Alzo Sprach Zarathustra

Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, July 2, 2017
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

“Alzo Sprach Zarathustra”…now, you have to admit:  that is an impressive sermon title!  The problem with a title like that is coming up with a sermon to back it up.

That was not a problem for Ricard Strauss, who chose this powerful title for his equally powerful orchestral work.  This was Strauss’s musical interpretation of Frederick Nietzsche’s novel, by the same name.  Most of us probably know Strauss’s work as the opening score for the movie, “2001, A Space Odyssey”.

Strauss’s work starts off with this low, sustained ominous note played by the double basses and bassoon and organ.  Then, in come the trumpets, quickly building up to all the brass bursting out in this tremendous fanfare, followed up by the timpani beating out two alternating notes that sound like something really big is about to come up from over the horizon.

There is not a preacher who cares about his or her preaching who wouldn’t dearly love to preach a sermon that is the rhetorical equivalent of Strauss’ “Alzo Sprach Zarathustra”.  Especially, if they could throw in a little German here and there.

I have heard at least one preacher who could with regularity preach a Zarathustra-sort of sermon.  That was Dr. Gardner Taylor.

Dr. Taylor was born in 1918 in Lousianna, the grandson of former slaves.  He grew up in the south and received his theological training at Oberlin College.  He went on to become pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York.  He was there for 42 years.

I first got to hear Dr. Taylor preach over at Union Seminary in Richmond.  I once traveled to Florida to attend a pastor’s conference just because Dr. Taylor was one of the scheduled worship leaders.  Pity the poor preachers who had to share the platform with Dr. Taylor that week.

Dr. Taylor had this rich, deep, melodious voice that traveled over a wonderful vocal range.   His imagery was full and vibrant.  His theology and knowledge of the Bible was substantive yet he expressed it in ways anyone could grasp.  He engaged heart and mind and soul, and by the time Dr. Taylor ended his sermons, you were ready for the heavens to open and for the Lord to return.

If Dr. Taylor had pastored a congregation anywhere in our region, I would have gotten up early every Sunday and traveled past many a church no matter who the preacher was in that church, in order to go hear Dr. Taylor preach.

Things were starting to go that way in Corinth.   Corinth was a significant city in the Roman Empire.  The Apostle Paul had started the church of Corinth during one of his missionary journeys.  Then, Paul moved on in his itinerant ministry.  But, he stayed in touch with folks coming and going from the church at Corinth.

Verse 11 of our Scripture reading this morning tells how Paul has heard through the grapevine some news that worried him.  It seems that the Corinthian church was experiencing a surplus of preachers among them.  The problem was not so much over what these preachers were preaching.   There’s no hint of incorrect theology getting preached in Corinth.  Dissention was growing over how groups in the congregation were starting to form loyalities around these preachers.

One group was latching on to a preacher named Apollos.  Acts chapter 18 gives us a  thumbnail sketch about him.  Apollos was a Jew.  He was reared in the great learning center of Alexandria, Egypt.  Verses 24 and 25 of Acts 18 tell us that Apollos was an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures….and fervent in the Spirit.   Apollos was a Also Sprach Zarathustra kind of preacher with a full range of rhetorical skills for any kind of group.  Plus, he has that neat name working for him… Apollos!

Then, there were church members who were really taken with Cephas, when he came and filled the pulpit for a while.   Named Cephas in the Aramaic, Peter was his given Greek name, Petros, the name given to him by none other than Jesus himself.  He was one of the original Twelve Apostles who actually walked with the Lord on earth.  What greater endorsement could you want in your preachers?

Then, of course, there were the folks who came to Christ through Paul in his evangelistic work.  They’d gotten their start with Paul, so it made since, as long as people were out picking and choosing their preacher, they would go with Paul or someone whom they thought Paul would like in his place.

We all gravitate to pastors and teachers and leaders who connect with us in some personal way.   For you, it may be whoever most reminds you of the person who led you to faith in Christ.  Maybe you came to faith through a Billy Graham crusade, so you gravitate to the revivalist sort of preacher who reminds you of Billy Graham.

When I was at Southern Seminary in Louisville, I attended Highland Baptist Church because of the pastor, Paul Duke.  Paul Duke’s vision of the Gospel and his preaching voice so intensely connected with me, that for years, whenever I worked through my sermons, it was Paul Duke’s voice I was hearing in my head.

All of which is to say, these Christians in the church at Corinth were doing what we all do:  each group had a preference of their ideal preacher and they were choosing—and rejecting among their available preachers—much to the harm of their fellowship in Corinth.

Let’s recognize this reality among us today, here at University Baptist Church.  We are people who come regularly to hear someone stand to proclaim Sacred Scripture of God to us from this pulpit.  Who has influenced you and shaped your sensibilities of hearing when it comes to preaching?

Who among all these personalities and voices have you most connected with, because of how they related to you and how they voiced the Scriptures?   Who is your Apollos?  Who is your Cephas?  Who is your Paul?

I grew up always hearing preachers who pronounced the name “Jesus” as having two syllables, with the accent on the first syllable and a descending inflection on the second:  “JE-sus.”  That’s how I always say the name, “Jesus”, when I preach: two syllables, accent on the first, descending inflection on the second, “JE-sus”.

But, there are regions of the country where the Baptist preachers always say the name, “Jesus”, with three syllables, with a heavy accent on the first syllable, and ending with an ascending inflection on the third syllable:  “JEE-eee-Sus”.  And, sometimes, they’ll even throw in a fourth syllable:  “JEE-eee-Sus-huh!”  It sounds like a little cough.  It’s a kind of verbal exclamation mark.

If I were to wander into a church and the preacher stood up and turned out to be one of those three-syllable or four-syllable preachers, why, I’d start looking for the exit.  I’d be afraid they’d start pulling out the snakes or the preacher might come down out the pulpit and start smacking people on the forehead trying to “slay them in the spirit”!

On the other hand, if you grew up hearing the Gospel proclaimed by one of the three-syllable or four-syllable “JEE-eee-Sus-Huh!” preachers and you went into a two-syllable, “JE-sus”, church, you’d leave feeling like the preacher left something out.  Maybe you couldn’t put your finger on it exactly, but you’d feel like that preacher hadn’t given you the whole Gospel.

They could preach exactly the same sermon, but how we’re used to hearing the preacher pronounce just this one word spoken, we’d feel like we were hearing two different sermons.

On the Sunday that Matt Tennant came and preached for you in view of a call, I listened to the worship service on the radio.  I listened to Matt’s sermon, and I liked what I heard.  I’ve listened to some of Matt’s other preaching available on-line, and I liked what I heard there, too.

You voted unanimously that Sunday, 100%, to call Matthew Tennant to come as your next Senior Minister.  That means Matt will be in this pulpit as your preacher.  He will be behind the lectern in the Fellowship Hall as your teacher.  Who will Matt be for you as your preacher and teacher?

Will Matt be an Apollos kind of preacher, or a Cephas kind of preacher or an Apostle Paul kind of preacher?  No, he won’t.

Will Matt be a Dick Myers kind of preacher or a Keith Smith or a Tom Leland or a Michael Cheuk or a Will Brown kind of preacher?  No, he won’t.

Will Matt be a Dan Bagby or a Mark Biddle kind of preacher?  No, Matt will not be one of those kinds of preachers.

Well, maybe Matt will be like any one of us old preachers who sit out here in the sanctuary with you, whom you graciously allow us to stand and preach for you from time to time.  Will Matt be one of us kind of preachers?  I certainly hope not.

Well, then, if Matt’s not going to be any of those kinds of preachers from your past experience who have shaped and guided you by their preaching, just what kind of preacher will he be?  I hope and pray that by the grace of God at work in his life, that he will be a Matthew Tennant kind of preacher.  And so should you hope and pray for him.

The only way Matt or any preacher can faithfully give witness of God’s Word, is to preach from his or her own faith experience of God, a faith that is not only from his or her formative years as a follower of Christ, but most importantly to proclaim the Gospel from a faith that is contemporary with his or her present walk with our Lord.  You have called Matthew Tennant, as God has called Matthew Tennant, to be a Matthew Tennant kind of preacher.

Consider what it is a pastor comes to do with a congregation.  That’s what Paul turns to in these next three chapters.  The point of this conversation, says Paul, is not who the particular minister is among you.  The point is, what kind of congregation is God calling you to be?  What work is God seeking to do through you as a church?

In chapter 3, verses 5 and 6, Paul writes What then is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

Paul compares the church to a plant and then to a building and then to a human body.  Paul says, finally, it’s not the workers through whom God works, it’s what God is seeking to grow or build or do in and through that congregation.  So, that is our focus as members of any church, be it a two-syllable or three-syllable Jesus church.

What is God growing or building or doing through University Baptist Church?  That’s the question. What is God asking of you, because you are a vital part of that God-inspired, God-directed work?  Why is God calling a Matthew Tennant kind of preacher/teacher/pastor/leader to come among you now?

God is calling a Matthew Tennant kind of servant among you, University Baptist Church, because of the work at hand now which God is seeking to accomplish in you and through you as a church.

God does not build a church on the language nor on the eloquence of its preacher.  The power of proclaiming the Gospel does not reside in a single voice.  The Gospel rings forth from all the voices of this congregation; your lives, your witnesses, your service, combined in a beautiful proclamation of praise offered to God.

With that understanding of University Baptist Church—using Paul’s metaphors of a plant growing, a building rising, a body thriving, embrace Matt and his family, embrace Matt’s ministry among you, and unite yourselves, for we all belong to Christ, and for Christ we must give our all in faithful witness, servants together of our Lord, in this our mission, this greater Charlottesville community.