July 20, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Hang on to your hats, preaching partners, because we are beginning a 5-week odyssey in John 6. Granted this is an important chapter but 5 whole weeks of preaching sermons on variations of Jesus being the bread of life can be a bit taxing. Having skipped over the Feeding of the 5,000 in last week’s Common Lectionary gospel text from Mark 6, the Lectionary now picks up this miracle as John records it in his own sixth chapter. (Knowing that lots of “bread of life” stuff is coming up, you could on this week preach on the walking on water part, and I reflect on that in the second section “Questions to Ask / Issues to Address,” section of this sermon starter article.)
There are quite a few rather obvious differences between the two accounts. Mark clearly shaped his own version of the story to highlight Jesus’ role as the Messianic Great Shepherd of the Sheep. Mark’s account was thus redolent of imagery from Psalm 23 as well as various “sheep without a shepherd” texts from Ezekiel and Isaiah. John lacks those details but instead nestles this story in close proximity to the upcoming Feast of the Passover while also using this story and Jesus’ subsequent walking on water as more “signs” that Jesus is the Chosen One of God. Unlike Mark’s account where we are actually unsure to what degree the crowd was aware of the feeding miracle that had occurred, in John they not only know what happened, they use it as a reason to try to seize on Jesus so as to force him to become a king, a political rival to all things Rome.
This must have been an occasion of great wonder but also of great joy and hilarity. As the basket of bread and fish kept going and going without being depleted, waves of laughter must have accompanied it. By the time the basket got to the fiftieth person, you can almost imagine his shouting back to the first person in line, “Hey, Sherman! Isn’t this the same fish you ate?!” As astonishment gave way to joy, as growling stomachs gave way to stuffed bellies, the people realized Jesus truly was a great man of God.
Only the Creator himself could “play” with the very stuff of creation as to pull off this feat. As the Son of God, Jesus held in his hands the kernels of wheat from every field on the planet as well as the fish in every stream, lake, and ocean. Through his hands alone the bounty of all those fields and streams was channeled to this hungry gathering. Not surprisingly, they right away wanted to make him their king. Who can blame them? We always hope our leaders will somehow find the wherewithal to make available to all the people the riches of the land. Smart politicians who want to be elected promise just this, too. “Vote for me and taxes will be cut to give you more money, production will be increased to give you more food, the economy will grow to give you more of . . . everything.” A chicken in every pot and all that . . .
So also these people perceived that since Jesus could so richly provide the good stuff of life, they would set him up as their new leader. But Jesus wants nothing to do with this, and so he gets out of there. Because much though the feeding of the hungry is a sign of Jesus’ larger purpose, this miracle is only a sign of Jesus’ salvation but it is not the same thing. Jesus does not want to be made a king who will just keep producing more wonder bread because Jesus knows that in the long run the business of eating and drinking is quite literally a dead end. Even as any individual meal can sustain us just so long before we need to eat again, so the entire enterprise of eating and drinking can only keep us going just so long, and then we die. The bread of this earth cannot keep us alive forever.
That’s why, when a loved one is gravely ill with some disease, we do not conclude that if we run to the kitchen and whip together a ham and Swiss sandwich, we can make this dear one eat and so keep on living. No, it doesn’t work that way. These days doctors are able to fasten a feeding tube into patients who are too damaged or too sick to eat the normal way. The high-protein goop that gets delivered through such tubes can sustain the person biologically, and yet in at least some situations the family members watching all of this conclude that the life this tube is sustaining is finally no life at all. So although we may agonize about it, we may ask for the forced feeding to stop in recognition of the fact that true life has now stopped in ways that bread and butter, calories and protein can no longer help.
What Jesus did on the mountainside that day for those 5,000 folks was wonderful. It was a sign of the kingdom. But it was not the kingdom. To get at the real reason Jesus had come, to solve the deeper problems of life and death, Jesus had to say something else, which is what he goes on to do in the last part of John 6. There Jesus presents himself as the true bread of life. Somehow by eating his flesh and drinking his blood we can find a new form of life–eternal life.
Since that part of John 6 is coming up in subsequent Lectionary readings in the coming weeks, we will wait to ponder the way John 6 closes, but clearly we cannot read this feeding story completely in isolation from where it will ultimately lead in this chapter.
Then as now, we’re altogether too eager to settle for the quick fix. Holy patience insists we stick with Jesus over the long haul, following him all the way to a cross that is not only not a quick fix, it even looks like the end of everything. But only when we stay with Jesus that long do we actually discover the beginning of everything.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
John’s presentation of the well-known incident of Jesus’ walking upon the water is strange by most any reckoning. For one thing, it seems odd that the disciples took off for Capernaum by boat without Jesus. We’re told Jesus had not yet joined them, but once they were all on the other side of the lake, it’s not the least bit clear how he would be able to join them later on, either. It’s as though, while on a cross-country trip, dad pulled the family car out of the rest area and back onto the highway before little Jimmy had come back from the bathroom. Jimmy is not likely to be able to catch up once he comes back to the parking lot only to see the car zooming away at 65 MPH. Why leave someone behind?
We’re also told that although a strong wind had come up, the disciples are not reported to be in any grave danger (as the other accounts of this incident seem to convey). These are pretty experienced seaman and so they can handle some bigger swells. The only terror reported in this incident is when Jesus is seen serenely walking on the water. Once they realize it is Jesus, however, they let him climb aboard. But then we’re told not that the winds ceased or the sea became calm but only that (through what looks to be some kind of hyperfast transportation) the boat more or less disappeared from where it had been out on the lake only to reappear at the very shore toward which they had been headed all along.
So unlike other accounts of this where Jesus’ mastery over the creation and its elements is the key sign, it’s a little hard here to know what the sign is. Surely walking on water with about as much ease as walking on a gravel road is an eye-popper. And surely whatever quirk it was that suddenly made the boat appear at its destination—having gone from Point A to Point C without, apparently, having passed through Point B—is curious as well. But we receive no reaction from the disciples here, no words that indicate they were properly wowed or that they connected any dots between what happened and Jesus’ identity as the Lord of Creation.
But maybe in John the dots have to be connected by us as readers. Because we need to get beyond the English translation of John 6:20 where Jesus is depicted as saying, “It is I; don’t be afraid” so as to recall that what Jesus really says there is “I Am! Don’t be afraid.” Yes, a “dynamic equivalent” translation would have Jesus saying the equivalent of “It’s me!.” You know how that goes: you walk into the house only to have a family member elsewhere in the house call out, “Who’s there?” to which you reply, “It’s me, honey!” As such, you’re merely identifying yourself, putting at ease your fellow family member who might otherwise be a bit uptight as to who was entering the house.
But you can’t be familiar with John’s Gospel and miss the significance of the phrase “I Am.” The first time came in John 4 as Jesus revealed his Messianic identity to the Samaritan woman at the well. She said, “We know the Messiah is coming” and Jesus replied “Ego eimi,” “I Am.” Now in John 6 we get this again and, of course, many more memorable “I Am” sayings will follow. And taken together we know that in John this pegs Jesus’ identity to Yahweh, the Great I Am of Israel, the God who revealed the divine Name to Moses at the Burning Bush long ago.
The one walking on the water that day was Yahweh, was the Creator God himself. For those with theological eyes to see, John doesn’t need to make Jesus calm a storm or have the disciples express wonderment over how even the winds and waves obey Jesus. It’s enough to know Who it was walking on those waters.
And then it’s also no wonder to discover that having heard the freighted words “I Am” from the lips of Jesus, the disciples instantly arrived at where they were going. When you’re in the presence of God himself, you are always right where you should have been all along and where you will want always to be thereafter, too.
When compared to the Synoptic accounts, John 6:16-21 is discovered to be quite different. As Raymond Brown reminds us in his commentary, Chrysostom (among others) concluded that John’s version of Jesus’ walking on water is so different from the Synoptic accounts that John is quite probably narrating a different event altogether. Most commentators in history have disagreed with that conclusion, but we do find significant differences in detail, leading Brown to think that John’s may be the more primitive version of the story to which the Synoptic evangelists added various details and overlays of interpretation. What may be significant, however, is that one detail that all of the accounts share is the inclusion of Jesus’ saying, Ego Eimi, “I am” to identify himself.
Throughout history and across many very different religious traditions there has long been a curious linkage between spirituality and food. The Old Testament has its share of dietary restrictions and laws, many of which to this day translate into what observant Jews regard as kosher or non-kosher foods. Although the Christian faith has largely left behind such strictures, we still regard gluttony as one of the deadly sins, and some Christians also promote strict vegetarianism. Then there is the Roman Catholic “no meat on Friday” rule, which made the headlines a few years ago when St. Patrick’s day fell on a Friday during Lent, thus causing a number of Catholic bishops to suspend the rule for just March 17 so the Irish could celebrate with their traditional corned beef and a pint of Guinness!
Even some of the foods we eat each week have a religious background. In the mid-1800s there was a group of people in America known as the Millerites–a Christian sect firmly convinced that Jesus would return sometime late in the year 1843. He didn’t, setting off what was called “the Great Disappointment.” At least some of these folks, however, made the best of the situation by declaring that as a matter of fact Jesus had returned but that it had turned out to be an invisible, spiritual advent. Believing themselves to be living in an already-present millennial kingdom, these Adventists decided that as part of this new identity they should invent alternative foods as a sign of their not being fully in this world. So one preacher named Sylvester Graham invented a new kind of cracker for his congregation to eat–yes, the Graham Cracker. Peanut butter was also invented at this time, as was a variety of cold breakfast cereals, including something called a “corn flake,” perfected by Adventist devotee John Harvey Kellogg in a spiritual community located in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Food and spirituality have long been yoked, but aside from observing occasional periods of fasting, no religious group has ever said it would never eat anything again. We all know we must eat and drink to live. If we go much more than three days without water or a month or so with no food, we will die. Many organizations nobly work every day to get food to this world’s starving. The fact that thousands of children die of starvation every day is as vivid, and utterly tragic, a sign of this world’s broken condition as anything.
We need food to live. Those of us blessed enough never to have to worry about our food also have the luxury of being able to enjoy this creation’s bounty in all its manifold variety. We even celebrate those skilled at serving up particularly tasty cuisine, whether it’s Aunt Millie whose pot roast cannot be topped or Julia Child whose “Boeuf Bourguignon avec Champignon” is so fine we’ll shell out thirty or forty bucks just to get a plate of it.
We need food, we appreciate it. The crowds around Jesus on that long ago day as reported in John 6 were no different. They were hungry, Jesus fed them and so he quickly rose in their estimation because of this miracle.
2 Samuel 11
Author: Scott Hoezee
In a memorable sermon on this text, Haddon Robinson said that this difficult chapter in the David saga is a good example of what can happen in middle age when we let our defenses down and become maybe a bit too full of ourselves, a bit too wistful over the good old days of youth. That seems about right.
A note before proceeding: The Common Lectionary divides up the David-Bathsheba story into two subsequent lections. This set of sermon starters will be posted for both Proper 12 and 13 (in 2015, July 26 and August 2) so as to treat the narrative as a whole. Ideas for how to preach 2 separate sermons based on the Lectionary’s textual division are included near the end of these sermons starters. But now back to commenting on this story:
A few chapters earlier—in II Samuel 7, which the Common Lectionary looked at the prior week, we saw David using his own settledness and his own possession of a lovely house in which to live as a reason to offer to build God a house, a glorious Temple in which to dwell. But God turned down that request and, as we noted in that set of sermon starters, the reason seemed to be in large part because God didn’t want David feeling so self-sufficient that his own efforts and work would eclipse the prior and ongoing work of God. What David needed to learn was that Israel was about what God was building, not about what David could build for God.
But maybe God should have let David do it after all! If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, then the idleness we detect in David in this chapter leads to a great deal of mayhem indeed. It’s clear that David has now left most of the exciting tasks of life to underlings. In the spring when the roads and meadows dry up sufficiently as to allow one to defend one’s territory against invaders—and that in turn gives such would-be invaders the chance to go to war against neighboring lands. Yet David stays behind in Jerusalem.
He’s older now. And although there was a time when he looked good riding in his chariot with his royal cape flapping regally behind him in the wind, now he sensed he looked a touch ridiculous. He has a bit of a paunch now. The armor was a bit snug. His swagger was gone. It hurt some days when his feet hit the floor when he got out of bed in the morning. It was easier to let Joab and the younger folks go to war and do what needed doing. And anyway, he was the king now. It could be seen as a sign of strength and royal privilege that he no longer needed to dirty his own hands in the mud and blood and guts of battle. He could run things just as well from the palace situation room.
That all may have been true but in truth, he was bored. Having accomplished all he had set out to do, having consolidated the kingdom and built up the holy city (and having been told by God that even his heyday of building programs was at an end), David just didn’t know what to do with himself. He didn’t exactly miss the days when at any minute Saul might pin him to the wall with a javelin, but there was something about living with a death threat that made David feel (oddly enough) profoundly alive. As it turned out, the machinations of governing the nation were not near as exciting as all that he had to do to become king in the first place. He missed working the ropelines and shaking the hands of all those adoring citizens. The shouts of “Saul has slain his thousands, David his tens of thousands” were now faint echoes from his past, distant reminders of the better days that once were.
David was churning all that through his head more days than not of late, including that morning when he took his morning coffee out onto the rooftop veranda to wonder what he might do that day.
That’s when he saw her.
A real beauty in a neighboring courtyard wearing nothing but the shape God had given her. Suddenly David found something new he could yet conquer, a new quest to set out upon. He had to meet her, had to have dinner with her, had to . . . have her.
We don’t know from the text whether David, having sated his lust and succeeded in his quest to sleep with Bathsheba, felt good about it or was filled with self-loathing. We don’t know whether his royal conquest of this woman eased his ennui or only served to increase it. Instead we are fast-forwarded some weeks or months hence by which time Bathsheba—who hadn’t seen her husband Uriah in a good long while—found herself pregnant and so sent the king a little note to break the news.
It’s all tawdry soap opera drama from that point forward. Plan A is the cover up. It’s a dictum in politics to this day that cover-ups almost always end up being worse and more problematic than the original crime. It’s also a fact of politics that no politician who finds himself guilty of a crime pays that dictum much heed and so proceeds post-haste with a cover-up. In this case David hits on a simple little plan that won’t hurt a soul (even though truth will die in the course of it all). He’s got to find a way to get Uriah to sleep with his wife. The math might be off a bit—but here’s hoping no one works too hard to count backwards 9 months—but the baby could then appear to be Uriah’s and all would be well.
Uriah ends up being as loyal and true as David was just then being mendacious and deceitful. Nothing drives a liar crazy like an honest man. And so David goes a little crazy. When it becomes clear that Uriah will not indulge in sensuality (even with his own wife) so long as his fellow soldiers are eating C-rations in dirty trenches and only dreaming of home, David gets mad and launches the far darker Plan B, making the necessary arrangements to get Uriah out of the way permanently so he could make an honest woman out of Bathsheba by marrying her himself.
“But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.
Talk about dramatic understatement!
The presence of the Lord had been absent throughout this entire chapter until the very end. But that’s only on the surface. Most everything David did here was “while no one else was looking,” but we know that’s never true. And the story’s climax in II Samuel 12 delivers what most of us would agree was a fairly predictable outcome based on the Lord’s watchful eye.
It’s no doubt a mark of how thoroughly David had deluded himself and convinced himself that he came out of this incident scot-free that he didn’t catch on sooner to what was—all things being equal—a fairly ham-handed little analogy about a rich man, a poor man, and a little lamb. If you’ve just stolen your neighbor’s car and some minister comes and tells you a story about a theft, your skin starts to crawl fairly early on in the telling of the analogical story. It cuts a little too close to home.
But not for David. Maybe he was distracted when Nathan told him the homely little lamb story, shuffling papers on his desk and tending to the busy work of a king while the prophet’s words dribbled on in the background. Or maybe he had so thoroughly insulated himself from the truth that he just couldn’t be reached. One suspects it’s the latter, and it’s a pretty scary prospect for us to face that we are capable of such self-deception. Yet we are.
If it’s surprising that Nathan is so easily able to sneak past David’s defenses and get him to express righteous indignation over a crime that is galactically less important and serious than what he himself was guilty of, it’s equally stunning to hear Nathan instantly declare forgiveness to David (albeit with the warning that the poor example David had set would come back to bite him within his own household one day soon). Actions can have consequences that not even the stunning grace of God can undo. One can only look to that same grace to sustain through the crises that our own actions sometimes unleash.
This could all be preached as one sermon. But if you want to follow the letter of the Lectionary and preach 2 sermons, here are some ideas:
As noted above, the Common Lectionary splits this story into a kind of cliffhanger Part 1 and Part 2, breaking off the narrative for Proper 12 just at the point when David arranges for Uriah’s death, then for Proper 13 picking the action back up after the worst of that part of the narrative is finished and cruising on into the Nathan part of the story. Frankly, it’s difficult to preach a two-parter on a story as seamless as this one. If one did so, however, it might be possible to let the first sermon on II Samuel 11:1-15 ponder what all led David to get himself into a situation in which he made such a manifestly bad set of decisions. And what is it in our own lives that can make us lose sight of God, God’s design for life, God’s dearest desires for our lives, so as to plunge into recklessly self-destructive patterns?
Then the second sermon could be a consideration of how God’s grace saves us anyway. Too often we use God’s ability to see and know all as a way to scare the daylights out of people. Even that little Sunday School song “Oh be careful little hands what you do . . .” carries with it the semi-ominous refrain, “For the Father up above is looking down in love.” The “in love” part softens it a bit but the song’s main message is clear enough: Behave, you little galoots, because God’s watching (and he’s got that rolled-up newspaper in his hands for a reason!!).
But the good news of the Bible is that although God may indeed be looking down from above, his doing so is not a short-circuiting of grace but becomes instead the occasion for grace. That’s no excuse to do whatever you want, of course. But it is a reminder for us in the church that our primary task is to preach grace, not fear; forgiveness, not damning tirades against sinfully weak people. Of course, neither grace nor forgiveness can be presented effectively without a concurrent acknowledgment that such things are needed in the first place—David had to fess up and own up to the reality of sin for the word of grace to have its truest depth of meaning for him. But it’s still grace that needs to set the tone.
This story seems like a knife through the heart of the entire David saga in the Old Testament. It’s been used as proof that even the mightiest can fall, that even the godliest people can sin. In the late 1990s when some ministers were using their pulpits to finger-wag at Bill Clinton and call for his impeachment in the wake of the Lewinsky sex scandal, other pastors were pointing to II Samuel 11-12 as a reminder that God can forgive and restore fallen leaders and that the church should be much more excited about that forgiving message than about the condemning message in which some seemed to be taking altogether too much relish.
In the biblical long run, though, this story—and the appearance of Solomon’s mother Bathsheba—serves a far more curious function. By the time you get to the New Testament and encounter Matthew’s opening genealogy of Jesus, you discover that Matthew goes out of his way to include some of the more scandal-associated figures from the Old Testament. Four women are referenced in Matthew 1:1-17 (and that in and of itself was a bold move for Matthew) but each of the women was a non-Israelite and several of them had whiffs of sexual scandal surrounding them (Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba). But Matthew twists the knife a bit more when it came time to reference Bathsheba, not mentioning her by name but only by reminding his readers that Solomon’s mother was “Uriah’s wife.” Ouch.
It turns out Jesus of Nazareth had quite the family tree, and this knife through the David saga was one giant skeleton in the closet. But Matthew flung open the closet door because he knew as keenly as any gospel writer that if ever there were a reminder of why this world needs a Savior who is full of grace, this story provides it.
It is, therefore, simply too bad whenever preachers use this story (or biblical stories like it) only as an excuse to tut-tut over the sins of people in order to make them feel bad or, worse, as a way to make us holy ones in the church better than those sexually silly people out there in the world.
Idea #1: Some weeks ago in the sermon starter article on the story of David and Goliath, I mentioned that in the Pennyroyal Caxton illustrated Bible that came out a few years ago, illustrator Barry Moser does a masterful job contrasting the young David with the middle-aged David. In the drawing designed to accompany the story of David’s confrontation with Goliath, Moser depicts the young and rugged David as forward looking—his chin is slightly raised into the air and there’s a gleam in his eye that bespeaks of confidence and with just a slight hint of youthful cockiness and arrogance, too. It’s all ahead of him yet. But later in II Samuel Moser depicts the middle-aged David around the time of his affair with Bathsheba. In this picture David’s eyes are downcast just a bit. His facial features have softened and show a little middle-aged pudginess. There is an air of weariness about this picture. It’s all behind him now. Taken together, the pictures seem to say that if over-confidence may be a temptation and error of youth, ennui and restlessness are the temptation of one’s later years, a temptation that can lead to indiscretions designed to recapture some of the flair of the glory days now past (but that usually succeed only in sullying one later years instead).
Idea #2: From Eugene Peterson, Leap over a Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians (Harper Collins, 1997): Here is Peterson on Nathan’s devastating “You are the man” verdict on David:
“This is the gospel focus: you are the man; you are the woman. The gospel is never about somebody else; it’s always about you, about me. The gospel is never a truth in general; it’s always a truth in specific. The gospel is never a commentary on ideas or culture or conditions; it’s always about actual persons, actual pain, actual trouble, actual sin: you, me; who you are and what you’ve done; who I am and what I’ve done. It’s both easy and common to lose this focus, to let the gospel blur into generalized pronouncements, boozy cosmic opinions, religious indignation. That’s what David is doing in this story, listening to his pastor preach a sermon about somebody else and getting all worked up about this someone else’s sin, this someone else’s plight. That kind of religious response is worthless; it’s the religion of the college dormitory bull session, the TV spectacular, the talk-show gossip. It’s the religion of moral judgmentalism, self-righteous finger-pointing, the religion of accusation and blame.” P. 185
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 14 paints what Jennifer Green calls a “picture of humanity that could hardly be more dismal.” In fact, while most psalms at least begin by acknowledging God in praise or prayer, the poet begins Psalm 14 with the fool’s claim that “there is no God.” She then goes on three times in just three verses to basically assert that there is “no one who does good.”
However, as James Mays notes, Psalm 14 also encourages worshipers in the face of that near universal rebellion against and denial of God. It insists that things aren’t always as they seem in God’s world. What is, for example, wisdom to wicked people is actually, according to the poet, foolishness. What’s more, the psalmist asserts, the apparent folly of recognizing and depending on Yahweh is the height of wisdom. On top of all that, the poet adds, God sides with wise people who so often seem to be alone.
So Psalm 14 offers those who preach and teach it a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the nature of reality. We live in a culture that’s skeptical about the existence of anything that can’t be somehow seen, heard, touched or at least proven. That means we often assume that only what what’s accessible to our senses, measurement or logic is real. Psalm 14, along with the rest of the Scriptures, asserts a different view of reality, one that is helpful for God’s sons and daughters to explore.
When the psalmist asserts that only “fools” deny God’s existence, she’s not insisting only stupid, silly or thoughtless people deny God’s existence. When the psalmist speaks of foolish people, she’s describing their way of looking at the world and reality that’s out of line with the way God has ordered the world.
Yet the psalmist goes on to add that fools don’t just hold mistaken views of reality. They also act wickedly on the basis of those wrong assumptions. So, in fact, as Mays also points out, such foolishness can even be found within Christ’s Church. After all, Christians too may act foolishly, basically denying God’s existence by refusing to rely on the Lord for everything, including guidance for the decisions we make and actions we take. In that light, verse 6’s reference to “you evildoers” may be a reference to fools within the community of God’s children.
Nabal, whose very name means “fool,” is a classic biblical example of a fool. I Samuel 25 reports “he’s surly and mean in his dealings.” So, for example, he makes wrong assumptions about David. He assumes that Israel’s future king is nothing more than “Jesse’s son.” Nabal acts selfishly and foolishly, refusing to share his food and drink with David and his men.
Yet in other places the Old Testament describes people who act just as foolishly as Nabal. Psalm 74 speaks of fools who mock and insult God’s name. In Psalm 39 the poet describe fools who disparage righteous people. Jeremiah 17 describes fools who gain riches in unjust ways only promptly to lose them. And Tamar calls her brother Ammon a “fool” just before he assaults her.
Psalm 14 conveys a tone of bewilderment at such foolishness. It’s almost as if the poet can scarcely even imagine how people could be so foolish. A great sadness also pervades this psalm. It’s as if the poet looks around and just shakes his head at the universality of foolish rebellion against God and God’s good ways. Yet there’s also a distinct tone of longing in this psalm as the poet expresses his desire for God to once and for all end such destructive foolishness.
Thoughtful Christians may recoil at Psalm 14’s link between foolishness and corrupt behavior. That gives those who preach and teach it an opportunity to reflect on that link. Nearly all Christians know what we sometimes call “noble pagans.” Some of the kindest people we know either deny or question God’s existence. They aren’t any more corrupt than many Christians. They even do “good” in the broadest sense of that word. As leaders guide worshipers through this psalm, they may want to reflect on it as a description not of individuals, but of society in general. Psalm 14 isn’t lambasting agnostic Joe Smith or atheist Sally Jones. It’s grieving a culture that’s in general denial of God’s existence. In fact, countless societies throughout history have acted foolishly by doing things like taking advantage of the powerless.
Of course, even the poet’s contemporaries might have deduced Psalm 14 is just the ranting of a paranoid or pessimistic person. Perhaps that’s why the poet brings God’s perspective into the picture. God himself, he insists, looks down from heaven to see if there are any wise people. This all-seeing God concludes that “all” have turned aside and refused to do any “good.”
The apostle Paul uses this assertion in a perhaps surprising way. He uses it to bolster his argument that because “no one does good,” all desperately need God’s grace. In that sense, he turns that “no one” back on Christians who by nature do no good and so will perish unless God’s grace rescues us.
The psalmist goes on to claim in verses 4-6 that the folly of denying God’s existence and acting in ways consistent with that denial will come back to haunt fools. She warns that fools will come to learn that the God whose very existence they deny is with the righteous whom they oppress. In fact, the poet seems to suggest that fools will somehow meet God in their wicked actions toward the poor whom they “eat up.” Even as foolish people oppress the poor, they discover that God is those needy peoples’ refuge, their source of protection.
So the psalmist insists that foolish people’s oppression of vulnerable people somehow brings them into God’s presence and reveals the foolishness of their assumption that God doesn’t exist. In fact, in their very acts of oppression, fools somehow experience the terror of meeting God. Psalm 14 doesn’t explain how that happens. Scholars speculate that fools meet God in their oppression as they recognize believers’ trust in God even as they’re being victimized. Jesus on the cross and Stephen’s martyrdom offer examples of fools’ encounter with God in their very acts of injustice. Other scholars suggest that fools meet God in their injustice when they see their victims band together in times of trouble, caring for each even as fools beat them down.
The psalmist ends this lament with a prayer that God send salvation in order to restore his beaten peoples’ fortunes. Yet the psalmist may also be praying even for fools who act wickedly on the basis of their denial of God’s existence. He may, in fact, be praying for God’s deliverance of oppressors from their oppressive ways. After all, only when God saves and restores foolish people can they too genuinely rejoice and glad.
It’s in interesting and not a little ironic that one website that offers advice on investing is called “The Motley Fool.” The site claims that it’s “dedicated to building the world’s greatest investment community.” It adds that its company’s name is taken from Shakespeare “whose wise fools both instructed and amused, and could speak to the king – without getting their heads lopped off.”
Yet might financial advice be foolish in a way the company doesn’t intend? After all, it may foster the illusion that if we just make the right investments and financial choices, we’ll be wise (as well as wealthy). It seems to echo our culture’s view of reality that if we invest “wisely,” everything will be okay. And if it’s not, it’s someone else’s fault.
Author: Stan Mast
As I’ve said before, there is nothing ordinary about Ordinary Time, and that is surely the case with this text. This is an extraordinary prayer for Ordinary Time. Paul has just described the church’s calling in cosmic terms. The unity of Gentile and Jew in the church is intended by God to make known the manifold wisdom of God “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (3:10) That high calling is why Paul begins our text with “for this reason I kneel….” The only way the church can attain the heights to which God has called us is to kneel in prayer.
What a prayer it is! When I compare Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians with my prayers for those I love, I am humbled. I pray for such ordinary things as safety and provision and healing. Not Paul. He may be on his knees, but his prayer soars to spiritual heights most Christians never approach. His picture of God as he prays and the requests he makes are breathtaking. If ever there were hard proof of the “God breathed” character of Scripture, this prayer is it.
If I always pictured God as Paul does here, I would pray with much more boldness and imagination. In keeping with the teaching of Jesus, he calls God, Father. But notice the play on words in verse 14. The word “family” is patria in Greek, while “Father” is patera. Commentators are not in agreement about the meaning of patria or about the connection between those two words, but at least we can say that we should not make God in the image of our earthly fathers. Rather God is the model for us. We should not reason from our earthly fathers up to God, but let God be the authoritative pattern for earthly fatherhood.
This is an important point, because so many people cannot pray to God as Father after being abused by their earthly fathers. Not being able to call God “Father” makes prayer less intimate than Jesus intended, so Paul reminds us that God the Father is the creator and redeemer of all human fathers. Thus, he excels them in every possible way. He is the Father of everyone in heaven and on earth. Given the immediate context here, Paul is probably not talking about the universal Fatherhood of God of nineteenth century liberalism, but about the redemptive Fatherhood of God revealed in the absolute unity and equality of Gentile and Jew in the church.
Paul’s picture of God grows even brighter when he talks about “the glorious riches” of God. Not only is God willing to answer our prayers, but he is able to do so in a way beyond our imagination (cf. verse 20). Paul’s exact words here are inspiring. The Greek is ploutos tes doxes, the riches of his glory. God is willing to help us not just out of his glorious treasury of resources, but out of the riches of his own inexhaustible Self. In other words, there is no limit to what God can do in response to our prayers, because God himself is limitless. What’s more, Paul prays that God will answer not only “out of” his glory, but “according to” that glory, in proportion to his glory, in the full measure of his glory. If I had such a full and intimate picture of God when I pray, I would be more confident and peaceful when I pray.
The actual content of Paul’s prayer is structured around three hina clauses in verses 16, 18, and 19: “that he may strengthen you with power;” “that you may have power… to grasp;” “that you may be filled.” These hina clauses are like rungs on a ladder; each request takes Paul a step higher in what he dares to ask for. First he asks for power, but not power to accomplish some herculean earthly task, like being a good father or running a large corporation or bringing world peace. His prayer is theological in the extreme, because we can never accomplish those earthly tasks unless Paul’s first, deeply spiritual, request is granted. He prays for the power that will strengthen his faith, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
Such power comes from the Holy Spirit who dwells within, “in your inner being.” Such Spirit given power is absolutely essential given the daily challenges to our faith. Everything in our world militates against a truly Christ centered faith, so it is nearly impossible to “live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) But now, there’s a problem with Paul’s deep prayer. Why does Paul pray that Christ “may dwell in your hearts?” Doesn’t Christ already dwell in our hearts? Galatians 2:20 says “Christ lives in me.” So why does Paul pray this? Because our experience of Christ’s indwelling depends on our faith. Without faith we will not be aware of Christ’s presence, we won’t rely on him, we won’t enjoy fellowship with him, and we won’t center our lives in him. If Christ does not dwell in our hearts through faith, the rest of Paul’s prayer and, indeed, the entire Christian life are impossible.
Paul’s next petition has to do with love, not power, although he prays for the power to know that love, “that (hina) you may have power… to grasp… and to know the love of Christ….” Again, his petition is amazingly complex. The clause just before that hiva, “being rooted and established in love,” tells us a very important thing about understanding the love of Christ. Unless we have love and are loved, we cannot understand God’s love. But of course, we have love and are loved because God first loved us. William Hendriksen says that this circle of love is “the most blessed chain reaction in the universe.” The practical impact of this theological mystery is that those whose love is shallow and shaky (not “rooted and established”) will not be able to understand the love of Christ. If God’s gift of love has been distorted or damaged by a lack of love in our upbringing, it is almost impossible for us to ever understand the love of Christ.
Except that the power of God is able to overcome our upbringing. That’s why Paul prays for power here, and links that power with the church (“together with all the saints”). God created the church so that together we can come to know the love of Christ. This second family, this “one new man out of the two (2:15)” is designed by God to give us a new experience of love that will usher us into the love of Christ. Yes, I know that is terribly idealistic, and it happens far too seldom. But that is God’s idea. Here Paul prays that God’s idea may happen more and more, so that all of us “may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp… and to know the love [of Christ].”
This second petition calls for careful interpretation. For one thing, note that Paul is not talking about the love of God in general, but about the love of Christ. And this is not our love for Christ, but his love for us. That’s what he wants us to understand. That’s what we need to understand if we are ever going to live by faith in the Son of God. The main reason we don’t trust him and obey him always is that we don’t really don’t grasp how much he loves us. We say we believe it; we sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” But we don’t really know it, not deeply, not always. We don’t grasp, in Paul’s words, “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” Be careful as you preach that clause; don’t try to parse each adjective there. Paul is multiplying words to give us a sense of the magnitude of Christ’s love. And, be aware that the words “the love of Christ” aren’t found where the NIV puts them (after the “wide” and “deep”). That’s probably what Paul meant, but he might also have been referring to God himself.
The words “the love of Christ” are found at the very end of this hina clause for emphasis. It’s as though Paul is saying, “This is what I’m talking about with all my words. I want you to know the love of Christ.” Of course, you can’t know that love completely, because it surpasses knowledge. The Greek there is uperballousan gvoseos, meaning that this is a love that is way over your head. You can’t wrap your head around it; it is literally incomprehensible. That doesn’t mean it is nonsense or non-existent. It means that you can know it by experience, in ways that can’t be fully understood or expressed. I want you to have the full experience of Christ’s love.
That, in turn, will give you an experience of “the fullness of God.” This is the third hina clause, and with it Paul has reached the heights of prayer. This is the highest blessing we could ever pray for. It is the goal of all human life. It is what we were made for. Though all religions aim for this, it is utterly impossible for sinful human beings to attain it, except by the grace of God. And that is precisely what Paul prays for here. By the grace of God through the power of the Holy Spirit, those who have Christ dwelling in their hearts through faith can grasp the love of Christ in their experience. Then, and only then, can we be filled to the measure of the fullness of God. That last phrase surely cannot mean that we can contain God in ourselves, for that is impossible. The finite cannot contain the infinite anymore than a teacup can contain the ocean. It must mean that God will fill us with the fullness he intended in the beginning, the full humanity that has been ruined by sin, the fullness of life Christ came to bring, “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4) The world has ever seen only one fully human being, in Christ. God’s ultimate intent is to restore us all to the full glory of the image of God. That’s what Paul prays for here.
This prayer is so majestic that it seems almost unreal, unearthly, even impossible. Is that why Paul ends with this soaring doxology? “Now to him who is able to do (not just more, but) immeasurably more, than (not only) what we ask (but even) imagine….” There is literally no limit to what God can do in response to your prayers. In fact, the power of God that can do anything is already “at work within us.” When you pray, you are not talking to a God who is simply “high and lifted up and able to do anything.” He is also within you already at work.
Given who God is, we join Paul in saying, “To him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever.” It’s fascinating that Paul links the church and Christ in this doxology. These two together bring glory to God, the Bride and the Bridegroom the Redeemed and the Redeemer. Given the context in which Paul talks about a new humanity, he is saying here that the glory of God is most clearly seen in his gracious uniting of his sinful creatures to each other and to his eternal sinless Son.
This text gives us the opportunity to lift the vision and the hopes and the prayers of ordinary people in ordinary time. As we enjoy life in the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, let us pray for more, much more than we usually do.
When I think of knowing a love that surpasses knowledge, I think of a newborn infant cradled in her mother’s arms. She is loved, but she couldn’t begin to describe that love. Indeed, she doesn’t even have thoughts about that love. All she has is the experience of that love. The fact that love cannot be comprehended or explained does not make that love any less real. Indeed, that infant experience of love becomes the basis of all later understanding and expressions of love.
Paul’s words about us being “filled to the measure of the fullness of God” made me think of the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,’til in heaven we take our place,
‘Til we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.
And his words about God being glorified “in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever” brought to mind “Amazing Grace.”
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing his praise
Than when we’d first begun.