September 15, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
Sometimes the good sermon is the one that gets under people’s skins and bothers them.
Jesus knew this as we will see. And many of us preachers today know this, too. Yet how often haven’t we preachers encountered people at the church door saying after the service “I really liked that sermon, pastor” when what we really want to say in reply is, “Liked? I was hoping it would bug you just a little!”
In Matthew 20, Jesus is trying to bug us a little. It is one of those times in the Bible when if Jesus can get us a little upset, it creates a teachable moment. This story is calculated to offend.
Like most parables, the basic story is very simple and very mundane. A vintner is desperate to get his crop of grapes harvested. Maybe the weather is threatening to turn bad the next day, or maybe the grapes are so bursting with juice that if they aren’t picked today, they will be rotten very quickly. Whatever the situation, the work needs to be done in a day. So at the crack of dawn he finds some eager folks lined up. So he hires them, promising a denarius for their trouble.
These people work literally from sun-up to sundown, a solid twelve hours of labor including right through the heat of the day. Apparently, however, despite the diligent work of these folks, the picking is not proceeding fast enough to satisfy the farmer. So all day long at 9am, noon, 3pm, and even as late as 5pm (a scant hour before quitting time) the farmer keeps hiring more folks, handing them empty bushel baskets and telling them to fill ’em up with grapes.
Jesus purposely lingers a bit over those last folks hired. These were not the eager beavers who had been standing at the farmer’s front gate at dawn. For whatever the reason they had slept in. Maybe these were the ne’er-do-wells of the community–the kind of people who were unemployed but seemed to lack the gumption to do a whole lot about it. All day they had sat around on the fringes of the town square, sipping cheap beer maybe and just watching passively as over and over the farmer came looking for new workers. But they had not leapt to their feet each time he came to the square calling for more pickers.
Finally it got to the point where there were no other folks left in the square and so long about the time these lollygaggers were getting ready to head on home to sit on the sofa and channel surf the evening away while munching on the frozen pizza they had bought with their unemployment checks at the A&P, the farmer comes back one last time.
“Why have you guys been lazing around this town square all day doing nothing?” the farmer asks.
“We dunno,” they ask, “guess it’s cuz no one hired us.”
Well, there was a reason for that, too, of course, but when the farmer tells them to get to work at last, they readily agree. Shucks, for an hour they could put up with most anything. “A little hard work never hurt anybody” the old adage says, and a little hard work was precisely what these fellows would be doing.
Jesus is setting us up.
We are already looking at these blokes through squinty eyes. Examples of the Protestant work ethic they aren’t! But then Jesus pulls a narrative fast one: he makes sure that these one-hour pickers get paid first. Had they been paid last after the crack-of-dawn folks had already left with their hard-earned denarius tucked into their wallets, there would not have been much punch to this parable. But instead Jesus’ fictional vintner makes a point of ensuring that the people who worked the longest witnessed the fact that these lazy bums got paid one whole denarius each as well.
Actually, however, that was not the moment that brought about the anger. Being fair-minded men with a firm sense of right and wrong and of what they had coming to them, they assumed that maybe as it turned out the going rate for this vineyard was one denarius per hour. And oh what a happy evening it would be in their households if they could come home with twelve denarii in their pocket! How wonderful it would be to swing by the store on the way home and at long last be able to afford a special candy bar for each of the kids, maybe even some flowers for the dinner table and one of those better brands of wine to go with dinner for once.
Except that of course it didn’t happen that way at all. Everyone got the same pay. Most people have a certain look that involuntarily sweeps across the face the moment they feel cheated. It is a kind of pursed lips, sideways glance, head-shaking expression utterly transparent to the anger that is rising in the throat. That’s how I picture these 12-hour workers the moment the master’s payroll man plopped a single denarius into their sweaty palms. They stared at the coin in disbelief and then looked askance. One of them finally whispers, “Can you even believe this!?”
The master overhears and so reminds them that he had cheated no one. This was the contract they agreed to at dawn that day. “And as for the rest,” he goes on, “what’s that to you? You’re not out anything. I can do what I want with my own money. So don’t cut your eyes at me and scorn my generosity!”
And that’s grace, Jesus says. It turns everything on its head.
But we don’t like it. And that is the rub of this parable and it creates a great preaching opportunity.
Without meaning to do it, we peg a lot of our spiritual worth, our spiritual self-assessment, to how much work we do for the church. In the heat of the day, in the dark of the night, on Tuesday mornings when we don’t feel like driving to church yet again, and on Sunday evenings when most other folks don’t even show up for worship, we’re here. And before we realize it, we slowly begin to assume that maybe we need less grace than some other folks. We’re getting to heaven on the installment plan as much as by grace. Maybe God does grade on the curve after all, and if so, by jimminy, we are determined to be well out ahead of that curve.
But as a matter of fact, if we have work to do and the talents to do it, this needs to become not a point of comparison with anyone else but a lifelong exercise in gracious gratitude to the God who enables our work in the first place. Grace called us to work in the kingdom, grace lets us perform ministry, grace compensates for our shortcomings in that work, and grace, not our own hard-won merits, is what crowns the work at the end of the day.
But, of course, there is a last point to be made and no one ever made it more poignantly than Barbara Brown Taylor in her memorable sermon on this passage. Taylor asked the key question: When we read this parable, why do we tend so immediately to identify with the folks hired at the crack of dawn?
Why do we so readily assume that when God’s kingdom fully comes, we will be the ones tempted to feel upset in that we will also be shown to have been the hardest workers of them all?
Who told you or me that we’ve been working for 12 hours? How do we know that just maybe our work totals the measly one hour after all?
Barbara Brown Taylor imagines that in the parable, when the farmer improbably hands the one-hour pickers a whole day’s wage, there must have been hoots of laughter and some “Ain’t we the lucky ones!” good-natured back-slapping going on.
But on that great and final day when Christ shall come again and bring us to himself, we should pray not only that we will indeed discover that the grace of Jesus is more than enough to get us into the kingdom. We should also pray that when we discover that eternally joyful fact, the great laughter and joyful back-slapping will be our very own.
This parable is so memorable that we are tempted to forget it has a wider context in Matthew’s gospel. It comes as part of a larger package of stories and incidents that drive home the idea of “the first shall be last.” First Jesus took little children to himself in Matthew 19:13-15 to point out that their lowly, humble status somehow has something to do with receiving the kingdom the right way. Then the Rich Young Man shows up as a foil to a child-like nature. Jesus sadly has to undercut this young man’s ideas on self-help salvation to make the point that salvation is all about God and so all about grace. Now this parable in Matthew 20:1-16 drives home that same point and is followed by yet another prediction by Jesus that it would finally take nothing short of his own death to make just that free and saving grace available. But the whole section climaxes in Matthew 20:20-28 when the disciples reveal how clueless they still are on this fundamental dynamic of the gospel as the mother of James and John tries to reserve seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom for her two boys, leading the other disciples to get ticked off, thus leading Jesus—one more time—to try to get through their thick skulls that the world’s way of reckoning value must not be their way. But was anyone really listening?
In her sermon on Matthew 20, Barbara Brown Taylor says that this parable is a little like the cod liver oil that mothers used to give their kids to cure what ailed them: you know it’s good for you, you trust the one who is giving it to you, but that doesn’t make it very easy to swallow even so! Most of us are born into this world with a huge sense of infantile entitlement followed by, at a very early age already, a seemingly intuitive sense of fairness and unfairness.
It’s like Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, in the classic “Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” You may recall that at one point Sally is writing a letter to Santa Claus and in the process generates an enormous list of toys she wants. Then at the conclusion of her North Pole-bound missive she writes, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.” When Charlie Brown sees this and despairs over his own sister’s greed, Sally indignantly responds, “All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me.” Sally
Apparently that’s all that most of us want, including long after we become much older than Sally Brown. We want our fair share. We’ve got rights and the number one right we have in life is the right to have our rights met. So we chafe, we champ at the bit, we stomp our feet and wag our heads when we spy apparent unfairness in life. We go to a high school reunion and see former classmates who never went on to college. We’ve got four, maybe eight years more education than they have and so get driven clean up a wall when we discover they made millions in a car wash business even as we slave away teaching humanities at a Christian college, barely making ends meet at times. Driving home after the reunion, we mutter to our spouse, “Life’s not fair.”
When we are children, we count how many M&Ms Bobby got from grandma to make sure it’s the same amount as we got. When we are grownups we do the same thing, albeit counting up other kinds of things than pieces of candy. We are very sure that in life, hard work should be rewarded, education should pay off, yahoos and bumpkins should not be better off than thoughtful people.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Note: In January 2014 one of the preachers slated to preach at our annual Symposium on Worship fell victim to last winter’s relentless snow and was unable to travel to Grand Rapids as planned. With about 24 hours’ notice, I was pressed into revising an old sermon I had on Exodus 16 to take the place of the guest preacher’s Exodus 16 sermon that he was then unable to bring to the conference. So for this week I present this revised sermon—including its references to the conference and to pastors/worship leaders—as a kind of sermon starter inspiration. (At least I hope it is inspiring!)
Scott Hoezee Exodus 16 “Glory in the Wilderness”
In Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, Huxley imagined that in the future all of society will be massively engineered to avoid suffering. Hence, the people in this brave new world tend to be placid, unflappable, and seemingly happy. Yet they cannot survive physically without the adrenalin that gets pumped into our systems when we are afraid or in pain. So to make up for their lack of normally produced adrenalin, the people of Huxley’s future receive monthly adrenaline injections. Huxley is saying that a suffering-free state of placidness is not just unhealthy but perhaps is even sub-human.
On the other hand we could ponder the character of Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ classic, Great Expectations. Years before Miss Havisham had been jilted on her wedding day–the groom never showed up. Ever since, Miss Havisham has shut herself up in a dark house in the very room where the wedding reception was to have been held. She is now a very old lady but she still wears her wedding dress, now tattered and smelly and yellowed with age. Her wedding cake still sits on the buffet table, now desiccated, rotten, and rat-eaten. The clock on the wall is stopped at the precise hour and minute when the wedding was to have begun. Miss Havisham is a woman frozen in time, trapped by her suffering.
So here are two sets of literary images that detail two possible responses to suffering: we can try to avoid suffering altogether, pretend it’s not real, and so lead a lifelong pursuit toward a pain-free existence of bliss. Or we can become so walloped by our pains and disappointments in life as to become trapped by them. Probably we all know people who fit one of these two categories.
If we thought about it, most of us could think of someone we know who has never shed a tear in our presence, who is always sunny-side-up, whose response to even a terrible event is always, “I’m fine! Don’t worry about me!” Then again, we may also know someone who gnaws on an unhappy past event like a dog with a bone. If you spend more than three minutes talking to Robert, you will all-but certainly hear about how rotten life has been and about the way he got cheated out of something back in 1966 and he’s never been the same since.
Denial and despair. But are those the only two possible reactions to the fact that life, each person’s life, contains a fair share of hard knocks, letdowns, disappointments, and flat-out tragedies? Is there a third way to respond to suffering? Exodus 16 is an early biblical hint that there is such a third way: it is the way of growth, of maturity, of trusting in God even when (and maybe especially when) the bottom drops out. And it is the way of just possibly finding a deeper and stronger faith in God as a result.
If you back up a chapter in Exodus, you will see the people of Israel singing and dancing by the shores of the Red Sea. They then enjoy a mini-stretch of Paradise in a pretty place called Elim. But the march toward redemption could not stop there. A trek through the wilderness has to come first and no sooner does this journey begin and we find in Exodus 16 a nearly reverse portrait of the celebration and joy of the previous chapter. Sounds of timbrel, singing, and dancing have been replaced with sounds of muttering, grumbling, and the shuffling of sandaled feet through scorching sand. The result is some historical revisionism on the part of the people. Suddenly Egypt looms on the horizon of their imaginations and transforms itself into a kind of deluxe resort, a veritable Club Med of a place. The hunger in their bellies tricks their minds into remembering nothing about Egypt except steak dinners, fresh vegetables, and rich desserts.
So they complain to Moses, who tells the people that really they are complaining directly to Yahweh himself, and so they’d best watch their step. And indeed, Yahweh hears the people but curiously enough does not speak a harsh word here. True, God says that he will yet find a way to test the people. But at this early stage in Israel’s desert wanderings God does not seem to blame the people for being hungry for some good food.
God knows the wilderness is a place of death. In the Bible the wilderness usually gets described through the very same Hebrew phrase used to describe the pre-creation chaos in Genesis 1:1. God shoved aside the chaos to create cosmos but then sin came and chaos made a comeback. Some of those good creation barriers that God set into place to protect and nurture human life eroded. Nowhere in the Old Testament (or the New Testament) can this return of chaos be more clearly seen than in the desert wastes. The wilderness was the place where the devil ran wild, where demons howled, where human life was threatened from every quarter.
The wilderness was a place of death. It was also the path the Israelites needed to take toward life in the Promised Land. But as commentator Terrence Fretheim has written, in the heat of the desert there would be many occasions when the very hope of the Promised Land would shimmer like no more than a desert mirage even as the people’s faith would erode like the shifting sands while their dreams tattered along with their tents in the scorching desert winds.
Not surprisingly, the people complain. This was not what they signed on for. This did not look like the “Promised Land” travel brochure that Moses and Aaron had shown to the people back in Egypt. They were tired, hot, thirsty, and hungry. They needed to know if it was possible that God was with them in this dreadful place, and on this occasion God seems only-too-happy to comply by showering the people with provisions.
But in the midst of all that, in Exodus 16:10, we encounter what may well be one of the most startling and vivid verses in the whole Bible. It is a verse that should be written in large letters upon each one of our hearts. Because the people of Israel are hurting, they are hungry, they are no doubt afraid. Their suffering is getting bad enough that many have swiveled around and turned back toward the west, back toward Egypt, back toward what had been, for better or worse, their home.
So what happens in verse 10? The Lord God himself gently takes the people by the shoulders and turns them around, away from the west, away from Egypt, and eastward toward the harsh and terrible wilderness. But what do the people see when they look toward this place of death? They see “the glory of the Lord!”
Just let this image sink in a moment. They looked into the hard times of life and that is where they saw God! They were not to look for God back in Egypt. Yet when peering toward the place of death, they saw glory. They would see this glory in the wilderness new every morning through the manna. God would feed his people bread from heaven even though they themselves were not in heaven but in a kind of living hell on earth. For some reason the wilderness would be the cradle in which God would nourish and nurture his people toward a greater maturity.
But why? Why bring the people here? Why did God show his glory in the wilderness? Perhaps to foster dependence and trust. In the hard times of life, all our normal supports get knocked out from underneath us. If the people were going to go on, it would be only and ever because the Lord was with them. That’s why they couldn’t stockpile the manna. Think of it this way: if your retirement portfolio is fat and rich and full and in fine fiscal shape, how much time do you devote to praying about such a thing? If your pantry, cupboards, fridge, and freezer are as well-stocked, you may not know just what you will have for dinner tonight but you will not spend any time in prayer to God asking that you will eat at all.
In the wilderness God showed his glory to Israel morning by morning so that there would ideally never be a day when anyone had cause to doubt why he or she was alive. We tend to think of the manna as only a gift. But you should have noticed that when manna is first introduced in this chapter, God at least sees it mostly as also a test. Will they, can they, rely on God?
Nobody wants to suffer. Only sick masochists actively pursue hurts and pains. All things being equal, the Lord God did not create us to suffer, either. God did not launch Adam and Eve into Eden with the promise of hunger and want. But in the post-Eden world, sickness, want, hunger, loss, and death are realities. That is not good news but there is some good news, some comfort to be found in the thought that those things do not force God to abandon anyone.
None of us purposely moves out into the wilderness. But sometimes we get cast out into it anyway and the question then becomes, “Now what? Will I just deny this pain and act like it is no big deal? Will I get trapped in this pain and so curdle into a lifelong deep bitterness? Or in and through my understandable laments and weeping will I nonetheless look for the glory of the Lord that may just be revealed to me even here, in this hellish place of death and sorrow?”
I am not trying to be simplistic in setting the matter in these terms. I myself am no stoic, no saintly hero who finds it easy to look for God when I’m hurting, and I’m not above thinking dark and grim and very unspiritual thoughts when in scorching places. When someone says something to me along the lines of, “God is building more character in you through this,” my first response may well be, “Well then, O Lord, I’ll be content with less character, thank you very much!”
And let me be honest enough to admit that I’ve not been through the kind of deep wilderness valleys through which some of you have passed in your lives (and in which some of you may be even right this very moment). Every year at Symposium people come here from so many different situations of pain and suffering. Pastors come bearing on their hearts the names of the sick and the sorrowing in congregations back home. Others of us have left behind a sick spouse, a child who seems lost in life, a job that may be in jeopardy. Some of us came from places of great distress and persecution like Pakistan, North or South Sudan. This is a hard world. So please don’t read me as being trite. There are no pat answers, no easy solutions, no quick escape routes out of the desert wastes where we sometimes find ourselves.
All I can say is that to those who are willing to look hard and long into the wilderness places, there is that possibility of seeing the glory of the Lord even so. Because do you remember what happened, first thing, to the one called Jesus? If crossing through the Red Sea was Israel’s “baptism,” then we can remember the baptism of also Jesus in the Jordan River.
Do you recall the vivid and utterly startling way the Gospel of Mark presents the scene to us? Jesus goes down into the waters of baptism, comes up out of the river only to have the Holy Spirit descend on him like a dove. But then that dove suddenly transmogrifies into a kind of raptor bird with sharp and strong talons. Immediately, Mark tells us, instantly upon being baptized, the Holy Spirit of God hurled Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of temptation and danger. Immediately, just like for Israel. Very often after baptism come wilderness trials.
In one of his fine sermons, Fred Craddock notes that the disciples turned apostles performed what Craddock calls a majestic flip-flop. You see, all along the Jews who were waiting for the Messiah summed up their anticipation with the phrase, “When the Messiah comes, no suffering.” “See that person over there all shriveled up with arthritis and in constant pain? Well, when the Messiah comes you won’t see that anymore. When the Messiah comes, no suffering. See that blind man? See that crippled woman? See that broken family? Well, when the Messiah comes, you won’t see that again. When the Messiah comes, no suffering.” But for the disciples turned apostles who ended up meeting the real Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified One, they ended up doing a flip-flop, a reversal as they ended up proclaiming that for now and until he comes again, wherever there is suffering, that’s where you will find the Messiah!
Jesus has been to the wilderness and so he is still there, in that terrible place, when we arrive there, too. It is still a disorienting place. The demons still howl into our ears there and we may well discover all kinds of reasons to question our faith, wish for a change, or just generally to turn back westward, back toward “Egypt,” whatever “Egypt” may be for you.
But the Spirit of God turns us eastward, toward the suffering, and may in the end somehow and against all odds reveal to us the glory of the Lord. We don’t need to deny the reality of hurts in life. We don’t need to let suffering have the last word on everything, either. But if by the grace of God we can discover the love of Jesus made the more vivid to us even in the wilderness, then we may yet find a reason to give glory to God as he leads us along to that better country that is the kingdom of God. Amen.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Those who preach and teach this psalm of exuberant praise face an immediate challenge. Its theme of divine sovereignty is reflected in verse 1’s: I will exalt you, my God, the King. However, the royalty with whom modern worshipers are familiar are largely ceremonial monarchs. Their duties seem largely confined to opening parliament, making public appearances and attending each other’s weddings. So those who preach and teach this psalm may want to spend at least some time familiarizing worshipers with the role monarchs played in the psalmist’s day.
Regrettably, much of this psalm’s vital royal language falls outside of the text appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary. After all, verses 11-13 don’t just form the heart of this psalm. Scholars also note that the three Hebrew letters which start those verses together form the consonant root of melek, the Hebrew word for “king.” What’s more, those verses refer extensively to Yahweh’s “kingdom” and “dominion.” So those who preach and teach the Lectionary’s approach to Psalm 145 may also want to at least summarize the vital parts of the psalm the Lectionary omits.
“Praise” is one of Psalm 145’s key words. It’s not just that the word is used six times in the psalm. It’s also that the poet uses similar words and phrases such as “exalt,” “celebrate,” “joyfully sing” and “extol” throughout. So any message, sermon or lesson on this psalm should reflect its thankful tone. While one might argue that no psalms are very conducive to the old “three points and a poem” approach, it seems particularly inappropriate for an explanation of this glorious hymn of praise.
In Psalm 145 the poet vows to praise King Yahweh for ever and ever. In fact that vow brackets this psalm. I will praise your name for ever and ever, the psalmist sings in verse 1. My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord … for ever and ever, he concludes in verse 21. That eternal element of praise is even more relevant for those who worship King Yahweh after Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. After all, while the psalmist and his contemporaries had a largely undeveloped theology of eternity and the new creation, the New Testament offers a more developed, though still admittedly somewhat hazy, theology of the new creation in which worshipers will literally praise King Yahweh for ever and ever. Jesus’ saving death opens the way for God’s sons and daughters to spend eternity in God’s glorious presence
While Psalm 145 is sung in the first person, there’s a real sense that the poet anticipates that succeeding generations will echo her praise. So, for example, in verse 4, she sings, One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. The psalmist recognizes that what God has already done is so “mighty” that even future worshipers will remember it. The psalmist also at least hints that King Yahweh will continue to do “wonderful works” in the future. So this is in many ways a very hopeful psalm.
There’s an interesting interplay in verses 5 and 6 between the poet and succeeding generations of worshipers. In verse 5, for example, the poet says future generations will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I [emphasis added] will meditate on your wonderful acts. That pattern repeats itself in verse 6. So it’s as if the poet and people yet unknown are united in a common bond of praise to and worship of King Yahweh. In fact, they even form a kind of antiphonal chorus of praise.
In verse 4 the poet speaks of God’s “works” and “mighty acts.” She then uses much of the rest of the psalm to describe those mighty acts. At the appointed text’s boundary, the poet speaks of God’s grace and compassion. This God, the poet adds, is slow to anger and rich in love. Outside of the text appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary, the poet speaks of God’s faithfulness to all of God’s promises, God’s love for everything God creates, God’s uplifting of those who fall and God’s provision of everything God’s creatures need.
Old Testament scholar James Mayes calls Psalm 145 the “overture to the final movement of the Psalter.” At this psalm’s end the poet promises to “speak in praise of the Lord.” The rest of the psalms in the psalter begin to fulfill that promise. Each, after all, doesn’t just begin with a call to “Praise the Lord.” Psalms 146-150 are also ringing psalms of praise. What’s more, Psalm 150’s ringing call for praise with all sorts of musical instruments echoes 145’s ending “Let every creature praise his holy name for ever and ever.”
The Old Testament lesson appointed for this Sunday, Exodus 16:2-15, provides a concrete example of God’s grace and compassion. It describes Israel’s bitter complaints about God’s provision for her as she wanders from Egypt toward the land of promise. Yet despite their complaints, God graciously gives the Israelites the food they need.
The Gospel lesson for this Sunday also points to a very gracious God. Its parable of the master in the vineyard points to a God who deals with God’s servants not as they deserve, but as God graciously chooses. Ironically, this grace enrages those who assume latecomers to God’s kingdom don’t deserve it.
When people approach human royalty, certain etiquette must be followed. While the rules seem to be more relaxed now, traditionally those who met European royalty addressed them by their formal title. Men bowed their heads slightly. Women sometimes curtsied.
But those who met European royalty were also expected not to do certain things. People didn’t extend their hands for a handshake until the monarch did first. And they traditionally never spoke to a monarch until the monarch first addressed them.
Contrast that with the poet’s approach to King Yahweh. He insists that the Lord hears the cry of those who fear him. But what if worshipers were never allowed to cry out to the Lord until the Lord first addressed them?
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
As I reflected on this fifteenth reading in Ordinary Time, which calls us to extraordinary Christian living, I thought of an episode from the hit TV program, “Friday Night Lights.” I’m a little embarrassed to admit I watch it. But it was my brilliant philosophy professor friend who got me hooked on this football themed exploration of the agonies and ecstasies of adolescence in small town Texas. In this particular episode, the gorgeous cheerleader who slept with the best friend of her now paralyzed boyfriend has become a devout Christian. She is answering phone calls on a Christian radio station when that “best friend” calls in using an obviously faked falsetto voice. He and his football buddies are drunk and they are mocking this now sober and chaste young Christian. Their obvious message is that they are living it up, while she has no life. Christianity is for wimpy losers. The scene reminded me of Algernon Swinburne’s famous taunt, “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.”
In a world that sees the Christian life as a pale grey reduction of real life, Paul’s words here are a bracing reminder that a genuinely Christ centered life is vigorous and risky, even death defying. “Extreme” is the word that comes to mind. Paul was in extreme conditions. Not only was he confined to prison for daring to preach a gospel that sounded blasphemous to the Jews and treasonous to the Romans, but he was also experiencing nasty competition from fellow preachers.
Even though everything is all wrong, Paul continues to rejoice (verse 18). Indeed, the over-riding theme of this prison epistle is joy; it is mentioned some 16 times. Paul has joy in the face of opposition, continued imprisonment, and even the possibility of death. He expresses his joyful conviction in the verse just before our reading begins. “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” There are the elements of vigorous Christian living: joy, optimism, eager expectation, hope, courage under fire, even in the face of death.
How can we possibly live that way? Paul shows us by sharing his personal testimony. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” This is not the melancholy, borderline, suicidal Hamlet contemplating the uncertainties of both life and death: “To be or not to be, that is the question….” This is the joyful apostle boldly claiming that he can’t lose, live or die, because of Christ. The Greek of these famous words is a bit problematic, but the sense is very clear. Because Christ is the center of his life, it doesn’t matter to him whether he lives or dies. Obviously he doesn’t say that in a spirit of defeated resignation. He virtually thumps his chest as a man who can’t lose, a “hyper-conqueror” as he puts it in Romans 8:37.
“To live is Christ….” Other passages in Philippians help to flesh out that enigmatic statement. He means that he derives his strength from Christ (4:13); he has the mind of Christ (2:5-11); he knows Christ intimately and experientially (3:8); he is covered with Christ’s righteousness (3:9); he rejoices in Christ’s nearness (3:1, 4:4). An old gospel tune captures Paul’s meaning: “Jesus is all the world to me, my life, my joy, my all; he is my strength from day to day, without him I would fall.” Even if I do fall, says Paul, if I remain in prison, if I am executed, that would be gain. Death would be even better than life, because, as Paul will say in a moment, death would bring him even closer to Christ.
Which shall I choose, says Paul, life with Christ or death with Christ? Both are such wonderful options that Paul is torn between the two– not with a Hamlet-like dread of both life and death, but with a deep desire for both. Paul will never know the agony of defeat, even though life could be real agony (cf. verse 30 where the word “struggle” is agona in the Greek). Death will not be defeat for Paul, no matter how agonizing the Romans can make it. The last enemy cannot conquer him, because the realm of the dead will not be his final destination. Rather, death will be simply a departure from this life that will land him safely in the presence of the living Christ. No wonder he says, “I desire to depart and be with Christ.” Christ is his life now, but when he dies, he will have an even closer relationship with Christ.
Paul doesn’t seem to anticipate some sort of waiting period between death and being with Christ. There’s no hint of “soul sleep,” in which thousands of years may pass before the resurrection of the body and the new heaven and earth. Paul seems to think that he will die and immediately be with Jesus. I’m well aware that many contemporary scholars believe the traditional Christian teaching about the intermediate state, about existence in heaven before the resurrection, is a Hellenistic importation into Christianity. But this text certainly seems to teach something like that.
For Paul that immediate post mortem enjoyment of the presence of Jesus is a wonderful stimulant to vigorous Christian living. Contrary to Marx’s claim that such Christian ideas are the opiate of the people, Paul’s powerful conviction about this made him a fearless agent for change throughout the corrupt Roman Empire. Maybe the problem with today’s pusillanimous Christians is not that we are too heavenly minded, but that we aren’t heavenly minded enough. Maybe we don’t really believe that dying for Christ is gain, because we are not sure that death will land us squarely in the presence of Christ. Or, more likely, we don’t really believe that being with Christ in heaven is “better by far” than anything earth has to offer. The Greek of that phrase is fascinating. It is a triple comparison—pollo mallon kreisson, “much more the better.” We’ll never be fearless, death defying, extreme Christians like Paul unless we believe what Paul says here.
But Paul was clearly no world fleeing mystic. Immediately after contemplating his first choice (“my desire is to depart….”), Paul lands squarely in the middle of the needs of the day. “But it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” This is a man, a Mensch as the German puts it, a human being with backbone, character, courage, and a clear eyed view of what is really important in life. I have my own desires, but your needs are more important than my desires. How Christ-like! I’m willing to sacrifice my desires for your needs. And what you need is me.
There’s no mealy mouthed self deprecation here, nor is this the worldly pride that pounds its chest and struts in the end zone. This is a God given sense of one’s own importance in God’s plan for the world. This is a man alive to his reason for living. He is here to make a difference in the world for Christ. And he knows that fulfilling his God-given purpose is more important right now than departing and being with Christ. That kind of conviction makes for vigorous living. Even though he is still in prison, Paul confidently anticipates his ongoing ministry with the Philippians, so that they can share his joy: “for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again, your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.”
Having shared his testimony, Paul now calls his friends (and even his enemies) in Philippi to join him in this kind of daring, death defying, extreme Christian living. “Whatever happens [to me],” here’s what I want you to do. Actually the word translated “whatever happens” in the NIV is the Greek word “only.” The idea is not so much “whatever happens to me” as it is “here’s what really matters for you.” And what matters is that they and Christians everywhere conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.
The word translated “conduct” is really the Greek politeusthe, from the word polis, city, from which our word “politics” is derived. It could be more accurately translated “exercise your citizenship,” or “live your public life.” Is Paul talking about their citizenship in the Roman Empire, or their citizenship in the kingdom of God? Given that Phil. 3:20 says, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” it is likely that Paul is referring to citizenship in the kingdom first of all. But he probably means, as you live as citizens of Rome, make sure that you conduct yourselves as citizens of the kingdom of God. That is your ultimate loyalty and it must trump your loyalties to your city or your state or your country.
Here is a word that desperately needs to be preached in our politically divided church, where partisan politics so often trump spiritual unity. No matter what party you belong to, no matter what platform commands your loyalty, no matter what earthly cause you are committed to, make sure that the promotion of Gospel of Christ is your first and last concern. Paul is obsessed with that Gospel; he mentions it 6 times in this chapter. We will live as vigorous Christians only when we are more deeply committed to the story of what God has done in Christ than to any other narrative. Let the Gospel be the driving force in your life.
What is a “life worthy of the Gospel of Christ?” Paul uses three verbs to describe it: “stand firm,” “contending,” and “without being frightened.” Vigorous Christians don’t waffle or give in; they dare to contend for the faith of the Gospel. Vigorous Christians don’t allow difficult issue to divide them from each other. They stand in “one spirit;” they contend “as one man/person/body.” They fight side by side against the common foe, like gladiators chained together in the arena (picture Russell Crowe chained to the other gladiator in the movie Gladiator). No matter how we may disagree politically or socially or even theologically, Christians must stand together as we contend for the faith of the Gospel. What’s more, vigorous Christians aren’t afraid of anything, because whether they live or die, they belong to Christ. Obviously, the kind of life Paul here describes has nothing to do with a “pale Galilean” whose breath/Spirit turns the world into a sickly shade of grey. This is a clarion call to follow a Christ who marched through hell to bring full blooded life back to a dying world.
This is a daunting challenge, so it’s a good thing that Paul closes this section with a bit of the Good News. Here’s what you must do, says Paul, and you can do it because of what God has done, is doing, and will do. But this is not your Sunday School version of the Gospel, not “Jesus died on the cross to save you from your sins” Gospel. To encourage embattled Christians, Paul preaches the hard edges of the Gospel along with the softer, more comforting parts. So, he says in verse 28 that “you will be saved—and that by God.” But just before that he claims that the opposition these Christians are experiencing and the Christ-like way they are enduring it are “a sign to them [their opponents] that they will be destroyed….” The hardships we experience at the hands of those who hate Christ are the “proof” (endeixis) that God will destroy those enemies.
Now, we modern Christians don’t like that kind of talk. It sounds mean spirited and vindictive. But Paul is simply saying that evil won’t win, that the rebellion cannot succeed, that justice will finally be done. Though we shouldn’t take pleasure in the death of the wicked any more than God does (Ezek. 33:11), and though we ought to grieve over the wickedness that vaunts itself against God as God does (Gen. 6:6), we can take comfort in the good news that God will finally set everything right.
Paul ends this call to Christian living with another hard edged Gospel truth, this time a truth uncomfortable for us Christians. Not only does God grant us the privilege of believing in Christ, but also the privilege of suffering for Christ. (verse 29) The word “grant” is a derivative of charis, grace. Not only faith in Christ (ala Eph. 2:8), but suffering for Christ has been given to you as a gift. How is that Good News? Well, it means that even the awful things we suffer for our faith are a part of God’s gracious plan for our lives in this world.
While that comes very close to making God the author of our pain, what Paul means, I think, is that these painful experiences are not just accidents, out-of-control natural occurrences, nor just attacks by the Evil One, malevolently intended efforts to kill our faith. Even more, God’s grace will use them to work out the good of becoming like Christ (Romans 8:28-30). The Good News is that we are not simply victims of sin and evil; we are victors because the grace of God controls even suffering.
I don’t know how to make complete sense of this aspect of the Good News, but Paul says it is true. And it is a key to living strong through the challenges of the Christian life. It worked for Paul and the other early Christians. Think of Acts 5:41. After persecution first began, Luke reports, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” No wonder that Paul’s message always included something like Acts 14:22. “We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” Yes, this is hard stuff, but we have to know these truths if we are going to live bold and strong in the public square.
As I pondered Paul’s words about “not being frightened in any way by those who oppose you,” I thought about how mild our opposition is, and how frightened we still are by it. Imagine being an Iraqi Christian in Mosul. Severely diminished in numbers by the persecution inflicted on them by jihadists, the few Christians left in that historically Christian region were recently given a choice by ISIS: convert, leave, or die. Most chose to leave. Do you think they were afraid? I would have been. Only someone who could honestly say, “To me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” could face that kind of opposition with no fear at all.