January 04, 2016
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Author: Scott Hoezee
Luke’s substantial narrative powers surely did not all suddenly fail him in this third chapter. So we need a different kind of explanation for the curious way by which Luke frames up this part of the story.
First, we get the odd insertion in verses 19-20 about John’s imprisonment following his finally crossing the line with immoral old King Herod. This bit of news seems plunked there between soaring words about the nature of the coming Messiah and the report of Jesus’ actual baptism.
Second, there is the matter of this baptism. How understated can Luke get? He mixes Jesus in with the larger crowd, tells us Jesus was praying at some point, and then reports the descent of the Spirit but without giving us a single clue as to whether or not anyone other than Jesus witnessed this particular sign.
And then the whole thing is over and we slide, sideways it seems, into a long-ish listing of Joseph’s ancestors. And please note that these are technically Joseph’s ancestors and not technically, therefore, Jesus’ family because we know full well that Joseph had nothing to do with the production of the boy Jesus beyond just being a witness to the whole thing. If Luke is trying to trace Jesus’ family clear back to Adam, he’s doing it only by proxy and by association.
Again, it just doesn’t get much less dramatic, much more understated than all this. So what is Luke up to? After expending huge amounts of narrative space and providing loads of intricate details on Jesus’ pre-birth and then birth narratives, why now all of a sudden do we get so little by way of drama and detail? Why do we get to this point in Luke 3 only to have John the Baptist languishing in prison and Jesus seemingly being just a face in the crowd who, at the age of 30, hasn’t done a remarkable thing in his life yet?
Maybe it’s because Luke knows that this is finally how God operates. For all the grandeur and spectacle of the angels who popped in and out of Luke 1 and Luke 2, the number of people who saw and encountered those divine messengers could finally be counted on one or at most two hands. For all the times Luke listed for us the ruling authorities of the day, Jesus was born, was raised in Nazareth, and one day was showered with the Holy Spirit at the Jordan River all without a single one of those rulers noticing anything whatsoever.
For 30 years the Son of God in skin had been on this earth but never once did Caesar or Quirinius or Herod have any changes made to their legislative agendas on account of this divine presence. Never once did some harried aide rush in to the cabinet room or the office with frantic news about a new movement about which this particular big-wig simply had to be notified immediately. God had landed. God had made his move. A very few folks some three decades earlier had been let in on the secret that whatever it was God was up to, it had set the hosts of heaven to dancing.
But back in here on earth . . . life went on. Even John the Baptist was getting impatient. He ratcheted up the rhetoric near the end, picturing the coming Messiah as someone who would shake things up, throw around some fire, make it clearer than clear who was who in the wider scheme of things. And since nothing much else seemed to be happening, John took it up himself to upbraid Herod for his immoral shenanigans only to find himself slapped behind bars once and for all.
Score: Worldly Powers 1 Divine Powers 0
And yet . . . God had landed. God was on the move. God had made his move and nothing would ever be the same again. Perhaps Luke went for dramatic understatement at this point in his third chapter to provide a kind of semaphore of what faith is all about. The fact is—despite the utterly true stories he relayed to us in Luke 1-2—our days are not typically filled with angelic visits and divine miracles. We don’t often bump into a Simeon or an Anna who says jaw-dropping things to us or who in some other way encourage us in our journeys of faith.
Most days Jesus is a little hard to spy in the hustle and bustle of the everyday. Many days all the wrong people—including some really good people—get roughed up, locked up, killed even as some of the wickedest folks around go on their merry way with hardly a hair out of place. Most days we wish God would come down a kick a little tail, clear a threshing floor here or there, throw around some fire and perform a little razzle-dazzle to shake up the powers that be.
Mostly, though, it just doesn’t happen. The headlines seldom scream out the message “Jesus Is Lord!” “Breaking News” on CNN rarely leads to an uptick in anyone’s hope quotient. Last month all thoughtful Christians and those of us called to preach had to do so in the teeth of Paris and San Bernardino, ISIS and threats of more violence. It’s an election year now, too, and so we also had to endure the bluster and angry, critical rhetoric of politicians from both parties.
In this part of Luke 3, the Son of God in flesh came to be baptized. But Luke frames up the story right inside this real world, replete with all its unhappy events and apparent signs that chaos is in charge. Having made it clear in his first chapters that grand, galactic events were afoot, Luke now throttles back a bit to remind us that faith finally has to cling to God’s plan in the teeth of a whole lot of things that are not going to be nearly as encouraging or obvious as angels dancing in the skies.
But take heart, Luke is saying by sounding this note of realism. Take heart: the Son of God came, the Spirit really did descend, and the Father was “well pleased” with how the whole project was going. Take heart.
Take heart on all those days when your spirit is locked up in some prison or another. Take heart on all those days when Jesus is at best a face in the crowd and you just cannot quite pick out his presence in your life on a Thursday morning or a Monday afternoon. Take heart on those days when all the wrong people seem to be wielding the axes and clearing various threshing floors even as God seems to be not nearly active enough.
Take heart. God has made his move. God is on the move. The Son is well pleasing to God because the Son has saved the world in a way no power, no prison, no disaster can touch. Reality is more than what you can see with your eyes, Luke is saying. So take heart.
Luke’s inclusion of Jesus’ baptism is presented rather oddly. Verses 19-20 tell us of John’s imprisonment after crossing up King Herod. Then, only after we learn this, do we learn from Luke (almost as though it were an afterthought and a brief retrospective look back at one little detail he had left out earlier) that Jesus showed up one day to get baptized, too. The baptism of Jesus is a central event. Yet it is striking how understated Luke is about it. Only Mark’s account is briefer. Why might this be? Is it part of Luke’s understated way of telling us that Jesus really was truly human, truly one of us, truly just another face in the crowd by all outward appearances? Perhaps. It is, in any event, worth pondering. Left to our own devices, WE would be unlikely to tell this incident the way Luke does. We’d make a bigger deal out of it, shine a spotlight onto it, lard it over with lots of explanatory words. Indeed, some of us in the Reformed tradition have a habit of not baptizing anyone without first reading a long-ish formulary as to the meaning of baptism and all the theology that surrounds it. Luke felt no such compunction. Why?
In the Broadway play Copenhagen playwright Michael Frayn presents four versions of a single event. The event is a 1941 meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. At that time Heisenberg was in charge of Adolf Hitler’s nuclear program even as Bohr was a Jew living in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Yet for some reason Heisenberg made a risky trip to meet with his old mentor. What did he want to talk about? No one is sure, so this new play presents four possible reasons. We know that Heisenberg had dinner one evening with Niels and Margrethe Bohr after which, to escape the Nazi microphones bugging the Bohr house, the two men took a walk. But the walk ended within minutes when an angry Niels Bohr stormed back into the house. The evening ended abruptly as Heisenberg fled back to Germany.
Apparently what led to this unhappy conclusion to the evening was Heisenberg’s asking Bohr what he thought about the work that was then being done on nuclear energy. Bohr sensed immediately the implication: Heisenberg was working in a program which could ultimately lead to the Nazi development of an atomic bomb. As a Jew living under the thumb of the Nazis, Bohr was incensed and so said nothing more to his old friend. But was it just anger that made Bohr clam up? The play presents that possibility among others. But in the end it presents one final scenario–one with amazing implications.
Because when the war was over, it turned out that Heisenberg and the Nazis were not even close to getting the bomb right. But Bohr, following his escape from Denmark some time after the mysterious rendezvous with Heisenberg, worked with the Allies in successfully developing the bomb. Bohr may have known something which Heisenberg simply missed.
The key piece of data was the “critical mass” of uranium-235 needed to make a bomb. The Nazis were under the impression that at least a ton of uranium was needed for just one bomb–an amount too heavy to be practical. As it turns out, a bomb can be made with twenty times less that amount–a fact which any well-educated physicist could figure out if only he executed a relatively simple equation. Bohr seems to have known this.
So why did Niels Bohr clam up once Heisenberg broached the subject of nuclear power? The play’s final scenario intriguingly suggests that perhaps Bohr knew that if he and Heisenberg had talked about this subject for more than a few minutes, Bohr may very well have inadvertently tipped Heisenberg off. And had this happened, it is possible that Hitler would have gotten a weapon with which conquer the world after all. If this scenario is true, then by holding back, Bohr rescued the world. It was the silence that saved.
Silence can be powerful. A play like Copenhagen toys with the idea that one man’s silence may have saved millions. By holding back, Niels Bohr may have helped preserve the only world most of us have ever known. But that’s the silence of a mere man. Just imagine the far greater effect if the one who goes silently into baptism, who goes wordlessly into the desert of death, is also the very Son of God. When that almighty one makes himself humble and vulnerable, when that divine Son holds back, the results are nothing less than cosmic. It’s a quiet epiphany, but it packs more wallop than a million renditions of the “Hallelujah” chorus ever could!
Author: Scott Hoezee
Scholars tell us that there may have been at least two, probably three (perhaps four!) “Isaiahs” whose prophetic words make up the one Old Testament book we call Isaiah. If so, then the version of Isaiah we get in this 43rd chapter is definitely the “Happy Isaiah” as compared to the doom-and-gloom Isaiah from earlier in this vast and sprawling prophetic book. Like several of the surrounding chapters (and beginning with that clarion 40th chapter), so also Isaiah 43 is shot through with lyric imagery and hope. “All’s forgiven!” declares Yahweh, Israel’s God. “All will be restored! The lost will be re-gathered. And you will be protected by Me come what may!”
As divine prophecies go, it doesn’t get much better than this. But there are two features to this passage I find striking and that I’d like to highlight here in an effort to jumpstart your own thinking.
The first striking item is easy to miss but it speaks volumes in terms of what Israel had to know and accept. In a kind of inclusio bracketing the larger passage, Yahweh makes clear that the people he is addressing through Isaiah belong to Him alone.
Verse 1: But now this is what Yahweh says, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel.
In other words: I made you and so you are mine. You belong to me. I am the potter, you are the clay and whatever shape you have is due to my creative work. I own you.
Verse 7: Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.
In other words, my name is your name and you don’t exist for your own sakes or to make a name for yourself or to generate some national sense of glory or pride as an end unto itself. No, I made you so you could glorify me. You exist to make me known to the nations, not yourselves or your own accomplishments as a people. The bragging rights are mine, says your God!
Interesting! Apparently for the good news of Isaiah 43 to be good news for you, you must accept your place in the divine pecking order. Israel is and had always been the covenant people of God alone and their existence always pointed beyond itself to the purposes of God as first revealed to Abraham way back in Genesis 12: God would create a people who would ultimately be a blessing to all nations. God’s would be the glory through Israel because God’s was the power and the grace to make it all possible in the first place.
But there, as Hamlet might say, is the rub. Nations have always had a tendency to become self-serving and self-aggrandizing. Israel was no exception. Samuel about pulled his beard out over the people’s request for a king so they could be “like the other nations.” Samuel tried to point out that the entire purpose for Israel was precisely not to be like the other nations. The other nations and their insular, self-glorifying ways were the problem to be solved, not the model to be emulated. People living cut off from the one true and living God of the universe was the sin that needed to be atoned for on a global scale, not that toward which Israel itself should aspire. But it didn’t matter: the people wanted a king and that’s what they got. And eventually they got an empire and, not too much further down the historical line, they got a corrupt and selfish empire at that, filled with desires for riches and glory and using God’s Temple as, at best, a kind of national security blanket whose God would authorize and bless everything they did or wanted to do (whether it was in accord with the Law of God or not).
In fact, all the doom-and-gloom stuff from earlier in Isaiah was the result of just such a wanton disregard for the things of God, for not putting God first, for failing to realize that their national purpose was to bring God, and not themselves, glory and honor.
Israel wanted all the protections and hope and comfort of Isaiah 43 without that bracketing reminder in verses 1 and 7 that what accompanied all that was divine ownership. Period.
It is a curious question how similar people in the church may be today. It’s too much like shooting fish in a barrel to point out the easy ways by which some TV preachers proffer divine-driven prosperity without commensurate talk about devotion and service to that God who then, by the way, owns you completely and has a lot to say about what you will do with whatever wealth or property or prosperity you may have. Too often we want the divine perquisites without the divine requisites.
The other striking feature to these verses is the use of the little word “When . . .” in verse 2. This is one of the more famous of the Old Testament but in our imaginations we too often assume that the promises here run along the lines of God’s saying that his people will avoid deep waters, raging rivers, and fiery trials altogether. But that, of course, is not what is being promoted here at all. Indeed, one could properly assume based on these verses that believers in Yahweh may all-but expect to face such trials. The promise is not wholesale avoidance of difficulties but an abiding divine presence in them.
Here, too, however, we find a tension set up even within verses as redolent of hope as these. It reminds me of the tension inherent in all those Psalms of Lament in the Hebrew Psalter. Because the simple and unhappy fact of the matter is that when we pass through the waters or the fires of life, those are precisely the times we find it the most difficult to locate that sense of God’s presence. First off, we wonder why such trials would come if God is on our side (yet we’re never promised to be spared such things—Jesus even promised persecutions for this followers!). Secondly, however, the pain that accompanies such things can so easily blind us to whatever signs of God’s presence we might be able to find. It is more than good to know, in short, that God sticks with us in life’s trials. That fact, however, hardly renders the trials themselves feeble or easy-to-take after all.
Yet there it is. Isaiah 43 reminds us of twin facts in which we properly take comfort: first, God loves us because he made us. And even if we exist mostly to witness to God and to give him the glory for all he is and does, the fact is that we are held by loving hands. When we abandon ourselves to the God who made us, we may know that this God will in turn never abandon us, even when trials come for whatever the reason.
If you preach on Isaiah 43 in this Lectionary cycle, it will be one of the first sermons of a new year. All preachers would revel in the opportunity to make sunny promises to their congregations along the lines of assuring people that it’s going to be a great year: the economy is finally adding jobs. Things are looking up.
That would be nice to say. And the day will come in God’s kingdom when just such things may well be proffered once and (literally) for all. But not now. For now we can only proclaim that trials do come and will come.
We still live in the shadow of ISIS and of several other dreadful mass shootings in 2015. We’re only fooling ourselves if we think we can avoid any such thing ever again (much though we simply must do what we can do make such horror less likely). We live in the shadow of all the dear folks who died in our various congregations this past year. And there will be more hurt in our congregations this year. There will be disappointment. There will be announcements in the church bulletin that will have to use that dire word “Hospice” again. We’ve not seen our last funeral.
What we cling to in utter hope, however, is that God goes with us in and through all that. We will not be finally swept away or drowned or burned up. There will always be a new thing yet to come in God’s grace and in his slow kingdom coming.
That had to be enough for Israel when Isaiah spoke these words. It must be enough for us now, too.
The popular preacher Robert Schuller died not long ago. He was known for any number of pithy quotes, most all of which tied in with his theme of “possibility thinking,” of thinking your way to a better you and a better way of life. One of his most popular lines was “Tough times never last, but tough people do.”
With all due respect to Rev. Schuller, there is actually much to dislike here. First, there are too many people in our churches whose lives are altogether Job-like in terms of their enduring one long, tough stretch of bad things. Maybe it’s one bad thing after the next. Maybe it’s one overarching bad thing that goes on and on for decades and that colors everything else in this person’s life. But the fact is that sometimes tough times do last. They really do.
But in the Christian context—whether tough times come and stay for years or whether they prove to be more fleeting—it’s not finally the toughness of the people that makes the difference but the tough and fierce providential love and care of God that makes the difference. Nowhere in Scripture are we thrown back onto our own resources. We’re not told that our own optimism or strength of character is what will see us through. When the waters get deep, when the rivers in which we’re sunk neck-deep get violent, when the fires of life’s trials lick at our flesh, it is the abiding presence of God that reassures us. We may not know why God permits such tough times and trials, but they come. And when they do, our assurance is not derived from our own toughness. In the grand scheme of things, we’re nothing. What matters is how closely God sticks with us.
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 29 may feel a little hard on ears that are tired and worn down by all the recent holidays’ noise. It is, after all, a “noisy” hymn of praise that the poet fills with the sounds of music, thunder, wind and even the sound that earthquakes make. It’s a psalm that the psalmist also fills with vivid images of angels around God’s throne, flashes of lightning, twisted trees and skipping countries. So it’s the kind of psalm whose reading its preachers and teachers might enhance through vivid sounds and images.
It’s as if the psalmist is peering into God’s heavenly “throne room” as he writes this lovely psalm. After all, he calls “mighty ones,” perhaps, as James Limburg suggests, the heavenly beings that surround God’s throne, what we sometimes call angels, to lift their voices in praise.
So the poet doesn’t just, as she often does, call worshipers to praise the Lord. She also summons both heavenly and earthly creatures to join in a cosmic choir that praises the Lord who creates and cares for them. The call to offer that praise seems to play a central role especially in Psalm 29’s first verses. After all, the psalmist repeats that call three times in the first two verses alone.
Verse 10 lends support to the suggestion that God’s heavenly throne room is Psalm 29’s backdrop. After all, it refers to the Lord’s sitting enthroned over the flood. It also speaks of the Lord as “King forever.” This gives credence to an understanding of this psalm as not just a hymn of praise to God the creator, but also as a polemic against Israel’s neighbors’ religions.
After all, the “neighborhood” in which the psalmist’s Israel lived was no less spiritually confused than the world of the 21st century. The Canaanites, for example, thought of their Baal as the god of the storm. Psalm 29, by contrast, asserts that Yahweh, the God of heaven and earth, is the God who not only rides on those storms but also rules over them. In fact, the psalmist mentions the Lord’s name 18 times in this psalm alone, as if to emphasize by sheer repetition that it’s the Lord, not other gods, whose majestic power rules over creation.
So while Israel’s neighbors thought of floods as persistently threatening creation, the psalmist insists that God is the boss of even floods. In fact, God’s Israelite sons and daughters recognized God as the One who’d promised after the catastrophic flood never again to allow such an inundation to wreak such havoc.
It’s not easy to understand to what the psalmist refers when he calls the whole creation to give “glory” to God (1). After all, the Hebrew word for it, kabod, generally connotes a kind of heaviness or abundance. So, for example, clouds can be kabod with rain and hail is kabod. However, when the Scriptures use the word kabod to describe God, they often, says Limburg, imply weightiness, splendor, majesty and magnificence. So by calling it to give “glory” to God, perhaps the psalmist is calling the whole cosmos to join together in praising God’s majesty.
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the psalmist sitting at the edge of a lake as she writes this psalm. Perhaps at first she’s surrounded by an eerie calm, maybe in that kind of green-grey light that sometimes precedes storms. However, slowly, initially almost imperceptibly the western horizon takes on a darker hue. Clouds begin to race each other across the sky. The wind slowly morphs from a gentle breeze into a howling gale that raises whitecaps on the water. Flashes of lightning and bursts of thunder bunch more and more tightly together. Suddenly sheets of rain chase the psalmist toward cover.
Thoughtful readers can hardly miss the sense of wonder that fills the psalmist as he contemplates all of this. However, his awe stems not from the mighty storm, but from the majestic Lord whose glory the storm displays. In that way, Psalm 29’s imagery evokes that of William Cowper’s moving hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way:” “God moves in a mysterious way, / His wonders to perform: / He plants his footsteps on the sea/ and rides upon the storm.”
The psalmist’s sense of wonder at God’s majestic work in creation offers preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on responses to dazzling natural phenomena. To what do rumbles of thunder draw our attention? To the power and sometimes fear they may evoke? Or to the God who somehow “rides” on them? Do we hear in the winds that sometimes rattle our windows and shake our trees just disturbed air? Or do we somehow hear the voice of God calling us to worship the Lord?
Of course, it’s not easy for citizens of the 21st century to think about God’s voice as thundering or flashing lightning. Even modern Christians recognize that God’s voice that called all things into being and shook Israel at Sinai is “powerful” and “majestic.” But does God’s voice literally break cedars, make whole countries to skip like calves, shake deserts and twist trees? How should we think about what seems like Psalm 29’s “pre-scientific” understanding of God’s voice’s work in creation? This psalm can almost sound like childhood claims that thunder is the sound angels make when they’re bowling.
We might think of this assertion of God’s mighty voice in creation as another part of Psalm 29’s polemic against Israel’s neighbors’ religions. After all, their gods couldn’t speak (or hear, as Baal’s prophets learned at Carmel). The Lord of heaven and earth alone is able to speak. And speak that God does, whether in Jesus Christ or, to the psalmist’s’ contemporaries, in rumbles of thunder. God speaks, whether in God’s Word, or, to the psalmist’s contemporaries, in gusts of wind. In a psalm that’s full of voices, none speak louder or more commandingly than the Lord’s.
All of God’s speaking invites all in God’s temple to respond by crying “Glory!” (There’s that word kabod again!) That temple may be God’s temple in Jerusalem. It may refer to God’s “temple” that is God’s creation. Then the “all” who cry “Glory!” would refer to every creature. Or God’s “temple” to which verse 9 refers may allude to the temple that is God’s throne room.
Yet perhaps it’s not necessary to try to delineate just who precisely cries “Glory!” After all, it’s a gasp of praise that God’s majesty squeezes out of every creature whether in heaven or on earth. No matter who the “all” are, the psalmist calls them to join in exclaiming praise and wonder.
Yet the psalmist perhaps strikingly ends this noisy psalm rather quietly, with descriptions of God’s tender, loving care for God’s adopted sons and daughters. Throughout the psalm the poet talks about God’s displays of strength. Yet she ends by insisting that God also gives strength to God’s people. However, perhaps especially poignantly, the psalmist ends her hymn of praise to God the creator by asserting that God uses God’s strength to graciously grant God’s people “peace,” shalom in the Hebrew. After all the noise and action of Psalm 29, the poem ends with the word “peace.” Not, as one colleague notes, peace and quiet, but the “peace that passes all understanding.” The peace for which God created God’s people with God, their neighbors and creation. The peace that comes through the Prince of Peace.
Psalm 29 is the kind of psalm that almost begs worshipers to sing the stirring hymn, “How Great Thou Art:” “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder/ Consider all the worlds thy hands have made, / I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, / Thy power throughout the universe displayed; / Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee; / How great thou art! How great thou art!”
Author: Stan Mast
This snippet of early Christian history might seem unimportant, slim fodder for a sermon, and a peculiar choice for this first Sunday after Epiphany, until we see its place in the larger story of the Christian church. Then we’ll recognize it as one of the great turning points in the Gospel mission. That, in turn, will show us the connection between this snippet and the Epiphany of Christ’s glory in the world. And all of that will preach.
I suspect that every generation sees its own time as tumultuous. Has there ever been a time in American history more difficult, divisive, and dangerous than this early 21st century? It surely feels that way to us, but professional historians will undoubtedly say, “Of course, there have been other times as dicey as these.” Historians of the Christian church will surely point to the time surrounding our text as one of those tumultuous times. Think of the whipsaw events in the lives of the apostles. One day they meet the Messiah and their lives are utterly changed. With great joy they follow him and experience the wonder of the coming Kingdom. They can’t wait for Jesus to restore the Kingdom to Israel. But then he is crucified by the leaders of Israel in consort with the Roman authorities. The dream dies.
When Jesus rises from the dead, they get a whole new lease on life and a mission that will change the world. “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Overwhelmed by that mission, they wait and pray for the gift of God. The Holy Spirit blows into the church at Pentecost and the resultant explosive growth of the church is nothing less than miraculous. Great joy fills the church as it enjoys the blessing of God and the admiration of the people.
But it doesn’t take long for opposition to raise its ugly head. Within weeks the joy of Pentecost has been replaced by the sorrow of Stephen’s martyrdom and the horror of Saul’s raging persecution of the church. The Hellenistic Jews who had migrated to Jerusalem flee back to their homes out in the Empire, taking the Gospel with them, while all the apostles stay behind in Jerusalem. One of the scattered ones was Philip, one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to take care of the widows in the church. He was more than a dispenser of money and food; he was a powerful preacher of the gospel.
But look where he went—to those accursed Samaritans, those centuries-old enemies of the Jews, those half-breed Jews who had married Gentiles back in the days of the Exile polluting the blood line and corrupting pure religion. The Jews called them “Samaritan dogs.” When a Samaritan village gave Jesus the cold shoulder, James and John, the sons of thunder, wanted to call down God’s judgment on the curs. But now, driven by persecution and filled with the Holy Spirit, Philip preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus to the Samaritans. And, wonder of wonders, those blasted dogs believed and were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
That’s the background of our text. As the apostles back in Jerusalem were nursing their sore necks after that incredible succession of whipsaw events, they heard the news that “Samaria had accepted the Word of God.” The response of the Mother Church is captured in Dr. Luke’s cryptic words: “they sent Peter and John to them.” We’re not told the mood in Jerusalem. Was it incredulity? “You have got to be kidding me!” Or was it skepticism? “I don’t believe it.” Or was it concern? “What kind of Christians are they, having been evangelized by a mere deacon?” Or was it great joy? “Let’s go and welcome them into the church.” Were Peter and John the Apostolic Welcome Wagon or were they “the Jerusalem Holy Spirit Police,” as one preacher called them?
That title comes from one possible interpretation of verses 15 and 16a. “When Peter and John arrived, they prayed for the Samaritans that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them.” Had the apostles already heard about this aberration in Samaria? Had the good news of the Samaritans’ conversion been accompanied by concern about this theological/spiritual irregularity? If so, then Peter and John were the “Jerusalem Holy Spirit Police” sent to straighten out the heterodoxy/heterospirituality in Samaria. Or were Peter and John merely the warm-hearted hand of the Mother Church, sent to officially welcome the Samaritan church into the Body? Somewhere in the process of getting to know each other, Peter and John had asked the same question as Paul would later ask the disciples at Ephesus (who had also been evangelized by a non-apostle). “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
Regardless of which interpretation we adopt, we’re facing a real problem here. If Paul was right when he said that “no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12) and when he claimed that if you don’t have the Spirit of Christ you don’t belong to Christ (Romans 8), then these true Christians already had the Holy Spirit. They had been born again by the power of the Spirit (Compare John 3:5 with John 1:12,13). What was the problem then? What were Peter and John praying about?
The key is that word “receive (verses 15 and 17),” and also the word “come upon (or “fallen upon” in verse 16).” Though they had the Holy Spirit, they had not yet experienced that Spirit in the way the apostles had at Pentecost and the Ephesians Christians would later in Acts 19. The Spirit was in them, as evidenced by their new faith in Jesus, but they had not yet consciously, intentionally, experientially “received” the Spirit. Peter and John couldn’t be sure the Samaritans were born again Christians, even though they were. Everything in the text indicates the reality of their conversion, but it was not manifest to the apostles. To be sure of the reality of their conversion, the apostles needed to see some evidence of the Spirit of Jesus in the lives of the Samaritans. The apostles prayed not for a second blessing (the classic Pentecostal interpretation of this text), but for a visible/audible/tangible manifestation of the already present Spirit. They prayed for an Epiphany.
Their prayers were answered. “Then Peter and John placed their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” We’re not told what form that reception took, but it was obviously something people could observe. Note that the next verse says, “When Simon saw that the Spirit was given….” He saw. The apostles saw. The Samaritans saw. The presence of the Spirit was now visible. Peter and John were now convinced that “Samaria had accepted the Word of God.” In fact, they were so convinced that on their way back to report to Jerusalem, they preached “the gospel in many (formerly cursed) Samaritan villages.”
This was a significant turning point in the expansion of the Gospel. Jesus had told his apostles to take the gospel out of Jerusalem into Judea and (even) Samaria on their way to the ends of the earth. Now it had happened. There was visible proof, an epiphany that had convinced the two big guns in the early church. That’s what this text meant to the early church. Dr. Luke included this little snippet in his great history of the Gospel’s spread to prove to the Jerusalem church with its Judaizing tendencies and to the larger Gentile church that the Spirit of Jesus did, indeed, fall upon non-Jews. The church is for all kinds of people, even people you formerly considered cursed outsiders.
That is a message we need to preach on this first Sunday after Epiphany, because our world is perhaps more divided today than it has ever been. And we Christians are not above looking down on certain classes of people. I think of accusations hurled by both right and left wing Christians in America that the other side can’t be real Christians because of their stance on some moral or political issue. And what about the suspicion and outright scorn directed at Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe or America. “They are all Muslims,” and thus beyond our orbit of concern. Even if they are Christians, what kind of Christians are they? This little story in Acts 8 reminds us that the Spirit of Jesus can bring even the most reviled enemy into the Body of Christ. We’re still under orders to be Christ’s witness in Samaria and to the ends of the earth. So, this text could be the basis for a sermon on daring evangelism or warm hearted ecumenism or open handed hospitality.
Or we could preach it as a challenge to the spirituality of our congregations. We could be “the Jerusalem Holy Spirit Police” by asking our congregations, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” This text will allow us to push that question more deeply. Here are genuine converts to the Faith, real citizens in the Kingdom of God and believers in the name of the Lord Jesus. But they had not received the Spirit.
How can we know that we have? Where is the proof? What experience counts as irrefutable evidence that we have received the Spirit? More Pentecostal Christians will point to Pentecost and to Acts 10 and 19 in support of their claim that speaking in tongues is the definitive manifestation of the Spirit. The reception of that gift is the epiphany for which we should look and about which we should preach today. This is clearly a huge theological issue between Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals; it deserves more attention that I can give it here. So I’ll just give two simple reasons why I wouldn’t preach this text that way.
First, as I pointed out above, this text marks an important turning point in the Gospel mission. And wherever there is such a great turning point in the book of Acts, unusual things happen. Among them is the falling upon, pouring out, or reception of the Spirit in some supernatural way, usually by speaking in tongues. In other words, these unusual outpourings of the Spirit are not the norm. They are the exception designed to prove to the church that the Gospel has now come to a new group of people: to the Jewish disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2), to half-breed Jews in Samaria (Acts 8), to God fearing Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10), and to outright Gentiles in Ephesus (Acts 19). We shouldn’t turn these one of a kind historical experiences into a life rule for all Christians throughout history.
The second reason I wouldn’t focus on tongue speaking as the sign of the Spirit’s presence is Paul’s clear preference for spiritual fruit over spiritual gifts. After speaking warmly about spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12, Paul says, “I will show you a more excellent way” in I Corinthians 13, the great hymn about love. Some Christians may be given the gift of tongues, or healing, or prophecy, or administration, but all Christians must manifest the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). Thus, we can use this text as a call to display the ever-growing fruit of the Spirit out in the world. How will the world know that we are genuine Christians? How will other believers know that we have received the Holy Spirit? “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love,” sang the old campfire hymn. “By their fruits you will know them.” This little snippet of Christian history gives us a wonderful opportunity to probe more deeply into the spiritual lives of our church. If the world is ever going to believe in the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of the Lord Jesus, we must be an Epiphany, showing the presence of the Spirit of Jesus by our love, joy, peace, patience….
In another sermon starter on this text, I said that the conversion of the Samaritans was the ripple effect of the martyrdom of Stephen. His death was like a stone thrown into a pond. But as I rehearsed the whipsaw events that preceded our little text for today, it struck me that my simile was too small and mild. Not the death of Stephen, but the death of Jesus was like a mountain hurled into the heart of the ocean, which created a tidal wave, a tsunami that swept away kings and kingdoms, cultures and customs centuries in the making. From Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth, the tsunami of the Gospel continues to wash up on new shores, changing the landscape in previously unimagined ways.
As I pondered the reaction of the apostles in Jerusalem to the news of Samaritan conversions, I thought of a couple of science fiction novels in which the gospel reaches other planets. In Maria Doria Russell’s horrific novel, The Sparrow, a group of Jesuits launch a space mission so that they can know God’s other children. And in one of Orson Scott Card’s novels (Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and others), a group of Catholics have colonized a planet in a distant galaxy and are trying to evangelize its strange pig-like inhabitants. I wonder how we would be able to tell if other species had actually accepted the Gospel. That was the question that prompted the church to send Peter and John to Samaria.