Sunday, November 15, 2009

Provoked to Love

Hebrews 10:19-25

Imagine for a moment that you’re watching two men talking. You can’t hear what they’re saying – they could be talking about football, politics, the best place to get burgers, and maybe even religion. At first the discussion seems fairly congenial, but then it gets a bit heated, and you see one man put his finger into the chest of the other, and shouts: “Don’t provoke me!”

It would seem that this word -- “provoke” – carries a lot of negative baggage. When we hear it, we hear argument, heated discussion, or even a fight. Wars start with provocations, and in Ephesians parents are told not to “provoke [their] children to anger” (Eph. 6:4). Now, I wish the message had been -- children, don’t provoke your fathers to anger, but that’s not what it says. Oh, by the way, if you turn to 1 Corinthians 13, you’ll find Paul saying that love isn’t “irritable,” which is the same word in Greek as provoke. And, who wants to be irritable?

So, from what I can tell, it’s safe to say that it’s not polite, indeed, it could be irritating, to provoke people! And yet, here we have the author of Hebrews telling us to provoke our neighbors –not to anger -- but to “love and good works.” So, maybe being provocative isn’t always a bad thing!

I. Stir Things Up

But, since the word “provoke” has so much baggage, we could try using a different word or phrase – something like “stirring things up” – and, in the context of our passage this might make sense. The author of Hebrews tells us that because Jesus has purified us, we can enter God’s sanctuary with confidence and boldness. Jesus has opened the way for us to enter God’s presence by taking down the curtain that separates us from the Holy of Holies.

With that kind of wind at the back, we needn’t be timid in our praise of God or in our relationships with each other. Now that Jesus has washed us clean, we are in a position where the Spirit of God can push us beyond our comfort zones and open our eyes to the needs of the world. The Spirit also stirs things up by making us aware of our neighbor’s gifts, talents, and abilities, and so we can encourage them to take up the good works God that has already prepared for them (Eph. 2:10), so that they might use these gifts and talents for the glory of God and for the benefit of their neighbors.

II. With a Word of Encouragement

There is another side of being spiritually provocative, besides stirring things up. It also involves offering words of encouragement. If we’re going to be a true community, then the ministry of encouragement must stand at the heart of who we are as a congregation. We’re not just a group of unrelated individuals, filling pews for an hour on Sunday morning. Instead, we’re a community of people living in relationship with each other, or as the speaker made clear last week at the Stephen Ministry retreat – the flip side of me is we.

Peter Gomes, suggests that a word of encouragement provides “that positive, affirming force that is so often missing in the routine of life.” A word of encouragement says to a person: you are important; you have purpose, you are loved and needed! Without these words of encouragement we will perish, maybe not physically, but certainly spiritually and emotionally. Although there are plenty of self-help books for sale, Gomes reminds us that we can’t “encourage ourselves.” Therefore, it is, “our spiritual obligation to encourage one another” (Christian Century, Nov. 5, 1997). And that only happens in community, which is why the author of Hebrews chides those who are “neglecting to meet together.”

Church people aren’t perfect. We may grate on each others nerves, say things we shouldn’t, but in the course of the relationships we build in the church – if we allow the Spirit room to move – we lift each other up. So, if our provocations are to be positive – not negative – then the focus has to be on we and not me.

III. Provocative Steps

How, then, do we get from this word of encouragement to a word that provokes? I think we can start by recognizing that our text doesn’t give us permission to manipulate people to “do the right thing.” It does, however, tell us to live our lives in such a way that people will be enticed, that is, provoked, to live their lives in love and service to others. As Paul tells the Thessalonians -- you have become such good examples of what the gospel is, that wherever I go, people know of your witness, and therefore, I have “no need to speak about it.” Of course, that didn’t keep Paul from speaking about the gospel, but their lives made his job a whole lot easier.

But, if we’re going to get to the point where our lives entice people to enter the kingdom of God, then our work must start with prayer. That’s because, if you pray for someone, you will put that person’s welfare front and center in your mind. Then you’ll be in a position to more clearly recognize that person’s needs, gifts, and talents. At the same time, when we pray, we will discover the words that encourage.

Then, as bearers of this word of encouragement, we can come alongside people who are struggling and speak words that give hope. As we get to know a person, we will also begin to recognize their gifts and talents, and then we can encourage them to make use of these gifts -- whether that means picking up a musical instrument or singing a song, painting or sculpting, speaking or dancing. It might involve stirring up a sense of compassion for the poor or the homeless. Whatever it is, this word of encouragement is deeply rooted in a relationship with the one who has broken down the wall that separates us from the presence of God.

As we consider this ministry of provocation and encouragement, we need to again hear the admonition: don’t forsake the gathering together as some do. I understand why some people stay away from church. Many have been hurt and don’t find the church to be a safe place to live or explore their faith. Some find it irrelevant. I’ve been asked on more than one occasion if going to church is necessary – to be a Christian. While I always say – it’s not absolutely necessary, in the end it’s very difficult to grow in faith and understanding, to learn to love and share in good works, if we’re not involved in a community of faith. And again, as the Stephen Ministry presenter made so clear, relationships are based on a movement from me to we – and so as we gather in community – not always agreeing on every thing, often provoking each other to something other than love – we put ourselves in a position to be provoked to love and good works. And this is our calling as God’s people. This is especially true, since the Day of the Lord is fast approaching!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
November 15, 2009

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