January 19, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
If Mark were a Broadway play, then the first 13 verses are like the overture. As we come to verse 14, the curtain is about to go up on the drama and when it does we see . . . Galilee. We’re not in a bigger city like Jerusalem or Sepphoris or Rome. Nope, little old Galilee.
Today it would be like expecting to see some drama unfold in New York City or Los Angeles only to have the story zero in on some place called Outbank, North Dakota. It’s probably a nice place but . . . it’s not what we were expecting. It reminds me of a scene from the classic movie The Philadelphia Story in which Katherine Hepburn plays the haughty East Coast sophisticate Tracy Lord. At one point she meets an earnest young woman who tells Tracy that she is from Minnesota. With a dismissive, if not vaguely bored, tone in her voice Tracy says to the woman, “Ah, yes, Minnesota. How nice. That’s west of here somewhere, isn’t it?”
In other words, “You’re from nowhere, aren’t you, dear?” Or at least nowhere that counts.
That’s the reaction Galilee might have garnered from the sophisticates of Jesus’ day. It’s not the kind of “happening place” where one would expect a great drama to unfold. But as the curtain goes up on the active phase of Jesus’ ministry, that is where we find ourselves even as Jesus—far from initiating some grandly unique message—basically tears a page out of John the Baptist’s book to declare “Repent! The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is near.”
We’ve heard this before. That was John’s message but we thought John was the warm-up act. He had said so himself. So what’s the main character doing reprising all that? Jesus calls this announcement “good news” but at this precise moment as the story begins, the message itself is sufficiently thin on content as to make it difficult to discern what’s so good about it. The kingdom we are told is near. It’s not here. It’s not fulfilled. It’s not crashing in to replace the dim and sometimes grim realities of this world (nor doing anything overt as of the moment to solve even something as locally important as the occupying presence of the Romans in Israel). Something appears to be up. Something’s in the wind. But just what that something is . . . well, we’re not told.
But Mark does not give us a chance to ponder that for long as the story moves right along to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. However, the drama quotient of it all is hardly enhanced as Jesus calls to his side four simple fishermen. Smelling of fish and looking every bit like the working-class folks that they were, Simon, Andrew, James, and John hitch their wagons to Jesus’ still nondescript program and begin to follow him. Jesus does not tell them where they are going. Beyond some cryptic promise to become “people fishers,” he also does not tell these four the specifics of what they might expect to happen next. He certainly does not promise them riches or rewards or anything tangible whatsoever. Yet they follow but their doing so hardly is the stuff of great promise or portent.
It is at once striking and quite probably revealing that Mark’s version of the gospel story gets off to such a humble, modest start. Matthew has his mysterious star in the east and the Magi who follow it. Luke gives us layer upon layer of drama surrounding the birth and later appearance of Jesus. John brings us to the rim of the galaxies and the beginning of all things with that all-creating Word of God who was with God in the beginning.
But not Mark. Mark allows Jesus merely to appear from out of nowhere, emerging humbly from the heat vapors emanating from the desert floor to be baptized by John. And then at the very moment when we do expect the curtain to rise on the drama to come, we end up in Galilee even as Jesus starts to cobble together a set of followers that can be described only (and perhaps at best) as rag-tag.
This is “the beginning” Mark already told us. As many scholars have noted, it’s tough to know what Mark meant in his opening verse about “the beginning.” What constitutes this beginning? How far does it extend? Is the beginning the first 8 verses of the gospel? Does it extend through the 13th verse? Does this lection of Mark 1:14-20 round out the beginning? Or is Mark more clever than all of us by basically saying that the entire gospel from Mark 1 through to the end of Mark 16 is but the merest beginning of a gospel that finally knows no bounds?
Tom Long believes it may be the latter and that there’s a reason why we therefore find Jesus in Galilee when he utters his very first words in Mark. Because these are the humble trappings that match the gospel ministry Jesus is launching. “Galilee” is the place where most of us live. Most of us live not in the citadels of power or in the glare of the bright klieg lights of history. No, we live in the Galilees of the world, on the margins, in those places where the powers-that-be do not visit and that they do not know much about more often than not. We start in Galilee because the Galilees of this life—and the simple fisherfolk who live there—are the places and the people Jesus came to save.
And so when we come to the gospel’s climax and we listen to the angel’s words to the women at the now-empty tomb of Jesus in Mark 16:7 “You must go to Galilee for there you will see him,” we as readers of the gospel are actually being directed back to Mark 1:14. We need to go back to Galilee, back to the humble beginning of the gospel and the humble, mundane characters who inhabit it to see it all through new eyes. Once we have been to the cross—toward which Mark drives us all throughout his gospel—and once we’ve seen the victory of God at the empty tomb, we go back to Galilee and all it stands for to realize anew that just such a place is what Jesus redeemed. The victory of Easter that the angel proclaims in Mark 16 directs us back to Galilee to realize that that cosmic victory is always finally a very local reality. It comes to Galilee and all who live there. It is a gospel and a victory for them, for fisherfolk, for the outback, and for every last one of us.
Thanks be to God! Yes, thanks be to God for Galilee! Because Galilee is where most of us live most of the time. How good it is to know that just there is where we again and again find Jesus proclaiming the Good News.
In Mark 1:17 Jesus uses the curious phrase alieis anthropon to entice Simon and Andrew to follow him. They would become “people-fishers,” anglers for human beings. It was a clever way to connect their current occupation with what Jesus had in mind for their future—it was in that sense, if you will forgive the pun, a good “hook” to get the attention of these men. Maybe had they been construction workers, Jesus would have invited them to become builders of human hearts. Maybe had they been real estate agents, he would have invited them to become sellers of kingdom turf. The source of the metaphor is obvious enough–they were fishermen and so Jesus used a fishing metaphor to address them. What Simon and Andrew understood from the metaphor is harder to discern. Fishing had been the source of their livelihood up to that time. Was Jesus promising them a more lucrative way to make money? That seems unlikely. Jesus did not look like someone who offered riches. But maybe he did look like someone who offered these men a chance to bring people into that kingdom whose nearness Jesus had been talking about ever since arriving in Galilee. And maybe the thought of reeling folks in to that better place was just intriguing enough as to have been part of what motivated these men to start modeling their lives on the life of the man whom they did not previously know but who seemed to believe in a future greater than could be imagined in that present moment.
The message we have to proclaim and to embody and to exemplify is the same now as it has always been: the kingdom of God is at hand. Today as much as ever, people need to know that this kingdom is real and available. They need to see the joy and the possibilities of that kingdom in us. Because often people are too easily satisfied just to make do with what is quick and easy and cheap. People settle for sex or liquor or a rock band or the distractions provided by entertainment. They look to these things to save them, or at least to help them move forward in a grim world. But, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, we are far too easily satisfied. We’re like a child who turns down an invitation for a day at the beach and chooses instead to stay sitting in a slum alley making mud pies just because the child really can’t imagine how much better a day at the shore can be. “What could be better than making these slimy mud pies?” the child might think. Ah, if only he knew!
Or as Dallas Willard writes, when he was a boy, rural electrification was just happening and power lines were being strung throughout the countryside. But suppose even after the lines were up and running you ran across a house where the weary family still used only candles and kerosene lanterns for light, used scrubboards, ice chests, and rug beaters. A better life was waiting for them right outside their door if only they would let themselves be hooked into the power lines. “My friends,” you could proclaim, “electricity is at hand!” But suppose they just didn’t trust it, thought it was too much of a hassle, and anyway didn’t believe the promises that things might be easier with this newfangled juice running into their house. “If it’s all the same to you, we’ll stick with the old ways.”
Maybe the kingdom is like that: it’s here, it’s real, it’s right outside your door. The kingdom of God is at hand! Don’t be so easily satisfied with the temporary pleasures of sex and money, power and food, cable TV and the wonders of technology. A better, exciting, hopeful, joyful kingdom of life is real. The kingdom of God is at hand. We live knowing that this is true! We live to help others believe it, too.
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s Round 2 between Yahweh and Jonah. The call to preach gets re-issued and if in Round 1 Jonah walked the opposite direction from Nineveh, this time he heads straight for it. But even well before you get to the petulant, angry Jonah of chapter 4, you just know his heart’s not in this thing.
Jonah has now very nearly been to hell and back after refusing God’s initial call of him and so it is not overly surprising to see Jonah obey promptly when the commission comes a second time. God has by now made it crystal clear: Jonah will find no escape from this preaching gig! Maybe some version of the words of Psalm 139 were even rattling around inside Jonah’s head: “If I go to the highest mountain, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I go to Joppa, you are there. If I set out to sea, you are there. Where can I go to escape my God!?” (Except in Jonah’s case the psalm was no doubt being recited through gritted teeth.)
So he goes, for what other choice does he have? He goes, he preaches the standard Prophets 101 sermon of doom and gloom and repentance and though the locals perhaps did not notice it, there was a tinge in Jonah’s voice that bespoke of the ancient equivalent of “Yada, yada, yada.” His heart just was not in his work. (And as preachers, aren’t we glad this is never true of us on any given Sunday . . . .)
But if ever a preacher needed a reminder that it’s not finally about you, Jonah got it. Half-hearted and boilerplate though his message to Nineveh was, it took hold, it took off, it went viral throughout the city and clear up to the king himself. Whatever Jonah said or did could not possibly account for the level of sincere repentance the Ninevites mustered. This was clearly, as some now put it, “a God thing” and a Holy Spirit thing and it worked. God relented. Foreign though these non-Israelites were and though they lived well outside the boundaries of the covenant as Israel understood it at that time, their loving respect for Yahweh was more than enough for God to take their destruction off of his “To Do” list.
And it angered Jonah something awful. In chapter 4 he’ll even move east of the city and set up a little lean-to shelter for himself, hoping against hope that just maybe there’d be some fireworks after all. There were none, of course, and Jonah’s anger soon curdled into boiling rage and a dyspepsia for which there were few if any earthly cures. Retrospectively, of course, this fills in the gaps in the narrative up to that point. Now we know why Jonah fled in the first place: he wasn’t afraid of failure. He was afraid of success. In his perception, salvation was a little Members Only club of which he was a member but which no greasy foreigner could ever join. Now here he had gone and become an agent of expanding the Club’s membership and it made him both angry and uneasy. How would he explain this to his loyal compatriots back home? Talk about providing comfort and aid to the enemy. This felt like treason!
Right in the middle of the Book of Jonah, in other words, and smack inside the lection appointed for this Year B Epiphany text is the spectacle of an insincere preacher being used sincerely by God. Here is one of the Bible’s finest examples of how God can (and often does) hit a straight shot using a crooked stick. It’s a vignette of how God’s Spirit can (and often does) get life-giving messages across to people even if and when the preacher is imperfect, half-hearted, distracted for whatever the reason. If there is something in Jonah’s counter-example to make those of us who preach feel a bit queasy (insofar as we may see ourselves in this picture now and then), there is also something here to give us hope. It’s not about us. God can and will use us even in our flawed weakness.
But at the heart of Jonah and of this lectionary passage is something else worth pondering, too: namely, how sincerely do we in the church today really want to bring all kinds of people into the church? Yes, we always say we want to reach all people and sometimes in the (unfortunate) language of the “culture wars” we act as though we’d love nothing more than to have all those who oppose the church for whatever the reason to come and join us. But what if they really did? What if the young people with the torn jeans and the multiple body piercings did want to join us at the communion rail? What about all those ethnic groups with habits so very different from the shank of any given congregation? What about those struggling with sexual identity, those with wildly different political views than what may characterize the majority of a given congregation? If we preach repentance to these people and then if one day it actually takes hold and they show up in the sanctuary . . . well, then what?
Maybe we are not actively awaiting and licking our lips over the potential destruction of this or that group, but if certain types of people did come to us (as they are), would we generate the kind of joy over this one might wish for?
Taken in isolation, the verses chopped up out of Jonah 3 by the Common Lectionary can look benign and seem to tell a happy story. But in the context of Jonah and of the Israel of his day, they tell no such story. The uncomfortable question with which Jonah confronts us yet today is whether the story these verses do tell is also our story. And if so, what can we do about that unhappy fact?
Aside from the book that bears his name, Jonah does not crop up much in the rest of the Bible. But the most important part of the Bible where Jonah is very much present is a passage where he is not named. But it comes in Acts 10 when Peter receives the famous roof-top vision through which he was taught not only that just maybe the Kosher food laws were being overturned in the New Covenant but so was the Jews-only nature of salvation. Peter had to go to all people and not wait for them to become Jews before he tried to turn them into Christians. Not long after that, of course, some Italians from the household of Cornelius showed up at Peter’s door to take him straight into the heart of Gentileville. Peter ended up preaching, they ended up repenting and receiving the Spirit (somewhat to Peter’s astonishment), and Peter ended up staying with them and enjoying pizza with ham, pepperoni, and a few other unclean toppings. (Thanks to Fred Craddock for the pizza idea!!)
That much we all know. But don’t fail to notice where Peter was when he received his vision of God’s new picnic: he was staying in Joppa. In Joppa and so the very city to which Jonah had once fled God’s call and from which he set sail to get away from God. Joppa is the turning point for God’s people. Jonah failed. Peter succeeded. Which direction will we go when we get to Joppa, whatever our “Joppa” may be?
Author: Doug Bratt
The author of Psalm 62 is clearly under some kind of duress whose cause he hints at, but doesn’t specifically identify. That lack of specificity makes this psalm’s sentiment something to which anyone under some kind of duress can relate. Whether what harasses us is individual, communal or even creational, most of us, like the psalmist, know what it is to feel vulnerable. Those who want to preach on or teach this text may want to explore with their congregation or students what sorts of strong enemies people face.
The stress the psalmist’s apparently mighty enemies cause him and his search for relief from it seems to lead him to reflect on the durability of himself, his enemies and his God. After all, crises have a way of causing us to reassess those things on which we previously relied. When those things that we assume are sturdy prove, in fact, to be flimsy, we naturally look for some sort of “rock” on which we can stand.
The beating heart of Psalm 62 is its affirmation of God’s reliability, of God’s incomparable strength. In fact, that affirmation stands at the psalm’s beginning, at its very center and at its ending. God is, according to verse 2, a “rock” and “fortress.” Verse 6 again asserts that God is a “rock” and a “fortress.” In verse 8 we read that God is a “refuge.” The poet even ends Psalm 62 by insisting that God is “strong.”
Taken together, these vivid images point to a God whom nothing can shake, a God who is the same, yesterday, today and forever. Even the combined forces of Satan and his allies, sin and death, can’t dislodge this sovereign God from God’s throne.
Just as importantly to the psalmist, however, Psalm 62’s images suggest that God’s strength is a source of strength for the poet. God is his “fortress,” Someone in whom the poet can find rest and protection from those who harass him. As a result, the psalmist believes that he doesn’t have to lash out or fight back against his assailants. He can find his rest in God alone. Or as some translations render verses 1 and 5, he can wait in expectant silence, confident that his strong God will soon act to rectify his situation.
The psalmist recognizes he needs such intervention because he feels like a “leaning wall” and “tottering fence.” It’s as an image of something that’s been already made flimsy and can be easily knocked down with little more than a good shove or gust of wind. While this may allude to the poet’s advancing age, it more likely simply refers to his vulnerability to his enemies’ attacks.
By contrast the poet portrays his enemies as formidable. They fully intend to topple him. The harassed psalmist feels so flimsy that he thinks his enemies won’t need crowbars or wrecking balls to knock him down. He frets that all they’ll need are the gusts of wind that are deceptive and destructive words, perhaps slander and gossip, to knock him down.
Yet as the psalmist again reflects in the middle of the psalm on God’s durability and reliability, he begins to reassess both his and his enemies’ might. He recognizes that because the Lord is so strong and reliable, he too can’t be shaken, even by the tremors that are his enemies.
The repeated use of the Hebrew word ak, translated as “alone” in verses 1, 2, 5 and 6, at least suggests the psalmist has sought refuge in other sources of protection. It implies he’s fled to other “fortresses” for safety from his enemies. Yet the psalmist has come to conclude that while his enemies may hound him, God will protect him. While his nemeses may slander him, his honor can’t be rattled because his honor comes from his firm God.
In fact, upon further reflection, even those enemies prove to be flimsy and fleeting, especially when compared to the poet’s mighty God. Whether they’re “highborn” or “lowborn,” rich or poor, mighty or powerful, those enemies amount to little more than a puff of air, a bent word. In fact, even when taken together people are little more than the vapid and fleeting breath that we take. While they may try to throw their weight around, people are, in reality, lighter than a breath.
Having reassessed both his own and his enemies’ strength, it’s as if the poet is prepared to pass on that lesson. Deep theological truths such as God’s reliability and faithfulness become the grist of his personal confession. First, it’s as if he gives himself a good lecture. He reminds himself to find his rest, to wait in silence for God.
The psalmist then turns to his contemporaries. Having remembered his lesson about God’s strength, he’s prepared to teach the people around him. In fact, the psalmist basically repeats his confession of verse 1 in verse 8. “Trust in him at all times,” he tells the people around him. “Pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” After all, it isn’t just that our enemies are little more than a puff of smoke. It’s also that our efforts to protect ourselves by somehow enriching ourselves can’t buy us security. God is our only refuge, our only source of protection from those who want to harm us.
It’s not until the psalmist has spoken to his enemies as well as lectured himself and his contemporaries that he finally turns to God at the end of the psalm. Yet even then his words of praise serve as a profession of faith. He asserts that God is a wonderful combination of strength and love. From God’s deep treasure trove of loving strength God responds to those who faithfully receive God’s grace with the gift of life.
Fruitful preaching and teaching on this marvelous psalm might focus on the contrast it draws between human flimsiness and divine loving strength. It might also ask how we can let God move us from theological truths such as we find in verses 1 and 2 to making those truths our own profession, such as in verse 5 and 8.
The Wartburg Castle is the formidable fortress in Eisenach, Germany in which Martin Luther’s protector, Frederick the Wise, sequestered him following Luther’s excommunication by Pope Leo X and his refusal to recant his heresy at the Diet of Worms. It provided a safe haven from his pursuers for Luther in which to translate the New Testament into German. The Wartburg Castle was, in fact, so formidable that it still stands today.
But even there, Martin Luther didn’t feel completely protected. At least according to legend, the Reformer so acutely felt the devil’s attacks that he heaved an ink blot against a wall to try to chase him away. After all, while all sorts of fortresses may seem to offer us protection from our enemies, only God the Fortress can offer any real safety.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Author: Stan Mast
In a text bristling with problems, Paul calls us to live “As If.” The entire chapter is about marriage, prompted by a question from the Corinthians as seen in the chapter’s first verse, which may be another quotation summarizing the aberrant view of some overly ascetic Corinthians. Some scholars see our text as an excursus in the middle of the marriage talk, but it looks to me like the crux of the matter. Paul’s overall advice regarding marriage is “remain in the situation God called [you] to.” Our text tells us why Paul advocated such an approach to marriage.
It all has to do with the time in which we live, so Paul brackets his little “as if” poem with these two powerful statements about time: “the time is short” and “this world in its present form is passing away.” These are not throwaway comments. In fact, Paul prefaces this little pericope with the Greek word phemi, which means something like “I solemnly declare.” I am about to say something that makes all the difference in the world for the way you live in the world. Because of what time it is, you should “as if….”
What does Paul mean by “the time is short?” Well, we must note first of all that he doesn’t use the word chronos here; he is not talking about calendar time or clock time, time the way humans calculate it. So, he is not saying that there are only a few minutes left, or that some great event is only a year away. His words should not lead to the making of charts and diagrams comparing biblical prophecy with today’s headlines. Paul uses the word kairos, which has the sense of significant time, critical time, the time appointed by God in God’s mysterious plan. Incidentally, it is apparently the use of that word that led the inventors of the Lectionary to choose this text as an Epiphany text. In the Gospel reading for this third Sunday after Epiphany, Mark 1:15 says that Jesus used that very word as he began his public ministry and called his first disciples. “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near….”
Many scholars think that Paul is using the word kairos here in the same way Jesus used it. Jesus used the word at his first coming; Paul uses it in reference to Christ’s second coming. So when Paul says, “the time is short,” he is referring to the imminence of the Parousia. That leads some scholars to talk about the delay of the Parousia. Paul was simply wrong, because it has been 2000 years. That is hardly a short time. So the text loses all of its punch for us. But that interpretation of this text forgets that Paul uses kairos, not chronos. We cannot calculate God’s actions by human measures of time. Paul was not saying that Christ would return in a day or a month or a year or a century. He was saying that we are living in a crucial time, a time of great opportunity, a time so significant that we should live “as if.”
Or perhaps Paul was not talking about the Parousia at all. In verse 26 he talks about “the present crisis.” Was he referring to some critical situation in the church (think of all the problems in this Corinthian church), or in the city of Corinth, or in the Empire? One scholar writes, “There was a general feeling then that some awful convulsion was close at hand. There was. Within half a generation the whole Roman world would be turned upside down by civil wars, three emperors in succession were slain, and Jerusalem was destroyed.” That made me think of the kind of doomsday talk I hear everywhere as the news media force feeds us a constant diet of catastrophe: Ebola, ISIS, global warming, looming financial crisis, governmental gridlock, the Chinese economic juggernaut, the rise of the Russia bear, etc. It sure feels as though “the time is short” for the world as we know it, even if we’re not expecting the imminent return of Jesus.
What is especially fascinating is the way Paul uses his solemn announcement about time. Usually when Paul talks about the Parousia, he issues a call to blameless living. Here the shortness of the time results in a call to disentangled living, to not getting all caught up in the normal affairs of human life, to “as if” living. This will take some unpacking to make any practical sense to our congregations.
Take the first couplet in Paul’s poem– “those who have wives should live as if they had none….” An English major helped me with this by pointing out that a simile is a figure of speech that says “x is like y in the sense that x is similar to y but not the same as y.” Live like you aren’t married, even though you obviously are married. This does not mean that husbands should abandon or neglect or even divorce their wives, in view of the shortness of the time. Paul isn’t saying, “Don’t waste your time on them!” In view of what Paul says about marriage in the rest of this chapter, that can’t be what he means. We get a hint about his intent in the words just after our passage. “I would like you to be free from concern, from anxiety.” You have to do your marital duties, including the duty of loving her as you love yourself. But as you do that, be sure that you love God above all. Don’t let your wife become your first priority. Don’t let your marriage become your ultimate allegiance. Devote yourself to the Lord (cf. verse 35).
Paul then says basically the same thing about other areas that compete for our allegiance and love. Those “who mourn [should live] as if they did not; those who are happy as if they were not….” In referring to those emotions, Paul may be talking in Hebrew fashion about all the adversity and prosperity of life, but perhaps he is simply referring to emotions themselves. Don’t let your emotional state govern your life. It’s perfectly legitimate to have emotions; they are part of being human. And it is healthy to own your emotions and express them; to do otherwise would not be good for your emotional health. But, given the time in which we live, don’t let your emotional state become the focus of your life. Devote yourself to the Lord.
Further, says Paul, you don’t have to completely disengage from the economic sphere of life. Just don’t let it become the center of your allegiance. When “you buy something, [live] as if it were not yours to keep.” This one convicted me. I’m a car guy and I recently went on a car buying binge. I mean that I studied car reviews on line; I took them on extensive test drives; I haggled with dealers; I finally selected a car to buy; I actually prayed about my decision. I spent countless hours on buying that car because I was going to own it for the next decade. Then I backed out at the last minute. I wish I could say it was because of this text, but that wouldn’t be true. I mention that embarrassing episode because it illustrates exactly what Paul is talking about. It’s OK to buy, but don’t let it become the preoccupation of your life. It’s fine to be a good steward of the Lord’s resources. Just be sure that at the end of the day, you devote yourself to the Lord, not to what you buy with his resources.
Paul’s last couplet focuses on “the things of the world,” meaning just about anything God provides to enable us to live in his good world. We’re supposed to use (chromenoi in Greek) those things; that’s why God gave them. No call to asceticism here. But we must use them as if “not engrossed (katachromenoi, a play on words using an intensified form of the verb) in them.” That’s a good word, “engrossed.” Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by the stuff in your life. Don’t let your use of stuff become the focus on your life. How countercultural is that? Our culture insists that life does consist in the abundance of our possessions, or in the abundance of our relationships (how many Facebook friends?), or in the quest to find our perfect soul mate, or to be happier, more successful, more fit. I belong to a gym where I try to stay in reasonable shape, but I see people there who are so engrossed in fitness that their musculature is nearly gross. Devote yourself to the Lord, not to all the wonderful things he showers upon us.
Martin Luther, the hearty Reformer who loved a great meal, a good beer, and a lively conversation, summed up this text in typically memorable fashion. “We must not sink too deeply into either love and desire, or suffering and boredom, but should rather behave like guests.” Because of him, we sing, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.”
Paul’s last words in our text point directly at those last words in Luther’s famous hymn. “His kingdom is forever, but “this world in its present form is passing away.” Actually, Paul says that the schema of this world is passing away. The world is not passing away, only its schema. That word was often used of the theatre to refer to the changing acts and characters of a play, to “an actor leaving the stage.” We can get all tied up with the surface affairs of life, with politics and finances and sports and relationships. Paul reminds us that these thoroughly engrossing things are passing away; the curtain is coming down. That doesn’t mean they are illusory and unimportant. They are very real, and they matter for a time. But the time is short and all of these things that call for our complete devotion are passing away. So, don’t worry about them. Devote yourselves to the Lord.
I keep repeating that phrase from verse 35 because that is Paul’s point in all of chapter 7 and in this little “as if” poem. Paul is not calling for detachment, though some scholars use that term to sum up Paul’s challenge here. Detachment is more of an eastern mystical word. Buddhism and Hinduism, among others, hold up detachment as the ideal virtue. We must strive for release from all desire, for that will ultimately free us from suffering. Attachment is the main obstacle to a serene and fulfilled life.
The Christian faith calls us to something very different. We are called precisely to attachment– not to the things of this world, but to the Lord who made them all. Paul calls us not to detachment, but to devotion. Note how Paul puts it in verse 35. “I am saying this for your good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the living Lord.” In our text today, Paul utters no condemnation of marriage or emotions or possessions or a full life in this world. Those are all good things. But we are called to the better, to the best, which is devotion to Jesus Christ. Today’s lectionary reading from the Psalms captures what Paul is saying here. “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.”
How are we to preach this today? It sounds like an otherworldly mysticism. How can we square Paul’s “as if” living with the real world? Specifically, how can we “remain in the situation God has called us to? ” That sounds like the kind of theology that undergirded the old feudal system where serfs remained serfs because they were called to that. The idea of God’s calling has, indeed, been used to stifle ambition, quell revolutions, and maintain the status quo. The Lord is coming, so stay where you are. How does that square with Jesus’ call to go into all the world to make disciples for the kingdom, with Paul’s intensity as a kingdom promoter, with our contemporary passion to see the justice and peace of the Kingdom spread all over the world? Aren’t we supposed to be world changers?
We can say two things about that. First, we must frankly admit that Paul didn’t seem to have much interest in changing society. His disturbing words to slaves in verses 21-24 (echoed and amplified in his letter to Philemon) are abundant evidence of that. In view of the shortness of the time and the passing schema of the world, Paul didn’t spend time trying to free the slaves, elevate the status of women, or overthrow the Empire. If he addressed such societal issues at all, it was usually in terms of showing mercy (the offering for the poor in Jerusalem), rather than pursuing justice. He was more concerned to bring the Gospel to all nations and see sinners changed into the image of Christ, though, of course, the success of his mission did result in the reformation of society in ways he could never have imagined.
But, second, we can say that it is precisely Paul’s call to live “as if” in “undivided devotion to the Lord” that can enable us to be world changers. Though we have a lessened sense of the imminence of Christ’s return, we are keenly aware that we are living in “the present crisis.” To be able to address all of the crises of our times, we’ll need the kind of allegiance to Christ that will free us to “act justly and love mercy.” Only if Jesus liberates us from the entanglements of relationships and finances and possessions and experiences will we be free to fully engage the evils that ruin life on planet earth. This will be tricky to preach, but this marvelous poetry gives us the perfect opportunity to explore what it means to live in “undivided devotion to the Lord” even as we live in his world. The key is “As If.”
The whole idea of living in shortened time is explored with devastating honesty in a couple of recent books. The young adult book, The Fault in Our Stars, focuses on two teenaged cancer patients, Augustus and Hazel Grace. Though Augustus has apparently conquered his cancer (at the cost of an amputated leg), Hazel Grace is terminal. Is there any point in falling in love when the time is short? Spoiler alert! Yes, gloriously and painfully, yes! The murder mystery, The Last Policeman, is set against the background of the end of the world. A giant asteroid is about to crash into the planet, resulting in the eventual death of every last human being. How does the human race deal with that? By going on flings, by getting married, by committing suicide, by travelling to far off places, by finding or losing religion, or by simply staying on the job, as the last policeman does. In spite of the fact that the murderer will soon die like everyone else, the policeman assigned to the murder mystery doggedly does his duty. How should we react in view of solemn announcement that “the time is short” and “the schema of this world is passing away?”