Sermon preached by Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Pastor, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Epiphany 4, January 28, 2001, dedicated to all our new members joining us on our journey today and always to the glory of God!

"The Prophetic Challenge"

I Corinthians 13:1-3; Luke 4:21-30

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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The Prophetic Challenge. What is the Prophetic Challenge? First of all we have to know who a prophet is before we can talk about the challenge of the prophet. Today's excellent predictors are ones that we think of in our own times as prophets which is not the case, but we think of those who can tell us when the weather is going to turn, or the news is going to change or perhaps who's going to predict the correct winner of the game today. Those must be prophets if they can come up with that, but if that's where we end or even if we end with those who bring social change through social causes then we've ceased to understand the Biblical nature of prophecy.

In the Greek, a prophet is one who speaks for another, in the Hebrew, the word means the one who communicates the divine will. The process of prophecy of one who is active as one who hears the word of God and announces it. But the passive form is also a form of prophecy, one who is called upon by God. A person through whom God speaks to the people, a messenger of God, these are the words that define prophecy. The prophet is primarily concerned and this is perhaps most important to our hearing and to our growing today with the present. The prophet was never concerned with the future so much as with the present in Old Testament times. And in the time of the New Testament with John the Baptist calling people to repentance now and in the time of Jesus in Nazareth calling the people to accountability that day. The prophet calls people to respond now.

So what is the prophetic challenge today, now? What is God's will for us? What is God's call to us today? Here and now. To declare full knowledge and a full grasp of understanding God's call and will for us would mean that I would be a self-ordained prophet and that can be elusive, if not death defying, according to Old Testament standards. Anytime someone set himself up and they were themselves to be prophets, usually death came soon thereafter. So I'm not going to even go there.

But I believe that it is within our grasp today to understand the prophetic nature and the prophetic call and I turn to three sources, one of which I know you'll think of as a bit odd, but I'll start with Deuteronomy. There at the end of his time in the 30th chapter, Moses is declaring what it is that he is trying to communicate in summary and he says:

"11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?" 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. 15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob."

This the first of the prophetic challenges, to choose life in the midst of all we have before us. As a congregation today, we are given to choose life. A second prophetic guide to our answer of what the prophetic challenge is, comes from the words of a profile that I read in May 1999, words that were penned two days before Christmas 1998. I don't know who the author is, but I do know that it comes from the profile of First Congregational Church, Columbus, Ohio.

It reads this: "We are looking for a senior minister who will help us. Our challenge is to make this decision making process for our congregation (in other words the one moving forward.) An affirmation that all persons are the children of God, and that each of us is led by the Holy Spirit to love one another. We want to shape our decision making process so that we can celebrate joyously the richness of our diversity. Understanding, respect and reconciliation become important objectives in order to have a healthy faith community.

Therefore, we are looking for leadership styles that will help us understand the differences that exist among us, that help us learn to respect each other as unique human beings created and loved by God, and that help us become reconciled with each other in a respectful and caring manner. These important attributes are needed to help us become a church that truly celebrates diversity, develops servant leaders within the congregation and throughout our communities, and worships God in a profound and joyous way.

In addition we are looking for a Senior Minister who can enable a diverse group of people to work together within a context of shared values and beliefs for the tasks the groups seeks to accomplish; tot demonstrate love and warmth for others that enhances the building of relationships among and between all members of the congregation; to be involved in helping groups resolve their differences so that the work of each group can proceed in a respectful way; and to bring vision and penetrating insight that shapes the quality and authenticity by which we worship God, care for ourselves, and serve others.

Now as someone reading that in May 1999, I said to myself, "They're looking for Jesus Christ." Or at least the Apostle Paul. But as I have served now a year today, it was my first Sunday a year ago today, it is clear to me that what you're looking for and I hope what we've found together is that we will work together from this point on and forevermore, people and pastor, pastor and people. We have a unique opportunity, the prophetic challenge before us today is to embrace the thing that we are called to embrace and so the third prophetic guide is "The Wizard of Oz" I thought you'd like this one.

At the end of "The Wizard of Oz," you all know the story, Dorothy missed the balloon to Kansas, and the wizard turns to Dorothy and says: "You had it in your power all the time to get to where you want to go." And this a paraphrase, some of you know every line of the movie, so forgive me. And he says, "What is it you need to say and to know." And she says, "There's no place like home."

So the last of the guides of the Prophetic Challenge is that we would find our way home together. Home to Christ, home to this church, home to a future together. To choose life. To choose to work together for good among those who love the Lord. To choose home the beloved family of faith and it may not look like Kansas, but it will be our home.

That's the call for us today. In just a few minutes we have the opportunity to embrace a vision moving forward. A vision that has taken literally years in the making, but a year of hard work by all of you. Forty-five listeners, over 475 conversations one to one. You are those people. And out of those even more who chose not to engage, another hundred who said, "I'm not ready for a conversation, or I'm not able to do that." But whatever the reason, it brought us to the goals that we have today. And I'm mindful as we move forward, I could go on forever, the goals are before us and we'll talk about them later, but I'm thoughtful that the process of becoming and stepping into the Prophetic Challenge is something that I turn back to my favorite pastor, and I apologize to those who hear this and may not understand, Washington Gladden, who said 99 years ago on the Fiftieth Anniversary, "The work of the church is not yet done here. The character of the work has greatly changed and the difficulties have somewhat increased." Words that could be said today. "But there are people enough all about us who need the Gospel and no better place can be found for a church of Jesus Christ, a church ministering in His name to those who need him most than right here. To maintain it here will require of all the members a little more time, a little more resolution, a little more sacrifice and a little more love than some churches require of their members, but no more than will be good for all of us to give."

While digging through the Archives, I found a photograph in November, dated from October 1931. I found this in the Ohio Historical Society. It's a lonely picture. The picture of the old First Church, down on Lynn and Third, gutted by a wrecking ball, all except for the Gladden pulpit. The only thing that remained in the church in the photograph, was the pulpit where Dr. Gladden built this congregation through the power of the Spirit and the working together of people. That pulpit now is in our chapel. But as I saw that, I thought to myself, "He understood even before the move here 70 years ago, that this was to be the place that was to serve the city for a long time to come." Just weeks after that photo was taken, the first service was held here, at the corner of Ninth and Broad. Where cast in stone over the door it said, "Enter to Worship, Depart to Serve." Today as we move into the next millennium and into the next era of our serving together, the image I have is not a pulpit standing in the wreckage nor words cast in stone, but a little booklet. This booklet here. You see we're returning to our Presbyterian roots, we've been brought down to a document on paper. It's a guide, it's a plan, it's a vision. It's what we have to guide us, with the Holy Spirit holding us together and moving us forward.

A year ago, as I ended my first sermon as your Senior Pastor, I said Thank you. Thank you for calling me to be your Senior Pastor. Today as I stand with you on the precipice of the Prophetic Challenge and moving and living into it, I still feel and more than ever before in my life feel, a Thank you to you. I am grateful to be here. I am deeply moved to step into this pulpit each Sunday, to step into this church each day and be your pastor. As we move forward in faith, let us remember the words that guide us, the words that say: "It is about love that we have come, Christ told us. And the summary words of the Forward in Faith Vision say it, "All we need is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves." With such love as this nothing will stop us and we will find our way home to God eternally.

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