February 15, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Luke knew how to spin a tale! Today he’d likely be a best-selling writer no matter what his genre: novels, biographies, essays. Luke had style, narrative panache. Dip into any of his stories in The Gospel that bears his name or in The Book of Acts (that he also authored) and you see this readily.
That’s why I cannot quite figure out this quirky 13th chapter in Luke’s Gospel much less make a lot of sense out of the five short verses the Lectionary carved out for this Lenten lection. Before we look at those “foxes and chickens” verses, consider the whole chapter.
Jesus seems to be bobbing and weaving a lot here. On the one hand he issues warnings about the doors of the kingdom snapping shut on you at a moment’s notice, on the other hand he seems to say the kingdom of God is wide open, it’s on the move, it’s as huge as a giant mustard tree and as pervasive as the presence of yeast in a ball of dough. We’ve got fig trees that get a second chance and people coming from all points of the compass to sit at God’s banquet table. Then again, we’ve got knocking and pleading and a curt rebuff from the master of a house whose front door just won’t open for certain folks.
Then after all that we have the counter-intuitive event of some Pharisees seemingly trying to protect Jesus, which in turn elicits from Jesus some odd statements about today and tomorrow and the next day and gathering up chicks.
Winston Churchill once sent a pudding back to a restaurant kitchen complaining that “It lacks a theme.”
Well . . . just what is the theme of this chapter, dear Luke?
Maybe it’s that the kingdom of God is mysterious but also wonderful. Maybe the theme here is that the kingdom is everywhere to be seen, everywhere to be accessed such that if the day comes when you find yourself forever and anon outside of that kingdom, maybe it was because you were all along too busy being obsessed with pesky rules that kept you from seeing real people as real people, from seeing real miracles as miracles, from rejoicing over the north, south, west, and east people sitting at the table with you because you were too hung up on how strange and foreign they seemed to you.
God will give the “fig tree” of your life every second chance he can. He’ll perform wonders before you like healing a crooked woman’s spine. And all the while his kingdom is growing up around you like a mighty tree and is spreading all around you like invisible yeast that is even now poofing up the whole ball of wax into something that will glorify the Lord. But if at the end of the day all you can do is wish for Jesus to move to another neighborhood . . . well, when the day comes when all the pounding your fist can handle on God’s front door does you no good, don’t pretend to be shocked.
Because, you see, I am convinced that the Pharisee’s “warning” to Jesus about Herod is a feint. It may or may not have been a fabrication, an outright lie, but it was conveyed to Jesus not to protect him but to get him out of their sight. They couldn’t pin anything on Jesus, and his teachings and healings were generating palpable enthusiasm among the masses. Jesus was already far more popular than the Pharisees had ever been (and this should come as no surprise to anyone in that the average Pharisee was about as much fun as an impacted wisdom tooth). Their left-handed attempt to hustle Jesus away only showed how content they were to stay on the outside of whatever kingdom Jesus was talking about.
So when Jesus tells them to go tell Herod “that fox” that he wasn’t going to take his marching orders from him, he was really telling these foxy Pharisees to take a hike, too. Yet there was enough love and compassion (and grace) in Jesus that he couldn’t leave it at that, either. If Herod and these Pharisees were the fox in this scenario, then Jesus was the mother hen trying to gather up chicks under his wings. Of course, in their encounters with foxes throughout history chickens have not tended to fare well and, indeed, very soon Jesus will die and even the chicks who had stayed closest to him the longest will scurry away and scatter. But for those who ultimately come back to Christ the Hen, for those who see in him even so a sheltering wing that can protect them into the kingdom of God for all eternity, there will be new life after all.
Because the kingdom is growing steady and sure, its branches reaching up to heaven by now, its yeasty presence permeating and having its wondrous effect throughout the very fabric of existence. In the Lenten Season this odd passage from the end of this quirky chapter reminds us both of the kingdom’s reality and of our need to rejoice in that kingdom no matter how many surprises it delivers.
The world is still filled with foxes, and we chickens don’t always think we have a chance. Thankfully we now know that the Mother Hen under whose wings we take shelter has some other names, including the Lion of Judah.
It reminds me of the time Winston Churchill—to mention him again!—brought down the house at the Canadian Parliament when he mentioned that Hitler and his generals had said that when it came to conquering Britain, Germany would wring Britain’s neck like a chicken.
Churchill then paused and said, “Some chicken! Some neck!”
What did Jesus mean about “today and tomorrow and the next day” as he twice references such a three-day sequence in this passage? He cannot mean that literally in that he is a long ways from dying and rising yet. It seems that this phrase is reflective of a deeply Jewish way of referring to a key period of time. Things that come in three-day sequences are fraught with significance. We know that the premiere example of this is Jesus’ crucifixion and burial followed by his being raised on the third day. Indeed, the line from the Creed “the third day he rose again from the dead” is perhaps one of the most well-known lines to Christians all over the world.
In this passage Jesus may not be referring to his resurrection but he is referring to something very significant taking place on that third day when, as he says, he will reach his goal. In fact, the word in the Greek that Jesus uses in Luke 13:32 and that is translated as “reach my goal” is a cognate form of the verb teleo, which Jesus will utter from also the cross in declaring “It is finished.” However, Jesus does not utter that particular word from the cross in Luke’s gospel. So it could be that his use of this word here serves as a kind of substitute for Luke’s having him say it from the cross.
The verb teleo carries with it more than the sense of being finished with something in the sense of having crossed the goal line or something. Rather, there is more than a hint of fulfillment, of summing up all things, of consummation in ways that have significant eschatological overtones. But the Lenten irony to be savored in all this as it comes to us in Luke 13 is that this consummation, this fulfillment of all things, is tied up with Jesus’ death. Twice here Jesus repeats this three-day formula. The first time in verse 32 he says that he will reach his goal. The second time in verse 33 he indicates that part of the goal is his death in Jerusalem (and not outside of it).
As noted elsewhere in this set of sermon starters, it’s unlikely that the Pharisees were really trying to protect Jesus from the clutches of Herod. But whatever the ins and outs of that may be, the fact is that the Pharisees thought they could scare Jesus out of Jerusalem by holding out the prospect of death. What they did not know—but what Jesus increasingly senses—is that far from running from death, Jesus sees death as the key to his being able to fulfill all things.
We need to recall that this incident takes place well after that turning point in Luke’s gospel at Luke 9:51 when Jesus resolutely set his face toward the Holy City. All of these subsequent chapters, leading up to the Triumphal Entry in Luke 19 and then all the events leading up to the crucifixion, take place in the context of Jesus’ grim determination to fulfill all righteousness and bring about cosmic salvation through the paradoxical avenue of his own sacrificial death.
This may not be the most savory example but the spectacle in Luke 13 of the Pharisees approaching Jesus to help him and protect him allegedly from Herod reminds me of the scenario that dominates the last part of the landmark movie The Godfather. As the aging Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) approaches the end of his life, he hands the reins of power in their nefarious mafia business to his son, Michael. But the old Don has been around long enough to know that once he is out of the way, all bets will be off and the other East Coast mafia families will move in and try to kill Michael. And he knows something else: the betrayal will come from a trusted friend who will suggest to arrange a meeting between Michael and the next-most-powerful mafia kingpin, Don Barzini. “And at that meeting,” the Don tells Michael, “you will be assassinated. So whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting, that’s the traitor. Don’t forget that.”
No sooner is the old Don dead—indeed, at his very funeral—Michael is approached by long-time family friend Tessio (played by the recently departed Abe Vigoda) who says he’s got things all arranged to make peace with Barzini if only Michael will come to a meeting. Michael agrees but, of course, never goes to any such meeting. He knows that this “friend” trying to help him is offering him no real help at all.
When the Pharisees come to Jesus in Luke 13, they appear to come as friends, as people who have Jesus’ best interests at heart. Herod has been making ominious noises, they claim, so you’d best get out of town. But even as Michael knew that Tessio was only pretending to have Michael’s best interests at heart while actually plotting his downfall, so Jesus could see right through the Pharisees here. In a nice twist of irony, Jesus tells the Pharisees to go back to Herod and deliver the message that Jesus is not about to stop.
This, by the way, neatly trapped the Pharisees. After all, what were they doing talking to the Jewish enemy, King Herod? If they really had such easy access to him as to be able to deliver Jesus’ message back to the King, just what did that say about the Pharisees? Did they or did they not have the best interests of their fellow Jews at heart?
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Author: Doug Bratt
It’s fairly easy to trust God to keep God’s promises when things are going well. But when things don’t go well, even Jesus’ most faithful followers sometimes wonder how God will ever keep God’s promises. It’s at those difficult times that trust is a particularly precious gift.
The Abram whom God told to leave his home has been by turns faithful and faithless, bold and cowardly along the way. Yet God has apparently remained silent ever since issuing that command. What’s more, while God also promised to make Abram and Sarai into a great nation, God hasn’t yet given them even one child. So it’s easy to imagine Abram and Sarai longing for God to say something to them to help keep them going. Yet they learn that all too often, God seems silent, inactive and, thus, inattentive.
So it’s not surprising Abram is skeptical when God finally breaks God’s silence. He has a hard time believing God’s new but now also so very old promise. God has promised to give Abram many descendants. But Abram has concluded there will be no diapers to change, not even one teenager to teach to drive. He has deduced God’s call from infertility was just a cruel hoax.
And since God hasn’t kept God’s promise to him, Abram has again taken things into his own hands. He has updated his will to make his servant his heir. Abram has adopted someone to share his very great reward with. After all, that’s the logical way. Sometimes God takes what seems too long to keep God’s promises. So it’s tempting to occasionally assume we must take matters into our own hands, whether it’s financially, relationally or even spiritually.
As a result, God speaks again to dubious Abram. “Since you’ve made a household servant your heir, you’re going to have to change your will,” God basically tells him. “You will have a biological son who will inherit everything.” God then does what’s perhaps an odd thing. “Look up,” God tells Abram. “How many stars can you count?” In Abram’s day, that might have taken him the rest of his life – and longer.
Yet while it’s probably dazzling, that abundance of stars doesn’t change anything. In fact, God won’t give Abram and Sarai any “offspring” for another 25 years.
So what turns Abram from a fearful skeptic into someone who verse 6 says “believes” God? His newfound belief that God is God can only be a great gift from God. The God who makes the promise of countless children to Abram is the God who also makes that promise believable to him. The God who later raises Jesus Christ to life is the same God who raises Abram’s dying faith to life.
But it would have shocked Genesis’ original audience to learn that God, as Genesis’ narrator says, graciously credits that faith to Abram as “righteousness.” To be “credited” refers to putting money into someone else’s account. Yet “righteousness” is a more elusive concept. Citizens of the 21st century might argue being righteous is basically being a nice person. But to be righteous in our text’s sense is to trust the future God has planned enough to quit trying to control our present. It’s easy to assume our present shapes our future. So when the present becomes problematic, we worry about our future. Christians’ faith sometimes shrinks in the face of loneliness, fear and grief that seem stronger than God. Faith sometimes wilts in the hothouse of illness and financial uncertainty that appears to dictate our future.
Yet to be righteous means to trust that God, not our present or past ultimately controls our future. To be righteous is to, as the Heidelberg Catechism states, “have good confidence [for our future] in our faithful God and Father.” Yet God does all the “heavy lifting” when it comes to such confidence in God. God doesn’t just give Abram faith. God also graciously views his faithful reception of that gift as fulfilling obligations to God.
Yet such righteousness is usually only the result of God’s persistent work. It’s important to be patient with sometimes-fragile faith because it generally takes a long time to become completely confident in God. Look at the Abram whom the Scriptures call a “man of faith.” He finally believes God’s promise to give him many descendants. Yet he can’t yet fully believe God will give his descendants the land of Canaan.
So Abram asks for some kind of guarantee that God will keep that promise too. As a result, in what one scholar calls Abram’s “dread and marvelous darkness,” God graciously gives him a sneak preview of coming attractions.
God warns Abram that his descendants will be slaves and foreigners in a country that will abuse them. Yet God also promises that within 500 years they’ll return to the very place where Abram now sleeps. God even promises to eventually, in fact, give Abram’s descendants a large part of what we now call the Middle East.
Then, in one of the oddest passages in all of Scripture, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch somehow walks between the animals Abram has cut in pieces. Whatever else that strange gesture means, it confirms God will keep God’s promises to Abram. So this strange ceremony is kind of like a solemn handshake or signature at the bottom of a contract. It guarantees God will give Abram not just countless descendants, but also plenty of good land for them to live on and in.
In verse 6 Genesis reports Abram believed God’s promise to give him many descendants. But Genesis doesn’t say if, even after everything God has done and said, Abram believes God’s promise to give those descendants all of Canaan. In fact, his subsequent actions show Abram has a hard time continuing to believe God will give Sarah and him children. So this “man of faith” still doesn’t have complete confidence in God for his future.
God, after all, hasn’t kept God’s promises as promptly as Abram would have liked. When God promised Abram and Sarai a bunch of children, they probably expected a houseful of them right away. But all they got was just one child: Isaac.
Only much later would there be more descendants. It took millennia for God to give Abram as many children as the stars he could count. God is, in fact, still adding “stars” to Abram’s family constellation.
This offers Genesis 15’s preacher and teachers an opportunity to reflect on what are God’s most precious promises. Perhaps it’s God promise to never abandon God’s people. Or to be the God of the children of Christians. Or to bend every knee in worship of Jesus Christ. Or to establish God’s control over the whole creation. Doesn’t the fulfillment of those precious promises sometimes seem almost hopelessly delayed, if not just plain dead? Even Christians sometimes feel like we walk through various crises all alone. God’s people’s baptized children turn their backs on God. Whole swaths of the world stubbornly resist Christ’s lordship.
Perhaps the Holy Spirit can use of Genesis 15’s rather “open” end to help cultivate trust in the face of such delays. It ends, after all, not neatly with Abram’s response, but with God’s promises. So the end of our text directs our focus away from Abraham and towards the living God. Trust that draws from human effort or example quickly goes bankrupt. The only way for trust to flourish is to keep its eyes firmly fixed on God, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
That’s why it can be so appropriate to end worship services by celebrating the Lord’s Supper. It’s not just that this sacrament, like God’s stroll through the animal pieces, visibly confirms God will keep God’s promises. It’s also that it ends worship by pointing worshipers not towards our own efforts, but towards the living God.
Communion reminds worshipers that hope for the future rests not in more sophisticated medicine, convincing children to turn back to God or better mission techniques. Hope rests on nothing less than the Jesus Christ whose life, death and resurrection we remember at the Lord’s Table.
The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper points worshipers to the God who keeps all God’s promises through Jesus Christ. After all, the God who gave life to the dead Jesus can certainly give life to dying people and dead faith, even if it takes a long time.
In his book, Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet, Robert Moats Miller quotes Fosdick as saying there are “three sorts of folk. There are the utter disbelievers. They will have none of religion. It is to them superstition and credulity, and God is as much a myth as the devils of an African witch doctor. But there are not many such. There are the great believers, who have grown up into a luminous and convincing life with God like St. Theresa who said that in her heart she had an experience so beautiful that one drop of it, falling on hell, would turn it into Paradise. But there are not many such. Between these two groups are the mass of [people]. They are not utter disbelievers and they are not glorious believers. Their faith is hesitant, uncertain, unsatisfying, sporadic. ‘Lord,’ they say, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’”
Author: Stan Mast
While this Psalm has been the source of inspiration and consolation for many believers, there’s a sense in which it is a troubling Psalm. There is a great tension in it. Perhaps dichotomy is a better word. It is composed of two entirely different parts. The one is a magnificent confession of unshakeable trust in God. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear….” The other part is a fearful prayer of lament. “Do not hide your face from me….” So great is the contrast that a number of scholars suggest we have two separate poems here artificially joined together. Verses 1-6 are a Psalm of light, while verses 7-12 are a Psalm of darkness.
That may be, but I think a literary explanation misses a deeper spiritual explanation. Isn’t it true that our lives are often filled with exactly the tension expressed here, a tension so powerful that we feel divided, almost like two different people? Sometimes we are so confident of God’s love and care that we are just as bold and strong and courageous as the Psalmist in verses 1-6. Other times we so enveloped by the darkness of life that we are overwhelmed by its troubles, and we fear that God has turned against us. Then we say things like verses 7-12. The Christian life can be incredibly bright and unspeakably dark.
Here’s the great question for our sermon on this text. How in the world can we have the confidence of verses 1-6 when we are walking in the darkness of verses 7-12, so that we can say verses 13-14? “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Here’s the answer: it all depends on what you look at. The Psalmist knew that, so he speaks to his heart in the heart of his darkness, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek.”
That’s a troubling text in several ways. In part it’s troubling because it isn’t clear within itself. I mean that there is another translation of it, a perfectly legitimate translation that makes it even stronger. The old RSV had it this way, “Thou hast said to me, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to thee, ‘Thy face, Lord, do I seek.” Then this text is not simply a soul encouraging herself to seek God’s face, but God himself commanding and inviting us to seek God’s face, almost promising that we’ll find him if we do.
A deeper trouble with this text is suggested by the next verse. “Do not hide your face from me….” As we sift through the Scripture, we find that God sometimes does exactly that. We live before the face of God, as the Reformers were fond of saying; we live in his presence every moment of every day. But there are times when he hides his face from us, when the sunshine of his smile is replaced by the darkness of his apparent absence. And that produces despair in a believer. Psalm 30:7, “O Lord, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm, but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.” That suggests that we might seek God’s face, but he will hide it and we’ll never have the experience of seeing it.
Indeed, the Bible even says in other places that we cannot see God’s face at all. I’m thinking here of that famous experience Moses had in Exodus 33 and 34. There has been an explosive confrontation between God and Moses over the Golden Calf. Now God has promised to bless Moses. But a shaken Moses wants more than a word from God. He says to God in Exodus 33:18, “Now show me your glory.” The Lord replies, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence…. But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” So God hides Moses in the cleft of the rock and covers him with his hand. “When my glory passes by,” says God in vs. 22, “I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
That sheds important light on our text. When God says, “Seek my face,” he is not talking about seeing God in all his glory. That is not for this life. There is coming a day, says I Cor. 13:12, when we shall meet him face to face, and see him as he is in himself. But here we see only the back parts of God, God walking away from us as it were, God after he has been at work in our lives, the mysterious signs of his presence in the works he has done, sort of the vapor trail of God. Here we do not see the uncovered, naked face of God as it is in all its heavenly glory. Indeed, says the opening of John’s gospel, “No one has ever seen God” in that way. (vs. 18)
But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore this troubling text in Psalm 27:8. In fact, the most troubling thing about this text is that so many Christians do exactly that. We do not seek the face of God at all. We believe in him; we trust him; but we do not seek his face. You say, what do you mean by that? Well, I don’t mean that we have to seek experiences such as Mariette had (see my Illustration Ideas at the end of this piece), though we must be very cautious about denying that they happen at all. No, seeking God’s face has more to do with what another generation of Christians called contemplation.
I know that sounds very mysterious and mystical, but it simply means that we pay attention to God. It is not enough to believe in God; we must also pay attention to him. Or more correctly, really believing in God includes paying attention to God. Col. 3:2 describes contemplation in simple language. “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Or as Psalm 27:4 puts it, it is “to gaze on the beauty of the Lord.” It is “the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us.”
When I read that, I realized why so few of us have any experience of God. We are so focused on earthly things. Our minds are set on what we can see and hear right now. For David in Psalm 27, it was enemies, the former friends, the estranged family, and the murderous armies of the Philistines. For us, it might not be something so visible. We don’t gaze upon the beauty of the Lord because we are so focused on ourselves, on finding practical solutions to the problems of life, or simply because we are so restless, so busy, so active. It’s hard to pay attention when you are running like a chicken with its head cut off. In order to seek God’s face, we have to gaze on the beauty of the Lord.
But how do we do that in practical terms? The writer of our Psalm had the temple. “One thing I ask of the Lord; this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” The temple, of course, was carefully designed by God to mirror heaven, to give people some visible representation of his glory. David could sit in the temple (or, more properly for him, the Tabernacle) and all around him see the beauty of the Lord. We don’t have that. My last church was majestically beautiful with its soaring ceiling and its stained glass windows depicting the life of Christ, but it was still just a human house of worship designed by a mere mortal. So how can we in post-Temple times gaze at God’s beauty?
Well, we’ve already heard a hint in our reflections on Exodus 33. John Calvin said it succinctly. “The most perfect way of seeking God… is not for us to attempt with bold curiosity to penetrate to the investigation of his essence… but for us to contemplate him in his works….” We see the beauty of God in his works, in what he has done among us, in what he leaves behind, his back, his vapor trail.
The largest of these works, of course, is the world of nature. The great Reformed theologian Jonathan Edwards loved to gaze upon God’s beauty in nature. Reflecting on his long walks through the great out of doors, Edwards wrote: “God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers and trees; in the water, and all nature…. I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the day time, I spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things….”
But the clearest work of God is his Word. I mean, first of all, his Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. “No one has ever seen God,” says John 1:18, “but his only begotten Son has made him known.” We cannot see God’s uncovered face, said Ex. 33, but we can see his face with human skin on it. II Cor. 4:6 says that God has made his light shine in our hearts “to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” You seek God’s face by gazing on the beauty of Jesus Christ.
Of course, the only way we can gaze on that beauty is to read the Bible. We can only see the beauty of the Word made flesh by gazing on the Word made book. There are many ways to study Christ in The Book. Recently I ran across a little book entitled Looking Unto Jesus, by one of the great Puritan writers, Isaac Ambrose. He had a wonderful suggestion. He encouraged a careful contemplation of the 7 stages of Christ’s ministry as one way of gazing on the beauty of Lord. What are those 7 stages? Why don’t you find out for yourself? That would be a challenging application of this text.
We could say much more about how we can seek God’s face, but paying attention is the key, paying loving attention to God as he is revealed in his works, gazing upon his beauty as it shines forth in the moon and the sun and in the face of the Son of God on the pages of Scripture. The question for ourselves as preachers and for our congregants is, Will we do it? The Psalmist says, “Your face, O Lord, will I seek.” Will we? Will we be content with simply believing all this stuff? Or will we actually seek to come into God’s presence each day?
Of course, I cannot promise that if you seek God’s face, you will have an experience of God like Moses or Mariette had. In a fine piece in Reformed Review, Tom Schwanda reminds us that here, too, God is sovereign. “The result of contemplation is always at God’s disposal. Enjoying God… is not something we can demand or expect from God simply by following a predictable formula or the newest technique. It is always a gift given at God’s discretion. However, God may graciously lavish this upon us as we seek to be attentive and lovingly gaze upon Jesus Christ.”
In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brendan Manning tells a simple story that captures the Good News for those who would seek God’s face, even if we don’t actually experience God. “A two story house had caught on fire. The family—father, mother, several children—were on their way out when the smallest boy became terrified, tore away from his mother, and ran back upstairs. Suddenly he appeared in a smoke filled window crying like crazy. His father, outside, shouted, ‘Jump, son, jump! I’ll catch you.’ The boy cried, ‘But, daddy, I can’t see you.’ ‘I know,’ his father called, ‘I know. But I can see you.’“
“I have had an experience.” With those simple words, a young nun named Sister Mariette sets off a firestorm of controversy that results in her being expelled from the convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion. Her story is told in Ron Hansen’s little gem of a book, Mariette in Ecstasy. When she confessed to her priest, “I have had an experience,” she was referring to an experience of religious ecstasy, of moving outside herself into the very presence of Jesus. Her priest explains to her that such things do not happen. “When you see Christ or hear him, you must be mistrusting and wary, for Christ is a Word that does not give voice to the ear but goes directly to the mind. Jesus does not usually speak; Jesus performs and inspires. He does not make himself present to our human senses, but in the holy desires of the will.”
But she persists and describes her experience with Jesus like this: “In prayer I float out of myself. I have lost my body; I don’t know where I am or even if I am now human or spirit. A sweet power is drawing me, a great and beautiful force that is effortless but insistent. I flush with excitement and a balm of tenderness seems to flow over me. And when I have gotten to the fullness of joy and peace and tranquility, then I know I have been possessed by Jesus and have completely lost myself in him. Hours may pass, but I have no sense of tiredness or pain or need of any kind. I have no desires except to be held there by him forever. I have a vision of him but I cannot see his face or his form, only an infinite light and goodness. I hear his voice in an interior way, his words have sweetness and charm but no sound, and yet they are more felt and permanent in my soul than if I heard Jesus pronounce them.” Mariette even develops the stigmata, the wounds of Christ in her hands and feet and side. But no one believes her. They accuse her of being mentally ill or, worse yet, of faking the whole experience. So she is kicked out of the convent.
Mariette in Ecstasy was an assigned book in a marvelous summer seminar years ago. It was assigned because it represents a very different type of spirituality than we are accustomed to in my Reformed tradition. As our seminar group discussed Mariette, we all acknowledged the truth of these words from Mariette in Ecstasy. “We mortals have such a hunger for supernatural things. We are bored and dull and tired of each other and we have such a yearning for some sign from God that this all matters, that our prayers and good works are important to him.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Was the church better off when it was persecuted or when it wielded significant political power and influence? It’s one of history’s bigger questions. Over the course of the first three or so centuries of the Christian church’s existence, a number of Roman emperors persecuted the church. One emperor, however, believed in the church, even making it a law that you should be a Christian! Some chased the church, one embraced the church, and it remains an open question who inflicted the most damage on the church! The emperor who legitimized Christianity was Constantine. Unlike Nero, Caligula, Diocletian, and any number of prior Roman leaders, Constantine himself underwent some kind of conversion experience just before winning the key battle that made him emperor.
Thus, once he took power, he got rid of the oppressive laws that had for so long been forcing Christians underground into catacombs. Under Constantine you could be a Christian in public because the republic had itself been baptized. Before long, history witnessed even something as extraordinary as the Roman emperor convening theological seminars, like the one Constantine called in the city of Nicaea in 325. In less than thirty years, Christians had gone from alleged enemies of the state to honored guests of the state.
By all worldly standards, we could view such a development as a happy turn-of-events. And in one sense it was. But in another sense the co-mingling of theology and politics, of church and state, had disastrous effects for many centuries to come. Those of you familiar with church history are aware of the corrupting influence politics had. Eventually you had emperors who took it upon themselves to appoint their own bishops and pastors. That way if someone in a church opposed the politics of the emperor, the emperor could instruct his hand-picked pastor to excommunicate this nettlesome fellow. Conversely, however, popes tried to gain political leverage by telling government leaders that if they didn’t do the church’s bidding, the pope would excommunicate them.
These days we cringe when we hear representatives of Al Qaeda or ISIS threaten jihad, “holy war” even as they refer to others as “infidels” who need to be rooted out. Alas, these Muslim fundamentalists are just tearing a page out of church history. Once the church had acquired the muscle of the state, it was able to do things like launch the “Crusades” as a holy war whose stated aim was to root the infidels out of the holy land. A third of Europe’s Jews and untold numbers of Muslims were slaughtered by these Christian crusaders.
These are unpleasant topics and yet at least some of Paul’s words in this Lectionary text from Philippians 3 force us to ponder to what kingdom we Christians belong. In this Lenten Season we can note that it’s the cross that makes all the difference. Those who abhor the cross remain citizens of this world but those who have paradoxically found new life in that cross now have a higher citizenship in the kingdom of heaven itself.
Overall, Philippians is probably the friendliest letter Paul ever wrote. But even friendly letters can contain stern advice, and so throughout Philippians Paul urges the church to adopt the mind of Christ Jesus. Jesus’ example of self-emptying humility and service sets the tone for all who follow. We are servants of one another. We are humble about God’s gifts, not arrogantly proud. And we rely on grace alone for salvation and so stay away from false teachers who claim that we need to earn our way to heaven.
In these verses Paul warns against those whom he labels “the enemies of the cross.” Near as we can tell, Paul is referring to those who said the cross did not really seal the deal with God in terms of our salvation. A great deal is still up to us, they claimed. So these counter-evangelists taught that you needed to be strict about following kosher food laws and, if you really wanted to be part of God’s elect people, you should be circumcised. You needed to live a certain way first if you wanted to get God’s attention and then love. When Paul talks about “their god is their belly and they glory in their shame,” he appears to be symbolically referring to food laws and circumcision.
But Paul says that only Jesus and what he did on the cross matters. Jesus did it all. Because of that, Paul says, we are now citizens of a new commonwealth, of a heavenly kingdom, and this needs to be our identity. The word in verse 20 that is translated as “citizenship” is a rare Greek word that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. More literally translated it means something like “colony,” and you rather suspect that Paul had a very definite reason for using this word in this particular letter.
The city of Philippi was a Roman colony. The capital city of Rome was a long way away, but still the Philippians were Roman citizens, granted a lot of freedom and given a lot of financial benefits by virtue of being considered a colony of the empire. So here Paul is saying that the church itself is a colony of heaven. Most days we don’t exactly feel like we are living some “heaven on earth” existence. Paul talks about how Jesus has the power “to bring everything under his control,” but most days we live in a world that seems out of control. But Paul says Jesus is in control, he is Lord already, and we are citizens of his kingdom. Even on this earth and in this present time, we are a colony of heaven and so can enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ Lordship, if only we will stand firm for what we believe.
As citizens of God’s holy colony, our primary identity and allegiance needs to be first to that kingdom, and not to whatever nation in which we find ourselves for the time being. But how might that show itself? In terms of justice, we want to be prophetic witnesses of God’s way of doing things yet without thinking that the way to witness is to turn the state into the church or, conversely, thinking that the church should rule like the state. We need to be both firm and active, proclaiming and living God’s truth without mixing up our Christian and our national identities. We don’t assume, for instance, that being a good American automatically makes you a good Christian.
No one would wish a return to persecution. But when the church was persecuted in the early days, there was no doubting the radical difference that existed between culture and church. Once Constantine swept in to legalize and even officially sanction Christianity, the boundary lines between church and culture started to blur. Eventually they became almost impossible to distinguish as pastors started to behave like the police and as emperors started to behave like bishops. But once that critical distance between the church as a colony of heaven and the nation was lost, Christians were no longer sure what was what.
Today in our setting these issues are acute and also blood-warming. If you want to set off a fierce argument in many areas of the American church, just suggest that America was not founded by Christian people nor ever intended, therefore, to be a singularly “Christian nation.” Just say that and watch what happens. There are some folks among whom you could not generate much of a discussion on things like the Trinity or the atonement, but question the identity of America as a religious nation, and pulses start to race!
Yet Paul reminds us that within the church we are a colony of heaven first of all, and that this badge of cross-shaped kingdom citizenship must determine our attitudes and actions everywhere we go. That doesn’t mean you never leave the colony or withdraw into only the colony, but it does mean that the church determines our view of everything else. For that to happen, however, you may need a bit of critical distance between church and culture.
The gospel tells us that as God’s colony, we are members one of another. We are accountable to one another, responsible to one another, simply part of one another. Paul concludes this passage talking about a transformation. The day will come, Paul says, when the Lord Jesus Christ will return to transform our earthly bodies into bodies that are like Jesus’ own glorious resurrection body. When you live in God’s colony, that is the direction of the transforming flow: it runs from God’s kingdom to us. If we need to be changed and influenced, all of that comes from God, not from the world around us.
In his deeply moving book Open Secrets, Richard Lischer tells of his first three years as a pastor in a small rural town in southern Illinois, near the Missouri border. Fresh out of school, he had been in his new congregation only a week when the phone rang at 3am. It was Ed Franco saying his wife, Doral, was at St. Joe’s hospital with a ruptured gall bladder. Surgery was imminent and things were shaky. “We need you here, if you can,” he said. So Pastor Lischer jumped into the car and took off. He found them in an alcove just off a main corridor of the hospital, flanked by a dingy curtain and a red fire extinguisher on the wall. Ed was nervously patting his wife’s sweat-pasted arm. The Francos were a childless, middle-aged couple who never missed church but whom Pastor Lischer had not yet gotten to know.
As he approached the gurney on which Doral was lying, Ed and Doral looked expectantly at him. It was then Lischer realized he’d forgotten his prayer book, his Bible, and anything else that might help him figure out what he was supposed to say in this situation. Doral was, he says, the most frightened person he’d ever seen, and she was looking right at her pastor! It was very quiet in the alcove, until Pastor Lischer croaked out the only thing he could think of: a scrap of a traditional litany. “The Lord be with you,” he said. “And also with you,” Ed and Doral replied in unison, as though they had been waiting for just this opening. “Lift up your hearts,” Lischer intoned. “We lift them to the Lord,” the Francos shot back. And suddenly, Lischer writes, the Lord himself was in that alcove. He was the Lord of the alcove in that sacred moment and suddenly much that had been disheveled and fevered and sweaty was recomposed. They said a brief prayer together and Doral was soon wheeled away into the O.R., calmer and somehow now ready for surgery.
When you are citizens of God’s heavenly colony, things like that happen now and again no matter where you go in the world–even dimly lit hospital alcoves. As members of the colony, we know a Lord and so have a power and a joy and a comfort the world will never know on its own. We’re here to point them to that Savior and Lord as well and as purely as we can. That is how we also stand firm, my dear friends! Amen.