August 07, 2017
Matthew 14: 22-33
Author: Scott Hoezee
If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.
That was the title some years back of a popular book written by John Ortberg. And the title reflects what is doubtless the most common “take” on this story. Over and again this well-known story comes to mean something like the following: Peter had the right idea getting out of the boat and quite literally “stepping out on faith.” Indeed, in all of our lives, we can see Jesus standing out on the stormy waters of this world, bidding us to “Come” unto him. Like Peter, we must heed this invitation, find the courage of faith needed to swing our legs out over the boat’s side, and then step out onto the waters. If we do, then we will walk to and with Jesus, trusting him alone to help us do great things for God!
But beware of doubts, be wary of fears! Don’t pay any attention to the winds that howl or the waves that lap against your shins. Keep your eyes fixed on the Master. For if you do, then in his loving and confident gaze, you will find the strength and courage you need to stay upright. Peter failed to have enough faith, but you can do better! So if you are facing some big decision, if you sense God calling you to the mission field, or if you’re wondering how you can witness to your co-workers, then you need to have the guts to get out of the boat, to take risks, to put your full faith in Jesus alone, and then to walk upon the waters!
Dearly beloved, here endeth the lesson.
Or maybe not . . .
Interpreted this way, Matthew 14 becomes a kind of model for Christian behavior, a classic piece of moralism. Peter’s initial faith is to be emulated, his subsequent failure of doubt is to be avoided. “Do this . . . Don’t do this . . .”
But understood this way, the bottom line is that if you do it right, then you, too, can walk on water. Jesus even wants you to walk on water, he wants you to be just this bold in the faith. The alternatives are fear and doubt, and we all know that those things ought to have no place in a true believer’s heart.
“Walking on water” is about courage, faith, and boldness. Indeed, this phrase has come to mean something like this in even non-Christian settings. If you do an Internet search on the phrase “walk on water,” you will find a number of consulting firms and motivational speakers who use the image of walking on water as the goal to which businesses and individual workers should aspire. In this sense, “Walk on water” is on a par with other adages like “The early bird gets the worm,” “Grab the tiger by its tail,” “Think outside the box” (or the boat in this case), or “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
And at the end of any sermon with this focus, I’d wager (if I were a betting kind of guy) that 90% of the people listening to the sermon will feel worse about themselves, their faith, their commitment to Christ. Oh, they will perhaps feel motivated to give this whole ‘walking on water’ thing a whirl but they sense even before driving out of the church’s parking lot that they will probably bow out before they actually make the attempt (or if they do attempt it, they will sink immediately).
Too much preaching these days just makes people feel worse. (Or preaching makes people feel motivated but the whole focus centers on human effort and achievement.) Either way or both ways, the sermon does not radiate with the grace that constitutes the Good News we are called to proclaim.
So is that moralistic, “Try harder!” way of getting at this story the only—or even the best—way to interpret Matthew 14:22-33?
Before getting to some new angles on this familiar story, we should be clear about a couple of things up front. First, it surely is right that Christian faith should be characterized by courage, zeal, and a firm resolve to stay true to the Lord in all situations. Whether or not this particular story teaches that is something we will ponder, but let’s be clear up front that gaining the ability to trust Jesus fully is certainly something to which we all quite properly aspire.
But that broader theological point aside, what is going on specifically in Matthew 14? Well, like the other gospel stories having to do with boats and storms and disciples, I suspect that this incident is a kind of acted-out parable of and for the church. Probably the boat is a metaphorical symbol of the church in which disciples travel with Jesus across the storm-tossed seas of an unbelieving world. But if so, then what about the role Peter plays? How do his actions and words relate to the rest of us as we, too, reside in the ecclesiastical ship of faith?
The answer to that emerges from the story itself. This lection comes immediately after Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. That was basically a Lord’s Supper kind of story, showing Jesus as the true bread of life. Although the food and drink the church offers to the world looks rather modest, if not meager, in the hands of Jesus this becomes utterly satisfying and even abundant fare. As it turns out, we in the church have more than enough to offer to the world if only we believe the power of Jesus’ word to us.
No sooner is that Eucharist-type meal complete and Jesus sends the disciples out into a boat. He doesn’t go with them at first, but the implication is that he would indeed catch up with them soon enough. Meanwhile he wants to pray. He has just found out that his cousin, friend, and gospel co-worker, John the Baptist, has been killed by Herod. After hearing this sad news, Jesus wanted to be alone right away, and so took that boat to a lonely place where presumably he could weep, mourn, and pray to his Father in private. The crowds followed him, however, and so Jesus delays his time of grieving long enough to do some more teaching and healing, followed by his feeding those same crowds.
His ministry got in the way of his personal feelings for a little while, but the delay hardly made everything all better and so Jesus is still hankering for some quiet time. So he sends the disciples on ahead so that he could pray. We don’t know how much time Jesus managed to have to himself even on this second attempt at some private devotions, but before too much longer one of those unpredictable Sea of Galilee squalls had blown in. In this particular story we are not told that the boat was in danger of sinking necessarily, but then again, getting buffeted by wind and water in the middle of a very dark night is surely a frightening, if not a very dangerous, situation to be in.
So Jesus comes to them and, once he assures them he is no ghost, seems poised to get into the boat to reassure them further. But before he gets there, Peter intervenes. “Lord, if it is you, then command me to come to you on the water.” “Come on, then!” Jesus replies, and so Peter does. We don’t know precisely how far Peter got before he started to sink. A gust of wind knocked him off balance, a larger-than-usual swell made straight for Peter, and suddenly the logic of the situation was just too much for Peter to discount and so he yielded to the inevitable tug of gravity. Jesus saves him, of course, chiding him for his doubt (but loving Peter as always even so). Then they both climb into the boat, the storm stops even more quickly than it had started, and the disciples who had remained in the boat all along end up doing the utterly proper act of worshiping Jesus as God’s Son.
We have now seen back-to-back incidents in which Jesus’ Lordship over all creation has been abundantly displayed. Jesus is Lord of creation and so can manipulate the sustaining things of life like bread and fish to feed people even in a place of desolation and death. And now we see Jesus as Lord of creation in having control over the water, winds, and waves. Jesus can subside the elements of nature in this fallen world that threaten our lives as well as provide the things that nourish those same lives. Taken together, those with eyes to see recognize in Jesus the almighty presence of one of Matthew’s main theological themes (begun in Matthew 1 and rounded out again in the final verses of Matthew 28): namely, the theme of Emmanuel, of “God with us.”
And that is Good News. Jesus remains with us. He remains with us and is the Lord of all Creation as well. Whether or not Peter succeeded in imitating his Master’s neat trick neither adds nor subtracts from the core revelation that whether we stay in the boat with the 11 disciples or hop out of the boat with the 1 disciple, Jesus is with us. He’s with those of us who stay in the boat and will calm the storm that threatens. He’s with those who try some grandstand move and fail, forgiving the failure and, again, calming the storm that tempted Peter to do something miraculous. Jesus’ presence and power are the key to this story, not whether we are bold and courageous and impressive.
To take the focus off Jesus so as to put it onto our own moral pluck and courage seems, therefore, (forgive me) to miss the boat.
When he comes to them on the water, Jesus quickly calms them in a verbal triple-play that packs quite a theological wallop: “Take courage! I am! Fear not!” As commentator Dale Bruner notes, this is something that could well become the inscription over the doorway to every church in the world. Because Jesus’ call for courage and his command not to be afraid are both rooted in the second thing he said: “I am!”
For the sake of good English sense, most versions of the Bible do something similar to what the NIV does in verse 27, and that translate Jesus’ words into something like “It is I” or “I am here” or, “It’s me!” But the Greek says only ego eimi: “I am.” Here, and elsewhere in the gospels, this simple designation powerfully connects Jesus to the Yahweh of Israel. When Moses asks God in the burning bush for his name, God says that his name is “I Am.” Yahweh is the great “I Am,” and Jesus more than once connects himself to this very same God. Jesus is God, and that’s why his presence gives us cause to take courage and, in turn, to not be afraid.
As Barbara Brown Taylor said in a sermon, if there is a miracle worth savoring in this story, then it’s maybe not that Jesus could walk on water (after all, if Jesus is God, then his ability to walk on water is no more surprising than your or my ability to walk up a flight of steps.) And the miracle is not that Peter managed that same trick for a moment or two. No, the miracle is that when it was all said and done–while a soggy and chagrined Peter sputtered seawater out of his lungs and as the boat continued to bob around in the dead of that rather dark night–somehow in the midst of those humble surroundings way out there in the middle of nowhere, the disciples realized that no one less than God’s own Son was sitting right in front of them. So they worshiped him. They believed.
If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat. True enough. And here and there, now and again, the church maybe needs visionary and courageous folks who step out on faith to do some new and bold thing. But maybe there are far more times when life in the “boat” that just is the church involves no more than faithfully pulling on your oar against the winds that howl, believing that Jesus is near, and so pressing on. You press on in faith not because you’ve tested Jesus and found that he lived up to all the hype and not because Jesus has enabled you yourself to do something quite grand and eye-catching. No, you press on because you believe Jesus when, through the Spirit, you hear him say, “Chin up! It is I! Don’t be afraid!” So keep pulling on that oar!
Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28
Author: Doug Bratt
Almost all people walk the wide roads that are dreams for their children, work, future, and themselves. And while some of those dreams don’t come true, as long as they don’t disrupt current arrangements, they’re pretty harmless.
However, where dreams about the future conflict with current realities, they can be very disruptive. In fact, they can endanger people’s well-being. So maybe dreams should come with a Surgeon General’s warning: “Dreaming may be harmful to your health!”
Our text’s Joseph would have understood that better than most. Since he’s Jacob’s eleventh son, his job is mostly just to fit in. Joseph figuratively if not literally spent his life bowing down to his older brothers. Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Joseph is also his father’s favorite son. He is, after all, the son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob, in fact, seems to treat Joseph not like his youngest, but like his oldest son.
Joseph’s brothers hate him because their dad doesn’t even try to disguise his favoritism. Old Jacob gives his favorite son a fancy robe that’s like a walking advertisement for the old man’s partiality. The robe’s hint of royalty may even suggest to his big brothers that Jacob has bigger dreams for Joseph than for them. However, Joseph’s “richly ornamented robe” does nothing but fuel his brother’s hatred for him. In fact, they eventually hate him so much that even when they do talk to him, they never say anything nice to him.
Yet the straw that finally seems to break the camel’s back is Joseph’s brothers’ having to listen to accounts of his dreams. The teenaged Joseph seems so little self-aware that he has no clue his telling about his dream of their servitude will enrage them. In fact, over their breakfasts Joseph not once but twice recounts his vivid dreams about the disruption of the power arrangements in his family. They suggest that not just Joseph’s brothers but also his dad and mom will have to serve him.
Yet while Jacob merely remembers Joseph’s dreams, those dreams cause his sons’ hatred to flower into a murderous conspiracy. So when their dad sends the spoiled little snitch to check up on them, they hatch a plan to end both the dreamer and his dreams once and for all.
Reuben convinces his brothers to stop inches short of killing Joseph. So his brothers beat up Joseph and drop him down a dry well. In doing so they seem to work up such a good appetite that only the arrival of some travelling salesmen can disrupt their lunch.
Have you ever wondered what the ensuing conversation sounded like? “Hey, guys, we got this beaten-up, naked guy in the bottom of a well here. You want him?” “Uhhh … How much are you asking for him?” “Well, I don’t know. Maybe twenty pieces of silver?” “Ok. Dump him in the wagon there between the dishes and rugs.”
Most of us know a thing or two about disrupted relationships. An old man I knew back in the 80’s hadn’t spoken to his brothers who lived in the same city in more than 20 years.
But relationships don’t have to be that bad to be disrupted. Some of us know about the tensions that are as much a part of family meals as food and drink. Others know what it’s like to hardly be able to stand sitting in the same room as a co-worker or neighbor.
Sunni and Shia Muslims share not just a common heritage but also a common religion. Yet some of them are slaughtering each other. North and South Koreans share perhaps even more. Yet they can’t even share a border without at least threatening to harm each other.
So must such conflict get the last word? Apparently it does for Joseph and his brothers. They probably assume the last thing they’ll ever see of Joseph is his back as he rides off into Egyptian captivity. In fact, there seems to be nothing good about the ending of this story. Without peeking at it, it just seems to be full of a lot of figurative and literal blood shed.
After all, young Joseph rides off in the perhaps calloused hands of some travelling salesmen. And though he doesn’t yet know it, he’ll soon be sold again, this time to an Egyptian soldier named Potiphar. So Joseph’s effectively as good as dead – at least to his family.
Yet while Joseph’s brothers assume they’ve killed both the dreamer and his dream, they don’t dare confess that to their dad. They don’t even dare admit they’ve sold him to some travelling salesman. Instead Joseph’s brothers concoct some hair-brained tale about a wild animal mauling their little brother to death.
So Joseph’s off to slavery. Reuben is distraught. Jacob’s terrible grief will last a very long time. Joseph’s brothers return to their old, settled power arrangements. This whole story seems to end so very badly. Or does it?
After all, it could have turned out so much worse. Some ferocious animal might have actually mauled Joseph as he wandered around looking for his brothers. Joseph’s brothers might have really killed him. Joseph might have remained in that dry well so long that he eventually died there of either hunger or thirst.
Yet at the end of our story Joseph is, against all odds, alive if not necessarily well. While his dreams may seem dead, he lives to see another day, albeit in the hands of some travelling salesmen. In fact there may even be a grace in those salesmen’s identity. After all, they’re Ishmaelites. So they’re Joseph’s shirttail relatives.
God seems largely silent throughout Joseph’s life. After all, while that story spans more than 13 of Genesis’ chapters, we directly don’t hear from God in any of them. Yet God isn’t just silent. God also seems uninvolved. Genesis doesn’t explicitly tell us God gave Joseph his dreams. God does nothing to stop Joseph’s brothers from grabbing him, beating him and selling him into slavery.
Maybe that makes Joseph’s story not so unlike that of the people whom we teach and to whom we preach. Sometimes God doesn’t just seem silent. God also sometimes seems completely uninterested. After all, God does nothing to stop family members and friends from rebelling against the Lord. God does nothing to stop co-workers and neighbors from harassing each other. God does nothing to bring peace on earth. And so even God-given dreams sometimes seem to die. Dreams of a better tomorrow for children and grandchildren. Dreams of a meaningful job or healthy retirement. Dreams of peace on earth and a creation that flourishes.
However, our text suggests maybe, just maybe, the dream isn’t dead, but simply delayed. Even Joseph may have initially assumed his brothers and slavery had killed his dreams. Yet since he’s still alive, the dream can still live too. Dreams delayed are not necessarily dead dreams. They may just be deferred dreams.
It’s easy to think of the misery people sometimes inflict the way Joseph’s brothers afflicted him as a sign of God’s anger. But maybe it’s a grace. Not necessarily the grace God’s adopted sons and daughters longed for, but God’s gift anyway. As miserable as it was, after all, Joseph’s situation could have been far worse.
So perhaps Genesis 37’s preachers and teachers can help hearers look a little harder for signs of God’s grace. To see how life’s 90-degree turns aren’t necessarily the end of hopes and dreams. Maybe they’re just detours. Or maybe they’re God’s way of redirecting lives in a direction God has planned out for them.
Of course, sometimes people’s dreams don’t align with God’s dreams. So God’s people always ask God and the Scriptures if our dreams are consistent with God’s plans and purposes. Yet we don’t stop dreaming of a world in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Of hungry people fed and abused and neglected children embraced. Of a world where broken marriages are repaired and lonely people have swarms of friends. Those dreams are not, after all, necessarily dead. They may just be delayed.
So Genesis 37’s preachers and teachers can encourage hearers to keep dreaming about a world where Israelis and Palestinians live in unity. To keep dreaming of clean water, air and soil. To keep dreaming God’s dreams for God’s whole creation. Those dreams are not dead.
We, after all, live in verse 36’s “meanwhile.” At its end our text’s Joseph’s brothers are gloating. However, meanwhile, Joseph survives. Jacob and Reuben grieve. Meanwhile, Joseph lives, albeit in slavery. You and I worry, mourn and sometimes suffer. Meanwhile, God is advancing God’s plans and purposes. So keep dreaming.
Some dreams don’t just disrupt a good night’s sleep. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamt the United States would eventually “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed … all men are created equal. He also dreamt “his four children … [would] one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Dr. King’s was a lovely and biblical dream. However, it was also highly disruptive. It made the lives of his family, followers and himself intensely difficult. You might also argue Dr. King’s dream cost him his life.
Yet his dream didn’t just disrupt his life. Dr. King’s dream also disrupted American society. Most white Americans, after all, had come to accept black people’s second-class citizenship. We’d come to accept that white and black children people go to different schools, sit on different park benches and drink from different drinking fountains. We’d come to accept as fact that black people weren’t smart enough to vote or hold political office.
Dr. King’s dream disrupted all that. It challenged the basic assumptions of class differences most white people had come to accept and even cherish. Dr. King’s dream rattled people who benefitted from the 1950’s American power structure enough to make at least one of them want to kill him.
Eventually, of course, James Earl Ray seemed to snuff out both Dr. King and his beautiful dream. Yet not before it began to challenge and even reshape white America’s perceptions of all Americans, including both black and white people.
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 105 is a history psalm. To be more specific, it is what German biblical scholars once called Heilsgeshichte, salvation history. It recalls the five stages at the beginning of the story of God’s redemption of Israel, from the promise of the Land to the possession of the Land. Of course, as the long and powerful introduction to that story shows, it is Heilsgeschichte with a purpose. One scholar finds ten imperatives in the first 6 verses. This is history re-told in order to move God’s people to remember what God has done, testify to the nations about God’s actions in history, and praise God for his wonderful deeds.
It’s a good Psalm for us to consider in late summer, in the midst of Ordinary Time. Here’s why. Some scholars think that Psalm 105 was used in conjunction with one or more of Israel’s great annual festivals. Someone, presumably a Levite, recited the Psalm at the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths) or at the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost). We are far away from any of the major Feasts of the Christian year, but this festive Psalm reminds us of the importance of celebration even in the dog days of August. We are too much like the Israelites in Psalm 106 (the non-identical twin of Psalm 105). While Psalm 105 calls us to remember, Psalm 106 confesses that we all too often forget. So as the days of summer drag on, let’s use Psalm 105 as an opportunity to remember, testify, and praise God for the wonderful deeds he has done for us.
Though you wouldn’t know it from the reading assigned to us today by the Revised Common Lectionary, the emphasis of Psalm 105 is on covenant history, the interaction between a faithful God who always keeps his promises and his inconstant people who often forget God. Verses 6-11, and especially 8-11, are explicit. “He remembers his covenant forever….” The “wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced” are all covenantal miracles, things done in history as fulfillment of the promises Yahweh made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In all the circumstances of our lives and throughout history, we must remember this about the character of the God we worship: he always remembers his covenant, even if we forget.
Many scholars believe that Psalm 105 was written in post-Exilic times. Israel had forgotten God for a long time in multiple ways, so God had sent them into exile. During that long time away from the Promised Land, Israel wondered if God had forgotten them, if the covenant had been broken once and for all. Then Yahweh brought them back to the Land, one more miracle in a long line of them. Now, here they are, back in the land, but as verse 12 says of an earlier time in Israel’s history, they were “few in number, few indeed, and strangers in it….”
The nations saw what had happened to them and scoffed at the claim that Yahweh was the Lord of all the earth. Why, he couldn’t even keep his little flock safe from the big bad wolf. Thus, Psalm 105 opens with a call not only to praise the Lord for his wonders, but also with a challenge to testify to the nations. Indeed, “give thanks to the Lord” is literally “testify/make known,” and “call on his name” is, better, “cry about his name.” Psalm 105 calls upon Israel to “make known among the nations what he has done… tell of his wonderful acts.” Yes, Israel must remember and celebrate what God has done for his covenant people, but Israel must also remember that the covenant is for the blessing of the nations (Genesis 12:3). Here is an evangelistic thrust long before Jesus sent his disciples to all the nations of the world.
Psalm 105 focuses not on the return from Exile (though that was its probable provenance), but on the events that gained Israel entrance to the Promised Land in the first place. As I said before, it traces the five stages of Israel’s early Heilsgeschichte. It begins with the promise of the Land in the days of the Patriarchs when they were “few in number, few indeed, and strangers in the land, [wandering] from nation to nation….” During that time, Yahweh “allowed no one to oppress them.” Psalm 105 ends its recitation of salvation history with Israel receiving that Promised Land; “he gave them the lands of the nations (the various people groups in Canaan), and they fell heir to what others had toiled for….” This brief survey of Israel’s history is a powerful way of saying, “He did it once. He can do it again. Indeed, he will, because he remembers his covenant forever.”
Our reading for today focuses on stage three of that historical journey to the Promised Land, the part where Egypt suffered famine and Joseph rose to power there. The way I’ve just put that is not at all how our Psalm puts it. These things didn’t just happen accidentally as a result of meteorological or social forces. Psalm 105 emphasizes that these things were the doing of Yahweh. “He called down a famine on the land… and he sent a man before them….” On the level of macro-history and micro-lives, God is active. Yahweh intervenes in history.
Israel’s religion (and the Christian religion that is its fulfillment) is not first of all a set of ideas or a list of laws or a pattern of practices (though it has given rise to exalted philosophy and includes life affirming laws and teaches spiritual disciplines that shape community and individual). It is first of all the true story of what God has done in history. God “called down famine.” And God “sent a man.”
This claim raises all kinds of questions, scientific questions about the closed universe of cause and effect and theological questions about God’s role in natural disasters, questions of theodicy. But we must not let the questions silence the biblical claim that God gets so deeply involved in human life that he interrupts, intervenes, even becomes incarnate in history. It is better to wrestle with the mystery of divine involvement than agonize over the meaninglessness of a universe that is godless. God’s incarnate entry into human history is the central claim of biblical religion.
Verses 16-22 are, of course, a masterfully brief re-telling of the long and wonderful story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50. Having irritated his brothers into a murderous jealousy, Joseph was “sold as a slave” into Egypt. While we have no record in Genesis of Joseph being put in shackles and irons, that wording serves the purposes of the Psalmist. To demonstrate how completely God can redeem his people, the Psalmist says in verse 22 that God put the now released Joseph in a position where he could instruct the princes of Egypt as he pleased. The Hebrew of that verse has the sense of “bind or govern.” He whose neck had been shackled was given authority to bind Pharaoh’s princes. The one who had been a slave now taught the wisest counsellors of Pharaoh. “Remember the wonders he has done (verse 5)….” Note that God, the covenant Lord of Israel, is the Actor in all these historical events. This is the world according to the Bible.
This is the lesson we need to preach right here in the middle of Ordinary Time. The nations do now know that Yahweh is the star of the story. And those of us who do know often forget as we are overwhelmed by the news cycle. No wonder we struggle to “glory in his holy name….” Our hearts do not rejoice, because we are not seeking his face in the turmoil of history. We are fixated on the faces of Trump and Putin and Kim, not to mention the faces of the little people who make up our daily world. We do not “look to the Lord and his strength.” Psalm 105 can help us “remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he has pronounced.”
You could do a five part series on Psalm 105, tracing those five stages of God’s intervention in the story of God’s first people. That would be a welcome alternative to the narrative that plays 24 hours a day on cable news. In a world where campaign promises are unashamedly broken, where weapons treaties are virtually meaningless, where the words of international leaders cannot be trusted, and where marital vows and business contracts evaporate under the pressure of sad necessity, let us preach the faithfulness of God who “remembers his covenant forever.”
Let’s be sure to preach Christ as the great fulfillment of that covenant. Our reading from verses 16-22 give us a perfect opportunity to do that. Like Joseph, Jesus came into a God-starved world that had been ordered by God (in the fullness of time). God sent a man. Though he had been the Lord of the universe, he became a servant, was mistreated, and even killed by wicked and jealous humans. All of this was a fulfillment of God’s ancient promises; “what he foretold came to pass….” After he was mistreated, he was raised from the dead and elevated to a place at God’s right hand, where all nations are under his authority. The God who intervenes in history was actually incarnated in history for us and for our salvation. Joseph is a type of Christ. His career in the time of Egypt’s famine gave history a foretaste of Christ’s ministry as the Bread of Life.
In some scholarly circles, it is accepted wisdom that the Greeks were the first historians, the first human beings to see a thread connecting the events of our lives, to discern a plot in the randomness of it all, to tell the story of human affairs. Yes, there were stories before those first Greek historians, mythical meta-narratives that helped give meaning to existence. But the Greeks were the first to tell the story from a secular perspective. Like their efforts to create a scientific account of the physical world that left the gods out of the picture, their historical accounts were secular. So, goes the academic argument, they were the first real historians.
Readers of the Bible will want to argue with that claim, because centuries before the first Greek histories there was a Hebrew history. But, contrary to those early groundbreaking Greek accounts, the Hebrews claimed divine involvement in human events, not as a mythical attempt to give meaning to the meaningless cycle of human endeavors, but as a true to life, honest to God account of what the One True God did in human history.
Contrary to the godless stories that fill the air waves all day long, the biblical story is all about God. To keep our minds, to live by faith, to face the future with hope, we must tell ourselves and our children that Great Story about the God who remembers his eternal covenant through all the stories of our lives.
Romans 10: 5-15
Author: Scott Hoezee
It is easy to carve out these verses from Romans 10, sheering them off from their original context and making them only about the importance of preaching just generally. Don’t do that. We are still in this tortured section of Romans 9-11 wherein Paul’s overriding concern is to figure out what will become of God’s chosen people, Israel, now that they have rejected God’s promised Messiah.
As noted in the Year A sermon starter for the previous week’s text at the beginning of Romans 9, Paul throughout these three chapters evinces a pastoral and personal pain that is almost heart-wrenching to read. His fellow Jews really have done the unthinkable and—all things being equal—they have done what could also be construed as the unforgiveable: rejecting God’s Christ. Killing God’s Christ. Or at least approving of his murder and now likewise approving of anyone in the Roman Empire who persecuted and imprisoned and murdered the followers of this Messianic wannabe and pretender.
Horrid stuff. And it’s killing Paul’s spirit.
We jump into Romans 10 in this lection at verse 5 but the first four verses are important: Paul notes the zeal of his people, the Jews, but then has to confess that their zeal is wrong-headed. They are zealous for all the wrong things, including chiefly a righteousness they believe can be of their own manufacture by keeping the law. Thus when in these verses Paul talks about the need to confess Jesus as Lord and affirm the belief that God the Father raised God the Son from the grave, he is not musing in the abstract about what goes into the salvation of just anybody. Rather, he is pointing to those things that his fellow Jews will NOT say, confess, or affirm at the present time. And it all boils down to the same question: Now what!!?
For Paul the answer is in part: Keep trying. We don’t give up on God’s covenant people on account of their unbelief. So keep preaching, keep reaching out, keep proclaiming the Word of the Gospel. That way even if the Jews persist in unbelief, at the very least they can never justifiably say it was because they had never been exposed to the alternative. They can believe in their hearts and confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord or not. But for goodness sake let it never be said that they had not been given every opportunity possible to consider otherwise.
Of course, the Lectionary stops in verse 15 even though Paul’s own train of thought on these matters clearly continues in verse 16 when he says “But . . .” and then goes on to note that preaching does not always work. In fact, Paul reaches for the most famous biblical example of ineffectual preaching in the task given to Isaiah by God: preach your heart out to people who will never believe your message. Those same people in the Israel of Isaiah’s day would get judged for that unbelief. But the fact is that Isaiah’s preaching would become the way by which God justifies his judgment. It was a dismal assignment!
But it may serve as the Bible’s biggest reminder of something that those of us who preach for a living would just as soon not admit but know deep down is true: preaching is a precarious activity. We throw words out into the ether and the wait to see if the Spirit makes them effective in any given person’s life.
Anyone who preaches knows other truths: sometimes people seem unfazed by sermons that by most objective standards were very fine. And at other times people are deeply moved by sermons that were flawed and structurally wobbly. People hear in sermons—and sometimes thank the pastor for at the church door after the service—things the preacher is quite certain she never uttered. Or someone is comforted or challenged because he took the words the pastor really did say in a direction the pastor could never have guessed would have happened and most assuredly did not anticipate.
The Spirit blows where it will in the preaching moment and you just never know or can predict what will happen next.
But here’s the thing: it’s all we’ve got. This often messed-up activity of the church and all those words floating on thin air after they leave the preacher’s lips are what God has given us to proclaim the most important message ever known: Jesus is Lord! Yes, we have the sacraments too but those also finally come down to a little water, a little bread, a little wine. Words, water, bread, wine: these are the Spirit’s chosen tools by which to build a Kingdom.
I suppose that the real wonder of all of this is not finally that preaching frequently does not take hold but that it ever actually DOES! After two millennia and untold millions (or could it be billions?) of sermons, so very many of which were utterly forgettable, there is still a church, there are still people thriving in their faith because of the nurturing word of the weekly sermon and ever more people who come to faith because of a sermon they hear somewhere.
Will it finally work for Israel? Will they hear something that at long last opens their hearts and their eyes to embrace what until now they have rejected? It is, as Paul knew painfully well, hard to say or predict. What we know for sure is the obvious answer to Paul’s rhetorical question: How can they hear unless someone preaches to them in the first place?
Fans of Marilynne Robinson’s luminous and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, know that a refrain in the novel-long reflections of Rev. John Ames—addressed to his young son—is what will become of all those boxes of his old sermons in the attic after he is gone (which he anticipates will be sooner rather than later). Were they ever worth saving in the first place? Would anyone have the slightest inkling to read them in the future? What finally is a sermon once it is delivered? In the end his musings come down to the following:
“I’ll just ask your mother to have those old sermons of mine burned. The deacons could arrange it. There are enough to make a good fire. I’m thinking here of hot dogs and marshmallows, something to celebrate the first snow. Of course she can set by any of them she might want to keep, but I don’t want her to waste much effort on them. They mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” (Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2004, p. 245)