March 24, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
For this Fourth Sunday in Lent Sermon Starter, I present this week a sample sermon of mine that I wrote in connection with doing a seminar with Frederick Dale Bruner as he completed his Commentary on John (Eerdmans 2012).
“Now I See”
It was probably the big goofy grin on his face that kept some folks from recognizing him. Oh, they’d seen him for years. But rarely had they seen him at eye level. Instead they’d long ago grown accustomed to seeing this hapless man sitting, legs akimbo, on the ground near the entrance to the farmer’s market. He had a tin cup in front of him, a white cane propped up next to him, and he stared out at the world with two eyes that were clearly as dead as two pale pieces of china. He was the epitome of pathetic. He was what every pregnant woman prayed would not happen to her child. He was not the kind of person you wanted to linger over. A quick glance is about all most people managed before averting their eyes.
But now, suddenly, he’s walking around town grinning like a Cheshire cat and repeating over and over—as though a mantra—“I once was blind but now I see!” And the townsfolk stopped and stared. “Is that? No, couldn’t be. Still . . . I think that’s him.” Others chimed in, “Of course it’s not him—blind people don’t get better. It’s probably just someone who looks like him.”
But the man himself put that idea to rest. “No, it really is me. I once was blind but now I see!” And as he walked along, the goofy grin got so big it practically squinted shut those eyes that were now as alive and as limpid as any eyes you’d ever seen.
A big, goofy grin. I’m sure it’s the right way to picture this man. But do you know what’s heartbreaking, what’s tragic, about John 9? This man is the only one who is smiling. How can that be? A grand miracle had taken place! You’d think that everywhere you looked you’d see goofy grins, broad smiles, maybe even a few folks wiping away some tears of joy from their eyes. It’s not every day, after all, that the power of God gets displayed so brilliantly. But that doesn’t happen. Instead this story is mostly about as grim and somber and serious as you can imagine. The whole thing ends up being about as cheery as reading a courtroom transcript. Why is it that no one seems able to savor the miracle?
And make no mistake: this was a very big miracle. It’s even grander than we mostly realize. For many of us, we’ve grown accustomed to reading stories about Jesus’ healing a blind person—a person who then starts walking or running around the same as anyone else. We are so accustomed to this kind of thing in the gospels that we forget how powerful such a miracle is. Because as neurologist Oliver Sacks points out, for once-blind people to function, they need to have not just their optic hardware repaired but they need to get the necessary mental software installed, too.
The ability to see is one-part a physical phenomenon but also one-part a mental exercise. Functioning as a sighted person requires having access to a long backlog of visual experience. That’s why even today blind people who surgically receive the ability to see cannot instantly begin to act like all other seeing persons—they cannot just stroll out of the hospital following surgery. Without having had any prior experience with things like depth perception, the formerly blind find themselves reaching for objects that are actually well out-of-reach even as they may knock over a glass of water, which is closer than they thought.
Likewise the once-blind misjudge steps and bump into walls all because they have not yet acquired the knack for interpreting visual data. Some even continue to use their white canes for a while so that they can slowly begin to connect how the world has always felt through the tip of the cane with how it now looks through their eyeballs. As it turns out, this matter of sight is a bit more complex than we might think. But that just makes Jesus’ miracle all the more marvelous!
Yet only the one man is smiling. Everyone else is deadly serious. And the reason for this is as startling as it is tragic: there were some who just didn’t want God around. Or they were OK with the idea of encountering God but then it had best be on their terms and according to their pre-conditions. For the Pharisees it was simple: “If God were here, we’d know it because he’d look just like us, act like us, and follow our rules. This Jesus fellow doesn’t fit that bill so his divine pretensions are as sinful as they are laughable.” They’d know God when they saw him and Jesus . . . well, he was not it!
It’s sobering, isn’t it, to see the contortions of the Pharisees here. They will condemn anyone, say anything, deny iron-clad facts if that’s what it takes to prop up their own views of God. If it were not so tragic, it would be really, really funny. But as it stands, the only funny thing in this story is the healed man’s goofy grin and his own contagious enthusiasm for Jesus. “I once was blind but now I see! I’ve been touched by the power of God!” When the Pharisees tell him that God had nothing to do with this, his reaction is as honest as it is accurate: “Well, OK, but if you can explain what happened to me without reference to God, I’d love to hear it! Because—and forgive me if I’ve mentioned this before—I once was blind but now I see!”
Some people are annoyingly happy. For the Pharisees, there’s just too much joy going on here and so in the end they throw this man out on his ear. Since they cannot get him to stop celebrating the goodness of God, they can at least put him out of earshot.
Among the great ironies of this story in John 9 is this: both the disciples and the Pharisees try to make a connection between bad things and sin. “God must have been pretty mad at someone to produce a guy like this,” the disciples say when they first see this blind beggar, “so who messed up, Lord? This fellow or his folks?”
That’s how a lot of people operate: you see something bad, you chalk it up to someone’s sin. The universe operates on the principle of quid pro quo, of tit for tat. Oddly, though, when the people in this story encounter the profoundly good thing of an awesome healing, they do everything in their power not to connect that good thing with God. Some, it seems, are more comfortable with making God out to be the dispenser of punishment than the decanter of something good.
Apparently it’s fully possible to be in the presence of the light of the world and still be in the dark. But if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the religious people in this story who seem the most prone to put on spiritual sunglasses to keep out the light, John 9 might be less troubling. As it stands, however, those of us who consider ourselves religious folks today have plenty of reason to wonder whether—or how often—we fail to celebrate the work of God just in case the shape of that work doesn’t fit the bill of how we think things ought to go. How often don’t we let our own scruples keep us from celebrating God’s presence in the lives of others?
It was shortly after World War II when the World Council of Churches decided to check on how its money was being spent in a remote area of the Balkans where the World Council was trying to help needy churches re-build after the war. So it dispatched John McKenzie, who was an officer with the WCC and the president of the Church of Scotland. Accompanying Dr. McKenzie were two other pastors, both of whom came from a fairly conservative, pietistic denomination. One afternoon they paid a visit to an Orthodox priest in a remote village. The man was clearly thrilled to receive the visit in that he otherwise worked in rather lonely isolation.
Immediately upon seating the guests in his study, the priest produced a box of fine Havana cigars and offered one to each of his three guests. Dr. McKenzie gingerly took one, bit the end off, lit it, and took a few puffs, saying how fine it was. The other two pastors looked horrified. “No thank you! We do not smoke!” they quickly said. Feeling bad that he maybe had offended the two brothers, the priest wanted to make amends and so left the room only to re-appear with a flagon of his finest wine. Dr. McKenzie took a glassful, swirled it, sniffed it like a connoisseur, and then praised its fine quality. Soon he asked for another glass. Meanwhile his traveling companions drew back even more visibly. “No thank you! We do not drink!” they snapped. Well, later when the three returned to their car, the two pastors assailed McKenzie. “Here you are an officer with the World Council and the leader of Scotland’s Church and yet you smoke and drink!?” “No, I don’t,” he barked at them. “But somebody in there had to be a Christian!”
“God cannot have been involved in this incident because it does not conform to our rules and patterns” the Pharisees concluded. “Disagree with us, and you’re a greasy sinner. Period. End of discussion.” That’s how the glory of God gets missed, even in the church yet today. Traditions and scruples and rubrics and books of order and rules and synodical pronouncements can make us spiritually blind just as surely as any injury to our eyes could make us physically blind. But maybe we’d smile more even as God’s people if we found ways to remain open to the endless surprises of God’s Spirit.
It’s curious, isn’t it, to notice that in John 9—so long as the wrangling and wrestling and arguing is going on in an effort to debunk the miracle that had so plainly taken place—Jesus disappears from view. From verse 7 until verse 35 the Son of God is nowhere to be seen. I don’t think it’s coincidental. The minute we start denying the work of God in Christ Jesus our Lord so as to make things neat and tidy and in conformity to how we like things done, it’s pretty tough to see the real Jesus. And it’s really difficult to generate any goofy grins over his ever-surprising and always-marvelous work.
In a memorable story, William Willimon tells us that years ago he was the pastor of a medium-sized suburban church. Every week during the church season he led the women’s Bible study group and always enjoyed the gathering of those saintly pillars of the congregation, most of whom were well into their retirement years. At one point, Mrs. Donaldson began to bring an African-American woman with her to the group. Shirlene was very much from the other side of the tracks compared to many people in the church. But she and Mrs. Donaldson had met when Mrs. Donaldson had volunteered in a local clothing ministry, and so she gave Shirlene a nice new Bible and began to take her along to Bible study, where she was warmly enfolded into the group.
One week the topic of discussion was temptation. So Rev. Willimon led the ladies in a review on the nature of temptation and how to rely on God to resist it. Then he asked that most typical of all Bible study-like questions, “Does anyone want to share a story of a time you felt tempted but were aided by God’s strength?” One kindly soul piped up to say, “Yes, Reverend, I have one. Seems last week at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket there was some confusion in the checkout aisle. They were training a new girl and, well, next thing you know there I am in the parking lot with a loaf of bread I hadn’t paid for. Now at first I thought, ‘Well, it’s not my fault and anyway it’s only 99 cents.’ But then I thought, no, that would be wrong, so I went back in and paid for it.” Everyone nodded and smiled.
Then Mrs. Jenkins said, “Last week I overheard a couple of folks sharing some gossip about someone. It just so happened that I, too, had recently heard a few juicy tidbits about old so-and-so and this was right on the tip of my tongue to say to these other people when something stopped me and I decided, no, I won’t share in this rumor mill.” More nods.
It was quiet for a moment before Shirlene cleared her throat and said, “A couple of years ago my boyfriend and me–he’s the father of my youngest child but not of the older two–anyway, him and me were big into cocaine. Well, you know how that stuff messes with your head! So one day we’re in the pharmacy and my boyfriend all of a sudden decides to tell the cashier to give him all the money in the cash register. And she done it. It was like takin’ candy from a baby. So we ran out of there real fast. Then we see this 7-11 down the street a ways and he says to me, ‘Let’s knock that over, too.’ But something in me kinds snapped and I told him no. I robbed that pharmacy with you, but I’m not doing no 7-11. I was glad I resisted. Made me feel like somebody.”
No one nodded. No one smiled. In the silence, Rev. Willimon fidgeted nervously with the cover of his Bible for a few moments and then weakly said, “Yes, well, that’s rather what we’ve been talking about today. Shall we close now in prayer!” How difficult it is when real life is so surprising, so different from what we expect, so foreign to our experience.
Jesus disappears from this story when the main action is an attempt to define what God would or would not do. But once we get back to just the man with the goofy grin, Jesus re-appears from out of nowhere to ask the man such a simple question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Just point him out to me,” the man replies, “I’d love to lay these eyes on the fellow!” “It’s me,” Jesus says, and for the first time in his life, the man discovered what it is to get bleary-eyed with tears. He worshiped Jesus without hesitation, without checking in any catechism or rule book to see if worshiping this man would be an orthodox thing to do.
It’s such a moving spectacle, at least for those with eyes to see. Of course, it was totally boring to the few Pharisees still lingering on the fringes. Their steely-eyed scowls told Jesus and this man all they needed to know. But by this point in the story, even those unbelieving yahoos were not enough to overcome the joy of the last scene. And I imagine that as Jesus eventually went on his way, this man waved at him and kept on waving until Jesus finally disappeared out of sight.
As the man turned to go back home, he was no doubt tired after such an eventful day. On his cheeks you could trace the tracks of his tears of joy. And as the picture on also this story now fades to black, the last thing we notice as he trudges home is that once again, the edges of his mouth are starting to curl up. Because wherever we find the real Jesus at work, there’s just no repressing all those smiles. Or as Jesus once put it, “Blessed are you who mourn now, for you will laugh!” In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
One of the things I savor about I Samuel 16 and its well-known story of the anointing of David is the irony within the text. I am not even sure if it is intended irony or just a happenstance. Yet the whole point of the shank of this narrative is summed up in the famous line “People look at the outward appearance but God sees the heart.” God had to convey that idea to Samuel because he was being so wowed by the big, strapping lads from the household of Jesse who were strutting their stuff in front of the prophet. I picture them throwing out their chests and jutting out their nicely sculpted chins as though they were posing for a photo shoot with a GQ photographer.
Samuel is duly impressed but God says, “Don’t be. I am looking for a beautiful inside.” And, of course, hovering in the background is the specter of Saul, the taller-than-average fellow who looked so impressive but who had proven to be a singular failure as king of Israel. “Let’s not repeat that mistake, Samuel” God as much as says.
But then, once the man with (we presume) the right heart and the beautiful inside steps forward at long last (and as almost a kind of afterthought), nevertheless the narrator of the text goes out of his way to tell us how good-looking this youngest boy was! Ruddy, fine-looking, handsome features, chiseled good looks. Cue the GQ photog!
Now, maybe this detailed description of his outward appearance would be less striking in this chapter were it not for the fact that once young David shows up and gets anointed, the text whispers not a word, nary a syllable, about whatever it was God was seeing on the inside, in his heart. You’d expect a verse in there to say something to the effect, “Samuel, arise, anoint! For this one has a faithful spirit and a loving heart. I can see his soul and know it to be sound.”
But no. He’s just a physical knockout. Or at least that’s all we’re told. We presume the rest, and we’re not wrong to do so. Still, the text is almost humorous in its own inability to focus on anything other than what the eyes can see (over against what one could perceive about a person’s “inside”).
Since in the Year A Common Lectionary this passage is paired with the incident in John 9 of Jesus’ healing a blind man, it’s probably fair to say that what we are thinking about at this point in Lent is the whole matter of spiritual vision. John 9 is one of the many classic stories in Scripture and from the ancient world generally in which we read the irony of the blind man (or the once-blind man in this case) who sees better than those who never had ocular deficiencies. And then, of course, there is Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees on precisely the topic of who sees what. The Pharisees ask Jesus at one point, “What? Do you think that we are blind?” Jesus replies, “If you have not claimed to see so clearly, you might be OK but having claimed to know everything—and yet having missed seeing the truth when it stands right in front of your noses—it turns out that you are blind indeed and your guilt for that remains.”
How do we see things in this world? How is our spiritual eyesight? Do we know how to relativize what comes through our eyeballs in order to embrace far more important spiritual realities, the things that sometimes lie just below the surfaces of life (past which most people cannot see and do not even try to see)? Probably all through history this has been a valid question and, for believers, a perennial struggle. But seldom in history have we been so trained to stick to the surfaces of life as in our 21st century world.
We are taught to be enamored by the beautiful, the spectacular. Videos, photographs, and talking heads on TV train us to look no farther than the outward appearances of life and of people. In fact, at times there seems to be a conspiracy to keep us from making too much out of what may be inside a person’s heart.
We see this so often in the world of celebrities, and sometimes of politicians. Newt Gingrich was carrying on an affair with a much younger woman at the same time he was prosecuting Bill Clinton for the fling with Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich also left his wife on her sick bed to pursue the younger woman. But both he and Clinton survived their dalliances and indiscretions and retain high levels of respect. Lindsay Lohan has made a spectacle of herself again and again and has been arrested repeatedly. But she keeps finding work, keeps getting booked onto late night talk shows. Arnold Schwarzenegger cheated on his wife and deceived both her and the entire state of California while serving as governor. But he then went on to write a book about it all in 2013 (with the cheeky title Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story) and is still starring in movies.
There are people in this world who feel like they have a connection to celebrities and political figures. But as relationships go, that’s a sham. It’s false. In truth, we have almost zero chance to get to know the heart and soul of famous folks—to discern if they have “a beautiful inside” that matches their voluptuous or handsome outsides. And every day, in a thousand ways, we are also told that neither does such knowledge matter.
Lent is a time that reminds us that the deepest and dearest truths of the universe require a spiritual vision that looks past outward appearances and even apparent contradictions. We have to believe that a mild-mannered carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire was and is the Son of God in skin. We have to believe that humility equals the truest form of strength. We have to believe that the dead-end of a public execution is secretly the gateway to eternal life and that an instrument of raw, bloody death—the cross—is now properly seen as a symbol of profound hope.
You will not come to see or understand any of that if you focus only on outward appearances. As even the text of I Samuel 16 makes clear, however, even when we try to focus on the internal, it’s tough to get past the external. Even so, Lent is a time to adjust our spiritual eyesight, to visit the heavenly optometrist and make sure our corrective lenses are still adequate to help us perceive and see the Light of the World.
Near the end of C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” Aslan the Lion takes Lucy, Edmund, Peter and everyone to the New Narnia–to what we would call “heaven” or the New Creation. It is a place of astonishing light and beauty; a place where every blade of grass seems to mean more and where every creature sings for the sheer joy of the Creator. It is a place where everything is just so real in depth and color that the mere sight of a daisy takes your breath away and makes you weep for the sheer beauty of the thing.
But then, in the midst of all this splendor, the children see a group of dwarves huddled together convinced that they are sitting in the rank stench of a barn–a place so dark that they cannot see their hands in front of their faces. Lucy is so upset that the dwarves are not enjoying the New Narnia that she begs Aslan to help them to see. Aslan replies, “Dearest Lucy, I will show you what I can do and what I cannot do.” Aslan then shakes his golden mane and a sumptuous banquet instantly appears in front of the dwarves. Each dwarf is given a plate heaped with juicy meats, glistening vegetables, plump grains of rice. Each also receives a goblet brimming with the finest wine anyone could ever imagine.
But when the dwarves dive in and begin eating, they start gagging and complaining.
“Doesn’t this beat all,” they lament. “Not only are we in this stinking stable but now we’ve got to eat hay and dried cow dung as well!” When they sip the wine, they sputter, “And look at this now! Dirty water out of a donkey’s trough!” The dwarves, Aslan goes on to say, had chosen suspicion instead of trust and love. They were prisoners of their own minds. They could not see Aslan’s gift of the New Narnia for they would not see it. Aslan can but leave them alone to the hell of their own devising.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Psalm 23 is so familiar, so ingrained in historic American culture that those who preach and teach may feel it intimidates them. After all, it’s the psalm that characters as diverse as Katherine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn and the hip-hop artist Coolio in “Gangsta’s Paradise” utilize. Pastors and others have probably read it more than any other Scripture passage at hospitals, funerals and graveside services.
So those who wish to preach and teach Psalm 23 may feel like those who try to preach and teach the Christmas and Easter stories. We may feel as though we just don’t have anything new or dramatic to say about it. Yet those who proclaim the gospel don’t necessarily look to communicate bold new truths. We want to let the Holy Spirit use us to communicate something of the gospel of hope and comfort, even if that gospel is familiar and nearly as old as humanity itself.
Psalm 23’s words seem to at least suggest that God the Shepherd has safely brought the psalmist through some kind of crisis. No one enjoys enduring the crises that sickness, suffering and other forms of misery produce. Yet as Rolf Jacobson notes, it’s the crisis she’s endured that seems to, by the power of the Spirit, generate Psalm 23’s psalmist’s remarkable profession of faith.
This serves to remind God’s sons and daughters that although danger, evil and other crises are a painful part of our lives, the Holy Spirit can use even those troubles to strengthen our faith and deepen our trust. And because the psalmist doesn’t identify the specific crisis she’s endured, that Spirit can apply its truths to all sorts of difficulties Psalm 23’s readers may be enduring. Those who preach and teach Psalm 23 want to be sensitive enough to those problems not to be glib about either the psalm or suffering.
What’s more, we don’t wish to analyze and dissect this psalm as we might some inanimate object or even other piece of literature. This is a lovely poem that’s full of beautiful metaphors and other striking images. So preachers and teachers want to try to be at least somewhat lyrical and poetic in our preaching and teaching of it.
Psalm 23’s author immediately identifies “the Lord” as his “shepherd.” Certainly shepherding was a familiar vocation in Israel. Shepherds provided for and protected the sheep under their care. Their bosses held them accountable for their flock’s well-being. Yet because shepherding is less familiar to many 21st century Western Christians, preachers and teachers may want to explore with listeners modern metaphors for such caregivers. Might we, for example, compare Israel’s shepherds to modern nannies or day-care providers?
The Old Testament speaks a great deal about Yahweh as Israel’s shepherd. In Genesis 48 an elderly Jacob/Israel professes that God “has been my shepherd all of my life.” In Isaiah 40 the prophet speaks of God as tending God’s “flock like a shepherd.”
However, the ancient near east sometimes also spoke of its rulers and other leaders as “shepherds.” This adds extra poignancy to Ezekiel 34’s talk about shepherds. There, after all, God accuses Israel’s shepherd-leaders of only taking care of themselves and looking out for their own interests. By contrast God insists that God is the Shepherd whose priority is searching for and looking after God’s “sheep-children.”
James Mays sees Psalm 23 as a kind of polemic against the claims of divinity that so many ancient rulers made for themselves. After all, the psalmist professes that he entrusts his well-being not to any human shepherd-leader, but to the Shepherd whose name is “the Lord.” So like so much of Scripture, Psalm 23 rejects both human claims of self-sufficiency and grabs for the status that belong to the Lord our Shepherd alone.
Jacobson notes that Psalm 23:1-4 describes things that shepherds must do for their sheep because they can’t do them for themselves. While some may find it distasteful to be compared to sheep of which we often think as “dumb,” this helps us to focus on joyful trust in God’s provision of every good thing. In fact, Psalm 23 insists that God the Shepherd is so generous that the psalmist will never be “in want.” In other words, the psalmist joyfully professes that God will give God’s children so much that we’ll never lack any good thing that we really need.
Much of Psalm 23’s lovely imagery is protective imagery. The psalmist professes that God makes him lie down in green pastures. If sheep lie down, it’s a sign they feel safe enough that they don’t have to stand to defend themselves. In verse 4 the psalmist adds that when she walks through death’s dark valley, she needs fear no evil because God the Shepherd is with her. This is in many ways the linguistic and theological heart of Psalm 23. Patrick D. Miller says it “is the gospel kernel of the Old Testament, that good news that turns tears of anguish and fear into shouts of joy.”
Though the Lord is God’s sons and daughters “shepherd,” we still hurt and struggle. However, Psalm 23 reminds us that God won’t abandon God’s “sheep” to whatever threatens us. The figurative valleys through which God’s people must sometimes walk are so dark that we can scarcely see the hand in front of our faces. Yet Psalm 23 reminds us that God remains right beside us. As a result, we don’t have to be afraid.
Some of Psalm 23’s lovely imagery is also leading imagery. God the Shepherd, professes the psalmist, leads her “beside quiet waters.” The Lord, in other words, leads the sheep that are God’s people to places that offer both rest and nourishment. The psalmist also professes that the Lord leads her “in paths of righteousness.” This image is somewhat ambiguous. The psalmist may intend us to understand that God the Shepherd leads God’s sheep along safe paths. Or she may mean us to understand that God graciously leads us along morally good paths. Yet those options aren’t mutually exclusive. After all, God leads the sheep that are God’s people along paths that are both safe and righteous.
Other images in Psalm 23 are those of honoring. When the psalmist speaks of God preparing a table in the presence of his enemies, he seems to be alluding to the practice of kings throwing banquets as a way of confirming alliances and friendships. As Jacobson notes, by throwing a banquet for the psalmist, it’s as if God honors him in the presence of those who want to dishonor and harm him, in other words, “his enemies.”
Preachers and teachers often rightly focus on Psalm’s 23’s imagery of God’s leading of God’s sheep-children. However, this psalm insists God the Shepherd doesn’t just “go before” God’s sheep. God also goes with God’s children. After all, the psalmist recognizes that even in life’s darkest “valleys,” God is with her. So it’s as if God the Shepherd is not just ahead of the flock, but also somehow right in the middle of it. On top of that, God the Shepherd, or at least God’s goodness and mercy, follow the flock that is made up of God’s sons and daughters for as long as they live. So Psalm 23 gives God’s children license to imagine God as not only leading and being with them, but also following them. Its God is a God who not only surrounds God’s children with God’s loving and generous presence, but is also right in their midst and, in fact, in their very beings, by the Holy Spirit.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate is a hymn whose old Irish lyrics people originally attributed to St. Patrick during his work in Ireland in the 400’s. And while it was probably actually written during the 8th century, it expresses something of Psalm 23’s sentiments:
“I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me: God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me, God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me, God’s host to save me from snares of devils, from temptations of vices, from everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in multitude.”
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
As the frightful weather outside in this winter of 2014 turns into a hopefully milder spring, our Lenten meditations take a turn as well. For the first three Sundays of Lent, we’ve been focusing on the work of Christ. Readings from Romans, strangely out of order, have helped us think about the benefits of his death and, to a lesser degree, his resurrection. Now, this reading from Ephesians turns our attention to our response to Christ’s work. We move here from the indicative of Lent to the imperative. Because of what Christ has done, here’s what we must do.
Paul begins with an indicative that poetically summarizes all that Christ has done for us and how that has changed the reality of our lives. “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Those words reminded me of the ancient Easter hymn, “Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain.”
“’Tis the spring of soul’s today; Christ hath burst death’s prison
And from three days sleep in death, as a sun hath risen.
All the winter of our sins, long and dark is flying
From his light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.”
I know, it’s not Easter yet on the liturgical calendar, but the early Christians lived everyday in the post-Resurrection reality of a changed life. So do we. The Son has risen, and that changed everything for us. “For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Now live that way.
The darkness/light comparison is quite common in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of John and in Paul’s letters. The darkness signifies sin, both its realm and its power. The natural person loves darkness more than the light. Those who live in darkness must grope through life without the light of God’s revelation. Their future will be a continuation of darkness, but to an even greater degree. Jesus spoke of the outer darkness. Believers in Christ were formerly held in sway by the dark power of sin and approved of those who practiced sinful deeds of darkness.
Now, because the Risen Christ is the light of the world, those who follow him not only walk in the light, but are the light. That is a very striking way of putting it. In his very next words, Paul will lay a whole series of imperatives on these believers, but he starts with this indicative. You are different now. You are light, in the Lord, in Jesus. As always, the Christian faith roots all of the ethical imperatives of life in the life changing work of Jesus. Take away the reality of Christ’s work, and the Christian life becomes a forced march filled with duties to perform. Root the Christian life in Christ’s work, and life becomes a delightful walk through God’s garden, bearing fruit.
Those are exactly the images Paul evokes by his choice of words. Live is really walk (peripateo in the Greek, walk around). And walking “as children of the light” amounts to bearing “the fruit of the light.” Isn’t that an interesting expression!? Paul might not have known about photosynthesis, but he knew that light is essential to plant growth. Without light, there will be no fruit on an apple tree. The light of Christ is essential to bearing the fruit of the Spirit.
Note the kind of fruit the children of the light are expected to produce: goodness, righteousness, and truth. Those are general ethical terms, comprehensive virtues, not a list of rules and regulations. Each of us has to figure out the details of life with the guidance of the Spirit; “and find out what pleases the Lord.” That’s not easy; indeed, the word find out is dokimadzentes, which has to do with testing, proving, carefully scrutinizing. A detailed list of admonitions and prohibitions might fit the first century, but the twenty-first century presents a new set of moral challenges. Paul could never have imagined the choices presented by genetic engineering or the openness of the Internet. So, we must deliberately and carefully figure out what pleases the Lord in this new day, following the general guidelines of goodness, righteousness, and truth.
Lest we think that such generic moral advice throws the door open to all kinds of moral laxity, Paul reminds us that we are light, children of light, who must bear the fruit of light. If that isn’t strong enough, he lays down an absolute prohibition. “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness…. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.” Paul doesn’t name those shameful secret deeds of darkness here, but in the context (from 4:17-6:9) he is pretty specific about how goodness, righteousness and truth should be lived. In the verses immediately before our text, he talks explicitly about sexual sins, so it is probable that he had in mind such secret sins committed in the darkness. Have nothing to do with the fruitless (the Greek connotes corruption and rottenness) works of darkness.
Instead, we must expose such deeds. The word “expose” is elengcho, which has the sense of question or cross-examine and then to expose and rebuke. This word evokes all kinds of negative memories for me. I see a young unmarried couple forced to stand up in church and confess the sexual sin that had resulted in pregnancy and a shotgun marriage. I hear my upright Christian neighbors loudly telling their un-churched neighbors that they shouldn’t violate the Sabbath by cutting their lawn on Sunday. I think of the well-deserved reputation we conservative Christians have for narrow-mindedness, self-righteousness and judgmentalism.
In this era of tolerance and relativity, how in the world are supposed to expose the deeds of darkness that flourish all around us? Well, we must understand first of all that Paul is not talking about exposing the deeds of unbelievers. In I Cor. 5:9-12 Paul could not be clearer. “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of the world…. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother, but is sexually immoral…. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.”
Paul is talking here about dealing with fellow Christians, folks who are light, but who are now walking in the darkness by performing the fruitless deeds of darkness. In secret these disobedient believers do the same things the unbelievers do. You must expose them and rebuke them.
How are we to do that? By living such lives of goodness, righteousness, and truth that their dark ways are naturally revealed? That would be nice, and easy. We would never have to confront anyone or say anything to anyone. I’ll just live my life the right way and that will help others come to the light. But that doesn’t seem to be the meaning of elengcho. Paul is talking here about caring enough to confront, loving a sister or brother so much that you shine your goodness, righteousness, and truth into the dark places in their life.
Now, of course, we must remember Jesus’ stern words about the speck and the beam, about being judged by the same measure with which we judge, about the one without sin casting the first stone, etc. But this text calls us to break the code of silence, to violate the vow of secrecy, to bring light into the darkness, because we love our fellow Christians.
Verses 13 and 14 emphasize that loving motive. Admittedly, these two verses are ferociously difficult to interpret. In part that’s because they seem to say something so obvious that it doesn’t need saying. Indeed, they don’t seem to say anything. “But everything exposed by the light becomes visible….” Well, duh! “[for] it is light that makes everything visible.” No kidding! But think of it this way. By being exposed to the light, our deeds become visible to ourselves and we can repent of them. Without the light of goodness, righteousness, and truth, we don’t know ourselves. And if we don’t know ourselves, we can’t repent and come (back) to Christ.
In the Gospel reading for today, we have the story of the man born blind. He can’t see anything. He never has. Then Jesus heals him and he says, “Once I was blind but now I can see.” That’s us. The god of this world has blinded us to the truth about ourselves. We are in the dark about our sins; we don’t see them as sins. In our text, Paul is calling the church to help disobedient, darkened brothers and sisters come to the point where they can say, “Once I was blind, but now I can see.”
An alternate interpretation of the first part of verse 14 helps make sense of these difficult words. Instead of “for it is light that makes everything visible,” read it as “for everything that becomes visible is light.” If the latter is right, then it means that bringing the light to the darkness of a fellow believer will not only expose his sin, but will also turn him back to the light. When he sees his sin in the clear light of Christ, he will once again become light, a child of the light bearing fruit of the light. Your light will transform his darkness. What a wondrous thing that would be! As James 5:19, 20 says, “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
No wonder Paul ends this difficult section with an ancient hymn heavily influenced by Isaiah 26:19 and 60:1,2. “This is why it is said, ‘Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” These hard words about exposing the dark deeds of the disobedience were not designed to produce a church filled with finger pointing busybodies who are always sticking their noses into other people’s private business. His words are designed to wake people up from their spiritual slumber, to rise from the dark places into which they have sunk in their laziness, and experience again the light of Christ’s favor. All of us can change, develop, and grow the fruit of light so that we please God. But sometimes we’ll have to shine the light into dark places to make that happen. Calvin summed it up this way: “The faithful are called light, both because they have the true light in them, which enlightens them, and also because they give light to others, insomuch that their honest conversation reproves the life of wicked men.”
We’ll have to be very careful how we do that. We can take a hint from that word dokimadzo. It suggests that we will have to scrutinize, test, prove, take pains to be sure that we are right. And we’ll have to engage in profound self-examination, so that we are filled with grace. That begins with the heartfelt confession, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Talk about a Lenten discipline!
The story of Hester Prynne painfully demonstrates the danger of obeying our text in the wrong way. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the heart-wrenching tale of a young woman in Puritan New England. Hester Prynne is an unmarried woman who gets pregnant by a man she refuses to identify. She is exposed, put up for public display in the town square, and forced to wear a big red letter A on her breast for the rest of her life, thus identifying her as an Adulteress. There is no loving motivation, no attempt to bring her back into the light, just a concerted effort to shame her for her deed of darkness committed in secret. That is not what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 5. Hester Prynne could not rise from the dead so that Christ could shine on her again, because the “children of light” were really children of darkness.