September 21, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Unity is important in preaching and teaching. We drill that message into our seminary students in preaching class. We often refer to the mnemonic device devised by Paul Scott Wilson that can be remembered by the phrase “The Tiny Dog Is Now Mine.” The first letter of each word in that phrase is part of a checklist to ensure sermon unity: in your sermons, we tell students, strive to have:
If students fall down anywhere on this list it tends to be occasionally on the One Text rule (“Why did you spend half your sermon on Luke 19 discussing in great detail the raising of Lazarus in John 11 . . .?”) but much more commonly they fall down on the One Image part. A single sermon does not need to try to make its point by spending time on the image of a rock and then of a parade and then of a fireworks display and then of a loaf of bread . . .
Thankfully, I am in no position to grade the words of our Lord. Good thing, too, because in Mark 9 the list of images used in the span of only a few short verses becomes rather long rather fast: a cup of water, a millstone, cutting off feet and hands, gouging out eyeballs, a worm, a fire, salt. Image-wise, this feels like trying to drink from a firehose!
What accounts for this torrent of words and images here? What accounts for Jesus kind of going off here in this barrage of images, all of which trend in the direction of the severe? Is Jesus getting a little frustrated here? Frustration is no sin, so far as I can tell. Frustration could lead to sin but emotion-wise it may be no different than feeling happy or sad, surprised or troubled.
In Mark 9, I suspect Jesus was getting frustrated. What was it going to take to get some basic truths through the thick skulls of these disciples? In the lection prior to this one in Mark 9:30-37, Jesus had to deal with the ludicrous spectacle of his disciples’ responding to yet another clear-as-a-bell prediction from him that he was going to suffer and die with an argument about which of the disciples was “the greatest.” So in language that was equally clear as a bell, Jesus sat the disciples down to tell them that their perspective was upside-down when it came to the kingdom of God. Servants were the great ones. Losers were the winners. To further provide an object lesson, Jesus gives what was quite literally a “Children’s Sermon” by grabbing a little child from among the little kids that were apparently in the place where they were staying and then holding up that lowly little loser (since that’s how society viewed children back then) as their role model.
Then, as though he had not heard a word Jesus had said, John breaks in to say, “OK, fine, that’s nice. But listen, Teacher, we saw someone today who is not even in our little club here driving out demons by invoking your name. And I think you’ll be quite pleased to know, Jesus, that we put the kibosh on that immediately. No “Members Only” discipleship gold card, no exorcisms!”
The Bible never supplies adverbs for us so we don’t know how Jesus said his next line of “Do not stop him.” A saccharine-infused piety would lead one to read that line as though Jesus were speaking in the vacant-stare monotone you usually see in all those movies that are made about Jesus. But I rather think that before Jesus spoke that line, first his jaw dropped to the floor before he managed to sputter in exasperation, “Do not stop him, for pity sake! Anybody who believes in me enough to know my name can deliver a knockout punch to demons is a friend of ours and of mine. He’s not taking my name in vain, he’s using my name to take it to the demons and unless you’re of the opinion that leaving the demons alone is a good idea, let these people carry on with their work, which is at the end of the day also MY work!”
By now I imagine the disciples had drawn back a bit at the vehemence of Jesus’ response. But there was something about the way they were looking at Jesus that told him they still weren’t quite buying what he was selling, either. So in frustration Jesus goes for broke and lets loose with a string of images so grotesque, so over the top, that he is pretty sure these slow-witted disciples won’t fail to grasp his point this time.
“Look,” Jesus says with incredulity rising in his voice, “you simply must start to straighten up and fly right. Stop competing with one another. Stop wanting to arrogate all the glory to yourselves. Stop building up walls by which to protect your own turf. You simply have to shed anything that is keeping you from reveling in the kingdom of grace I’ve been talking about for a long time now. And I really mean it! Get rid of whatever is in the way: hands, feet, eyeballs. Chop ‘em off, gouge ‘em out! Better maimed than full of undying worms and unquenchable fire!”
In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures, Flannery O’Connor once observed. That’s what Jesus does here and you have to wonder whether this band of disciples got the point even so (looking ahead a bit into the next chapter, the picture is not real bright on this front!). I guess this is why also we preachers 2,000 years later can have a firm sense of job security. Apparently, you can never repeat the core truths of the gospel too often. It takes a while to sink in.
But as we preach on this text 2,000 years later, let’s also be clear about another thing: if the people who were literally closest to Jesus had this much trouble grasping the core of the Gospel and its most basic dynamic of humility and sacrifice, why should anyone even today assume they have the Gospel both cased and fully embodied? Optimistically we could hope that with two millennia’s worth of reflection on the teachings of Jesus we today would have a much better shot at understanding it all than those for whom it was all so new and so bracingly different than they had expected.
But unless someone can convince you that our human tendency to clutch and claw for the limelight has abated in the heart of every person to whom you preach, it may be best not to assume too much and to take a cue from our Lord in Mark 9: preaching should not be tidy and safe and predictable today any more than the words of Jesus fit into any of that way back when. In the land of the nearly blind also today, sometimes we preachers need to sketch some mighty big caricatures (and accept the fact that many just are not going to care for that one little bit).
Jesus evokes Isaiah 66 in Mark 9:48 and in so doing, he did not bring to people’s minds the cheeriest of biblical verses or prophecies. Although Isaiah 66 contains a lot of lyric imagery about Israel’s return to a New Jerusalem one day—a day in which the Lord God would settle his renewed people in a blissful form of shalom forever—that same chapter says that once the people are nestled down into all that shalom and goodness, they will nevertheless have the chance to look out over a vast field filled with the decaying bodies of all the rebellious nations and peoples whom God put to death. As the curtain comes down on Isaiah, the last line is “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
A cheery way to close a book it wasn’t! But this dismal last verse of Isaiah is what Jesus quotes in Mark 9:48. Apparently the alternative to being in God’s kingdom was a truly grim fate. But then Jesus says that everyone will be “salted with fire,” which is a hard line to make sense of in that theologically fire and salt are usually opposites. To say “salted with fire” is a little like saying you are going to water your grass with oil. Since there is more than a hint of a purification in this line of verse 49, it’s clear that this “fire” is not the same “fire” from the Isaiah quote. Those who are NOT purified with eschatological fire will end up in the wormy place of unquenchable fire. But there is another fire—a baptizing fire—that leads not to eternal death but life.
If Gehenna is the place of undying fires and grotesque consuming worms, the kingdom is to be full of light, goodness, and life-affirming patterns of thinking and being and behaving. Connecting this with the earlier image about giving out cups of cold water in Jesus’ name, we could assert that everything that happens in the kingdom in the name of Christ Jesus will be full of life, full of joy, redolent of shalom.
I once met a man who had read Mark 9, recognized his proclivity to lust after pretty women by looking at them with his eyes, and who then proceeded to take a knife and gouge out his right eye. I met this man in the psychiatric hospital where I once worked and not surprisingly, he was just generally a victim of a raging schizophrenia. But that would be the setting where we’d all expect to meet up with any woman or man who had hacked off a hand, a foot, or taken out an eye on account of Jesus’ words in Mark 9 (even as I once met another person who necessitated a confiscation of all the Bibles in the psych wing on account of his having taken rather literally the Bible’s call to “feast on the Word of God.” Yes, he’d eat the Bibles.) Words as grotesquely over-the-top as what we find Jesus saying here in Mark 9 are clearly not meant to be taken literally and only someone in the thrall of the devil or of a severe mental disorder that the devil was exploiting (or of a severe mental disorder whether or not you want to invoke demonic influence) would go out and do literally what Jesus says.
There is truth to that, of course, but I sometimes wonder if precisely because of all that we do not sometimes write off that part of Mark 9 as having really no application to us at all. We all know what these words do not mean but we don’t often spend a lot of time wondering what they do mean. But the grotesque extremes to which these words could lead some sad folks are no excuse for the rest of us to wonder if the proper understanding of the radical demands of this passage are or are not present in our own hearts.
Jesus is calling for total commitment here. Spiritually the words and ideas in Mark 9 call us all up short. We won’t get ourselves off the hook by waving it off as just a metaphor that, for goodness sake, we’re best off not pondering too long lest someone do something terrible to themselves!
Esther 7:1-6, 9-20; 9:20-22
Author: Scott Hoezee
There is not much Esther in the Revised Common Lectionary, and few pastors have ever complained or requested more. The Lectionary likewise does little with Song of Songs or Jude, and if you follow only the Lectionary, you would be unlikely to generate a long series of sermons on Nahum or Revelation, either. And it’s not hard to see why. The Bible does contain some strange material, and if the story proper contained in Esther is not strange per se, it is odd for its lack of theological precision or framing. Even as Psalm 88 is arresting in that it doesn’t really put in much of a good word for God (and never proffers any real hope), so Esther is arresting in that God does not appear at all. Actually it’s more striking than even that: God is not mentioned in the course of Esther’s narrative nor is anyone depicted as praying to God, praising God, or so much as tipping their hat toward the Almighty.
If you read the canonical Bible in its typical order, the Book of Job comes next. Even though that opening scene in the heavenly throne room is one odd scene, you as a reader might nevertheless feel relieved at least to see God make another biblical appearance after the God-absent road you just trekked in Esther!
The story of Esther is in its own way simple enough: it’s a story about how the right people found themselves in the right place at the right time to head off a calamity against the Jews in a way no one—least of all hapless Haman—could have seen coming. The story may be simple in its plot but it is loaded with intrigue, dark humor, close calls, and a pretty startling climax as recorded in the handful of verses the Lectionary assigns in this one and only Lectionary visit to Esther.
There are lots of ways to go when preaching Esther but a one-off sermon on it may be an occasion to give thanks that this book is in the Bible. Esther is hardly the only narrative in the Bible in which the “hidden hand” of God is implied by people of faith but because it is perhaps the most extended such narrative, it proffers hope for all of us whose days are not typically punctuated by God speaking to us from out of a cloud or appearing in our kitchen in the form of three divine visitors or some such spectacle. Many of us were struck a few years ago when a writer revealed that for all the incredibly noble work she did across so many decades, Mother Teresa also endured a protracted divine silence that never lifted, so far as we know, before her death. She heard a call long ago to work among the poor and after that, God appears to have hung up the phone on his end of the line.
Amazing. But really, is it so very different from most of our lives? Years ago I spent a lot of time hanging out with sisters and brothers who were deep into Neo-Pentecostalism. Now I want to make clear that they were and are fellow believers and nothing I am about to write about them is meant to impugn their piety or their faith. But I was often vaguely shocked at the nascent competition that seemed to exist among many of them to see who could out-do whom in terms of daily direct communications from the Holy Spirit. The way they talked, they received fresh guidance and assurance over just about every bowl of Cheerios at the breakfast table, on most commutes into the office, and in the course of just about every prayer they whispered. “God told me . . . Then I heard clear as day the Spirit say to me . . . This morning God spoke to me and said . . .”
That was amazing, too, in no small part because unless I made something up, I had no such daily uplinks with God to report. My faith is strong, I sense God’s presence in my life, and here and there I see clear evidences of the Spirit’s doing stuff and coordinating events in ways I could never have guessed. As a guest preacher now, I am frequently struck by how the seemingly random choice I made of what sermon to preach at such-and-such a church on such-and-such a Sunday meant that the sermon I preached was the exact word that either certain individuals needed to hear that day or, on somewhat more rare occasions, that the entire congregation needed as they were collectively going through something about which I had been completely unaware. Spooky. But wonderful.
Faith tells us that God is with us but reality shows us that this is not always easy to spy or to name in concrete ways. But even as God somehow got his plan advanced through devious characters like Jacob and through terrible events such as were orchestrated by Joseph’s brothers—and even as God raised up as a mini-messiah no less than Cyrus of Persia to get his people freed from captivity—so God is forever at work in surprising ways and places and people.
Esther bears witness to the ongoing work of God and if it’s strange that no one names God in the course of the narrative, it’s possible that the reason is because Esther and Mordecai and company didn’t realize just how mightily they themselves were being wielded by God for some greater good. Maybe they no more recognized their providential role than did King Cyrus. You wouldn’t expect Cyrus to sing a psalm of praise to Yahweh for having been anointed as one of God’s “messiahs,” and even though you’d guess Esther and company would have been a lot more likely to make that connection than some pagan Persian, maybe they didn’t. Maybe in humility they just did what they felt to be right without having any idea they’d become a cause celebre of divine work from that time forward.
And just maybe a lot of our days are like that even now. And so just maybe preaching on Esther becomes a source of encouragement for all of us who now and then struggle to figure out what God is up to in this world or in our lives. There may be many days when we, too, have no idea precisely for what we should be praising God in terms of his working out his larger purposes in us and through us. But Esther tells us that if so, we may well be in mighty fine company.
Frederick Buechner once whimsically defined theology by way of an analogy. Theology is the study of God and his ways. But for all we know perhaps beetles study humanity and its ways and call their observations “humanology.” If so, we would probably be more touched than irritated by this beetle-size attempt to grasp us. One hopes, Buechner concludes, that God feels the same way about our attempts to grasp him!
Within the larger scope of this theological enterprise, perhaps no area of study is quite as difficult as matters related to providence. And indeed, the providence of God has been generating a lot of heat of late. Traditional Reformed types of a Calvinist persuasion remain staunch in attributing all things—the good, the bad, and everything in between—to the direct hand of an utterly sovereign God. Others in recent decades have been less sure. Process Theology offered a different way to envision God’s traveling along with us through the vicissitudes of time even as the more evangelical theory of “Free-Will (or Open) Theism” tried to cut through certain theological knots with a different proposal. More recently Chaos Theory and those who believe that a degree of randomness is hard-wired into the cosmos have challenged providence in still other ways.
Who is God? How does God work? How can we discern divine action when we see it? These are questions as old as theology itself. And if you think about it, they permeate the atmosphere in Esther, too.
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 124 is a psalm of praise for God’s deliverance from fearsome enemies. Yet those familiar with Reformed expressions of the Christian faith may recognize that Reformed worship services sometimes begin at Psalm 124’s end. After all, John Calvin’s Genevan and Strasburg liturgies placed verse 8’s “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” right at their beginning. Some Reformed congregations still place that profession near the beginning of their worship services. It serves as a reminder that our worship as well as every part of our individual and corporate lives is grounded in God’s assurance that the God who makes everything that is created is our helper.
The psalmist recognizes on behalf of the worshiping congregation Israel’s desperate need for that help. She asserts, in fact, twice “If the Lord had not been on our side …” It’s a profession that echoes Isaiah 1:9’s: “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us some survivors …”
This offers those who preach and teach this psalm an opportunity to reflect with worshipers on expectations of God. Some worshipers claim that following Jesus solves all believers’ problems. If faith is only deep enough, they at least suggest, God takes all problems away. By contrast, the poet at least implies that following the Lord doesn’t guarantee an easy life. People do sometimes attack and threaten God’s sons and daughters’ well-being. Were God not on our side, those assaults might destroy us.
Of course, as Stephen Breck Reid points out, the very idea that God takes sides in human conflict “often offends sophisticated sensibilities.” After all, among other things, it challenges the notion of human sovereignty over history. What’s more, if God takes sides, there’s a chance that God might at some point be on worshipers’ sides. On top of that, the Enlightenment has largely convinced North Americans that God is a neutral observer who never takes sides.
So those who preach and teach Psalm 124 may wish to explore with worshipers the meaning of God being “on our side.” Does that mean that God is always on the side of believers? What about the times when Christians aren’t on God’s side? What might that mean for God being “on our side”? Might, as Reid asks, God being “for us” differ from God being “on our side”?
In Psalm 124 the poet asserts had God not been on the worshipers’ side, had God not graciously intervened, they would have been annihilated. The threats’ imagery is vivid and chilling. In verse 2 the psalmist compares Israel’s attackers to a ruthless army. Yet its use of “men” reminds Israel that her enemies are human who stand in contrast to the divine Lord. So worshipers’ danger presented them with the basic choice between trusting in “men” and “the Lord,” between seeing people or God as the greatest power.
In verse 3 the poet compares, perhaps with Jonah’s experience in mind, Israel’s potential fate to being “swallowed … alive.” Of course, one can hardly read this without recalling Jeremiah 51:34’s assertion that “like a serpent” Nebuchadnezzar has “swallowed” captive Israel.
The poet also compares powerless Israel’s assailants to floodwaters that would have engulfed, swept away and drowned her had God not mercifully intervened. Reid creatively combines verse 3’s imagery of “flaring” with verse 4’s “flooding” to envision worshipers’ danger as that of being boiled alive.
Of course, none of the threats of which Psalm 124 speaks seem literal. So they’re less about the exact nature of those threats than about both the dangers’ greatness and the narrowness of Israel’s escape. In that way they offer those who preach and teach Psalm 124 good opportunities to reflect on the nature of the threats God’s sons and daughters still face. They also offer chances to explore the powerlessness those worshipers sometimes feel in the face of potentially overwhelming threats.
In verse 7 the psalmist emphasizes the narrowness of worshipers’ escape from their assailants. Israel has escaped by the “skin of her teeth.” Like a bird that escapes a hunter’s trap because the trap has broken, so worshipers have escaped their enemies’ trap because God freed them. Verse 7 presents a chiasmus that includes escape, snare, snare and escape. Escape from God’s enemies, in other words, gets the last word in both verse 7 and the worshipping community’s life.
The “escaped” psalmist responds to God’s gracious rescue by calling Israel to join him in saying, “Had God not been on our side when we were in trouble, we would have been destroyed.” However, the poet also responds by offering his own personal praise to God. This offers worshipers another reminder that while the most natural response to any kind of escape is to breathe a sigh of relief, the most appropriate response is to breathe a song of praise to God the deliverer.
As noted earlier, the psalmist ends this song with her profession that Israel’s “help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Whether or not beleaguered Israel called out to God for help, God helped her. After all, there is a profound difference between the Maker of heaven and earth and the people, both the attacked and attackers, whom God has made. We live in the history we sometimes make only through the gracious help of the One who made us.
The Revised Common Lectionary pairs Psalm 124 with Esther 7 and 9’s account of God’s liberation of the Jews who were persecuted by the Persians. When Persia’s “floodwaters” threatened to annihilate Israel, God helped her to escape by the skin of her teeth. The Lectionary also pairs this psalm with James 5:13-20’s call to pray in the face of trouble. When their enemies attack them, the most appropriate response for worshipers is to offer prayers in faith to the Lord who both makes and sustains them.
The sarlacc (plural sarlacci) is a fictional creature in Star Wars. It first appeared in the film Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi as a multi-tentacled alien beast whose huge, gaping mouth is lined with several rows of sharp teeth. The sarlacc in the film inhabits the Great Pit of Carkoon, a depression in the sand of the desert planet Tatooine.
In the original Return of the Jedi, the sarlacc is simply a barbed hole in the desert sand into which characters fall and are consumed; some are pulled into the sarlacc’s mouth by its tentacles. George Lucas changed the sarlacc’s appearance in the 1997 special edition of the film by adding computer-generated tentacles and a beak that emerge from the opened mouth.
Because most sarlacci inhabit isolated environments and rely on prey to stumble into their pit, they rarely eat. As a result, sarlacci have evolved an efficient digestive process. They “swallow” their victims “alive” (cf. Psalm 124:3b). The stomach of a sarlacc slowly dissolves prey into nutrients in a painful process that can last for several thousands of years. Victims are kept alive in the acid-filled stomach throughout digestion and few ever escape.
Author: Stan Mast
If I were to preach on this text, the sermon might be titled “The Prodigal Project.” I would basically skip the first 6 verses and focus on verses 19 and 20. I would adopt that preaching strategy, not because those first verses are irrelevant, but because those last two are so painfully relevant for many people in the church today. I also think there are textual reasons to focus on those last two verses. Some scholars believe that the entire letter of James ends with an exclamation point in those last two verses. “The Prodigal Project” is really what the Epistle of James is all about.
Here’s the crying contemporary need that drives my approach to this text. A few years ago the pre-eminent Christian pollster George Barna discovered that there are over 8 million young adults in America who have wandered away from the church, if not from the truth taught by the church. Today there are probably many more, since other polls reveal that some 25% of the American public are “nones,” that is, people who when polled about their religion, check “none.” Many of them are people who have wandered away from the truth they were taught as children. And they aren’t all young adults. Every Sunday untold numbers of middle aged and senior citizens sit at home all alone, estranged from the church of their youth because something happened to them in church once and they have never gone back.
But we don’t need statistics to tell us about those who have wandered from the truth. We know them personally. They are our friends and neighbors, our uncles and nieces, our brothers and sisters, our children and our grandchildren. We’ve wept over them; we’ve talked to them; we’ve prayed for them; we’ve done everything we can think of to bring them back. Nothing has worked and we don’t know what to do anymore. In many cases they have been gone so long and are so far away that it seems there is no hope for their return.
Well, the very last words of the most practical letter in the New Testament send us a message from God about the wanderers and the “nones.” There is a wonderful promise and a solemn obligation in these words. “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring them back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the way of error will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” Do you hear the promise there? No matter how far that loved one has wandered from the truth, no matter how filled with sin his life has been, that person can be saved from death and her sins will be covered in the sight of God. Here’s the obligation—“bring them back,” “turn a sinner from the way of error….”
As I said briefly before, that’s the aim of this entire letter. James has been writing to call his church back from the foolishness and error that does not live by God’s will. He has been very practical about that, and very hard hitting. James is not soft on sin, but his purpose was not to moralize or condemn. His last word tells us what he really wants. He wants to keep people from wandering away. Now that the letter is over, he calls the church to join him in that mission, to take up where he left off, and to follow in his footsteps as he pursues the prodigal project. “Bring them back… turn a sinner from the way of error….”
James envisions a church very different from today’s church. In a world that values individual privacy, today’s church is often a place of benign neglect. We look the other way when people wander. We practice the now rejected policy of the US military—“don’t ask, don’t tell.” I’m not talking about gays now; I’m talking about not intervening in the lives of anyone who wanders. We don’t want to meddle in other people’s affairs. “Hey, if that’s what they want to do, let ‘em. It’s no business of mine.”
Well, yes it is, says James. These fellow church members are your brothers and sisters. James calls for a community that takes responsibility for errant members and works together to reclaim them. Their blood family probably can’t reach them because of family dynamics. But you are God’s new family, the blood-bought brothers and sisters of those who wander. It’s up to you, their new spiritual family. You can do what their natural families can’t do.
James is optimistic about the prodigal project. He doesn’t consider failure an option. He won’t consider the possibility that they are too far gone to be saved. “Remember this,” he says, reminding his readers of something they already knew, of something so close to the heart of the Gospel that every Christian knows it. We just need to remember it. Anyone who repents and believes in Christ will be saved from eternal death and have even a multitude of sins covered with the blood of Christ. James calls us to be a church that believes that gospel promise, and does something about it.
I want to make some practical suggestions about how to fulfill our obligation, but first I want to focus on this great promise. “If one of you should wander….” That’s an important thing to consider. It could happen to you or to me. James is writing to members of the church, to people who believe the truth and are trying to live by it, to people who haven’t wandered. But, he says, if you ever do wander and someone comes after you, don’t think you are beyond rescue. And when you are the rescuer, don’t get all high and mighty about the wanderer. It could happen to you, too. So, be humble and gentle.
Apparently this was a real problem in the early church, as it is today. It’s not only James who writes about it. You find references to this in Romans, Ephesians, II Thessalonians, II Timothy, Titus, I and II Peter, I John, and Revelation. In fact, this theme goes all the way back to the words of Jesus, who said some heartwarming things about it, which I’ll talk about later. As long as there has been a church, folks have wandered away.
And as long as there is a church, the church must go after its prodigals with this promise spurring us on: “Whoever turns a sinner from the way of error will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” That first part of the promise echoes the old Proverb. “There is a way that seems right to a person, but the end of it is death.” When people wander from the truth, they see the old way as restricting and life destroying, and they are convinced that their new way leads to life. Not so, says James. It leads to death, but that is not their inevitable end. Jesus can save them from the death they have chosen.
Indeed, says the promise, Jesus’ death will cover a multitude of sins. When the wanderer turns back to Christ, his sins, however many they may be, are completely covered. They don’t drag along like the chains of Christmas past in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It is possible to have a whole new beginning, because the past is cancelled. I’ve never forgotten that scene from the movie, “The Godfather Part 3,” where Michael Corleone, a ruthless mafia don, is talking to a priest. Michael has killed and had people killed for decades, including the searing final scene in the original “Godfather” film when, as Michael stands as godfather at his nephew’s baptism, his minions are simultaneously massacring the other crime family bosses in New York. Later after his brother Fredo betrays him, Michael has his own flesh and blood sibling murdered as well. So when in the third movie the priest offers to hear Michael’s confession in order to redeem him, Michael replies, “I am beyond redemption.” James, echoing Jesus, says, “No one is. Even a multitude of sin can be covered.”
So there is hope for our efforts. But what can we do to turn wanderers back and bring them home? Think of the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. What did the Father do to get his son to come back home? Well, nothing, because that‘s not the point of that story. That story is about the way grace welcomes wanderers home. But the two stories just before the Prodigal are very helpful. Remember the story of the shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep and the woman who searches her house for one lost coin. Those stories show us that rescue begins when someone cares passionately about what is lost. The shepherd went out into the wilds and the woman turned her house upside down, because they cared. The problem with the modern church is that we don’t care enough about our wanderers. Out of sight, out of mind, out of heart. Rescue begins when our hearts are pierced with love for the lost, and our apathy is replaced with the passion of God for them.
Second, we should pray constantly for them. In the words just before our text, James talks about how we should pray for each other in all kinds of situations—when someone is sick, when someone sins. And he says that the fervent prayer of a righteous person is powerful in its effects. When was the last time you prayed for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, for a wandering child of the covenant? I met an old man in a suburban church where I was a guest preacher a while back. I had mentioned this whole subject, and he sought me out after the service. He was very old; he was stooped; he shuffled his feet when he walked; I could barely hear his croaky old voice. But he said, “My mission in life is to pray for our lost members. I do it all the time.”
Third, we should seek our prodigals, the way the shepherd and the woman did in Jesus stories. Like the shepherd, we should go out of our way, to places we wouldn’t normally go, in our efforts to find them out in the wild. And like the woman, we should turn over the house of God to find them before they leave. Be on the lookout for those who are lingering on the fringes, who hide in the corner, who are turning for the door. Seek them out.
How do we do that? Here are some simple, practical suggestions. Form a relationship. Learn people’s names. Strike up a friendly conversation. Make a call. Send a card. Drop by for a visit. Eventually we’ll have to say something about their wandering, about the error of their way, but that won’t work if we don’t have a relationship with that person.
Fourth, when they come home, we must welcome them with open arms, the way the father in Jesus’ famous story did. It won’t work if we’re like that older brother. Remember how he greeted his wandering brother? He wouldn’t come into the party. He stood outside and glared and questioned his father’s policy. By never saying a word to the returned sinner, he said in effect, “Where have you been? It’s about time. Is this for real? Will you stay this time, or leave again?” Jesus said, when a sinner returns home, this is how you must welcome him or her. Bring them back into the family with a ring and a robe and shoes and a party. Grace has triumphed. Welcome them back with open arms and celebrate the grace of God that gives life to the dead and forgiveness to sinners.
In my sermon on this text, I would invite the church to join the prodigal project launched by God long ago and thrust before us today by the last words of James. It’s not an option. It’s part of what the church of Jesus Christ must do. It’s what God does. It will be hard work. It will be frustrating work. But remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:14. Jesus has just told the parable of the wandering sheep and the persistent shepherd who leaves his other sheep to find the one who wandered. Here’s how Jesus ends. “And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the 99 that did not wander off. In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” Listen to that. Believe it. And bring them back. It is God’s will.
Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery. That’s when the first case arrives in the mail. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. That’s the premise of Markus Zusak’s young adult novel, I am the Messenger. (Zusak is also the author of the bestselling, The Book Thief).
Chosen to care, Ed makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission? After helping an even dozen lost cases at considerable pain and loss to himself, Ed finally meets the person who has made him such a miserable and wonderful messenger. At the risk of spoiling a powerful novel for you, I’ll tell what his “boss” tells him. “And why [did I choose you]? I did it because you are the epitome of ordinariness, Ed. And if a guy like you can stand up and do what you did for all those people, well, maybe everyone can. Maybe everyone can live beyond what they are capable of.”
The book ends with Ed coming to this astonishing realization. “I’m not the messenger at all. I am the message.”
If you use this illustration, be aware that the book is full of “adult situations” and language many church members will find objectionable. But what this ordinary slacker does to help lost folks provides lovely and gritty examples of ways we can reach out to the wandering in our own lives. Use at your own risk and for your people’s blessing.
I was guest preaching at an inner city church recently when I saw a parable. A little boy was assigned to light the Christ candle, but at the last minute he balked. Frozen by fear half way down the aisle, he said, loud enough for the entire church to hear, “I’m scared.” But his dad got up, took him by the hand, and led him to the front of church where he proudly lit the Christ candle. He needed someone he trusted to lead him down the aisle. So it is with God’s wandering children. It won’t be easy. We’ll have to be persistent, because without a relationship of trust forged over years of caring presence, it will be all but impossible to lead the wanders home.