July 07, 2014
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
In between Jesus’ telling of this most famous parable and his own point-by-point explanation of the parable’s meaning and symbolism there comes an eight-verse section that the Lectionary would have us skip but that contains some of the most intriguing material in this part of Matthew 13. Mainly what Jesus says there is that the seemingly confusing nature of parables mirrors the confusion that the people already have. (Of course, Jesus also says that the disciples “get it,” they understand and have been given the secret of the kingdom. Still, I wonder how well those same disciples would have done had Jesus asked them to interpret the parable!! I have the funny feeling they might not have looked as with it as Jesus indicates they should be!)
In any event, Jesus says he tells parables because somehow doing his teaching this way matches the spiritual cluelessness of most of his listeners. As Tom Long once pointed out, Matthew presents a kinder and gentler Jesus in his reply to the disciples. Whereas Mark has Jesus saying “I tell parables in order to confuse them,” Matthew tweaks that Isaiah-esque language a bit to have Jesus say that “I tell parables because they are confused.”
Either way or both ways, however, Jesus is saying that if his words cause a lot of arched eyebrows and furrowed foreheads, it’s not strictly speaking his fault, as this landmark Parable of the Sower likewise claims. Because the word of the kingdom—that vital seed that Jesus came to sow into people’s hearts—may well be the most important word anyone will ever hear but the fact is that things have fallen into bad enough shape in this old world that the odds are definitely stacked against the success of the gospel seed.
Four soil types are identified but only one has a shot at yielding anything resembling a good crop. But then, this would be no news at all to actual farmers. You wonder what the people heard when Jesus first told this story. Maybe some of the actual farmers in the crowd chortled to themselves to hear the story. “This guy’s been in the woodshop too long,” some may have mused, “because he doesn’t have a clue as to what farming is all about.”
Today we might have the same reaction if we heard a story about a farmer who hooked up his planter to the back of his John Deere, started up the tractor, but then threw the PTO switch to activate the planter even before he was out of his driveway. There he is putt-putting down the country lane with corn seed scattering everywhere as he goes. It bounces on the road, some flies into the ditch. When he finally gets near his field, he first has to cut through a weedy and thorny patch with corn seed still flying out loosey-goosey from that planter that, by all rights, had been switched on way too early.
In truth, no farmer would be so careless, so profligate in the scattering of valuable seed. It would not even make sense to do this. It would be a waste, a spectacle of great prodigality that a frugal and economically minded farmer would never tolerate.
But Jesus says that God is just such a foolish farmer. He’s got (apparently) more than enough seed to go around and so throws it anywhere and everywhere, the odds of success notwithstanding. Maybe if the whole world were as God intended, maybe the seeds would find a higher success rate—maybe they’d even sprout 100% of the time as every heart would be fertile ground for the loving words of the Creator.
As it stands, however, people have built roads in their hearts, veritable highways that have gotten too packed down by the busyness of life, by the high-falootin’ claims of science, and by the cynicism and arrogance of the age. We’ve met these people and a few of them have been publishing best-selling books of late to sneer at the very idea of God, religion, faith. The seed of the gospel can just bounce off such a hard heart. Maybe a bird of the air will eat it. Maybe the seed will get smushed under the tires of whatever vehicle whizzes through that heart next. But it won’t grow. Not in this life anyway.
Others are not that bad off but they have nevertheless been made fiercely shallow by a get-rich-quick, instant gratification culture of indulgence and fads. They’ve been trained by the media to always be on the lookout for products touted as “New and Improved” and have come to believe that the next best thing to come along is always just around the corner and it will be theirs for the snagging. Sometimes the seed of the gospel shoots up like a fast-growing kudzu in people’s hearts but then withers just as quickly when the shallow, me-first craving for novelty once more takes over.
Still other hearts—and we’ve met these people, too—are just plain busy and crowded. These hearts are neither calloused nor shallow. In fact, there is some real depth to them. Lots of stuff grows here. But in the end, it’s too much. The seed of the gospel comes in and sprouts just fine but faces stiff competition for light and warmth and nutrients. Because just over there the plants of commerce and business are growing. Concerns about the 401k fund, the Roth IRA, the kids’ college funds, and the growth of their stock market portfolio absorb a lot of nutrients from the soil of the heart (isn’t it interesting how financial firms in their advertising always use the horticultural images of growth?). And also in the garden of this heart are the plants of community involvement, of the PTA at school, of politics and social justice and ecological activism and . . . and it’s all good stuff (or a lot of it is) but it sure makes one busy. And so when the pastor calls looking to recruit some new elders and deacons for the church, well, what can one say? “Sorry, pastor, but I just don’t have time for everything.” (A funny reply seeing as, faith tells us, the Gospel IS everything . . .)
There is, of course, that fourth and final heart/soil and the seed of the gospel does splendidly well there, thanks be to God (literally). Because given the apparently long odds for gospel success, you have to assume that the hearts whose soil is deep, wide, and unencumbered with other things is a field cleared by the Holy Spirit himself. Only the power of Almighty God could overcome the obstacles thrown up by this world: the obstacles of cynicism and despair, of media hype and incessant novelty, of sheer busyness and greed.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. She who has ears to hear, let her hear. The coming of the seed and its success—when that happens—is all grace. Maybe that’s why the farmer keeps lobbing seeds at even the unlikeliest of targets. It’s not that the farmer doesn’t understand the long odds. It’s just that when you’re talking about salvation by grace, it’s not finally about the odds but about the persistence of the Holy One who won’t stop.
Matthew 13 opens by telling us that on the day when Jesus told this set of parables, starting with the Sower, the crowds following Jesus and hanging on his every word had grown very large—so large that Jesus had to invent his own shoreline amphitheater to be heard. So maybe it’s no wonder that Jesus tumbled to tell this parable first. Looking out over that big crowd and scanning not only the shining faces turned his way but scanning also the hearts of those people with a kind of spiritual MRI, Jesus could see the hard hearts, the shallow hearts, the thorny hearts, the pure and unencumbered hearts. And so Jesus as much as said to that wild assemblage of hearts, “Have I got a story for you . . .”
In preaching on Mark’s version of the Parable of the Sower, Tom Long claimed that Jesus preached in these confusing parables in order to make people deeper thinkers about what the gospel is all about. Jesus did not want to have people grab the gospel too quickly because such a quick grab almost always resulted in bad faith or shallow faith that did not last long (a point made within the Parable of the Sower itself, of course). In that connection of wanting people to grow deeper, Long told this story:
The great preacher George Buttrick was once flying on an airplane. As he sat there, he had a legal pad out on which he was furiously scribbling some notes for his sermon the coming Sunday. The man next to Buttrick inquired, “Say, what are you working on there, sir.” “My sermon for Sunday–I’m a Christian preacher.” “Oh,” the other man replied. “Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of religion. I like to keep it simple. You know, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The Golden Rule. That’s my religion!” “I see,” Rev. Buttrick replied, “and what do you do for a living?” “I’m an astronomer. I teach astrophysics at a university.” “Ah, yes, astronomy,” Buttrick shot back. “Well, I don’t like to get caught up in the complexities of science. ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.’ That’s my astronomy. Who could ever need more than that, eh?”
Genesis 25: 19-34
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
The fact that “Hairy” and “Heel-Grasper” ever managed to reconcile in later life and live out their years at peace with one another may just be one of the most significant pieces of grace in the Book of Genesis (maybe in the whole Bible!). We could all tell stories about siblings who never reconcile but whose dysfunctional break-ups were caused by far less severe sets of circumstances than the ones attending Jacob and Esau.
As readers of the Genesis narrative, we are tipped off early that the younger of the two, Jacob/Heel-Grasper, was destined to be God’s favorite (though why God preferred that scheming little crook is a whole different question). But even if we were not privy to Rebekah’s pre-natal revelation about the boys jousting with one another in her womb, we would have a pretty good clue early on in this cycle of stories as to which of these two was going to succeed in life. Esau/Hairy is, to state the matter plainly, just not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I picture him looking a little like the character of Hoss on the old Bonanza TV show: he had a good heart and was sweet enough as a person but . . . well, the gap-toothed grin and vaguely befuddled look in the eyes told you that this was a guy easy to gang up on mentally. A clever soul such as Jacob could outwit Esau without much effort at all. It was shooting fish in a barrel when it came to getting the best of this guy.
We’re not told but you also have the distinct impression from Genesis 25 that Esau probably didn’t have much use for his sissy of a little brother, the Mama’s Boy if ever there were one. While Esau and his father sat around swapping hunting stories, downing some stout beer, and belching into the afternoon sun, Jacob would be with his mommy learning the finer points of dicing vegetables and adding just the right soupcon of herbs to make a delicately balanced stew. For his part, Isaac just didn’t know what to make of his younger boy. For her part, Rebekah could scarcely abide the aroma that emanated off her older kid. And so the family quietly divided into two camps, neither fully understanding the other but generally both sides maintained a respectable distance from one another and so avoided open conflict.
Until, that is, the day when Esau earned a new nickname of “Red” by trading his birthright for some red lentil soup with a side of a sourdough bread Jacob had learned to make under his mother’s culinary tutelage. It was the ultimate example of impulse buying! But it soon became a good example of also “buyer’s remorse.” The stew was good and all and settled Esau’s rumbling gut but he soon realized that Jacob had not been kidding about that birthright thing and that he’d just traded a really wonderful thing for what would forever after be referred to proverbially as “a mess of pottage” (and there are just some things in life for which you really don’t want to be known ever and anon as a proverbial byword!).
That’s the story in Genesis 25, and it’s a cracking good little narrative. But how does one preach this without turning it into a cautionary tale or some other moralistic vignette? What does this passage have to do with grace, with the wider arc of salvation, or with the covenant that God was fulfilling even through this flawed, sometimes silly, and not infrequently tawdry cast of characters? Well, maybe among other things it’s a reminder that if God’s grace comes to us at all in this world, it comes to us in the midst of our brokenness (and precisely because of that same brokenness, too). God works in the real (and therefore messy) lives of actual people. The Bible never pretends that grace and salvation come to the world through only two-dimensional people or plastic saints. No, God works through people as they are, warts and all, as they say. God chose Jacob even though—as upcoming weeks in the Common Lectionary will remind us—Jacob’s enrollment in the school of grace would be a long matriculation as God patiently, patiently, patiently worked with one of his squirrelier chosen servants.
And maybe, just maybe, there is Good News in all that for all of us. Granted, the underhanded nature of Jacob can be no one’s excuse for being morally lax about addressing one’s character flaws or moral weak spots. But given that most of us find it a long, slow, and often arduous process to work on those parts of our lives—or our families—where concretely visible sanctification seems neither terribly concrete nor very visible some days, it’s good to know that God does not reject us out of hand on account of our weakness nor does God find it impossible to accomplish his purposes through us just because we’re not yet perfected saints. God can and does hit straight shots with crooked sticks and now and again he floods whole families with grace upon grace even if that mercy comes through what we might regard as the least likely of candidates.
God’s plans can and do go forward in this mixed-up, broken, oft-times tawdry world of ours. Yes, God’s salvation comes precisely because of all those jagged edges but is not derailed on account of life’s oddballs, screw-ups, or scandals. And for most people who are able honestly to assess their families, their own hearts, and the world around them, that fact alone is worthy of a hearty “Hallelujah” or two!
From Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper and Row, 1979) pp. 31-32:
“Esau was so hungry he could hardly see straight when his younger twin, Jacob, bought his birthright for a bowl of chili. He was off hunting rabbits when Jacob conned their old father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing that should have been Esau’s by right of primogeniture. Eventually it dawned on Esau what his brother was up to and he went slogging after him with a blunt instrument; but the slowness of his wits was compensated for by the generosity of his disposition, and in time the two were reconciled. Jacob stole Esau blind, in other words, got away with it, and went on to become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. It was not all gravy, however. He knew famine and loss. He grieved for years over the supposed death of his favorite child. He was hoodwinked by his own sons as both his father and Esau had been hoodwinked by him, and he died with the clamor of their squabbling shrill in his ears. Esau, on the other hand, though he’d lost his shirt, settled down in the hill country, raised a large if comparatively undistinguished family, and died in peace. Thus it seems hard to know which of the two brothers came out ahead in the end. It seems plain enough, however, that the reason God bypassed Esau and made Jacob heir to the great promise is that it is easier to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear than out of a dim bulb.”
Psalm 119: 105-112
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Bible. That means it’s nearly impossible to preach or teach it in one sitting. As a result, the Lectionary “carves” it up into smaller, more manageable pieces such as the section it appoints for this Sunday. But as we noted last week, preaching just one portion of any literary piece is fraught with danger.
So those who preach and teach the verses appointed for this Sunday by the Lectionary must remember the entire psalm’s theme. It’s what scholars generally call a “wisdom” or “torah” psalm. That is to say, among Psalm 119’s functions is to help those who pray it to walk in God’s ways.
Scholars, however, note that the section of the psalm appointed by the Lectionary for this Sunday is a lament. In it the poet expresses her grief over her treatment by her enemies. She is clearly under some kind of largely unexplained duress. The poet has “suffered much” (107). “The wicked” have “set a snare for” her (110).
This offers those who preach and teach this psalm an opportunity to reflect on the nature of suffering. We’re tempted to think that those who follow God’s ways are immune from any kind of hardship. We’re also tempted to think of any kind of suffering as a sign that God is either uninterested in or unhappy with us. So it’s good to remember that while the poet is deeply committed to following God’s ways, she suffers greatly anyway.
The poet doesn’t identify the cause of the darkness to which she alludes in verse 105. However, given the nature of the rest of the section’s verses, it’s fair to infer that it’s her mistreatment by her enemies. The psalmist seems to be like someone who awakens in the middle of the night in pitch darkness and needs some kind of light to guide her to safety. God’s Words, the torah, insists the psalmist is precisely that light. It helps her to walk in darkness, perhaps that caused by her enemies.
Yet it seems as if the poet thinks of God’s Word not just as the light that illumines our walk in God’s ways. He also almost seems to think of that light-Word as the path itself. The psalmist, after all, speaks of “following” God’s righteous laws (106). What’s more, the poet talks about not “straying” from God’s “precepts” (110). So it’s almost as if God’s Word isn’t just the flashlight that illumines our way back down the mountain in the dark. It’s also the path that we follow down that mountain.
The psalmist clings to that light and follows that path tenaciously. “I have taken an oath,” he says in verse 106, “that I will follow your righteous law.” “I will not forget your law,” he continues in verse 109. “My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end,” the poet adds in verse 112. While people and circumstances try to divert him from the path that God’s Word illuminates, the psalmist is determined to stay on the way set forth by God’s Word.
So the psalmist can say, in the heart of the section the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, “teach me your laws.” The psalmist is determined to follow God’s “righteous laws” (106). Yet he also understands that he neither knows nor follows them perfectly. So he pleads with God to teach him more and more of God’s ways.
The New Testament Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this particular Sunday is Romans 8:1-10. It speaks of the love of Christ that enables God’s children to have life in the Spirit. In the light of Psalm 119, we might say those whom the Spirit controls are those who, with the psalmist, long to walk in God’s ways in response to God’s amazing grace.
The Gospel Lesson appointed for this Sunday is Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23. It’s both the parable of the sower who sows seed on a variety of ground and the parable’s interpretation. It’s not a major leap to suggest that one sign that the seed that is God’s Word and Kingdom has taken root in someone’s life is a desire to respond by following God’s ways as they’re in part revealed in the Torah.
Romans 8: 1-11
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
When I read this text, I recall a line from Garrison Keillor’s iconic radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, set in his fictional home town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. One segment of the show was sponsored by a cereal called Mournful Oatmeal, which Keillor said was “like Calvinism in a box.” That’s how lots of folks think of Calvinism, a gloomy, negative-thinking, sin-obsessed version of Christianity.
Indeed, that’s how some of us Calvinists think of our own tradition, and not without reason. I was raised on the Heidelberg Catechism which is shaped just like Paul’s letter to the Romans with three sections: sin, salvation, and service. In the sin section, here’s how the sinfulness of the human race is described: “I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.” (Answer 5) “But are we so corrupt that we totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil? Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.” (Question and Answer 8) Sounds like the authors of that Catechism had eaten a big bowl of Mournful Oatmeal on the morning they penned those words.
Of course, it isn’t just Calvinists who have a strong doctrine of sin and a correspondingly pessimistic take on the possibility of change. The world is filled with self-help books and DVD’s precisely because all of us sense that we need to change in some way and that we need a lot of help to do it. Deep inside most of us is a little voice repeating, “You can’t do it. You can’t change. You can’t start over. You are what you are, the product of forces of nature and nurture that are too strong for you to overcome. You have natural tendencies. You are inclined. You are unable.” Sounds just like the Catechism. For that matter, it sounds just like the apostle Paul in Romans 7.
Except that the Catechism has a caveat. That’s the way we are “UNLESS we are born again by the Spirit of God.” The Catechism is merely echoing the inspired and inspiring words of Paul in our text. After bemoaning his sorry bondage to the law of sin (“what a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”), Paul heaves an unexpected sigh of relief and gratitude in 7:25, “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Here in Romans 8 he gives an extended explanation of that exclamation—“therefore….”
I’m going to focus on verses 1-4, in part because I’ve written about verses 5-11 very recently on this same web page (cf. Sermon Starter Archives for March 23, 2014). But more than that, I want to zero in on these first four verses because they are so foundational. In these first four verses Paul carefully lays the foundation for our understanding and experiencing of the new life we have in Christ. Laying a foundation might not sound very exciting, but I can’t overestimate the importance of getting the foundation right. A few years ago, I watched a 23 story luxury hotel go up in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I live. My health club looked out directly on the construction project, so every day I watched them build. The laying of the foundation seemed to take forever, because if they got that wrong, the whole edifice would have been in jeopardy.
Paul begins to lay his foundation with this life-changing declaration. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” That is where new life begins—not with some firm mental resolution, not with some carefully designed plan to change, not with concerted effort on our part, but with God’s declaration, with God’s word about and to us. This is one of the great texts in the Bible. But what does it mean? Does it mean that our sins are forgiven, that we are justified before and by God, that we are reconciled to God, and that heaven is guaranteed? Yes, all of that, but more, much more. In fact, Paul has been talking about all of that since chapter 3; all of that has been settled in Paul’s argument. Now he moves on to what all of that theological talk means for our daily living. The word that best captures the meaning of “no condemnation” is in verse 2—“set free,” eleutherosen. The key idea here is not so much justification as liberation.
Think of all the condemned prisoners on Death Row in America. There are 3,000 of them, give or take a few hundred. They have committed terrible crimes—murder, rape, terrorism. They have been caught and tried by a jury of their peers. They have been pronounced guilty and sentenced to die. Now they are rotting in a tiny cell, waiting for that day when they are executed for the crimes they have committed. That, says Paul in the earlier chapters of Romans, is where we all are, UNLESS God steps in. We have been pronounced guilty by God and sentenced to die eternally. We have been waiting in the tiny cell of our sin-filled lives for that sentence to be carried out. Everyone will be punished for their sin, unless God steps in.
That’s what verse 1 is talking about. God has stepped in, and if you are in Christ Jesus, there is no condemnation for you. Not only are you pardoned, declared not guilty, forgiven, but also your punishment has been lifted and you are free to leave your cell of sin and begin your life again. You don’t have to do time; you don’t have to serve probation; you aren’t on parole. All penal servitude is gone. There is not one bit of condemnation for every condemned sinner who is in Christ Jesus. And that’s true right now. “There is now no condemnation.” You don’t have to wait for your new life. God says so.
How can that be? If the Supreme Court would simply declare that there is now no condemnation for all 3,000 death row inmates, the United States would be in uproar. How can God say this? Because God has done something the Supreme Court could not and would not do. Verse 3 explains it using the very same word as verse 1. God condemned the sin that condemned us by condemning his own Son. I know, I know, this sounds very much like a “penal substitutionary theory of the atonement,” which is much out of fashion these days. But it’s exactly what Paul says.
The law can never set us free. Indeed, it can only point out our sin, stimulate our sin, and condemn our sin. So, in his grace and mercy God did what the law and we cannot do. He sent his own Son “in the likeness of sinful man” (sarx in the Greek). That unusual expression is Paul’s ingenious way of protecting both the true humanity of Christ (he was in the flesh) and the true holiness of Christ (he was in the likeness of sinful flesh, but never sinned himself). To set us free, he had to be both fully human and fully holy. So, says Paul, God condemned sin in the flesh (of Jesus), even though Jesus had never committed sin himself (cf. II Cor. 5:21, “He was made sin” and Heb. 4:15, “yet was without sin”).
There is no condemnation for condemned sinners who are in Christ Jesus because in Christ Jesus God condemned our sin. That is why our guilt is gone, our sentence lifted, our penalty paid, our cell door open wide, with a whole new life stretching out before us. That is the objective foundation of new life. It has happened out there, at a certain point in space and time, on a cross outside Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It is finished.
But there is another part of the foundation of new life, and that is the subjective reality, what has happened in the hearts and lives of formerly condemned sinners. What has happened? Verse 2 puts it this way: “because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” The key to understanding this reality is that word “law.” In Paul’s theology that word has multiple meanings, depending on the context. It can mean the law of God, the Pentateuch, the entire Old Testament, or, as here, a controlling power. The power of the Holy Spirit who gives life has set us free from the power of the sin that gives us death. Note that this is a done deal, too, just like justification. That’s because Jesus did it. What Jesus did in his death and resurrection actually set us free. And the power of the Holy Spirit makes that freedom real and experiential in our lives. We can have new life because of the power of the Spirit of Jesus.
Why is that so important? I’m sure that everyone who has seen the violent prison movie, “Shawshank Redemption,” remembers this scene. An old prisoner is suddenly and unexpectedly released from prison. He has been in prison so long that he doesn’t know how to live on the outside, in the real world, as a free man. Prison had become his life. He felt like a prisoner, thought like a prisoner, made choices like a prisoner, talked like a prisoner, acted like a prisoner, even though he was free. He ended up hanging himself because he didn’t know how to live as a free man. He just didn’t have it in him to escape prison life. Objectively he was out of prison, but subjectively prison was still in him.
That’s what verse 2 is talking about. Objectively the death and resurrection of Jesus got us out of prison, and subjectively Jesus has given us the Spirit to get the prison out of us. By the power of the Spirit we can stop thinking and talking and acting and choosing and feeling like prisoners to the power of sin and death. There is still sin in us as a great power, as Paul has so passionately expressed it in Romans 7, but the Spirit has more power. Day by day, bit by bit, sin by sin, the Holy Spirit sets us free from the power of sin. It’s a little like when firefighters put out a fire in a house. After defeating the big fire once and for all, they stay for a long time to stamp out the sparks, spray the embers, look for hidden remnants of the fire, and put out any flare ups.
In verse 4 Paul says that this power of the Spirit can actually make us law-abiding citizens: “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us….” Paul means that literally and seriously. God has done his objective work for us and is doing his subjective work in us, so that we can actually keep the very law that had condemned us in the first place. Now, by the power of the Spirit, we are not “inclined to hate God and our neighbors;” we are not “totally unable to do any good;” we are not “inclined to all evil.” Now, by the power of the Spirit, we can become the kind of people God originally intended us to be. This is the ultimate goal of God’s redeeming work, the purpose of all Jesus did, the end result of the Spirit’s work—“to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people who are his very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2:14, cf. Eph. 2:10).”
But there’s one more part of the foundation of this new life. At the very end of verse 4 Paul adds this important proviso—“who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” We can live the way God wants when and if we live “according to the Spirit.” The word “live” is a word that means literally “to walk around.” As we walk around the world, we can fully meet the righteous requirements of God’s law if we are motivated and guided by the Spirit of Jesus.
The problem is that we are often a lot like Fred Flintstone. Do you remember that silly cartoon about caveman Fred and his friend Barney who would ride to work in Fred’s prehistoric car? I remember a TV commercial for Midas, in which Fred and Barney were checking out new brakes for the car. “Where are they?” asked the mechanic. Barney pointed to Fred’s burning red feet, because, of course, Fred made the car stop and go with his own feet. How ridiculous! But that’s exactly what so many of us do. We have this incredibly powerful engine within us, but we keep trying to move our lives by our own power. We have this sophisticated guidance system, but we try to find our own way. We have the Spirit of life moving in us to set us free from the old prison life, but we keep putting on the brakes by returning to old ways of thinking and talking and acting. We know the Good News of our text, but we focus on the Bad News of sin. We keep eating Mournful Oatmeal, forgetting that great big UNLESS.
Several years ago Donald Miller burst on the scene with a funny, irreverent, but ultimately insightful book about Christian spirituality entitled Blue Like Jazz. In one place he talks about the time he took a girl on a first date to see Romeo and Juliet. His date was deeply moved. He was deeply bored, but he did hear that key line in the play, where Romeo says to Juliet: “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized; henceforth I never will be Romeo.” As Miller and his date left the theater, two girls ahead of them were discussing the play. One of them threw up her arms and cried, “I wish I could know love like Romeo and Juliet.” He muttered under his breath just loud enough for his date to hear, “They’re dead.”
That was the end of his date, but not the end of his musing about Romeo’s words. As he ate his lonely post-play snack, he realized that Romeo was voicing a universal human longing in those words. He writes, “Romeo believed that hooking up with Juliet would make him new, change his name, have him baptized and shiny. Everybody wants to be fancy and new.”
Isn’t that the truth! We would all like to be shiny and new. The incredible message of our text today is that if we hook up with Jesus (“in Christ Jesus”), we can be new. In fact, the major work is already done. By the power of the Spirit, we can finish it very well.