March 07, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
In Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, one of the characters keeps saying over and over to the character of Big Daddy that you can just smell “the mendacity in the air.” This was a play with many layers of deception and lying and it became so very nearly palpable to some of the characters that it was as though the air was filled with mendacity, with lies. You could smell it.
In John 12 there may be a little mendacity in the air but mostly what is in the air—for those with noses finely tuned enough to sniff it out—was the smell of death.
True, Lazarus has just been raised from the dead and although his being raised on the fourth day caused some folks to fear that the tomb would be stinky, Lazarus emerged fresh and alive and unsmelly. Nevertheless, the stench of death hangs heavy here in John 12. Jesus’ grand miracle of raising up Lazarus has cinched the case against him as far as the religious authorities are concerned. If they let Jesus keep doing this kind of thing, there’d be no stopping him. So at the end of John 11 we read of a plot to kill Jesus. Were we to read just a couple of verses beyond where the Lectionary stops this reading of John 12, we’d see that while they’re at it, the Pharisees plot to kill Lazarus, too. (This is a detail—a grim one—that we often overlook, so much so that years ago when I saw the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, when I saw a scene in which some thug kills the recently raised Lazarus by sticking a knife in his back, I thought to myself, “That never happened!” So I went to my Bible and found that, sure enough, although we have no account of their having pulled it off, there was indeed a plot to murder Lazarus as a way to cover up his having been raised. Terrible.)
Eventually in John 12 Jesus will have a few more overt things to say about also his own impending doom. But right in the middle of all that deathliness is this reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year C. Mary and Martha are throwing a dinner party in Jesus’ honor. Considering what Jesus had recently done for their little family unit in raising a beloved brother back from the dead, you can understand why they maybe think Jesus is worth a little fuss! Yet the text is largely understated. We’re told (almost casually) that Lazarus is reclining at the table along with Jesus. Given that he’d been dead and buried only a short while earlier, this portrait of Lazarus sipping wine and munching on food is startling. It’s almost funny!
But we don’t linger over the fact that this recently deceased man is now back in circulation. We’re not made privy to any conversations about what Lazarus experienced between death and resuscitation. We have no ancient world equivalent of Anderson Cooper hovering around to interview Lazarus and asking questions like, “What did you see? Any bright lights? Bump into Moses or anybody we’d know?”
Instead the focus of the scene quickly shifts to Mary and to her anointing of Jesus’ feet with a highly expensive and fragrant perfume. It’s hard to know what was in Mary’s mind. The most likely scenario is that this was a token of moving, profound gratitude to Jesus for restoring her dear brother to life. As Judas finally notes, it was a costly gift. And as many of us know, there are always those who sneer at anything that smacks of the extravagant. Even on a wedding anniversary, why go out to that nice (but expensive) restaurant that will charge you $28 for chicken dijonnaise with new potatoes when the Family Diner over there has a perfectly good patty melt for $6.95? (And it comes with fries too yet!) Judas is chintzy in this way but he’s also a pilferer, as John notes in one of his many parenthetical comments.
But lavish or not, Mary anoints Jesus this way out of true affection. Jesus, however, sees it differently. He sees it as a pre-burial prepping of his corpse for the tomb. Jesus says that she should be left alone in that (and the Greek here is a little dicey) it was necessary for her to keep this for the day of his burial. It’s a powerfully difficult sentence to translate, much less make sense of.
First, that was not the day of his burial. Second, she could not keep the perfume in that she had just then already poured it out. It was gone. Third, therefore, she could not keep for the day of Jesus’ burial (some six days off) that which she had poured out on his feet on that very evening.
But maybe we are being too literal here. As noted above, death hangs heavy in the air here. So heavy, in fact, that perhaps it was true that to Jesus’ mind, there was no significant difference between everything happening in that final week of his life and the nitty-gritty details of his actual entombment. He was as good as dead already. He was, to borrow a phrase a “dead man walking.” So whatever Mary may have had in mind in pouring this onto Jesus, Jesus himself regarded it as yet another indication of death.
We are told in verse 3 that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” and no doubt most dinner guests regarded it as pleasant. Lazarus was alive again. Martha had, as usual, outdone herself in the kitchen and was serving up a dandy meal. Mary now honored the guest of honor with a traditional ritual of hospitality. What a fine evening!
Only Jesus seems to know that in this world, without someone’s being able to make the ultimate sacrifice for sins, even the finest evening is shot-through with death. Without the hope that Jesus’ death alone would make possible for this death-enthralled world, no amount of perfume, no amount of glitz, no amount of red-carpet gala events can ever escape the fact that we’re all on a collision course with death. Jesus alone seemed to know this that night. As latter-day followers of Jesus, we need to know it, too, and so do all we can to point our world to Jesus as our only hope.
Because even yet today, in the power citadels of Washington and London and Moscow, in the haute cuisine restaurants in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, along the runways of fashion shows in Paris and on the tony beaches in Cancun and Aruba where the rich and famous go to play, despite all that we try to do to escape this fact or cover it over with this-or-that costly perfume (or wine or flowers or chocolate or martinis) the fact is that death is everywhere.
The New York Times often fills its weekly Travel section with Spring Break ideas for families. The “budget” ideas might include going to Orlando where a family of four might expend a “mere” $5,000 or so. But there was also the option of renting a yacht with full crew for seven days to make seven Caribbean ports of call. A family of four for this jaunt could have the whole thing for a cool $1.06 million. (The blurb for this option even included a possible extra “Splurge” of taking advantage of the on-board masseuse. But can you speak meaningfully of “splurging” when spending over a million bucks for a one-week vacation???? Sometimes when I read the NY Times I wonder if it’s actually The Onion I am reading . . .)
We all try to escape and deny death. But it doesn’t work. Not finally and not for all the money in the world. Jesus knows it and knows what to do about it. If we are Jesus’ disciples, then we know what needs doing, too. That’s why in Lent, and always, we’re not ashamed to cling to that old rugged cross.
For us, when we smell the aroma of Mary’s perfume rising up off the biblical page, we know it has something to do with death but by faith and through grace, we also sense that there is a definite sweetness to this aroma—it actually feels like the kind of thing that might move right through death to arrive at a higher life.
I would encourage anyone preaching on this lection to extend the reading to verse 11. It’s important to see that Jesus’ fame is spreading. It’s important to see that Lazarus had himself become (quite understandably) something of a curiosity. And it’s important to see how death roars back onto this otherwise happy scene when we read of the plot to kill Lazarus. As noted elsewhere in this sermon starter, we do not know if they succeeded in killing Lazarus the same way they did indeed succeed with killing Jesus but if they did . . . well, one can only imagine the sorrow of Mary and Martha if they lost their brother all over again. Of course, one day they lost him again anyway—he had been resuscitated, not yet raised to immortality. Either way, it is a reminder of why we needed Jesus to be anointed for burial and to later die the way he did. Death is everywhere. Only Christ proffers hope in the midst of all that.
In the fine story and film Babette’s Feast we see an example of sacrificial self-giving in action. We also see how such sacrifice can restore much that is broken in this world. Many of you know the story: one of the talented chefs in the world, Babette, is banished from her native Paris due to political turmoil and persecution. She (almost literally) washes ashore in a small Danish fishing village whose small religious community is enduring a time of fractious bickering. The once tight-knit band of believers has taken to sniping and snipping, to the heartbreak of the spinster sisters who head up the community (their father had founded the church in the village) and who had taken in Babette to be a scullery maid and cook. Mostly the sisters ask Babette to prepare only the blandest of foods as that is what they were accustomed to eating.
But then one day Babette finds out she won the lottery in Paris and so offers to cook a true feast for the sisters and their whole little religious community. They agree and are eventually treated to a feast of rare delicacies, excellent vintages of wine, and just flat out some of the best gourmet fare anyone in the world could ever wish for. The religious community has no idea what it’s consuming and yet through this meal they also find their community restored. Arguments are dropped. Past misdeeds are forgiven. And when the evening is finished, they join hands and sing the Doxology under the stars.
Only then do the sisters discover what Babette had really done: she had spent ALL the money she had won, not just a portion of it as they had thought. She had, in so doing, foreclosed her own options. She could never return to Paris, never take up any post as the chef at one of the world’s leading restaurants. She had wasted it all on the sisters and their community.
And this prodigal “waste” brought life.
Author: Doug Bratt
At first glance, Isaiah’s invitation to “Forget the former things” seems right up 21st century North Americans’ “alley.” After all, we’re not even very interested in last week’s “former things.” If it’s not on our homepage, the 6 o’clock news or local media website, we’re hardly interested in what happened even yesterday. Today’s news quickly becomes tomorrow’s deeply buried archive. “Do not dwell on the past”? We scarcely even remember it.
Isaiah probably first wrote this call to refuse to dwell on the past to Israelite exiles in Babylon. God had used Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar’s armies to send Judea’s leftovers into exile in the 570’s BCE. Now, however, the Lord has raised up Cyrus of Persia to defeat Babylon and return captive Israel to Palestine.
Yet along the way to a brighter future, the old prophet wants to remind Israel just why God exiled her in the first place. In doing so, Craig Barnes says the old prophet doesn’t “pulls any punches.” God was, in fact, harshly judging Israel for her sins. Yet God also wanted to use Israel’s exilic experience to deepen her understanding of God’s covenant with her.
Perhaps that’s why Isaiah begins the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday by recalling Israel’s past. He reminds her of her exodus from Egypt, particularly of God’s making a way for her through the Red Sea on dry land. Isaiah also reminds Israelites of the tragic fate of her Egyptian captors who drowned when God allowed the Red Sea to return to its natural ways. The language, says a colleague, is vivid and gripping.
This offers Isaiah 43’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on the act of remembering, especially remembering God’s acts of faithfulness. How important is it for God’s people to remember what God has done? Just what things God has done should we make sure we remember? How can we cultivate a culture of remembering in a society that remembers little? What role does remembering God’s past faithfulness play in generating confidence in God’s ongoing faithfulness?
Yet preachers and teachers need to remember how as soon as Isaiah has fueled the fires of our imaginative memories, he turns us 180 degrees and points us forward. “Forget those wonderful former things!” he tells his Israelite readers. “Do not dwell on that amazing past!” Isaiah essentially says, “Don’t remember!” “Fuhget about it,” a streetwise prophet might say.
What explains that radical turn? After all, Elizabeth Achtemeier compares God’s call to “Forget the former things” to having someone tell us to forget our redemption from slavery to sin and death through Christ’s death on the cross. Were it not for Jesus’ suffering and death, we would be no people, just as were it not for her exodus from Egyptian slavery, Isaiah’s Israelite readers would be no people. So is the prophet inviting his readers to simply forget their founding story?
Of course not. So what is God doing through the prophet? While God is the same yesterday, today and forever, human circumstances change. In her best moments, exiled Israel remembers what God did in her past. Yet she’s tempted to think that’s precisely the problem – God’s redemptive work is all in the past. Israel easily assumes exile = forgottenness by God. “My way is hidden from the Lord,” Israel grieves in Isaiah 40:27. “My cause is disregarded by my God.”
Does this point to a kind of danger in an unhealthy obsession with any kind of remembering, including fixating on what God has done? If we’re so busy remembering what God has done in the past, it may be difficult to muster any energy to imagine what God might do in the future. Think of friends you had in childhood but haven’t contacted since then. If you actually finally got together, what would it be easiest to talk about? The past. Yet for any kind of relationship to continue to flourish, it requires both a past and ongoing interaction.
God wants not just a history with God’s people, but also a future with us. So as if to make that point, God makes a startling point: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing.” In other words, in the words of my colleague Scott Hoezee, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
It’s interesting to note that the place of God’s past and future actions are at least somewhat similar. After the Exodus, God safely led God’s Israelite sons and daughters through the “desert” to the land of promise. Now a chastised Israel lives in the “desert” that is her Babylonian exile. Yet in our text God insists God is not yet done with God’s covenant partners. He has a kind of “new exodus” in store for her. God promises to again lead Israel through the desert, again providing water in that “wasteland,” so that she can finally make her way home again. The wasteland Israel associates with emptiness and hostility is the very place God promises to graciously and generously work.
21st century North Americans sometimes romanticize the desert as a place to get away from it all. Writers like Edward Abbey invited us to seek the wilderness’ great beauty and scolded us when we marred it. Yet Isaiah and his Israelite audience had no such glamorous visions of the desert. It was to them a strange and threatening place that they either avoided or hurried through as quickly as possible. Yet Isaiah invites his audience to think of that apparently barren place as precisely the place God loves to work, not just in the past, but also in the future.
This imagery offers Isaiah 43’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on our own worshipers and students’ various “deserts” in which God loves to work. Transitions. Illness. Loneliness. Fear. Doubt. Loss. Grief. How is God making “streams” to spring up in those wastelands? How is God providing living water in those places where so little nourishment seems to be found?
The season of Lent, among other things and seasons, reminds us that the God who was faithful to Israel in the Exodus as well as her exile remains faithful. The God who has done such great things in our past is also doing amazing things now and will continue to do so in the future. In our own estrangement from God and each other, God sent Jesus the Christ into our world. He is the Living Water that nourishes us even in our wildernesses. Jesus is the Christ who promises never to leave or forsake us, even when we feel so terribly alone.
Illustration Idea (from Scott Hoezee’s March 11, 2013 CEP Old Testament sermon starter)
In one of his many memorable clinical pieces, neurologist Oliver Sacks tells us about Jimmie, a man whose memory somehow became a sieve. Jimmie remains forever stuck thinking it’s 1945. Harry Truman is president, the war just ended, and this ex-sailor believes he has his whole future to look forward to. Sacks reports that Jimmie is a very nice, pleasant fellow with whom you can have a good conversation about a number of things. But if you leave the room after visiting with him for two hours and then return a short while later, he will greet you as if for the first time.
Now, of course, that’s simply tragic all by itself, but even more interesting is Dr. Sacks’ observation about the overall effect that this temporal vacuum has on Jimmie: he has no joy. Jimmie is joyless in that he is confined to an ever changing, yet finally meaningless, present moment. With nothing new ever to look back on and so with nothing ever to look forward to, joy is simply impossible.
Curiously, there is one time when Jimmie displays something resembling joy after all. There’s one moment when the vacant look on his face is replaced with something that Sacks can describe only as a look of completeness and of hushed calmness. This happens whenever Jimmie takes communion in chapel. Sacks once lamented to one of the Catholic nuns who runs Jimmie’s nursing home that Jimmie had lost his very soul due to the disease in his brain. The sister reacted with outrage! Because once a person saw Jimmie caught up fully and meaningfully in taking holy communion, there could be no doubt that God was managing to minister to Jimmie’s soul even so. Sacks could not disagree, even though there is no good neurological explanation for the change that comes over Jimmie at the Lord’s Table.
The past, and our accurate memory of it, lends substance to the present and to the future. Someone once said that only the past is inevitable. Or maybe not. Because of what happened on the cross, there is a kind of holy inevitability also to what can happen right now in the present as well. That past inevitably fills our present and even our future with hope.
Author: Stan Mast
We’ve come a long way on our Lenten journey, but we’re not there yet. We’re still on pilgrimage, so Psalm 126 is a perfect Psalm for this stage of our lives. It is the seventh of fifteen Psalms of Ascent sung by ancient Israel as they journeyed from the various parts of the Promised Land to Mt. Zion where they would meet their God with shouts of joy. Psalm 126 perfectly captures the tension of the pilgrimage to Mt. Zion/Mt. Calvary.
We live a great deal of our lives between hell and heaven, not in utter misery exactly, but not in sheer ecstasy either. We live “in-between,” and that makes our Lenten pilgrimage a time of great joy and of deep sorrow. The Psalmist expresses the difficulty of our “in-between” existence with the opening lines of the two sections of the Psalm. “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion…. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.” An alternative translation of verse 1 helps us to see the tension better. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…. Restore our fortunes, O Lord….” What are we to make of that? If God has restored our fortunes, why would we ask him to restore our fortunes?
Well, what does that recurring phrase mean? James Luther Mays points out that “restore our fortunes” is a familiar theme in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. Though it is difficult to replicate the Hebrew in English, it refers to “a radical change from the conditions brought about by divine wrath to those which result from divine favor.” As Psalm 126:3 puts it, “The Lord has done great things for us….”
What great things? This restoration of fortune could refer to any number of times when God radically changed Israel’s situation, but the most obvious referent here was God bringing Israel back to the Promised Land from Exile in Babylon. Clearly that’s how the NIV understands verse 1. “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion….” By God’s grace and power God’s people had been brought back to the Land. But that return to the land hadn’t restored the people, so the Psalmist prays, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.” We are back here in this blessed place, but we are still a sinful people, dry and fruitless as the desert. We need streams of your grace, so that we might flourish spiritually and morally like a desert after the monsoons.
That’s one way to read the tension in the two stanzas of the Psalm (restoration to the Land versus restoration of the people), but there’s another way that actually makes more sense historically and theologically. We can get at that by noting that some translators render all of the verbs in the Psalm either in the future tense, making it a prayer for help (a communal lament by a people not yet restored at all) or in the past tense, making it a prayer of thanksgiving (a communal song of praise for a restoration completely accomplished). But if we translate the Psalm as the NIV does, partly past and partly future, the tension fits both our personal stories and the meta-narrative of salvation history.
In the opening three verses of Psalm 126, the ancient people of God are recalling their deliverance from hell. They had spent 70 long years in the Babylonian captivity, exiled from everything that had defined and enriched their lives. They had lost everything. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?” That’s exactly how they felt. Things seemed hopeless. They could see no way out, so when the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, they couldn’t believe it. “We were like men who dream.” They hardly dared to believe what had just happened. Their God had actually intervened in the affairs of nations so powerful that they had nearly destroyed God’s people. Yahweh had raised up the Persians to defeat the Babylonians who had taken Israel captive. Then the king of Persia promptly set the captives free. After 70 years of Babylonian Captivity, the first Israelis came back home.
No wonder their mouths were filled with laughter, their tongues with songs of joy. No wonder the surrounding nations said, “The Lord has done great things for them.” He had. And the Jews knew it. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” When they looked back at the hell from which they had been delivered, thanksgiving was easy. They overflowed with it. They gave thanks with laughter and songs of joy. Why wouldn’t they?
Well, because they were still in-between. They were out of hell, but they weren’t in heaven yet. So even as they gave thanks with joy, they prayed with sorrow, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.” The problem was that so few had come back home, and home was such a mess, and the neighbors were such a problem. It was a small band of refugees, and the Promised Land was like a desert. They had no homes. Their fields and vineyards, not having been cultivated in years, had gone wild. The city of Jerusalem was in ruins, and their Temple had been demolished. Their neighbors, themselves victims of the Babylonian policy of moving conquered people to foreign lands, resented and feared the restored Jews. They were home for the holidays, but home wasn’t what it used to be.
So as they looked ahead to the daunting task of fixing everything that was broken in their lives, they felt hopeless. They needed a miracle, like the desert region called the Negev being transformed into a fertile land by the fall rains. And so they prayed. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.”
Many of God’s people today know that feeling all too well. As we sit in church, how many of us are “in-between” and feeling ambivalent about giving thanks with songs of joy? It might be helpful to think your way into the lives of your people to help them frame their lives in terms of this in-between tension. “You’re happy that you are back with your boyfriend after you broke up last fall, but there are lots of issues that need to be resolved before it will be heavenly again, and there’s no guarantee it will work. You’re grateful that your broken leg is well enough for you to leave the care facility, but you still have lots of pain and rehab ahead of you before you can dance again. You’re delighted that the stock market has recovered from its 2008 lows, but the recent volatility has you worried that your fortunes might drop like a rock again. It feels good to be in church again after that severe crisis of faith, but you still struggle with unanswered prayer and unjust suffering. Somehow you survived a deep marital rift over the holidays and you are pleasantly surprised to be together as spring approaches, but things are still pretty shaky and you don’t know what the summer will bring. Last spring you celebrated your graduation from college and a new job in the field for which you trained, but the economy is threatening the company and you don’t know if you’ll be employed in 6 months. You’re thankful for a long and happy life, but you are discovering the truth of the saying, ‘Growing old is not for sissies.’ And you wonder if the last years of your life will end with a bang or a whimper?” There are an infinite variety of in-between situations in life.
What’s more, and even more important, the whole world is suspended between hell and heaven. Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God has come and proved it by his miracles and his resurrection, but the Kingdom hasn’t come in its fullness, as evidenced by the rampaging power of evil and the alarming growth of unbelief in its many forms. This tension between “the already but not yet” is a challenge to the church’s faith. Jesus came to redeem the world, and the existence of the world wide church is the proof that he did. But the world is still waiting its full redemption. So with ancient Israel the church sings with joy, “When the Lord restored the fortunes…. And we are filled with joy.” And with the whole world, we cry out, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.” “The agony and the ecstasy belong together as the secret of our identity.” (James Luther Mays)
This Psalm gives us a wonderful opportunity to help our people deal with those awful times when they are suspended between hell and heaven. The Psalmist calls us to remember the great things God has done in the past and to rely on God to restore our fortunes in the future. The final verses are especially helpful, as they make a soberly realistic and powerfully hopeful promise. “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping carrying seeds to sow will return with songs of joy carrying sheaves with him.”
Yes, there will be sorrow as you journey up to Mt. Zion, as you are on pilgrimage to your final encounter with God. There will be tears a-plenty as you follow the Man of Sorrows. But here’s how you should view the sorrows of life. They are seeds that will yield an abundant harvest. Each tear you shed is a seed that will produce a sheaf of joy. Think of Jesus’ parable of the Sower. The tears you shed for yourself, for your family, for the church, for the world will bear fruit beyond your imagining, producing a harvest of joy that is 30, 60, 100 times greater than the sorrow.
How can we be sure that it is true? How can we trust this beautiful promise when the tears are falling like rain? We need to look at Jesus. The Lord has done great things for us, the greatest of which was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Looking ahead to his own death Jesus said in John 12:25, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Then he died and fell into the ground and sprang to new life that produced fruit beyond imagining. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” shouts I Peter 1. “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead….” The Man of Sorrows became the Lord of Joy. He will not allow our tears to simply sink into the parched soil of our suffering. Rather, he blesses them and transforms them into sheaves of joy that we cannot imagine.
So as we continue our pilgrimage to Mt. Calvary and the empty tomb, let’s call our people to do three specific things. Look back and give thanks for the ways the Lord has delivered you. Look ahead and give thanks for the harvest the Lord will give you. And most of all, look up to Jesus, who knows exactly what it is to be suspended between hell and heaven. Ask him to send streams of grace into your desert. Give thanks for the way Jesus is changing your seeds of sorrow into sheaves of joy.
Some of our tears are specifically Lenten tears, tears of sorrow for our own sins, the kind of tears alluded to in last week’s reading from Psalm 32. But the idea of weeping for our sins will seem irrelevant if not outrageous to many postmodern folks. Correspondingly, the joy of forgiveness will be a distant, even unimportant promise for such people. James K. Voiss talks about this in an important new book about forgiveness, Rethinking Christian Forgiveness: Theological, Philosophical, and Psychological Explorations. He argues that the traditional account of Christian forgiveness no longer works for many people, because they do not see themselves as sinners deserving God’s wrath who have been mercifully spared. In a “postmodern ethos” the “landscape of Christian forgiveness has shifted” because for a growing number of Christians the language of sin, judgment, and damnation has become increasingly marginal, even irrelevant; thus, we need to tell the Christian story in a new way. (This comes from a review of this book in a recent issue of The Christian Century.)
That may well be; we must always be thinking about how to preach the gospel to each new age. But we must be careful that in our reframing of the story, we don’t lose its depths and heights. Remember how Mays defined the “restoration of fortune” in the Old Testament, as “a radical change from the conditions brought about by divine wrath to those which result from divine favor.” We may not like to hear about sin and wrath, but the Bible does contain a lot of both. And both are the dark backdrop against which the brightness and joy of forgiveness and reconciliation shine most brightly. Let’s not deprive people of the songs and sheaves of joy by downplaying the tears of repentance for sin.
I was raised on the Heidelberg Catechism, which is famous for its opening question and answer. “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to may faithful Savior, Jesus Christ….” It then goes on to spell out the wondrous advantages of belonging to Jesus, in terms that warm the heart. But then it asks and answers a question that might chill the heart of the postmodern folks to whom Voiss refers. “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort? Three things: first, how great my sins and miseries are; second, how I am set from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.” There you have it. Knowing our sin is one key to knowing our greatest joy.
Author: Stan Mast
When the cross of Christ was on the line, Paul’s language was blunt, direct, raw. As Paul begins what we call Philippians 3, it quickly becomes apparent that like so many of the congregations in the early church, so also the congregation in Philippi had come into contact with a group of Jewish teachers who were proclaiming that salvation would come only to those who followed certain strict rules, the chief one of which was that all males had to be circumcised.
Since the Philippian church was made up primarily of Gentiles, it is likely that very few of the Christians there had ever been circumcised. And yet Paul says in verse 3—and the Lectionary’s insistence that this reading begin at verse 3b makes no sense since it just takes away this all-important contextual point–that the Philippians have already been circumcised. What these other teachers were offering, therefore, was not salvation but mutilation–a mutilation not just of their bodies but even worse of their faith. “These other teachers want to carve up not just your body but your faith. They want to make you believe that what they can do to your bodies with their scalpels is better than what God can do to your hearts with his Son.”
These are strong words. After all, for at least two millennia circumcision had been a sacred, biblically mandated sacrament for God’s people. All his life Paul had also been raised to see this as a sign of God’s covenant–a sign that began already with Abraham. And yet now Paul calls it “mutilation!” Just imagine if one day you heard of a pastor somewhere describing the Lord’s Supper as a nauseating display of gross cannibalism. How shocked you would be to hear a once-cherished sacrament described as disgusting.
So why does Paul say this? Because he knows that in the light of Jesus, circumcision had become a way to displace grace. And in order to make this point as powerful as possible, Paul makes clear that he is speaking from experience. After all, suppose that I said to you, “My friends, let me tell you something: money doesn’t mean a thing in life. As a matter of fact, the life of the rich is typically an empty existence.” Now if I were to say such things, you might be skeptical because you’d know that I am not talking from experience. But if a millionaire were to stand here and talk about the emptiness of the wealthy life, then we’d all pay much closer attention. Here’s someone who knows what he’s talking about.
That’s why in Philippians 3 Paul takes pains to point out that he also knows what he’s talking about. Starting in verse 4 Paul says, “I know how futile it is to pin your salvation on outward ceremonies and laws because I spent most of my life doing it all right: I kept all the rules, I had an excellent religious pedigree, I was so convinced that keeping the law was the only way to heaven that I persecuted the Christians who thought otherwise. But then I met Jesus and I knew in an instant that all my shining religious accomplishments were no more than a pile of manure!”
The word translated as “rubbish” in verse 8 is a very strong word. This is the only place in the entire Bible where it occurs, and small wonder: most commentators say that it is a raw, gross, barnyard-type word that refers to excrement. The revelation that God’s own Son had to die in order to secure salvation turned Paul’s world upside-down. “And to think,” Paul writes, “that at one time I thought handing God this pile of manure was going to be my entrance ticket to the kingdom!”
Paul then goes on to say that now the only thing he wants to do is to know more about Jesus. “What’s important is not that God knows what you’ve done but that you know what God has done!!” For most of his life Paul had been saying to God, “Look at me! Look at me! See what I’ve done.” But now all Paul can say is “Look at Jesus! Look at Jesus! See what he’s done!”
Paul knew for sure that salvation is by grace alone. Because at one time Paul had actually beaten up, arrested, belittled and even killed Jesus’ followers. If Paul were to meet those folks now, he’d hug and kiss them as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. But Paul could never forget that once in his life, he kicked those brothers in the ribs and dragged those sisters to jail by their hair. What horrible memories! So if Paul seems a bit vehement in proclaiming grace, it’s only because he knows from his own sordid experience how destructive it is to believe that you can pay your own way to heaven. He wanted nothing more to do with talk about what we must do in order to make God love us.
Or does he? Because Paul no sooner finishes this stellar passage on salvation as only a gift, and he instantly launches into verses 12-17 (again, the Lectionary would have us stop at verse 14 but keep reading) in which he writes about the need to press on, sprinting like a runner for the finish line in order to attain the goal of getting a better grip on Jesus. Suddenly it seems like we’re right back to square one in talking about all the things that we need to do for our salvation. But I thought Paul had just dispensed with that kind of talk by chalking up salvation to the sheer gift of God! How could Paul so quickly pivot from talking about the end of human striving to talking about human striving all over again?
Well, we actually can’t answer that question until we first leap-frog down to the end of chapter 3. There Paul tearfully reminds the Philippians that there are some people in this world who live as the enemies of the cross. These are people whose god is their bellies and who glory in their shame. To whom is Paul referring here? If you take these words in isolation from the rest of Philippians 3, then you could conclude that Paul is talking about gluttons and sexually immoral people. It sounds like Paul is saying that there are some people who are so caught up in worldly pleasures like eating, drinking, and sex that they don’t have room for God in their lives.
But actually that’s not what Paul means at all. Instead, it seems that he is still talking about the Jewish legalists. So Paul’s reference to the stomach no doubt refers to strict food laws and his reference to sexual parts is probably a continuation of the circumcision theme from earlier in the chapter. Paul is saying that anyone who thinks he can get into the kingdom by observing the laws about food and circumcision is just plain wrong–so wrong in fact that this mind set makes you into an enemy of the cross.
How so? Because it means you think that you don’t need Jesus to die for you to get into the kingdom–you can do it on your own. You can pay for your own sin. You can write your own ticket. You can repair this fallen creation by yourself.
It all comes down to the cross. If we Christians are right in what we’ve been saying about Good Friday for the past two millennia, then we know for sure how deeply, deeply broken this world is because of sin and how desperately, desperately snarled this business of evil really is. If even Almighty God himself had to go that far to salvage this universe, then it is obvious this is not a problem we could have ever solved ourselves!
In so much of life our goal is to become as independent as possible. We want to be able to do our jobs well without much help or supervision because those are the kinds of people who get noticed and promoted. But in the Christian life the goal is not independence but an ever-increasing dependence. We want to know ever more keenly how much we rely on that cross to help us live for God.
We Christians have long been a peculiar bunch, celebrating and singing about the death of our leader and God. To take a horrid and bloody instrument of capital punishment and turn it into jewelry and logos for church stationary is profoundly odd. If you saw some teenager walking down the sidewalk dressed in black with a necklace featuring an electric chair and earrings in the shape of a man dangling at the end of a hangman’s noose, you’d cross over the other side of the street! And probably most of us are sickened by the folks who hold parties outside of a prison on the night some well-known criminal is executed.
Yet for centuries we’ve done the same thing, turning the Friday of Jesus’ death into a day we call “good” and making the instrument of his execution a rallying point of joy and celebration. We’ve not lost sight of the bane and sorrow of the cross, but with Paul we now know it’s a precious bane and a liberating sorrow.
Fred Craddock tells the story of a missionary family in China who was forced to leave the country sometime after the communists took over. One day a band of soldiers knocked on the door and told this missionary, his wife, and children that they had two hours to pack up before these troops would escort them to the train station. They would be permitted to take with them only two hundred pounds of stuff. Thus began two hours of family wrangling and bickering–what should they take? What about this vase? It’s a family heirloom, so we’ve got to take the vase. Well, maybe so, but this typewriter is brand new and we’re not about to leave that behind. What about some books? Got to take a few of them along. On and on it went, putting stuff on the bathroom scale and taking it off until finally they had a pile of possessions that totaled two hundred pounds on the dot.
At the appointed hour the soldiers returned. “Are you ready?” they asked. “Yes.” “Did you weigh your stuff?” “Yes, we did.” “Two hundred pounds?” “Yes, two hundred pounds on the dot.” “Did you weigh the kids?” “Um, . . . no.” “Weigh the kids!” And in an instant the vase, the typewriter, and the books all became trash. Trash! None of it meant anything compared to the surpassing value of the children.
Craddock has used this story to illustrate the power of what he calls “the moment of truth.” Sometimes events crash into our lives in so shocking a way that we are instantly forced to view all of life in a new light. Suddenly what had previously been of value to us comes to mean absolutely nothing–we’re only too happy to leave it behind.