March 27, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
For this Fifth Sunday in Lent Sermon Starter, I again present 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).
“Just about Everywhere”
In one of her short stories the writer Annie Dillard has a scene in which a family is sadly gathered at a grave to commit a loved one’s body to the earth. At one point the minister intones the familiar words from I Corinthians 15, “Where, O Death, is thy sting?” Upon hearing that, one of the family members looks up. He scans the sorrowful faces of his family and sees all around him row upon row of headstones in the cemetery. And then he thinks to himself, “Where, O Death, is thy sting? Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked!”
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. Indeed it is. Nothing makes headlines like lots of deaths. An earthquake hits Haiti and in the span of a few seconds tens of thousands of lives disappear. A tsunami hits Asia and our minds grow numb as the death toll mounts higher by the day: 10,000, 50,000, 100,000, a quarter of a million. But those are just the big events. The relentless fact of death can also be seen in the everyday. You never open the newspaper’s Obituary column only to see the word “None.” It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.
So is the denial of death, of course. Don’t look your age, defy it, the make-up commercials say. You’re only as old as you feel, the old aphorism asserts. Meanwhile people hope to defy death by being put in cryogenic frozen storage, by getting themselves cloned, by hoping to transfer their consciousness into a robot like Mr.Data on Star Trek and any number of loopy ways by which to attempt an end run on our common human denominator. But all to no avail. They say that when prisoners arrived at the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, some were told that there was only one way out of Auschwitz, and that was up the smokestack of the crematorium. But in a dark yet true way, the same could be said for all life on this planet: there’s only one way out and that is via the cemetery. Birth, someone once said, leads to a terminal condition called life.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. It’s everywhere in John 11, too. And not just in the obvious place where Lazarus was buried. There is a whiff of death when John reminds us in verse 2 that Mary anointed Jesus with perfume. That actually doesn’t happen until the next chapter but when it does, Jesus makes clear that this is a burial anointing for his body. The specter of death is visible when Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus has died and again when Thomas invites the disciples to go and die with Jesus since they anticipate some kind of a lynch mob to meet them in Bethany.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. But nowhere is the choking reality of death on better display here than in what Jesus encounters once he at long last arrives in Bethany. You could hear the sound of the crying a long ways off. The whooping cries of the professional mourners mixed with the heaving sobs of Mary, Martha, and others. Sorrow creates its own kind of presence, doesn’t it? We’ve felt it as pastors when walking into that hospital room, that living room, that funeral parlor. It’s like walking into a layer of wet gauze. Grief is palpable and engulfing. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it more than once when I have barely made it back to my car before dowsing my steering wheel with a lot of pent-up tears I had been holding back.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and it surely was in Bethany that day. Jesus encounters Martha first. Perhaps recalling a time when Jesus chided her for staying in the kitchen too much, Martha is the first one to leave the house. But it’s difficult to know just how she meets Jesus. It kind of looks like she meets him with some measure of unhappy disdain in her voice, but then again, we’ve all seen deep grief come out as anger, haven’t we? “Well there you are! It’s about time. This whole thing could have been avoided had you just shown up when we first called you. I know you could have healed Lazarus same as you’ve done for lots of people who mean a whole lot less to you than he did!”
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus offers. “Lord, if I had wanted a Hallmark card . . . Of course he will rise again at the last day when the roll is called up yonder by and by. But I’m hurting this day, Lord!” And that’s when Jesus says it. He fixes Martha in an unusually intense stare and makes a claim so bold, it brooks no middle ground in terms of its being true or false: “Martha, I Am the resurrection and the life. Now. Today. Martha, I Am the roll that’s called up yonder and I am now. Do you believe this, or does that sound like a Hallmark card yet?”
With trembling lips and a quivering chin, with tears leaking out from her eyes for the first time since she encountered Jesus that day Martha says, “Yes. Yes . . . I do believe that, because I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the future of the whole universe that has come into the world.” It was a bold thing for Jesus to say and a bolder thing for Martha to buy into. But even so, within minutes, when Jesus sees also Mary and then the others, he loses it. He didn’t make it back to the car. He weeps.
He weeps not because he doesn’t believe his own words. He weeps not because he has forgotten that he’d be having tea and cucumber sandwiches with Lazarus within the hour. No, he weeps because as the Word of God who was with God in the beginning and through whom all things were made, he knows more keenly than anyone there that day that this is not the way it’s supposed to be. He didn’t say “Let there be light” in the beginning to end up with a world so full of darkness and sorrow. He weeps for the same reason you cry when you see your kid trying to be brave on the playground even though he’s just been taunted and insulted by some other kids, taunted in ways that shriveled his little spirit. You weep for your child because you hate to see him diminished, because you love him. And Jesus weeps because he loves. He weeps because he is in love with this creation’s flourishing.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and no one sees it with more startling clarity than Jesus himself. And so on that day he does something to take, if even for just a little while, some of the wind out of death’s sails. Lazarus will die again. Mary and Martha may still have to go through another funeral for him at some point (and since we are told in the next chapter that the chief priests decided to murder Lazarus so as to cover over what Jesus had done, for all we know Lazarus’ second funeral may come really very soon after all). But still Jesus shows that he is on the side of life by bringing Lazarus back.
But that’s where John ends the story. Silly John! Doesn’t he know we want to read about the reactions of Mary and Martha? Doesn’t he know we want to see how they turned the leftover turkey on buns and potato salad from Lazarus’ funeral lunch into a “Welcome Back to Life” dinner party? But no, all we get is Jesus’ saying, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go!” We’re left to imagine the joy.
For his part, however, John returns us to death. We pivot from Lazarus the mummy walking out into the sunlight in Bethany to a secret plot to kill Jesus. After all, if Jesus keeps raising the dead, it’s going to start to get pretty tough for the Pharisees to convince people that Jesus is, as they say in Texas, “all hat and no cattle.” Raising the dead has a way of catching people’s attention and so—in a narrative twist so sharply ironic as to take your breath away—they decide to kill the life-giver. They will prevent future resurrections by burying the one doing the work. With life busting out all over Bethany, the authorities opt to bring things back to normal where death has the last word.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. And for now, despite the joy and spectacle of John 11, that remains our reality, too. And that would be a piece of bad news were it not for those clarion words of John 11:25 that have had a way of hanging in there across the centuries and right on down to this July morning, too. “I am the resurrection and the life.” You either believe those words or you don’t but if there is one thing both the religious and the non-religious could agree on it is this: one way or another the truth or falsity of those words have something to do with every last person on the planet, past, present, and future.
Think of it this way: suppose I came up to you and said “I am the cure for hemorrhagic fever.” Well, that might be a nice thing to know about me but unless you have hemorrhagic fever—or unless you anticipate ever getting this rather rare disease—then my claim to possess the cure for that condition won’t do much for you. It would be a claim that would, at best, have something to do with other people but not you. But the same cannot be said if I claim to be the cure for death. Now I’ve got everyone’s attention. Those who believe me will latch on quite literally for dear life. Those who do not believe me will walk the other way but will still have to know that death remains their destiny. Either way or both ways, someone’s claim to being the resurrection and the life is never a claim that has nothing to do with anyone.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and so therefore is the need to deal with it. God’s solution was, unsurprisingly, rather ingenious! The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg is someone who understands—as best anyone can understand such a mystery, that is—what Jesus as the resurrection and the life means. Pannenberg said that what happened on Easter was the future breaking into our collective past. The new life Jesus brought was quite literally our future taking place at a distinct moment in history.
So now when Jesus comes up to each of us to ask the question he first posed to Martha, “Do you believe this?” we have a new way to answer. Yes, we do believe in Jesus, we do believe that we will rise again one day. We believe it will happen because, in Christ, it already did happen! Nothing can prevent the eternal life Jesus offers us because it has already come! On that long ago day in Bethany, Jesus essentially told Martha that the Last Day, the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection was standing right in front of her! That great font of wisdom, Yogi Berra, once said, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” To that I reply, “Oh yes it is! The future is exactly what it used to be in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!”
In commenting on John 11 Frederick Buechner once pointed out that sometimes people who go through so-called “near-death experiences” profess to not being completely happy that the doctors pulled them back. Many have said that they saw a bright figure standing in the light and that they wanted to approach that figure but were cut off when the heart defibrillator yanked them back to this world. For them it felt less like “near death” and more like “near life.”
Well, as Buechner imagined it, maybe that bright afternoon in Bethany when Lazarus emerged, blinking into the Palestine sunshine, only to see Jesus standing there in the light, maybe Lazarus was at first not sure which side of death he was on! Was he walking toward eternity or back toward earth? Some of you have seen the fine film Field of Dreams in which long dead baseball players somehow come back to life to play on a mysterious baseball field that Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, had built right in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
When one player steps out onto the ball diamond, he says to Ray,
“Is this heaven?” to which Ray replies,
“No, it’s Iowa.”
“Funny, it looked like heaven to me.”
So also maybe Lazarus at first asked Jesus,
“Is this heaven?”
“No, it’s Bethany.”
But maybe it looked like heaven to Lazarus just because Jesus was there. Perhaps as much as anything just that is the point of John 11: whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s because he just is, right now, the resurrection and the life. That will have enormous meaning when the roll is called up yonder by and by. But faith understands that tasting Jesus’ life and hope doesn’t have to wait that long. It is here, now. It is at the Lord’s where each time when we come we quite literally taste and tsee that the Lord is good, taste and see that new life is here now because as this table says to us, Jesus is here, Jesus is now. And if by faith you can see him each time in the bread and the wine, then you, too, have begun to taste heaven already.
“I am the resurrection and the life.” Because of these words from our Lord, when we as Christians get asked by people, “Where can you find any hope in this world,” we now have the joyful privilege to proclaim the gospel by boldly declaring, “Where is hope? Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.”
Hallelujah and Amen!
Author: Doug Bratt
No matter how gladly we sing the old spiritual about “dry bones” that’s based on Ezekiel 17, we must admit it’s among the most mysterious and, dare we say, strangest passages in all of the Scriptures. Its imagery is so striking that it calls for vivid, poetic language to, by the power of the Holy Spirit, describe it.
In Ezekiel 37 the Lord leads Ezekiel back and forth on a tour of a maze of human skeletons of Israelites whom their enemies had earlier slaughtered. However, this is more than just a gruesome sight. A kind of spiritual radioactivity also fills this valley of dry bones. Biblical laws of purity, after all, labeled anything dead, including skeletons, impure or unclean.
So the Israelites had rituals to cleanse people whom contact with dead people and things had contaminated. God also specifically prohibited Israelite priests from attending funerals or even being close to anyone who had died, except for their immediate family members.
Since Ezekiel is an Israelite priest, as well as prophet, he doesn’t only experience the kind of queasiness that would almost inevitably come from such a chilling walk through a valley of full of skeletons. The prophet’s hike through this kind of cemetery, after all, exposes him to severe religious contamination. So we can only imagine the level of repulsion Ezekiel experiences as he strolls through this vast graveyard.
God, however, has a compelling reason for exposing God’s prophet to this spiritual and ritual contamination. The Lord explains to him that the bones symbolize the exiled house of Israel. In Babylonian exile she is, after all, as good as dead. She’s a pile of spiritual skeletons. The Israelites are lifeless and “without hope,” completely “cut off.”
Those who preach and teach as well as people who listen to us sometimes feel like we’re walking through a valley that’s full of death. Perhaps walking through a workplace or neighborhood has felt like a walk through a valley of dry bones. Some lives have been littered with the dry bones of broken relationships. Perhaps even relationships with the Lord feel like a bleached skeletons this morning.
So, Son of Man, can these bones live? Clearly it’s very hard for Ezekiel to answer, “yes” to this question. He realizes that if life will come to these dry skeletons, only God knows how it will happen. Son of Man, can these bones live? Only, God answers, through “breath” that somehow reanimates those bones.
This enlivening “breath,” however, is no ordinary puff of air or even human resuscitation. No, this life-giving breath is the spirit, the breath of the Lord. So Ezekiel 37 insists that if the bleached skeleton that is Israel is to live again, God will have to enliven her. If broken relationships are to somehow rise from the dead, God will have to raise them to life.
So Son of Man, can these bones live? Only, insists God, if God’s Spirit blows into them through God’s prophet speaking God’s word to them. “I will make breath enter you,” God tells the skeletons through his prophet. “And you will come to life.” And just as God promises, Ezekiel watches those skeletons somehow miraculously come together. The skeletons noisily take on tendons, flesh and skin.
Yet something’s still missing. These bodies still somehow remain lifeless. Both those who proclaim and those who hear this passage know something about such lifelessness. Some relationships, for instance, have a kind of flesh and skin on them. Family members exchange pleasantries with each other. Friends talk about the weather or sports. Family members may even sing the songs and say the prayers to God. Yet a kind of deadness lingers; there’s no real life.
So, Son of Man, can these bones live? God reminds Ezekiel and us that not just the reforming, but also the crucial enlivening ingredient is that breath of the Lord. What raises dead bones of all sorts to life is the Spirit of God. And so when Ezekiel invites that Holy Spirit to blow into the valley’s dry bones, they do, in fact, come to life. With a rush of the Spirit, “they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.”
Near the beginning of measured time, Genesis 1 reports, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” No matter how exactly we understand that mysterious assertion, we sense that “wind,” that “breath” of God somehow hovered over the primeval chaos. It’s the same Spirit that Genesis 2:7 reports God blew into Adam’s nostrils. In fact, only when God breathes “the breath of life” into the man God made from the dust does our first parent become a living being.
So, Son of Man, can these bones live? Notice that Ezekiel doesn’t command Israel’s dry bones to somehow get up and live themselves. After all, dead things have no power to raise themselves to life. No dry bones, even the skeletons of our relationships, can make themselves alive.
Only God can bring life where there is death. So what raises these dry bones is God’s promise spoken through a prophet. What gives these bleached skeletons life is God’s Spirit blowing into them. Exiled Israel will live again and return home, but only because God will breathe into her to give her new life.
That’s good news for those without hope. This is gospel for those who feel alienated from God or the people to whom they want to be close. Death may surround, fill and even chase us. But God is in the business of restoring hope by raising the dead to life and breathing new life into people, relationships and even communities.
The Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday holds out hope for communities that seem dead, that see no way forward. So this is gospel for churches that seem dead and dying. Life, health and vitality may seem completely gone. God, however, has the power to give life to those dry bones, to breathe his Spirit of life into those skeletons.
On this Sunday that is yet another Lenten “mini”-celebration of Easter, we also see God’s power at work to raise dry bones to life across his world. Today, after all, we remember how God’s Spirit who blew life into Israel’s dry bones also breathed life into Jesus’ disciples. So, Son of Man, can these bones live? Jesus’ disciples were like the breathless bodies in our Old Testament lesson. They had flesh, bones and skin, but no real life. Jesus’ followers, before Pentecost, were largely afraid to speak the gospel.
On the first Pentecost, however, God blew his Holy Spirit right into the dry bones that were Jesus’ followers. The Holy Spirit so raised them to life that they were able to speak the gospel in many languages. And as Peter “prophesied,” God’s Spirit also blew into those who heard him. Those hearers, like us by nature, were dead in their sins, unable to raise themselves to life. Yet on that first Pentecost God’s Spirit blew into about three thousand dry bones. The Spirit raised them from death to life so that they could faithfully accept Peter’s gospel message.
We believe only God’s Spirit can give anyone faith. So, Son of Man, can these bones live? Yes, by the power of the Spirit! Our world remains full of people who are dry bones, dead in their sins. Some of them are in our families and circles of friends, in our workplaces and neighborhoods. Death haunts places where life doesn’t thrive, such as in Syria, South Sudan and eastern Ukraine. So, Son of Man, can those bones live? Yes, by the power of God’s Spirit!
In the chapter, “Miracle on the Beach” in her book, Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor grieves, “What we have lost . . . is a full sense of the power of God — to recruit people who have made terrible choices; to invade the most hopeless lives and fill them with light; to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not God, and smack them upside the head with glory.”
Author: Stan Mast
As we continue our Lenten journey up to Mt. Calvary, the Lectionary puts a perfect Psalm before us on this Fifth Sunday of Lent. We’re getting close to our destination, but here the path takes a severe dip, sort of like a saddle on a mountain just before the summit. This Song of Ascents takes us into the depths, one more time (cf. Psalm 32, where we began our climb). Psalm 130 seems to suggest that before we can enter into the full experience of God’s grace in Christ, we must experience the depths of sin and its attendant chaos once again.
Traditionally called “De Profundis” (Latin for its opening words, “out of the depths”), Psalm 130 has a remarkable history in the life of the church. For centuries it has been recited daily in both the Western and Eastern churches, in part because it captures the agony of any child of God who has ever been in the depths of existence. More than that, it is, as Martin Luther said, “a proper master and doctor of Scripture,” because it teaches the basic truths of the Gospel. James Luther Mays sums up what Luther meant when he writes that Psalm 130 is “a succinct but powerful expression of the theme that is at the heart of Scripture: the human predicament and its dependence on divine grace.”
Consisting of four couplets, each with a different intent (petition, statement, confession, and exhortation), the Psalm is mostly a private conversation with and about Yahweh. But like so many of the Psalms, it ends with an important turn to the community of Israel. Rarely do we find in the Psalms the kind of privatized religion so prevalent in Western churches. What happens to me in my experience of sin and grace has crucial implications for the larger church, so I must speak to my brothers and sisters about what my experience means for them.
Though we are headed to the heights, we find ourselves at the beginning of Psalm 130 in the very depths. What are these depths and how did we get here? Most scholars hear these words as a reference to the depths of the sea, as in Psalm 69. The verses that immediately follow (verses 3 and 4) suggest that we fell into the depths of watery chaos because of our sins.
The other lectionary readings for today give credence to that reading of verses 1 and 2. Ezekiel 37 pictures the hopeless situation of exiled Israel as a valley of dry bones, where God’s people say, “Our hope is gone; we are cut off.” Using similar imagery, Romans 8:6-11 contrasts the deadness of those who live according to the flesh with the new life given to our bodies by the Spirit. And John 11:1-45 is the famous story of Jesus raising the long dead Lazarus from the tomb.
If we combine those texts with Psalm 130, it makes sense to say that the Psalmist is talking about being caught in what Martin Luther called “the flood of mortal ills prevailing….” (“A Mighty Fortress”) The many troubles of life are simply overwhelming. The Psalmist feels in danger of drowning in that flood of mortal ills. He cannot save himself. All he can do is cry out to God for mercy, like the Publican in Jesus parable (Luke 18:13).
Thankfully, that is the one cry to which God’s ear is specially tuned, the one prayer God always hears and answers. In his commentary on this Psalm, Walter Brueggemann puts it in his usual inimitable way. “From where should the ruler of reality be addressed? One might think it would be from a posture of obedience, or at least from a situation of prosperity and success, indicating conformity to the blessed order of creation. One ought to address the king suitably dressed, properly positioned, with a disciplined well modulated voice. But this Psalm is the miserable cry of a nobody from nowhere.” He further notes that this cry from the depths “echoes the cry of Exodus 2:23-25 with which our history of faith began.”
I noted above that the Psalmist’s plunge into the depths might be attributed to his sin, since verses 3 and 4 are precisely about sin. But we cannot say that the Psalmist wallows in his sin. In fact, he is convinced that God wouldn’t want him to do that. I shouldn’t dwell on my sin, because God doesn’t do that. He puts it negatively at first. “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sin, O Lord, who could stand?” If God watched over our lives like the legendary Santa Claus (who “knows when we’ve been bad or good”), then we would all be swept away by his holy wrath against sin.
Of course, God does know about all our sins, but the Psalmist says that Yahweh forgives what he knows. “With you there is forgiveness….” There are multiple ways to think about the effect of forgiveness, but the Psalmist here chooses an image any prisoner or debtor can appreciate. Forgiveness expunges our record, so that there is no record of our crimes. Forgiveness cancels our debts, so that the books of our lives are clean. No wonder Luther loved this Psalm. While it is completely honest about the depths of sins (“if you kept a record of sin, who could stand?”), it is crystal clear about the grace of God for sinners (“but with you there is forgiveness”). That is gospel.
But notice the Psalmist’s surprising response to the Gospel—“therefore, you are feared.” We might expect the Psalm to say, “therefore, you are loved,” or, “therefore we are grateful” or some other positive expression of faith. But, no, it says “feared.” One would think that forgiveness would drive out fear (as I John 4:18 seems to suggest). Clearly, if God did not forgive, everyone would flee him in terror of his punishment (the sense of I John 4:18). But since God does forgive, this fear must be something other than terror. And it is.
Fear is the preferred Old Testament word for a love that goes beyond emotion, a love that leads us to deep worship, profound reverence, high honor, consistent obedience, and unwavering service. From the depths of his sin related chaos, the Psalmist knows that something as profound as forgiveness demands more than a fleeting emotion or a momentary gesture. It demands “my soul, my life, my all.” It demands that Yahweh becomes the very center of my life. All of that is included in the idea of fearing a forgiving God.
Because of who God is, says the Psalmist in the next verses (5 and 6), I will stand here, even in the “flood of mortal ills,” and wait for the Lord. That is remarkable for its honesty and for its hope. The Psalmist honestly admits that even those whose sins are forgiven and who therefore fear the Lord may still flounder in the depths. The saving grace of God is no guarantee that life will be trouble free. Everyone knows that is true. But isn’t it helpful to hear the Bible say it?
And isn’t it even more helpful to hear how we should deal with the continuing crises? If we know that God is good, as evidenced by our forgiveness, we can wait for his goodness to show itself amidst the flood. There are many ways to wait—impatiently, anxiously, fearfully, or despairingly. But the Psalmist says that he will wait with hope. God has promised full redemption (verse 7), after all. And in that “word” we can put our hope.
The Psalmist chooses an interesting image of hope here—not a patient waiting for a doctor’s report, not a family waiting for a serviceman to return home from the Middle East, not a child waiting for the bell to ring at the end of a school day, but a watchman waiting for morning as he patrols a city wall looking out into the darkness for enemies.
We wait for many things in life, but our ultimate hope is in the Lord. That, in fact, is what the Psalmist calls out to us over the years and the miles. “O Israel, put your hope in Yahweh….” Then he gives substance to that hope. It is based on Yahweh’s “unfailing love,” which is the Hebrew word chesed, the fundamental covenant word. Indeed, the Hebrew of verse 7 actually has a definite article in front of chesed, so that it reads “the chesed.” Perhaps the sense is the famous chesed, the actual chesed, the real thing chesed. God can as little leave you in the depths as he can forsake his covenant and stop loving you. Your hope is absolutely secure.
And it is simply wonderful, because with Yahweh is “full redemption.” Most often in the Old Testament, redemption means rescue from some terrible physical situation, like bondage in Egypt or exile in Babylon or drowning in the flood of mortal ills. Here it means deliverance “from all our sins.”
But aren’t we already forgiven, so that the record is clean? Yes, but there is more to sin than guilt, and more to redemption than forgiveness of sins. Just because a criminal has been pardoned doesn’t mean that life will be good. There is still a lifetime of bad behaviors that have become habitual, and a whole network of bad characters to whom he might return upon release, and a host of people who have been hurt by his crimes, and so much more. It is one thing to be forgiven; it is quite another to be completely redeemed from the power, presence, and consequences of sin.
Between having our sinful record erased and becoming a glorious saint, there is a long journey. Here is a promise for those on such a pilgrimage. Whether you are just starting out from your former prison or you are coming close to the summit of sainthood or you are just now experiencing a new depth of trouble, keep waiting on the Lord. Your hope is as secure as his covenant love and as glorious as full redemption from all your sins and their consequences.
One way to help folks picture the threat of “the depths” is to show pictures of recent flooding in the South of the US. Pictures of washed out roads or, even better (worse?), pictures of cars being swept off roads by raging floodwaters, their passengers clinging to their hoods as they wave for help—such pictures will help capture the desperation we all feel when “the flood of mortal ills” threatens to drown us.
People who work in prison ministries are keenly aware that re-entry into normal life is a real difficulty for the incarcerated. Words like recidivism and restorative justice dominate discussions about “returning citizens.” How can they best pay their debt to society and how can we help them to stay out of jail? Full redemption is nearly (completely?) impossible for humans to achieve. Only God can give it through his unfailing love.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Romans 8: is there a better loved, more soaring passage in the New Testament than this one? There is much here to linger over, savor, celebrate. The Lectionary carves out only six verses but the truth is, Romans 8:1-17 form such a logical—and also lyric—unit that I would suggest reading all 17 verses, and indeed, this sermon starter will take in all of these verses, including the lovely “Abba, Father” ending to this unit.
A hallmark of Pauline theology is the breathtaking claim that by virtue of having the Spirit of God in our hearts, we have been spiritually relocated. We now live “in Christ.” Seldom in history has such a short, two-word prepositional phrase packed such a wallop. Romans 8 tells us right off the bat that now there is “no condemnation” for us. With God’s Spirit within us, we are liberated, set free, righteous in the sight of God. Our entire mindset is directed toward God. Our spirits are alive and victorious. We do not lead fearful lives but bold and free lives in which we can call God our Father even as we celebrate our status as children of God. Paul cannot say enough as to what this change of status means.
Yet everything in Romans 8 depends on that central idea that we now are “in Christ.” This is a change of cosmic position and status so grand, and so mind-boggling, that you surely can understand why some think that it should be as plain to see as the nose on someone’s face.
Think of it this way: picture in your mind’s eye some ball park loaded with people to watch a baseball game. You scan the crowd and see there the full array of typical humanity: you see white people and black people, Hispanic people and Asian people, skinny people and fat people and every gradation of body mass in between. You see young, middle-aged, and older folks. Just by looking at all these thousands of fans in the stands, you can maybe tell a lot about any given person. But the one thing you will not determine just by looking at them is also the single-most important fact of them all: namely, which of them are living “in Christ” and which of them are not.
You cannot detect this status just by looking at somebody. Yet we claim it is the most important fact of all. So what does it mean to be “in Christ”? It’s a curious concept when you think about it. You almost never hear such talk in other areas of life. For instance, no matter who is President in the United States at any given moment, that person would love to be compared to Abraham Lincoln, generally regarded as the best President ever. But the most you would expect any politician to say in such a regard is that he or she tries to emulate President Lincoln, tries to embody the same principles that undergirded our Civil War leader. It’s one thing to say that you would want to be like Lincoln but it would be oddly startling if you claimed to be “in Lincoln.”
Or think of it this way: what meaning would you ascribe to a Muslim who claimed to be “in Mohammed” or a Jew who went around saying she was “in Abraham”? We Christians throw around the phrase “in Christ” very casually, as though its meaning were self-evident. But even as we would ask someone to explain just how in the world he could be “in Abraham,” so we should be able to come up with something in answer to the question of what it means to be “in Christ.”
There are several options. “In Christ” could be a way of identifying with the ideals of Jesus. We all have our role models in life. Most of us find figures in history, or in this present day, with whom we like to identify ourselves and whose core principles we hope to imitate in our own lives. So a president of this nation may hope to find inspiration and direction in the examples of past leaders like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. A CEO may want to identify with and learn from someone like Bill Gates or Max DuPree so as to be a better executive him- or herself. Even someone like Mahatma Gandhi said that he took much inspiration from the words of Jesus in the gospels and found the symbol of the cross to be utterly moving. Conversely, I have learned a lot from Gandhi and find in his life’s example an inspiring kind of role model. But I would no sooner claim that I am “in Gandhi” than Gandhi would have wanted to say he was “in Christ.” So there must be something more radical about being “in Christ” than merely drawing inspiration from Jesus’ example.
A second option would be to say that being “in Christ” is perhaps a way of indicating where you have placed your hopes. If a person says that a good deal of his money is “in stocks,” that can be a way of letting you know where his financial future is located. If before a battle a military commander tells his troops, “All my confidence is in you,” he is conveying what he sees as the source of his hope for victory. So also perhaps when we say the words “in Christ,” maybe we are sort of indicating where our hearts are, where we have invested our hope and our confidence. But this option doesn’t seem right, either. After all, Paul does not say that we have placed something like our hearts, our love, or our fondest wishes “in Christ,” but rather we ourselves are completely “in Christ.”
So being “in Christ” means more than just taking inspiration from Jesus or using him as some kind of an historically interesting role model. And being “in Christ” means more than just indicating the place where you’ve made your emotional and spiritual investments in life. So what does it mean? Taking a cue from Lewis Smedes, perhaps it means to live in the new cosmic situation that Jesus brought about through his death and resurrection.
Really to understand what it means to be “in Christ” requires first that you believe Jesus made a difference in some utterly real, cosmic sense. You have to believe that what Jesus did in his death and resurrection turned this universe around, caused reality to turn the corner from darkness into light. Because of Jesus, the balance of power shifted in the universe such that the devil has ever since been losing ground and God has ever since been drawing all things back to himself. We are not talking about the realm of ideas here but the realm of concrete reality, of the ways things simply are.
What we must believe as Christians is that the work of Jesus has resulted in a true change in the cosmic situation–a change every bit as dramatic as the chasing out of a dictator or the toppling of a regime in some nation here on earth and every bit as concrete as what can be seen when a new boss takes over a corporation and instantly institutes a whole series of new policies that generate better working conditions for the employees. The work of Jesus had just such a real effect in the universe.
So to be “in Christ” means consciously living within the new situation that Jesus brought about. It means knowing that the powers of darkness are in retreat, that the devil has been chased out, and that your life has changed as a result. You are under new management. There is now a power active within you that makes you alive, free, and joyful. The whole situation has changed and so there are possibilities open to you that were not there before. You can choose to do right things instead of being stuck in a dismal pattern of ever and only opting for what you know is wrong.
The cosmic situation has changed for the better. For now it takes faith to see the changes that have been made by Jesus. We are still “between the times,” to invoke a traditional theological phrase. We are in “the already and the not yet.” That is why the daily newspaper still contains as much bad news as good news. For the same reason this is why we also struggle with sin yet. But if we really are “in Christ,” then those sins do not define us, do not cause us to give up on ourselves.
And if it seems strange to affirm that the Holy Spirit lives inside people who still sin, that really should not seem quite so odd after all. What you or I experience in our daily lives is really no more than a micro-example of what happens globally all the time: this world belongs to God, he holds it firmly in pierced hands, and because Easter is true, the balance of power has shifted decisively in the direction of God. But still people manage to perpetrate evil deeds. The world is God’s even though it doesn’t always look like it.
Yet that very nuanced way of putting it, this “both/and” perspective of “the already and the not yet,” of being “in Christ” and yet still struggling with sin, represents precisely those shades of gray many people would just as soon live without. If only life were more clear-cut, if only we could tell precisely who’s who just by seeing some outward mark. But we dare not be impatient with God’s way of doing things. We live by faith and it’s enough.
We patiently listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit who testifies with our spirits that we really are children of God (as verse 16 puts it). We have to believe that if we are children of God, then we will inherit what was promised to us. We have to believe that for now, although our sins have not yet become ever and only a thing of the past, that grace really is powerful enough to wipe them out every time.
Of course, living in this new situation is not like some extended vacation at a luxury resort. We are not to put our feet up, chill out, and just revel in being safely ensconced inside the new cosmic situation brought on by Jesus. No, being in Christ energizes us and equips us for service, for displaying the lifestyle and grace and goodness of this new situation in how we behave. But this is not some grim obligation placed on us—it is instead pure joy! As Paul puts in verse 11, the Spirit of God has given LIFE to our mortal bodies in the here and now already. That new life needs to show up. And by grace and in Christ, it most assuredly does!
Back in Kindergarten, maybe you did a craft in school as a Christmas present for your parents. Perhaps it was a papier mâché ornament for the Christmas tree. Years later maybe you took another look at that ornament: it’s not round by a long shot but kind of funky-shaped. There are clumps of glue here and there and several places where your paintbrush failed to make contact, leaving bare spots where you can still read the classified section of the newspaper you used. But when you handed your folks that trinket, their eyes shined. They took the gold and crystal Saks Fifth Avenue tree ornament that Aunt Louis had bought in New York City and stuck it on the back of the tree so that your ornament could be front and center. “Do you like it, Daddy?” you maybe asked. “Honey, it’s just perfect.”
When you are in your father’s love, that’s the kind of answer you always hear. “Do you love me, Father?” “Honey, you’re just perfect.” In Christ it will always be so.