Friday, April 5, 2013

“Amen” - April 7, 2013

Text: 1 Chronicles 16:23-36; 2 Corinthians 1:16-20
(week 7 of Lord’s Prayer series)

From the beginning of Lent through Easter Sunday, we looked at the Lord’s Prayer.  It is a prayer Jesus taught his disciples, it is a prayer we pray most every Sunday in worship, and as we have examined this prayer more closely, it is clear that more than asking God for stuff, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us what it means to live as a follower of Jesus.  Praying it regularly reminds us again and again of what it is to live as a Christian.

The last two phrases of the prayer fit well with what was happening in the church year.  On Palm Sunday, the text was “deliver us from evil,” and we journeyed from there to the cross.  And then last week, on Easter Sunday, as we celebrated resurrection, we proclaimed “Thine is the kingdom and the glory and the power forever.”

Well, after going through the Lord’s Prayer phrase by phrase, verse by verse, over six Sundays, all the way from “Our Father” to “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever,” we are finally ready to move on.

Or so you might think.  But, as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.”

Not so fast, my friend.  There is something we have left out.  A portion of the prayer yet to cover.  Actually, it is one word.  “Amen.”

“Amen” would not seem to be much of a text, and I’m not sure you can actually preach a decent sermon on just the word “Amen.”  It’s just one word, and a short one at that.  On the other hand, “Amen” is one of those religious words that we hear all the time.  It is almost ubiquitous.  Two people with completely different views of life and faith and God both say “Amen” at the end of a prayer.  “Amen” is an ending to all kinds of prayers said by all kinds of people.  It is used as a response in worship.  And it also finds its way into everyday conversation.  A person will say something that we agree with, something like “It’s about time we had some decent weather,” or, “I could sure go for a big juicy steak,” and somebody responds with “Amen, brother.”  It is a word that actually gets quite a bit of use, but we don’t give it a lot of thought.  If we weren’t going through the Lord’s Prayer word by word, we surely wouldn’t be thinking about it today and I don’t know when we would.  I had never even thought about preaching on “Amen” before, but given how common the “Amen” is, maybe we ought to devote a few minutes to thinking about it.

The first usage of the word “Amen” comes in the Torah, the Hebrew law, as a sign of solemn agreement.  A good example is in Deuteronomy 27, where Moses is giving instructions to the people about crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  Once they arrive in the Promised Land, the Levites, the priestly tribe, are to pronounce a series of curses to all the Israelites:

 ‘Cursed be anyone who makes an idol or casts an image… All the people shall respond, saying, ‘Amen!’

 ‘Cursed be anyone who dishonors father or mother.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

 ‘Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

 ‘Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person on the road.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’

 ‘Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’
It continues.  Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law or strikes down a neighbor in secret or takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.  After each curse, all the people are to respond by saying, “Amen!”

This response means “so be it” or “may it be so.”  It was a response on the part of the people as a whole, an expression of corporate unity and agreement.

“Amen” came to be used as more than just a corporate response to curses.  (If that was all it meant, it would be a pretty creepy word.)  “Amen” came to be an affirmation, a corporate response of agreement in worship, used not just for curses (when was the last time you heard a curse pronounced at church?), but as an expression of praise and commitment and joy and encouragement.

When King David decided to place his son Solomon on the thrones of Israel and Judah, he called in Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and told them what he planned to do.  Benaiah responded by saying, “Amen! May the Lord, the God of my Lord the king, say so!”  Benaiah was expressing agreement with this plan and calling on God to accomplish it.

Our Old Testament reading is a great psalm of praise found in 1 Chronicles.  After this long and soaring hymn of praise to God, the writer concludes:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!  Then all the people said “Amen” and praised the Lord.
Then the Psalmist wrote, in Psalm 72:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.  Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth!  Amen and Amen!
In these kinds of passages, you can hear a foreshadowing of the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.”

The Amen is an exclamation point at the end of a phrase.  It is acceptance and commitment and joy all rolled into one.  And that being the case, it is one of the most expressive words you will find anywhere.

“Amen” is the one word in the Lord’s Prayer recognizable anywhere you go, wherever you hear the prayer.  It’s essentially the same in most every language.  You can attend worship in Paris or Moscow or Bangkok or Nairobi or Mexico City or Ames, Iowa, and at the end of the prayer, the word is Amen.  And in fact, the Amen is used at the end of Jewish and Muslim prayer.

Now, it’s not always said quite the same way, even here in the US.  Churches with a more classical style and a more formal liturgy tend to say Ah-men while those that tend toward gospel music and a less formal style tend to go with Ay-men. 

Now, we are kind of right smack in the middle on the formal/informal continuum.  At the end of prayers, you might more likely hear “ah-men,” but when there is a strong expression of agreement or praise, like at the end of a choir anthem or – once in a blue moon – during a sermon, it’s more likely Ay-men.  I don’t know why that is, it just is.

Now there is another use of the Amen in scripture which we need to acknowledge.  After the death and resurrection of Jesus – after Easter – Christians began to say the Amen, the so-be-it, through Jesus.  Jesus became the guarantor of the prayer, as it were, and Christians began to pray in the name of Jesus.

Our New Testament reading from 2 Corinthians speaks to this.  The apostle Paul was apparently responding to some of the folks in the church at Corinth who thought he had not dealt forthrightly with them as he shared his travel plans.  He had intended to come to Corinth again but events along the way during his journey necessitated a change of plans.  His response is not so much about his travels but about the constancy and dependability of God.

“Was I vacillating?” Paul asks.  “Do I say both Yes and No at once?”

As surely as God is faithful, our words to you have not been Yes and No.  For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not a Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes.  All the promises of God find their Yes in him.  That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God.
And in fact, the early Christians went a step further, even identifying Jesus as the Amen.  In the book of Revelation, John reports words of Jesus, writing “the words of the Amen, the true and faithful witness, the beginning of God’s creation.” 

When we offer a prayer and end with, “In Jesus’ name, Amen,” this is why we do it.  Now, you don’t have to say those words for a prayer to be offered in the Spirit of Jesus.  “In Jesus’ name” is not a magical phrase.  But we pray with this sense that the power of God that shone through Jesus and was seen in Jesus’ resurrection is alive and at work and available to us even as we pray.

Some of you have attended African-American churches – some of you grew up in an African-American church.  Some of you grew up in rural churches with a revivalistic kind of worship style. In many African-American traditions and in some conservative evangelical-type traditions, you will hear Amens throughout the worship service.  Here, we do get an Amen or an Alleluia once in awhile.  I thank Wayne Shireman for that, and before him our go-to Amen person was John Anderson.

I have been in services where the sermon was more of a dialogue.  The preacher makes a strong point, and people shout Amen.  Or the preacher is having trouble with the sermon, it’s kind of a bumpy ride, and someone, in my experience it’s usually a woman, will say, “Help him, Jesus.”  Generally, there is this feeling that the whole congregation is in it together, and there is feedback and affirmation in the form of Amens throughout the sermon, and indeed the whole service.

I am not arguing for or asking for a steady dose of Amens when I preach, although if you feel led that would be OK.  I have also heard preachers ask, “Can I get an Amen?”  Sometimes, the point they have made is really not something I want to encourage.  And to me, it feels weird to hear somebody ask for affirmation.  But then again, in some other traditions, this is a way of keeping the congregation alert and awake.

There is no right or wrong about worship styles, but I have to tell you, receiving the encouragement of an Amen can really help a person.  Sometimes, looking out and seeing an engaged and interested and attentive face does the same thing.  But the value of an Amen extends beyond preaching and beyond worship.

When the congregation says “Amen” together, we are communicating agreement and affirmation and unity.  We are communicating encouragement.  This is directed to one another, it is directed to the worship leader, and ultimately it is directed to God.  But we all need to hear a word of affirmation and encouragement, wherever we are.

Telling a musician that you really enjoyed their music is a kind of Amen.  Thanking your mom for a good meal or telling your neighbor how good their yard looks is a kind of Amen.  When a teacher puts a smiley face along with the A when grading a paper, it’s an Amen.  When we thank the people who keep our boiler running or provide food at fellowship time or keep our library up to date or teach our Sunday School classes, it is an Amen.  When you buy Girl Scout cookies from the neighbor kid even though you have already bought more than you can eat, when you visit someone in the nursing home and tell them they are remembered and appreciated, when you offer a friendly smile and a welcome to a newcomer who is a bit unsure of things, it is an Amen.

We end the Lord’s Prayer, and most prayers, with “Amen.”  May it be so.  It’s a little word that communicates a lot.  And we could do a lot worse than to have “Amen” as our basic attitude toward life.

Amen and Amen!

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