April 11, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Now that he is finishing his two terms in office with about 9 months or so to go, it can be a bit startling to realize that a scant decade ago, not only was the name of Barack Obama relatively unknown, the man himself could walk around Chicago or anywhere else freely and without the need of protection or security. The rise to world-wide fame of this particular man was particularly meteoric, as illustrated by this story from Newsweek that recounts something that happened in 2004, just four years before Obama himself managed to get nominated for the presidency:
On the eve of his keynote speech to the Democratic convention in 2004, the speech that effectively launched him as the party’s hope of the future, Obama took a walk down a street in Boston with his friend Marty Nesbitt. A growing crowd followed them. “Man, you’re like a rock star,” Nesbitt said to Obama. “He looked at me,” Nesbitt recalled in a story he liked to tell reporters, “and said, ‘Marty, you think it’s bad today, wait until tomorrow.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘My speech is pretty good’.”
Obama’s 2004 convention speech launched him into the strange world of celebritydom; he acquired the kind of aura that can transform a skinny, scholarly man with big ears into a sex symbol. Eureka Gilkey, one of Obama’s aides, recalled going with him when he made a speech to the Democratic National Committee shortly after he began his campaign. Obama was mobbed outside the bathroom. “These were DNC members; they’re supposed to be jaded by politicians,” recalled Gilkey. “Not trying to tear their shirts off. I remember going home that night, and my boyfriend saying, ‘What is that purple bruise on your back?’ I had bruises on my back from people pushing and shoving, trying to get to [Obama] … I remember grabbing women’s hands because they were trying to pull his shirt from his pants. I couldn’t believe it.”
And that’s what we expect in this world. We expect people to enjoy celebrity status, to work hard to achieve it and to then revel in it once it arrives. We expect the people who may become great leaders to herald that fact, to placard it on billboards and advertisements so as to have a chance to make a difference. Our expectation of this is so entrenched that we often don’t bat an eye when we hear politicians or sports heroes making comments about themselves that would strike us as the height of vanity and arrogance if we heard such things said by anyone from within our own families or with whom we work Monday-Friday.
But the famous in our society routinely get away with self-aggrandizing rhetoric because that’s just how things work in this world. Although we like and expect a measure of modesty and humility in politicians and other famous folks, we give them a bit of a wide berth given who they are and what they have achieved. (Jimmy Carter found out about this while serving as President: he thought it was entirely too much fuss and too haughty a display to have the song “Hail to the Chief” played every time he entered a room for an event and so he suggested they not do that anymore. But it turned out that people wanted and expected to hear that regal music played when the President arrives, and so Mr. Carter relented and let the tradition continue.)
Pope Francis is reportedly a humble and private man who has his whole vocation long eschewed the trappings of whatever office he was in. He took public transportation in Argentina, lived in a small-ish apartment where he did his own cooking. Since becoming Pope, he has struggled to find his way between who he has always been and the glittering trappings of his office. It’s hard to be the Vicar of Christ these days and actually live like Jesus.
After all, isn’t it curious to see that when the actual Son of God, the true Messiah of the world, arrived here and lived here, he was so loathe to trumpet his credentials and was so adverse to putting himself forward that people actually had to beg him to come clean as to whether he was The One or not? Apparently Jesus was content to let his actions speak for themselves, to allow himself to become a window through which those willing to look would be able to see no less than the one true God, the one Jesus called his Father. If you were interested in that Father, then it was probably because you were one of the chosen “sheep” to begin with. If you were willing to look through Jesus to see the Father with whom he was one, then the mere fact that you were interested and willing to believe indicated that something else was already stirring in your heart. But for those who were unwilling to believe, no amount of overt speech by Jesus would have made much difference anyway.
Years ago my wife and I saw a somewhat humorous portrayal about the differences between how men and women communicate. One part of that presentation showed a husband asking his (obviously distressed) wife “Honey, what’s wrong?” The wife replied, “If you have to ask, then I am not going to tell you!” It was a way of saying in essence, “You know full well what’s up and so your question is a dodge to make it look like you did nothing wrong! What’s more, if you really don’t know, then you’re past help anyway and so I am not going to tell you!”
If you have to ask . . .
It reminds me of the secret room at Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter stories. The Room of Requirement contained many secrets that could help someone in need. But its doorway was invisible and so you had to know where to go (and then be in need) for it to appear. The saying about finding this room was “If you already know, you need not ask. If you need to ask, you will never know.”
Similarly in John 10: if the people celebrating Hanukkah that year in Jerusalem had to ask Jesus if he would plainly fess up to being the Messiah, then Jesus was not going to answer. They either already knew Jesus was the Christ or they did not and if they did not, it was because they were refusing to make the logical connections between Jesus’ work and his unity with God the Father. So their query was one-part a trick question, one-part a prelude to exactly what does follow just beyond the fringe of this lection; namely, an attempt to kill Jesus for blasphemy.
So Jesus’ reply to their question really did amount to his saying, “If you have to ask, then I am not going to tell you!” They had no ear for a tune. They had no ability to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. Jesus could make any claim for himself that he wanted but they were not going to believe him, listen to him, or most certainly follow him. Their ears were not attuned to hear his message, their eyes were not sharp enough to see the Father who stood behind Jesus every miracle.
And yet they had to ask their question—even if they asked it with cynicism and doubt abounding—because the truth is they were looking for a more typical world leader. They were looking for the dashing figure who was willing to put himself forward because they thought that was the only kind of Messiah who could stand a chance at routing Herod, Pilate, and finally the Caesar himself.
Jesus, however, came to point a different direction, telling us that the secret to life is the willingness to give life away, that sacrifice leads to new life, that dying leads to resurrection. Jesus came and provided so many signs that pointed to a different kind of kingdom. Those who wanted to be part of God’s new order of things followed where those signs pointed. Those who were still hung up on worldly definitions of authority, prestige, and success—and who wanted to amass some of that for themselves—saw Jesus as a loser and as a non-starter. Nothing Jesus could have said would have convinced them otherwise, not even had he said plainly that day while strolling through Solomon’s Colonnade, “Yes, I am the Christ.”
I wonder sometimes if we as preachers need a reminder of this, if in fact the whole Church sometimes needs a reminder of this. I mentioned Pope Francis above but you don’t need to be the Pontiff of the Catholic Church to feel the lure of fame or get tempted by the trappings of worldly power and success. The Church struggles with this. We pastors often like putting ourselves forward. We like getting quoted in articles in the newspaper or in a Christianity Today article if we could manage it. Congregations love it if they sense they have managed to become THEE ecclesiastical hot spot in a given city—the place to see and be seen in the church world.
John 10 challenges us to wonder if we always know what is what with Jesus and with being his disciple. It kind of looks like putting ourselves forward just maybe isn’t the first or best thing we could do . . .
This lection is fairly short and abruptly ends just before the Jews take up stones to do Jesus in for his alleged blasphemy in identifying himself with no less than Almighty God. One suspects, however, that perhaps a partial reason for not extending this reading a bit farther is that Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 82:5 in what ends up being a rather cryptic use of a verse that seems a little odd even in the context of Psalm 82 itself. In any event, Jesus’ use of that as an answer to the charge that he has committed blasphemy seems a little “off.” Just because there may be some wider sense in which all people can be called “gods” or “children/sons of God” hardly would get Jesus off the hook for saying that as THEE singular Son of God, he and God (the Father) are truly one and the same. But in the end, Jesus does not stick with that line of thought anyway but instead goes on to highlight the consonance of his own works with those of God (the Father) as the real evidence that should count in his favor as being God. As Nicodemus said as early in this gospel as the third chapter, the only person who could do the things Jesus did would have to be sent from God (and, by extension, would all-but have to BE God as well).
Some years ago at a conference at Emory University, I heard a speaker—who was an expert in all things related to Russia—mention something that happened to him in a Moscow Russian Orthodox cathedral one Sunday morning during the worship service. As was customary, the worshipers all stood for the entire service. As is also typical of the Orthodox tradition, this soaring cathedral’s ceiling and walls were covered almost 100% with icons, bright paintings depicting the apostles, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and of course the Lord Jesus Christ himself. At one point early in the service, the professor from Emory was staring up at some of the icons/paintings on the ceiling, admiring their beauty. Suddenly he felt someone whack him on the shoulder from behind. Turning around, he saw an older man who then said to him, “You are disturbing the worship: this is not a museum!” The Orthodox claim that they most certainly do not worship the icons nor do they merely admire them. Rather icons are windows on the divine: you worship God by seeing God through them. The professor merely staring at the icons was messing up everyone else’s worship.
Jesus’ miracles were like that, and Jesus makes this clear in John 10. People were supposed to see God through the miracles. They were not supposed to get hung up on the sign itself but follow to the place to which the sign pointed. Maybe that’s why in John 2 even something like turning water into wine was said by John to have been a great sign of Jesus “glory.” From the outside looking in, there does not seem to be much “glorious” about Jesus providing wine to already besotted wedding guests. But if you looked through the miracle to see the divine Father standing there, well, then there was glory enough to go around!
Author: Doug Bratt
The text the Lectionary appoints for the fourth Sunday in Easter is a happy, hopeful one of healing in the face of chronic illness and life in the face of death. Yet it sticks out like a sore thumb in its Scriptural context. Its story of healing and raising to life just doesn’t seem to fit into Acts’ flow.
For one thing, we’ve heard nothing about the apostle Peter for almost four chapters and then bang – he reappears travelling “about the country.” What’s more Luke places this text about healing and rising to life right in the middle of three dramatic conversion stories. Just before it opens we read about the startling conversions of the Ethiopian government official and Saul. And in Acts 10 Luke tells about the shocking conversion of the first gentile, Cornelius.
As Acts 9 opens, things have calmed down a bit for the early church. It’s growing all over the region. The Holy Spirit is filling Jesus’ followers with both strength and reverence for God. Acts describes how the young church seems to be prospering wonderfully.
Yet immediately following that happy summary, it tells the sad story of Aeneas whose paralysis has kept him in bed for eight years. While that story stands outside the scope of the text appointed by the Lectionary, it’s an integral part of the disciples’ healing ministry and, as such, deserves at least some attention.
It reminds us that even as the early church experiences God’s favor, it can’t escape heartache. In the midst of the church’s success and growth, our text reminds us that the while the last enemy that is death is doomed, it’s still alive and flourishing.
That remains the experience of Christ’s Church even 2,000 years later. God is expanding the Church in nearly every corner of God’s world. People are receiving God’s grace with their faith in big and small churches, new and old churches, growing and even struggling churches. People are proclaiming the Word. Churches are celebrating the sacraments. Christians are caring for creation and serving people on society’s margins.
And yet physical and mental illness wreak great havoc in even the biggest and fastest-growing churches. The death, mourning, crying and pain that will have no place in the new creation seem to flourish in God’s current creation. And so our emotions sometimes swing wildly from joy to sorrow, from grief to gladness. After all, Jesus Christ’s resurrection that animates our lives and gives us hope doesn’t yet mean that we live without pain and suffering. Things are not yet, as Neal Plantinga entitled a book, “the way they’re supposed to be.”
Of course, Luke’s description of Aeneas’ experience of that is spare. He reports that Peter enters the home of a man whose paralysis has kept him in bed for eight years. Luke is very careful to emphasize that it’s the name of Jesus that liberates all slaves. So the risen and ascended Christ alone raises the Ethiopian and Saul to new spiritual life and Aeneas to new physical life.
Yet Aeneas doesn’t just jump up and make his bed for the first time in eight long years. He also seems to rise to new spiritual life as he almost certainly becomes a lively witness to what Jesus Christ has done and can do. After all, Luke reports, perhaps with some exaggeration, that all of Aeneas’ neighbors faithfully turn to the Lord.
Yet as striking as that account is, what the risen Christ empowers an apostle to do next is unprecedented. He does something even more shocking through Peter in Tabitha, also known as Dorcas. The only time the New Testament uses the feminine form for “disciple” is to describe Dorcas.
After all, it’s not just extraordinary men whom the Spirit transforms into Jesus’ followers. Ordinary fishermen become disciples who preach to the most powerful people in their world. Religious fanatics get knocked off their high horses and into the kingdom of God. Old men get out of their beds and walk around, sharing the gospel.
But God also empowers a woman whose name means “gazelle” to be Jesus’ disciple who heads up a welfare program among Joppa’s poor people. In her day widows languished on the very bottom rung of society’s ladder. They had no one to either protect or represent them. So widows are society’s most vulnerable citizens to whom Jesus’ disciple Dorcas gives hope.
In Joppa every believer knew and thanked God for this disciple of Jesus. Dorcas reminds us of the people in our own congregations who never seem to tire of doing Jesus’ work for hurting people. God always seems to put them in the right place at the right time, with helpful words and compassionate actions. We thank God for them, and wish there were even more of them.
However, after an apparently short illness, Dorcas’ seemingly boundless capacity for ministry drains away. She dies, plunging the whole community into profound grief. And when Dorcas dies, her ministry to people on society’s margins dies right with her.
While Luke doesn’t tell us why, Jesus’ Lyddan disciples beg Peter to immediately come to her makeshift funeral parlor. Even once the apostle arrives, Acts doesn’t record what, if anything, those grieving disciples ask him to do. When Peter arrives, Dorcas’ old friends, most of them widows, show him her impact by displaying some of the clothing she had lovingly made for them.
Yet Luke still doesn’t tell us what, if anything, those widows, who may now wonder how they’ll survive, ask Peter to do. In fact, our text’s silence among all but Jesus’ followers is among its most striking features. After all, Luke doesn’t tell us that Aeneas says anything. Obviously Dorcas is silent.
So it’s as if Acts implies that the world has gone silent, unable to say anything in the face of suffering and death. It’s as if the world is quietly waiting for Jesus’ disciples to say something.
That’s what sometimes happens, after all, when our hearts are broken. We scarcely even know what to say or ask for. So we wordlessly depend on God to be present in a way that our pain leaves us scarcely able to even identify.
Yet God knows exactly what the mourning Lyddan community needs. So is it too much to imagine that God moves Peter to gently usher the mourners out of the room and then drives “the rock” to his knees in prayer? And is there any explanation but God’s prompting that would explain how Peter would even dare to tell the dead Tabitha to “Get up”? After all, his gesture is not unlike one of us approaching a casket and asking a dead loved one to “Get up.”
Yet the “gazelle” does get up and come back to life. Any decay that had happened to her somehow suddenly reverses itself. Dorcas’ brain that death had silenced now re-fires on every neuron as she becomes undeniably alive again.
Passages like I Thessalonians 4 remind us that the early Christians died all the time. Following Jesus has, after all, never guaranteed perfect health and long life. So not long after the disciples preached the first Christian sermons, they also had to preach a different kind of message: Christian funeral sermons. Peter had no guarantee that Dorcas would come back to life. In fact, he, as one colleague notes, could just as well have preached her funeral sermon as raised her back to life.
So why does God empower Peter to both heal Aeneas and raise Dorcas back to life? Perhaps to remind their loved ones and us that death doesn’t get to have the last word for Christians. Our text reminds us that God has turned a new power at loose in the world as the Spirit invades death’s occupied territory.
God’s work through Peter signals that while dead Christians may not physically come back to life now, one day God will raise all of God’s children back to life. That nothing in heaven or earth, not even the last enemy that is death can finally resist God’s loving sovereignty.
However, Dorcas’ rising to life also signals that God values society’s marginalized citizens like widows as much after Jesus’ resurrection as before it. Widows, orphans, children and other vulnerable people are very close to God’s heart. So those who make it their ministry to them in are also very dear to God’s loving heart.
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons).
In his striking book, Terms of Service, Jacob Silverman notes that Peter Thiel, a PayPal cofounder and early investor in Facebook (and another [Ayn] Rand disciple), has “derided the inevitability of death as an ‘ideology’ while plowing millions into companies that might, as he said, ‘cure aging.’ Google’s own first into life-extension research, through a biotech subsidiary called Calico, reflects its belief that it can solve death — at least for a paying fee.”
Author: Stan Mast
What a wonderful change of emphasis Psalm 23 brings to this season of Easter. For the second and third Sundays of the Easter season, the lectionary readings from the Psalms helped to praise and thank God for his work of salvation culminating in Christ’s resurrection. Now on this fourth Sunday after Easter, the lectionary picks a Psalm that helps us luxuriate in the comfort that comes to us from the Risen Christ, our ever-living Shepherd. The center of the Psalm linguistically and theologically is the end of verse 4, “you are with me… comfort me.”
To preach this Psalm so that folks actually experience that comfort, we must point them squarely to the source of that comfort—not God in general, and surely not the gods of the nations around Israel, but the Lord, Yahweh. The Psalm opens and closes with that identification of God. The comfort of Psalm 23 is based on the astonishing claim that “Yahweh is my Shepherd.” The great “I am what I am,” the Almighty Creator of all that is, the Sovereign Lord who lays down his law for all to obey, the thrice Holy One who is high and lifted up, that God is my shepherd.
David doesn’t use that image to convey the idea that God has humbled himself. We might suppose that, since shepherds were among the lowest classes in ancient Hebrew society. No, David plucked this image from ancient Near Eastern courts, where kings were often spoken of as shepherds who guided and protected their people. David himself had been a shepherd and now he was a King. Here he confesses with deep humility and trust that Yahweh was his shepherd. From that confession comes his and our comfort. Whatever else we say about this beloved Psalm, we must be sure to point out the centrality of that article of faith. It is Yahweh, my Shepherd, who does all the things about which Psalm 23 speaks.
The comfort of Psalm 23 is deepened and strengthened when we recall that Jesus claimed to be the Good Shepherd in John 10 (which is the Gospel reading for this Sunday in all three years of the lectionary cycle). Not only does Jesus crucifixion show us the Great Shepherd laying down his life so that we may have life to the full, but also his Resurrection assures us that our Shepherd always lives for us. Echoing the comfort of Psalm 23:4, the Risen Christ assured his disciples as he physically left them, “Surely I am with you to the end of the age.” To know that our living Savior is our Shepherd deepens and strengthens the comfort of being in his flock.
However, Psalm 23 is not all that easy to preach. For one thing it is so familiar that church people already think they know everything about it. So when I announced that I would preach a series of six sermons on it a number of years ago, one skeptical congregant said, “That’s a mighty thin vein to mine for that long.” How could I possibly keep the congregation’s interest for 6 weeks, when they already knew the Psalm by heart?
The second problem with preaching this Psalm is exactly the opposite. For non-church folks, particularly for secular urban millennials, the world of Psalm 23 is so unfamiliar that it is almost unimaginable. Most folks have never seen a shepherd and would absolutely freak out if someone poured oil on their heads at a banquet (even if it were extra virgin olive). How can we make connections between the 10th century BC and the 21st century AD? I acknowledged that problem when I entitled my sermon series, “The 23rd Psalm for the 21st century.”
I could try to bridge that historical and cultural gap with comments on each phrase of the Psalm. Instead, I’ll give you one of those sermons from that series. It is an attempt to explain and apply the comfort that comes from this difficult phrase: “he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Hopefully, this will suggest ways you can preach the 23rd Psalm for the 21st Century.
In Charles Frazier’s novel, Cold Mountain, a soldier named Inman is trying to make his way back home from the horrors of the Civil War. He has been blasted, ravaged by the war, and has lost all sense of hope, even personal identity. As he stumbles along on his long journey back to his farm, he follows the path of a creek down a hill. “His eyes kept to the bright thread of water before him. The path it found to make its way to lower ground was as coiled as a hog’s bowel.”
That is a bit inelegant, I grant you, but it struck me as a vividly accurate metaphor for the journey of humanity into this 21st century. Blasted and ravaged by the bloodiest century in history and by the upheaval of our cultural wars, many people are stumbling along a path as coiled as a hog’s bowel. From the conventional religiosity of the 50s, to the revolutionary 60s, to the me-generation of the 70s, to the “Greed-is-good” philosophy of the 80’s, the pluralistic, New Age 90’s, followed by the crisis filled 00’s and the terrorized 10’s, people have wandered from one thing to another in search of identity and fulfillment and happiness, trying to find the right way to live. But, as diverse as the last 60 years have been, there is a common stream running through each new development. All of them were self-referential; you will find the directions for life within yourself.
Into the confusion of the 21st century comes the 23rd Psalm with this good news. Life is not a self-guided tour; there is someone who will give me the guidance I need. “He guides,” Yahweh guides. You might think that the King of the Universe would have something bigger and better to do, but Yahweh has committed himself to be my personal Shepherd. He guides me—by giving me a written record of his will, by putting his own Spirit in my heart, and by governing the developments of my life with his invisible hand. An old hymn puts it well. “He leadeth me, O blessed thought! O words with heavenly comfort fraught!” What Good News in a complex and confusing age!
But there’s a big problem here. Our text says that God guides “in paths of righteousness,” but some of the things I’ve done and some of the places I’ve been surely cannot be called paths of righteousness. I can’t believe God led me there. Does God lead us no matter what we do or where we go? What exactly does “he guides in paths of righteousness” mean?
That’s not so easy to say. The word “righteousness” here can mean moral righteousness. God leads me to do his moral will, so that I become a righteous person by what I do. Or we could read as though it were Pauline. God leads me to find righteousness in Jesus Christ, the righteousness that comes through faith in him. Then this text means that God guides me in the paths of obedience and faith. But that doesn’t seem to be what the context is talking about, with its picture of green pastures, quiet waters, and the valley of the shadow of death. Besides I’m not always obedient, nor is my faith always so strong. David himself had his terrible crisis of immorality and unfaithfulness with Bathsheba. Did God not lead then in paths of righteousness?
The word “righteousness” can also mean “prosperity and security.” Then our text means that God does not let me wander in ways that lead to trouble and ruin. He leads me away from rugged and torturous roads into paths that are smooth and easy. God always leads me into places that are just fine, just RIGHT. But who of us has a life like that? Who of us has been spared rugged and torturous paths? Does that mean that God has not led us then and there?
David himself says in the very next verse, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death….” He had walked often in that valley: when Saul pursued him, when his first child died in infancy, when his family fell apart in murderous competitiveness, and when his beloved rebel son, Absalom, was slaughtered. How can the path of righteousness lead through the valley of the shadow of death? How can we square the reality of our own journey on paths as coiled as a hog’s bowel with the express teaching of God’s Word in the 23rd Psalm? “He guides me in paths of righteousness….”
The story of Israel in Exodus 13 points us in the direction of an answer. Israel is just beginning its wilderness journey. They have been miraculously delivered from bondage to evil in Egypt and they are on the way to the Promised Land of milk and honey. It wasn’t really very far from here to there as the crow flies. But God lead them by a path that was a coiled as a hog’s bowel. He guided them step by difficult step with his light and his truth, that pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. By a long and circuitous route, God lead them to where he wanted them to go. He guided them in paths of righteousness, that is, in the right path for them at that time in their lives.
Why the roundabout path? Was it because they had sinned? No. That would come later, when the terrifying report of the 10 spies made Israel doubt that God could actually conquer that land. Their lack of faith and obedience definitely extended and complicated their journey. So, it is undoubtedly true that sometimes we wander in the wilderness simply because we don’t follow our Shepherd. He sends out his light and his truth to lead us, but we adopt the ways of our fellow travelers in the 21st century. We are self-referential, preferring to live our own way, and then like Inman we wander paths as coiled as a hog’s bowel.
Sometimes our twisted paths are caused by our own sin, but not always. When God first led Israel to the Promised Land by the roundabout way, it was not because they had done something wrong, but because they were not yet ready to conquer that land. They weren’t ready to be soldiers yet. They had the weapons, so they thought they were ready. But God knew they weren’t. They were nothing but slave laborers, who had never been in charge of anything. They needed to learn organization and discipline and trust and obedience. Otherwise, God knew, they would march up into Canaan and get soundly thrashed by the natives. That would make them doubt God and wish they were back in the slavery of Egypt, where at least they had homes and food. They didn’t know all that, but God did.
So, he led them on a path that was right, if not straight; that would get them safely, if not easily to their destiny; that would be terribly hard, but would prepare them to possess and enjoy all that God had waiting for them in the Land of Promise. Their Shepherd King guided them in paths of righteousness, though it didn’t seem right to them, even as it so often doesn’t seem right to us. The Lord is your Shepherd and he has his reasons, even when the right path seems all wrong.
The way David ends this text gives us every reason to trust our Shepherd, even when we can’t understand his leading. “He guides us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” He does all this stuff for us for his own sake, for his own glory and honor and reputation. That shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the entire universe exists simply to glorify God. That’s why it and we are here. I know that seems selfish on the surface. But think about that a bit harder. “He guides us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” means that he has a personal stake in our being lead in paths of righteousness, so that we arrive at the Promised Land. It brings honor to God when he blesses us.
The Bible teaches that in many places. Think of Numbers 14 where those 10 spies have given their cowardly report. The people have deserted God and mentally started back to Egypt. God is angry with such ungrateful faithlessness, and threatens to wipe them out. But Moses says in vss. 13-16: “Then the Egyptians will hear about it! And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. If you put these people to death all at one time, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, ‘The Lord was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the desert.’” And God relented, because of his honor.
That is a narrative way of saying an awesome thing. God can no sooner lead us the wrong way than he can stop being God. His glory, his honor, his reputation, his good and holy name are all tied up with our welfare. God has a very personal stake in guiding his people on the right path to the Promised Blessing. And if that seems a bit self-centered yet, consider that he was willing to stake the life of his only begotten Son on it.
In the science fiction novel, The Children of God, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz learns that his life did not mean what he thought it meant. He had been horribly abused by alien creatures on his first journey to the planet Rahkat. But when he returns many years later, a devastated and ravaged man, he learns that he really hadn’t understood anything that had happened to him. His friend and fellow priest, John, offers this explanation. He refers to that passage in Exodus where God tells Moses, “No one can see my face, but I will protect you with my hand until I have passed by you, and then I will remove my hand and you will see my back.”
“I always thought that was a physical metaphor,” says John, “but, you know– I wonder now if it isn’t really about time? Maybe that was God’s way of telling us that we can never know his intentions [at the moment], but as time goes on… we’ll understand. We’ll see where he was; we’ll see his back.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Depending on your church tradition, you may or may not be familiar with a glorious traditional hymn titled “By the Sea of Crystal.” I grew up singing the hymn quite often, including at a good many of the funerals I have attended. It is often sung near the end of funerals and has been known to choke up even those who managed to have made it that far into the service without yet shedding a tear. The lyrics are derived straight out of Revelation 7 and its soaring songs to God as sung by the white robed chorus of martyrs who hold palm branches of victory in their hands. If you want to end a funeral service on notes of hope, few hymn choices could accomplish it better than this one.
But then, few Bible passages are as radiant with hope as Revelation 7 itself. Having begun the chapter with a curious gathering of 144,000 people representing 12,000 from each of the original tribes of Israel, John then tells us he sees a far vaster multitude—beyond the counting of it in fact—that fulfills what God promised to Abram way back in Genesis 12: through Abram’s offspring (Israel), ALL nations would be saved. And indeed, John sees before him every ethnicity ever known. People of every shape and color, of every language and nationality form one gargantuan choir. Diverse though the choir is, their purpose is singular and unified: they are there to sing praises to the one true God and to the Lamb of God seated on the throne (and who John first spied in chapter 5). The accolades are heaped up higher and higher and on a constant basis.
Next up we discover just who these people are. They are the faithful of God who have passed through all the sufferings of life and all the persecutions the world could dish out. They have known hunger and want, pain and suffering, fear and death. History has seen the mighty river formed by their tears.
But no more! They will not know such things again, John is assured, because God has wiped every tear from every eye and those former things are over and done with, once and for all.
Of course, most all of us are comforted at the prospect of having every tear dried from every eye. Mostly, though, we have no idea how daunting a task that is. Who among us mere mortals could ever even begin to fathom how much suffering there is out there at any given moment, much less the sum total of history’s griefs and sorrows? What handkerchief would ever be sufficient to mop up the oceans of tears that get shed every day across the span of history? These are sorrows that go far beyond the gentle “There, there” we may proffer to the one person in front of us who may be crying some day.
In fact, many of us have a hard enough time figuring out how to console even a single hurting person we may run across at work or in our family circle. All things being equal, we’d just as soon avoid people like that because honestly, most of the time we just don’t know what to say and are more than a little afraid of saying the wrong thing. We often lack the words to make things “all better” or even to make things just a little bit better. This is why so many people say the silliest, the most unhelpful things in funeral homes. We think we have to say SOMEthing but since we cannot come up with anything that will ultimately actually help, we say things calculated to make it seem like the tragedy in question is not so bad after all. “You wouldn’t want him back the way he was, would you? He’s in a better place and we should be glad for him. God doesn’t make mistakes, you know—we had best just accept this.”
We cannot imagine wiping away every tear because most of the time we have no clue how to wipe away even one single tear.
What would it take to encounter history’s vast sum of sorrows and tears and actually be able to wipe it all away for good? The Bible’s answer is the Lamb upon the throne that looks like—according to John’s earlier descriptions in Revelation—it has gotten the snot kicked out of it. It’s the Lamb that looks like it’s been slaughtered and hung out to dry. It’s the Lamb of God onto whom every iniquity, sin, sorrow, and tear descended in one fatal fell swoop on a cross one dark Friday afternoon outside Jerusalem. The sheer weight of all that sorrow crushed the Lamb, killed him in every sense of the word “kill.” How could it not? The suffering of humanity due to its own fall into sin hurt God as much all along as it ever hurt us. THIS was not the world God intended when he first said “Let there be light!”
Only God could absorb every tear of history and it killed even God! It is easy for us to read the promise of Revelation 7 and apply it only to ourselves or to those closest to us. And that’s fine, that’s natural. But the true power of this chapter is so much bigger than that and, just so, that much more glorious than just my happiness in the end or your happiness. It is the shalom of the whole created order that is at stake. It is the relief of sufferings many of us will never come anywhere near knowing (thanks be to God) but that have been as searing and intense as any human being has ever experienced.
We just cannot overstate the promise of a chapter like Revelation 7.
To preach on this a few weeks after Easter as the Year C Lectionary has us do gives us a chance to reach out to those who perhaps felt a bit out of sync with things on Easter Sunday. As I noted in my sermon starter for the John 20 Lectionary passage for Easter morning, some people can find the average Easter service a little hard to take. There is so much exuberance, so many people trying so hard to be happy, so much brass and white lights and . . . well, it’s all fitting and necessary perhaps but if you yourself happen to be passing through a dark season of life just then, it is a little harder to get into the party spirit of it all. There are just too many tears on a daily basis, too much weeping, too much sorrow.
Of course, just pointing to Revelation 7 won’t make things instantly better for such people, either. But it does perhaps let them see themselves in the picture a bit more, knowing that hunger and sorrow and crying are things God in Christ cares deeply, deeply about. God knows about these things. It is why Jesus came in the first place. God knows about such things and God has a plan for such things, too. In fact, he has already won the victory over all these sorrows and even if that helps us only a bit when we are in the midst of suffering, it is a far sight better to know that than to have no hope.
It doesn’t matter who you are, either. Remember: the multitude beyond counting that John saw included everybody from every place and everywhere. All are welcome and all will receive the eternal consolation that was won for us by the Lamb and by his sacrifice for us.
More than once I have sung the final verse of “By the Sea of Crystal” from a larynx thickened with emotion and with tears forming in the corners of my eyes. It is a sorrow but a joyful sorrow we feel at funerals at such moments; it reflects our pain in grief but yet as those who do not grieve as though they have no hope. We will see our loved ones again. This veil of tears will end. So how can we keep from singing the glorious hymn’s final stanza:
Unto God Almighty, sitting on the throne
And the Lamb victorious, be the praise alone.
God has wrought salvation, he did wondrous things.
Who shall not extol, Thee, holy King of kings?!
In one of the iterations of the Superman movie franchise, the movie Man of Steel, there is a scene that I think is supposed to evoke something of a divine perspective on the world—maybe it is even supposed to mimic how Christ Jesus perceives the world. At one point in the film Superman flies through the skies and clear out into space. He hovers just beyond earth’s atmosphere and as he floats there, we can hear what he hears with his super hearing: multitudes of cries, shouts of terror, people weeping, children sobbing. It is the sound of a hurting planet.
At one point Superman says to someone—Lois Lane I think—that whereas any one of us may occasionally hear a tiny fractional sliver of the suffering that goes on in this world at any given moment, “I hear everything.” For most of us, the prospect of “hearing everything” that goes on around us—particularly the sorrows and the sufferings—would be unbearable. Ignorance allows us to survive most of the time.
Indeed, who but God alone is big enough, strong enough, loving enough to hear everything without also being unmade by it?