July 27, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
(Note: The Year B Common Lectionary devotes no fewer than five summertime Sundays to a slow trek through John 6. Because lots of similar themes weave through the various textual chunks as divided by the RCL, I am this week doing something a little different: instead of posting my usual series of sermon-starter musings, I am posting an entire sermon entitled “Never Go Hungry”, based on John 6:25-59, one that I preached some years ago on the shank of John 6. I hope it provides some inspiration or sparks a new idea or two in any of you, my fellow preachers, who read this in late July and early August 2015.)
In a sermon I once preached on the famous “I Am” sayings in John’s Gospel, I mentioned the Simon and Garfunkel song that had the line, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.” Originally part of the soundtrack for the film The Graduate, the song “Mrs. Robinson” has become one of the 1960s’ best-known, iconic ballads.
In a 60 Minutes interview a few years back the songwriter Paul Simon mentioned that some time after the song was released, he received a letter from Joe DiMaggio in which DiMaggio expressed his befuddlement at what in the world that song could mean. DiMaggio wrote, “What do you mean ‘Where have I gone?’ I haven’t gone anywhere! I’m still around–I’m selling Mr. Coffee machines.” Then Mr. Simon smiled wryly at Mike Wallace and remarked, “Obviously Mr. DiMaggio is not accustomed to thinking of himself as a metaphor!”
But then, who is? Most, if not all, of us see ourselves as real people with literal, descriptive identities. For instance, I am a pastor, a husband, a father, a committee member, a volunteer, a son–these are all straightforward descriptions of who I am in relation to the people around me in life. Like most of you, I cannot readily conceive of myself as a symbol for something, as a kind of metaphor that represents something beyond myself.
Indeed, if someone came up to you at a party and said, “You are my shelter from the storms of life,” well, you’d be taken aback. Then again, if you met someone who constantly spouted self-referential metaphors, you’d have to wonder about him or her. We expect people to denote themselves by saying things like, “I am a plumber” or “I’m a stay-at-home Dad.” But our eyes would widen if someone said, “I am the oil that lubes my company’s machine” or “I am the antibody that shields my family from the virus of secularism.”
This is not a terribly typical mode of discourse. Yet Jesus, with some frequency according at least to the evangelist John, did refer to himself in a metaphorical mode. As we have seen here in John 6, Jesus often got into trouble when he uttered one of these “I Am” sayings. Over the course of church history these have become the much-loved subject of hymns, poems, and stained glass windows. We find these sayings rich in meaning. But it was not that way for the folks who first heard these words.
After Jesus said, “I am the light of the world who illumines all,” the Pharisees derided Jesus. They said that Jesus could not illumine anything or anyone and he surely was shedding no light on his own identity by saying such weird things. After he said “I am the good shepherd,” the crowds denounced Jesus as a lunatic, saying he was full of a demon and so was “raving mad.” And after the most lovely of all the sayings, “I am the resurrection and the life,” the case against Jesus was cinched and he was soon arrested.
Make your choice, C.S. Lewis once said: embrace Jesus as the God and Lord of your life or squirrel him away with the rest of history’s odd ducks. But please don’t bore the world with all this blather that although not divine, Jesus was a very fine ethical teacher who had a striking way with words. Naturally, these days a lot of people do want to say that Jesus was no more than a wandering Galilean cynic sage, a good man, a clever and insightful man but no more. He surely was no God and was definitely not thee one true God in our collective historical midst. But given what Jesus is reported to have said about himself, that generic way of rendering Jesus an interesting historical figure just doesn’t work.
If Jesus said these things without also being God, then he was not a good man: he was either a devious deceiver or a nut. But down along the ages Christians have believed that Jesus did say these things but that he was neither devious nor insane. Instead, these sayings teach us not just that Jesus is God, they also tell us more about who God is.
As many scholars have noted, the sheer number of times that Jesus so emphatically referred to himself as “I am” is itself very likely an echo of God’s personal name as he first disclosed it to Moses at the burning bush. “You tell Israel that I AM sent you.” As some of you may know, in the Greek language of the New Testament it is not necessary to use personal pronouns. In Greek the verbs are highly inflected–that is, each verb form has its own unique ending which all by itself indicates whether the subject of the verb is “I” or “you” or “we” or “she.”
So in much of the New Testament when you read in English a line like, “I am going over there,” in the original Greek you don’t actually find the word “I”, which in Greek is ego. The pronoun is implied by the verb form. But in the “I Am” sayings Jesus is very emphatic, each time including the ego as a way of saying, “I am” in a way fiercely reminiscent of the name “Yahweh,” the great I AM of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Creation, the God of the Exodus, the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
As John 6 makes clear, not only is Jesus’ very likely identifying himself with the Yahweh of the Old Testament, you need to have a strong faith in the One Jesus calls “Father” if you are to see in these “I Am” sayings anything other than the ravings of a rather odd man. If God the Father is not working in your heart when you hear Jesus say these things, your reaction will be logical, sensible, and on the human level very straightforward: namely, you will reject Jesus for uttering words that are as ludicrous as they are disgusting. But that’s only on the human level. When the divine level is factored in, the “I Am” sayings begin to coalesce into a vision of such utter clarity as to be startling.
Jesus begins with “I am the bread of life.” He begins with that most basic of human needs: sustenance, calories, food. Yet the bread Jesus talks about is clearly not that kind of food. Jesus, of course, has just finished the miracle of feeding 5,000 folks from five little mini-loaves of barley bread. It created quite a sensation and, as Jesus says in verse 26, that is why so many people are still following him around. We like people who can give us good food. Just look at the average fundraiser or auction even in churches: of all the things people put up for sale to raise money for the youth group or something, nothing quite brings in the bucks like the food items! (I once auctioned off a gourmet dinner to be cooked by me for 6 people and it went at the church auction for just shy of $1,000!)
Jesus just fed a great throng of folks in what at that time must have been the world’s biggest tailgater-like picnic. Naturally he attracted a lot of attention. “I know why you’re all here today,” Jesus says in verse 26. “It’s not the other miracles I did that has drawn you–you’re looking for another free lunch. But that’s nothing compared to the true bread of heaven that endures.” What follows on this is a fairly long and, as you no doubt noted earlier, an at-times rather confusing verbal tug-of-war as Jesus and the folks around him go back and forth about manna, true food, and eternal life.
It’s a bit confusing and repetitive but what becomes clear is that although the manna in the wilderness long ago was a wonderful miracle, it was only a shadow, quite literally just a foretaste or appetizer, of the larger plan of God. As great as the manna was, it was still just regular food. And so of course those who ate that manna were long dead. The 5,000 folks on the Galilean hillsides that day would die eventually, too, even if Jesus provided a picnic like that every week for years. So Jesus keeps talking about a food that will last, a sustenance that nourishes and strengthens for eternal life, and not just for this life.
But did you notice something else about the passage we just read? Even though Jesus keeps talking about himself as a kind of living bread which would sustain an eternal life, he keeps returning, refrain-like, to talk about raising people up on the last day. Clearly whatever else Jesus means by his talk of a bread that will last, he is not envisioning some wonder bread, some Ponce de Leon-like fountain of youth, that will keep you from physical death on this earth. Jesus’ thought here stretches toward the more distant, but very real, horizon of the New Creation.
But if you want to have that kind of a future life, you need to eat the food God gives. In this case the bread to chew and the drink to sip is Jesus’ own flesh and blood. You need to believe that Jesus is who is said he is: the one who was rained down from heaven by God the Father. Eventually in the church the way to confirm that you believe that core message of the gospel would become enshrined in the Lord’s Supper–the table of our Lord where bread and wine would become our way of connecting again and again with the Christ whom we believe is the very Son of God.
When you read John 6 through the lens of all those Lord’s Suppers you have in the past eaten, the scandal of what Jesus says is blunted. Because of that we almost guffaw at those overly literal people around Jesus that day in Capernaum who started gagging over the thought of some cannibal-like eating of Jesus’ actual flesh. How nice it is that we know what Jesus really had in mind! How nice that the vision which dances in our heads when we read John 6 involves perfectly cubed little chunks of white bread and wee shot glasses of Welch’s grape juice. It’s nicer to picture that instead of bloody pieces of Jesus’ forearm or beakers of dark purplish blood. And because we can think that way, John 6 is a safe passage for us to read. It neither grosses us out nor particularly scandalizes us.
What we miss by looking at these verses that way is what appears to be Jesus’ overt effort to cause a stir on that original day. As some of you may know, there is an interesting little facet to the Greek language used in this text—I know you don’t come to church to hear me talk about Greek but this time it’s important! You see, throughout most of this chapter Jesus used the typical Greek word for “to eat.” It was the word phagein which, had you been a Greek-speaking parent back then, was the word you would have used when you said to your child, “Jimmy, eat your carrots now!” But suddenly in verse 54 Jesus switches to the word trogein, a word which meant something like “to chew with your mouth open.” This is the word a parent would use if a child was smacking his food and chewing in a rather rude and impolite way: “Jimmy, don’t eat like a pig! Keep your mouth closed when you chew!”
Jesus seems intent on drawing out the startling scandal of what he is saying here. He doesn’t merely say, “Eat my flesh,” but goes further: “Chew on me, smack your lips over me, eat in a way that no one will miss what you are doing because they will be able to see what’s in your mouth!” In other words, Jesus seems determined here to do everything he can to prevent his hearers that day from envisioning a nice sacrament of bread and juice served on silver trays from a table with a nice linen covering. Jesus is steering us away from picturing people politely and discretely popping bread into their mouths the way we do each time we celebrate communion here in this sanctuary.
Of course, we all know of the moving, lyric beauty of the sacrament as it has come down to us. We understand the sacrifice of Jesus’ flesh and blood. So why on that day in John 6 didn’t Jesus explain this with a bit more precision and a bit less effort to shake people up with some disgusting word picture? Well, maybe because Jesus wanted to make vivid the absolutely radical nature of what he is talking about. Maybe it is not the people on that day who had the problem but maybe it is we who have made all of this too tame, too mundane, too easy-to-digest! We hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life–eat me if you want to live,” and we respond, “That’s nice!” even as we then embroider that verse onto a counted-cross stitch picture to put on our kitchen wall!
But we would never decorate our kitchens with the image of someone chewing on Jesus’ flesh with an open mouth! That’s disgusting! Indeed it is, but what ended up happening to Jesus’ precious flesh and blood was also disgusting. It was terrible. It was hell on earth in a way none of us can imagine. Jesus says we need to become part of all that. We need to stick with him through hell and high water, through the cross and into the tomb, if we are to eat the food and sip the drink which alone can keep us with Jesus right on through the resurrection from the dead.
We need to see this odd man who kept spouting self-referential metaphors and who ended up being killed for it. We need to see him clearly and, despite all appearances, we need to believe that he was none other than God’s bread of heaven. He didn’t look like it. The manna in the desert long ago had been more wondrous-looking than Jesus had been most days. But we must believe that he’s God’s man, that he is the one sent from heaven, and that by ingesting him by faith we are nourished with a life that won’t die even when the doctors pull out the last tube of our existence on this earth.
It’s a radical thing we are called to in the Christian faith. Jesus did everything he could in John 6 to make that clear to the people around him that long ago day. We need to see it with equal clarity, disgusting, startling scandal and all. Too often we fail to do that. It finally gets to the point in some of our lives where it is unbelief, and not faith, which takes us aback. We’re surprised not by what we see on the Lord’s Table each communion service but by our neighbor who finds the Christian faith to be merely an oddment, a curiosity, perhaps even a quirky collection of ancient superstition.
Sometimes we need to be shocked back to the funny thing we do and proclaim each time we eat the bread and drink the cup. In his book The Message in the Bottle Walker Percy suggested that sometimes a good way to see life in a new light is to imagine yourself an anthropologist from Mars. Try to see your life from an outsider’s perspective. Imagine some Martian arriving here on a communion Sunday and seeing most members of this congregation pop some little white cubes into their mouths precisely on cue (the “cue” being some words about “this is my body”). Most of you don’t get to see communion from where I stand, but you’d be amazed at the military-like precision with which you all make that hand-to-mouth move at almost precisely the same second!
So suppose our Martian friend asked just what in the world this could mean, and suppose we told him that we were metaphorically ingesting the flesh of a man who was crucified two millennia ago but whose flesh and blood somehow, even all this time later, have the power to bring our flesh back to life one day at some distant, but unknown, future time. You get the feeling that were you to say that to our Martian anthropologist, his asking of questions would by no means be finished! And rightly so. For Jesus to claim that his flesh was real food and his blood real drink is properly arresting, maybe even a bit alarming. It ought never to be regarded as merely obvious, especially by those of us who have grown altogether too accustomed to this mystery.
I love the way John concludes this section: “He said these things in the synagogue in Capernaum.” There’s more going on in that line than a simple geographic report! There is tremendous irony there: Jesus said these quirky, yet finally cosmic, things about himself and he did it in some out-of-the-way little town in the backwaters of Galilee. Faith begins on that postage stamp of real estate and in that ordinary son of a carpenter whose body was no bigger than any other man in this room tonight. Faith begins small like that but then explodes outward as the shock waves of what Jesus said ripple on and on and on. If you can believe that Jesus is God’s Son, the one rained down from heaven by the Father, then the radical message of John 6 is the dearest truth: Jesus is the bread of life. Feast on his love and you will never go hungry. Never. Amen.
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 tempation 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 51 is what Old Testament scholar James Mays calls a “liturgy of the broken heart.” Like so many of the psalms, it’s a prayer of someone who’s in deep trouble. Here, however, the psalmist doesn’t complain to God about God or other people causing that trouble. He admits he alone has caused the trouble about which he prays.
People have traditionally linked Psalm 51 to David’s sin of taking Bathsheba and Nathan’s prophetic response to it. Its superscription even explicitly makes that link. Yet even if that superscription is a later addition by biblical editors, even if David didn’t pray Psalm 51, he, as J. Clifton McCann, Jr. notes, could and should have prayed it.
While Psalm 51’s first five verses quickly heap “sin” synonyms on top of each other, the psalm begins with a plea for grace. The psalmist immediately pleads for forgiveness of her sin. However, she begs, in language that anticipates Luke 18:13’s tax collector’s prayer, for God’s mercy. The psalmist recognizes she doesn’t deserve God’s forgiveness. She doesn’t even claim she’ll somehow do better tomorrow or that her sin isn’t completely her fault. Instead we can almost picture the psalmist as scarcely being even able to lift her head to look up to God as she begs God to have mercy on her.
The psalmist recognizes his only hope for forgiveness lies in God’s unfailing love and great compassion. This recalls Exodus 34’s account of the aftermath of Israel’s worship of the golden calf. When Moses trudges back up Mount Sinai to receive a second set of tablets of God’s law, the Lord somehow passes in front of him, saying, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands …”
The grace-filled beginning of Psalm 51’s prayer of confession mirrors in some ways the context of Christians’ confession of sin. God’s sons and daughters don’t confess our sins desperately hoping God will somehow change God’s mind about and forgive us. No, we humbly make our confession, pleading for God’s mercy on the basis of God’s forgiveness already graciously given in Jesus Christ.
Yet those who preach and teach Psalm 51 may want to help hearers reflect on our culture, society and own natural reluctance to accept responsibility for wrongdoing. Such reluctance is, of course, as old as humanity’s sin itself. Eve blamed the serpent for tricking her into sinning and Adam blamed Eve for giving him some fruit. Since then people have constantly blamed other people or things for their sins. Few refrains are more familiar to our culture than, “Don’t blame me. It’s his (or her or their or its) fault.” We naturally have little interest in joining the psalmist in admitting “I have sinned.”
The psalmist offers no excuses for her sins. She doesn’t even use euphemisms such as, “Wrong was done” or “Mistakes were made.” She’s very straightforward in her talk about “my transgressions,” “all my iniquity” and “my sin.” The poet pictures her sin as a kind of figurative stain on her life and conscience that she needs God to graciously scrub away. After all, she begs God to “blot out,” “wash away” and “cleanse me.” It’s the image of ancient people washing dishes or clothing and modern people using various detergents and stain removers on stubborn stains.
His sin is so real and pervasive that the psalmist confesses that it’s always before him, in other words, always on his mind. He’s constantly aware that he’s sinned not just against other people, but also against God. In fact, he admits that he’s only sinned against the Lord. Rather than seeing this as an attempt to evade the hurt he’s caused other people, we can see this as an admission that the primary one the psalmist has hurt by his rebellion is the God who created and cares for him.
The stain that is her sin is, in fact, so pervasive that the psalmist admits it was somehow a part of her even at her conception. Systematic theologians may have reason for seeing this admission as evidence for the doctrine of original sin. However, the psalmist probably isn’t thinking so systematically. She’s simply confessing her sin is not some kind of aberration, out of character for her. She admits her sins spring from her natural sinfulness, her lifelong inclination to rebel against God’s good will and purposes. The psalmist confesses she isn’t just a sinner; she’s also sinful.
In fact, the psalmist is so aware of the pervasiveness of his sinfulness and sin that he longs for a radical transformation. Often psalmists plead for a change in their situations. This psalmist, instead, desires a change in himself. He knows that he has sinned against God and done what is evil in God’s sight. However, he desires “truth in the inner parts,” “wisdom in the inmost place,” “a pure heart” and “a steadfast spirit.”
Yet the psalmist also implies she can’t make this change on her own. She suggests that only the God who created and cares for her can transform her. So she longs for God to cleanse her with “hyssop” so that she can be clean. She desires that God wash her so that she’s whiter than snow. So Psalm 51 features a dramatic contrast between sin as stain and forgiveness as cleanness. It’s as if the psalmist couldn’t make any starker the contrast between the condition of sinfulness and that of forgiveness.
The psalmist’s life has been marked by consistent rebellion against God and missing of obedience’s target. However, he longs for an obedience and faithfulness that is even more “steadfast.” In other words, the psalmist pleads with God to give him what James Limburg calls a brand new beginning and a fresh start. In the light of the New Testament, we’d add that we long for a new spirit that has been washed in Jesus Christ’s blood and remodeled by the Holy Spirit.
Modern confession sometimes falls dreadfully short of the psalmist’s in today’s lesson. In the March 14, 2007 New York Times John Broder lists some examples in his article, “A Favorite for Foul-Ups: ‘Mistakes Were Made’.”
Broder refers to United States Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales who “fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct … when he acknowledged ‘mistakes were made’ in the  dismissal of eight federal prosecutors’.” Broder adds, “The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility.”
However, lest we assume such “contrition” is the exclusive domain of one American political party, Broder also notes, “Just 36 hours into his administration Mr. Clinton used that terminology when he withdrew the nomination of Zoe Baird as attorney general. In January 1997, he [also] acknowledged that the White House should not have invited the nation’s senior banking regulator to a meeting where Mr. Clinton and prominent bankers discussed banking policy in the presence of the Democratic Party’s senior fund-raiser. ‘Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently,’ he said.”
Author: Stan Mast
“A great man,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is a man who draws a larger circle around what we think is possible.” If that’s true, then Paul was a great man, because he drew a larger circle around the Christian church than anyone would have ever thought possible. Of course, Paul would (and did) say that his understanding of the mystery of the church was revealed to him by God. It was a God-sized understanding of the mission of the church that Paul has been expounding in the first three chapters of Ephesians. God intended to unite all things in heaven and on earth under one head, namely, Christ (1:9, 10). God has already begun that reunification by bringing sinners back to himself (2:1-10) and reuniting a warring human race in the church composed of Jews and Gentiles as equal partners (2:11-22). All of that reconciling work was aimed at outer space. “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (3:10) That is an unimaginably large circle.
Now, after all that high flying theology, Paul turns to the practical implications of God’s world-changing, cosmically important work. Ironically, Paul begins not with a call to change the world, to take on the Empire for Christ, but with a call to “be completely humble and gentle.” He begins with “small virtues” because the first task of those who are part of the impossibly large mission of God in the world is to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” We already have amazing unity because of God’s saving work. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope, when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of us all, who is over all and through all and in all.” So the most important thing in the world for us is that we maintain the unity planned and accomplished by the Triune God. The attitudes and actions with which Paul begins Ephesians 4 are crucial to that precious unity. That’s why he makes a big deal of such small virtues.
Of course, humility and gentleness and patience and love aren’t small virtues at all; they are among the cardinal virtues of the Christian faith. But preaching on them this Sunday will present you with unique challenges. I mean, how can we preach on the importance of unity to a severely splintered church in a hopelessly divided world? Who is going to believe that God is actually doing a mighty work of re-uniting all things under Christ, when even the body of Christ is divided? And how can we call Christians to these old virtues when we live every moment in a world that prizes power and pride and glorifies action and violence? Who is going to believe that being humble and gentle can change the world? How can we preach this apparently unrealistic, counter-cultural message?
Well, let me demonstrate an approach to this text that focuses on just one of those virtues—patience. No, it is not the key to the text. It’s just a keyhole through which we can peek to get a clearer view of God’s grand vision for the church and our humble place in achieving that vision. I’m going to limit my comments to verses 1-6, because I think the whole pericope in the Lectionary is far too long to cover in one 30-minute sermon. Paul’s eloquent explanation of how the diversity of gifts fits into God’s plan for unity is another subject entirely. So I’ll skip that for now. Many of my comments and observations on patience come from a sermon I preached on this subject many years ago.
In Galatians 5 Paul says that patience is part of the fruit of the Spirit, but it strikes me that many people don’t want this fruit very much. It has been called “the beggar’s virtue” (Paul is a prisoner as he writes Ephesians) or the “virtue of an ass that trots beneath its burden and is quiet.” We all want the rest of the fruit, well, at least love and joy and peace. But patience? What we really want is for things to move along, to get better, to be done with NOW. We would agree with former Prime Minister of England, Margaret Thatcher, when she said, “I am extraordinarily patient provided I get my own way in the end.” So, who wants patience?
Well, God does. God’s passion for patience is so strong that he puts his Spirit in our hearts to produce the fruit of patience. That means that patience is not optional for us. It’s not a gift like those Paul mentions in the next verses of Ephesians. Some people receive one gift, other people get another. But patience is a fruit that all Christian must cultivate and exhibit.
But what is it? Patience is a lot more than the ability to wait. The Greek word here is sometimes translated “longsuffering,” and that helps flesh it out. But that word means literally “long passion,” especially the passion of anger. Patience has to do with anger and judgment and punishment—not holding on to our anger for a long time, but precisely the opposite, holding off our anger for a long time and not executing judgment and visiting punishment. In the rest of the Bible, the patience of God is his merciful delaying or withholding of wrath until something takes place in us that justifies the postponement of that anger.
God’s call to patience, then, freely acknowledges that there are all kinds of good reasons to be angry with people. It does not deny that people do some terribly sinful, incredibly sick, and just plain silly things that severely test our patience. It does not deny the legitimate concerns of justice. But instead of encouraging us to unleash our righteous anger, God calls us to patience with the wicked, the wounded, and the weak. Instead of coming down on them in punishment, says Ephesians 4, we must bear with them, put up with them, endure them—not with gritted teeth and clenched fists, but with love that is humble and gentle. That’s the heart of patience—a love for the wicked, the wounded and the weak that wants to see them saved in the comprehensive way Paul has outlined in Ephesians 1-3.
From that brief description of patience, you can hear that it takes great power to be patient. This is not a weak virtue. Patience does not merely overlook sin and sickness and silliness, because we can’t do anything or because we simply don’t care. Patience is not helpless endurance or feeble indulgence. It is not born of moral irresolution or a compliance with sin. Rather the fruit of patience powerfully withholds angry retaliation because it looks beyond the immediate moment when things go wrong to a distant time when things will be made right. God is patient because he sees further than we do. He has the end in view. He calls us to be patient in the faith that God will make all things right.
That brings us to a second question. How does patience express itself in the complexity of life? In verse 1 Paul calls himself “a prisoner for the Lord,” because he was literally in prison when he wrote this. It’s hard to be patient when you’re just “doing time,” watching the minutes tick by and pages fall off the calendar. And there were people with whom he had to be patient—his supporters on the outside who couldn’t do much to help him, the guards who were themselves subject to power, and his opponents on the outside who took this opportunity to bad mouth Paul. When we are dealing with the weak, the wounded, or the wicked, patience will mean different things.
Sometimes the people who try our patience are simply weak, just humans with limitations—little children, incompetent bosses or employees, students who simply cannot learn, parents who are aging, or bad drivers. But sometimes we need to be patient with folks who are wounded, people who are troubled. I’m talking about folks who are emotionally and psychologically damaged because of childhood trauma, chemical imbalance in their brains, brain injuries, or catastrophes in their lives. These people are just humans, hurting humans. Because they are so hurt themselves, they pull us into their circle of pain and they hurt us. It is harder to be patient with the wounded than with the weak.
But it is hardest to be patient with the wicked, people who deliberately hurt us. I think of those enemies of Paul who with jealousy in their hearts tried to use his imprisonment to damage his ministry. Sometimes it is very hard to tell the difference between the wounded and the wicked—both kinds hurt us, but the wicked intend to hurt. Or they hurt us because they are so wickedly centered on themselves that we don’t matter to them at all.
As I said, it is easiest to be patient with the weak—she’s just a little kid; dad is getting old. Again, it helps to remember that the person who so annoys us is deeply troubled—maybe he is off his meds today; she had a difficult childhood. But when someone is simply wicked, you wonder if there is a limit to patience. Is there ever a time when God says, “It’s OK to stop being patient and express your anger and demand justice and inflict punishment.”
Well, on the one hand, is it ever OK to stop being loving and joyful and peaceful, to act contrary to the rest of the fruit of the Spirit? No. Then how can we stop being patient? But, on the other hand, does that mean we must always let people get away with it: that we shouldn’t correct and strengthen the weak, that we shouldn’t intervene in the lives of the troubled, that we shouldn’t stop the wicked in their sins? Must we always be patient? No. Even God’s patience does eventually run out. But we must be careful to act in humility, gentleness and, most of all, love when it is time for anger to be unleashed.
Given the difficulty of patience, it will be helpful to remind our listeners why patience is so important. Though there are many reasons, Paul focuses on just one here in Ephesians, namely, unity. Verses 1-7 are one long sentence in the Greek and the whole sentence is about unity. Paul is talking primarily about unity between Christians. Patience is so important in maintaining the unity that is centered on the Triune God precisely because the church is full of weak human beings who do silly things, wounded human beings who do strange things, and wicked human beings who do sinful things. Because the unity of the church is so central to Christ’s work, the Spirit of God is working hard to make us patient with each other in church.
But we could also apply this lesson on humility to unity in the family. In my long ministry, I have often observed that divorce finally breaks a family apart when someone loses patience. It isn’t just that things are bad; often they have been bad for a long time. But finally someone cannot take it anymore and files for divorce. Patience is gone, anger is unleashed, justice is sought, and punishment is meted out. The fact is that marriage always some weakness, some weirdness, and some wickedness. So it takes great patience to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace between husbands and wives. The same thing is true with parents and children.
That raises one last question to consider as we preach on this text, even if we don’t focus on patience. Where can we get these virtues that are so essential to unity? Where can I get more patience? I’m tempted to give the usual answer. Pray for it, and then duck. Some say, never pray for patience, because God will immediately give some situation that will test it. So, I won’t say that. Instead I’ll suggest that you give your congregation three words to concentrate on. To grow in patience we need these three things.
Wisdom. Pray for wisdom from on high, so that you can understand the ways of God and the timing of God. If we know that God works through all kinds of people to produce his fruit in us and if we understand that God makes all things beautiful in his time, we will be more patient.
Second, faith. It’s one thing to intellectually know those things I’ve just mentioned; it’s quite another to trust God in your heart. If you trust that the God of love is working even in this moment, even in this church, even in your marriage, you will grow in patience. But it is hard to trust God’s love for you when the wicked or the wounded or the weak are trying your patience.
That’s why the last word is grace. We will not trust God patiently unless we focus on his patient grace that sent his Son to remove his anger, satisfy his justice, and suffer our punishment. And we will not be able to trust God unless we ask God to give us the powerful grace we need to be patient.
The duty of every Christian is to be patient. Thank God for the gift of the Spirit who produces this difficult fruit. As you prepare to preach on this text to Christ’s difficult Body, be grateful that God is patient with the weak, wounded, wicked person you meet in the mirror every morning.
Paul’s self-identification as a prisoner here throws this whole text into a different light. Is Paul calling for these “small virtues” because they are the only option a prisoner has? Are these prisoner virtues? That question brought to mind Nietzsche’s distinction between “slave morality” and “master morality.” He famously claimed that the “slave morality” of the Christian church had brought the Roman Empire to its knees. The Greeks and Romans had always valued a “master morality” that emphasized power, while the church emphasized the kind of virtues we read about in our text for today.
We need to be careful with Nietzsche, because his critique of Christianity is more nuanced than we might think. He points out that the church’s “slave morality” has produced good things like democracy. But he was arguing that a “master morality” is a better thing. His call for rule by the nobility, the powerful, the superman was adopted by the Nazis and still resonates with the power politics of terrorists like ISIS and even the political maneuvering in Western democracies and, sadly, in the Christian church. So, be careful with using Nietzsche, but an accurate reference to his distinction may help people connect our ancient text with the realities of a 21st century world.