Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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            In the law, there is an important concept called “standing.” You must have standing, in order to bring a case to the courts and to see it through. The idea, at its root, is not complicated. In order to demand the court’s time and attention, whatever the matter is that you would like to have remedied, you yourself have to be personally affected in some way or another. If because of somebody’s action, you have been harmed, you can sue or ask for redress. But you can’t do it for somebody else. Just because somebody else tripped on your neighbor’s poorly-maintained sidewalk, you can’t sue your neighbor, no matter how long you have complained about his sidewalk. The only person who can do that is the guy who tripped. You have no standing here.

            The principle of standing applies also in moral, non-legal situations. You cannot speak for another person. You can only speak for yourself. For example, you can be upset about racism, and you can demand justice, and you can be ashamed of the way black people have been treated by whites in your community, but you can’t speak for black people unless you are black. We all, of course, recognize this principle whenever it is breached, such as whenever somebody has the audacity to speak for us, and takes away what is our voice and our experience. We speak for ourselves, for who else can say who we are and what exactly we mean? Who else can stand behind speech that expresses us, expresses our hurts, our wounds, our love, our joy? This also applies to our communities, for just because one is a member of a community, that does not necessarily mean that one has the standing to speak for the community as a whole. The issue of standing is something, therefore, that public social critics have to be very careful about. For we can all complain, but for our criticisms and our claims to have moral weight behind them, we need to be people who have the standing necessary to articulate them as we do.

            There are, of course, times when we can speak for others. In some cases, standing falls to us because of the relation we bear to the people we are to speak for. Parents have standing to speak for their minor children. Adult children in certain circumstances have the standing to speak for and to make decisions for aged parents. We can designate people, such as lawyers or even friends to speak for us, and we can give them more or less broad power to do so. We elect leaders to speak for the community--a vast improvement over self-designated leaders.

            The notion of standing also applies to God and God’s speech, and even to informed speech about God. We certainly understand this in the negative. There are plenty of folks who claim to speak for God, and as we listen to them, we are not at all sure that they have the standing to do so. In many cases, we are pretty sure they don’t have it.

            Because of these sorts of cases, we clearly understand that this question of who speaks for God is a pretty big issue. If we cannot speak for others, who are somewhat like us, who then can speak for God who is quite different from us? God loves in a way that is quite different than the way we naturally love. So, who has the standing to talk about God’s love? God is awesome – deep, sometimes dark and inscrutable, and sometimes simply huge and magnificent; God can be a bit frightening. So, who has the ability or standing to speak of God’s awesomeness? God is just and God is righteous. We are sinners. So, who then can speak for God about justice and righteousness? Who can speak for God in any of these cases?

            Yet, we believe that God does speak. We believe that the church exists and that it continues to be nourished by God’s Word alone, and not by any other kind of bread. So, how does this happen? Who can speak for God? Where and how is God’s word spoken?

            Well, of course, God can speak for himself and God does speak for God. God spoke, the psalmist says, and a world came to be. Above all, when we say that God’s Word, the one who was with God from the very beginning, and through whom all things were made, became flesh in Jesus Christ, we are saying that God speaks for God. Throughout the Gospel of John, this is made very clear. When people doubt what Jesus is saying, he tells them if they have seen what he is doing, then they have seen what God the Father is doing. If they have heard what he is saying, then they have heard what God the Father is saying. If they don’t hear him, and if they don’t listen to him, then they are not hearing what God is saying. In the Gospel of Mark, in the passage we read this morning, the people listen to Jesus teaching, and it is said that they were amazed, for he taught them with authority, and not as the scribes taught. We might say that in his teaching the fact that he has standing to speak for God comes through. He speaks with authority because he has authority, God’s own authority, and he demonstrates it in the way he speaks and in what he does. He has standing because God has given him standing to speak for him. He does it so perfectly, that he can only be God’s own Word, not anybody else’s word.

            But is it only Jesus who has that sort of standing? Well, in one sense, yes. He is uniquely God speaking God. But we also believe that by the inspiration of God’s own Spirit, that others might have standing, too, to speak for God. We believe that the Bible has standing, because as the Creed says, the Spirit, God’s Spirit, has spoken through the prophets, through God’s preachers, and the Bible is the words that they said on God’s behalf.  But, it is not just the Bible itself, for the words that the Bible gives to the church to feed it do not feed it just by the Bible being laid on the table. They also are spoken and they are explained by people, by women and men who talk about the words of the Bible and about God the Word. But, here, things do not then seem so easy. For, we ask, how do these people have standing to speak God’s word?

            It is, simply, because God has given them standing. God has always called men and women and given them standing, and required them to speak for him. I do not doubt for a second that God may and does speak directly to some folks, although I am suspicious of those who claim that it happens all the time, or who give the impression that they are positively chatty or chummy with God. But, even though God can and does speak directly on occasion, for the most part, the way that most of us are fed by God’s Word is through the words of others. That is the way it has always been. God has always taken the words of human beings, and used those words, and used human speech, to speak. God selects men and women and gives them standing so that they may speak on God’s behalf, and so that God may therefore speak.

            Consider the great and primary example of Moses. According to the book of Exodus, Moses encounters God on Mount Sinai, and God commands him to go to Pharaoh and to speak for God. God even tells Moses his name, so that Moses can speak in God’s name. Consider what Moses himself says in this morning’s Old Testament lesson from the book of Deuteronomy; in speaking of the time after he, Moses, is gone: “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” So, God did, raising up prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. We have in their writings the record of the encounter with God that called them to be prophets. Then, after this, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “after having spoken to our ancestors in various and sundry ways by the prophets, God spoke in the last days to us by a Son.”

            It doesn’t stop there. Jesus himself selected disciples, and after teaching them by his word and by his example, he sent them out to teach and to preach. He made them apostles who were to speak on his behalf. He gave them standing to speak. That is what gives us the words of the Bible, which are indeed human words, but also and always God’s Word to us. That is important to remember. For this is not a book of history. It is a book of personal address, and it should be read that way.

            It didn’t stop two millennia ago. God still gives standing to speak for God. It goes on as women and men get up in pulpits every Sunday now and dare to speak in God’s name. As John Calvin argued, and the Reformed tradition of which Presbyterianism is a part has followed him on this for five hundred years, God appoints people to speak for him. Without that calling, we could never presume to speak on God’s behalf. Without that calling there would be no church of Christ, really and truly fed by God’s Word. Those so appointed are to speak God’s word; they have in what they say God’s authority. It is not the people’s authority that they have, or the authority of anything from within the world.

            Now, that is a pretty big claim. While it makes sense and covers all the right bases, still as an answer to our question, it may well give us pause. We are suspicious of those who claim to speak for God, and of those who claim to be called by God. There are more than enough frauds who want to claim that they speak for God, but who surely speak only for themselves, or their delusions and their own interests. Moses himself, when he told the Israelites that God would raise up prophets, understood that this is a problem. For, on the one hand, he gave warning in some pretty frightening terms to anyone who might presume to speak in God’s name any word that God had not commanded. More positively, on the other hand, he also gave them a way to discern whether a prophet was properly speaking on God’s behalf, namely, they needed to see whether what the prophet said was proved true or not. That is to say, the way to discern whether one is properly speaking on God’s behalf is to whether or not what they say moves people to God. That is what is quite different from the way that the scribes and Pharisees talk.

            But how does one speak like that? That is a question for both speakers and listeners. I think doing it right it involves at least these things:

            First, to do it right you have to have a sense of who you are speaking for. You are supposed to be speaking for God, and God is awesome, and just, and loving, and righteous, and takes the long view. Therefore, if someone speaks of God in trivial ways, or if she thinks God is only interested in the things that short-sighted and worldly people are interested in, or if one plays off God’s word against other words, or plays off one of God’s words against others, then there is little likelihood that he or she is speaking for God. Every false prophet in the Bible has one common characteristic no matter what else they say: they all tell people what they want to hear, and only what they want to hear.

            For this reason, secondly, those who really speak for God should actually show a certain humility and reticence in doing so. They know the task and they know it is beyond them. Of every real prophet whose call is recorded in the Bible, none of them is eager to take on the task. Jeremiah actually talks about his call as a matter of God shoving God’s word into his mouth. None of them jump at the chance. This is because they also know the price of having to say things that aren’t always popular. But the mark of authenticity and authority is that they are willing to take that personal risk so that God’s Word may be heard.

            Then, third, those who speak for God are always people who first listen to God. You cannot speak for God if you don’t listen to God. The women and men who have to speak for God need to be people of prayer; they need to be folks who above all are at worship; they are people who read God’s Word. It is because of that listening and praying and reading that they, despite their personal hesitation, when speaking for God can speak confidently. The reason they can do this is because, when they have listening down, they know when they are not standing on their own weak reasonings, but on God’s word, and it is God’s word that is true.

            Finally, when they speak, something happens. When God speaks, a world is created. When God speaks, a world is set towards redemption, and people are set free inwardly and outwardly. Now, all that doesn’t happen right away when those who are called to speak for God do speak, but those things are started when they speak. If they don’t speak, then those things won’t happen. It is because of what these people say that God’s people are taught, that they come to understanding, that they are healed and that they are led into the unknown with hope. 

            Over the course of more than a century, this church has had an unbroken chain of notable ministers. What gave them authority was not their credentials. It was that God called them to speak for God. The four criteria I just outlined were the markers by which people knew that they spoke with that authority. Last Sunday, you called a new minister. Ultimately, what gives her authority is not her degrees, or experience, or personality, or relevance, or gender, but that she is called to speak for God. How can you tell? It will be by her love and fear of the Lord, her humility, her listening, her working to change lives and to give life to this Church. Make sure that she is like that. Then make sure that you listen. If she does fulfill those criteria, then beneath it all, what she says is not just her opinion but what God wants her to say to you. To God’s words, you cannot oppose your own opinion. You can, rightfully, only listen and act. Doing so is how you will know God and it is how God’s word will change the world.

            In the law, there is an important concept called “standing.” You must have standing, in order to bring a case to the courts and to see it through. The idea, at its root, is not complicated. In order to demand the court’s time and attention, whatever the matter is that you would like to have remedied, you yourself have to be personally affected in some way or another. If because of somebody’s action, you have been harmed, you can sue or ask for redress. But you can’t do it for somebody else. Just because somebody else tripped on your neighbor’s poorly-maintained sidewalk, you can’t sue your neighbor, no matter how long you have complained about his sidewalk. The only person who can do that is the guy who tripped. You have no standing here.

            The principle of standing applies also in moral, non-legal situations. You cannot speak for another person. You can only speak for yourself. For example, you can be upset about racism, and you can demand justice, and you can be ashamed of the way black people have been treated by whites in your community, but you can’t speak for black people unless you are black. We all, of course, recognize this principle whenever it is breached, such as whenever somebody has the audacity to speak for us, and takes away what is our voice and our experience. We speak for ourselves, for who else can say who we are and what exactly we mean? Who else can stand behind speech that expresses us, expresses our hurts, our wounds, our love, our joy? This also applies to our communities, for just because one is a member of a community, that does not necessarily mean that one has the standing to speak for the community as a whole. The issue of standing is something, therefore, that public social critics have to be very careful about. For we can all complain, but for our criticisms and our claims to have moral weight behind them, we need to be people who have the standing necessary to articulate them as we do.

            There are, of course, times when we can speak for others. In some cases, standing falls to us because of the relation we bear to the people we are to speak for. Parents have standing to speak for their minor children. Adult children in certain circumstances have the standing to speak for and to make decisions for aged parents. We can designate people, such as lawyers or even friends to speak for us, and we can give them more or less broad power to do so. We elect leaders to speak for the community--a vast improvement over self-designated leaders.

            The notion of standing also applies to God and God’s speech, and even to informed speech about God. We certainly understand this in the negative. There are plenty of folks who claim to speak for God, and as we listen to them, we are not at all sure that they have the standing to do so. In many cases, we are pretty sure they don’t have it.

            Because of these sorts of cases, we clearly understand that this question of who speaks for God is a pretty big issue. If we cannot speak for others, who are somewhat like us, who then can speak for God who is quite different from us? God loves in a way that is quite different than the way we naturally love. So, who has the standing to talk about God’s love? God is awesome – deep, sometimes dark and inscrutable, and sometimes simply huge and magnificent; God can be a bit frightening. So, who has the ability or standing to speak of God’s awesomeness? God is just and God is righteous. We are sinners. So, who then can speak for God about justice and righteousness? Who can speak for God in any of these cases?

            Yet, we believe that God does speak. We believe that the church exists and that it continues to be nourished by God’s Word alone, and not by any other kind of bread. So, how does this happen? Who can speak for God? Where and how is God’s word spoken?

            Well, of course, God can speak for himself and God does speak for God. God spoke, the psalmist says, and a world came to be. Above all, when we say that God’s Word, the one who was with God from the very beginning, and through whom all things were made, became flesh in Jesus Christ, we are saying that God speaks for God. Throughout the Gospel of John, this is made very clear. When people doubt what Jesus is saying, he tells them if they have seen what he is doing, then they have seen what God the Father is doing. If they have heard what he is saying, then they have heard what God the Father is saying. If they don’t hear him, and if they don’t listen to him, then they are not hearing what God is saying. In the Gospel of Mark, in the passage we read this morning, the people listen to Jesus teaching, and it is said that they were amazed, for he taught them with authority, and not as the scribes taught. We might say that in his teaching the fact that he has standing to speak for God comes through. He speaks with authority because he has authority, God’s own authority, and he demonstrates it in the way he speaks and in what he does. He has standing because God has given him standing to speak for him. He does it so perfectly, that he can only be God’s own Word, not anybody else’s word.

            But is it only Jesus who has that sort of standing? Well, in one sense, yes. He is uniquely God speaking God. But we also believe that by the inspiration of God’s own Spirit, that others might have standing, too, to speak for God. We believe that the Bible has standing, because as the Creed says, the Spirit, God’s Spirit, has spoken through the prophets, through God’s preachers, and the Bible is the words that they said on God’s behalf.  But, it is not just the Bible itself, for the words that the Bible gives to the church to feed it do not feed it just by the Bible being laid on the table. They also are spoken and they are explained by people, by women and men who talk about the words of the Bible and about God the Word. But, here, things do not then seem so easy. For, we ask, how do these people have standing to speak God’s word?

            It is, simply, because God has given them standing. God has always called men and women and given them standing, and required them to speak for him. I do not doubt for a second that God may and does speak directly to some folks, although I am suspicious of those who claim that it happens all the time, or who give the impression that they are positively chatty or chummy with God. But, even though God can and does speak directly on occasion, for the most part, the way that most of us are fed by God’s Word is through the words of others. That is the way it has always been. God has always taken the words of human beings, and used those words, and used human speech, to speak. God selects men and women and gives them standing so that they may speak on God’s behalf, and so that God may therefore speak.

            Consider the great and primary example of Moses. According to the book of Exodus, Moses encounters God on Mount Sinai, and God commands him to go to Pharaoh and to speak for God. God even tells Moses his name, so that Moses can speak in God’s name. Consider what Moses himself says in this morning’s Old Testament lesson from the book of Deuteronomy; in speaking of the time after he, Moses, is gone: “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” So, God did, raising up prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. We have in their writings the record of the encounter with God that called them to be prophets. Then, after this, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “after having spoken to our ancestors in various and sundry ways by the prophets, God spoke in the last days to us by a Son.”

            It doesn’t stop there. Jesus himself selected disciples, and after teaching them by his word and by his example, he sent them out to teach and to preach. He made them apostles who were to speak on his behalf. He gave them standing to speak. That is what gives us the words of the Bible, which are indeed human words, but also and always God’s Word to us. That is important to remember. For this is not a book of history. It is a book of personal address, and it should be read that way.

            It didn’t stop two millennia ago. God still gives standing to speak for God. It goes on as women and men get up in pulpits every Sunday now and dare to speak in God’s name. As John Calvin argued, and the Reformed tradition of which Presbyterianism is a part has followed him on this for five hundred years, God appoints people to speak for him. Without that calling, we could never presume to speak on God’s behalf. Without that calling there would be no church of Christ, really and truly fed by God’s Word. Those so appointed are to speak God’s word; they have in what they say God’s authority. It is not the people’s authority that they have, or the authority of anything from within the world.

            Now, that is a pretty big claim. While it makes sense and covers all the right bases, still as an answer to our question, it may well give us pause. We are suspicious of those who claim to speak for God, and of those who claim to be called by God. There are more than enough frauds who want to claim that they speak for God, but who surely speak only for themselves, or their delusions and their own interests. Moses himself, when he told the Israelites that God would raise up prophets, understood that this is a problem. For, on the one hand, he gave warning in some pretty frightening terms to anyone who might presume to speak in God’s name any word that God had not commanded. More positively, on the other hand, he also gave them a way to discern whether a prophet was properly speaking on God’s behalf, namely, they needed to see whether what the prophet said was proved true or not. That is to say, the way to discern whether one is properly speaking on God’s behalf is to whether or not what they say moves people to God. That is what is quite different from the way that the scribes and Pharisees talk.

            But how does one speak like that? That is a question for both speakers and listeners. I think doing it right it involves at least these things:

            First, to do it right you have to have a sense of who you are speaking for. You are supposed to be speaking for God, and God is awesome, and just, and loving, and righteous, and takes the long view. Therefore, if someone speaks of God in trivial ways, or if she thinks God is only interested in the things that short-sighted and worldly people are interested in, or if one plays off God’s word against other words, or plays off one of God’s words against others, then there is little likelihood that he or she is speaking for God. Every false prophet in the Bible has one common characteristic no matter what else they say: they all tell people what they want to hear, and only what they want to hear.

            For this reason, secondly, those who really speak for God should actually show a certain humility and reticence in doing so. They know the task and they know it is beyond them. Of every real prophet whose call is recorded in the Bible, none of them is eager to take on the task. Jeremiah actually talks about his call as a matter of God shoving God’s word into his mouth. None of them jump at the chance. This is because they also know the price of having to say things that aren’t always popular. But the mark of authenticity and authority is that they are willing to take that personal risk so that God’s Word may be heard.

            Then, third, those who speak for God are always people who first listen to God. You cannot speak for God if you don’t listen to God. The women and men who have to speak for God need to be people of prayer; they need to be folks who above all are at worship; they are people who read God’s Word. It is because of that listening and praying and reading that they, despite their personal hesitation, when speaking for God can speak confidently. The reason they can do this is because, when they have listening down, they know when they are not standing on their own weak reasonings, but on God’s word, and it is God’s word that is true.

            Finally, when they speak, something happens. When God speaks, a world is created. When God speaks, a world is set towards redemption, and people are set free inwardly and outwardly. Now, all that doesn’t happen right away when those who are called to speak for God do speak, but those things are started when they speak. If they don’t speak, then those things won’t happen. It is because of what these people say that God’s people are taught, that they come to understanding, that they are healed and that they are led into the unknown with hope. 

            Over the course of more than a century, this church has had an unbroken chain of notable ministers. What gave them authority was not their credentials. It was that God called them to speak for God. The four criteria I just outlined were the markers by which people knew that they spoke with that authority. Last Sunday, you called a new minister. Ultimately, what gives her authority is not her degrees, or experience, or personality, or relevance, or gender, but that she is called to speak for God. How can you tell? It will be by her love and fear of the Lord, her humility, her listening, her working to change lives and to give life to this Church. Make sure that she is like that. Then make sure that you listen. If she does fulfill those criteria, then beneath it all, what she says is not just her opinion but what God wants her to say to you. To God’s words, you cannot oppose your own opinion. You can, rightfully, only listen and act. Doing so is how you will know God and it is how God’s word will change the world.