July 06, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Every day the news contains sad and tawdry stories not too far removed from this lection in Mark 6. It’s altogether too typical.
Here in Mark 6 we learn that the last great Old Testament prophet and the first great New Testament gospel herald, John the Baptist himself, was done in because of a boozy promise made by an oversexed older man who had been turned on by a scantily clad teenager who did a dance for him and his equally besotted party companions. Having kept his hands off of John the Baptist out of fears of a Jewish reprisal in case some harm came to John—and anyway Herod also found himself oddly drawn to John’s words—Herod even so now seals John’s fate after all because of a moment of weakness in which he promises to give a pretty young girl just about anything she wants. (“What’ll it be, you hot little thing? You want the moon? I’ll give ya the moon . . .”)
How can it be that so vital a figure in salvation history gets murdered on account of so tawdry an event? This is no glorious martyrdom. This is not Stephen testifying to God’s grace and seeing Jesus just before the fatal stone strikes him in the head. This is a silent beheading in a prison cell, as swiftly enacted as it was stupidly arranged.
Only the back-story here provides a glimmer of something positive to say about how it all came about. According to a very helpful article by Craig Keener in The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans, 2001), John the Baptist was probably the only figure who had the courage (and the holy pluck) to stand up to Herod Antipas. This is not the Herod who was around when Jesus was born nor is this the Book of Acts Herod who later persecuted the church and killed, among others, James. But what this middle Herod shared in common with those other two was a real nasty streak of immorality, self-aggrandizement, and corruption.
He had been married originally to a Nabataean princess whom he later dumped in favor of marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. As Woody Allen might say, the heart wants what it wants, and Herod’s heart wanted Herodias. So even though it made him guilty of multiple sins (adultery and incest among them) and even though it angered the king of the Nabataeans (to whom Herod’s first wife fled in humiliation after Herod took up with his sister-in-law Herodias)—and even though this later led to a military conflict with the Nabataeans in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed—nevertheless Herod married Herodias, and no one save John the Baptist had the moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was.
Had John just stuck to baptisms and some harsh pronouncements about the Pharisees and such, he would have been OK. But John landed in prison because he had the temerity to question the morality of Herod the Tetrarch (he never was actually designated a king and when he petitioned Rome for the title, Caesar Gaius Caligula banished Herod and Herodias to Gaul for the rest of their lives). As has too often been the case in history, the powers that be are content to regard religion as a kind of hobby that seems to satisfy certain needs people have. And so long as it stays in the realm of “hobby,” religion and the people who practice it are left alone. But when the religious start to stray out of that designated realm, that’s when things get ugly fast.
So John questioned the king’s morality, even rebuking him for his deeds. This landed him in prison. But then, as though to prove John right that it’s both wrong and foolish to cross certain moral boundary lines, the tangled web Herod wove ensnared both him and John the Baptist on the occasion of that fateful party when Herod’s lust for his niece (turned stepdaughter) and the evil machinations of Herodias behind the scenes all caught up with Herod, leading to John’s summary and ignominious demise.
Well, that’s the story and if it’s a vignette of evil and tawdriness you’re looking for, you could hardly do better than Mark 6:14-29. But to return to the earlier point, what if it’s the case that what you’re looking for is a Gospel text to preach to God’s people? What if you’re aiming for an instructive passage on gospel hope and grace? This passage doesn’t fit the bill!
Maybe as good a way as any to approach this homiletically is to use this as an example of why the world needs the gospel to begin with. Yes, you could make the bottom line of this sermon something along the lines of, “And so we, too, need to be morally courageous in denouncing the evil we see around us also today.” You could use this as a bolster to the conducting of the various “culture wars” in which many today participate with holy relish and verve.
But suppose you prefer not to end your sermons with a moral “To Do” list in which people feel that the main facet of the Christian life is how well we behave and so earn our place in God’s good graces. Maybe one way to avoid preaching a finger-waving “Go and do likewise” message is to let the tawdriness of the story remind us that if ever we needed a reminder of why only the death of God’s Son can save this sorry old world, this story provides that reminder. The world is locked in endless cycles of death and destruction. We are quite literally hell-bent on messing up, on following the desires of our hearts into all kinds of dead-end alleys that lead only to suffering.
Something has to break through to this world of ours. Something has to snap these destructive cycles. Something has to narrate a different story and point in a different direction. Thanks be to God that we know what that “Something” is: it is the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord, the Son of God who became the servant of all. Because of Jesus, the bottom line of our lives does not need to be something like the sad spectacle with which this story ends as John’s devastated disciples sadly bury his headless corpse. Because of the gospel, the end of the story is finally resurrection, restoration, and the clarion cry, “Behold, I make all things new!”
As this sordid story makes clear, only the gospel has the power to let us hope for such a vision of restored humanity.
And it’s no accident that the very next story—and the next lection in Year B—is the story of Jesus’ being revealed as the Great Shepherd of his sheep who feeds his people with life abundant even in a desert waste of a place. That’s the hope that bookends this sad, sad story in the middle of Mark 6.
Why does Mark seem to back into this story about John the Baptist’s death? It’s an odd way to tell the tale. He does not tell this story at this juncture in his gospel because it fits chronologically. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that John’s death had happened some while back, well before Jesus sent out the twelve disciples for their first-ever solo ministry experiences.
It creates a bit of a jolt for the reader. Suddenly we hear that some people, Herod Antipas included, were concluding that John the Baptist was back from the dead. But when you hear that, you’re shocked.
“Dead!!?? John is dead? I didn’t even know he was sick! What in the world happened!?” And then it’s as though Mark says, “Oh, that’s right—I haven’t told you that part of the story, have I? Well, it went down this way . . .” and then Mark launches into this grim narrative.
Why does Mark tell it this way? Why did he plunk this grim narrative right in the middle of the otherwise highly encouraging story of the disciples’ success in ministry and the miraculous (and much-loved) story about Jesus’ Feeding of the 5,000? Those other stories are so positive, so full of light and hope. So why does Mark darken the narrative horizon here with a story that, all things being equal, really does not need to be relayed at this particular moment?
It seems as though Mark is not only darkening the atmosphere here but that he is quite probably intentionally darkening it. Maybe part of the reason is that Mark knows that the cross is the key to the gospel. That’s why in Mark Jesus’ true identity is perpetually hushed up until the moment Jesus is dead on the cross and the soldier nearby declares Jesus to be the Son of God. The so-called “Messianic Secret” pervades Mark until Jesus may safely be identified only after he is dead. Until then, Mark never wants people to run ahead or assume anything resembling a triumphalist air. We have to follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha if we are really going to understand who he is and what the gospel brings.
So maybe Mark is tempering things a bit by inserting this sad reminder of sin, evil, and death. Lest we readers conclude that ministry is only about the kinds of success and excitement the disciples encountered—and lest we think that it’s only all about getting our needs met (as in Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 that follows)—we are reminded that faithfulness can bring suffering and even death. We are reminded that what will finally cure what ails this sin-sick world will be something far more startling than healings, exorcisms, and miracles of feeding. What a world as sordid as this one needs will be, finally, the death of God’s beloved Son. Things are that bad in this world, as the story of John’s beheading may remind us.
One wonders at times how many bad things have happened in history because certain leaders dared not appear to be weak. In his most recent volume on “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” premiere biographer Robert Caro makes it clear that much of what drove and animated Lyndon B. Johnson was a deep-seated fear of never looking like a failure, of never being seen as a failure the way his own father had been.
So even though he was determined to become President of the United States one day, in 1959 and early 1960 LBJ doggedly did not put himself forward as a candidate for the 1960 Democrat nomination. He wanted it desperately but dared not say it out loud for fear that then if he did not get the nomination, people would look down on him. That was bad enough but Caro tells us that when his fifth and final volume on Johnson comes out, it will become clear that this fear of failure—the fear of becoming his father all over again—is also why so many tens of thousands of young men would lose their lives in Vietnam. Johnson could not back down—not even when backing down was the most eminently sensible thing to do as most people could see clearly.
In Mark 6, Herod has some of this going on, too. He can’t be seen as a failure. He can’t let go of power, even when that power overtakes his better judgment and results in an innocent man’s beheading. Ah, the tangled webs we weave . . .
2 Samuel 6
Author: Scott Hoezee
One of my students once preached a sermon from Joshua that was, shall we say, downright “edgy.” He began by quoting a comedy routine done by a non-practicing Jew in which this comedian tackled—without knowing he was doing so—that great question long ago raised by Marcion: why does the God of the Old Testament appear so harsh (why does he come off like “a jerk” in the comedian’s stand-up routine) whereas the God of the New Testament appears downright mellow by comparison? Did even God finally mature and grow up a bit?
In his sermon, my student dealt with a harsh text in Joshua in which God wiped out Achan and company on account of his one sin. The student brought things around eventually to say that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament is finally the same God and we have to understand that that same God was all along dealing with something as deadly serious as it gets: viz., sin and evil. Still, the lingering Marcionite notion that there is a cleft between OT and NT remains, and passages like 2 Samuel 6 make sure that this continues for most thoughtful readers!
Of course, the Common Lectionary seems intent on distracting us from seeing the troubling aspects. You just know that when the Lectionary guts a half-dozen verses from the middle of a story—and stops four verses short of the story’s conclusion—that the really juicy stuff is in the deleted materials. It’s like telling one of your kids they may look at the whole magazine on the coffee table except for pages 23-27. The minute you’re out of the room, you know full well what the kids are going to do.
And indeed, in the case of 2 Samuel 6, when you yield to the temptation to read the deleted verses, you find lots of mayhem. A man named Uzzah does the seemingly laudable thing of keeping God’s holy Ark from sliding off the oxcart only to have God strike him dead for his “irreverent” act of intended reverence. This, in turn, ticks David off. David is actually said to get mad at Yahweh and so out of a combination of pique and fear, David mothballs the Ark at someone’s house, refusing to take so dangerous a thing into Jerusalem after all.
But then, in a reversal of fortunes, it turns out that the presence of the Ark in the home of Obed-Edom the Gittite (not even an Israelite apparently) serves to prosper that family in startling ways. Now David starts to think that maybe the Ark can bring blessing—and not just bane—after all and so he figures that if anyone was going to get blessed, it was not going to be any old Gittite but David himself and the household of Israel generally. So he fetches the Ark to Jerusalem after all and is so elated to have it there, he dances and leaps around like a newly born calf, thus earning him the opprobrium of one of his wives (who happens to be one of rival Saul’s daughters who may have been grinding lots of different axes for all we know). But before the chapter is finished (in another of those verses the Lectionary wants us to edit out of the story) Michal is struck barren on account of her not sharing David’s joy over the Ark’s presence in the Holy City.
Are we sure Spielberg did not write this chapter???
In the span of two dozen verses one man is struck dead, a woman is struck barren, and some foreigners get prospered all on account of something to do with the Ark of the Covenant, the presence of God on earth.
Not pleasant stuff. Puzzling even.
This Old Testament reading is paired in the Common Lectionary with Mark 6 but about the only obvious connection I can see is the dancing part. Neither the dance in 2 Samuel 6 nor the dance in Mark 6 led to particularly uplifting things. But if the dancing were the only connection between these two lections, it might be a point hardly worth making.
Perhaps a more useful way to view it is to say that the presence of God on this earth is always a dicey proposition. As I’ve quoted before, Fred Craddock once said of John the Baptist that John ushered people into the presence of God, which is what everyone wants and what no one wants. Like moths to a flame, we are both drawn toward the holy otherness of God and in danger of being consumed by that holiness, too. In Mark’s gospel when Jesus is baptized, the heavens are torn open, giving God access to us here on earth in the person of the anointed Son Jesus. When Mark concludes, the Temple curtain is torn in two, giving us access to the Holy of Holies where once the Ark was kept and so giving us access to God (and without the fear of being consumed that once gripped God’s people prior to the incarnation and sacrifice of the beloved Son).
But the intersection points of the divine with the human can be fraught. Jesus’ presence on this earth brought as much mayhem as immediate peace, and John the Baptist’s sad martyrdom in Mark 6 is one such sign of the difficulty that comes when God draws close to a sinful people. In 2 Samuel 6 and in a similar vein David brings the presence of God—via that Ark of the Covenant—close to the Holy City but ends up getting a bit frightened of what can happen when God gets that close. In the end, David is delighted to bring the Ark to Jerusalem (even as the gospel ends with the delightful ongoing presence of Jesus among his people) but the little coda to the story involving Michal is a reminder that even so, the presence of God makes a person properly mindful. We dare never be casual when it comes to the presence of God. We are right to be thoughtful about how we speak of it and approach it and ponder it.
Yes, God’s presence in also the church yet today is a profoundly good thing, much to be celebrated and generally not to be feared. But in a day when lots of churchgoers want to view coming into the house of the Lord on a par with going into the house of Starbucks any other day of the week, maybe a little reminder of the searing nature of divine holiness would help people start to distinguish between a caramel mocha latte on Tuesday morning and the holy cup of the Lord on Sunday.
Church is not supposed to be your “third place.”
And anyway, as I pointed out to my student in his edgy sermon, we all find a passage like 2 Samuel 6 to be something of a scandal—a literal stumbling block—when it comes to forming an image of God. Harsh actions attributed to God are hard to parse (the Jewish comedian said it made God look like a jerk!). But what we Christians too often forget is that the shining center of the entire New Testament—actually of the entire Bible—is properly no less shocking (if only we can overcome our over-familiarity with it which blunts the shock value): namely, the Son of God hanging dead as a doornail on a Roman cross.
If that does not shock you and also remind you of how things go when God’s holiness encounters human sin, then something of both the glory and the scandal of the Gospel has been lost to you.
This whole sin and salvation thing: it’s serious business.
Is God easy to find or difficult? Is God close or remotely distant? Throughout history people have wrestled with such questions and have come up with diverse answers. Some Medieval theologians liked to talk about Deus absconditus, the “hidden God” who is so splendidly transcendent, so totally Other that we could never expect to encounter this Deity in average experiences. God, some claimed, is outside the flow of time–he’s above history, simultaneously and benignly aware of all events past, present, and future and so God lacks the kind of forward motion of expectation which is a defining characteristic of us.
On the other side are those who believe that God is actually close to us. Gandhi once stated that God is nearer to us than flesh is to fingernails. Pantheists try to locate God in everything. See a rose, it’s part of God. See a cloud, it’s part of God. See a Springer Spaniel, it’s part of God. Meanwhile a variation on this theme is panentheism which does not want to say everything just is God but which wants to say that everything is in God.
Orthodox Christians have traditionally come down somewhere in the middle. We’ve no wish to deny the Other-ness of God. We’ve no desire to skirt the Bible’s constant reminders of how holy and blindingly stunning God is in his sheer majesty. Then again a poem like Psalm 139 says there is nowhere we can go to escape God’s personal presence. “If I soar to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” We’ve also got a long tradition regarding prayer in which we do not envision prayer as the ultimate long-distance call but see it as personal, close communication.
Is God near or far, close or distant? In a sense he’s both and neither. I once read a story about a four-year-old named Callum who asked his mother, “Is God everywhere, Mommy?” “Yes, dear” his mother replied. “Is he in this room, Mommy?” “Yes, Callum, he is.” “Is God in my milk mug, Mommy?” His mother was a little uneasy now but still replied, “Um, yes.” Callum then clapped his hand over the mug and declared, “Got ’em!”
According to the Bible, God is very different from us–mind-bogglingly so in fact. At the level of philosophical distinctions, that chasm of difference forces us to focus on God’s distance. But the Bible also makes clear that mostly what separates the Creator from his creatures now is sin. But God never wanted sin to mar his creation, and so God is intent on bridging this chasm himself. God wants to be not the Deus absconditus, the hidden God, but the manifest God who dwells very, very close to his beloved imagebearers.
As Donald McCullough has pointed out, we tend to envision God’s holiness as the burning, consuming fire that keeps God and us apart. But within the bond of Trinitarian fellowship as revealed in Jesus, we now see the flames of God’s holiness as a kind of bonfire burning against the world’s dark night of sin, inviting all people to pull up a log and join our God at the warmth of the fire.
We’ve got to know that this is who God is. We’ve got to tell people that he is this close. We need not compromise his holiness, splendor, righteousness, or justice to do this. We need not turn God into the friendly old man upstairs who benignly winks at human sins in order to help people recognize his nearness. Nor do we need to go in some pantheist direction of conveying God’s nearness by making God everything. The way to show God’s nearness, love, warmth, and utter holiness is available to us in the person of Jesus.
A passage like 2 Samuel 6 tends to focus our attention on the otherness of God, on the dangerous nature of his holy nature over against our sinful, fallen nature. It’s this kind of Old Testament passage that has led some to conclude the Bible is the story of two different gods: the fire-breathing God of the Old Testament and the kinder, gentler God revealed in the New Testament. But perhaps we’re better served if we see that the difference between the testaments is not God or even the nature of God but the incarnate presence of Jesus Christ, who has brought the holy God of the universe close and into intimate fellowship with us.
Author: Doug Bratt
Scholars call Psalm 24 a processional liturgy that celebrates Yahweh’s entrance to Zion. They speculate that the poet composed it for either David’s bringing the ark into Jerusalem as reported, for example, in 2 Samuel 6, or a festival that commemorated that event, or the return of the ark to Jerusalem and its temple after Yahweh granted Israel victory in battle.
Of course, all of those things seem very remote to citizens of the 21st century. Jerusalem’s temple is, of course, little more than a memory. Jesus Christ was the new temple. Now by the Holy Spirit God graciously lives within Christians, transforming each of us into “mini-temples.” So when the Church uses Psalm 24, it often uses it to celebrate Christ’s ascension into the heavenly realm.
However, one underlying theme remains as relevant for modern Christians as it did to Israelite worshipers. After all, as Joel LeMon notes, “One message pervades Psalm 24: God conquers chaos.” To understand its initial relevance, worshipers need to realize that people in the ancient near east assumed chaos constantly threatened what the gods had created. The psalmist’s contemporaries particularly worried heavenly or earthly water would overwhelm the world.
Against those fears, Psalm 24 echoes passages like Genesis 1 by asserting that God conquered the pre-creation chaos at the dawn of measured time. God, it insists, is now sovereign over that creation. That, in turn, guarantees God’s continuing control of the chaotic forces that imperil not only creation, but also God’s Israelite sons and daughters. As Yahweh continues to preserve and restore order for Israel, she responds by worshiping him as creation’s ruler (7-10). What’s more, by obeying God’s law (4), Israel participates in preserving the order that God established at creation.
While some Christians question Genesis 1 and Psalm 24’s cosmology, the psalm remains hugely relevant. After all, we know about chaos. In a world instantaneously familiar with “natural” catastrophes like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes, we’re familiar with chaos. What’s more, we realize that we may be unleashing chaos through our behaviors that lead to climate change, starvation and environmental degradation. Many Christians also know the personal and relational chaos that is illness, alienation and uncertainty. In the face of that chaos that seems to threaten so much, we cling to Psalm 24’s promise that Yahweh is the king of glory over creation and the chaos that sometimes threatens it.
Psalm 24 begins by foreshadowing the Apostles’ Creeds’ claim, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” In doing so, it makes the radically counter-cultural profession: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.” That profession has numerous implications. For Israel’s neighbors (and all too often the Israelites themselves) who thought of the world as the handiwork of a buffet line of gods, Psalm 24 asserts Yahweh alone is God. Yahweh alone founded the earth upon the seas and established it upon the waters.
Psalm 24’s assertion of Yahweh’s ownership of the world also means that we must treat it as God’s property, not our own. Neither we nor anyone else gets to do with that earth and everything in it as we choose. We’re just tenants who are only using what really belongs to Someone Else. No part of the world ultimately belongs to nations, governments, corporations, organizations or individuals. It’s all the Lord’s.
Yahweh’s lordship over all of creation also has profound implications for human behavior. Since God is a God of righteousness, we seek to create and preserve right relationships with the world and everything as well as everyone in it. However, God’s sovereignty as expressed in Psalm 24 also grants freedom. So the apostle Paul, for example, cites it as support for Corinth’s Christians eating even food that’s been sacrificed to idols.
Psalm 24 emphasizes God’s creative work. Citizens of the ancient near east always worried that the seas and waters, such as rivers, were part of the unstable chaos that constantly threatened creation. Verse 2’s reference to them suggests that in many minds, such chaos continues to linger. The world continues to exist, then, according to Psalm 24 because God restrains those chaotic forces.
The “hill of the Lord” to which verse 3 refers is Mt. Zion on which Jerusalem’s temple stands. It’s a holy place, according to Psalm 24, because it’s the place God chose in which to make himself accessible to those who faithfully seek the Lord in worship. Yet Zion’s holiness also, in a sense, makes it a dangerous place for those who aren’t holy. So, according to verse 4, only holy people may approach this hill.
In fact, verse 4 sets a kind of standard for worshipers. It offers a guide for holy living for those whom God has saved by God’s amazing grace and among whom God now lives by God’s Holy Spirit. Psalm 24 indicates that those whose “hands” are “clean” may approach the King of glory at Zion. “Clean hands” refer to a posture of godly behavior that’s free from doing wrong to others. They’re especially the hands of those whom others’ blood hasn’t stained. Worshipers who have “pure hearts” cultivate godly attitudes and motives. They’re loyal to God alone in both their behavior and thoughts.
Worshipers who don’t lift up their souls to idols are those who worship Yahweh, the living God alone. They don’t assent to culture’s claims that other gods are creator and king. And those who don’t swear by what is false are those who don’t lie, who don’t create communal chaos by spreading falsehood.
Of course, God always saves God’s sons and daughters only by God’s grace that we receive by faith. However, we don’t see our salvation as license to do what we choose. We recognize that those whom God has given much have much obedience and faithfulness to give to the Lord in return. So as we approach God, whether in corporate worship or prayer, we always ask ourselves whether we’ve kept clean hands and pure hearts. Even as we continue to experience God’s acceptance and loving provision for life (5), where we’ve failed, we confess our sin and beg for God’s ongoing forgiveness.
Psalm 24 ends with the poet’s call to worship Yahweh, the King of glory. This God is, after all, strong and mighty … mighty in battle.” This King is the “Lord Almighty … the King of glory.” Verses 7-10’s series of questions and answers may be a kind of exchange between those who guarded Jerusalem’s gates and those who carried the ark through them. Perhaps the carriers seized the guards’ attention by calling them to “Lift up your heads … that the King of glory may come in.” The guards may have responded by asking for some kind of password: “Who is the King of glory?” The carriers would then have answered, “The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.”
Psalm 24’s final verses return to the theme of chaos. They remind us that Yahweh didn’t just conquer chaos by creating the world and everything in it. God also continues to protect the worshipping community from the power of chaos. It suggests that Yahweh must continue to intervene in human history in order to restore order. Of course, God’s greatest intervention came in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by which God triumphed over the chaotic forces of sin, Satan and death. Yet even as we celebrate the victory God has given us through Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. Rev. 19:16), we remember that Satan and his allies haven’t yet given up the fight. So we trust ourselves, in body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Savior, the King of glory, Jesus Christ.
Some of us who attended school in the sixties and seventies were accustomed to fairly orderly and quiet classrooms. Teachers oversaw classes that seemed controlled. Students generally only spoke after their teacher acknowledged their raised hand by addressing them.
Were you to walk into a classroom today, you might think things far more chaotic. Modern classrooms are far noisier and full of more movement. Yet most of the time, teachers remain in control. What’s more, were teachers absent, classrooms would verge on anarchic.
We might think of God’s control over our world’s chaos in a similar way. Certainly things regularly occur that lead some to question God’s sovereign rule. The world is full of noise and movement. Yet God remains in control. The alternative would be truly frightening.
Author: Stan Mast
In the last two years the Revised Common Lectionary has taken us to this very text two other times, both around Christmas, that festive time in the world’s and the church’s calendar. Now we’re in Ordinary Time. Here in the United States we’ve just enjoyed the hoopla of the Fourth of July, but in the church we’re done with major festivals for a while. We’re just waiting patiently for the return of our Lord. Or to change the image, we’re plodding along in ordinary time, wilting under the hot summer sun, on a long pilgrimage through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Even as God provided physically for Israel on their long journey, so he makes provision for our journey with “every spiritual blessing in Christ.”
I’m well aware that Paul says these spiritual blessings are “in the heavenly realms,” which might suggest blessings too heavenly to be of any earthly value. While acknowledging the difficulty of that phrase, I want to suggest that these spiritual blessings in heavenly realms are exactly what we need to survive and succeed in our journey through the wilderness under the hot summer sun. These blessings are a mid-summer picker upper, a reason to celebrate in Ordinary Time. Indeed, that’s how Paul introduces these blessings. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” A quick review of these blessings will provide us with grace for the journey; they remind us that from beginning to end the Christian life is all about God’s grace in Christ.
Our journey began, says Paul, when God in his grace “choose us in Christ before the creation of the world….” We can speculate about the doctrine of unconditional election, but Paul presents it as a simple blessing. God is the one who put our feet upon the path. Without his grace, we would never have begun the journey to the Promised Land. We would still be back in Egypt, enslaved to the forces of evil and utterly unable to go anywhere. God did this without any regard to our merit. Quite apart from the issue of the relationship between time and eternity, that’s the sense of “before the creation of the world.” Before we had done anything either good or bad (as Paul puts it in Romans 9:11), God chose us.
God chose us “to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Even though we may look like everyone else and may still sin like everyone else, we are special in the eyes of God. Like Frodo and his fellow Hobbits in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or, more profanely, like Jake and Elwood in the classic movie, “The Blues Brothers,” we are “on a mission from God.” Our lives from the very beginning have a purpose and a destination. We’re on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the land of our own holiness. Life is not first of all about attaining our happiness, but about arriving at the holiness for which God has chosen us in Christ. Are you one of “the saints and faithful in Christ Jesus” (verse 1)? “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ….”
Paul gets more specific about the way grace has shaped our lives in the next blessing he describes. “In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ….” Part of the debate around election centers on the purpose of election. Is election unto service or unto salvation? Horrified by the notion that God might unilaterally decide who will be saved, many Christians opt for election unto service. There are good biblical reasons to maintain that interpretation. After all, Israel’s election was designed to serve the larger world, to make God known to the nations. Further, service is the necessary result of salvation. In my tradition, the Christian life is summarized in the Sin, Salvation, and Service format of the Heidelberg Catechism. So, of course, we are elected to serve.
But that is not all Paul says here. He insists that God predestined us to be adopted– not just as servants, not just as missionaries to the nations, but as children of God. The word “predestined” is prohoridzo in the Greek, which means literally to “pre-horizon.” The horizon is the circle around us as far as we can see. To predestine means to “draw a circle around someone ahead of time.” I think of how professional sports teams conduct their annual draft of college players. Each team has a long list of potential players who might fit their roster. In some high level meeting, they draw circles around the names of players they want on their team. They predestine them to become Lions or Tigers or Bears (oh my!).
Of course, the predestination of players is always based on something in those players—their college records, their physical abilities, their character. It will be a conditional predestination. But God’s election and predestination is not based on anything in us. According to Paul it is based solely on something in God. “In love he predestined us….” The word there is agape, which is another word for grace. It was a totally unearned, undeserved love that drew a circle around us and drew us into God’s forever family.
Why on earth, why in heaven’s name would God do a thing like that? We could go into great detail about determinism and free will, as I did in my previous pieces on this text on the “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website. But I’ll focus now on just two things. First, Paul says that God did this “according to his pleasure and will.” The Greek is eudokian, which conveys not sheer determination, but supreme delight. However we try to explain this blessing, we must remember that it gave God great delight to do it. And it cost him dearly to accomplish his electing and predestining purpose. He chose and predestined us “in Christ.” God sacrificed his Son to make us his sons and daughters.
That points, in the second place, to the fact that Paul calls this doctrine a great “blessing.” And it is, because it assures us that we can never fall out of God’s love as we journey through the wilderness. The journey did not begin with our choice. Our status with God does not depend on our decision. We are loved in Christ so completely that nothing can separate us from God’s love. What a comfort that is as we slog along under the hot summer sun! Let’s help our congregants move beyond theological questions to pure doxology. “Praise be….”
The third blessing for the journey is “redemption.” The Greek word there refers to the ancient Greco-Roman practice of freeing a slave or prisoner by paying a ransom. Paul is saying that in Christ, indeed, through his blood, we have been set free from some sort of bondage. The big question is, from what sort of bondage? Not understanding that has discouraged many a Christian as they trudge through the wilderness. Does redemption mean that our outward circumstances are changed, that we move, like Israel, from Egypt to Canaan? Does it mean that we are set free from the terrible situations caused by sin? Ultimately, yes. We are promised Shalom in the Promised Land, after all. But that’s not the heart of redemption. So, does redemption have to do with being set free from the power of sin? Does it change our internal lives, our attitudes, emotions and thoughts? Ultimately, yes. We are promised holiness, someday. Indeed, we have been chosen to holiness. But that’s not the heart of redemption either.
Paul ends our questions when he says that redemption is all about “the forgiveness of sins.” It’s not centrally about release from the external situations of our lives, or about release from our own inner self. It’s about the forgiveness of our sins. What happens when our sins are forgiven? The Greek word here is instructive, because it means “to cancel, remit, or pardon, as with a loan or debt.” When God forgives, he cancels our obligation. We don’t have to keep his law in order to be saved. When God forgives, he cancels our guilt. We are guilty, but our feelings can’t jeopardize our salvation and we ought to live with a clear conscience. And he cancels our punishment. What a relief as we stagger along, stumbling and falling, grumbling and questioning! None of our sins will keep us from arriving at our appointed destination. “Praise be….”
That brings us to the next blessing. As we wander through the wilderness we often feel lost. Sometimes life seems like a trackless waste and we wonder if we’re going the right way. What is God’s will for this part of the journey? Should I marry or not? Should I become a plumber or a preacher? Should I buy an Accord or a Lexus? Which church should I join? What a blessing it is that God has “made known to us the mystery of his will… which he purposed in Christ….” In the fragmentation and frustration of our experience in this world, where it so often seems as though everything is out of control or ruled by a madman, what a blessing it is to know that God has a plan.
And what a blessing it is to know what the plan is. No, Paul is not talking about God’s plan for the little details of our lives, though the Bible contains multiple directions for the journey. Paul focuses here on the big picture of God’s plan, which “according to his good pleasure he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times have reached their fulfillment….” Each phrase in that complex sentence is filled with encouragement for the journey. This plan is something God is delighted to do. Christ is at the center of it. God is managing history to make this happen. And it will come to fulfillment in God’s good time. So even if we don’t know exactly what God wants in the various phases of our journey, we do know what God is up to overall. He will “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” “Praise be….”
But that’s big picture stuff. What about my own little life? I know I’m chosen. I know I’m a child of God. But we’ve all heard stories about adopted children whose personality disorders and behavior problems are so severe that their adoptions are terminated. And how many fairy tales feature step children who are poorly treated by their step parents. How can I be sure that my journey will end happily? Well, says Paul, “In Christ we were also chosen….” The Greek there is eklerothemen, which means not only “chosen,” but also “made an heir.” As God’s adopted children, we are heirs to a fortune. We are not poor urchins scratching our way through the world, barely eking out a living. Even if that is our physical lot in life, we have this spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms. We are heirs to a fortune beyond our wildest dreams. Paul doesn’t elaborate on what our inheritance is, though elsewhere he talks about “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (II Corinthians 4:17) “Praise be….”
Finally, Paul gives his guarantee that the journey will turn out well. What he guarantees in not a promise, but a presence. “Having believed, you were marked in Christ with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance….” As believers, we are indwelt by the Spirit that Jesus promised. Then, alluding to the commercial and legal worlds, Paul uses an interesting Greek world, esphragisthete. It means that the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives guarantees that we are the genuine article, marks us as the possession of God, and protects us from tampering or harm.
How do we know we have the Spirit? Our faith in Christ is the sign; “having believed, you were marked with a seal….” And that seal is the “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance.” There is no way on God’s green earth that we will be disappointed at the end of our pilgrimage. The presence of the Spirit is a down payment, a first installment of the full inheritance we will one day receive. We will finish the journey intact. We cannot lose any of the spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms that so profoundly shape the journey. “Praise be….”
There’s our mid-summer picker upper. I would end a sermon on this text with three brief words of counsel, each one a “don’t.” God has lavished all these things upon us in his grace. So, don’t take the credit when life is blessed. We have all these blessings only in Christ. So, don’t take your eyes off Jesus as you trudge along. And all of these blessings are designed to bring praise to the glory of God. Three times, at the end of each major section (verses 6, 12, 14), Paul reminds us that we are so blessed “to the praise of his glorious grace.” So, don’t hog the glory. It’s not about us; it’s about God. “Praise be….”
In contrast to the image of life as a pilgrimage drenched with blessing, Cormac McCarthy paints a picture of a blasted life in his haunting novel, The Road. In a world that has been devastated by a nuclear disaster, a father and his son shuffle along a road that is ankle deep in ash. The landscape is grey and barren. There is nothing to eat or drink, except what they stumble upon. They live in constant terror of the radiation scarred cannibals who prowl the roads looking for prey. The man and his boy are on pilgrimage to the West Coast where the father believes there might be some outpost of civilization. When they finally arrive after “many dangers, toils, and snares,” they are disappointed to find that the Promised Land is ruined too. But just as the book is about to close in utter hopelessness, the boy is mysteriously handed over to apparently normal survivors. Apart from that surprising and enigmatic ending, The Road is a desolate picture of life as a hopeless journey through a blasted world. Its popularity suggests that the picture resonates with the way life feels for many 21st century people or with their fears about the way life could become in the rest of this century.