March 13, 2017
Author: Scott HoezeeAcross the centuries people always gather where beverages are available. Even today we sometimes call a restaurant or lounge our favorite "watering hole" because it's the place where we go after work to unwind with our friends over a glass of wine or something. In fact, even the phrase "scuttlebutt" has similar origins from the maritime world of ships and sailors. If you "scuttle" a ship, it means intentionally cutting a hole into the bottom of the boat so it will sink. Also, on board old cargo ships, those big fifty-gallon casks or barrels that were once used to transport various goods were known as "butts." So if you "scuttled" a "butt," you cut a hole in the top of one of those big barrels so that you could then fill the barrel with fresh water. Sailors could then gather at this scuttled butt and dip in their cups for a drink. While standing around and sipping their water, the sailors would also swap shipboard rumors. Hence, "scuttlebutt" eventually became a way to refer to gossip. (A latter day equivalent is "the water cooler syndrome" in which water coolers become the place where employees gather for a cool drink and a bit of office gossip.) It was probably not a lot different at village wells back in Jesus' time. It was the town watering hole where everyone gathered two times a day and so where people lingered a bit to tell some tales, catch up on news, and also stay current on all the juiciest town gossip. This Samaritan woman had no doubt long been a favorite subject of such scuttlebutt. Needless to say, when she used to show up at the well in person, a lot of conversation ceased, eyes were averted, maybe even a few dirty looks were directed her way. So eventually she'd given up. She stayed home when everyone else was out, and she went out only when everyone else was home. In the past, we have maybe assumed that she got what she deserved. We've chalked her up as a sleazy, sinful woman. But she may have been a victim, too. Don't forget that in Jesus' day, women had almost zero social standing. They certainly could not be the initiators of divorce. All a man had to do was haul his wife out into the street and then say to her three times, "I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you" and that was that. The women didn't have much say in the matter. And so perhaps this woman was the kind of person who, desperate for some attention and affection, hooked up with all the wrong men who, in turn, used her and then discarded her like a dirty Kleenex. We don't know that this was so, but one thing becomes clear in the course of her conversation with Jesus: she is not a religious ignoramus. This woman knows some theology! This woman has thought about spiritual matters. She's aware of the promised Messiah, knows something of the controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans about where God may (or may not) be appropriately worshiped. The town long since wrote her off as a bad sort of person, but inside her skin beat the heart of someone thirsty for God. But long before any of that becomes evident in this story, this woman first has to overcome her shock at having Jesus talk to her at all. As just noted, her heart no doubt sank when she saw that on this particular day, her plan to avoid all contact was failing. Someone was there. Worse, it was a man. Doubly worse, it looked like a Jewish man. You didn't see too many Jews in Samaria most days. Jews rather assiduously avoided that area, willingly adding a few extra days to their journey so they could take the long way around that greasy stretch of land called Samaria. Jesus had opted against that (as is clear in the first four verses of John 4, though the Common Lectionary skips those verses) and so cut straight through the heart of Samaria. So when this woman saw him, she perhaps averted her eyes, grit her teeth, and hoped to get through this as painlessly as possible. But then the man cleared his throat, and she no doubt thought, "Here it comes!" But no, there is a kind timbre to his voice. He even asks her for some water, instead of barking out a demand to her. Probably she should have kept her mouth shut but she is so taken aback that she blurts out, "What in the world is going on here!? You, a Jew, are not supposed to talk to me, a Samaritan!" Jesus was indeed breaking with convention to engage this woman, which is why the disciples will shortly be so scandalized to witness this. After all, consider these pieces of conventional wisdom that were current in Jesus’ day: "A man shall not talk with a woman in the street, not even with his own wife, on account of what others may say. He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself. If any man gives a woman a knowledge of God's Law, it is as though he had taught her lechery." But Jesus not only speaks with this woman, he speaks the words of life to her. He uses the well as an occasion to introduce the memorable image of living water--a new spring of water that would well and bubble up into all eternity. Needless to say, this woman wants to buy stock in the company that produces this wonderful libation. "OK," Jesus says, "but let's bring your husband into the deal, too." Why did Jesus say that? To shame her, the way the other residents of Sychar would do by mentioning this? No. To embarrass her, condemn her? No, but probably as a reminder to her that she had been trying to slake her thirst in all the wrong ways. It wasn't sex or meeting Mr. Right or finding companionship that was going to drown her thirst. Eventually she catches on to what Jesus is saying. Unlike Nicodemus in the previous chapter of John’s gospel, we know how she responded: she raced back to the village and began knocking on doors whose doorsteps she had not darkened in years. Somehow she forgot that she was supposed to avoid these people. Instead she rather quickly becomes a member of the community again. Before this story is finished, villagers are actually speaking to her again (and speaking gratefully at that). (I also find it astonishing that this woman proclaimed the Good News by claiming she had met a man who “told me everything I had ever done!” But wasn’t that “past” exactly what had led to her isolation in the first place? What an alchemy of grace we see here where the past that had made her so miserable now becomes the doorway through which to bring others to Jesus!) If I ever were going to make a short movie of this incident for a Sunday school class or something, I know what I would want my final image to be. It emerges from a tiny yet telling detail in verse 28 when we are told this woman left her water jug behind. That's quite an image! Later in verses 39-42 as the Samaritans happily urge Jesus to stay in their village for a while, I picture the whole jubilant crowd hustling Jesus and the disciples back into town. As the noise of their laughter fades and as the dust from their feet settles in the noonday heat, I would have a camera slowly zoom in on that abandoned water jug next to Jacob's well. She had come to that well more thirsty than she knew earlier that day. She left sensing she'd never be truly thirsty again. To encounter Jesus is to find life--a stream of living water that wells up in us now; a stream of water that will mount up over time until it becomes finally a mighty tidal wave of cleansing that will wash over the entire world, making us and all things new. That's the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God! Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available here. We are grateful so many hundreds of pastors visit our website every day. CEP’s resources have always been and will always remain free. But if you and your church find this useful, would you consider making a donation to help fund the Center’s work? Or might your church schedule an offering for the Center some Sunday? If interested in donating, please visit this page. Thank You! Textual Points: In “The Lectionary Commentary” (Eerdmans, 2001) Mary Margaret Pazdan points out that the story of Nicodemus in John 3 and the story of the Samarian woman at the well in John 4 form a diptych of contrasting models of discipleship and so provides a vital lesson this early on in John’s gospel narrative. The dichotomies and contrasts are clear: Nicodemus is an esteemed religious figure who comes to Jesus at night to cover his tracks; this Samarian woman is a despised person on the fringes of her village who comes to the well in daylight. Both need a new birth and both wonder about how this will go. Among other things, it’s a fine reminder that no matter who you are, Jesus is the cosmic Word made flesh who alone can give to us what we need. Academic learning and fine religious credentials no more help get you into the kingdom than a tawdry reputation can keep you out! Illustration Ideas: Among other things, the Samaritan woman at the well was a spiritual seeker. Some years ago, writer Eugene Peterson found an analogy for modern spiritual quests in, of all things, a Winnie the Pooh story. In one of the many tales from the Hundred-Acre Woods, Christopher Robin and company decide to set out one day in search of the North Pole. At one point along the way, young Roo falls into a stream and needs to be rescued. Pooh Bear eventually uses a long pole to fish his friend out of the water. Once this emergency had passed, the animals stand around and discuss what had just happened. As they are talking, Christopher Robin notices that Pooh is standing there with the rescue pole still in his paw. "Pooh, where did you get that pole?" "I just found it earlier," Pooh replies. "I thought it might be useful." "Pooh," Christopher Robin says excitedly, "the expedition is over! You have found the North Pole!" "Oh," says Pooh, "I did?" Eventually Christopher Robin sinks the pole into the ground and hangs a flag on it with this message: "The North Pole, Discovered by Pooh. Pooh Found It." Then they all go home again, satisfied that this quest was successful. This story, Peterson suggests, bears some resemblance to the way many people in recent years have gone about their various spiritual quests. Everyone knows that despite early-twentieth century predictions that spirituality would retreat as technology and science advanced, quite the opposite proved to be true. The very generation of people that was raised in a technological world of computers, Blu-Ray players, the Internet, and cell phones proved to be one of the most spiritually hungry generations in recent times. In fact, people today use one of the most dazzling of all technological innovations, the Internet, to explore spirituality by visiting the startling array of religious websites that exist in cyberspace. People are in search of something quite grand but, like Christopher Robin and company, they seem quite willing to label the first thing they find as being "it." They are hungry and thirsty for something more, so they go to Barnes & Noble, stumble on some Thomas Moore book called The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, and they think they've arrived at their destination. They see that someone has slapped a label of spiritual authority onto this work--you can, after all, always find someone with a "Rev." in front of his name or a "Ph.D." after her name, to write glowing blurbs for such books. And suddenly, like Christopher Robin's flag, people think this label authenticates the books of dozens of best-selling writers who produce pop pabulum like The Celestine Prophecy, Touched by an Angel, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Conversations with God. One estimate claims that there are nearly 10,000 different books currently in print that dole out spiritual advice. Many of these have been best-sellers over the years, which means that some of the same people are buying different books all the time. But that only means that the spiritual pole they confidently labeled as "the North Pole" six months ago must not have turned out to be the end-destination after all. If it had been, they wouldn't have made yet another expedition to the bookstore in search of newer, fresher, different answers.
Author: Doug BrattAt first glance, Exodus 17 may seem like just another story of Israelite bellyaching about leaving Egypt. It appears to reveal nothing new about Israel or her journey toward the land of promise’s freedom. As you might expect of people traveling through a wilderness that has no fast food restaurants or rest areas, our text’s Israelites are thirsty. At Marah’s earlier campsite, they’d at least found water, though God had to miraculously transform it to make it potable. Here, however, at a mysterious place called Rephidim, Israel doesn’t find any water. And so, not surprisingly, she not once, but twice loudly blames Moses for her quandary. Of course, Israel has already spent much time grumbling against Moses. Trapped between her thirst and Marah’s bitter water, she grumbled against him, asking him what she could drink. In the Desert of Sin all of Israel groused to Moses and Aaron because everyone was hungry. This time, however, Moses appears to recognize that the Israelites’ whines have become potentially deadly. So he pleads for God’s advice. In almost the same breath, however, Moses also tries to put the angry Israelites’ thirst into some kind of perspective. “Why do you quarrel with me?” he asks them in verse 2. “Why do you put the Lord to the test?” According to Exodus 15:25, God tested Israel at Marah. The Lord promised that if she obediently listened to the Lord’s voice, the Lord would protect her from the diseases with which the Lord devastated Egypt. Now, however, Israel does put the Lord to the test. At Massah and Meribah the Israelites again don’t listen to God’s voice. What’s more, the Israelites don’t listen to Moses’ voice of reason either. They want to blame the Lord and Moses for dragging them into the wilderness to kill them, their children and their livestock. By persistently complaining to Moses and the Lord, Israel does not pay attention to God’s commands and keep the Lord’s decrees. By failing this test, Israel again shows that she deserves to have God either let her die of thirst or strike her with the diseases with which he struck Egypt. God, however, again proves to be patiently gracious. God doesn’t, after all, just refrain from punishing Israel. The Lord gives her enhanced life and, on top of that, spares Moses’ endangered life. The Lord tells Moses to walk with some elders ahead of the rest of the people, taking along his staff. Of course, this is no ordinary “staff.” It’s the staff about which God had asked Moses, “what’s that in your hand?” when Moses initially resisted God’s call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses’ staff is also the one God called him to throw to the ground where God turned it into a snake that Moses fled. It’s the staff/serpent God told Moses to pick up again and which, when he did, became a staff again. Moses’ staff is also, however, the one God used to turn the Nile River to blood, killing all of its fish and turning it into a stinking stream of death. At Massah and Meribah, however, Moses’ staff is an instrument not of death, but of life. God leads Moses to the rock of Horeb, of, more familiarly, Mount Sinai. And when Moses, in the presence of the witnessing elders, strikes that rock, the Lord sends life-giving water gushing out of it. The name Moses gives this place is a striking reminder of Israelite sinfulness. He, after all, calls it “Massah and Meribah,” because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord there. Yet it’s also the place God graciously provides water for God’s contentious people who doubt God’s presence with them. In discussing this passage, the biblical scholar Terrence Fretheim points to just one little, perhaps barely noticeable, word in verse 6 of our text: the word “Horeb.” That rock on which the Lord stands and from which live-giving water flows refers to the area at the foot of Mount Sinai. Horeb is also the place where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. On top of that, it’s also the place to which God also promised Moses he’d return, with the liberated Israelites in tow. However, Horeb, or Mount Sinai, as we more commonly know it, is also the place from which God will eventually give God’s law. So it’s not just the place from which God repeatedly reveals himself to his people. Horeb is also the place where the amnesic Israelites want to know if the Lord is among them. So to show them the Lord is among them, even in the deadly wilderness, God again gives them life-giving water at Horeb. In the not too distant future, however, God will again show Israel at Horeb that God’s with her by giving her God’s law. So it’s not just the water that gushes out of Horeb that gives the Israelites life. The law that will “flow from” Horeb will also be, in one sense, a source of life for them. Yet most North Americans, at least, would say that you can’t get any kind of life by obeying God’s law. Have you, after all, heard anyone recently pray, “O Lord, if you really love me, show me by sending me some more rules to follow”? No, many of us pray, in one form or another, “O Lord, if you really love me, send me a nice family, loyal friends and a good job. And, if you really love me, while you’re at it, send me a fine house, some enjoyable vacations and a hefty retirement income.” When you and I think of signs of God’s love, of sources of life, we often think of material blessings. We seldom see God’s law as something that really helps us to live. While rules may keep us in line, we assume the true blessings from God are salvation, as well as good things and people. Eventually Israel, at her best, comes to see God’s law as a great gift that shows her how to live in ways that not only honor God, but also bless her. Of course, sometimes we base our laws on the way people agree things should be. For example, the law that is the speed limit on many highways is 55 or 60 miles per hour. Laws also say that people under the age of 21 may not buy alcohol. Sometimes, however, the law describes not the way things should be, but the way they are. When physicists talk about the First Law of Thermodynamics, for instance, they’re not talking about the way they’d like things to work, but the way they do work. People don’t get to decide whether or not to approve such a law. If you walk off the edge of a cliff, the law of gravity dictates that you’ll fall, whether you like it or not. God’s law is something like the law of gravity. It doesn’t describe the way God wants life to work, but the way God knows it works. So God doesn’t give God’s law because God wants to make us miserable or boring. The Lord gives us the Lord’s law because the Lord knows that following that law is best for us, it gives us life. So, for instance, our culture no longer reserves sexual intimacy for married people. It invites us to get all the sexual pleasure out of life we can, with whomever we can, as long as no one gets hurt. God, however, calls you and me to be sexually intimate only with the person to whom we’re married. Yet God doesn’t call us to be sexually faithful because God wants to spoil our fun. No, God knows that sexual intimacy creates the kind of strong bond that’s healthy only in the context of marriage. Only faithfulness leads to the kind of life God wants us for us, that’s best for us. Our culture also tries to convince us that all religions are equally good. It doesn’t matter whom or what we call our god, it insists, as long as we respect each other’s religions. God, however, calls us to worship God alone. Yet the Lord doesn’t call you and me to worship only God because the Lord wants us to be as intolerant as God is. No, God calls you and me to worship God alone because he is the only living God. Only the worship of that living God in Christ will allow us to flourish the way God creates us to flourish. True life, after all, comes not just from material blessings like the water that flowed from Rephidim’s rock, but also from a faithfully obedient relationship with the Lord. Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available here. We are grateful so many hundreds of pastors visit our website every day. CEP’s resources have always been and will always remain free. But if you and your church find this useful, would you consider making a donation to help fund the Center’s work? Or might your church schedule an offering for the Center some Sunday? If interested in donating, please visit this page. Thank You! Illustration Idea Maybe this tired analogy will help us to see God’s law as a gift of life. What if you were to buy an expensive new car without ever consulting its owner’s manual? You’d probably quickly “kill” that car. After all, even if you figured out how to insert the key in its ignition, you might turn the key so long you’d destroy the starter. Or you might make an “x” instead of an “h” out of its stick shift, reducing your transmission to smoking rubble. Without consulting its owner’s manual, you might simply drive the car without adding any gasoline until you ran out of it along the side of the road. Or you might never add any oil, again reducing you car to a smoking heap of worthless metal. You and I might prefer to operate a car in the way we choose. But we follow the instructions in a car’s owner’s manual because we understand that the people who put the car together know how best to operate it so that it “lives.” In a similar way, we naturally prefer to live the way we choose. Yet you and I follow God’s law because God created us. So the Lord knows what’s the best way for you and me to live. God’s law reflects what’s best for us, what brings us, our neighbors and, in fact, the whole creation, true life.
Author: Stan MastThe readings from the Psalms for this season of Lent are carefully and well chosen. We began our Lenten journey with Psalm 32, which sets the penitential tone of Lent while still calling us to rejoice in forgiveness. Psalm 121 gives Lenten pilgrims the deep assurance that Yahweh is watching over us as we make the difficult journey into God’s presence. And now to that call to rejoice and that assurance of belonging to God, Psalm 95 adds a sober warning. Indeed, the second half of Psalm 95 is so stern that it seems to call into question all the joyful certainty of Psalms 32 and 121, and even of the first half of Psalm 95. In fact, the jarring shift in mood between the first and second halves of Psalm 95 led some earlier critical scholars to speculate that Psalm 95 must have originally been two separate Psalms artificially glued together somewhere in history. It’s easy to see why someone might come to that conclusion. Verses 1-7a are a joyful call to worship and bow down before our Creator and Covenant Partner, while verses 7b-11 are a somber warning not to harden our hearts lest we lose the rest God has promised his people. But taking a critical scalpel to this beloved Psalm will keep us from hearing its powerful message. It reminds us that the most joyful worship is of no value if we don’t listen to God’s voice. Psalm 95 moves us beyond verbal praise and physical submission to the heart of discipleship, namely, listening to God with open hearts and then trusting and obeying God. If we harden our hearts when we hear God’s voice and refuse to trust and obey what God says, our singing and our kneeling are empty. If we continue to worship that way, God will be angry, and we may well miss the rest God has promised to his people. That seems to be the message of Psalm 95, but that message raises some knotty questions about God’s anger with his beloved covenant people and about the possibility of God’s elect people losing the blessings he has promised them. How can we square the warning of Psalm 95 with the Bible’s Good News about God’s eternal love and our unconditional election? Let’s approach those issues not with some high flown theology, but with some hands-on wrestling with this text. Careful readers will notice that the first half of the Psalm calls for two distinct but related actions in worship, both highlighted with the word, “come.” “Come, let us sing for joy” and “come, let us bow down in worship.” Worship isn’t complete without those two actions. It’s not enough to sing joyfully, if you aren’t submissive to God. It’s not enough to be submissive, if your heart doesn’t sing. We journey to God with both an open mouth and a bent knee. God deserves both song and submission, because, says the Psalm, he is both good and great. God is “the Rock of our salvation” and “the great King above all gods.” He is the mighty creator of all that is, from the “depths of the earth to the mountain peaks, the sea and the dry land.” And he is “our Maker, our God, and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” Psalm 95 roots our worship in creation and covenant, in election and redemption. That theme of redemption is highlighted in the second command of verse 1. “Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” Though verses 8 and 9 refer to those episodes in which God gave his thirsty people water from a rock as they wandered in the wilderness, verse 1 is rooted in Deuteronomy 32 where Moses reminds Israel that throughout their history Yahweh himself is The Rock. “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, who does no wrong, upright and just is he." (Exodus 32:4) No wonder Psalm 95 is so exuberant in its call to sing and so earnest in its command to bow down. And no wonder Psalm 95 is so stern in its warning not to reject such a God. Later in his farewell speech in Deuteronomy 32, Moses reminds Israel that, in spite of all the ways God has been their Rock, they have rejected him. “Jeshurun [Israel] abandoned the God who made him and rejected the Rock his Savior.” (Exodus 32:15, cf. 18) Psalm 95: 8 and 9 refer to a specific example of that rejection, an example that is particularly relevant to Israel and to us. Actually, it is two examples, both involving a rock, one in the Desert of Sin at the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wandering (Exodus 17), the other 40 years later in the Desert of Zin at the end of that wandering (Numbers 20). In both stories, Israel is thirsty, so thirsty that they complain to Moses, accusing him of leading them into the wilderness to die. It would have been better to have stayed in bondage back in Egypt, where at least there was water. In speaking that way against Moses, they were in reality speaking against God, quarreling with Yahweh, testing his word, rejecting all that he had done for them. “Is the Lord among us or not?” they cried. In spite of the fact that Yahweh had delivered them from Egypt by his mighty arm and his outstretched hand, and then provided guidance and sustenance and protection for them during those 40 years in the desert, they did not trust him now, in this moment, “today.” Your “fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did.” (Psalm 95:9) It was a colossal case of “what have you done for me lately.” He was the Rock of their salvation and now they rejected him, not once, not twice, but continually. (“They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.”) Because they had rejected Yahweh not just once or twice or even 10 times (cf. Numbers 14:22), but continually, habitually, terminally, their hearts were hardened against the word of the Lord. As a result of such long term, deeply ingrained, profoundly ungrateful, distrustful disobedience God was justifiably angry with “that generation.” From the beginning to the end of their pilgrimage through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, they did not trust and obey “the Rock of their salvation.” And in the end, they did not receive their promised rest. Not one of that original generation of Israelites entered the Promised Land. They all died in the wilderness. Their children and grandchildren entered that rest; God’s covenant remained firm, because he is faithful. But because of their terminal hardening of the heart, that first generation did not receive the rest toward which they had journeyed all those years. That is an historical fact. We may not like it, but it happened. The Bible tells us so. But what are to make of it? Are these words only for Israel and only about entering Canaan? Or can they be applied to Christians and eternal salvation? Is it possible to be one of God’s chosen children, but to miss out on the blessings we’ve been promised in Christ, because we have been faithless? Some of you who read this will have no theological problem with that idea, but those of us with Reformed convictions will struggle to square Psalm 95 with the doctrines of unconditional election and the perseverance of the saints. How do we preach this? Well, obviously, we should preach it as Psalm 95 does, as a cautionary tale. That’s how I Corinthians 10 tells us to read all of the Old Testament stories. “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” That’s exactly how Psalm 95 uses the stories of Meribah and Massah. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts….” As you journey toward God through Jesus Christ, don’t lose your trust because of hard circumstances and become disobedient because obedience looks too hard. Look what happened to Israel all those years ago. Don’t let that happen to you. But is that an empty threat? Is this a word for Israel, but not the church, a word about the Promised Land, but not about heaven? Given the strong words elsewhere in the Bible about God’s unbreakable love, the unconditional election that flows from it, and the preservation of the saints that is anchored in that election, it is tempting to downplay this threat. But we must pay attention to Hebrews 3 and 4, where the writer picks up on these stories from Israel’s history and the use of those stories in Psalm 95. “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.” (Heb. 4:1, 2) “Let us make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fail by following their example of disobedience.” (Heb. 4:11) At the very least, we should read those words in Hebrews as a strong call to persevere in the faith and to continue in obedience, not as a challenge to the doctrines of grace embraced by those of Reformed persuasion. The author of Hebrews wrote to people in danger of falling away from their Christian faith because they were attracted to their ancestral Jewish faith. He is alarmed, so he speaks strongly about the consequences of such defection. His is a pastoral sermon of warning to defectors, not a theoretical attack on doctrine. But speaking of doctrine, my ultimate answer to the challenge presented by the “Today” of Psalm 95 is the assurance offered by Paul in Romans 5:6-8. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while were still sinners (even God’s enemies, according to verse 10), Christ died for us.” So, let us warn our hearers not to harden their hearts against God’s voice. But let us trust that the God whose grace pierced Paul’s hard heart can still rescue the most hardened sinners and bring them into the eternal rest promised to all God’s children. Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available here. We are grateful so many hundreds of pastors visit our website every day. CEP’s resources have always been and will always remain free. But if you and your church find this useful, would you consider making a donation to help fund the Center’s work? Or might your church schedule an offering for the Center some Sunday? If interested in donating, please visit this page. Thank You! Illustration Idea Every parent has felt the sting of a child’s rejection. It hurts when they go their own way, disobeying our explicit rules for life, confident that their way is best, not trusting the parent’s wisdom and knowledge and love. But we parents get over our hurt, unless it goes on and on. Then the momentary anger that follows single acts of rebellion and disobedience becomes a broken heart and loving anger. That is how we should understand the anger of God against Israel in Psalm 95. It was not the rage of an enemy, but the deep disappointment of a broken heart. God’s heart is broken by the hardness of our hearts and he is understandably angry about the way we ruin our lives by rebellion and disobedience. Or try working with the idea of ignoring the voice of Siri on your car navigation system.
Author: Scott HoezeeTragedy and strength. Carnage and hope. It's the kind of paradoxical combination we Christians know about because most every time we step into a church sanctuary we are confronted with symbols that point to hope in the midst of sorrow. We see a cross, which has somehow transformed from a grim reminder of death into a semaphore of life. We see before us a baptismal font, which reminds us that our old sinful selves have been drowned so as to allow a new self in Christ to emerge from those same deadly waters. We see the Lord's table arrayed with items that remind us of both a most pitiful, bloody sacrifice and yet those are elements now sustain and nourish us for the journey of discipleship. Something of this same combination of disparate realities emerges from Romans 5. Paul begins this chapter with rhetoric that is incredibly uplifting. We have been justified. Whatever problem we had with sin is gone. So now we have peace with God, and that has to count as the best bit of news we've ever heard! The faith God gave to us has given us free access to the God of the galaxies because now we are floating on a vast ocean of mercy and so we rejoice at the prospect of glory, glory, glory! This is beyond fantastic. It's like being told, all on the same day, that you just got promoted to the top of your firm, that your daughter just won the Pulitzer Prize and your son just won the Nobel Prize, and that the cancer you thought your wife had turned out to be just a rash. In other words, Paul has really revved up the language here. It's blue skies and sunshine all the way with nary a dark cloud on any horizon. So what a shock to all of a sudden hit verse 3. "Not only so but we rejoice in also our sufferings!" Whoa, now just hold on a moment, Paul! Where did this talk of suffering come from? If everything you just said is true, why isn't suffering now just a faint memory for Christian people? How can suffering fit in with simultaneously having peace with God and being awash in grace? We'll return to that question but first notice that Paul isn't finished presenting combinations of seemingly opposite things. Because no sooner does he combine having peace and suffering at the same moment and Paul writes a stunning line: it was while we were yet sinners that God in Christ loved us. There. Right there is the fundamental paradox of the gospel: at the very moment when we were as offensive to God as we could be, God mustered a whole universe of love for us. Did you notice in verse 6 that Paul not only points out how powerless we were because of sin but, even more poignantly, that we were also "godless." That's striking because it's one thing to be powerless. People who are powerless can, after all, provoke pity. If you see a child living in a filthy house in which he is also often the target of terrible abuse from an alcoholic father, well then that is a powerless child--on his own, he cannot change his situation, and so you pity this child and maybe want to do something for him. That's what seeing someone's powerlessness can stir up in us. But Paul says that as people mired in sin, we were not only powerless such that God took pity on us. Our situation was worse: Paul says we were godless. The Greek word there literally means "impious" or "irreverent," which means those who live as though there is no god in existence. Irreverent people live without reference to any higher moral code because they believe that life can be made up as you go along. When you qualify as irreverent, a whole cloud of other ugly things gets raised, too, because such people tend also to be blasphemous, using God's name as a swear word because, why not? It's not as though there is any god anywhere who would ever be offended anyway. In other words, those who qualify as "godless" or "irreverent" are about as anti-God as you can imagine. That's what Paul says we were like at the very moment when the same God we were offending stooped down to die for us. It was not a "natural" reaction. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like you were being ignored, where people were acting as though you didn't exist? Have you ever had people talk about you in your presence as if you weren't even there? What's your first inclination? Don't you want to get in their faces, shake them by the shoulders so as to say, "Hey, I'm alive! I have feelings, too! Don't ignore me!" Whatever your reaction might be, the last thing you'd think of doing would be stooping even lower so as to do something nice for the very people who were treating you like you were invisible. But that's what God did. He did not thunder from the heavens to prove his existence. He didn't reach down to slap them into acknowledging him. Instead he very quietly sent his Son into this world in about as humble a guise as he could find, finally letting that Son die. In this way God saved the very people who thought they didn't need saving in the first place. God dealt with our human cluelessness by doing the gracious thing of sacrificing himself to rescue those who were so lost in an oblivion of their own making that they no longer even knew they were lost. Somehow in the context of our hate-filled lives, God's love burst forth. Somehow in the midst of our ignorant lives, the God we had convinced ourselves didn't exist swung in to prove his existence not by rattling us, frightening us, or slapping us. Instead God proved his existence by hugging us in the embrace of grace. So there you have it: the awful beauty of God emerges in the terrible ugliness of the godless. Perhaps now we are ready to return to the surprise of Romans 5:3 where Paul's talk of suffering seems suddenly to darken the sunny skies of the first two verses. We know that for now we are not delivered from all sickness nor are we spared from people who want to harm us. Suffering is an unavoidable reality for all of us. Some of us have suffered more than have others, but each of us has had his or her chance to shed tears in this life, each of us knows what it's like to be afraid, each of us knows what it's like to be emotionally wounded and insulted. Mention any kind of suffering you want, and lots of people begin to nod with a very knowing form of empathy. But we wish it were not so. We wish that being a Christian would mean receiving a pass, a spiritual equivalent of those "Get Out of Jail Free" cards you can collect when playing Monopoly. We'd like it if God's Spirit would dole out "Get Out of Suffering Free" cards such that when cancer came knocking at our door, when a child threatened to break our hearts, when it looked like we might lose a beloved job, we could whip out one of these cards and say, "Sorry, but I get to refuse delivery on this load of grief." But it doesn't work that way. That's why we need to see the paradoxical poignance of the holy supper. We see depicted in the sacrament the unexpected spectacle of life emerging from death. We see afresh how odd it is that we sustain our lives by elements that connect us to a death. More, we see the fundamental paradox of the gospel by recalling that in the end life, and not death, emerged from a cross (of all places). But that is just one piece of the larger shock of seeing a God who managed to love the very people who didn't want anything to do with a God they didn't believe in to begin with! So when it comes to combining our having peace with God and our still also suffering, we can see why it is possible to have both. The whole gospel is filled with startling combinations, so why should our lives be any different!? If God could love us when we were yet living as godless people, then he can surely keep holding us close even when we now suffer the cruelties and indignities of this life. If God could turn a cross into a doorway to life, then he can take our sufferings and use them to shore up our hope. In fact, sometimes we suffer more precisely because we hope for a better world. We are not content to accept that the ways things are for now are also the best they could ever be. The reason is the glorious paradox that God's peace came to us precisely because we serve a God whose love is more powerful than anything. Love is stronger than death because from Jesus' death we receive life. Love is stronger than sin because despite how angry and wounded God was when we were leading godless lives, even still his love sought us and found us and swaddled us in grace. And love is stronger than our suffering. Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available here. We are grateful so many hundreds of pastors visit our website every day. CEP’s resources have always been and will always remain free. But if you and your church find this useful, would you consider making a donation to help fund the Center’s work? Or might your church schedule an offering for the Center some Sunday? If interested in donating, please visit this page. Thank You! Illustration Idea In his book, Searching for Home, Craig Barnes claims that many people today sense the incompleteness of life as it is, but they don't know where to look for anything better. So they keep trying to fill in the holes in their lives by indulging in food, by increasing their consumer spending, by seeking new experiences, by trying a new drug, by changing careers. But, of course, none of it satisfies for long. At one point Barnes observes that you know people have hit bottom when, instead of longing for a time when suffering will be no more, they plod on in life while never allowing their hopes to rise any higher than the furtive wish, "Maybe tomorrow we will suffer a little less." That resigned attitude lets suffering have the last word. In despair, our suffering begets only more suffering in the dismal belief that suffering is what we were made for. Paul goes another way, seeing suffering as something that can produce hope. But this hope is not the shrunken hope that says we can do no better than try to suffer a little less. Instead Jesus gives the hope of glory that comes when you realize that by loving the unlovely and by bringing life out of death, Jesus can now give peace even in the midst of suffering.