture with intelligence and compassion. But through her roommate she becomes involved with the people of InterVarsity Fellowship and finds herself smitten with the God of the Bible and drawn to Jesus. When Carla tells her parents about her commitment to Christ, they can't believe she could be so deceived. They didn't raise their thinking, feeling child to be bamboozled and sucked in by religion. As time passes, Carla and her parents find they have less and less in common, and their relationship gradually disintegrates.
At the same university, John inhales life as well as gallons of brew as he consumes the cultural flip side of university education. His parents hope he won't abandon everything he learned in his first nineteen years of life at home, church, and Christian school. That's what his sister, now twenty-eight, has done, and John seems headed down the same path. "Where did we go wrong?" John's parents anguish. Night after night, they pour out their hearts, as well as tears, in prayer for their children.
And this, says our text, is what Jesus came to do:
[Read Matthew 10:35-36. ]
Jesus came to split families and turn parents and children against one another. How can that be? Or can that be? It seems true enough in real life and unmistakably plain in black and white that some families are divided about faith. But can it really be true that creating this division was not only the effect of Jesus coming but also the intent? As you struggle with this question together, focus on some of the following points:
- Jesus forewarned his followers that the life of faith wouldn't be easy for them because it wasn't easy for him: "A student is not above his master" (10:24).
- Jesus encouraged his followers to "stand firm in the message of reconciliation and healing"—even in times of persecution. Be bold!
- Already in Jesus' day faith in him split families. Jews who followed Jesus caused a great deal of tension in a household.
- But division was not only the effect of Jesus' coming; it was also God' s intent. It's not that Jesus came to sow discord in families, but rather that God's action in Jesus Christ shook up the whole world. Jesus came offering salvation. The choice was—and is—clear-cut: "Receive Christ and live or be lost in your rejection of him." It's a choice that supersedes all others—even devotion to family.
- Our mission today is the same as the disciples' mission: To invite strangers to become sons and daughters of God. We are to be prophets, faithful to the truth of God's Word. If we are serious about doing the right thing, Christ may take the opportunity to make his home among our family and friends.
"Standing in the Need of Prayer" PsH 265, SFL 46
"Jesus Calls Us; O'er the Tumult" PsH 553, RL 258, 259, TH 591
"Lead Me, Guide Me" PsH 544, SFL 220
"Stir Your Church, O God, Our Father" TWC 718
Prayer of Intercession
In peace, we pray to you, Lord God. [Silence]
For all people in their daily life and work;
For our families, friends and neighbors, and for all those who are alone.
For this community, our country and the world;
For all those who work for justice, freedom, and peace.
For the just and proper use of your creation;
For the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.
For all who are in danger, sorrow, or trouble;
For those who minister to the sick, the friendless, and the needy.
For the peace and unity of the church of God;
For those who proclaim the gospel, and all who seek the truth.
For all who serve God in his church. [Silence for petitions to be added] <>
Hear us, Lord;
For your mercy is great.
We thank you, Lord, for all the blessings of this life.
[Silence for people's thanksgivings to be offered]
We will exalt you, O God our King;
And praise your name forever and ever.
We pray for those who struggle with their faith, and for those whose faith is known to you alone, that they may have a place in your eternal kingdom.
[Silence for people to add their own petitions]
Lord, let your lovingkindness be upon them;
Who put their trust in you.
Gracious God, you have heard the prayers of your faithful people; you know our needs before we ask, and our ignorance in asking. Grant our requests as may be best for us. Watch over us and keep us in the light of your presence. May our praise continually blend with that of all creation, until we come together to the eternal joys which you promise in your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
FAITH TO REMOVE MOUNTAINS
Text Mark 11:12-25
Call to Worship (from Psalm 111)
Praise the Lord. Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them. Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever. He has caused his wonders to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and compassionate. Praise the Lord.
God, today I resonate with the desperate cry in the gospel, "I believe, help my unbelief." Sometimes I think I operate my life out of more doubt than faith. And yet I want to believe ... and I do believe. I'm a complex creature. At times I can believe with my head, while my body is still locked into patterns of skepticism and doubt. Faith is not yet in my muscles, my bones, my glands.
Increase faith within me, O Lord. I'm sure that for faith to grow you will put me in situations where I'll need resources beyond myself. I submit to this process.
Will this mean moving out on behalf of others, praying for them, and trusting you to work in them? If so, then show me who, what, when, and where, and I will seek to act at your bidding. Throughout I am trusting you to take me from faith to faith—from the faith I do have to the faith that I am in the process of receiving. Thank you for hearing my prayer. Amen.
—from Players from the Heart, Richard J. Foster. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994.
In the story of the fig tree and mountains, we're made to think, "What an unfair situation—cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit when it's not even the season for fruit! And what an impossible expectation—moving a mountain by faith!" What's going on in this juggernaut from temple cleansing and tree cursing to prayer and forgiveness?
Consider these points:
- The fig free was a symbol for peace and salvation (see Mic. 4:1-5 and Isa. 35). The season of Israel's salvation was upon them, for the Messiah was in their midst.
- Fig trees produce leaves and buds almost simultaneously. Sometimes the knobs of the immature figs could be seen before the leaves appeared. Hungry travelers were permitted to pick the unripened fruit in an emergency. So when Jesus came looking "for something" among the leaves, he would have been content to find a small green fruit. But he found nothing.
- Likewise, Jesus would have been content to find some life, some indication of fruitfulness among the religious leaders who were meant to prepare the people for their season of salvation. Instead, he found leaders who padded their own prestige and used the temple as a place to turn a profit.
- So Jesus castigated the religious leaders in the form of a curse to the fig tree. Their chance to produce fruit was gone, and they would be cut off at the roots!
- This passage calls us to take stock of ourselves— all of us in general and our leaders in particular. Are we living hypocritically, failing to admit our faults and taking no advantage of God's forgiveness? Do we talk a good line about public justice, yet keep persons of another economic status at arm's length? Do we never suggest praying for anything other than what is comfortable— are we more likely, for example, to pray for Aunt Linda's operation than for the renewal of the church?
The text suggests that we should be praying for the big things with gusto. If the church is speaking for Christ, then we may have the bravado he used in suggesting that we tell a mountain to uproot itself and move ... enough courage to ask for something in prayer and have the gutsy certainty that we will receive it... enough assurance of our own forgiveness that if we forgive others, they are forgiven. In other words, having enormous faith, we are to pray with bold confidence to him who is limited in his answers to our prayers only by his own sovereignty ... which we know is limitless.
- pastor, staff members, and many volunteers may work to bring the gospel message to life.
- elders will be encouraged to come alongside people within their care to share what God is doing in their lives.
- deacons will be recognized as representatives of Christ even as they serve as agents of charity.
- some university students may try church one more time, and that if they enter here, we will receive them as Jesus would.
- our neighbors won't just see us as traffic on their street, but as people who, like them, are looking for what is meaningful in life.
- church school teachers will get close to the heart of each student so they can know God's love through their teachers.
- our young adults won't have occasion to accuse us of hypocrisy, but will hear a direct call of God to make faith their own.
- the bravado of the Spirit will uproot each of us (who are entrenched) and cause us to move to heights we will not attain unless we pray.
"Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" PsH 625, SFL 54
"Praise God's Name" SFL 47
"If You Believe and I Believe" SFL 242
"God of Grace and God of Glory" PH 420, RL 416
Blessing (from 2 Corinthians 1:21-24)
It is God who makes us stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
We work together for joy, because it is by faith that we stand firm.
Therefore, let us go out from here with confidence and joy to love and serve the Lord.
In the name of Christ. Amen.