August 18, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Matthew 16:13a is not important.
Skip to verse 13b.
Start with the question “Who do people say that I am?”
That’s what most people think and that’s how a lot of pastors preach a text like this one. We skip over the little geographical tags or other little indicators of time or place to get to the real heart of the text.
But if we do that with Matthew 16, we miss the key piece of information that ends up informing what happens in this important exchange between Jesus and his disciples. Because where are they as this pericope opens?
Once upon a time it was known as the region of Naphtali. It was an Israelite place. A God place. A Promised Land place. But even as the Soviet communists could not stand to have a town named “Saint Petersburg” (and so changed it to “Leningrad”), so the Romans changed names when it suited them better.
The translation we have in Matthew 16:13-20 says it was “Caesarea Philippi,” but literally in the Greek it is “Caesarea of Philip.” That distinguished it from the older city of Caesarea, which was south and west of there a ways along the Mediterranean Sea. But it also pointed to the more immediate history of the place. Around 20 B.C. Augustus had given the town and its surrounding region to King Herod. Herod built up the city, including a temple of white marble that honored the cult of the Caesar. After Herod died in 4 B.C., the region passed to King Philip, who further built up the place and renamed it “Philip’s Caesarville” so as to flatter and honor his patron, Caesar Augustus.
In other words . . . this was a place that oozed the unctuous nature of politics as usual. It was a place that worshiped Augustus, a place filled with political patronage and a reveling in all things worldly. The very name of the town pointed to the “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” give-and-take of the kingdoms of this world. Translated to a twenty-first century context, this would be a place that would be crawling with high-paid lobbyists in $1,000 suits earning $700 an hour to shill for AARP or the National Rifle Association or any number of high-octane single-interest groups that work the system for influence and manipulation.
So it was no coincidence that it was here that Jesus asked his famous question, “Who do people say that I am?”
Don’t skip verse 13a!
You see, to ask that particular question there, in the shadow of power politics and all that goes along with it, transforms the query from an idle question of curiosity into a loaded question bristling with implications. It would have been one thing for Jesus to ask this in some quiet village in Galilee, but it’s quite another matter to ask it in Caesarville. Even today, a question that sounds perfectly natural to ask in Pella, Iowa, would sound very different if it were asked in the well of the Senate.
Jesus’ famous question is fraught with background. So to ask it there in Caesarville only heightened the drama of it. When Peter gives his clarion confession that Jesus is the Christ, there was more than a touch of revolutionary zeal in what he said. Given where they were, that confession was like going to Washington D.C., standing outside the White House, and hoisting up a placard that declared, “Impeach the President!” There in King Philip’s city dedicated to Augustus, Peter’s saying that Jesus is the Christ was a shot across the Roman political bow.
For his part, Jesus knew deep in his heart that political pomp and circumstance, earthly splendor and glory were neither his destiny nor his goal. His warning to the disciples in verse 30 to keep his identity a secret did not stem from some fear that they’d be arrested for sedition. Jesus simply did not want to get swept up in a political campaign in which he did not want to be a candidate for secular office.
Still, it was good for Jesus to know that at least his disciples could get this right. And Peter’s having gotten it right resulted in one whale of a set of promises. True, and as is noted in the “Textual Points” in this set of Lectionary sermon starters, we probably err if we make this all about Peter. Jesus is establishing his entire Church as the place of forgiveness. But what this incident makes clear is that whatever power the Church has to forgive sins or point out sins, it all stems from one thing alone: knowing who Jesus really is. If Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as Peter said, then no matter how modest the church may look in any given time or place, no matter how imperfect the church always is, what we have at the core of it all is a power that outstrips the political powers that be in this world. We have a protecting force but also a gracious forgiving force that no one in the universe will ever be able to stop.
I wonder if we in the church—including those of us who preach each Sunday—appreciate how much flows out of that most basic Christian affirmation that “Jesus is Lord!” One of the simplest prayers of the church has for a long time been known as “The Jesus Prayer.” It goes like this:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
If Jesus is who he said he was and who Peter affirmed him to be, then that short prayer packs more power than the most eloquent sermon, the most lyric psalm, or the best hymn ever written. That is itself a point worth savoring!
Of course, there is then also that other half of this passage. We cannot ignore the immediate sequel to Peter’s grand confession when Peter takes it upon himself to teach his Master a little theology. I mean, if you’re going to take over the world, talk of death and sacrifice was a sure-fire ticket to the bottom. Nobody gets elected to office under the campaign slogan “Dead Man Walking” or “This Year, Vote for a Loser.”
We might be tempted to deal a bit harshly with Peter for his lack of understanding following Jesus’ cross-shaped words that provided a gospel sneak preview of coming events. But honestly, the Church today is often no better. We still want to utilize Jesus as a pawn in power politics, still want the church to receive some privileges and perks that are not accorded to other religious faiths, still think that we can legislate and strong-arm people into behaving better. To a lot of Christian people, America feels more and more like some kind of Caesarea Philippi, too, and we’re pretty sure we know how to deal with that kind of secular influence: through power!
We, too, need to hear Jesus say—especially in the Caesarvilles of life—that what is most important for the sake of the Gospel is that we do our Spirit-led best to keep in mind “the things of God” and not the things of business-as-usual politics.
As noted by Frederick Dale Bruner, in verse 18 the first-person singular subject of the sentence is key. Jesus says Peter is a rock but then says, “And on this rock I will build my church.” Our confession of Jesus as God’s Christ and our proclamation of Him invite people into the church and the kingdom, but it is finally ever and only Jesus who builds up the Church, not the rest of us who are his servants. There is no denying the gospel centrality of this passage: it serves as a kind of hinge point. As John Calvin wrote in his commentary, Peter’s “confession is short but it embraces all that is contained in our salvation.” How vital, therefore, it may be to understand this correctly!
Since Jesus asked this famous question in the shadow of the elite powers-that-be in his day, here is a possible illustration to display how the gospel can look/appear/sound in a similarly high-end setting:
Frederick Buechner grew up among the elite of the very sophisticated East Coast. He rubbed elbows with very urbane people, many of whom fancied themselves too mature as modern-day folk to engage in anything resembling traditional pious talk about God or spirituality. Indeed, when as a young man Buechner mentioned at a high class dinner party that he was going to seminary to become a pastor, his hostess for the evening fixed Buechner in an incredulous gaze before asking, “A pastor? Really. Tell me, was this your own idea or were you ill-advised?” Many years later, Buechner taught a semester at Wheaton College. At lunch one day, sitting with some students, he overheard one student very casually ask another, “What has God been doing in your life lately?” Buechner observed that if a question like that were asked in New York City, the ground would open up, buildings would crumble, and grown men would faint dead away.
Many times how a question sounds depends on where you are!
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
A coffin in Egypt.
The last four words of Genesis are “a coffin in Egypt,” referring to what the family of Joseph did with his body following Joseph’s death at the very end of Genesis 50. It does not look like a very hopeful ending to the Bible’s opening book. The great patriarchs are all dead: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Genesis ends in death and, what’s more, it ends with Abraham’s descendants outside the Promised Land. All through Genesis God’s promise of land was key. Abraham had briefly begun to stake a claim in that good land, but through a series of events, the clan wound up living in Egypt, and as Genesis concluded, they appeared to be stuck there, too.
So Genesis ended with some suspense. Would there be any great figures on a par with Jacob and Joseph to lead the people of Israel? Would they ever get out of Egypt and back to Canaan? Questions like that hang heavy in the air as the curtain rings down on Genesis, and they are still there as the curtain goes up on Exodus. As the action of this new book begins, we are again reminded of death. Verse 6 reprises the rather grim ending of Genesis by telling us that Joseph and everyone of that generation had died. But the people are still stuck in Egypt. So as Exodus 1 opens, we are left to ponder what is going to happen next.
Speaking of which . . . where is God in Exodus 1?
It seems to be the question to ask as readers of this book because I think the author of Exodus wants us to feel like we are in a situation similar to that of the Israelites themselves. The people in Egypt were likewise asking where God was. What ever happened to the covenant with Abraham? What has become of all the wonderful promises about living in a Promised Land? Where was God and why wasn’t he doing something to help them, especially now that a new and cruel Pharaoh had come to power. By the time the action in Exodus 1 gets rolling, the people are not just living in Egypt, they have become enslaved there.
Verse 13 sums up their plight quite succinctly: the Egyptians used the people ruthlessly.
If ever they had needed the hand of God to intervene, now was the time! But God appears to have gone off-duty. Oh sure, a few people remembered the stories of the olden days. Once upon a time God supposedly talked with Abraham, visited with him and Sarah under the oaks of Mamre. Once upon a time the old one named Jacob had God-inspired dreams of ladders to heaven. But that all was long ago and far away. What had God done for them lately? Had God spoken to any leader of the people in recent times? Fact was, the people had no leader and, from the looks of things, they didn’t have any God worth bragging about, either. As time went on, God became the stuff of legend, of old memories, of long-lost hopes. Whatever God was, he was not an active presence in Egypt.
Truth was, the only obvious power in Egypt was the sinister, evil muscle of the new Pharaoh. It is this man, and not God, who is the subject of this chapter’s active verbs. The Pharaoh is decisive, active, and shrewd. He sees, with growing alarm, how numerous the Israelites have become and so decides to enslave these people and, while he is at it anyway, also concocts his own Nazi-like “Final Solution” to curb the population growth. So he calls in the leading two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and orders them to strangle all the male babies born to Israelite women.
But somehow these two women found it within themselves to resist Pharaoh. They feared God more than any punishment the Pharaoh might dish out and so they simply ignored the Pharaoh’s order. Eventually they made up an excuse, telling Pharaoh that the Israelite women were such strong folks that they were shooting those male babies out even before the midwives could arrive. It wasn’t their fault the male babies were surviving–they could not get there in time. It actually wasn’t all that good of a cover story, but the Pharaoh apparently bought it. In any event, he doesn’t have Shiphrah and Puah executed but he does seize on a new and terrible course of action: his own troops would undertake the task of tossing male infants into the River Nile. And it is on that horrible note that Exodus 1 concludes.
Again, just reading this chapter gives us a small taste of what the Israelites must have been going through. Pharaoh looms large as a dreaded and terrible presence. But God recedes to the background–he is nowhere to be seen. He is scarcely mentioned and is said to do no more than reward Shiphrah and Puah with their own families. But all things considered, that doesn’t seem like a very big deal given that even Shiphrah and Puah’s children would grow up to be slaves. If giving these two midwives children of their own is the extent of God’s actions thus-far in Exodus, then compared with the real problems the people faced, it just didn’t amount to much.
Where is God? On the surface God appears to be doing nothing. But perhaps that is why we should delve below the surface. Where is God in Exodus 1? For those with eyes to see, God is on shining display already in verse 7 (which the Lectionary would oddly have us miss by starting at verse 8). “The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous.” After you read that verse, you need to flip back quickly to Genesis 12. Because it was there, for the first time, that God told Abraham, “I will make of you a mighty nation . . . your descendants will be like the sand on the seashore.”
It seemed like such an unlikely promise at the time. Abraham was an old man, Sarah was an old woman, and even in the springtime of their lives they had never succeeded in bearing children. It almost looked as though God made things tougher on himself by choosing that particular pair of senior citizens. Surely there must have been other people living in the world back then, including people with big families. Somewhere there had to have been a married couple with nine or ten kids running around. Wouldn’t it have made sense to choose a family like that over against a childless retired couple?
God stacked the deck against himself by choosing Abraham and Sarah to forge a great people, but doing it that way did have the advantage of making it abundantly clear that if and when the promise came true, there would be no denying that it was a miracle of God himself. Well, now we come to Exodus 1 and in verses 7 and 9 there is a tiny little Hebrew word that gets applied to Abraham’s descendants. For the first time in the entire Bible, Israel is called am, which is the Hebrew word for “nation.” They are a nation! Indeed, a mighty nation! From childless old Abram and Sarai some 500 years earlier to a nation so populous and strong-looking that Pharaoh justifiably saw them as a potential threat. Amazing! The covenant really is moving forward, even as God said it would when he first called a man named Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees.
True, the other half of the promise involved having a land of their own, and God will get around to that part in the next chapter. But for this evening we’ll stick with just Exodus 1 and the fact of Israel’s having, against all odds, become a mighty nation after all. Where is God in Exodus 1? He is present in the lovemaking and childbirths of thousands upon thousands of Israelite couples. God is in their bedrooms and in their delivery rooms. God is there as mothers nurse babies and as babies grow into children and then adults who in turn begin families of their own.
But that’s not the only place you can locate God in Exodus 1: God is also to be found in Shiphrah and Puah. Where is God in Exodus 1? He is squatting on a birthing stool delivering babies!
Does God thunder onto the scene in Exodus 1? No. Does God intervene in miraculous ways that no one could possibly miss noticing? No. Here there are no events as stunning as things that will crop up later in this book, like plagues, fiery pillars, and the parting of the Red Sea. But no less here than later on, God is most certainly at work. What’s more, it’s not just random work but wonderful work that is completely consistent with, and that is bit by bit fulfilling, the ancient covenant with Abraham. As such, this chapter is a fine reminder that God can keep his promises through the ordinary as surely as through the extraordinary. In Genesis God kept his promise by helping a 90-year-old woman conceive a child named Isaac. That was really something. But in Exodus God is no less at work in overseeing the conceptions in the wombs of 20-year-old young women. And that is really something, too. A bit later in Exodus God will be at work in obvious ways through the heroics of Moses. That will really be something to see. But before we get to that God is quietly at work in Shiphrah and Puah, and that’s really something to see, too.
As Exodus 1 closes, things look grim for Israel. We have not yet heard of anyone named Moses. The people are being used ruthlessly and despite the faithful defiance of Shiphrah and Puah, Pharaoh has found a new way to kill off the Israelites after all. But for those with eyes to see, and even before you peek ahead into chapter 2 and the birth of Moses, there is reason for some hope. God is there. He is at work. He has actually done far more than just give children to Shiphrah and Puah. God has birthed a nation, even as he promised. Pharaoh seems to be pushing forward, but God is way ahead of him. God, not Pharaoh, will have the last word. For anyone desperate to hear some word, any word, from God just now, there is hope. The Lord is never silent. He is speaking.
Back when I was in seminary, one of the first comprehensive exams I had to take was the Bible Knowledge exam. Among other things, in preparation for that exam my friends and I compiled a very long list of just about every significant name we could find in the Bible. And it was a pretty sizeable list that included not just obvious names like Esau, Moses, Samson, and Solomon but any number of lesser-known biblical characters like Ehud, Zipporah, Amaziah, Mahlon, and others. But even so, when you think about all the thousands and maybe millions of Israelites who ever lived, the Bible really does not record a very thick percentage of names. (The text of Exodus does not even give a name to the Pharaoh or to his daughter!) The Bible records even fewer names of women. The vast majority of people who lived in biblical times remain anonymous. So out of all the possible names that could be remembered, it is remarkable how prominently the names of Shiphrah and Puah are recorded and preserved for us.
But there is of course a good reason why this was so: the author of Exodus discerned that these two women were no less than God in disguise. Shiphrah and Puah’s names echo down along the centuries because were it not for their faithful defiance of Pharaoh, Moses might never have been born and the people of Israel might never have been rescued.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 138 is a psalm of praise to God for deliverance from some kind of trouble. Its content suggests that the psalmist’s enemies have done all they can to silence that praise. However, the psalmist remains utterly determined. Perhaps his foes’ opposition has even made him more determined than ever to praise God with “all of his heart,” in other words, as Raymond Van Leeuwen writes, “from the deepest center of the poet’s being.”
God’s children can hardly hear this psalm without hearing a tone of defiance. The poet’s enemies have directed their anger toward her. Her neighbors may be bowing down not toward God’s temple but toward the earth’s kings who claim either to be divine or to represent their gods. However, the poet insists, “I will praise you, O Lord, with all of my heart … I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name” (italics added). After all, she recognizes that Yahweh alone is the God of heaven and earth who deserves her praise.
It’s instructive that the psalmist praises God first of all not for what God has done, but for who God is, for God’s faithful nature. When God’s children take the time to praise God, it’s often primarily for things God has done. Even the psalmist himself praises God for what God has done, for God’s act of deliverance. However, that doesn’t come until after he has praised God for God’s character, for God’s love and faithfulness.
In that way Psalm 138 serves as an excellent model and even liturgical resource for God’s children who want to praise the Lord from the deepest center of their being. It also offers those who teach and preach the psalm to reflect with hearers on the shape of our prayer lives. After all, people are naturally in such a hurry to ask God for things that they pay scant attention to praising God for God’s loving and faithful nature.
Even when the psalmist gets around to praising God for what God has done, he starts with God’s “exaltation” of God’s name and word “above all things.” In other words, the psalmist doesn’t begin by praising God for what God has done for her, but for what God has done, in a sense, for himself. God has exalted God’s “name,” another word for God himself, above all the gods whom people assume vie with God for power and their attention.
This God whom the psalmist praises from her very core faithfully pays loving attention to “the lowly,” perhaps including the psalmist herself. While people naturally take notice of those who can do something for us, of the high and mighty, God pays attention to both the ordinary and the extraordinary, to the common and the uncommon. In fact, God is so attentive to human affairs that God knows the proud from “afar.” In other words, God knows the evil intent of the proud.
Psalm 138 offers those who preach and teach it an opportunity to reflect with hearers on their own perceptions of God. In a culture that often views God as very passive, this God is very active. This God rescues and protects, keeps and hears, looks on and knows, preserves and stretches out God’s hand, fulfills and refuses to abandon. In a world that knows so little unconditional love and faithfulness, this God is always loving and faithful toward all God has made and makes.
In fact, Psalm 138’s poet is so determined to praise God for who God is that he doesn’t even get around to praising God for what God has done for him until more than halfway through the psalm. It’s not until verse 7 that he praises God for God’s preservation of him. Though his enemies have chased him into the midst of trouble, perhaps even into the “valley of the shadow of death,” (cf. Psalm 23), God has spared the poet’s life. Though his enemies’ anger has flared against him, God has stretched out God’s hand to save the poet, much like God’s stretched out God’s hand over the Red Sea’s threatening waters to save the Israelites.
God has even graciously granted the psalmist “boldness” and “stoutheartedness.” So even though her enemies may angrily threaten her, the psalmist can courageously praise God with her whole being. Verse 3 offers the Bible’s only use of the word translated as “stoutheartedness.” The phrase may literally mean something like, “You strengthened me with strength in my soul,” an allusion to the courage with which the God fills the psalmist’s whole person.
Yet the psalmist isn’t content to be the only person who praises the Lord. In fact, he isn’t even content with just God’s Israelite sons and daughters singing the Lord’s praise. No, verses 4-5 express the psalmist’s longing that even the earth’s kings, many of whom currently think of themselves as gods, come to join in that chorus of praise to Yahweh, the true God of heaven and earth. Psalm 2’s poet professes that God rules over even the world’s kings and nations. Now Psalm 138’s poet prays that God will work so that God’s praise spreads like ripples from the “lowly” to the kings of the earth.
It may seem ironic that this prayer forms the literary heart of Psalm 138. After all, it’s not just that the earth’s kings often thought of themselves as “gods.” It’s also that those kings may have been some of the enemies who threatened the psalmist. Yet the psalmist prays not for their restraint, punishment, or even destruction, but for their conversion. Right in the middle of a psalm that both praises God and pleads for God’s help, the psalmist turns her attention away from herself and onto the kings whose praise God longs and deserves to hear.
Yet the poet ends this psalm of wholehearted praise to God with a plea for God not to abandon the works of God’s hands. This may seem like a bit of a “downer” after verses 4-5’s grand eschatological vision of the kings of the earth bringing God their worship and praise. However, it reminds us that while the world’s kings and nations will someday join creation’s chorus of praise to God, not all of them do so yet. Psalm 138 reminds us that, as Van Leeuwen notes, “God’s kingdom, and its righteousness, saving rule, is ‘already and not yet’.” God and God’s children’s enemies, sin, Satan and death, never stop attacking God’s people for even a moment. So we pray for both God’s sustaining presence and the complete coming of God’s kingdom so that the whole creation can join the psalmist in bowing down to the Lord of heaven and earth. In that way Psalm 138 echoes the apostle Paul’s confidence that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.”
Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer was a resident of Ruleville, Mississippi who worked very hard on a plantation. However, because she tried to register to vote, she was fired from her job there. She was later arrested and beaten senseless for trying to help others register to vote, sustaining injuries that would plague her for the rest of her life. She was a member of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party that tried to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. On August 22 she appeared before the convention’s credentials committee to tell her story about trying to register to vote in Mississippi.
The unspeakable suffering and deprivation she’d endured at the hands of white oppressors couldn’t squelch this grace-filled Christian’s boldness. Threats of repercussions for it couldn’t stifle her stoutheartedness as she told some of the most powerful men in America, “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America? Thank you.”
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
For eleven amazing chapters Paul has been explaining God’s incredible mercy to the mixed congregation at Rome. In the first three chapters he plumbed the depths of human depravity to demonstrate how much we all need God’s mercy. In chapters 4 and 5 he proclaimed the Good News that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven, justified, saved to the uttermost by the mercies of God. In chapters 6-8 he further expounded the good news by declaring that God has also given us a new life by the working of the Spirit and a new hope through Christ. Then in Romans 9-11 he showed how all of that mercy was part of God’s master plan to save the world. God has moved heaven and earth to show mercy to his sinful people, which includes both Jews and Gentiles. In the end, he says in 11:32, God will have “mercy on them all.”
Now, with all that mercy behind us, or rather in front of us, in full view (“in view of God’s mercy,” verse 1), Paul turns to his readers and asks, “So what? Now you know the full truth about the incredible mercy of God in Jesus Christ. What are you going to do with your knowledge? How should you respond to such mercy?” Verse 1 sums up Paul’s answer. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.”
Paul’s language there is clearly derived from the Old Testament, where God’s people responded to his merciful acts with burnt offerings. They took special animals and killed them and offered their dead bodies on the altar of the temple. They thought that was the way God wanted his people to respond to him; that is what worship meant for them. Of course, that’s because God had commanded such sacrifices, but only as a physical expression of what was in their hearts. That’s why God said to them over and over again, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice; justice, not burnt offerings; you, not dead animals.”
Now here in Romans, God says the same thing to people set free by the awesome sacrifice of Christ. I want you—all of you, not just not your soul, but your body as well. Throughout Romans Paul has identified the body (whether soma, as here, or sarx) as the source of a great deal of the trouble in our lives. So here he says that salvation includes our bodies. Through Paul God says, “I want all of the life you live in your body—your sexual life, your work life, your recreational life, your health care, your finances, your relationships. I don’t want you to be religious only in the sense of offering prayers, singing songs, and giving money. I want all of your life to be an offering to me, a continual offering.” That is the kind of worship that pleases God—logikov lutreian. That word logikon has the sense of both logical and spiritual. God wants us to present all of life back to him in a thoughtful, reasonable, and deeply spiritual way.
We preachers need to point out the irony of that request in the light of what Paul has said about the mercy of God, so that our congregations don’t miss the paradox. Critics might even call this the joke or the hoax of Christianity. On the one hand, God says that salvation is free, absolutely free, because it was earned by the blood of Christ. We don’t have to do a thing to earn it or deserve it. We are saved by God’s free grace which we receive through a simple child-like faith in Christ. It’s free, free, free. But now, on the other hand, God says, “Now give me everything.” “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.”
What kind of double talk is that? Is this some kind of heavenly con game, a divine bait and switch, where once God get you in the door with a freebie, you end up giving much more than you had bargained for? I mean, what gives here? Well, what gives is life, life in all its fullness, life filled with joy and peace and hope and significance.
Here’s the deal. God saves us by grace, accepting us right where we are, but there’s much more to being saved than getting forgiven, escaping the flames, and sliding safe into heaven. There’s also life here and now. Life can be a pale and limp version of what our Father has in store for his children, or it can be full, robust, filled with meaning and purpose, the kind of life everyone wants. The secret of such a life is the sacrificial surrender of self to God.
The world absolutely cannot understand that or believe it. Going all the way back to the Garden, humans have believed that the ticket to the good life, to fame and fortune, yes, even to divinity is to elevate self above God. “You will be like God,” hissed the serpent. Believing that lie, all of humanity assumes that the “sovereign self” is the key to real life. Since we Christians are still very much part of the world, we struggle to understand the great truth Paul proclaims in this first verse of his great “So what?” It just seems cockeyed, this idea that we will get real life by surrendering our whole life to God. But that is the way, that is the truth, that is the life that Christ offers to those who are saved by God’s mercy and grace.
Because the world does not understand that truth, Paul’s next words are crucial. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world….” The secret of such sacrificial living is getting detached from the way the world thinks and lives. This may well be the great challenge of our day, because, as the poet put it, “the world is too much with us.” Our values and lifestyles are shaped by the world in larger measure than we even know. We read its newspapers, are plugged into its devices, watch its TV, go to its movies, read its books, interact with its people, shop in its stores, and largely act just like it does. So it is terribly difficult to even think of offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God. Such a thought is absolutely foreign to our world, and so to us.
That is why God says that we must stop conforming to the world and be transformed by the renewal of our minds. The word “conformed” is susxematidzesthe, which describes what a chameleon does as it blends into its environment to avoid notice. We fit into the world so perfectly that we are barely distinguishable from the surrounding culture. The key to not conforming is the renewing of our minds. We will never become what God wants us to be, or enjoy the life God wants us to have, or make the kind of contribution to the life of this world that God wants us to make, until our minds are renewed by the Spirit of God using the Word of God. There is simply no substitute for reprogramming our minds by the Word of God. We can’t be transformed (the word there is metamorphosis, the change we see in a caterpillar becoming a butterfly) unless our minds are so renewed.
That renewal, in turn, is the secret of knowing and doing God’s will. Often as we try to be good men and women and children, we complain about not knowing God will for our lives. And when we do know it, we wonder if it will actually work in this kind of world. Well, says Paul, when your life is transformed by the renewal of your mind, you will be able to “test and approve what God’s will is.” That means two things. You will actually know God’s will and you will find that God’s commands are really the best, smartest, most satisfying way to live.
That all sounds really fine, doesn’t it? But what does it mean? How does it cash out in daily life? What does such spiritual, transformed, renewed living look like out on the street? Paul spells it out in verse 3-8, which can be summarized in two words—“humble service.” “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you, do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think….” That is the first condition for transformed living. The great church father, Chrysostom, was once asked, “What is the first Christian virtue?” His response was swift. “Humility.” “And what is the second?” “Humility.” “And the third?” “Humility.”
All of the transformed Christian life flows from a proper humility, from a proper view of oneself. How much of life is dominated by the desire to be number one, or to protect our good name, or to look good, or to promote ourselves, or to convince ourselves that we are valuable? How many of humanity’s problems are caused by that self-centered focus? We naturally tend to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.
Or conversely, think of all the sorrow visited on this world by folks who think of themselves more “lowly” than they ought to think. Paul is not calling us to that miserable condition of self-doubt. Humility does not mean having a negative view of oneself. Rather it means that you “think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” Look at yourself realistically, your strengths and weaknesses, your gifts and liabilities, in the light of the faith God has given you.
In other words, we must let the governing factor in our self-appraisal be the faith God has given you or, better, what the infallible “rule of your faith” says about us. The Bible says that we have been made in the image of God. Therefore we are a persons of incredible worth and importance—not the greatest, not the best, just children of God put on this earth to accomplish things of worth and value for God. As Dallas Willard says in The Divine Conspiracy, “We are made to be significant. We are built to count…. We are placed in a specific context to count in ways no one else does. That is our destiny.”
What am I supposed to do for God? Paul gets at that with this business about spiritual gifts and how to use them. Each of us has at least one gift. We are to use that gift as well as we can in accordance with our calling, in that area of life where God placed us. Most modern day Christians know that; in fact, we hear about our gifts almost ad nauseam these days. That’s why I like the way Dallas Willard puts it in Conspiracy. “Every last one of us has a kingdom, or a queendom, or a government—a realm that is uniquely our own, where our choice determines what happens. We are, all of us, never ceasing beings with a unique eternal calling to count for good in God’s great universe”
My kingdom is a pulpit. People sometimes speak disparagingly about ministers establishing their own little kingdom, as though that were a bad thing, which it is, if we are setting up our own kingdom. But if God has given that kingdom to you, it’s a different matter. This is my kingdom, the place God has put me to use my gifts to serve him and his people. Others might have their kingdom in a classroom, or a boardroom, or a kitchen, or a hospital, or a desk, or behind the wheel of an 18 wheeler.
Here’s the answer to the great “So What.” Here’s the cash value of all that high sounding language about sacrifice and transformation and renewal. The purpose of our lives is to use our gifts to promote the kingdom of God within our own little kingdoms. Our lifelong challenge is to bring our little kingdoms under the reign of God, so that we serve his Kingdom by what we do in ours.
That doesn’t necessarily mean doing high and mighty things. Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God to this world. Yes, he did some high and mighty things. But he is best remembered for doing things like washing his disciples’ feet and dying on a cross. Remember those two words that sum up a transformed, renewed life—“humble service.” “I did not come to be served, but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many.” As the old hymn, “Lead On, O King Eternal,” puts it, “with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”
Nearly everyone reading these words has read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, or at least seen the play or movie based on it. So you know the scene that changed Jean Valjean’s life. Valjean is a thief just released from prison. He is given food and shelter and shown great kindness by a minister and his wife, but in the middle of the night he steals away with their precious silverware.
The next day the police haul him back and ask the minister if the silver is his. “Of course,” replies the minister gruffly, “and I am very angry with this man. He was supposed to leave with the candlesticks, too. Here they are.” Though they barely believe him, the police have no choice but to let Valjean go. Valjean is dumbstruck by this kind of treatment. Such mercy is a mystery to him. What the minister says next determines the rest of his life. “This silver will buy your freedom. Become a good man. I leave you to God.” Valjean responds to mercy precisely by becoming a good man.
That story puts us in touch with Romans 12, which deals precisely with the issue of response. Paul says exactly what that minister said. In view of the mercy you’ve experienced, “Go and become the eternally significant person God means you to be. I leave you to God.”