November 29th, Micah 4:1-7
No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
John Donne’s wonderful poem is inspiring and beautiful and rightly revered in English literature, but it is somewhat misleading in what we are told about the island. For there is a sense, is there not, in which even the island is not an island, but merely a mountain surrounded by water, rather than surrounded by the valleys of dry land.
The roots of the island, reach down to the same roots as the mountain, all of them connected to the crust, the mantle of the earth. So Donne’s initial point about the connectedness of every person is perhaps even more strongly affirmed.
This all came to my mind in reading Micah 4 and reflecting on the fact that we too often treat biblical passages like islands. We too often think of them as unconnected to one another, perhaps through the inherently uncontexual practice of only hearing scripture read in worship, in bits and pieces, which perforce disconnects it from its roots in the whole Word of God.
For Micah 4 is a passage that is a joined to the rest of the Word of God by its metaphors as any thread in a tapestry is connected to the whole. And in like fashion, the tapestry cannot be seen by examining only the individual threads, but by standing back so one can see the whole picture that the Tapestry presents.
The relatively modern science of ecology is a good analogy, for it helps us to see the health of the forest in the health of the bird population in the health of the insect population in the health of the soil. Likewise, we’ve learned that the absence of apex predators like wolves causes problems all the way down.
In similar fashion, the Salt Cedar tree, or Tamarisk, native to central Asia was brought here 150 years ago, but is now seen as invasive and destructive because it monopolizes the soil, water and sunlight along streams and riverbanks all through the West and Southwest US. Ecology illuminates the connections.
Analogies fail when they’re pushed too hard, but when Jesus said, “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?” we can certainly connect that to our inability to see, not the forest for the trees, but the Tree for the forest, or the mountain for the hills.
And here in Micah 4 we have the mountain and the tree: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.”
And in verse 4 the tree raises its hand from the back of the room, not to be forgotten or ignored, like an ancient Bristlecone Pine tree clinging to the edge of the cliff of the mountain. In Micah we hear of the fig tree, almost as prominent in the Bible as the Olive tree, each providing nutrition. “but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”
To sit under one’s own vine, and under one’s own fig tree is a common trope in the Old Testament for normal life, for peace in the valley, for children grown and healthy and the family fed, and fear of violence banished. “Every man under his own vine and fig tree.” Sit on the porch and watch the sun go down, how did your day go, a time to catch up. As someone said in the Sunday night class, sitting under one’s own fig tree is like a chicken in every pot, or a Mule and 40 acres.
Alan Jacobs at his website GospeloftheTrees.net, says, “The Bible is a story about trees. It begins with two trees in a garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The pivotal event in the book comes when a man named Jesus is hanged on a tree. And the last chapter of the last book features a remade Jerusalem: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bore twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” If you understand the trees, you understand the story.”
It’s important to perceive the multi-faceted use and purpose of metaphor when we read the Bible. Language itself is very close to a literal metaphor, not least because a high proportion of daily speech consists of the comparisons we call metaphor. It’s easy to think of all the metaphorical uses of common words for parts of the body, The head of company, the crown worn by the queen, eye of the camera, nose of the wine, the mouth of the cave, the teeth in the contract, the neck of the bottle, the heart of the army, the hand of the clock, etc etc.
Owen Barfield even asserts that when we look at the linguistic history of language, the further back we go, the more figurative, metaphorical, it becomes. From his perspective, the majority of our everyday speech is hidden, forgotten, metaphor.
In its simplest form, metaphor is the transfer of a name from its original to a secondary object or process. But the reason metaphor is powerful, is that this is normally accompanied by the transfer of feeling or attitude, especially when we’re not aware of that effect.
The kingdom of God is like a mountain. What in the ancient world more solid than a mountain? What can be safer than to be in the fortress at the top of the mountain looking down on one’s “enemies?” A mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”
The language of warfare in the Bible moves from “The Lord is a mighty man of war,” in Exodus 15 to Ephesians 6, “ Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
You know the rest, how we’re admonished to put on the “armor” of God, belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. Paul is not admonishing us to carry real swords or shields here. And it’s so taken for granted now that we need not explain it.
In Micah we hear the prophet’s word of promise that God’s righteousness is not just about getting saved and “going to heaven.” The mountain of the house of the Lord, in the latter days, which is the eschaton, the new creation, shall be established as the highest of the mountains. Peoples shall flow to this mountain, many nations shall come and say “let us go up to the mountain of the house of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”
It’s not any mountain, and it’s not any house. It’s that of the God of Jacob. We know his ways and his paths. Righteousness is the way of God and obedience is his path. This is seen where the ark of Noah comes to rest on the mountain. This is seen on the mountain where Abraham takes Isaac to be sacrificed. God calls Moses from the burning bush at the mountain of God, Mt. Horeb, to which he returns with the children of Israel to receive the law, now called Mt. Sinai.
Balaam blesses the Israelites from Mt. Pisgah, and Moses views the promised land from Mt. Nebo. Joshua rereads the law and the covenant to the people at Mt. Ebal. David establishes the city of Judah in the old city of Salem, built around Mt. Zion, now Jerusalem. Elijah wins a victory for the Lord on Mt. Carmel, and flees to Mt Horeb, where he hears the Lord, not in the thunder, or the wind or the earthquake, but in the still, small voice on the mountain of God.
And the mountain of God reappears in many of the prophets as the destination of all the nations, that they may be taught his ways, and learn to walk in his paths.
We continue to find mountains in the NT, centrally when Jesus gives the sermon on the Mount, where he famously repeats, “you have heard that it was said, but I say unto you,” deliberately contrasting his own teaching with that of Moses. And in the three synoptic gospels, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain to pray, where he is “transfigured” as it says, in the presence of Moses and Elijah, two familiar mountaintop figures.
But of course, the final important mountain is Mt. Calvary. I had never wondered why we call it Calvary, when all the gospels talk about Jesus being crucified on Golgotha, the “place of the skull, as Matthew and Mark and John say. The Greek word for skull used there is related to the cranium, kranion or kraniou in Greek, and naturally, translated into Latin this becomes Calvarios, from which we get Calvary, so confusing to me as a child, trying to remember the difference between Calvary and Cavalry. Hard to remember and hard to say when you’re eight years old.
As Alan Jacobs reminds us the Tree is at the beginning, middle and end of the Bible, and not fortuitously. But as in Micah, the tree carries a lot of meaning elsewhere in the scriptures, such as Psalm 1, The blessed man is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither, unlike the fig tree cursed by Jesus in Matthew 21.
In the prophet Joel, he speaks of the in Greek results of the failure of obedience by saying, “The vine is dried up and the fig tree is withered; the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree— all the trees of the field—are dried up. Surely the people’s joy is withered away.”
The tall trees of Ezekiel 15, 17, and 31 are the figure for Judah and other nations, and their fall is the figure of the Exile of Judah to Babylon: “All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. “‘I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’”
The tree structures the Bible just as the mountain does and their conjunction in Micah 4 is appropriate for the season of Advent when we remember the time of preparation for the coming of Christ. For Christ came to Jerusalem and he climbed that tree of the curse, the cross that was lifted up on the hill of Golgotha, Mt. Calvary.
The mountain figures the power and protection of the divine, it is immovable, solid, seemingly eternal. Nothing can change it or move the mountain of God. Except, perhaps the tree. The tree is the mercy of God, the blessing that falls upon the just and the unjust, like the fig and the olive and the apple. The tree yields its fruit in its season. The tree stands up and stretches out its arms, and in human fashion bears fruit in the appropriate season.
The beauty and power of the conflation of mountain and tree found in Micah 4 and on Mt. Calvary is the Lord, the Word of God, has come to earth to be one of us, no longer just the power and strength of the mountain, but the life and fruit of the tree is sent among us.
It is the man who hung upon the tree, who said “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”
The one who hung upon the tree is showing us that the mountain may be moved. Moved with pity and compassion and mercy, the God of Moses, as spoken on Mt. Sinai, we witness the mountain of the Law which cannot save, but can only condemn, removed and thrown into the sea when the Lord says to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
November 22nd, Deuteronomy 30:11-20
To me it is something of a puzzle. If modern literature scholars functioned in the way Biblical scholars often do, no one would ever identify the author of the Wasteland,
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
No one would ever identify the author of the ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.”
No one would ever identify the author of, “The Four Quartets,”
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.”
No one would believe that that writer of those 20th century icons of literary modernism inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to write, “Memory, all alone in the moonlight…” that’s a famous song from Cats, the longest-running Broadway musical in history, until The Phantom of the Opera came along. Cats, which came from a collection of poems also written, so they say, by TS Eliot, the author of The Wasteland. Here’s the opening of his first poem in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. You be the judge.
“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, It isn't just one of your holiday games; You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter, When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”
And of course, to get us back on track, for this is a sermon and not a musical review, there’s the same TS Eliot’s poem, “Old Deuteronomy,” from that same collection: the opening lines of which go:
“Old Deuteronomy's lived a long time;
He's a Cat who has lived many lives in succession.
He was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme,
A long while before Queen Victoria's accession.
Old Deuteronomy's buried nine wives
And more—I am tempted to say, ninety-nine;
And his numerous progeny prospers and thrives
And the village is proud of him in his decline.”
There’s more, lots more, which you can find for yourself all over the internet.
But Bible scholars notice a change in tone, a difference is timbre, a transition in quality, between Romans and I Timothy or I Corinthians and Titus, and the little wheels in their over-large brains start spinning in overtime. And they say, Paul couldn’t have written this and that. They’re too different. But two poems more different in tone and outlook and vocabulary cannot be found than The Wasteland and Old Deuteronomy.
The Bible Scholars are misled by their insistence upon the Bible being of no different material than any other texts they might come across in history, but not being real literary scholars, they don’t see things like the wild diversity between The Wasteland and Old Deuteronomy, written by the same poet.
Of course, in keeping with my method of telling you more than you think you want to know, this overexertion with regard to the historical details of the Bible and the amnesia regarding the 1,500 years of how the Bible was read and interpreted before that, began a long time before our lifetimes. Michael Legaspi opens his book, “The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies,” with a bang.
His first sentence is: “Scripture died a quiet death in Western Christendom in the sixteenth century. The death of scripture was attended by two ironies. First, those who brought the scriptural Bible to its death counted themselves among its defenders. Second, the power to revivify a moribund scriptural inheritance arose not from the churches but from the state. The first development was the Reformation, and the second was the rise, two hundred years later, of modern biblical scholarship.”
Now what Legaspi is doing, is trying to tell a long a complicated story of how we got from Martin Luther’s ability to preach a sermon on an uncomplicated text of Romans, “The just shall live by faith,” to an epigone preacher like myself having to wade with you backwards through the swamps and the undergrowth of 300 years of religious confusion to demonstrate my bona fides as interpreter of scripture.
Legaspi’s point is that the religious and exegetical conflict between Protestant and Catholic on the meaning of different scripture passages led to a self-inflicted double suicide, insofar as both groups destroyed their interpretive credibility with the growing class of scholars of all kinds in Europe and later in America. In the 16th and 17th centuries one could almost pick any scripture passage and receive diametrically opposed interpretations from Protestant and Catholic leaders. I exaggerate, of course, but this is certainly the truth with regard to passages about salvation, and justification and the role of the church and its leaders.
The inability of these religious authority figures contributed to the growing opacity of the scriptures to the everyday reader. You couldn’t get a straight answer to the meaning of important texts, and though it took decades to arrive, the end game in this scenario can be described with a line from Romeo and Juliet, ‘A pox on both your houses.’
It was the Germans in the late 17th century, who along with most of northern Europe, were Protestant, who drove the process of re-imagining the contents of the Bible as a type of literature similar to classical literature of the Greeks and the Romans, in order to give them a new purchase on what they thought was the proper, and hopefully, demonstrable way to settle the religious controversies with an appeal to the historical, literary, classical methods of interpreting texts as they are written in their contexts.
So they began examining the similarities of the Psalms to other poetry, like Vergil, Homer and Horace, the stories of Saul and David and Solomon to the great historical sagas of Agamemnon or Achilles, and the wisdom of Proverbs to the thoughts of Plutarch and Seneca. There seemed to these 18th century Germans to be more sustainability to reading the Bible as Literary Texts, rather than as sacred scriptures, leading to what became known, in the universities, as Biblical Studies.
To look at and read the Bible simply as an ancient text rather than a Word from the Divine creator of the world, or, even more so, a Word OF the Divine creator of the world, was the solution of the Enlightenment era state run German and British universities, for in that time the religious health and strength of a society was paramount to the success of the state and its princes and kings.
But if a text is not simply scripture, scripture meaning a sacred writing that possesses its own authority that does not rely on outside demonstration, does not require separate and unrelated authentication, if what we read is not already experienced as an oracle from the mouth of the Lord to be heard and obeyed and meditated upon as one would chew the wax of the honeycomb, then, without that prior understanding, which John Calvin understood dimly, though much better than other Reformers and Counter-Reformers, without this agreed upon status of the Holy Writ, one finds oneself in an intellectual wrestling match, a seminar room, a dissertation defense, rather than in the presence of the Spirit of the Living God.
To be fair, once the battle was a battle amongst Reformers and Counter-Reformers, the old way of reading was forgotten and left behind as having no usefulness in an arena where its efficacy was recognized by neither side. Everyone rushed and hurried down the broad avenue of contention to the dead end that awaited.
We are now, some 500 years later, finding ourselves in a place where rather than having to turn our “guns” on one another, we’ve become surrounded by the true enemy and some are learning to turn their backs on former enemies and find the true source of the attack from without. When you’re surrounded you fight back to back. But a miserable history of failure has had to lead us to this place, where we recognize one another within the churches as brothers and sisters who are called to maintain and proclaim the gospel to a hostile world.
One of the values of Deuteronomy is the way that when it’s spoken, it comes to us as the Word of God spoken through Moses. The commandment I give you is not too hard, not too far off. You need not send someone to heaven to fetch it, or across the seas to find it. The Word is very near you, it is in your mouth and your heart, so that you can do it.
The simplicity is part of the appeal. Understood spiritually, specifically as scripture, the Bible delivers to us the method of interpretation. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. There is a strong sense that the doing of scripture can overcome the attempts to control scripture by locking down a particular doctrinal interpretive scheme. Scripture is to be lived, not just argued about.
It seems clear to me that history has delivered to us an understanding of why the Apostles’ Creed and later even more complex creeds focused on our faith and belief in the Father Son and Holy Spirit, rather than any theory of atonement, any spelled out, laid out, straightforward plan of salvation that applies to each and every sinner. For that is what so many of the arguments were about.
It is clear that the Bible, and the NT especially, gives more than one answer to the question of how must I be saved. And they’re not contradictory answers, they’re evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit in speaking through the written scriptures to provide an answer to every searching sinner, every seeking, wandering, lost child of God who can’t discern the difference between the answers given by Lutherans, Calvinists, Franciscans, Jesuits or even God save us, the Disciples of Christ.
This is not to say we preach the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now. This is not a free for all, get your salvation candy right here, come one come all, no questions asked!
No, we clearly have the scriptures as God’s precious gift. They are written, they are stable, they are translatable. “The commandment I give you is not too hard, not too far off. You need not send someone to heaven to fetch it, or across the seas to find it. The Word is very near you, it is in your mouth and your heart, so that you can do it.”
St. Augustine from the 5th century was no stranger to controversy, as the church was still settling down on some very broad issues in their controversies with the Donatists and the Pelagians, Augustine’s main interlocutors. But he left a very useful quote, even though quotes can easily be taken out of context and abused. Once again the spirit of the interpreter must be enlivened and illuminated by the Holy Spirit of God, otherwise the best rules and guidelines in the world will fail us. For it is God’s Word, and his face that we must seek.
Augustine famously said, “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”
It doesn’t work as well in reverse as an interpretive guide, for we get love tangled up in sentimentality and think that if our heart melts at a poignant TV news segment on a homeless family we are fulfilling the first and second great commandments. We are not. Actions motivated by sentimentality are for ourselves. How many times have I read the statement of some do-gooder, as my father-in-law, who was a Social Worker, called them, when they’ve said, for attribution, “When I help out the homeless,” and it’s usually on Thanksgiving or Christmas, “I feel good about myself.”
Well isn’t that special. Sentimentality uses the other as a burnishing tool for our own self-inflated opinion of ourself. If I could convince the world to simply and effectively love their family and their immediate neighbor, we wouldn’t have to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving.
But family can’t be loved at a distance. The problem with family is often not distance, but lack of distance. They talk back. They insult you. They won’t hold still for you to love them the way YOU think you should. They have their own ideas of what love is.It’s like trying to put the socks on a one year old. Hold still!
Love is complicated, and always suspect, always suspect as a public policy. When I hear people say we need more love in politics and public life, I think of the love that the Ayatollahs called for when they needed unarmed Iranian teenagers to place themselves on the front lines of the battles with the Iraqis back in the 80s. They should have had a disclaimer on the documentaries made on that little dust-up: No Ayatollahs were harmed in the making of this war.
But when used as Augustine intended, his quote is very helpful. In your understanding of the scripture, any particular scripture, does it contribute to the building up of the love of God and the love of neighbor? It’s a test of how one puts into practice what one has learned and believes about the Word of God.
Hear Moses’ words at the end of our lesson for today: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him.”
November 15th, Luke 10:1-24
Alan Culpepper, Bible commentator, says this text about the sending of the 70, contains a concentration of sayings that are embarrassing for the church today and difficult to comprehend and/or put into practice. Carry no purse: well, I’m good with that. I very seldom carry a purse. My granddaughter, though, she might object. I took home the smallest version of all those purses Student Ministry is trying to get rid of, shortened the strap, and now Miss Betsy has to take her purse pretty much everywhere.
Travel light, I guess should be the summary here for that part. But overall, this text from Luke on the appointment of the 70 is strikingly different from church evangelism today, is it not. In this text, there are ten “sayings” of Jesus. Gospel scholars look at the structure of the gospels under categories. There’s the Passion Narrative, which essentially takes the reader from the arrest of Jesus, through the trial and crucifixion and to the Resurrection.
This passion narrative, because it’s common to all four gospels, is thought to be the earliest form of a written gospel or an oral tradition about the story of Jesus. But there are other aspects of the gospels that are easy to see. There is the narrative structure that tells the story, that gets us from start to finish, the nuts and bolts, the seams that sew things together. This gives us movement and location. Many stories make up the larger story: healing stories, exorcism stories, miracle stories of different kinds.
And there are Collections of Sayings, as we see in Matthew 13, which has a string of short parables about the kingdom of heaven. The sayings collections focus more on what Jesus said than on what he did. The Sermon on the Mount is a big collection of sayings which coheres together easily, and is therefore likely to be a spoken sermon, a single discourse. The gospel of John also has many longer discourses like that, usually moments following a healing or other event when Jesus then explains who he is and why he has come.
This text of Luke 10 gives us a combination. We have the narrative of an event, the sending out of the 70 to preach the kingdom of God, and the sayings that comprise Jesus’ instructions to them, along with their reactions upon their return, and Jesus’ continued teaching in response to their reaction.
Luke 10 is a long text and has in essence 10 sayings, which we’ll list and look at.
The first is what Jesus says about the harvest. You’ve heard this before. Winds up in hymns, sometimes. Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness, Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve; Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping, We shall come Rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
In this instance there are too few workers for the plentiful harvest, so pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send more workers into the fields, he says. A harvest is time oriented, and apparently the harvest is plentiful, but not enough people to bring it in. It seems there are those in Galilee who need to hear the good news of the kingdom, and they need to hear it now. The harvest is time oriented: it doesn’t last forever.
Now Jesus is speaking metaphorically. We know he’s using metaphor, because harvest is often spoken of in the Bible in this way, in a way that points forward to a certain time, when the harvest must be gathered. When all is lost or won.
The prophet Jeremiah lamented in Jeremiah 8, speaking of the coming destructions by the Babylonians “The harvest is ended, the summer is over, and we are not saved.” Salvation is not coming, the kingdom of God has not arrived.
Harvests have a predictable future. You may not know in June when the corn has to be harvested, but when the time comes, you’ll know it. The Farmers Almanac says they know it. Harvests don’t go on forever. Summer comes to an end. Harvest now or the fruit and the grain rots in the field. John Keats speaks of the harvest of the bees in his poem “To Autumn.”
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
But warm days always do cease. We’ve had one of those Autumns this year. Two weeks from Thanksgiving, and many leaves still on the trees. The Iris are blooming in my front yard, and one of my roses still has buds.
But the earth abides in its path around the sun. John the Baptist used harvest metaphor when he spoke of the coming of the one greater than him in Luke 3:17: His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” After the Harvest, the chaff is burnt up.
In that sayings section in Matthew 13 Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.” The parable known as the Wheat and the Tares. The end of the parable is verse 30: “Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Harvests don’t last forever. In the agricultural world, you plan for an annual harvest. In the way Jesus uses the term, it can be used to describe the Great Assize, the last judgment day, when the wheat and the chaff are separated. But Harvest can also be a metaphor for a time in an individual’s life which is time limited. There are seasons in a person’s life, but there comes a time for every person when there’s a final accounting.
In several places Paul puts the confrontation of the individual with the Word of God, the gospel message, in a context of crisis, a decision, a moment of moving one direction or another. In Romans 13:11-12 he says, “Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; 12 the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;” You know what hour it is. Sometimes a life is thought of with the image of a single day. The sun goes down eventually.
In Ephesians 5:14-15 he says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”
And the classic text is 2 Corinthians 6:2 which has inspired many hymns and says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Everything Jesus says and does is in this context of crisis and decision. A harvest approaches and only the good grain is collected into the barns. To meet Jesus in the gospels, to simply speak with him inherently, unavoidably, meant that one made a decision. One went one way or another. And it’s the same today.
This is the theme, the background of almost everything Jesus says. In the sermon on the Mount, Don’t build your house on the sand, build your house on the rock. Either/or. Don’t take the broad and easy path where the road is easy, but enter by the narrow gate, where the road is hard. The tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Be like the wise virgins and have your lamp filled with oil, ready to meet the bridegroom. The thief in the night does not come on a schedule Be ready. No one can serve two masters.
This, the harvest, is the first of the ten sayings found in this text for today. Some of you are groaning to yourselves, like Robert Graves puts it in his poem Welsh Incident: “Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.'”
Here’s why it’s always best if preachers grow up going to church as children. We’ve groaned our way through sermons. Incredibly enough I’ve had people sometimes comment on the length of my sermons, and I want to say, though I normally keep it to myself, “This is nothing. You think this is long? This is nothing.” You had to grow up listening to the sermons I heard from 1965 till I married in 1977 and moved away from home, O Blessed Relief, to know what a long sermon is.
So, I know I mentioned the Ten Sayings from this text, and the Harvest saying is only the first one, but I mentioned the Sermon on the Mount earlier, and I’m reminded of another of Jesus’ sermons, Blessed are the Merciful, for they shall receive mercy, and I’m going to have mercy on you today. I want you to find those ten sayings later, starting with “the harvest is plentiful” and ending with “many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it.” Maybe there’s nine, maybe there’s eleven. But it’s a lot.
So I just want to list for you not the sayings, but ramifications for the church today of what we can glean from this story on our calling, our commission, our appointment as workers in the field.
The first assumption is that the world, that which is alienated from God, needs the church, needs the church’s message and mission. There is a harvest and eternal souls are at stake.
And there is more work to do than laborers to do it. It’s like back before the virus. In January 2019 there were 7.5 million job openings in the country unfilled. Employers couldn’t find enough employees.
Second, prayer is one of the commands of Jesus: Therefore, ask the Lord of the Harvest to send out more workers. Does that seem somehow unnecessary? It does to me too, at first glance. But what we fervently pray for we come to love and value and hope for and focus on. Prayer works in both directions.
Third, Jesus’ instructions are given to all the disciples. “Go on your way,” he says. Fourth, he does not pretend there’s no consequences of speaking the truth publicly. The world needs to be saved for it is dangerous and damaging to itself. The church is a flock of sheep which harms no one, going out amidst wolves. Innocence and sincerity are the description of the flock Jesus sends out. For our attachment to the truth always precedes and overrides any success that is given.
Fifth, Jesus calls for single-mindedness. Greet no one on the road. Another odd command, but intended to focus his disciples on what they are called to do. Sixth, that call is to bring peace to your hearers and announce that the kingdom of God has come. Declare the peace that God is accomplishing through Jesus Christ, and live that peace with those you meet.
Seventh, the host, not the guest, sets the context for the witness: Jesus says to eat what is set before you. The disciples don’t set the menu, they don’t impose their own cultural background on others. We are to be like James Spader in that old movie Stargate when he and his crew were given a meal by the people they’d come across whose language they did not know. James Spader was the only one who would try it at first, and then said to the surprised crew, in those immortal lines: “Tastes like chicken!”
The disciple knows the message, and clings tightly to the message as given by Jesus. Those hearing the message hear it in their world and their context.
Eighth, See I told you this wouldn’t take long: Eighth, Jesus recognizes the disciple won’t always succeed: “When they do not welcome you,” he says. He knew we would meet resistance and rejection sometime. The Good News requires a change in the way people live, and not everyone wants that.
Ninth, Jesus nonetheless recommends perseverance: Shake off their dust from your feet. Keep going. Knock on the next door. And tenth: Jesus also reminds the disciples of what has happened, and what they are to clearly leave behind with those who have rejected them: “Know this: The kingdom of God has come near.”
When the kingdom of God has come near, the mercy of God has wafted in range of those who desire it and those who don’t. Mercy must be received, and not only can’t be, but simply is, never forced. Cast not your pearls before swine, give not what is holy to dogs, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.
Maintain reverence for what you are doing and saying, and make no attempt to cajole and dicker with those who want nothing to do with repentance and forgiveness. The mysteries of Godliness are just that. A mystery. God is good. You’ve seen what others have only dreamed of. Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
November 8th, Isaiah 66:1-14
One of the difficulties as well as dangers of a “lectionary religion” is what gets left out. Lectionaries are schedules of texts from biblical books for reading in public worship on a sequence of Sabbaths, or Lord’s Days. The synagogue and the church went through a centuries long canonical process, which is when the actual books of the Bible as we now call it, were gradually settled upon. Formal lectionaries came much later.
People sometimes ask how were the books of the Bible settled upon. Which in itself is a misleading question, because rabbis in the 4th and 5th centuries BC did not know they were choosing books for something we now call the Bible. Nor did they have the sense or awareness that they were “choosing” anything.
We’re so focused nowadays on voting and choosing, that it’s hard to get our mind around the process as it actually happened, and the way that Deliverance, Exodus, Settlment, Monarchy, Exile and Restoration drove the process. It’s also hard because in that time between the Exile and the time of Christ, records that might point towards how these events took place are thin and sparse. The OT books themselves give little in the way of an overt description.
But in the community of what came to be called Jews in the period after 540 BC, religious leaders of the day came to terms with the law of Moses as written, the scrolls as preserved, the telling of the story in the history books from the time of Joshua to Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, and the oracles of the prophets from Hosea to Malachi, as well as the liturgical books such as the Psalms and the wisdom literature like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
In that centuries long process, it’s perhaps worth asking, why hang on to Zephaniah? Why preserve Ezra, or Nahum? Why place Isaiah at the head of the line, the order of the prophets? Why have 12 minor prophets, as opposed to 4 major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel? And who let Lamentations squeeze in there after Jeremiah?
All of these and many more, are questions that we can only attempt to answer by looking at the content of the books, by looking to see what they actually say, and asking ourselves, Why was this text valuable to the life and faith of Jews in 5th century Judah? How does this glorify God, or strengthen the understanding of the people, or clarify the law of Moses for that day?
Those kinds of questions are not cut and dried the way, for example, our media presented the political polls to us for the last three months, and which we have learned, yet again, were wrong in many ways. There is no science of “political polling,” as should be obvious by now. And there is no science of the formation of the canon of the Bible, Old or New Testament. Only a smattering of records and a series of deductions and inferences. It is a process. It participates in and illustrates how traditions are formed, which by the nature of the very word, tradition, has to do with more than one generation, the repeated handing on of beliefs, practices, understandings and hopes.
So over a long period, the outlines of the Bible take shape, discernible to a viewer some centuries later. No votes, no ballots, no councils, no recounts, no lawsuits even. The Holy Spirit speaks and is confirmed in the life of the synagogue and the church through centuries of belief and practice.
Isaiah belongs here and is needed. Isaiah tells us the story of the New Israel, born of the ashes of Jerusalem, just as we hear in a broader sense from Isaiah 65: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
And in Isaiah 66: “For as the new heavens and the new earth
which I will make shall remain before me, says the Lord;
so shall your descendants and your name remain.”
But that is the Biblical canon. We’re also today dealing with the question of the lectionary, and the new lectionary, formulated 30 years ago, and the old lectionary, from mid-20th century, both leave too much out. Lectionaries are typically formed by committees, led by church bureaucrats sourcing guidance from Bible professors. The most recent, the Revised Common Lectionary, attempted to work with many denominations, and make the scripture lessons that are read every Sunday more representative of the whole Bible and less captive of a particular theological mindset. But they still limited themselves to a three-year cycle, which only gives you roughly 160 opportunities to include all the homiletically suggestive texts in in the 66 books of the Bible, and that’s just not enough room, not enough slots.
I work with a four-year lectionary which I created to address specifically that and other issues of the old 3-year cycle. Isaiah 66 is slighted in the Revised Lectionary and it has unique material the church needs to hear.
We are the people of God and so reading and pondering and puzzling over the scriptures even when, especially when, we may not like or understand them can lead to new insights we would not have otherwise gained. “Enter by the narrow gate”, Jesus says; “for the gate is wide and the way is easy,[a] that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Isaiah 66 is not something we can just blow off through ignorance or impatience. Perhaps, as an old rabbinic tradition would have it, the harder to understand a text the more important it may be for us. Made challenging by the Holy Spirit to catch our attention.
The question of the Canon, why Isaiah is in and Jubilees is out, why Deuteronomy is in and the Testament of the Three Patriarchs is out, is much more opaque than that of the lectionary, for the creation and revision of lectionaries is a modern process, with meetings and minutes, and votes, and trial runs and revisions, etc.
But today we’re going off the reservation. Today we’ve brought into the conversation a text that our “canonizers” God Bless ‘em, held onto, but the committee members on the lectionary, for some reason did not.
You may have heard how odd this sounds when Charley read it this morning: Listen to just verse 3: “He who slaughters an ox is like him who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like him who breaks a dog’s neck;he who presents a grain offering, like him who offers swine’s blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like him who blesses an idol.
Shouldn’t this extremely hyperbolic criticism of same old/same old be heard at least once in a while? This is why a lectionary only hearing of the Bible is dangerous to our understanding. It’s like trying to understand the Constitution by reading only the Preamble and last four Articles, and missing the first three.
The book of Isaiah is clearly an edited, traditioned book. It partakes of Biblical history writing. Isaiah 37 and 2 Kings 19 are virtually the same passage. Isaiah ch. 1, and ch. 40, and chapters 65 and 66 are very intertextual, that is there are common words and themes referenced and alluded to, for the 66 chapters are spread out across decades, at least, and somehow maintain a common theological outlook while dealing with different historical contexts, some before the Exile, some during, and some after the return from Exile, like ch. 66 today.
Just verse three is a difficult pill to swallow, especially for its first hearers. In the time of Ezra, a period of refocus on the law, a period of stocktaking, confronting all the ways their ancestors had violated the covenant of Moses and led them to the brink of annihilation as a people, they had focused on the law, focused on all their mistakes, re-strengthened and reinstated strict adherence to temple practices and kosher laws.
The beginning story of Daniel was on the importance of Kosher food laws for the Jews. Ezra and Nehemiah, Zephaniah and Haggai, focused on the re-building of Solomon’s temple, which the Babylonians had destroyed in 587 BC.
Scrupulous obedience to the law had been the hallmark of those who were rebuilding the nation of Judah. They wanted to avoid the nightmares of their ancestors’ experience. When Ezra read the law aloud to the people gathered for that purpose in Jerusalem, the whole community listened, and wept, for they knew how far they were from being obedient.
So, when we hear the hyperbole in Isaiah 66, “A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect,” knowing how much the post-exile community wanted to obey the law makes this a striking passage. And the verses that precede verse 3 help us to understand it beyond the simple hyperbolic effects: “Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? 2 All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the Lord. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”
When you hear “Thus says the Lord,” in a passage, it’s a signal, a notification of a significant passage or loaded theological text. For what comes next? The Lord asserts his omnipresence and omnipotence. The heavens are mine, the earth is mine. All things are mine that I have made. And you would make me a house? And you would placate me with sacrifices?
This is the newness we see in much of the prophetic tradition. This is why some in his day began to understand what Jesus was saying and doing. They recognized it. It seems clear from the way Isaiah proceeds in his descriptions that the one who slaughters the ox as sacrifice is not the man of a humble and contrite spirit, which phrase is another example of the intertextuality of Isaiah, for it’s also found in ch. 57, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
As well as Psalm 51 “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
Isaiah 66 is teaching what Jeremiah teaches in Jeremiah 31, that the Lord will give us new hearts of flesh and not of stone. He teaches what the Psalmist says in Psalm 34, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted And saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
You’ve heard this before: Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the meek. You know who said that.
The character of the human soul which God seeks out and rewards is a soul that can see and perceive reality, for to know oneself, and one’s sins and failings and catastrophes self-wrought, is to be contrite. Contrite comes from the old Latin word, contritus, ground into pieces. Ever felt that way?
It is the opposite of the last phrase of verse 3 and the beginning of verse 4: “They have chosen their own ways,
and they delight in their abominations;
4 so I also will choose harsh treatment for them
and will bring on them what they dread.
For when I called, no one answered,
when I spoke, no one listened.”
Brevard Childs says, “The promise of God’s salvation is to all, but it is received by the household of faith.” Some 500 years after Isaiah the church heard the promise of Christ in these words. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit.”
They had seen or heard of the broken heart and spirit of an anointed one, a suffering servant, who hung on a cross, the accursed tree of Deuteronomy 21. Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, yielding his fruit in its season. Not fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead and uprooted, as the book of Jude says, but “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
As Isaiah reminds us:
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
all you who mourn over her;
11 that you may suck and be satisfied
with her consoling breasts;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from the abundance of her glory.”
12 For thus says the Lord:
“Behold, I will extend prosperity to her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall suck, you shall be carried upon her hip,
and dandled upon her knees.
13 As one whom his mother comforts,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
This too is the day that the Lord has made, and this is the word of the Lord. Amen.
November 1st, Galatians 3:27-4:20
For me the most striking image of this passage from Galatians today is in the first verse we hear. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The first thing I need to say about that is an apology to the editors of the NRSV, which is the edition in our pews and on the lectern.
Some of their translation decisions have been overly ideological, especially with regard to what they considered to be the necessity of inclusive language. I’ve mentioned this before with regard to the way they mistranslate Psalm 1.
But here they are an improvement on the old RSV in the way they have translated the Greek word, “Enduo,” clothe yourselves. The RSV gave us “put on” Christ, which is not incorrect, per se, just lacking.
This word “enduo,” which gives us the English words endue and the more commonly used endow, takes on, or we could happily say, is endued, with a great deal of content and profundity when it is linked, as it is here, with Christ.
You have endued yourself with Christ. Interesting to see it linked with baptism, which one doesn’t do to oneself, but has done to one. To be baptized is to submit, in the case of immersion, to submit to be lowered under the water. When I have baptized new Christians, I often have to reassure them. Relax….lean back,…I won’t let you go, I won’t drop you.
Baptism in the letters of Paul, as in Romans 6, is sometimes described with the figure of dying, dying and being buried with Christ, and often dying is a process of letting go. Letting of the world, letting go of time, letting go of the life one has had or endured. Many have known parents, or grandparents, who only let go after some beloved family member finally arrives from out of town, and they can let go, they can finally die in peace.
Others have submitted to death after confession, perhaps of a long- concealed sin or secret. Others let go when they reach a landmark in time, an anniversary, a birthday. Not always, but sometimes we are allowed to let go of life, to submit.
Correspondingly, I also have reminded candidates for baptism that I will raise them out of the water, “hold on to my wrist,” I say, but also that they need to bend their knees and get their feet back underneath them in order to stand up again.
This has two happy reminders for us. At the last day, when the trumpets shall sound, our hope of resurrection, to rise from the dead, is in the power of God alone. He is our only hope.
But in this life, even in our new life in Christ—of which baptism is a figure, we co-operate with the Spirit of God, as he breathes new life into our soul. The following of Christ, the discipleship, the learning, the struggle, is not passive. It doesn’t just happen. That’s one reason it’s described as a “walk with Christ.” It’s not a stroller ride, like I’ve given my granddaughter Betsy recently in the neighborhood. It’s a walk, sometimes described a run, a race, a struggle, a fight.
After the Christ-centered “hymn” in Philippians 2 exalting Christ as Lord, Paul exhorts his readers, in the context of obedience, to work out their salvation: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
It’s an interesting balance, that points us toward the resurrection promise. Sir Walter Raleigh saw this, in what may have been the final poem he wrote, we read:
“Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days.
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.”
The time will come, fear not, when you will, you must, rely wholly on God, when you must trust him, to raise you up.
So the word itself, “enduo,” clothed yourselves, partakes of the profundities of baptism, that which is done TO one, but in which one also participates. The profundity expands and deepens when we look at the connection to Christ, to him with whom we clothe ourselves.
First, Enduo, in Greek, is the ancestor of the English word endue, as well as the word endow. One might endow a wing of a hospital with an endowment, or a church, or a library, like the old Carnegie Libraries around the country, almost 1,700 of them at one point.
Endue, in English, is a little different. Bishop Joseph Butler used the word in 1736 like this: “We know we are endued with capacities of action, or happiness and misery.” In the grammar of the Greek language as used in the NT, there is an active voice, “I endue you,” there is a passive voice, “I am endued by you,” and there is what’s called a “middle voice:” I endue myself.
This is what we find in Galatians 3:27: “you have clothed yourselves with Christ. It’s in the middle voice, demonstrating the double nature of “putting on Christ,” or, “you have clothed yourselves with Christ,” harking back to the way Baptism works.
So Paul here acknowledges that we may “clothe ourselves with Christ,” in the middle voice, neither active nor passive, but more of a curious mixture of both, for Christ is the AGENT of salvation, and we the participants, not passive subjects, of the action, but participants.
There are implications to this phrase, “clothed yourselves” just as there are to clothed yourselves “with Christ.” You’ve heard the phrase, “clothes make man;” almost a proverb. It goes way back. One relatively recent use is by Mark Twain, who shows some insight into the inherent contradiction in the phrase, for anyone who ponders the phrase a moment knows that nice clothes might make a good first impression, and that one’s own confidence might even improve based on the way one is dressed, just to say that clothes make the man is to acknowledge the inherent problem. The surface incongruity is the tip off. As Twain with his sardonic wit said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” Twain overstates the phrase to show its fundamental unseriousness.
Clothing can communicate status and wealth and self-regard. Clothing can change the way people treat you, which can change the way you think about yourself, and perhaps make you more effective and more self-confident.
But it remains the case that clothing is an external that must give way to the deeper truth and more effective aspect of the character of a person which is revealed in one’s actions and practices. Clothes do not make the man. Unless.
Unless one is clothed with Christ. There are several aspects to this. The aesthetic, the personal, the ethical, and the theological, let’s call it.
When one realizes one is clothed with Christ, the world can be seen, in all its features, with different eyes. Is it not a beautiful world in which there is the possibility for every person to be habited in the raiment of the Son of God? Hear the allusion to this in the Sermon on the Mount: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these.”
Jesus makes no reference to himself here, rather this is a reverse figure, in the order of time, for Paul mentions, in passing, that we who have clothed ourselves with Christ are now offspring of Abraham, heirs of the kingdom of the Great and Only King, one in Christ, with all divisions between us removed.
The rich clothing of a king, the beauties of the most beautiful flowers, are only a hint of the beauty with which we are privileged to clothe ourselves.
The personal aspect of this clothing certainly should play a role in my own transformation. For I’m not just wearing a new suit of clothes, I’m clothed in glory, “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
Part of the ugliness of our day is seen in identity politics. As we’ve increasingly learned, identify politics always divides and sets groups against one another, because that’s its nature, its point and its purpose. All the parts of who we are, are weaponized to divide us from one another.
But your identity is different. You are clothed with Christ. That is now who you are. You are in Him, and being in Him, you are prospectively the object of that hymn I mentioned in Philippians 2: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
You will not only ascribe glory to Jesus Christ, but you will receive it, for this is part of the mystery of the Incarnation, that the God who became one of us calls us to, and enables us to be like him.
The ethical is clear, for now you are a representative of the Son of God, an ambassador of Christ. Good ambassadors take very seriously that they represent, and are considered to speak for, their country and their President or King or Prime Minister. The ambassador carries the message and stands for what his country stands for. He re-presents.
We, because we are in Christ, are not only called now to re-present, we are enabled to represent, to live life like Christ, and to be aware that being clothed with Christ, others take what we say and do as the official message of the one we represent. This is an ethical mandate.
Finally, the theological is another way to think of Salvation. Paul here in Galatians 3 and 4 does not focus on forgiveness of sin, he does not focus on the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, or any other theory of atonement.
Instead, his description of salvation here is Inheritance and deliverance from the evil powers now present in the world. When he gets to 4:1, Paul says, “My point is this.” That’s helpful. The rarity of this kind of clarity from Paul should not be ignored, and we should let it help us in our understanding.
In Christ, when we have clothed ourselves in the sacramental process of Baptism, we are now, because of the power and promise of God, “New Creatures,” and being a new creature is because of the resurrection of Christ which moves forward in time into each of our lives, and general resurrection on the last day, which reaches backward in time to us in the hope of God’s promise.
Life begins as a gift. Each of us receives it from others. And new life is a gift, as Paul says, that the child inherits, because we are now heirs, adopted by the King into his family.
Remember this tomorrow morning when you get dressed, when you clothe yourself. For you are now clothed and habited in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
I Samuel 15:17-19, October 11, 2020
Most Americans have at least tried to read the Bible. There’s a reason scripture is often confusing. As a matter of fact, if you’re not confused at some point, it might be fair to say you’re doing it wrong. Richard White was a professor of Preaching at Lexington Seminary years ago, and used to say the first thing to acknowledge when reading the Bible to prepare a sermon was “I don’t know what this means.”
“I don’t know what happened, how it happened, why it happened, what it means that it happened, what lesson it teaches, what it might address in modern life, why it should be preached on.” White goes on to say, “If I think I know what the content and meaning, etc., of the text are, then I’m proceeding from my knowledge, and not from the text.”
To me this seems to be a healthy, faithful, if difficult and challenging, way of reading the Bible, whether one is writing a sermon or not. The underlying premise of this method is that the Bible really is God’s Word, and not mine. Meaning, his communication, his revelation.
A couple of months ago, in addition to sending out the sermon, my column, and daily devotions to people on our email list, I began sending out a selection of jokes and humor along the lines of the old Readers Digest column, “Laughter’s the Best Medicine” (which comes from Proverbs 17:22, which says, “A Joyful heart is good medicine…” ). I like jokes and wish I was better at telling them. There’s a knack. Telling jokes makes people laugh. If you make people laugh, they’re disarmed for the moment. We like people who make us laugh. I like to be liked. Who doesn’t?
Preaching a sermon is different. A little humor’s OK, but it’s not the point of the sermon. With a sermon, I have a mandate from outside myself. It’s like being a banker or stockbroker and taking someone’s money and having a mandate to protect it from loss and make it grow at the same time. A fiduciary relationship.
The Bible is God’s Word, and the church’s book. It is an inheritance, a legacy, and a deposit of faith. We must hear it, we must read it, we must proclaim it. But we may not, we cannot, control it. Those who attempt that wind up shipwrecked, like Saul, in our lesson today. It may take a while, but God’s timing is not our timing. TO God a day is like a 1000 years, and a 1000 years like one day.
When we interact with God’s Word, we interact with God himself. This is one of the insights we get from the Doctrine of the Trinity. All through the Old Testament, we hear about the Hand of the Lord, the Arm of the Lord, the Word of God. These are instantiations of God himself, though at the same time other than God. They reflect the mystery of Trinity we’re accustomed to hearing about in the sometimes confusing “one is three and three is one formulation.” Which can often feel like a set of Russian dolls one inside the other.
Jesus Christ is the Word of God. His life and work and words, communicate to us who God is and what he wills, in a variety of ways. And he does not just bring religious knowledge. To truly hear the Word of God is to be changed. God speaks and worlds come into being. And even, perhaps especially, when Jesus Christ is silent, dead on the cross, God is shouting to the world, this is who I am!
Jesus Christ is the Word of God as is the word of Samuel to Saul the Word of God, and the word of Nathan to David, and Isaiah to Hezekiah and Moses to Pharaoh, and not only is Samuels’ word to Saul the Word of God, so is this story, this narration embedded in the Annals of Israel, telling us about Samuel’s word to Saul, and what happened, what was supposed to happen, and what did not happen.
Saul is the first King of Israel. The people had been governed since Joshua’s day by charismatic Judges, people like Samuel, the last of the Judges, leaders who would listen to God, who guided the people in godly life that the Lord might protect them from their enemies. As Samuel grew old, his sons Joel and Abijah were appointed to be his successors, but they were corrupt and dishonest. Ch. 8 tells us the story of the rejection of Samuel’s sons, and the people’s desire for a King, as 8:20 says, “But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.””
And so. Samuel prays to the Lord who tells him to anoint a king, and who to anoint, and he tells Samuel that they’re not rejecting Samuel but God, and God tells Samuel to warn them of what a King will be like. And here is a good example of how the Word of God eludes our control and manipulation. The Bible has a variety of good things to say about Kings, about David and Solomon and Josiah and others, their wisdom and success, and Christian Kings since the time of Constantine all the way to George III of England paid a great deal of attention to those passages.
But sometimes the Word of the Lord to the King, or the ruler, or the government, should be Samuel’s words from ch. 8.
So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Over a thousand years of western European history can be described as the working out of the relationship between the King and God’s law. One of the ways in which a careful, inspired reception of God’s Word has changed the world is seen in a book by Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex, “The Law is King,” published in 1644 in the midst of the English Civil War between King Charles and the Puritan Parliamentarians. Charles stood for the Divine Right of Kings, much favored by his father King James, that essentially placed all political power in the King’s hands in spite of anything parliament might say.
Rutherford asserted that the Word of God placed law – Lex, over King,-- Rex. He asserted the Divine Principle that no ruler or other elected official, is or can be Above the Law, for the law is from God, Divine Law, Natural Law. And if positive law, legislative enactments by parliament or Congress, conflict with Divine or Natural Law, they must be corrected in light of that higher law.
Twenty years after the publication of Lex Rex, Cromwell’s rule was ended, Charles’ son, Charles II, was crowned as King, and Samuel Rutherford was summoned to appear before parliament for High Treason, his book already having been burned in public in Edinburgh and St. Andrews by the Public Hangman.
By this late date, Rutherford was already on his deathbed, and he sent this reply: "I have got a summons already before a superior judge and judicatory, and I am behooved to answer my first summons, and ere your day come I will be where few kings and great folks come."
There was still a long way to go before 1776 and 1787, but the ideas in the Founder’s accusations of King George for violating English Law, flow directly from the writings of Samuel Rutherford and others like him, including the prophet Samuel for whom Rutherford was named.
For us today, there could be some very helpful things to highlight for political purposes, but I’m going to make that the topic of an upcoming Sunday night class when we finish The New Testament In Its world.. I think for now it would be more helpful to focus on Samuel’s words which echo through the scriptures. For we’ll see another way in which God’s Word, living and active corrects our misuses and misunderstandings.
An overeager literalist might try to nail this down, but in the face of the Word of God himself, Jesus Christ, he would have to defer to the greater maker. Leviticus 1 jumps right in on the laws of sacrifice and offerings. From verse 3-4, and verse 10.
“If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. 4 He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.
10 “If his gift for a burnt offering is from the flock, from the sheep or goats, he shall bring a male without blemish,”
But Samuel says: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry.”
Now, is Samuel contradicting Moses? Is the Bible against itself? God forbid! Those who would lay their hands on sacred things for wicked purpose should remember the results for the Philistines in I Samuel ch. 5, who stole the Ark of the Covenant, until they all began to sicken and die. It did not end well for them.
We hear reverberations of Samuel’s redefinition of sacrifice all through the Bible. In Jeremiah 7 we read: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh yourselves. 22 For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. 23 But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”
Hosea the prophet says: What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
We come to the gospel of Matthew and find this in ch. 9: And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
When Jesus responded to the scribes question about the greatest commandment, the scribe said: “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Samuel is the prophet of the Lord, and the Lord says that the purpose of sacrifice and offering is to restore peace and harmony between God and his people, looking forward to the one perfect offering of Jesus Christ, as the book of Hebrews reminds us, and when Saul disobeys God’s explicit command to kill the Amalekites per God’s solemn vow back in the days of Moses in Exodus 17, and pretends that he wishes to observe the law while disobeying the express commands of God, then the kingdom is torn from his hands, as Samuel says. Hypocritical disobedience is a stench in God’s nostrils, as Isaiah 65 says.
Jesus Christ is the embodiment of I Samuel 15:22: Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, as he himself explains in John 5, “Truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.”
There is no space between the Father’s will and the Son’s obedience. There is no pause for consideration. He not only is the Word of God, he lives the Word of God. It is the engine of his life. Although Saul continues in office as King until the end of the book of I Samuel, in the very next chapter after our reading for today, chapter 16, David is anointed as King by Samuel, and thus begins the series of events that leads to the Son of David fulfilling the promises made to David by God, and our salvation begins.
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”… When they came, Samuel looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”…..Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed David in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward..
In Jesus, God takes up the life of David and all his descendants into his very being and nature, as well as all who become one with Jesus Christ. IN ch. 16 we begin to see our own future as we look back to 1000 BC, for God works in God’s way and God’s time.
October 6th, Psalm 42
To know God is to question God. To know God is to weep and mourn. To know God is to question oneself, and to question reality.
All of these statements are theological assertions of a high order. By that, I mean that underlying those initial statements is a truth about God that generates these experiences of questioning and mourning.
In point of fact, the experiences are unavoidable for believers and non-believers, and that fact falls with great weight on the side of the reality and truth of God. These of course are high-level, abstract claims. Let’s drill down a bit to the specifics, first by taking a look at our Psalm.
Perhaps more than others, this Psalm calls out to its hearers. It is at a high level of art and poetry, which some of its English translation have extended for us.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. Deep calls to deep, at the thunder of thy cataracts. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love; and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? We’re in the presence, not just of inspiration, but of a kind of genius.
I read that phrase, Deep calls to deep, in a variety of places before I knew it was in the Psalms. It was only going to church with my fiancée and her parents, at an Episcopal church in Gainesville, that I heard much of any of the Psalms other than the 23rd. The deer longs for the flowing streams, his soul longs for God, but the psalmist has nothing to eat or drink but his own tears. The figure of water and its contrasts features prominently in the psalm as well, as is also shown in verse 7.
The psalmist apostrophizes himself, his soul. He places himself within the dialogue. This is common in our own everyday lives. Nowadays we call it self-talk, but we all keep up a running dialogue or commentary that goes on in our mind virtually all the time, mostly silent. At least, I hope I’m not the only one who does this!
Even the mental sickness of hearing “voices in my head” is akin to this, but in that situation, it’s often alien and/or unacceptable voices that are in runaway mode and are unable to be silenced. That’s the particular torment of a type of schizophrenia. No volume control knob.
Here the psalmist, allowing his reader in on his quest for discovery, externalizes the quandary he faces, the quandary between faith and fear, a fear of the loss of faith. The psalmist asks himself why, why are you cast down, O my soul, a puzzling question addressed to himself, which he never overtly seems able to answer in the whole Psalm, though the disquietude is somewhat resolved. Perhaps it’s not answerable in that situation.
The question, “why are you cast down, O my soul” makes little sense without the presumption that, whether or not the cast down state is unusual in terms of frequency, it nonetheless indicates a departure from some sort of norm. To be “cast down,” to be depressed, despondent, despairing, in this way of thinking, is to be away from, outside of, the desirable and expected state of normal human being. It assumes that something is wrong. Otherwise, why would we talk about it that way? It assumes the human soul is somehow deranged, damaged, just off in some way. If to be cast down were normal, we wouldn’t notice it, or react against it. We know something is wrong about this wrongness.
Our experience and the insight generated thereby tells us this. We struggle with ourselves. We rebel against the way things are. We rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the sea of troubles, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Why? Why, if this is the standard state of things? Why, if this is just the way things are? Do trees grieve when their leaves fall? To whom might a rabbit complain when eaten by a hawk? Where are all the depressed squirrels? You see? Why are you cast down, O my soul?
Now I can take no credit for this line of thought. One of the first serious books I read in High School, Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, a book which every Christian should read, and I mean that literally, Lewis says this: “The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.’”
Now this is Lewis’ positive take on the Psalmist’s negative quandary, Why are you cast down, O my Soul?
The existence of the human in all its joys and sorrows and even existential dread points outside, points away from ourselves. There is indeed a question that must be dealt with. Lewis asserts that as satisfaction follows desire, or at least the possibility and credibility of a satisfaction existing for every desire, so an answer must follow a question as night follows the day.
My soul thirsts for the living God. To ask why is to run afoul of the evidentiary objection that lawyers love to bring up, “asked and answered, Your Honor.” The fact that someone, and not just one, but down through recorded history, many, have longed for God, is to answer the question, to at least some degree.
Now, of course, reasoning that our human puzzlement and longing can lead us to a certain reassurance about God, is not revelation. To argue that God must exist, because we desire him, is no form of proof. For the creator of the very concept of proof itself, is beyond all human control. God is beyond all the rational proofs we can offer about isosceles triangles and planetary ellipses. But just as human longing cannot prove the existence of God, neither is a shell casing at a crime scene, proof of a homicide. But what reasonable detective would ignore it and walk away from such a clue? The unseriousness of much modern atheism is an insult to human reason itself.
The answer that the question asks for, the longing that is placed within our hearts because of who made us, prepares us not just to understand but to welcome the revelation of who God is in Jesus Christ.
This is the background of Psalm 42. It’s beautiful simply in its form, is it not? Here we need to acknowledge that we didn’t hear the whole Psalm. Psalm 42 and 43 were at some point in time divided, but if you keep reading, you hear the third stanza of the three, the first two of which we heard in Psalm 42. The writer is despondent, in 42:1-4, and sums up his thought, in the first refrain, let’s call it, of verse 5, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6 and my God.”
Verses 6-10 expand upon his complaint and intensify his disappointment, abandonment, and affliction. This is followed, in the last verse of Ps. 42, vs. 11, with the second use of the same refrain, Why are you cast down, O my soul? And then in vss. 1-4 of Ps. 43, we hear more of a prayer rather than a complaint, though that’s still present in vs. 2, “Why hast thou cast me off?” But the mood, the tone, and the direction lighten and improve in Psalm 43. “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise thee with the harp, O God, my God.”
Sometimes the simplest language carries the most beauty and power, and perhaps those two go together for a reason. “I will praise thee with the harp, O God, my God.”
O God, my God. The claim in that last phrase brings him home, it brings the Psalmist across the finish line so to speak. “O God” is light years away from My God, is it not? In the last two words, “My God,” you can hear the claim, the response, the hope, and the faith. Can one, would one, say My God, if one did not know this God?
My initial assertion, that the truth about God generates our questioning, our mourning, our despondency, is comprised of this: though God has never abandoned his creation, the invasion of the created world of humanity by Jesus Christ is the fullest, most comprehensive, though not the only, example of the promise of God which creates our longing, our desire. Why long, why desire, if one is already full and satisfied? To crest the top of a mountain and see the next afar off, is to long to go to the next mountain, there, off in the distance. There’s more. One hasn’t yet reached the end, the goal.
To know the truth of God in Jesus Christ, a self-emptying and thus self-giving God; a God who makes room for the human in a way that not only defines but transforms the nature of grace, is to be filled with a deeper, more acute longing for that which we don’t yet possess.
I have given you a land full of milk and honey, a promised land, a paradise which is yours because I have chosen you. But we’re not there, yet. Illness, accident, evil is sometimes our lot in life. As Edgar said in King Lear to Gloucester: “Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all.”
Ripeness is all. There is a time for all things, and our time is in God’s hands. Our dismay at our own emptiness, our own disappointment, is because we know we were made to be filled, we were made to meet that appointment that was made for us the moment God said, Let there be Light. Perhaps before, for who can fathom God’s purposes and plans, or put him to a schedule? Ripeness is all. In God’s time, the harvest will be brought in. But only in his time.
And our desire, our longing for God can sometimes interfere, conflict with our faith in that that promise of God.
Why are you cast down, O my Soul? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him. Send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me, let them bring me to thy holy hill and to thy dwelling.
What is this but the promised city of Jerusalem, the holy hill, Mt. Zion, and the throne of God in the holy of holies in the tabernacle, where the cloud of God’s presence descended at the holy moments of sacrifice.
God creates our love from our longing, and gives us emptiness so that there might be room to be filled. Christmas is only Christmas, because we must wait for it. It is the waiting, every year, the longing, that creates the gift.
The grace of God is in the Gift of preparation. The gift of Preparation is God’s Grace. The gift of time. The gift of emptiness, that we might be filled. Emptiness, without which we could not be filled.
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
September 27th, Luke 9:43b-62
The burial of the dead is a cultural topic that is found in all periods of accessible human history. Burials of Neanderthals from over 50,000 years ago have been examined very carefully, and specifically noted for the fact that they were not just disposals of the body but were buried in a way to prevent the disturbance of their bodies by scavengers and predators.
Over 30,000 years ago, there is evidence found in what are called Cro-Magnon burials of further, more developed rituals and reverence for the dead, with primitive bracelets and necklaces as well as valuable tools and weapons found buried with the dead.
One of the most shocking aspects of Homer’s Iliad, in an already blood-drenched epic is the death of Hector. After Achilles chases him around the walls of Troy three times, he kills him with a spear, allows the other Greek soldiers to abuse his dead body, and over the next nine days, daily drags the dead body of Hector behind his chariot around the walls of Troy in full view of Hector’s father and mother and widow, until Zeus intercedes and sends the god Hermes to accompany Hector’s father Priam to the camp of Achilles to beg for his son’s mutilated body so it can be given a burial.
In the mythologies of Ancient Greece Antigone is remembered in Sophocles play from the fifth century BC, for her struggle to give her brother Polynikes a simple burial which had been denied to him because of his politics.
The writer of Genesis tells the story of Abraham, the wandering Aramean, negotiating with the Hittites for the purchase of a small plot of land where he can bury his wife Sarah, for he is a nomad, with a promise, but with no land of his own. The book of Genesis ends with the death of Jacob, Sarah’s grandson, and this exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob’s son, Joseph: “Then Joseph fell on his father's face and wept over him and kissed him….
4 And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, 5 ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.” Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.’” 6 And Pharaoh answered, “Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear.”
In the apocryphal book of Tobit we read Tobit’s words in ch. 1, “In the days of Shalmaneser I performed many acts of charity to my brethren. 17 I would give my bread to the hungry and my clothing to the naked; and if I saw any one of my people dead and thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury him. 18 And if Sennacherib the king put to death any who came fleeing from Judea, I buried them secretly. For in his anger he put many to death. When the bodies were sought by the king, they were not found. 19 Then one of the men of Nineveh went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them; so I hid myself. When I learned that I was being searched for, to be put to death, I left home in fear. 20 Then all my property was confiscated and nothing was left to me except my wife Anna and my son Tobias.”
And in the Rabbinic tractate Berakoth, from the Mishnah, we read, “One who is confronted by a dead relative, is freed from reciting the Shema, from the 18 Benedictions, and from all the commandments stated in the Torah.”
To bury the dead was, and still is, an act of Jewish piety and righteousness. There are doubtless other sources that could be cited from Asian, African and Native American cultures, especially the Navajo, on the necessity of the proper treatment of the dead and the bad things that result from a failure to enact the proper rituals.
One can almost write a history of the development, the progress of human civilization, in how the dead are cared for, attended, placated, sometimes feared. Many, if not most, of the non-Jewish rituals and practices came about specifically to limit the dead from any connection with the living and control any influence or power the dead, or their ghosts, have over the living.
In the Roman world, the dead were always buried outside the sacred precincts of the city walls. The city was hallowed by the gods through the presence of their temples within the city, and no dead body could be buried within the city. The Navajo bury their dead as far away as feasible, and if the deceased has died in their home, the hogan, it is destroyed and burned, along with any possessions. In the Navajo culture, contact with the dead leads to a great deal of misfortune, so as few Navajo family members as possible participate in the funeral. But there are rules, hard and fast, that virtually all traditional societies followed on dealing with deceased family members.
And Jesus says, not to a critic, not to an opponent, but to one whom Jesus has called to follow him, and who just needs a little time to bury his father, “Let the dead bury the dead.”
How to describe such a response? Rude? Uncaring, unfeeling, unsympathetic? Un-everything that most all of us value nowadays? This is known as one, of many, of Jesus’ Hard Sayings, along with cutting off your hand to avoid sin, turning the other cheek, hating one’s family, casting fire on the earth, I don’t come to bring peace but a sword.
There are many like this. They bring us good news, for, as even the temple guards said to the Sanhedrin when they returned after being sent to arrest him in John 7, “Never man spake like this man.”
Ever since then mountebanks and quacks and charlatans have used this kind of rhetoric to bully the crowd, speaking in antinomies, pretending to reveal a truth in incompatibilities.
But this phrase, and much of Jesus’ other teaching fits only into the identity of Jesus himself, as well as the Bad News/Good News structure of the Gospel.
I don’t know if I made up that Bad News/Good News phrase to describe the dynamic of the Gospel or if I got it from someone else. It’s more than just, “Tell me the bad news first.” We’ve all probably heard that, or said it.
No, it has to do with who and what we are, as fallen human beings, as well as how that fallenness shapes our perceptions, mainly about ourselves and our capabilities. With regard to the first aspect, the truly good news/bad news scenario would be that regardless of how bad we are, regardless of our individual wickedness, hatefulness and unrighteousness, we’re going to live forever. As bad as we wanna be.
This is what JRR Tolkien meant by “the First Mercy;” that Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden after eating of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, and before they had eaten as well of the Tree of Life, as Genesis 3:22 tells us. An eternal life of wickedness would be a torture from which they, in the First Mercy, were rescued.
The book of Hebrews sees the way this works out by analogy with our human father, in ch. 12, ““My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”
The horse developed from a small herd animal in the Middle East to the horse of today, the Clydesdale, the Percheron, the Racehorse, the Quarter Horse, to all the types of horse in today’s world, through its development alongside humanity and human culture, through discipline—breeding and training.
This First Mercy of God left us in a world of gravity, and pain, and heartache and death. Though it was the First Mercy, in order of time the bad news came first, of necessity, and the good news after.
Let’s back up and look at the person, the identity of Jesus. “Never man spake as this man,” said those unlikely hostile witnesses, the temple guards. What does that mean? Well at least one thing it means is that because of who he was, Jesus could say things like “Let the dead bury the dead,” or, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Now normally, we would say in response, Who do you think you are? That’s ridiculous, that’s nonsense, that’s sacrilegious! But those who heard him, even those who didn’t agree, were rocked back a bit. Everyone was allowed freedom, and some rejected him, but a man who could say those things, and then lift a dead child alive from the bier before he’s buried, a man who could with a word of rebuke to evil drive him out of a child, demon-possessed, a man who could not only forgive sin, and assert the right to, but also speak healing and make the lame to walk; people listened to him in a new way.
No man ever spake like this man. This man accords to himself the words and deeds and things of God. Moses says, but I say unto you. I say unto you? Jesus came speaking of the kingdom of God, and he spoke as the King. He acted with a royal freedom. He asserted his rule of not just that which is important to every person, not just our burdens, our needs, our sins; he asserted his rule of that which is eternal, his rule of the powers of nature, and a rule of the darkness that plagued the world and the inner darkness of humanity. For Jesus knew the hearts of his hearers.
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open. In Luke 9 Jesus is not struggling for a hearing, for acceptance, he is merely placing his finger on the wound of sin. He is laying his hand, where it hurts. Which is our own desire to author our own story, rather than follow his script. We want to be his followers, we want to be on his team, in our own way, our own manner and in our own good time. We want to make the decisions that are not ours to make.
It’s not a matter of preferring Ford to Chevy. It’s not a matter of preferring Jif to Skippy. These Hard Sayings in Luke 9 confront us with that with which we don’t want to be confronted. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?
When the Son of Man, to whom every knee shall bow, calls a man, it is not time for excuses and delays. When one says “I will follow you Lord” there are no reservations. There is no clause at the bottom for exceptions, for the initial statement, the initial call, the initial response, cancels out everything that might stand in its way.
You can compare how far it is from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga, to how far it is from earth to the sun. It’s a big difference, but it can be measured. 101 miles, versus 93 million miles. Big difference. Now compare how long you’ve been alive on earth to the life of God. You see? How long will we be in heaven? How long is eternity? How big is an elephant? How big is God?
This man spake as no man ever spake. The bad news first. My fallenness means I want to do it myself, I want to save myself, I want to make my own decisions, I want to be what I want to be. This is my life, we say. All of that was vastly expanded and intensified by Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment.
In 1784, as an aspect of the then emerging German Enlightenment, a Prussian official addressed a proposal in the Berlin Monthly, namely, “"Proposal, not to engage the clergy any longer when marriages are conducted." 1784. That was a public policy proposal. Very interesting that this foundational human institution was what they felt should first be addressed.
In response to the question, What is The Enlightenment? asked by Friedrich Zollner, a year earlier, Kant wrote an essay, which begins with this: “Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.” That’s how he began his essay. And also, by the way, began the process destroying western civilization.
This was all understood as man’s emergence from the tyranny so-called, of religion and the church. This so-called Enlightenment is predicated on the second aspect of our fallenness, as I said earlier, not just our fallenness, our predisposition to sin, but how our fallenness shapes our perceptions. It’s probably not wrong to think wisdom accrues to the older generation, but that may be just a function of having had more time to make more mistakes.
There is a human wisdom that, while valuable, has nothing to do with the wisdom which Proverbs calls the fear of God. And it is this which is necessary to teach us to truly perceive, to truly understand, and to truly worship God. As James says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Every phrase in those two verses from James ch. 3 connect back to the teaching of Jesus and the Wisdom tradition of the OT. Each phrase lands with force on the pretensions of Godless humanity. Kant believed we needed to be liberated from tradition, liberated from faith, liberated from trust in God’s word, trust in the priest or the pastor.
But true wisdom, and the illumination of the spirit, leads the apostle Paul to write to the Romans in ch.6, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
As the hand wrote on the wall to Belshazzar, “Mene, Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; 27 Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting.” This is our condition.
Our days are numbered, and we have been found wanting. As Isaiah says, even the princes are but a drop in the bucket. No man ever spake like this man. To understand the Good News, we must believe the Bad News. To give thanks for the Glad Tidings, we take on board who we are within, the cost of our redemption, and the freedom we are offered, which is the only true freedom.
We are called, we are chosen, a decree has gone forth, God’s mercy has condemned us to this world, that we might find his mercy. God’s wrath has fallen on his son, that our sins and their power might be destroyed. As the prayer of Habakkuk began: “O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
in the midst of the years make it known;
in wrath remember mercy.
Sermon, September 6th; Luke 7:36-50
Do you like Pharisees? Think carefully before you answer, because this will be on the text. As I’ve said before, context is vitally important to understanding any text, texts in the scriptures and other texts. But the context to which I’m referring now, is our context today, here, in this room, at this moment. Forget the elections, forget the riots, forget the virus. We have heard the Word of God, this morning, and to it, we must attend.
Our context is partly revealed by reflecting on why we are here, and how we might correctly understand and answer that why. Part of the why is that we are called to be here. When many were abandoning Jesus, even early on, he asked the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well? Just as, later in the Garden, he said, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” We are called, we are summoned.
Jesus even said, many are called, but few are chosen, and not all who were called to be here today have answered that call.
The Word of God is publicly proclaimed around the table of the Lord each Lord’s Day. Our use of that phrase, The Lord’s Day, is a good reminder of how the phrase, The Day of the Lord, was transformed by Jesus’ death on the cross, for Judgment fell on humanity on that day, as Amos and other prophets had promised, but the Day of the Lord on that Good Friday illustrates why we call it Good, and why now, this day of Resurrection has become a Day of the Lord, because it is the Lord’s Day. It partakes of the OT notion of the Sabbath as a day of remembrance, and a day of obligation. Creation is a gift, and the Sabbath is a gift, given, in one sense, so that the gift might not be forgotten. But also, when we say The Lord’s Day, we’re reminded that God has turned judgment into salvation, without in any way undermining or compromising his own righteousness and holiness.
It’s worth noting that the Word of God, while accomplishing his purposes, does many things, and the same text of scripture can be used by the Holy Spirit in different ways for different people. Not the least of the implications of this is that the human interpreter cannot limit or bind or restrict the activities of the Spirit and the intentions of the Word of God.
This gives no license to the reader, but rather a stricter method, and a realization upon every fresh reading whose word we are reading, and who sets the tone and purposes of God’s Word.
What you need to hear today may be different from your pewmates, yet the Word of God is sufficient. That Word which, when uttered, brings light and life into being, is not in any way challenged or hindered by our different needs, for who made our ears and our hearts but the Lord?
Do you need to hear today that Jesus sees your tears, like the tears he felt in Simon’s house? Do you need to know that Jesus hears your sobs of grief and repentance? Do you need to hear that your sins are not too great a mountain for Jesus to climb, nor too great a ditch for Jesus to cross? Do you need to hear that your old sins, long unconfessed, the debt constantly growing, and the weight increasing, are but a drop in the bucket to God’s compassion?
For when those in Simon’s house said among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” The question clearly answers itself. They know. No one can forgive someone else’s sins but God himself. In those words that Jesus spoke, directly to the prostitute, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The echoes reverberated down the halls of time: Here is what the dinner guests actually heard when Jesus spoke, and what we should know as well: Moses asked on Mt. Sinai, to see God’s glory, and this is God’s response. ““The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Do you need to hear that Jesus knew, and still knows, even today, at this hour what is in the heart of every person? Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open?
You may have come to worship to feel superior to all the hypocrites, you may come to church to burn it down, though I hope not, you may come to church to destroy a life with gossip, you may come to church just so you can walk out shortly after worship begins, it doesn’t matter why we’ve come to church, the power of the Word of God is sufficient, and will accomplish his purpose. Whatever that may be. And we mustn’t think we always know what that is.
We may talk of the Word of God as an active, personal, divine agent, for that is how the Word is presented to us in the scriptures. One of our callings is to conform our thinking and reasoning and living to the form of speech we find in God’s Word.
And when I speak of God’s Word, I mean that which is living and active, which knows all and sees all and says what each of us needs to hear at any moment. We think we are the agents of knowing. We read the text; we decide what it means. But he says, to all who will hear, in the words of the Psalmist: “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.”
To read the text is to be read, by the text, by the Word.
When we come to Luke 7, we appropriately ask, what exactly does “Your sins are forgiven,” mean? Remember, when we come to God’s Word, our first response is to be, I don’t know what this means, in spite of what I think. The message Jesus’ words in Luke 7 carries is so much more….cosmic, let’s say, then what is experienced in the immediate moment by the forgiven sinner.
I shared with my Hebrews class last week about a teenage girl in our church when I was growing up who went forward just about every month or so at the invitation hymn on Sunday night. Some of you remember church three times a week, don’t you, back before Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio and Lamb Chop came along on Sunday evenings. Lamb Chop was a pretty big deal. Still is. Did you know Lamb Chop testified before Congress? Bet you never did that. Did you know Lamb Chop is also a 3-Star General in the US Marine Corps. So there’s that.
Anyway, this young woman hears something. Someone was calling her. She was a baptized believer, but she kept going forward. I don’t exactly know why, I never did. She said she wanted to rededicate her life. Some of us made fun of her among ourselves, and would bet one another on whether or not she would go forward on any given Sunday, because you just never knew.
Never stake anything of importance on the empathy and compassion of a teenage boy, but you probably already know that.
What was she seeking? Why had not she found it, already? What strange confluence of events, causes and influences have me now remembering her and talking about her with you over 50 years later? Her life. She said she wanted to rededicate her life to the Lord.
What is God doing in this passage? We know he is speaking. “Day to day pours forth speech,” the Psalmist tells us.
There is a danger in coming to a text like ours today without preparation, for the unprepared heart is tempted to regard Simon as that which we don’t want to be, never want to be, and thus fall into the trap. It’s like if you ask yourself, Am I humble? Some things it’s best to leave alone.
But our text today makes us look at ourselves. “I entered your house, Simon, yet you gave me no kiss.” I wonder what they’re doing in France these days, with all that kissing? I guess you’d get used to it. Kiss on the right, kiss on the left, kiss on the right. But if we’re not even shaking hands, I imagine they’ve dropped the kissing for awhile.
Apparently, the kiss was an expected part of a standard greeting in Jesus’s day, and his world. And this absence of a kiss is combined with the absence of other normal signs of welcome. In those days you were supposed to wash their feet and oil their hair as well, it appears from Jesus’ statement. “I’m your guest, Simon and you did none of this for me, but this woman with her tears, and her hair, and her ointment, has loved greatly.”
You heard the way this went. Jesus is invited to eat with Simon, a common name, in those days, Simon the Maccabean being one of their well-remembered heroes. Simon is identified for us as a Pharisee, and that’s all we know, except to know that he has a house, which not everyone did.
It’s difficult to picture some of this, until we remember the nature of houses in the Mediterranean world back then, for houses were somewhat open-air, and privacy was not like it is today. Privacy was not a functioning practice. At a meal like this, a leading citizen invites the latest big noise to his house for dinner, there would be a lot of onlookers, kibitzers, standing around, hanging out in the ante-chambers, just to see, just to hear. To see what is the latest dish, how much food there is, maybe listen to the conversation of these important people.
And there was always the chance of some leftovers. No one lived or moved or traveled alone in those days. A Roman grandee had people lined up to see him first thing in the morning. He was their patron, their “Padrone,” everybody needed a little something, and the Roman Senator or member of any of the upper classes would hand out a few coins to anyone he recognized.
In Jesus’ world, there were people around all the time, hanging on his words, hoping to be healed, to be helped in some way. The Jews, even the strictest apparently, had absorbed some of the Greco/Roman cultural practices in spite of their resistance to much of it.
How is this woman of the city, this “sinner,” able to cry on Jesus feet while he’s eating supper? Is she down there scrabbling around under the table? No, apparently the Jews of Jesus’ day had also adopted the symposium-style dinner, where the men, lounged around a horseshoe shaped table, lying on their sides on couches, eating in a relaxed style while laying on pillow and cushions.
It’s not that someone has wandered in to his home that has alarmed Simon, but who, or what, she is. A Sinner. A woman of the city. Simon is already treading a fine line with his Mediterranean dining style, and this woman alarms him because the other part of the upper-class Greco/Roman dining style, was the provision of what were euphemistically called “flute-girls” who provided the soft soothing background music, but who in reality, were paid to provide sexual services to the rich and powerful men present.
It’s hard for us to feature just how drastically different Jewish sexual mores and practices were from the surrounding cultures of the day. Aline Rousselle, studied this world most carefully, and essentially the only person off limits to a Roman man’s sexual depredations was a Roman woman married to a man of his class or higher. All others may as well have been working for Harvey Weinstein.
One commentator said Jesus did not even need to turn around to see the source of the dropping of liquid, tears, on his feet. All he had to do was read the horror on Simon’s face, to know what was happening.
And because he knows the secrets of the heart, he knows what Simon now thinks of him, and is perhaps wishing he had not invited Jesus in the first place.
But in the tradition of the symposium from way back, Jesus begins to question Simon. He tells him a story, a parable and concludes with a question. Notice, in this overall story about forgiveness, Jesus tells a smaller story within the story about a creditor and two debtors, who owe vastly unequal debts to their common creditor. Three characters in the outer story, three characters in the inner story. Two characters owe a debt, which is forgiven by the third character.
The weeping, the sobbing, the cleansing, the sacrifice of an extremely valuable ointment, perhaps even one of the tools of her unfortunate trade, to anoint his feet, this is the context of the story Jesus tells Simon.
Jesus tells the story, and asks Simon who will love his creditor more? Simon says, in virtually every translation I could find, says, “I suppose, the one who was forgiven more.” I suppose! There is Simon’s guilty plea right there, for he knows he doesn’t love like the woman. And Jesus spells that out for him. And then he says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” And even while the others are wondering about that, he says to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
What was it that brought her to the supper, uninvited? What was it that made her think she could weep over the feet of this respected Rabbi, and possibly compromise him in the eyes of the world? What was it that made her think she could touch, the bare feet and legs of this preacher of the kingdom of God, in the home, once again uninvited, of a Pharisee giving a supper for Jesus and other men, men who may have known her more immediately than they would want to admit.
Your faith has saved you. Her faith drove her to that dinner. It drove her to gratitude. Her faith drove her, when she couldn’t speak because her heart was too full of mercy received, to the only language she had, which was too weep uncontrollably, to love in the only way she could, to serve, to respect, to give.
Jesus doesn’t pretend there’s nothing wrong. Jesus doesn’t pretend that sin doesn’t exist, doesn’t distort, divide, control, warp and destroy the lives of all that it touches. Which is everyone. Including Simon.
He only says, because he IS the Word of God, he says, “Let there be light.” It doesn’t sound like that to us, we hear “Your sins are forgiven.” But the word of God always says, “Let there be light.” You see how that works? Light creates, cleanses, restores, protects, reveals. Let there be light. Let the good world exist and go forward. Let the renewing act of God be found on the level of the poor, and the guilty, and the crushed and the lonely and the forgotten. Let their names be known, let men in pulpits speak about them thousands of years in the future.
Let there be light.
Psalm 32, August 30, 2020
What is sin? What is a sin? What does sin do? As I said last week, my grandmother reminded her wicked little grandsons that “your sins will find you out.” You can’t hide from the effects of your sin, was the message I received. Of course, when I was 8 years old, I would have liked to have heard more of Psalm 32 than Numbers 32. Psalm 32 begins “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven; whose sin is covered.”
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about my grandmother, who was a hard-working mother, hard done by in many ways. From 1917 to 1931, she bore eight children, four boys and four girls, and my grandfather, who talked her into leaving Jacksonville and moving to the countryside during the depression, was often gone the entire work week, working for Railway Express, the national Package Delivery service, back when most things went by the railroad.
This is one reason the sheriff gave my mother a driver’s license when she was 12 years old, because neither of her parents knew how to drive a car and during the war my uncles had moved away, three of them in the service, and so my mother had to pick up my grandfather at the bus station when he got off work for the weekend.
I grew up hearing all the funny stories about growing up on the farm, and my mother getting chased around the house by my grandmother, and my grandfather giving my mother a nickel every time he came home which she ran and buried in the back yard, about my mother hitting a cow in the road when she was 14.
But there was sin in my mother’s family, and my father’s, as well as yours, and mine. Sin can be called the “inheritance” that no one ever misses out on. Some say we’ve all got the coronavirus by now. We’ve all got the antibodies. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly the case we’ve all inherited a sinful nature.
I had an aunt who had a glass eye. She made jokes about it when I was kid, we never to know what to think. The story I heard for years was that it happened in a volleyball game at high school and somebody spiked the ball. It was an accident, was what I heard. My sister says it happened in a softball gave and one of my uncles threw the ball at her when she wasn’t looking, and it hit her in the face. Was that an accident? Good clean fun? He certainly wouldn’t have been intending to blind his sister. But she lost an eye because of it. Her life was irreparably changed because of that day.
But I never heard that talked about when I was growing. Some things you don’t say in front of the children, I guess. She joked about it all the time when we were kids, but I think my mother knew about the real heartache that was a result of that day. My aunt eventually married, but for years she suffered with the imagined stigma of thinking that everybody was staring at her. Wondering which was the real eye.
Sin runs in families, doesn’t it? We pass it along, unwillingly, unknowingly. We can all think of examples of the lasting effects of sin in life. We do things, or say things, we later wish we had not. Things are done or said to us, we wish had not been. But we have to live with them. Not every sin just goes away, when we forgive and forget.
I can’t remember the name of the kid in my sixth-grade class that me and my buddies excluded from our lunch room table. There were three of us, Steve Odom, Steve Strickland, Steve Lewis. We had a club, and well, if your name wasn’t Steve you couldn’t be in our club. No Johns, or Bobs or Howards allowed.
We’re standing together in line in the lunchroom, and boy, wasn’t that fun? Unairconditioned lunches in Florida with 200 other smelly kids who didn’t use deodorant and the fragrance of spoiled milk everywhere. Not really spoiled but just a little, off. Somebody always dropped their little half pint of milk carton, and the garbage dumpster was usually just outside the open windows of the lunchroom, for convenience, I assume. Certainly not for our dining pleasure.
Anyway, there we are and this new kid is acting like he’s gonna sit with us. The nerve!
I said, You’re not in our club. What club? Our club. How do you get in the club? What’s your name? Howard. Sorry. This is a club for Steves. There was this other kid with us, Gary. What about him? he said. His name’s not Steve. He’s honorary. You can’t sit with us.
Now, on the scale of the atrocities of history, that’s a drop in the bucket, but, some buckets are filled a drop at a time. Things build up. They get worse, they boil over.
Sometimes the Bible talks about the “stain” of sin, as in Jeremiah 2:22, “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord God.” And in the letter of James, 3:6 we read: “ The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature,[a] and set on fire by hell.”
This fits well with the Biblical notion of washing away sin, the washing clean effect of baptism being one of those metaphors that come readily to mind, as in Hebrews 10, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Or in Revelation 7, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
We use metaphors all the time and not just in the Bible. Metaphors are intrinsic to our everyday speech. The language we use about “argument” has an effect on the way we think about argument.
I demolished his argument, we say.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
He shot down all my arguments.
Her criticisms were right on target.
Once war, or that is to say, an argument has been declared, we feel the necessity to win the argument. You certainly don’t want to LOSE. You see, metaphors frame our thinking, not just about arguments, but about everything. I couldn’t preach a sermon, or talk about hardly anything without metaphor, whether overt or covert, obvious or subtle.
Some language theorists go so far as to say all language is made of metaphors, that they are the building blocks of all discourse. Most of these metaphors have been lost in the ancient history of language and we’re no longer aware of them.
The way we talk about sin affects the way we think about sin, and not only how we think, but how we conduct ourselves with regard to right and wrong, and in relations with God, and with one another, for Proverbs 23 reminds us, “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”
The words, the language, the stories, the metaphors you rehearse within yourself as you go through your day determine who you are. Sometimes, in reflecting upon sin, we speak of accidents, mistakes, misjudgments, even peccadilloes.
We speak of transgressions, misdeeds, errors, misdemeanors, moral lapses, shortcomings, failures, trespasses, debts. Sin, the shortest of such words, makes us sometimes uneasy. It sometimes depends on who we’re talking about. My misjudgment is a failing in my friend, and an obvious sin in my enemy.
But all of them connect to a metaphor somewhere in the history of their use in language. And they’re all sometimes, appropriate in their use for our own or others deeds.
Sin has a history. Certainly in the Bible we can see that. In Leviticus 16 we read that the High Priest places the sins of the people on the head of a goat. This is where the notion of a scape-goat comes from, first translated in that way by William Tyndale in 1530. Leviticus says: 21Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. 22The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
Scape goat was short for “Escape Goat.” The sins, in this understanding, are conceived of as a burden, a weight, having an existence that can be transferred, that can be removed from one, or many, and placed on another. This is one way the Bible talks about sin. You can hear it in Psalm 32, in vss. 3 & 4: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up[a] as by the heat of summer.”
The psalmist has discovered the weight, the burden of unconfessed sin. Back in Texas the church had a full-sized basketball gym, and me and a couple other guys walked round and round the gym in the morning for our health. We were like mall walkers, but we had no mall. I wore this vest that had iron bars in the pockets all over it and if it was full it weighed 40 pounds. You can imagine how good it felt to take that vest off after walking for 45 minutes wearing it.
Though a fictional character, Emma Woodhouse, the eponymous protagonist of Jane Austen’s novel, carried the burden of her sin, of publicly shaming a neighbor, Miss Bates, at a picnic in front of several others. Miss Bates is garrulous, always talking, always gossiping, lonely, and very self-conscious around her “betters,” as they would have said in the early 1800s. Miss Bates is an unmarried middle aged woman living with and looking after her widowed mother, Mrs. Bates, who is stone deaf, and they are on the edge of genteel poverty, while Emma is wealthy in her own right, and at the end of the novel, will be even more so, when she marries Mr. Knightley.
At the picnic, one of the eligible young men, Frank Churchill, suggests that each of the seven members must say to Emma “two things moderately clever-or three things very dull indeed,” to which Miss Bates replies in a self-deprecating way, “I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth”. Unfortunately, in a vain attempt at humor, Emma says in response, ‘Ah! Ma’am but there may be a difficulty. Parton me – but you will be limited as to number – only three.’”
You can see the verbal dagger go home on Miss Bates face in the filmed version of the novel. Her shame, her pain, is excruciating to watch. And later when Miss Woodhouse is privately reprimanded by Mr. Knightley, you can see her pain at failing the one man whose opinion matters to her. She carries that burden through much of the novel, and even Miss Bates refuses to see her, when she tries to apologize.
But sin as a weight, a burden is not the only way the Bible describes our sin, for even in this Psalm, vs. 5 expands upon the metaphors for that which divides us from God, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
Iniquity, transgression, and guilt. Iniquity referring to an inner defect in character, transgression having to do with crossing a line, violating a precept, and guilt, speaking from a legal or courtroom context, the state of being in violation of a law, though we nowadays think of guilt as an inner feeling, feeling guilty, the way we imagine our dogs feel when we come home and they’ve chewed up our shoes.
Psalm 32 uses a variety of ways to talk about sin, but by the time of Jesus’ day, the notion of sin as debt is prominent. Though we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” because that’s the way the Lord’s prayer appeared in Tyndale’s English translation and in the first English Book of Common prayer, virtually all translations since that time render Matthew 6 “And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors.”
The notion of sin as a debt incurred is used often. In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, the man thrown into debtor’s prison because he owed some huge sum, and, when forgiven, demands from an acquaintance that he pay him the small sum he owes him uses debt to illustrate how sin may be thought of.
Jesus lived after a time when debt had become a much more common metaphor for sin in the prophets and some of the Torah. We have this concept still in our legal system when we talk about financial debt being “forgiven.” IN the sermon on the mount Jesus talks about settling up with anyone who has “something against” us, for if not, our accuser will hand us over to the judge and we will be put in prison and never get out till we’ve paid the last penny.
Is he just talking about lawcourts here? In the very next chapter, ch. 6, Jesus is talking about the giving of alms in verse 4, and forgiving our debtors in verse 12, and in verse 19, he reminds us not to lay up treasures on earth, but to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven.
Jews in the few centuries before Jesus’ time thought of the good they did, especially the alms they gave to the desperately poor, as treasure, or “credit,” that God would weigh up in the balance sheet against our debt, of sin. This is a commonplace not only in the Sermon on the Mount but in the Apocrypha and in Isaiah 40:2 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”
Their debt has been paid by the time in exile. In Jeremiah he talks about the Sabbaths that were ignored for so long have been completed while they were in Babylon, and they may return. The debt has been paid.
However we come to the presence of God, Psalm 32 is helpful for us to hear the story of the Psalmist, a fellow sinner: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. 6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”
Some years ago, Joe Garrison asked me why we never had any form of confession in our worship service. I had never thought of that, simply because we never had “confession” in church where I grew up. But our congregation has a varied heritage among its members. Some of you have been Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, all of whom normally have a time of confession in worship.
So, thanks to Joe, I started putting a Prayer of Confession in our service before Communion. Now, because some of you, like myself, are not from those traditions, we have times without a Confession, but rather a meditation which I give on the nature of Communion. Psalm 32 makes real clear the importance of confession, to be honest with God about who we are and who we know him to be. Next month we’ll move into the time of Meditation for a while, but Confession will return, and we will, as the Psalmist says, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.”
Sermon, 8/23/30, I Kings 21:1-19
The Collect for Purity that begins, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” is found in many Catholic and Protestant prayer books, and appears to be at least 1,000 years old, found in Latin in a prayer book from the town of Fulda, in Germany. There is much that could be said about Fulda and its role in the kingdom of Charlemagne and his predecessors and successors, and also its role in the 20th century Cold War, being located in the militarily significant “Fulda Gap,” the path of an anticipated but never undertaken tank invasion of West Germany by the Soviet Union, but I want to call your attention back to the prayer found in the Fulda Sacramentary: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open…and from whom no secrets are hid.”
You can hear the story of Santa Claus in those words, can you not?
“He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!”
Our myths around St. Nicholas have taken on some of the attributes of God, unfortunately, in the sense that we use that idea to scare our children into behaving, at least from around October till Christmas. I didn’t worry about Santa Claus because I knew my grandmother already knew everything and saw everything and could read the evil hearts of young boys who had little sisters she had to protect.
This is of course why my brother and I dug a trap for her in the backyard under the clothesline. We were just tired of the old lady ratting us out on every single good idea for mischief we came up with.
My granddaughter Elizabeth was captured on phone video recently by my daughter when she snuck off to the laundry room to yank clothes out of the front-loading dryer and try to climb inside. Never quite made it, of course.
The collect for purity is an acknowledgment in prayer of God’s omniscience, and a prayer for his cleansing, “Cleanse our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen”
And this is illustrated for us in the story of Ahab the king and his queen, Jezebel, evocative name even today, and Naboth, the owner of a vineyard. Many things lead to this travesty of justice we have heard read this morning, but certainly one thing, is proximity. This is often the case.
You don’t want to be in the way of, or even too near, rapacious power, or those who seek it. You don’t want to come between them and what they desire, like Susette Kelo in New London Connecticut, whose home was unjustly seized by the city government to transfer to a private company, along with many other home properties, for redevelopment into a hotel-retail-condo-research center for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. The constitution allows governments to “take” private property only for “public use” with “just compensation.” This is known as eminent domain.
But the redevelopment was for entirely private purposes. The city government would own nothing, except the exciting new tax revenue they dreamed about coming from all those new jobs. In a disgraceful decision, certainly not the first nor the last, the Supreme Court of the United States of America in a 5-4 decision supported New London against citizen Susette Kelo and several Homeowners who had joined her lawsuit.
Susette Kelo lost her home as did many others, but the developer lost interest when Pfizer decided to merge with Wyeth Drugs and moved its research campus to Groton CT, and 1,000 jobs left New London as a result.
When King Henry VIII wanted something, he merely let it be known what he wanted and people normally complied, except Thomas More, of course, Cardinal Wolsey’s successor as Lord High Chancellor of England. Cardinal Wolsey built a grand new palace for himself, Hampton Court, and it was so attractive and appealing and conveniently located on the Thames River, that it caught Henry’s eye, and Wolsey finally “gave” it to Henry, to try, unsuccessfully, to save his own position, and maybe his own neck. Odd that Hampton Court is on the Thames, just like New London CT is on a Thames River, across from Groton where Pfizer decided to move instead.
Ahab wanted. He wanted a vegetable garden near the palace. Maybe he liked to stroll in the garden in the cool of the evening and pick his own, perhaps the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic of Egypt, like the Hebrews lusted after in the wilderness.
Ahab wanted. Ahab coveted. Naboth had a vineyard near the palace and it was convenient, and fertile, and Ahab saw it, and he desired it. David saw Bathsheba, and he wanted her, and he got her, at the cost of her husband’s life. But Ahab, even in his covetousness, is a king of Israel, and not a baal worshiper like his queen. Ahab wants a garden close to the palace, and he wants it badly.
And so he offers to buy it from Naboth. He makes him an offer he can’t refuse. He is the king, after all. But Naboth refuses it. Naboth invokes the sacred name of the God whom they both claim to serve. “The Lord forbid that I should give you the land of my ancestors.”
Our ears should perk up here. The LORD. The Land. The ancestors. “The LORD forbid that I should give you the land of my ancestors.” Naboth refuses to cave to the King because of Resurrection. Because of Eternal life. For that’s what this was all about. The name of the LORD is the first key, for why bring him up over a simple land transaction? Maybe the price is too low, but for that you bring God into this? The Lord forbid?
Some of the laws of Moses were given to the people to prevent what is referred to today as the problem of wealth inequality. Every tribe, clan and family had land allotted to them when they came into the Promised Land. The land was something from which a Hebrew should not be alienated, for their “father” as they confessed in Deuteronomy 26, was a “wandering Aramean.” Abraham, when Sarah died, had not so much as a plot of dirt in which to bury her. He had to buy a piece of land from the Hittites. Abraham was a nomad.
The Lord forbid that I should give you the land of my ancestors! The Lord forbid that I should violate the covenant, that I should forget his promise, that I should abandon my forebears! It’s hard to figure out how this worked historically, but the idea in Leviticus is that one could only lease out property for a maximum of 49 years, or less, until the next Jubilee year, when all property would revert to the original owner.
And beyond the land, was the notion of the ancestors. Jewish ancestral piety is based on the promise of God, the notion of the bosom of Abraham. As Nathan described the love Uriah had for his wife that David had stolen, “but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.”
To lie in the bosom was to sit closest to the host, or perhaps the guest of honor of a banquet, like the apostle John, leaning on the bosom of Jesus at the Last Supper.
God, as Jesus said, is not God of the dead, but of the living. This was not a new concept to Jews of his day. Their memory of their ancestors tied them to God’s promise of the land, which was the way the promise of Resurrection was seen in the misty, early vision of the Hebrew writers of Scripture. This is why and how they remembered all those named. You know all those genealogies?
“And Jared lived after he begat Enoch eight hundred years, and begat sons and daughters:20 And all the days of Jared were nine hundred sixty and two years: and he died.”
Who cares about all those names? They did. In today’s world we float like flotsam on the sea after the wreckage of the faith. Today we often don’t know who our great-grandparents are, some couldn’t tell you their grandparent’s names, and some families in our world have lost any connection to a father, or a father’s father.
The ancient Hebrews held on tightly to their place in God’s creation. They trusted God and his promise. Naboth trusted God, and perhaps even Ahab had a fear of God, but Jezebel certainly did not.
The refusal of Naboth to sell is so upsetting to poor Ahab he takes to his bed and is off his feed. When Jezebel questions him, he tells her Naboth won’t sell him the vineyard.
Jezebel, astonished that she had married such a spineless whiner, says, “Pshh, is that all? I will give you the vineyard of Naboth. No charge.”
Ahab gets what he wants and maintains his plausible deniability at the same time. Jezebel is able to orchestrate the extra-judicial murder of Naboth because everyone else is afraid not to go along with her plan because they each know they could be the next Naboth. Nice little business you got here. Shame if something happened to it. What a pretty family.
Verses 8-14 of our lesson tell us just how Jezebel suborned perjury by government officials, the elders and nobles of Jezreel, i.e., the deep state of the time. She essentially organized Naboth’s lynching. Why? Because she could.
Like those in Malachi who think God does not see, “Where is the God of Justice?” they asked. And in Psalm 94: “They pour out their arrogant words;
all the evildoers boast.5 They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage.6 They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan,7 and they say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open: Jeremiah tells us “I the Lord test the mind and search the heart,” and the Psalmist says in Ps 44: “If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god,21 would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.”
And, one more, as the Lord says to Samuel in I Samuel 16, “the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
How many times did I hear my grandmother say, “Be sure your sins will find you out?” As a kid I just thought that was something old people said, because she was certainly always on our case no matter what it was. She even seemed to know what we were planning to do. How did she do that?
I came across the saying years later in the book of Number 32:23: “Be sure your sins will find you out.” I’d heard her say that so often it was almost like learning that the Bible was quoting my grandmother!
Moses is warning the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who wanted to stay in Gilead on the east side of the Jordan river, that they were not to focus on building their own houses and flocks and families to the detriment and loss of their responsibility to the other tribes on the west side of the river. There was a social covenant within and among the people of God at that time. To ignore that responsibility for others of Jacob’s descendants was to violate the law in Leviticus 19: ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
On this occasion in I Kings, the Lord calls his prophet to confront not Jezebel, but Ahab. Jezebel, Ahab’s queen consort, was a Sidonian, not a Hebrew, and a Baal worshiper, an idolater. I Kings 16 tells us, “Ahab not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.”
The writer tells us what will happen to Ahab in 21:19, and it comes to pass in 22:38: “So the king died (he had been killed in battle in his chariot) and was brought to Samaria, and they buried him there. 38 They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria (where the prostitutes bathed),[b] and the dogs licked up his blood, as the word of the Lord had declared.”
Jezebel seems forgotten. Have her sins not found her out? But the Word of the Lord accomplishes its purposes: 2 Kings 9 tells us how her own servants threw her out of an upper window when Jehu said, “Who is on my side?”
Trampled to death by the horses of his army, when Jehu later sent servants to find her body and bury her, for she was the daughter of a king, Jehu said, they reported back to him that there was nothing left but her skull and feet and hands, as 21:23 had said: “And also concerning Jezebel the Lord says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of[b]
All for a vegetable garden. A few leeks and onions, maybe. There is a God. He is the Lord. He sees all. He hears all. “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.” The Lord does not forget… “and from whom no secrets are hid.”
A useful question to sometimes ask is why is this passage here? Why is it in the Bible and why is it where it is? What are God’s intentions with this text, for me, for today, for others, what was the writer or editor thinking?
For some of us think to ourselves, “Do we really need to know about the dogs licking up Ahab’s blood? Or Jezebel getting defenestrated?
And why hear about Ahab at all? Ahab is, or was, a part of the consciousness of the West. It is no accident that the Bible-haunted Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, named his evil captain Ahab, and his wandering sailor Ishmael. And who does Ishmael encounter before the sailing of the whale ship, but a strange man on the shore named Elijah, who warns him of Captain Ahab.
Ahab looms large in our memory, but what about King Zimri? Or his father King Omri? Historians and archaeologists assert that Omri was more powerful and effective as a King than Ahab was. We even learn that Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, certainly like Ahab in that sense.
But Ahab brought idolatry to the fore. He allowed Jezebel to bring baals into the kingdom. We like to think of idolatry as a victimless crime. Who can it hurt? Like the way some used to and even still today say, the victimless crime of smoking marijuana, or the victimless crime of prostitution. Some imagine that is a simple transaction, the man gets what he wants, the prostitute gets paid, where is the harm? A victimless crime.
The nonsensical notion that prostitution has no victims is a hellish lie, just like the idea that idolatry has no victims. For greed and covetousness are idolatry, as Paul says in Ephesians 5: “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” And again in Colossians 3: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Idolatry as greed or covetousness helps us to see this whole chapter of I Kings as a meditation on idolatry, on any behavior or system of government that puts anything before God.
The supposed religious neutrality of our country’s founding is coming back to bite us in recent years, for it’s false to say that it doesn’t matter what your faith is, it doesn’t matter what your religion is, it doesn’t matter what you believe in your heart, all that has nothing to do with the kind of person you become. This is to class religion as some kind of stamp-collecting, model train building hobby. And it’s not true, as many of the Founders certainly knew and understood.
We’re accustomed to reminding ourselves that our nation is founded on a “government of laws, not of men.” Made famous by John Adams, 2nd President, it is a part of the Massachusetts 1780 Constitution, drafted by John Adams.
But here’s the problem. The law has to be enforced by men. The law has to be understood by men, and taught by men. The idea was to avoid government playing favorites, changing the rules as they went along, like playing Monopoly with my older brother before I was old enough to read the rules.
A government of laws not men should mean equal enforcement because those in charge follow the law, and obey the law, without fear or favor, without slanting the law one way or another, without political interference in who is prosecuted and who is not. Laws not men.
As a country we have relied on procedure, and forgotten that the men who wrote those constitutions and laws of long ago were a different breed of men than we find all around us today. A government of laws not men is pointless and powerless if the law is mute and helpless, if, as a prophet said long ago, the law does not live in the heart of each and every man and woman, for if the law is not revered and respected by every man woman and child, there is no society that can survive the chaos that will ensue.
Naboth is our name. There is always a Jezebel, always an Ahab around the corner, or on the horizon. But the Lord says, “I have heard the cry of my people. And behold, the Lord’s arm is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear.”
Sermon on Luke 7:18-35 Sunday, August 16th
Would it bother you if I said that John the Baptist bothers me? In this passage from Luke we read that John has sent two of his disciples to Jesus after it was reported to John that Jesus had healed the servant of the Roman Centurion, raised the widow’s son from the dead, and that many were saying about Jesus, “A great prophet has arisen among us.”
The disciples of John told him about all these things we hear in vs 18, and so John sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus a question: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Now that’s a very carefully worded question. He doesn’t ask, “Are you the Messiah? Are you the Christ, as we would say? For both words, in Hebrew and in Greek, mean anointed one. Which means “person marked out by special rite or ceremony for a specific divinely ordained purpose.” Aromatic oils, made from olive oil and other ingredients, like myrrh would be used to mark the forehead.
The Kings of Israel were anointed, the priests were anointed. The prophet Samuel anointed the first King, Saul, who at first protested, saying he was from Benjamin, the smallest tribe, and the poorest family of the tribe.
Anointed is a word sometimes used in other contexts. We’re familiar with that. Sometime Journalists say so and so has been anointed to be his or her party’s standard-bearer, combining religious and military metaphors.
For whatever reason, John is not coming right out and asking if he’s the Messiah. But the expectation among many was that there was an “anointed one” who was coming. People had different ideas about what this “one who was to come” would do, but John had said, in Luke 3: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with[e] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
There was a judgment coming for which John was telling his hearers and disciples to prepare. “Repent, be washed of your sins. He comes to gather his harvest, the wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff to be cast into the furnace.”
Others expected the “one who is to come” to immediately lead Judah in a military revolt, and defeat the Romans and their collaborators, as the Lord had done of old, in the days of Moses and Joshua, Gideon and David. The Arm of the Lord! The sword of the Lord and Gideon!
John hears of healings, of Gentiles, and resurrections of unknown young men…maybe he’s puzzled. “Are you the one?” he asks. Politely as possible, it must be said. Should we look for another? You and I might think, how can they not know? How do they not recognize him?
But Jesus doesn’t fit the pattern for which John and others were watching. For notice Jesus’ answer to the question of John? “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus is carrying out the program he had already announced back at the synagogue in Capernaum. Local boy makes good, asked to speak in synagogue. He read from Isaiah 61, and Luke indicates he focused on vss 1 and 2: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”
There are plenty of others like it in Isaiah: 58:6: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
And Isaiah 35: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
And one more, in Isaiah 29: “On that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind shall see.
19 The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
20 For the tyrant shall be no more,
and the scoffer shall cease to be;
all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
21 those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right.
You can see what they all have in common: Human evil: “The tyrant shall be no more,” and what we might call natural evil: “the eyes of the blind shall see.” Isaiah, and Jesus, connect the reign, the rule, of the Lord, with the end of sickness, oppression and death. You can see the kind of things that evil people did 2500 years ago: payoffs in lawsuits, the corruption of the legal system.
I would also be interested to read some sort of medical-archaeological investigation into the ailments of ancient Israel. Plenty of people died prematurely from contagious diseases, colds, flu, pneumonia, diphtheria, measles, smallpox and other fevers, all kinds of things could kill in a world without anti-biotics or other medicines and no modern plumbing and sanitation practices.
There was not so much cancer, and diabetes, and heart disease back then, which believe it or not are the ailments of history’s winners. The diseases of the rich and prosperous, which come long after children and grandchildren are born. But in ancient Israel, those who dodged death from contagion nevertheless seem unusually plagued by deafness, blindness, mobility issues, the Bible category of the lame, and problems with infertility.
All of which may have connections to the effects of extreme fever, whether with adults, children, or babies in the womb, like the man born blind, in John 9.
But the passages from Isaiah were connected to the promise of return from exile, the promises of God restoring his people to his favor, the promise of God to come and be their king, to establish Zion, Jerusalem, as his throne, from which the Lord would rule the world.
The lion would lie down with the lamb. All people shall see the glory of God. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will father the lambs in his arms, and gently lead those that are with young.
This, all of this, is in Jesus’ answer to John, “the blind receive their sight. This is how this type of allusion works. Jesus quotes a verse and the whole panoply of its history and broader associations are also heard and intended.
And the claim that goes with this assertion is astounding, for Jesus associates himself, he identifies himself with the words spoken by Isaiah in the specifically messianic poems in the prophet. In ch. 40: “ To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing.
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
This is what it means when Jesus finishes his response to John with verse 23, It’s almost like a postscript, when Jesus says: “And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”
You know that old joke about the longtime prisoners who have told the same jokes so often that all they have to do is call out #23, and everybody laughs! Or, #15. Everybody laughs. The new guy on the block decides he’ll get in on the fun and calls out: “#17!” Silence.
Finally the oldest guy says, “Some people just don’t know to tell a joke.”
Jesus, and John, and many others, knew the scriptures backwards and forward….and sideways. What else were they gonna do. No TV, no internet, no books, no Kindle. They had the scriptures, which they read, or heard read, over and over again. And because they believed that God spoke through this word, they looked hard for the connections from book to book and prophet to prophet.
They looked so hard they could connect up vast amounts of meaning and significance with a single reference, a sentence, a phrase, that took in and conveyed to the hearer whole schools of thought and interpretation.
Are you he is to come? What is John asking here, besides the obvious? Listen to this from Psalm 118:26: “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light.”
John says, are you this one? Are you the one, the Blessed one, who comes in the name of the Lord?
And Jesus responds, “Blessed is he who takes no office in me.” Jesus says, what you read in that royal Psalm 118 applies to me, speaks of me. I am the blessed one. I am he who comes in, and with the name of the Lord.
And with Jesus’ answer and Luke’s connection of the stories of John and Jesus, we learn just from this interchange what is the message of the Kingdom of God. It is a message of healing and life, it is a message of justice and righteousness, it is a message of hope that conquers the age old efforts of some groups to wreak righteousness on others, of some groups to wrest retribution out of history by means of violence, and force justice on the descendants of malefactors.
What do we see here in this exchange? It’s no accident that the Lord whom John knew, knows John’s name and his role:
“What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’
28 I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
And this is why John the Baptist bothers me. Did you know both John and Jesus came preaching Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand? They both called the Pharisees, quote, “A brood of vipers?” They both said that every tree that does not bear fruit shall be cut down, they both were considered by everyone to be a prophet, and they both were nonetheless rejected by their hearers. They were both seized and bound by the Roman guards. Herod grieved at John’s death, and Pilate was reluctant to sentence Jesus to death. And both John and Jesus were buried by one or more of their disciples.
The gospel writers, especially Matthew, go to great lengths to develop and highlight these parallels, sometimes even going so far as to use the same exact wording in talking about John and then Jesus.
And one says to the other, are you the one who is to come? He then dies for following that one, who also dies, but for the sins of the whole world.
John bothers me in that his life so closely follows and parallels that of Jesus, and mine does not.
Does that make sense to you? Of course, though John was the greatest man in history, the least in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, in a puzzling formulation, is greater than John.
But greater, perhaps, only in what we have received. Not our wealth, not our comfort, not the prospect of long life in this world, even though global life expectancy has grown on average from less than 40 years 200 years ago, to 73 years today, around the world. An unprecedented change, most of which has happened since 1950.
The least in the kingdom of is greater than John because of what we have received, what we have, and what we know. For to live is Christ, and to die is gain. That’s the best deal ever, and that knowledge is our anchor, our life, our salvation.
As the apostle John says, “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
Sermon, Galatians 1:11-24, August 9, 2020
It’s well known that the zeal Paul refers to in v. 14 continues to drive him in his ministry. “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” He is clear in v. 13 that he persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” When God revealed his Son Jesus Christ, Paul did a complete 180 and began to persecute Judaism instead.
Actually, I’m just checking to see if you’re listening. Because of course that’s not what Paul did. He didn’t turn around from persecuting the church and begin to persecute the synagogue. He did the opposite naturally, because of the nature of the revelation given to him.
There are three important things to note in this second half of chapter 1 in Galatians. First is the relationship and sometimes conflict between revelation and tradition. Second is the fact that zeal must be tempered, or formed and informed by its object and inspiration. And third is the nature of Paul’s turnaround, the reversal Paul underwent when confronted by God’s revelation.
Let’s look at the second point first. In the church many have long talked about Paul’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity. For a long time, partly because that was the way commentators described it, that was the only way we had to think about it. We think in words and concepts that we are given, and it’s only repeated and continued engagement with hard and contradictory notions, which may or may not be right in themselves, that can lead us to new insight.
That’s why the cancel culture of modern-day academia, politics and social media are so stultifying and destructive to progress in understanding. Jordan Peterson wisely said “I don’t know what I think until I can formulate it in a way my listeners can understand and challenge. I don’t know what I think until I say it.”
So the notion of saying Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity relies on at least two insights. First, Judaism, the word itself, is only used in the NT in this passage. It seems to mean both more and less than what we might think. More because it seems to be connected to Paul’s use of the highly charged word “Zealous” or zeal. Less because it’s not really categorical name for a religion, since “religion” is a relatively modern concept, an invention of the world in secular can be seen to be the opposite of religious.
Zeal was associated with Phinehas, Moses’ brother Aaron’s grandson, who stopped the progress of God’s wrath through the camp of the Israelites by killing with his spear the Baal worship Hebrew man and his Midianite wife in their tent.
Zeal was associated with Elijah, who slew the prophets of Baal on the summit of Mt. Carmel in I Kings 18, concurrent with the law in Deuteronomy 13, that prophets of false gods were to be put to death.
Paul speaks of being zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. This means more than just being extra devout, always observing the sabbath, eating no shrimp or bacon or cheeseburgers. Paul put his zeal into action with force and violence. This is why he was the one in charge of the stoning of Stephen. This is why he uses the word here and in Phillipians3:6, “As to Zeal, I was a persecutor of the church.”
This word was used in Jewish circles to describe a form of elevated, active, can we say, fanatical devotion to the Lord. It had specific content, and, along with its use by writers in the apocrypha to refer to zealous violence of the Maccabean patriots against the Greek persecutions, it came to eventually denominate those who wanted to overthrow the Romans with violence, though we have no evidence that Paul belonged to that particular group.
What we have is Paul’s rehearsal of a story, a narrative in very compressed language in verse 15: “but when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles….”
It is the content of the revelation that makes the difference. Paul says God revealed his Son to him. So the content of that revelation is what makes the difference. Paul is not only not describing a religious conversion, he is bringing into the center of the discussion the new way of the cross. He’s helping us to see how his zeal is transformed from violence toward others to service of others.
Previously, Paul was serving God, as he saw it, by zealously persecuting the church. God, in his revelation to Paul says, No, not that way. This is how you serve me.
What Paul and all followers of Jesus are called to is contained in the content of the passion story of Christ. God’s plan for a rebellious world is found in the story of a sinless man who is crucified for the sins of the world. The Pagan Romans, the self-righteous Sanhedrin, how does God deal with them? Not violence, but by giving his Son to die for them.
We first see this way back in Genesis in the story of Abraham. It’s inserted into the DNA of Israel from the beginning. Abraham is called by God to sacrifice his son, his only son, the son whom he loves. The story in Genesis 22 is called the Akedah in modern Rabbinic commentary. It is now so central to their self-understanding the passage itself has its own name.
The story of the sacrificial Son, as revealed to Paul by God himself changes the nature of zeal. It reverses the direction of the zeal. It changes how Paul operates, because he is no longer the persecutor, but, as we read in 2 Corinthians 11, he has become the persecuted. “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning.”
But as Peter reminds us in his first letter, the story of the sacrificial Son changes the behavior of his followers. “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,[h] so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.”
Third point is merely to reiterate that Paul’s story is in essence the story of Jesus. He is not emphasizing here in Galatians “what Jesus did for me, how he met my needs,” which is not the way they thought back then. No, the story he tells is of a world turned upside down, a persecutor turned into an apostle, a zealot become the servant of all. In 2 Corinthians again we read, “Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;[e] 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?”
Paul the persecutor has become more like a nursing mother with an infant child. As he says in I Thessalonians 2, “ But we were gentle[c] among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”
The change is that Paul is no longer following his imagined idea of what it means to be zealous, but following the steps of the one described again in I Peter 2 “But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
Paul is so tightly identified with his Lord he can say things like in Galatians 6, “I bear in my body the marks of Jesus.” Which I assume means the scars from all those beatings he listed in 2 Corinthians. Paul basically no longer operates with an agenda when we meet him in his letters, but with a directive. A command. A commission. He’s been plucked up, turned around, and given a new direction.
Finally, the first point I mentioned, is the tension between Revelation and Tradition. Paul instructs these confused Galatians that he had received no directions or instructions from other men, even the other apostles. What he preached had been revealed to him by God. The Galatians must not follow anyone who deviates from what Paul has proclaimed to them. “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,[d] that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
But you and me. It’s a little different, isn’t it? I have received the Good news, at second hand, let’s say. I saw no visions, heard no voices. The very word, “tradition” is based on the Latin word for handing on, handing over, like in a relay race, when the baton is handed on to the next runner in the relay.
Preachers, of much training, and no training, are sometimes tempted to think we can relay to our hearers the divine revelation God has given us directly. And yes, all should listen to the Spirit of God, but all should also humble themselves under the yoke of tradition, to learn how others wiser, and with a different perspective perhaps, see the truth of God.
It is indeed ironic that our tradition is the revelation given to Paul, who says he was not “traditioned,” but given, handed, a revelation directly from God. I usually run pretty fast from characters who make that kind of claim.
The Bible itself which we believe and understand to be the Word of God is the product also of tradition, for it was not let down from Heaven on a golden rope, but came together slowly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the practices of the synagogue and the church.
Our tradition is to trust the Revelation given to Paul, and the other apostles. This is why it is an abuse of this text from Galatians to think of it as some sort of proof text for the rights of the individual conscience that stands against the forces of controlling orthodoxy. There is not a dichotomy, not necessarily a conflict here between the individual and the tradition per se, as Richard Hays says, but between the Good News God has revealed, and the human traditions arrayed against it that Paul struggled with.
Do our traditions help, or hinder others hearing and understanding the gospel? That’s the question not to forget. We mustn’t think that Paul is some sort of advocate for “The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now.” He is not the apostle of let’s all get along no matter what, the messenger of You do Your Thing and I’ll do Mine, and if we meet, it’s Beautiful.”
Paul doesn’t have a position from which he negotiates. He meets no one halfway on the truth of the gospel. Our challenge is to realize we’re not Paul, but that we need to understand and live his message.
Even if I can’t say, I’m never wrong. Even if I can’t say, No one knows the gospel like I do. That’s not for us. What we can all say is, “We would see Jesus.” We seek to know Jesus, and to make him know to others.
I can say, I will always seek to live under the guidance and direction of the Word of God, seeking him out, and finding that he is seeking me. For the Word of God is living and active, as the book of Hebrews describes him, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Sermon Psalm 30 Sunday, August 2nd
The idea of Jesus of Nazareth as the Word of God, the communication of Deity, the content, the reason, the rationality of the divine in the world, first came to me in my hearing of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. In the beginning was the Word.
I can recall a trip with our Explorer Scouts Post to the Appalachian Trail the week after Christmas, in 1971, for it was in that year my thoughts began to turn more seriously toward God.
I don’t remember the name of the lodge we stayed at, but we had given up trying to hike, because the trail was entirely frozen over. It had snowed and thawed a few times and the part of the trail we were attempting was simply a diagonal sideways sheet of ice that was impossible to hike.
Dad somehow got us, a dozen or so teenage boys, a lodge to stay in, beside some river in a state park. It was quite cold for all of us Florida boys, and we stayed inside the lodge most of the time, near the fireplace.
I mention all this because it’s where and when I remember first noticing the oddness of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. And I noticed because, in my new found religious devotion, I had decided to rewrite the Bible.
Not in any sort of Thomas Jefferson sense, picking and choosing what I liked and didn’t like, but simply by copying the text of the whole Bible. I get these big ideas. I had brought a Bible and a notebook to write in. Of course, with my handwriting, no one else would ever be able to read what I had written, but it was the doing of it, the taking in of scripture through the eyes and passing it back to the page through the muscles of the body. I didn’t know at the time, but that’s a very good way to impress on your mind what you’re reading; to copy it out by hand.
I started with the Gospel of John, I don’t know why, unless it was the notion of those initial verses that caught my attention. “In the beginning. Seemed like a great place to start. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.
This tells us a lot about God, and ourselves. The Word. There is perhaps a holiness connected to this fundamental aspect of humanness. Communication, communion, think of all the things that one does and accomplishes through words.
We listen to our children, waiting and watching for those first words, when they learn to speak, a confirmation that a signal is getting through. The mother that speaks and sings to the child, in the womb, in the crib, while nursing, while walking, reading to the child when he or she just wants to chew on the book, long before the child can talk back, this is the foundation of so much of our learning for the rest of our lives.
You see, Humanity is not an innately reasonable entity. It’s passed on. We become acculturated by those who raise us, those around us, those we’re taught to respect and revere. Even if an infant did not have to be fed and protected for many years, it’s the growth of those connections that make us human in the ways that allow families, cities and civilizations to grow and develop in ways that provide for truly human flourishing.
This is why things like loneliness are so painful. Social isolation. The child born with a facial disfigurement endures a great deal of emotional pain from those who turn away. Why is solitary confinement in prison an additional punishment? It’s painful.
This is why God gives us families, clans, tribes, neighborhoods. This is why it can make sense for a person who walked on this earth to be called, as in John 1:1, the Word of God.
God chose the most basic, distinguishing aspect of humanity with which to speak to us. And we have this diverse, variable, shimmering tapestry of beauty known as the scriptures for our birthright. Abraham didn’t. He had no Bible. Nor Moses, nor David.
In the mysteries of the power of the Holy Spirit God used those men and others to speak to us today. My great great great great grandfather was born only 262 years ago. How many generations back are those who first read the gospel of John, or a letter of the apostle Paul, perhaps not even knowing what they were holding?
And how far back, when someone first sang, or spoke, “O Lord my God, I cried out to you for help, and you have healed me,” like the writer of Psalm 30? Ellen Charry, a commentary writer, says some earlier commentators associate this Psalm with the recovery from illness of Hezekiah, narrated in 2 Kings 20. Others with the destruction of Haman and the reprieve for the Jews in the time of Esther in the Persian kingdom.
Calvin reads Psalm 30 spiritually and sees the remorse expressed as David’s anguish over his sin with Bathsheba. Different writers have seen the rescue God provides as rescue from illness, or sin, or even death itself.
However we situate its possible original setting, we mustn’t neglect its current setting, which is just as real, just as important, just as relevant for the interpretation of this Psalm and every scripture.
What does that mean, its current setting? Well, it means, for one thing, that history is not just that which is dusty, dead and gone, seen only in the dim light of our metaphorical rear-view mirror. History is not just that which we must dig up from the buried past, translate, and put into some sort of relevant modern-day dress. History is where we are, and the Word of God is with us all the time. The Word of God is not limited because it was first spoken by a Jew on the other side of the world 2,500 years ago.
Whether it’s Hezekiah, or Esther, or David that’s the original speaker or setting for this Psalm, one thing is certain: you and I are now the setting. You and I are now making history. You and I now must call on the Lord in the long hours of weeping, for truly his joy does come in the morning.
You see, here we are, getting older by the minute, my life is shorter now than when I woke up this morning, as is yours, but you and I are here as newborn eternal beings, by virtue of being in the body of Christ.
Listen to that last verse and hear the utter facticity of what it says. It is no exaggeration. It is not preacher talk. It’s a simple fact. “O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
Forever. That’s what awaits you. And if you’ve ever thought about eternity very hard, you’ve probably started to worry. Not whether or not you will be there, though perhaps that has worried you. Rather what are we going to do there, FOREVER? Will there be Netflix? Can I take my Kindle? We think Eternity’s a long time, but it’s not. It’s not time at all. You know how time flies when you’re having fun? You ever notice that when you’re the busiest, the day just flies by?
Eternity is like nothing we’ve ever known. How would we? “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”
Psalm 30 tells us the truth and transcends time and the past. William Faulkner spoke truly when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
It keeps speaking, it keeps pushing the present into the future, just like this Psalm has now been spoken into your heart. Today.
You see,m the way to read this Psalm, to perform this Psalm, is to hold it up like a mirror. Haven’t you ever cried yourself to sleep? Haven’t you ever thought, like in verse 6, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’”
Cast your mind back to February. Oh, those Chinese have got themselves in a pickle again. Another Bird Flu. Another virus. When will they ever learn?
You didn’t think it would affect you, or your family, or your country. I mean, how would that happen?
Most of us think, or have thought in the past, since we’re old enough to have learned by now, that we’ve got it all figured out. We know how to navigate. I don’t have to worry about this, or that. I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing. It’s worked so far.
“But then you hid your face, O Lord, and I was overwhelmed. To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication. Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be thou my helper!”
Ellen Charry takes this psalm apart and puts the verses in an order, beginning with the good times of verse 6, which then leads to the Psalmists crisis, and then to the turn to God, who then hears his prayer, restores him and the Psalmist sings his praises.
She puts it in emotional order, in the way things might have happened. Verse 6 reminds me of Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 10, “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” It sounds like a proverb, but I haven’t been able to find it elsewhere.
What it does support is the universality of sin. Let anyone who thinks he stands. We overestimate ourselves, our strength, our virtue. Ellen Charry translates verse 6 as “When life was easy, I said, “Nothing will bother me.”
Psalm 30 is not specific about what went wrong for the Psalmist, for by the time we read this Psalm, by the time it has become “canonical,” a part of the scriptures, it has been universalized. It fits us all whether we have yet seen and experienced its truth.
This is why Soren Kierkegaard, a man much given to depression, talked about despair in a strange way. He said the person who doesn’t experience their own despair, is the only person who truly is in despair. For with Kierkegaard, a profoundly devout Lutheran Danishman of the 19th century, his struggles threw him into the arms of God. He saw the carefree successes of those who took no thought for God and his call, as people living in a dungeon of success.
The heart that is wrung by pain and suffering knows how to love and prize the love of God. The heart that remembers the weeping of the nighttime can comfort those who cannot see or believe that the morning comes, it always does.
For whatever direction this life takes, and whatever life takes away from us, there is one thing that cannot be taken away, the sure and certain hope of resurrection from the grave. “ You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
The Psalmist sings the future into your heart. When you know the tune and the singer, the darkness slips away and the morning dawns, and light fills the world.
The believer has something to hold onto. Think of your faith as the rock you’ve built your house on that the storm cannot wash away. Think of your faith as the rock from which the springs of water gush in the desert. Think of your faith as the stone which the world’s builders rejected, but which became the chief cornerstone. Think of your faith as the stone of stumbling, which had you not stumbled upon, you would not have seen it.
7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.’
Luke 7:1-10 Sermon Sunday, July 26th
I’ve been trying to think of a contemporary equivalent to the Roman Centurion, especially in terms of how much the population hated them in particular. As divided as this country is politically, it’s hard to settle on possibility that’s not hated by half and loved by half. There are Americans who love Donald Trump and hate him. There are Americans who love Joe Biden and hate him. So that won’t work. It’s like that with a lot of folks. Colin Kaepernick, Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow, Drew Brees. Even someone like Anthony Fauci has his army of supporters and detractors.
It’s hard to find someone in our world exactly equivalent to a Roman Centurion in Jesus’ world. I thought maybe a Tax Auditor for the IRS might qualify, a type of person loved only by their family. But even the IRS agent is just trying to do his or her job, trying to earn a living. And where would our country be without income taxes? Well, don’t answer that.
A Roman Centurion was the face of oppression in many of the lands governed or occupied by the Romans for several centuries. Not all regions were occupied by the Army; it depended on their governability. A Centurion might be equivalent to the modern-day rank of a Captain or Major in the US Army. He would be the command officer for 80-200 soldiers, depending on the assignment and the circumstances.
There are probably similarities between the way Iraqis viewed American field officers from 2003 forward. Suffice it to say the representatives of the greater nation that has weapons and power that you don’t have are viewed with suspicion, hostility and hatred. But notice that in this story we have a different circumstance.
The wealth disparity between the Jews of Capernaum and the officers of the Roman Army must have been substantial because v. 5 has the Jewish leaders saying to Jesus “he built us our synagogue.” This Centurion seems to be more along the lines of a “kinder, gentler” sort of occupying Army, putting into practice, with more success, something similar to the generally unsuccessful, Hearts and Minds campaign of the Vietnam War, if you remember that.
It was the local leaders who said to Jesus, ““He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” So the Centurion seems to be remarkable in many ways, particularly for the way he stands out in contrast with the bad reputation of other Roman officials.
It’s also important to see the context within Luke, for sometimes we see these chapter designations as hard breaks between topics when they’re not. The very existence of chapter designations in the Bible is only 500 years old, and so not in the original text.
Right after this story of the Centurion is the raising from the dead of the widow’s son in the town of Nain. What’s worth pointing out is the way Luke gives a nod to the knowledgeable reader by saying of Jesus, after the young man was restored to life, “And he gave him to his mother.”
In I Kings 17, during the famine sent by God because of the wickedness of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, Elijah, at God’s direction, is staying with the widow of Zarephath, whom Jesus referenced in Luke 4 during his very unpopular inaugural sermon.
The widow’s son dies and Elijah stretches himself out on the body three times, cries out to the Lord in anguish and the boy is restored to life.
In Luke, Jesus says to the young man on his way to the cemetery, “Young man, I say to you, Arise.” A simple word of Command. No prayers, no cries of anguish. He does not, as Elisha does in a parallel story in 2 Kings 4, stretch himself out upon the child repeatedly and even seem to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation.
Nothing but: Arise. Jesus speaks, Jesus commands, and Life returns.
It’s interesting that the words of Luke are exactly the same as the words of the narrator in I Kings, when he said, “And he gave him to his mother.” Precisely the same, word for word, letter for letter in the Greek translation of the OT in use at the time, the Septuagint.
Many NT allusions and references are similar, but few are exact copies of the source, like this phrase. It’s like a little flag sticking out, or somebody made a notation in the margin: remember Elijah? Remember Elisha? Look at the differences between their power and that of Jesus. “Arise.”
Jesus spoke as one who had authority. They said that about him in Matthew, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. And that’s also where this story of the Centurion is placed in Luke’s organization of his gospel, right after that iconic sermon, similar to what Matthew reported in the Sermon on the Mount.
In ch. 6, right before we get to the Centurion, Jesus is asserting his identity by teaching the crowds. In this version of Luke’s, we have the blessings and the woes.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[d] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
You’ve heard something like this before: “37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;”
As well as: 43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit.”
And finally: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.[j] 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
Who says things like that? Build your very existence, organize your life, on my words, my teaching, my commands. Counselors and psychologists don’t. “Well, I can’t give you advice, of course. That’s a decision you’ll have to make. This is an issue for you to decide.”
Jesus says, Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly. Live like me; everything about your life should follow the pattern I lay down. The nerve. 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.”
And our lesson begins with a reference to that sermon: “After Jesus[a] had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.” And in this section we have a, normally, despised Centurion, a slave who is ill, Jewish synagogue elders speaking on behalf and in favor of the Roman oppressor, and Jesus.
All Jesus says in the whole episode, is words of approval for the Centurion. ““I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” We then read that the Friends of the Centurion, for he and Jesus never meet, find the slave already healed when they return home.
Luke does not even claim that Jesus healed the slave, in so many words. The whole episode of ten verses elevates the Centurion to a role of the faithful man under authority trusting Jesus. He receives, this uncircumcised, pig-eating man of violence, he receives the highest accolade from Jesus. ““I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Clearly, if you read this in context, the point is to focus on the Gentile. The Gentile has faith. Jesus applauds him. Jesus heals his slave. Jesus so approves of this man he compares him favorably to all Israel. All Israel!
There were many episodes in Jesus’ life, says the gospel of John, that were not written down and included in the gospels. The editorial decision to include one like this shows us the importance of the Gentile question still 30-50 years after the crucifixion.
But is that a live issue for you? Do you think there’s a problem with Gentiles being approved by God, admitted to the people of God solely on faith in Jesus?
For most of us it’s not really a burning issue today, since we’re all Gentiles after all, as are 99% of Christians. That is to say, non-Jewish.
So what does Luke 7 mean? Well, that’s the wrong question. Asking what something “MEANS” is a common way to go astray when interpreting the scriptures.
Meaning can be a misleading category, especially when dealing with moral/ethical questions, though this episode is not that. The question to bring is how does this text speak to me today. God said, Let there be light, and there was light. God said that, and it was. What does this text do, or accomplish? Where and when and why is it relevant?
The truth is, asking about “meaning” is a very limiting question that is sometimes used to put Jesus in a box and nail the lid shut. Here’s what it means. NO here’s what it means. You figure it out and then, you forget about it. You solved the problem. You know what it means.
But when you reframe the question, you see with different eyes, and hear with different ears. I like to hear the Centurion’s vigorous honesty and self-examination. ““Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;” This is a man with clear sight and unclouded vision, an awareness of who he is. This is what leads to salvation. Do you see that? Do you hear that?
Health/wholeness is provided to the sick slave. Jesus is asked at one remove to heal the slave of a man he doesn’t meet, and he never even needs to speak the words, or command the healing. Jesus doesn’t even say anything. “I’m not worthy,” are the words of power in this story. These are the performative words. The house is swept and clean and made ready for the Spirit of God. “I’m not worthy.” What is the Centurion saying? I know who you are, I know who I am. I know our unequal relationship. “I’m a high-ranking representative of the most powerful empire in history with hundreds of soldiers at my command, and you’re an unshaven, fanatical wandering preacher with no job, no home, no income.”
But I’M not worthy to have YOU come under MY roof. Do you hear what’s happening there? Jesus heard it and he immediately knows with whom and what he’s dealing: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
It’s the truly lowly who is exalted. IT’s the sick who are healed. I have come for the lost, and yet he has found me. Now, Jesus says, have this taste of heaven, for the true home of life and health is the New Creation.
When the Son of Man comes, again, will he find faith on earth? Will he find you watching, with your lamps trimmed and filled with oil?