Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Knowing What We Worship


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Did you ever consider doing something else with your life? Becoming a teacher instead of a doctor. Going to law school instead of pharmacy school. Enlisting in the military instead of going to college. Becoming a missionary instead of a mathematician? Today we celebrate the life and witness to the gospel of Henry Martyn, an Anglican missionary to India and Persia who used the gifts that God gave him to bring the gospel to those who had never heard it before.

Martyn was an undergraduate at St. John's College in Cambridge, where I did part of my seminary training. In that place, there is a culture that rewards excellence and brushes aside mediocrity, so, when Henry Martyn earned the distinction of "Senior Wrangler," it was something to note. The Senior Wrangler is the top student in mathematics at the University of Cambridge--the very best in an elite class of wranglers who have shown their ability to wrestle and master difficult problems in mathematics. The list of individuals who won that title includes some of the greatest minds in maths and physics in history. And what did Henry Martyn do with this honor? He became a missionary.

At a time when the British Empire was spreading across the globe, Martyn heard the famous clergyman Charles Simeon speak of the importance and good done by missionaries in India. That was enough to change his life. After reading about the work of other missionaries, Martyn decided to pursue that calling, and he was ordained a deacon and then priest, serving as curate at Holy Trinity, Cambridge, under Simeon's direction. Soon, Martyn signed up with the Church Missionary Society and set sail for India as a chaplain to the British East India Company. While there, he not only preached but also applied his mathematical genius to the study of linguistics, and his greatest contribution to the work of the church was to translate the New Testament into Urdu, Persian, and Judeao-Persic as well as translating the Psalms into Persian and the Prayer Book into Urdu. He became ill and set sail for England, where he hoped to regain his strength and recruit additional missionaries, but he never made it. He died along the way at the age of 31. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

I wonder what Henry Martyn could have accomplished if he had stayed in Cambridge as a mathematician. I wonder how many people would have died not hearing the good news of Jesus Christ if he had not pursued his calling as a missionary.

"Jesus said to the [Samaritan] woman at the well, 'You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.'" We usually think of this encounter as a controversial meeting between Jesus and a Samaritan woman of questionable morals. Remember, although it's not in today's reading, this woman had had five husbands and was then living with a man who was not her husband (see the rest of John 4). But on Henry Martyn's day, we narrow our focus to something else--something just as important as Jesus' willingness to ask this sinful Samaritan to give him a drink. Instead, we are invited to consider the gap in knowledge that existed between the Jews and Samaritans and how Jesus Christ bridged that gap and brought all people back to the Father.

The differences and animosity between Jews and Samaritans are well rehearsed. For now, just remember that the Samaritans did not recognize most of the books of the Hebrew bible. They had the Torah--the first five books--but the prophets and other teachings were not part of their tradition. That means, among other things, that they were not expecting a messiah. Think about it: the parts of the Old Testament that predict the coming of an anointed one to rescue God's people are from books like Isaiah and Ezekiel and the other prophetic books that Samaritans were unfamiliar with. How, then, did this woman even know to look for Jesus much less how to make sense of what he and his ministry represented? How did she know? She met the real thing.

Henry Martyn gave his life--his gifted, talented, brilliant life--to the work of bringing the real Word of God to people who had never had a chance to encounter it before. He didn't just tell them about Jesus. He gave them Jesus. He gave them the Incarnate Word of John 1. He gave them the baby born in Bethlehem of Luke 2. He gave them the agony of the cross and the victory of Easter. He gave them the story of the church's growth and Paul's struggle to communicate the good news with the Gentiles.

What about us? Are we giving Jesus to a world that needs him? We may not have the gifts of mathematics or linguistics, but what are our gifts? How are we bringing Jesus to the world so that everyone can worship what they know? I live in a culture that says "try harder" and "do good" and "earn what you can" and "protect your own." But Jesus says "surrender" and "confess" and "give everything away" and "be vulnerable." Why does Jesus say that? Because that's who God is. We know who God is through the words and witness and life and death and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel shows us that God is with those who empty themselves--who die to this world. The world needs to hear that as much now as ever. Those words and concepts are as foreign to our neighbors as the English New Testament was to the Urdu-speakers of India. Will we bring Jesus and the gospel of grace back to those who need him?

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