July 31, 2017
Matthew 14: 13-21
Author: Scott Hoezee
John the Baptist was the last great Old Testament prophet and the first great New Testament herald of the Gospel.
And yet he dies because of a stupid, senseless, lusty, and boozy blank check promise made by Herod to a young girl whose provocative dancing had clearly stirred him on more than one level. John literally loses his head on account of a drinking party gone awry and on account of his public scolding of Herod’s larger family for their equally public immorality. He gets killed not because he heralded Jesus as the Christ and not on account of some big, cosmically vital theological issue but on account of having ticked off the wrong people by pointing out the sordid and lurid nature of their lives.
It doesn’t make sense.
But that’s often the way life goes. Gratuitous evil crops up so very often. Even the secular media frequently label any number of crimes as finally “senseless.” Killings are sometimes called “random” and “bizarre” and as having “come from out of nowhere.” Every day people get shot and stabbed and brutalized for the most stupid of reasons (many of which are in fact so stupid as to qualify for that oft-applied moniker of being “senseless” after all).
These things happen, and we know this all-too-well. But we don’t necessarily expect a figure as important as John the Baptist to get caught up in such senselessness. Yet he did. And as this lection in Matthew 14 opens, Jesus himself is reeling in grief and shock that so great a figure as his cousin could be so easily cut down. The Bible generally does not include big descriptive paragraphs that detail a given person’s interior moods or emotions. The text of Scripture contains huge gaps that a modern day novelist or even journalist would no doubt fill in. So as readers of the Bible, we sometimes need to slow ourselves down long enough to ponder what was probably really going on.
In one short verse Matthew dispatches with Jesus’ reaction to the news of John’s death. It’s not very descriptive. Yet Jesus’ immediate reaction of withdrawing privately to a desert-like, remote place speaks volumes. He’s hurting. He’s baffled. Evil won the day over the God-anointed prophet who was the harbinger for Jesus’ entire existence and ministry. Only if we decide to go the route of the heresy of docetism could we deny that the human heart within Jesus recoiled at this evil and broke over the loss of a cousin and friend. Jesus came to save lives. But now his presence on the planet had cost John his earthly life. It just didn’t make sense.
So Jesus withdraws to be alone with his thoughts and his sorrows.
It doesn’t work, of course. The eager crowds hunt him down like some Ancient Near East equivalent of paparazzi tracking down Britney Spears. Jesus would have a right to be annoyed, a right (given his emotional state) to turn his back and withdraw even more deeply into himself or into the wilderness. But, of course, Jesus ends up having compassion. He sees the people as needy and hurting themselves and so cannot possibly let them down.
We all know that the Feeding of the 5,000 happened when the crowds hounded Jesus out to a place devoid of food and resources. And we all know, too, that his feeding of the people, in addition to being a grand miracle, was an act of compassionate love.
But have we ever pondered how Jesus addresses the hurts of the people from right out of the middle of his own deep hurt? Maybe a fresh way to approach this exceedingly familiar story is to not picture—or proclaim—Jesus as the one who is serenely above it all, pulling the necessary levers behind the scenes to generate an abundance of bread and fish. Maybe we need to see Jesus as the one with red-rimmed eyes and tear-stained cheeks and whose hands are trembling for the sorrow of it all. And yet out of his own scarcity, out of his own emotional trainwreck, he manages to bring forth an abundance of life and joy.
Viewing this story through that lens is a wonderful reminder of the entire trajectory of our salvation and of the gospel that narrates the story to us. Starting with the surprise incarnation of God’s own Son as a humble and helpless baby, the New Testament assures us that our salvation comes not from the abundance of divine strength and the flexing of divine muscle but somehow right out of the same poverty and weakness that led the Son of God to identify with us so sharply in the first place.
As Frederick Dale Bruner points out, the Feeding of the 5,000 is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that gets recorded in all four gospels. The only one! What is it about this miracle that makes it so important the evangelists clearly concluded that you simply could not have a gospel without it? Bruner suggests that it may be because of the tie-in of this miracle to the Lord’s Supper (is there any missing that rhythm of “taking, thanking, breaking, and giving”?). Jesus is revealed in this story as not only sufficient for spiritual needs but also physical ones but that somehow the “feeding” Jesus ultimately provides (and that we see again and again in the Holy Supper of communion/Eucharist) is food for not just the Church but for the world. Like the paltry amount of bread and fish the disciples initially discovered, so the food of the Lord’s Supper looks paltry and not up to the task of giving this hurting and broken world what it needs. But this story tells us it is sufficient and that this is precisely what the world needs. Maybe that is why–theologically, sacramentally, and ecclesiastically—the four evangelists knew that this story had to be included.
We should also note that the Gospels are all very careful in relating this story to remind us that the place to which Jesus withdrew was not just quiet, remote, serene, or even “lonely” as some translations put it. No, it was an eremos place in Greek: it was the desert, the wilderness, the place that biblically is always a symbol of chaos, of the devil’s realm, of the place that takes life. Yet Jesus came to transform the wilderness back into a life-giving place. In fulfillment of the prophets’ words, when salvation comes, the desert will bloom, streams will flow in the wilderness, myrtle and flowers will grow instead of weeds and thorns. Jesus’ mass feeding in the place of death prefigures the transformation of the whole world from chaos and back to the cosmos God intended “in the beginning.”
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.
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, thus 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 “Bouef Bourguignon avec Champignon” is so fine we’ll shell out thirty or forty bucks just to get a plate of it.
Author: Doug Bratt
God graciously meets and accepts God’s adopted sons and daughters wherever and whoever we are. But God never just leaves us where we are.
That’s no less true of God’s 21st century adopted daughters and sons than it is of Jacob. The first time God meets Jacob, he’s fleeing both his homeland and his twin’s wrath he has incurred by scamming him out of his father’s blessing. In the second case, God meets Jacob as he’s on his way back to his homeland. God meets the cheater, in other words, both going and coming.
However, Genesis 28 and 32 make it quite clear that Jacob is unprepared for both meetings with God. In the first instance, after all, he’s sleeping. In the second Jacob is preparing for a meeting, all right. It’s just not God whom he’s getting ready to meet.
As our text unfolds, Jacob is, instead, preparing to meet his twin brother Esau. Jacob had schemed to “buy” his brother’s birthright. His mother and he wheeled and dealt their way to robbing Esau of his father’s blessing. Jacob also lied to and swindled his Uncle Laban.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, on his way back home, he acts less like a saint than what my colleague Scott Hoezee calls “a military general in a war room.” Jacob is spitting out orders to divide his “troops” and their supplies. That way if his brother overwhelms one convoy, at least the other can survive. That strategy becomes especially important when Jacob learns that Esau is heading straight at him along with 400 men.
After all, Jacob can’t be sure whether Esau is coming to try to kill, just meet or welcome him. So he does what generals have often done throughout history: he prays to his God. Jacob thanks God for showing him the kind of mercy he hasn’t deserved. However, he also basically tries to recruit God for his side in what he fears is his coming showdown with his brother Esau.
Yet as Hoezee also points out, Jacob hedges his bets by sending his brother gifts in stages. Hoezee notes that he cleverly releases those gifts so that his brother receives a new gift about once an hour. It strongly suggests that Jacob, while praying to God, still assumes he must take things into his own hands in order to deal with his brother.
It’s not some godly Jacob, but this conniving, wheeler-dealer Jacob whom God has promised to stay with until the very end. This, not some spiritually cleansed saint, is the distrustful and untrustworthy Jacob that God has, in fact, promised to bless. God, after all, accepts God’s people wherever and whoever we are.
So while on the night before Jacob’s showdown with his twin the scammer assumes he’s all alone, he’s, in fact, not. God, after all, has promised to stay with him to the very end of his trip back home. What’s more, as it turns out, there’s also another “man” at the Jabbok too. Before he can reunite with his brother Esau, with whom he wrestled in his mom’s womb, Jacob must wrestle with this highly mysterious opponent with whom, as it turns out, he has, in a sense, wrestled all of his life.
While their “match” probably lasts a long time, Genesis 32’s account of it doesn’t. It simply reports they “wrestled until daybreak.” It must be a pretty even contest; the mysterious stranger isn’t able to overpower Jacob – even though the heel’s already 97 years old. Yet maybe that shouldn’t surprise us. After all, Jacob hasn’t just repeatedly proven to be a cheater. He’s also persistently shown himself to be amazingly stubborn. Just ask his Uncle Laban.
Because he can’t beat the aging, tenacious fugitive, Jacob’s mysterious opponent touches his hip, probably dislocating it. He reduces Jacob to a physically broken man who can no longer fully defend himself – against either the wrestler or his brother Esau.
Jacob will have to limp not just toward his brother and his homeland, but also wherever he goes for the rest of his life. God, after all, accepts God’s beloved wherever or whoever we are. But God never just lets us stay the same. God transforms God’s children, even if God must somehow break us to do so. God will, indeed, stay with and bless Jacob, just as God had promised. But it’s a God who sometimes breaks in order to heal who stays with broken Jacob.
Is that why a Jacob who’s newly physically disabled clings so desperately to the mysterious wrestler? We sense that Jacob finally senses his sparring partner is no ordinary wrestler. We also sense that he finally realizes that he can’t move forward, whether toward Esau or back home, under his own power. After all, he frantically clings to his opponent like he clung to his brother’s heel until the mysterious wrestler blesses him.
But why does Jacob beg for a blessing? Why doesn’t he first ask with whom he’s been wrestling all night? Or why the Wrestler attacked him in the first place? Who, asks Hoezee, ends a wrestling match by asking for a blessing? Jacob does. He is, after all, as Ian Provan notes, a man obsessed with gaining blessings. Jacob’s, in fact, so fixated on them that he was willing to swindle both his big brother and dying old father to get one.
Yet while Jacob was in control of those earlier situations, he’s not in control on Jabbok’s banks. In order to get a blessing from this Mysterious Stranger, he’ll have to give up something. He must surrender his name that links him to all the cheating he’s done up to this point in his life. His name that, as he says it, is a kind of confession of his dishonest ways.
God, after all, accepts God’s adopted sons and daughters wherever and whoever we are. But God will never let us just stay the way we are. God always transforms God’s people in order to make us more and more like God. So God gives Jacob a new name: “Israel,” because he has struggled with God.
Yet perhaps it’s not just that he has struggled with God. We generally translate verse 32 as meaning Jacob has “overcome.” But the same word can mean he “understood.” So perhaps Jacob’s new name Israel also at least suggests God has given him a new, better understanding of who his God is.
While we don’t often attach much importance to either names or changes to them, a person’s name in the Scriptures isn’t just her “label” or his “handle.” It also reflects that person’s character. So God doesn’t just change God’s sparring partner’s name. God also changes his very nature. God graciously begins Israel’s transformation that will make him more and more like himself.
Some preachers and devotionals apply the lessons of Jacob’s wrestling match to our own struggles with God over God’s plans and sometimes-mysterious ways. Yet this wrestling match starts with verse 24’s report that “a man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak.” So maybe it’s more appropriate to think of Genesis 32 as pointing to God’s wrestling with our flawed ways and selves.
Genesis 32’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us may have some ideas of how God may be wrestling with them right now. So it might be worth exploring what sorts of disobedience and unfaithfulness God is trying to displace. Perhaps it’s in God’s people’s families and circles of friends, or workplaces or places of recreation. Maybe God is dislocating something in the way we manage our finances or personal health.
When God dislocates those things, God’s adopted children sometimes feel like we’re left limping. It may leave us feeling vulnerable to the assaults of our own Esau’s or mysterious strangers. But limp forward God’s people do, toward the dawn that is not just the new heaven and earth, but also the sunrise that is God’s good and loving purposes for us. Limping with both the new name and character God gives us: beloved, adopted child of God.
Illustration Idea (from Scott Hoezee’s 7/23/2017 CEP Gospel Sermon Starter)
‘In my neck of the Reformed woods, an English professor named Stanley Wiersma used to delight folks with his Garrison Keillor-like musings on life in Iowa and in the churches of Iowa in particular, all written under the nom de plume of Sietze Buining. In one of his more indelible portraits in the book Purpaleanie and other Permutations, we meet a man named “Benny” in a poem titled “Excommunication.”
‘Benny Ploegster is an alcoholic who regularly attended church. For three years Benny had been under discipline: first a silent censure, then a more public censure that initially left his name out of the matter. Later it was announced publicly that it was indeed Benny who was under scrutiny. Three years is a long time to work with someone, and so finally Benny’s persistent struggle with the bottle led the church (and God too, apparently) to run out of patience. So a deadline was set, and when Benny was unable to meet that deadline by cleaning up his act and repenting of his wicked, boozy ways, a date was set for the public excommunication.
‘[But] Benny attended his excommunication.
‘He even stood in the midst of the congregation while the pastor solemnly read the standard form that designated Benny a “Gentile and a publican” with whom the church was to have no further association. Benny stood there and heard it all. As Wiersma put it, “It was not in protest, although the dominie [pastor] thought so, and it was not in stupidity, although the congregation thought so, that Benny stood up for excommunication and until he died of cirrhosis attended as regularly as before. He did not partake of communion.
‘Like Jacob wrestling with God and saying, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me,’ our Benny was wrestling with us and with God. Though he lacked Jacob’s talent for articulation, his standing said as explicitly as its verbal equivalent: I will not be cut off as though I do not exist. I am God’s child, all right, God’s naughty child, but still God’s child: Benny.
‘And what of us who attended church regularly out of custom and superstition and without much desire and without any questioning that we had a right to be there? What of us who had never wrestled like Benny? Though he did not intend it, by standing up to be excommunicated, was Benny excommunicating us? The church is gone now, the lumber used for a cattle shed, but in memory the place where Benny stood is forever holy ground. Was Benny excommunicating me?”
Sietze Buining, Purpaleanie and other Permutations. Middleburg, Iowa: The Middleburg Press, 1978, pp. 55-57.
Psalm 17: 1-7, 15
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 17 deals with the age old problem of oppression and wickedness. It’s a popular topic in many of the ancient Psalms, and it is a constant feature of news reports today. All through history and all over the world, the wicked oppress the innocent. How should the innocent respond? Well, there are two basic, instinctual responses: fight or flight.
We can battle back, as some victims of the Assad regime are doing in Syria. Some argue that America should join the battle over there as part of compassionate statesmanship. Verses 10-14 (depending on how we translate them) come close to such an attack response. The RCL leaves those verses out of our reading for today, perhaps because attacking wickedness seems contrary to Jesus’ call to love our enemies. (But think of the prophets’ strong words about defending the oppressed.)
The other instinctual response to oppression by the wicked is to run away, as many Syrians are doing. The parallel response on the part of those who witness oppression from the outside is to look away, pass by on the other side, and, thus, effectively cave in to wickedness by refusing to get involved. Those who want to join the Syrian civil war on the side of the oppressed see opponents of involvement as running away from our responsibility as a just nation.
Both of those reptilian responses to oppression by the wicked are problematic. Fighting could involve real danger to us, while fleeing could leave millions of innocent people in danger. Is there another way to respond? Psalm 17 and other Psalms, like Psalm 139, suggest a third way. Take the whole problem to God in prayer. While that might be seen as a copout by some, the Psalmist sees it as his only real option.
The Psalmist does not call on God first of all to “get” his oppressors, though there is some of that toward the end of the Psalm. His first instinct is to protest his innocence as he asks God to vindicate his good name. Apparently the “mortal enemies” who surround him have accused him of dire crimes and misdemeanors. So the Psalmist boldly protests that he is innocent of all wrongdoing.
Contrary to Psalm 139 (which we considered just two weeks ago on this same “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website), the Psalmist doesn’t ask God to search him to see if there is any wicked way in him. Rather, he simply claims that he is guiltless: his prayer is “righteous;” it “does not rise from deceitful lips;” “you will find nothing” wrong if you test me; “I have resolved that my mouth will not sin;” “I have kept myself from the ways of violent men;” “my feet have not slipped.” With an absolutely clear conscience, he asks God to vindicate his good name. Using none of the deviously clever legal maneuvers we hear on popular TV shows about lawyers, this plaintiff simply says, “I’m innocent, Your Honor. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Such claims of complete innocence will be hard to swallow for anyone raised on the Reformed doctrine of Total Depravity and the biblical texts on which such doctrines are based. “There is no one righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10).” “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” “As for you, you were dead in your transgression and sins… (Ephesians 2:1).” Even David, who protests his innocence here, is very forthcoming about his utter guilt in Psalms 32 and 51. Of course, one could argue that David wrote Psalm 17 long before his precipitous fall into sin and disgrace in the sordid episode involving Bathsheba and Uriah. He was a younger and more naïve man when he wrote Psalm 17.
On the other hand, even staunch Reformed preachers (not to mention preachers of less stern theological stripes) know that by the power of the Holy Spirit believers can live relatively righteous lives. That is surely the point of Paul’s famous words in Romans 8:1-4, and particularly the last words (“so that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit”). And even the darkest Calvinist confesses with Question and Answer 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism (a key Reformed confession from the 16th century) that “we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil… unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God.”
So, a sermon on this Psalm could issue a call to such righteous living, encouraging sinners with David’s claim that it is possible to do so. Indeed, it is expected, given the presence and power of the Spirit in our lives. Too many Christians simply give in to their sinful impulses and habitual behaviors. Psalm 17 is a challenge to higher living. Live in such a way that you can legitimately plead your innocence to God when wicked people accuse you of crimes you did not commit.
Indeed, that is the context here. David is accused of specific sins, and he knows he didn’t do them. Some scholars think that the historical background of this Psalm is found in I Samuel 24, where Saul is pursuing David. Saul suspects that David has traitorous plans to seize the Kingdom by taking Saul’s life. When Saul entered the cave in which David was hiding, David spared Saul’s life, choosing to cut off a piece of Saul’s robe, rather than Saul’s head. Then popping out of the cave when Saul rejoined his men, David shouted out to Saul in words that sound very much like the kernel of Psalm 17. “May the Lord be our judge and decide between us. May he consider my cause and uphold it; may he vindicate me by delivering me from your hand (I Samuel 24:15).”
David is not pleading complete sinlessness here. He is rather arguing that he did not commit these particular sins of which Saul and his friends have accused him. In this sense, Psalm 17 is a bit like Job’s protestations vis a vis the accusations of his “friends.” Further, David’s claim of righteousness before God is not a denial of the New Testament judgments that “no one is righteous.” It is, rather, an Old Testament way of saying that David has remained true to his God. While not completely sinless, he has kept his commitment to Yahweh.
True to God’s command when he renewed covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17:1, David had “walked before Yahweh and was blameless” in that regard. As David said in his further words to Saul in I Samuel 24, he would not violate God’s plan. He would not reach out his hand against God’s anointed one, even though that mad king was intent on taking David’s life. David would live his life before God in radical trust. That’s the righteousness of which David speaks in Psalm 17. I have never forsaken my allegiance to and trust in Yahweh.
Thus, David appeals to the God whom he has never forsaken (even in those sinful moments of his life), asking God to save him from his enemies who wrongfully accuse him. “I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer.” That’s the heart of his prayer, though he fleshes it out with some beautiful poetry. Unfortunately, the RCL has chopped off the most beautiful (and most ugly) parts of the Psalm. “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.”
Such images would preach powerfully. On the one hand, we have these enemies who hunt us down with eagle eyes and lie in wait to pounce on us like mighty lions. On the other hand, we have Yahweh sheltering us under his mighty wings and keeping his eye on us as his precious ones. So, perhaps you need to stray outside the reading assigned to this day, in order to show the full color and power of the Psalm. In a world full of oppression by the wicked, we can take our anger and our fears (fight and flight) to our Judge who will act for us and vindicate our name and our cause.
The Psalm ends with a calm confession of confidence. “And I—in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.” These words are pregnant with possibilities for preaching. After being pursued by my enemies and their ceaseless accusations, I will lie down in peace at the end of the day, confident of my innocence and of God’s protection. And I know that I will wake up the next day, when God’s face will be shining on me again. What a wonderful antidote to insomnia brought on by the oppression of the wicked!
Or you could explore in more depth that phrase, “I will see your face.” Seeing the face of God is a big theme in the Old Testament and in Christian theology. Think of the way early Christians saw the Beatific Vision as the whole goal of the Christian life. One of my favorite old hymns captures that longing. “Father of Jesus, love divine, what rapture will it be, prostrate before thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on thee.”
There is much to play with in this Psalm along that line. Earlier the Psalmist had asked God, “may your eyes see what is right,” over against the unjust accusations of his enemies. Now, at the end, the Psalmist trusts that his own eyes will see God. Thus, his ultimate response to the oppression of the wicked is to turn his eyes away from them and fix them on God. His vision is dominated not by his enemies, but by his God.
Finally, it might pay homiletical dividends to focus on that last occurrence of “righteousness.” Earlier in the Psalm, that word clearly referred to David’s relative innocence; he did not commit the crimes of which he was accused by his enemies and he had not strayed from trusting his God. But that didn’t mean he was completely righteous in the sight of God. Nor are we, no matter how much we may protest our innocence when we are persecuted by wicked folks.
All of us need to confess the words of Paul in Romans 3 (quoted above), using the kind of passionate penitence voiced by David in Psalms 32 and 51. That kind of confession of unrighteousness leads us directly to the righteousness of Christ, ala Romans 3:21-26. Only in his righteousness, given by grace and received through faith in Christ, can we be sure that we shall awaken to see God’s face. That may not have been David’s meaning in Psalm 17:15, but it is surely the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is our righteousness. He is our only hope before the Judge of heaven and earth.
So even as we use Psalm 17 to teach folks how to respond to unjust oppression, and to challenge them to righteous living in the power of the Spirit, we must also preach it to encourage our people to finally rest their whole earthly case before God, relying on the finished work of Jesus Christ. Not only will that enable us to fall asleep in peace and wake up in joy, but it will also give us the hope of the final awakening, when the dead in Christ will rise first on the great “gettin’ up morning.” From the earliest days, the church has seen verse 17 as a reference to the Resurrection of believers who have died in the Lord.
The mood of Psalm 17 is not particularly upbeat. How can it be when we’re dealing with the old problem of oppression and wickedness? The last verse of this serious Psalm reminded me of another of my favorite hymns, “Rejoice the Lord is King.” “Rejoice in glorious hope! Jesus, the Judge, shall come and take his servants up to their eternal home. We soon shall hear the archangel’s voice, the trump of God shall sound, Rejoice!” When our ears are filled with the accusations of our foes, let us rejoice in the Gospel’s joyful sound. “Jesus, the Judge, shall come.” Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.
Romans 9: 1-5
Author: Scott Hoezee
Just five brief verses in this Lectionary reading but this short passage—all of 85 words in the original Greek—is more than enough to choke you up. It is very nearly to weep. These verses kick off a larger three-chapter section in Romans in which half of the time Paul seems to be talking to himself, and the Romans just get to overhear his internal debate. But these five verses preview all of what is to come as Paul agonizes over the status of his own people, Israel, given their rejection of the One he now knows beyond a shadow of a doubt is the long-awaited Messiah of God.
In one sense all three chapters boil down to Paul’s thrusting his arms outward and crying out, “Now what!!??” Just possibly the worst thing possible to happen to God’s covenantal people has taken place. The bottom has dropped out. And few if any knew better than Paul just how decisively the bottom had dropped out: the Jews had not just rejected Jesus as the Christ, they had VEHEMENTLY rejected him to the point of—as the former Pharisee Saul of Tarsus knew from his own experience—actively persecuting and killing those who believed in Jesus.
The only thing worse than such active persecution was the absolute worst thing in all history: the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of his own people.
Israel had had it all, Paul writes in swift strokes. They had the gift of the law, the gift of the covenants, the gift of God’s own glory dwelling in their midst once upon a time. They had had the Temple, the worship, the relationship with the Creator God of the whole cosmos. What more could have God given to his own people? It had been rich, lavish, hyper-abundant. And it all had the character and nature of a sheer gift. Undeserved. God had been relentless with his lovingkindness, with his chesed, that core characteristic of God for which God is praised more than for any other reason all through the Psalms and the rest of the Hebrew Scripture.
But now even as Paul will tell the Philippians that he regarded his past alleged accomplishments as a steaming pile of cow poop, so all of those good things God had given to Israel are also now in tatters, blown quite probably to smithereens by Israel’s rejection of God’s Christ. “Now what!!??” Paul plaintively screams. Make no mistake: this is killing Paul on the inside. It is tearing him up, keeping him up nights, haunting him even during daylight hours.
It’s a pity that the Church has not always—or maybe even typically—followed suit. As it stands, God’s people have a grim legacy of anti-Semitism. And even to this day—aside from some mistaken dispensationalist ideas on the role modern-day Israel may play in the End Times—one seldom encounters this kind of passionate hope for God’s covenant people. A very great shame, that. A very great sin.
Ultimately Paul will not come up with any easy answers other than to keep preaching the Gospel to all people—including the Jews—and see what comes of it. He cannot prove it but he believes deeply and ardently that there is a future for God’s covenant people despite the colossal nature of their failure in recognizing the Christ. And at the end of chapter 11, long about the time Paul’s tortured ponderings reach fever pitch, he straddles the fence and sings the doxology in hope.
But there is one line in these brief five verses that is absolutely gripping, and so deeply telling as to Paul’s fundamental grasp of Gospel basics. Or it’s not really just the basics—it’s really more Paul’s grasp of the very deep core of the Gospel, that which makes the Gospel Good News, that which made the work of Christ WORK.
What do I mean? It is when Paul says that if it could save his people the Jews, the Israelites, he would let himself be accursed to eternal hell. If sacrificing himself would do the trick—and alas he senses it won’t—then he would be willing to take their place, to become cursed the way they deserve to be cursed. I am not sure there is another passage in the whole New Testament that reveals such utter transparency to Christ Jesus. I cannot think of another verse from any Bible writer that shows how very, very well he “gets it.” Because to save all people, this is exactly what JESUS HIMSELF did.
Jesus let himself—who had no sin—to become sin for us. Notice: not just get blamed as a sinner, not just to get treated as though he had some sins after all. No, it is more radical than this: Jesus BECAME sin, became the very enemy of God that lies behind each and every sin in human history. In so doing, he also of course became cursed for this and died an accursed death on the ignominious cross. That is how far Jesus was willing to go to get salvation done.
And that is how far Paul would be willing to go if it would save his own people from their own just deserts. The disciple is not greater than the master, of course, but seldom has a disciple displayed such a keen sense for what makes Jesus the Master than Paul. It is all about love—self-forgetting, self-sacrificing love.
The example Paul sets here is a lesson for us all. Or maybe less a lesson than a very profound spiritual role model to which to aspire in our own devotion to Jesus and yes, to his people.
Frederick Dale Bruner has told the story that he heard via a German theologian. The story is apocryphal if taken literally but when thought of as something those with eyes of faith could see, it has a literal application and meaning. The story says that as the Nazis strengthened their grip on Germany, there came a time when a Nazi-leaning Christian pastor stood up in his Lutheran Church and thundered from the pulpit, “If there is anyone here with Jewish blood in him, leave now.” And for those with eyes to see, the Christ figure on the crucifix in the church’s chancel climbed down from the cross, walked up the center aisle, and exited the building.