September 29, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
That’s probably not a word (or a sound effect) you associate with the parables of Jesus. But it’s more apt than you might think.
Eugene Peterson famously said that parables are narrative time bombs. These are stealthy stories that steal into people’s hearts, confusing them initially, throwing them off balance for a while. After all, at first these seemed like cozy, tame little stories about farmers and seeds, women and bread baking, fathers and sons. People let the stories steal into their hearts and imaginations. They had no defenses up to keep them out. Why would they? These are such nice stories, interesting, vivid, well-told.
But at some later point the “Ah-ha!” moment may arrive as the real meaning of the story suddenly explodes in people’s minds like a time-bomb. The parables were meant to blast people into new awareness, new understandings, new ideas. “Oh my!” people would exclaim, “We thought he was talking about farmers and crops but he was really talking about us and God!!! And we maybe don’t come off looking all that great, either!!”
But if all of the parables were like narrative time-bombs, then I think it’s fair to say the Parable of the Tenants was like a proximity-fuse grenade! In this case, it did not take very long at all before this parable blew up in the faces of those listening to Jesus. In the end, we are told that the Pharisees and other religious leaders in Jerusalem that day knew at once that “Jesus was speaking against them.” It made them furious and they were ready, right then and there, to arrest him and be done with this Jesus once and for all.
Telling parables apparently can get you killed!
This parable is one of only three that appears in all of the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Curiously, some of Jesus’ best-known parables (like the Good Samaritan) occur in one gospel alone but nowhere else. Only the parables of The Sower, The Mustard Seed, and The Tenants get repeated in triplicate in the New Testament. It seems that the synoptic evangelists each concluded that no gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry could be complete without these particular parables being in there somewhere.
In one sense that is rather surprising, especially considering that these days The Parable of the Tenants is not as familiar or beloved as any number of other parables that did not get repeated. Yet there is something within this story that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all perceived was central to the gospel. Perhaps that is because contained within the imagery of this parable is material that points to a key pivot point in salvation history. If we look closely, we will see that Jesus is shifting the focus from Israel alone to the entire world.
The first hint of this comes in the first verse. Verse 33 is pretty detailed when it comes to describing the vineyard. Jesus could have said simply no more than, “Once upon a time a certain man owned a vineyard,” and then gone from there. But in this case Jesus is downright elaborate in mentioning the planting of the vineyard, the wall, the winepress, the watchtower. What’s up with all this detail? That’s not typical of other parables. In Matthew 21, however, vintner-related details fairly pile up. But there is a reason for this: it is an overt allusion to Isaiah 5.
Isaiah 5 contains its own kind of parable in which Israel is compared to a vineyard. In that story a vintner who clearly stood for Yahweh invested lavish amounts of labor and money into his vineyard, anticipating that the end-result of all his fine and hard work would be a rich harvest of lusciously sweet grapes. But when the harvest came, the farmer found that every single vine contained sour grapes, bitter and vile and inedible! So in a fury he plowed the whole thing under.
Isaiah 5 was a prophetic parable pointing forward to the time when God’s vineyard of Israel would be “plowed under” by the Babylonians on account of Israel’s repeated bitter failings to produce the kind of spiritual fruit God was looking for in his chosen people. In other words, the image of Israel as vineyard was used in Isaiah 5 to point forward to a key turning point in God’s dealings with this world. Now in Matthew 21, by so deliberately invoking this same image, Jesus likewise is as much as saying that in the grand scheme of things, a new and significant turning-point would soon be reached.
The vintner-farmer is God. The vineyard is the people of God, the Jews, in Jesus’ day. The tenants who eventually turn on the vineyard’s owner were clearly the religious leaders of the day, and the moment you make that connection, it’s not difficult to see why in the end these folks were so huffy over what Jesus had said! Jesus was clearly saying that the vineyard tenants were on the wrong side of history—of salvation history in this case.
“What do you suppose the owner will do with these tenants?” Jesus asks in the end. Literally the crowd replies, “He will annihilate those evil-evils.” The Greek word for “evil” is piled up twice, as though to say they were the worst of the worse, the doubly evil villains, evil-squared.
It is at this point that you expect Jesus to say something like, “Yes indeed, the owner will come and wipe them out.” But he doesn’t say that. Well, not exactly anyway. Instead he quotes a rather odd verse from Psalm 118 about the stone rejected by the builders becoming the cornerstone after all. You suspect that no one in the crowd that day saw this one coming. What happened to the tenants, the vineyard, the story itself, for goodness sake!? What does a stone have to do with what Jesus had just been talking about?
In terms of imagery, this may be a difficult transition to make. But in terms of the larger theological symbolism contained in the vineyard story, we can see how this cornerstone image fits in perfectly. This entire parable is about rejection. First the tenants reject the owner by rejecting the entire sharecropping arrangement. Then the tenants reject the owner’s emissaries and servants. Finally, they reject even the heir, the owner’s only son. But true to form, God is about to do a double-reversal: the son who got rejected will emerge as a highly powerful figure who will, in turn, reject the rejecters!
But it takes faith to accept that. The problem with the tenants of Israel in Jesus’ day is that they had long since given up on true faith. Practically speaking, and for all intents and purposes, they had decided they could run God’s kingdom without God. So when in history God had tried to redirect them through the prophets, they ignored, battered, and sometimes just killed those prophets. Their insularity was so complete they had concluded that unless someone said things that affirmed what they were already doing and believing, then that person could not represent God. They were so cock-sure they had God cased that they found it easy to reject anyone who did not sing the party line.
And whenever we religious types reach that point vis-à-vis our God, that is a bad, fatal moment indeed.
The gospel writers seemed to savor the delicious irony of salvation emerging from the least likely location. They enjoyed this irony so much, in fact, that the once-obscure text of Psalm 118:22 went on to become the single most-quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. Out of all the thousands of verses in the Old Testament, this little nugget about the rejected stone becoming the head of the corner wins the prize for most frequent New Testament citation. In a quirky way, the verse itself does the very thing it is talking about: the little verse that seemed least among many other verses in the Hebrew Bible emerges on top in the gospels and epistles! You would have expected a different verse to get this kind of attention–perhaps something from the covenant with Abraham, a snippet of a sermon from Moses, one of those soaring prophetic passages from Isaiah, or even Psalm 23.
But no, Psalm 118:22 manages best to convey the gospel’s great reversal of expectations. From lowly and humble beginnings, Jesus would end up being the rejected one whom God would raise up to be the most impressive of all biblical figures. The carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire would turn out to be the cosmic King.
It is a grim fact that the last group admitted to the Country Club typically becomes the loudest voice in making the case to keep out the next group seeking admission. After all, once you make it to the inside of a Members Only club, you want to savor your new status, see it as a key achievement, a notch in your belt, a feather in your cap, a sign that you are now really Somebody. But if you start to let in just anyone—and particularly such-and-such a group—then suddenly your special status starts to feel diminished, watered down, less of a distinction than it had been. The very purpose of having a club is to have a door to shut behind you, to have barriers and walls around you to keep out . . . riff-raff and other undesirables. If you don’t have standards to bar certain people from admission, then what’s the sense of having a club to begin with?
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
When preaching on Exodus 20 and the Ten Commandments, there are multiple directions to go in a sermon. It’s a bit challenging to preach on all of the commandments at once, though a way can be found to do that, of course. But for this sermon starter, I have chosen to ponder these famous verses and this well-known story through the lens of—and under the overall heading of—having proper reverence for God, which in many ways is a theme that permeates this part of Exodus.
Reverence is something we see very little of these days. Increasingly so is basic respect. Ours is a society that will lampoon, satirize, and poke fun of just about anyone and anything. In fact, the higher up a person goes politically, the more likely it is that he or she will become the target of the irreverent humor that has become the staple of late-night comedians. Often these days you may hear someone ask, “Is nothing sacred anymore?” and the answer is clearly “No.”
As Roger Shattuck notes in his book Forbidden Knowledge, it seems that nothing is any longer considered taboo. In older societies the things that were deemed taboo usually were places where holiness and pollution were not yet differentiated. That is to say, you could better avoid something altogether rather than run the risk of, even accidentally, mixing up the sacred with the profane. Because confusion (and probably lots of social and personal harm) could result if people were not careful. But even a quick glance at television reveals that there are no taboos in American society. In the name of free speech we allow anyone to say anything he or she likes. There is no subject, act, or person we dare not approach. Once you lose your sense for the sacred, you also lose your fear that you might, even accidentally, pollute that holy thing to the harm of many.
And so reverence withers, too. A sense for majesty and the mystery of the divine fades. We can scarcely imagine encountering something so grand that it would either stun us into respectful silence or cause us to cover our eyes because we deem ourselves to be unworthy of seeing something that is too beautiful for us.
All of this is prelude to our look at a key part of Exodus 20. A good bit of this chapter and the preceding one gets consumed with God’s very careful regulations of the whys and wherefores of keeping the people off the holy mountain. Dire warnings are given as to what would happen to the man, woman, child, or goat that touched the mountain. Detailed instructions are given as to how to fence the mountain so that no one would get too close even by accident. Ironically, however, it turns out that there is no chance whatsoever that anyone would get too close! For in the end Moses and Aaron do not need to beat the people back but rather they need to encourage the people not to stay too far away! If anything, the people were too terrified to come anywhere near God.
Perhaps this can provide us with a reminder of something we tend to forget these days. Of course, as Christians we don’t want to scare people away from God. As Christians our idea of reverence for God means something other than the kind of terror that led the Israelites to keep their distance from Sinai. But that is why Exodus 20:20 is so intriguing.
Because there Moses says something that at first blush looks contradictory. Moses himself had strung up the ancient equivalent of that bright yellow “Do Not Cross” tape that police use to cordon off a crime scene. The people needed to stay behind the tape. Again, however, once God’s presence descended on Sinai, keeping the people behind the tape was not a problem. So in verse 20, after the people beg Moses to meet God so they won’t have to, Moses says, “Do not be afraid because God has come here like this so that your fear of God will keep you from sin.”
Don’t be afraid.
But then again, be afraid.
Moses says both.
But perhaps this was a way to say that although the people needed to have a healthy level of fear where God is concerned, they did not need to fear God too much. I suspect reverence lies somewhere near the midpoint between complete terror and chummy over-familiarity. Reverence exists at the intersection of love and respect, of grace and awe. God does not want to terrify us to the point of stupor yet he does want to impress us enough that we will know that this God is not someone to be trifled or toyed with in some casual manner. At least part of our motivation to serve this God is exactly because we take him so seriously.
But if that is so, then generating reverence requires at least an inkling of the very terror that, left unchecked, would make you run for your life. God’s grandeur gets your reverential attention, God’s love keeps your fear in bounds. God’s holiness means you need a fence in front so that you do not presume too much in approaching God. But God’s grace builds a fence behind you, too, so that you won’t run away.
Moses tried to allay the terrifying side of fear so as to make room for a nuanced and respectful fear. But as verse 21 tells us, the people nevertheless remained “at a distance.” But things could not remain that way forever. Because a proper piety is one that helps us to remain reverently humble before God’s power and yet it keeps us close enough to this same God so that he can embrace us in his everlasting arms.
Reverence is a balancing act. In Exodus 20 the people fall short of reverence because they are scared to death of the sheer might of God’s presence. And so they stay “at a distance.” But there is one other famous portion of the Bible where people are said to stay “at a distance” and it comes near the end of the gospel when the Son of God is lifted up on a cross. Mark in particular makes clear that when Jesus was lifted up to die, all those who had once been close to him remained afar off, “at a distance” as Mark puts it.
So there you have it from the Old and New Testaments: there are two things that could frighten us into keeping our distance: one is the presence of God in all its splendor and terror and the other is the complete absence of God in the dereliction of the One who cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!?” Both the fullness of God’s presence and the Godforsaken sense of his absence can be too much for us.
When the Lord God Yahweh descended on Sinai, there was smoke on the mountain, and it got the people’s attention. In these latter days our God has come to us through Jesus who ended up dead on a cross. Yet all the splendor, glory, might, and fierceness of God is within also Jesus.
As the disciples saw on the Mount of Transfiguration, as the apostle John saw in his apocalyptic visions in the Book of Revelation, Jesus contains the effulgence of glory. When he opens his mouth, it is the sound of rushing waters that is heard. When he pulls back his cloak, it is the light brighter than a thousand suns that blazes forth. Yet when he looks you straight in the eyes with his piercing gaze, what you see is not just fierce intelligence but also the font of all love, mercy, grace, and compassion. His divine smile draws you in as you reverently worship him and fellowship with him in the splendor of holiness and in the delicious knowledge that this majestic God is also your dearest Friend.
There is mystery enough in all that to keep us humbly reverent forever.
Some years back the American Film Institute conducted a big survey to determine the top 100 heroes in cinematic history. Happily (and somewhat surprisingly) the number one movie hero was not some gun-toting, violent figure but instead the character of Atticus Finch from the film To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck played the role of Finch and he did so with a kind of noble simplicity that managed to convey a tremendous amount of moral heft, gravity, and power. In the story Atticus Finch is an attorney who defends a black man against a false rape charge made by a white woman. Although he ultimately loses the case, Finch throws himself into that trial with such ardor, compassion, and conviction that he wins the reverential respect of the entire black community.
The one scene in that movie that always makes tears leap to my eyes comes after the unjust guilty verdict is handed down by the all-white jury. The trial is over and so the main floor of the courtroom has emptied out. But the balcony, where the black people of the segregated community had to sit, is still packed and with every single person up there standing silently and as if standing at attention. The only white person up there—and the only one still sitting—is Atticus’ daughter, Scout. While Atticus silently packs up his briefcase at the defense table, one black man nudges Scout and says, “Stand up, Miss Scout, stand up!” The child asks, “How come?” And the answer comes back, “Your father’s passing by.” And as Atticus Finch exits the courtroom, every black person in the balcony stands reverently before this white man whom they have come to respect and adore.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Scholars suggest that Psalm 80 is a communal lament. Yet its central message is a plea for Yahweh to once again help God’s Israelite people. Such pleas for help, after all, bracket the psalm. The poet also injects them at key junctures of the psalm. In the part of the psalm appointed for this Sunday the psalmist begs Yahweh, Restore us (7). There the poet also prays to God to Make your face to shine upon us, that we may be saved. Return to us, she pleads with the Lord in verse 14.
The poignancy of those pleas for God’s help is heightened by the psalmist’s memories of what Yahweh has done in the past. Yet for whom precisely God did these things is somewhat unclear. Most of the time the poet seems to speak of the “vine” as God’s Israelite people. That’s, after all, a common biblical motif. What’s more, the psalmist speaks repeatedly in the first person plural. But in verse 15, for example, the poet almost seems to speak of the vine as God’s anointed Davidic king. Perhaps, however, we try to make a distinction that’s too fine when we try to determine whether Psalm 80’s vine refers to Israel or to her king. Israel, after all, often seemed to conflate these two entities. She often thought of her king and herself as almost one.
This God whom the poet begs for help has not always seemed to be absent just when God’s people most needed help. Using vivid imagery that’s clearly reminiscent of the Exodus, the poet speaks of Israel as a plant that God lovingly and carefully transplanted from Egypt’s harsh soil into the land of promise’s lush soil. Using agricultural imagery, the poet recalls how God even prepared Canaan’s soil for Israel by “tearing out” the “plants” that were the other nations. In that new land, the psalmist wistfully recalls, the vine that is Israel flourished. She grew into a mighty plant that was a blessing not just to the nations around her, but also throughout the entire region.
The passage the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday offers an opportunity for worshipers to summon up their own wistful memories of God’s provision. Of churches that once could scarcely seat all their members. Of homes that once nearly overflowed with happy children. Of relationships that once filled people with joy. Of health that was once vigorous.
Why, the poet wonders, has God reduced Israel to a defenseless shell of her former self? Why has Yahweh let marauders wreak havoc on God’s Israelite people? Why has God become an apparently inattentive gardener? When, after all, anyone can plunder the bounty that is Israel, it’s not just that Israel suffers. It’s also that the blessing that is Israel is localized. She no longer can provide the nations and region around her with what they need.
The poet’s “Why?” may open an opportunity for worship leaders and teachers to raise questions about worshipers’ comfort level with asking God “Why?” Most of God’s people ask God why God allows certain things to happen. But at least some are reluctant to do that publicly. We sometimes worry others will perceive our “Why, God?” as a sign of a lack of faith or impertinence.
It’s perhaps no accident that lament has largely disappeared from many at least western Christian traditions. We find little space in our worship services for it. Even the new worship music the church is generating seems to contain little lament. Worship leaders might involve worshipers in this issue by asking which songs and hymns they know ask God, “Why?”
After asking God why God has abandoned God’s Israelite people, in verses 14 and 15 the psalmist begs God to re-engage with God’s them. God, after all, seems to have abandoned God’s people. However, God seems to have particularly turned a kind of blind eye towards God’s children. Twice in verses 14-15, after all, the poet uses optic images: “Look down … watch over.”
Psalm 80 also offers those who preach and teach it an opportunity to begin to reflect on the problem of suffering. The poet addresses it to a God who is a mighty shepherd and king. Such a God is eminently capable of providing God’s children with everything they need. Yet worshipers know that God doesn’t always seem to provide even God’s most faithful children with what they need. So the psalmist’s cries of “Restore us … Make your face shine upon us … Look down … Watch over” are also the cries of 21st century worshipers.
It’s regrettable the Lectionary appoints only the verses 7-15 for this Sunday. After all, that omits the hopeful note on which this psalm ends. It concludes with the poet’s recognition of the only source of Israel’s hope. That hope doesn’t lie in Israel’s moral resuscitation. It lies only in God’s gracious turning of God’s face back toward God’s Israelite people. God’s people are only saved, only rescued because God graciously turns toward and acts for us.
While they may not look like it to the untrained eye, white-tailed deer are classic marauders (13). In urban, suburban and rural areas they love to feast on plants and flowers that would-be gardeners plant.
So gardeners do lots of things to discourage deer from eating their plants. They may put some kind of mesh over their plants. They may surround their gardens with things designed to keep deer away. Some gardeners even erect fences to keep deer away from their plants.
Yet what happens when someone takes down such fences? The deer feel free to wander back into the garden and sample from some of its tastier fare. The plants then bless not the gardener or any other people, but only the deer.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
We are still in that part of the liturgical year known as Ordinary Time. Week after week the lectionary focuses our attention not on the great acts of God celebrated in the feasts of Advent, Easter and the like, but on our response to those salvific acts in the ordinary times of our daily lives. Ordinary Time is a long strong call to grow as disciples of Christ. A reading like Philippians 3:4b-13 is important because it reminds us of the centrality of Christ to that growth. We could very easily drift off into a do-it-yourself discipleship, so Paul’s passionate words here are a corrective tug back to the Center.
As I reflected on these words, especially those ringing words of verse 13 (“but one thing I do”), I recalled that famous scene from the movie “City Slickers.” Now don’t roll your eyes at me. I know very well that we’ve all used this so many times that it is almost hackneyed, but it is classic. In this scene, Mitch, a city slicker played by Billy Crystal, is alone out on the prairie with Curly, the grizzled cowboy played by Jack Palance. Curly is giving some life advice to the slick but clueless Mitch. ”Do you know what the secret of life is?” asks Curly. Then he holds up his right index finger and says, “This!” Ever the wiseacre Mitch replies, “Your finger?” Curly snarls, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s***.” “But what’s the one thing?” asks Mitch. “That’s what you have to find out,” growls Curly.
The Apostle Paul has found his “one thing.” Or as he will say later in this text, his One Thing found him and “took hold of me.” In this splendid autobiographical testimony, Paul begins by recounting all the things he once thought were the secret of life, of success, of salvation. For a long portion of his life, he put his confidence in “the flesh,” not meaning his body, but the whole constellation of qualifications and accomplishments that revolved around himself. At one time in his life, Paul was just like the Judaizers who had now infiltrated the church. If you had asked him what he had to do to be saved, how he knew he was right with God, he would have waved the plume of his pedigree as a full blooded Jew and pointed proudly to all the certificates of achievement in his trophy room. But something happened to him and, as the old gospel song put it, his “trophies at last [he] laid down.”
The seven items Paul rattles off in verses 4b-6 might not resonate with our contemporary congregations, so it might be helpful to think of their modern equivalents. The one thing on which Paul now focused his life is more important than being an American/Canadian, than being a Republican/Democrat, than being Presbyterian/Baptist/Methodist, than being baptized/taking communion/serving as an Elder, than being in a Bible Study, than being highly moral and deeply spiritual, than succeeding at school/sports/business, than being a good spouse or parent.
As important and good as all those things are, Paul says that he has now changed his priorities in life. Thinking of his life in terms of a balance sheet, Paul says, “But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” All those qualifications and accomplishments that once gave Paul confidence in the world and before God are now, in Paul’s new mind, an obstacle, a loss, even rubbish (the Greek is skubala, which is very much like Curly’s word, s***).
How can that be? All of those confidence builders were good things. How can Paul say they are rubbish and turn his back on them? Because of “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things….” Knowing Christ is infinitely better than being a full blooded Jew who flawlessly lived by the law God gave to the Jews. Even his best efforts to save himself didn’t gain him a thing. Now Paul’s life is focused on one thing. “I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
What can account for such a dramatic change in the life of such a straight laced, deeply committed man? Of course, the answer is that Christ made himself known to Paul in a dramatic way on the Damascus Road. On his way to destroy the church in Damascus, fueled by his fire to serve the one true God, convinced that Jesus was a blasphemous fake and his followers a dangerous threat to the one true religion, Paul saw a light and heard a voice. When he asked, “Who are you, Lord?” he heard that heavenly voice say, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Jesus made himself known to a man who did not believe in him, taking hold of Paul and changing his life for ever after. As a result of an epiphany or, more accurately, a theophany, Paul came to know Christ.
That raises perhaps the central question of this text. If Paul already knows Christ, how can he now say, “I want to know Christ…?” If Christ has already taken hold of Paul and changed his life so dramatically, why would Paul talk about gaining Christ? If he has been completely saved by Christ, what does he mean by being “found in Christ,” as though that were something he didn’t already possess?
Let me answer those questions with a personal illustration and with a careful reading of the text. My personal story has to do with knowing two Presidents of the United States in a personal way—President Nixon and President Clinton. I don’t just mean that I know about them because I have read about them and seen them on TV. No, I mean that I know them, because I met them both personally. Admittedly, my encounter with Nixon took place at a Mother’s Day worship service in the White House when the Calvin Seminary Choir sang, and there were hundreds of others there, and my personal time with Nixon amounted to 10 words in 5 seconds in a receiving line. And I’ll confess that my encounter with Clinton was at a banquet with 1,000 people, and my personal time with the President amounted to a hand shake and, “Hi, how are you? Nice to meet you,” as he circled our table on the way out the door. But I know two Presidents in a personal way because I did actually meet them.
OK, I’ll admit that I don’t know them nearly as well as I know my wife. That’s exactly what Paul is talking about—it is the difference between a brief (albeit memorable) encounter and daily contact; the difference between a casual acquaintance and an intimate partner; the difference between the way newlyweds know each other and the way veterans of 47 years of marriage know each other. A modern word captures what Paul is talking about—“interactive,” an intimate, personal knowledge of Christ in which we interact with him on a daily, hourly, moment by moment basis. That’s what Paul was aiming at in his life. I want to know Christ so well that I live in constant interactive union with him.
That may sound a bit mystical, overly pious and sentimental, along the lines of the famous old hymn that says “and he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own….” But, in the last analysis, isn’t such a union precisely what the Christian faith is all about? It’s not just about being forgiven, not just about being adopted into the family of God, not just having a place in heaven, not just about working at world change in anticipation of living in the new heavens and earth, but finally about being reunited with the God from whom sin separated us. Isn’t the goal of forgiveness, justification, adoption, and transformation a union with God in Christ all the time? Doesn’t the Bible end with Paradise restored, where the dwelling of God is with humans once again? Paul simply wants that kind of union here and now, all the time. He knows Christ, but he wants to know him more and more, so as to be found in him.
I’m convinced that’s what Paul means, but a careful reading of our text shows that Paul means much more than a simple “he walks with me and he talks with me” in the garden alone. No sooner has Paul shouted “I want to know Christ” than he spells out the effects of such deeper knowledge. He has already talked about the objective benefit of being in union with Christ: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that (righteousness) which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” By virtue of knowing Christ as my Savior and being thus united with him, I am objectively justified.
But then in verses 10 and 11, we hear about the subjective benefits of union with Christ. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Paul is talking there about sanctification.
Wanting to know “the power of his resurrection” is not first of all about being given the power to do miracles or even about Paul’s eventual resurrection bodily from the grave. It’s about the power to overcome sin in his life, the power that will enable Paul to live a new life of holiness. Paul is thinking here the way he does in Romans 6 where he focuses on the believer’s resurrection to new life because of his/her union with Christ, symbolized and enacted in baptism.
In the same vein, “the fellowship of his suffering” is about dying to sin, “becoming like him in his death….” Paul does not aspire to repeat the redemptive suffering of Christ; he knows that is finished. But he does want to die to sin, which he knows will cause him great suffering. And he realizes he can attain such sanctification only if he knows Christ more and more intimately. His thoughts here are another version of what he said in Phil. 2:12 and 13, “work out your own salvation, for it is God at work in you both to will and to act….”
His ultimate goal is to completely die to sin and live to God; that’s what he means by “and so, somehow, to attain the resurrection from the dead.” He’s not talking there about the final resurrection of the body, but about his eventual complete victory over the sin that has killed the human race (Ephesians 2:1-4). Only in deeper and deeper union with Christ can Paul (or we) achieve the perfection for which Christ saved us. “I want to know Christ” not just so I can walk and talk with him, but so that I can become like him.
Paul is very realistic about how difficult this is. He knows that he hasn’t attained either the knowledge he desires or the life change it will bring. But he isn’t discouraged about that, and he isn’t resigned to imperfection. Rather, he is passionately committed to this one thing in his life. Because this “one thing” of knowing Christ matters to him more than anything else, Paul has adopted one life motto. “One thing I do; forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Here is a God given opportunity to help our congregations (not to mention ourselves as preachers) think about the passions that rule our lives. Curly was right. The secret is one thing. But what is the thing that drives our lives? Or are there many, so that we are scattered and distracted, with the result that life feels as “vain and futile” as Ecclesiastes says it is.
Paul is a great example of the difference between being single-minded and being simpleminded. He was not a simpleminded person, incapable of deep thought or profound expressions or complex enterprises or magnificent accomplishments. No, indeed. He travelled the world with indefatigable energy and undaunted courage, accomplishing in a few troubled years what most will never do in a privileged lifetime. Paul’s life was rich and full and exciting and complex and fruitful and painful because he had found his one thing. It was Christ himself, and Paul was willing to devote his life to knowing Christ better. Yes, of course, he was devoted to mission work, to Kingdom advancement, to changing the world, to the cause of Christ in all its length and breadth. But he understood that the secret to accomplishing all of God’s good purposes in the world was to know Christ.
So, he did not allow past failures or victories to slow him down or make him swerve off course. And he did not allow the glittering images of the world to take his eye off his goal. And he did not quit because of the exhaustion that overtakes a runner when she “hits the wall” in a marathon. Rather, he pressed on, straining forward like a runner, with pumping arms and legs, pounding heart and gasping lungs, bulging veins and surging muscles, giving it his all. All he wanted was to gain the prize of union with God in Christ, so that he could know Christ as Christ knew him. And the only way to reach his goal and receive that prize was to know Christ better and better. Circular? Yes, but the truth.
The wise preacher will press this goal upon people, while assuring them that Christ already knows them, has already taken hold of them, is already one with them, by grace, through faith. In other words, as we preach this powerful text, let’s not allow folks to avoid the sheer power of it. They (and we) need such a challenge. But let’s not allow them to fall into the trap that once held Paul, namely, that it all depends on who we are and what we do. Be sure to preach grace, too.
As I prepared to preach on this text some years ago, it suddenly struck me that I had no intention of doing anything with it personally. I believed it was true. I was deeply moved by it. I thought my congregation really needed to hear it. But I had no plans to do anything different as a result of my encounter with it. That’s when I ran across this famous story told by Soren Kierkegaard. I said to my congregation. “Do you want to know Christ? Really? How much? Or are you like the ducks in a make believe land in which only ducks lived.”
On Sunday morning all the ducks got up, brushed their feathers, and waddled to church. After waddling down the church aisle and into their pews, they sat down. The duck minister waddled in and took his place behind the pulpit. He opened the duck Bible to the place where it spoke of God’s gift to ducks—wings. “With wings,” said the duck preacher, “we ducks can fly. We can mount up like eagles and soar into the heavens. We can escape the confinement of pens and fences. We can know the euphoria of complete freedom. We must give thanks to God for such a great gift as wings. And fly.” All the ducks in the congregation agreed and quacked, “Amen!” And then they all waddled home.
As a result of our encounter with this text, will we soar or waddle?