October 08, 2018
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
Let’s face it, according to Jesus, lots of our congregations are not fertile ground for the gospel. They are rich, at least by the world’s standards, probably middle to upper middle class, and immersed in a consumer culture that glorifies getting more. Here Jesus comes along this Sunday and urges us to tell them, “it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a humped camel to get into the kingdom of God.” Uhm, Jesus, could we lighten up on the rhetoric just a bit?
William Willimon used to be the Dean of the Chapel at the prestigious Duke University where most of the students come from rich and upwardly mobile families. He commented that “preaching not only to the young, but also to the affluently young, is about as easy as shoving a fully loaded dromedary through the eye of a needle.”
But that’s our job this week. So how do we go about it?
Well, it’s not as hopeless as it seems. We have this rich man (Matthew describes him also as young) coming to Jesus, actually, kneeling in front of him, asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How often do you get rich people, or anyone for that matter, asking you that kind of question? Not much, I suspect. But here’s a live one.
Jesus picks what seems a strange way to answer, “Why do you call me good, no one is good but God alone.” Jesus is not denying his own goodness, but is affirming that all goodness comes God. Jesus own goodness has its source in the Father’s goodness.
And then Jesus takes the man to Jewish Sunday School. “You know the commandments, don’t you? Like you shall not murder or commit adultery, or defraud. or lie, not to mention honor your father and mother.”
It’s easy for us, steeped in the Reformation’s “salvation by faith alone,” to think that Jesus mention of the Ten Commandments was just a foil to get around to salvation by faith. But Jesus never saw the commandments as a disposable step toward salvation by grace. He took them seriously, and expected that this man would too.
“Oh, yes,” the man says, “I was steeped in the commandments and have observed them since I was a boy.”
“Jesus looked at him and loved him.” There was something about this guy– his earnestness, his eagerness to please, his passion? Or maybe it was the dissatisfaction he was obviously struggling with. Why else would he come to Jesus with such a question, except that he had found his law-abiding but comfortable life less than fully satisfying. .
Jesus just loved him, this rich guy with his searching question. As tough as Jesus might get in this conversation, it’s not for lack of love. Jesus is not trying to put down the rich, demean them, or push them away. He loves them, and, if you want to have any influence with them, you should too.
The problem, of course, is what Jesus now says to him out of this great love. “‘Well, it looks like there’s only one thing left for you to do. Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Let’s face it. This is shocking and there will be some in your congregation who will be tempted, if not to walk away, at least to ignore this whole thing as too radical and demanding. And maybe you’re wondering how in the world you’re going to preach this text without alienating those people, especially the ones who are the backbone of the yearly budget.
It’s important to see that Jesus response has two aspects that belong together. Sell and follow. The sell part indicates the law aspect, and the follow part indicates the faith aspect. And you can’t have one without the other.
“Sell what you have and give it to the poor,” Jesus says. We may like to think that this is merely some spiritual advice given to avoid the idolatry of money. But for Jesus, as with the Old Testament prophets, economic justice is foundational for the Kingdom of God. Abundant wealth next to grinding poverty is unacceptable to God. From a public policy perspective, there may be a number of ways to move toward economic justice. But from a personal perspective, facing Jesus like this rich man, it demands divestment and sharing.
The problem is that Jesus doesn’t say, “You should give some of that money you have away, after all, you don’t need it all. Give some to the poor, and then come and follow me.” If he had said that, no one would blanch or feel depressed about it. Maybe the benevolence budget would have an uptick the next week.
But Jesus doesn’t say that. He says “Give it all away, everything.” The question is, does Jesus demand this of us all? Some commentators make the point that Jesus is talking to this one man. It says he looked at him and loved him and then says exactly what this man needs to hear.
It may be that Jesus saw that this man was trapped in his riches, that it had become an idol that needed to be cast away. On top of that, as many have pointed out, what is the man supposed to do after he impoverishes himself? It’s exceedingly tempting to use these practical issues to blunt the demand itself.
But entering the kingdom of God is not a moderate, sensible thing. It’s a radical new way of life that demands our all. The early Christians pictured in Acts understood this. And in the post-apostolic age, preaching on poverty and wealth was much more commonplace than it is today. Following Jesus always calls for some radical divestment.
The rich guy sadly walks away. And Jesus doesn’t run after him. “Wait, let me explain. It’s not what you think.” No, Jesus lets him walk away shocked and depressed. Jesus has enough sense to let people struggle in their problems rather than give them any easy answer.
Which is an interesting thing for preachers like us to consider. How often are we willing to let people struggle with the tough demands of the gospel rather than sooth them with easy answers? Actually, good therapists do this all the time.
So, the rich guy walks away, and Jesus turns to the disciples, shaking his head, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And just to make it perfectly clear, he continues, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Now, a lot of ink has been spilled on that one. Is Jesus joking? Does he actually refer to some big gate called “the eye of the needle” through which a camel would have to dump some of its load to get through? That would be nice. But no, I’m afraid not.
Jesus means exactly what he says. The richer we are, the tougher it is to enter the Kingdom of God. That’s just the way it is. And we all understand why. Our God, the one from whom Jesus came, is a jealous God who brooks no rivals. If the rich man felt confident about some of the stipulations of the second table of the law, the real problem was the very first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” And money was such a likely god that it even had a name, Mammon.
I’m pretty sure that Jesus does not demand each and every one of us to totally divest, at least I hope not. On the other hand, I’ve seen it happen over and over, that once people get serious about following Jesus, you will start to see it in the bank account. They start to give away more money and refuse to surround themselves with more stuff. And it’s not because they are trying to buy their way into heaven, but because they are becoming fully devoted citizens of the Kingdom of God.
The radical, seemingly impossible demand of the Kingdom of God was not lost on the disciples. They were astonished. Contemporary Jewish belief had taught them that riches was a sign of God’s blessing, so maybe they looked at that likable rich guy walking away, and wondered, “Who then can ever be saved?”
They are asking our question for us; they are right with us here. “But that’s ridiculous, Lord. If you go around demanding people like that to sell it all, who then can be saved?” The disciples aren’t even sure they qualify.
As I imagine this scene, I think I see a slight smile on Jesus’ face at this point. “Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” What is that supposed to mean?
Notice that so far in this conversation it’s been all about the question, “What must I do?” and Jesus told him. And what Jesus told him turned out to seem impossible. The problem is that they haven’t yet seen it from God’s point of view. What seems impossible with us is possible with God.
It may be harder for the rich to enter the kingdom than shoving a dromedary through the eye of a needle, but it’s not impossible with God. This is where law and grace come together. The very God who demands our all, is the God whose love waits patiently while we struggle to get the point. God calls us to be all in with his Kingdom because he is all in with us.
I like to think that perhaps this rich man who walked away that day might have been one of those who, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension joined the church that Luke describes in Acts 4:32, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” After all, with God all things are possible.
Peter pipes up with the realization that perhaps he and the other disciples were now on the inside of the kingdom of God. After all, they had left everything to follow him. Jesus doesn’t disagree, but he makes the point that you can’t give without gaining. It’s not that we have to grit out teeth as we chalk it all up in the loss column.
No, Jesus says the disciples get back a hundred-fold whatever they lost. And he’s not just talking about heaven, but right here and now. The joy and fulfillment of following the way of Jesus outweighs any loss we might experience. It’s liberating, it’s satisfying, it’s a life of true wholeness.
How many people that you know, who are really sold out to Jesus, run around with sad faces and feel bereft and poor? As Jesus says in John, “ If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15: 11-12)
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018, but will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters in December.
Preaching the Text
1). As is demonstrated above, the principle I follow in preaching a narrative text has been to follow the story line. It’s sometimes tempting to dig out the principles of the story and preach let them be the driving force of the sermon, but if you give the narrative the lead, the principles will have a better chance of hitting home. Following the story line gives you a chance to tell the story again in your own words, while touching on all the issues it raises. This is much more listenable for your congregation than statements of principle, no matter how true they may be.
2). It’s possible that this text may speak not only to individuals, but the the whole culture of far too many congregations today. Here’s how Eugene Petersen describes it:
The congregation is not about us. It is about God. The operating biblical metaphor regarding worship is sacrifice. But this is not the American way. The major American innovation in the congregation is to turn it into a consumer enterprise. Americans have developed a culture of acquisition, an economy that is dependent on wanting and requiring more. We have a huge advertising industry designed to stir up appetites we didn’t even know that we had. We are insatiable. It didn’t take long for some of our colleagues to develop consumer congregations. If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our churches is to identify what they want and offer it to them. Satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms— entertainment, satisfaction, excitement and adventure, problem-solving, whatever. We are the world’s champion consumers, so why shouldn’t we have state-of-the-art consumer churches? (“Transparent Lives,” Christian Century (Nov 29, 2003): 24.
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018, but will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters in December.
Job 23:1-9; 16-17
Author: Stan Mast
When we left Job last week, he was sitting in the ash heap, covered with nasty open sores, surrounded by three compassionately silent friends, quietly accepting the trouble the Lord had presumably sent into Job’s life. Here, twenty chapters later, not much has changed in one sense. Job is still in utter misery. But in another sense, everything has changed.
We are in the third cycle of speeches by Job’s suddenly verbose friends. They have broken their silence. Oh, that they hadn’t. With increasing vigor and venom, they have pressed their case that Job must have sinned greatly. How else can we explain his great suffering, because everyone knows that great suffering is caused by great sin. That’s how a just God has arranged the world. So, with great passion, they urge Job to repent and have his health and wealth restored by God. Eliphaz has just finished his third speech in chapter 22, in which he accuses Job of specific egregious sins and begs Job to return to the God he must have left.
Job 23 is Job’s response, not primarily to Eliphaz’s speech, but to his whole situation. Particularly, he speaks to and about God. The tone and content of his reply is much different than his closing words in chapter 2. Perhaps because of the sniping of his friends and undoubtedly because of the intensity and persistence of his suffering, Job has changed.
Over the course of twenty chapters, Job has moved from his submissive acceptance of his suffering (“in all this Job did not sin with his lips”) to a bitter, almost rebellious complaint against God. “Even today my complaint is bitter.” In the Hebrew, the word “complaint” has about it the sense of rebelliousness. Job has moved from accepting God’s will to challenging God’s justice, demanding answers to his mouthful of arguments. Job has moved from his wish for death (Job 3) to a demand for justice. Is Job now guilty of sin?
Before we answer that, let’s be clear about the nature of Job’s “case” (verses 3 and 7) against God. He wants to bring his legal case into God’s court (“his dwelling” or seat or throne) so that he can get a divine answer to his burning question. It is the same question we ask when we suffer. Why has all this happened to me? More precisely, why have you done this to me? Job was completely righteous (Job 1:1). Even God said so, twice (Job 1:8 and 2:3). So, Job has been saying to his friends and to God, “I did all the right things. You, God, have not played fair. What’s going on here? I need to know.” (I am indebted to Karla Suamala for the sharply worded summary of Job’s argument here).
But Job can’t find God anywhere. So, in this chapter, he voices the prayer we pray all the time. Where is God in all of this? “O that I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling!” He wants to go into God’s courtroom, but he can’t find the courthouse. More important, he can’t find God. In his bitter complaint, Job is simply spilling the despair of his heart. He wants what he lacks most—the presence of God. Even if he can’t get a good answer to his questions, then at least he needs a sense of God’s presence with him in his suffering.
Why doesn’t Job take his wife’s blunt advice? “Curse God and die!” Because in all his bitter complaint and rebellious questions, he is still a believer, a confused, caustic, but still seeking believer. We hear that in verses 8 and 9: “If I go the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.” Notice. God is still there; I just can’t find him. God is still at work, but I can’t understand what he is doing. Job is angry with God to the point of sin, but he hasn’t given up on God yet.
That is especially clear in verse 10, which the Lectionary unfortunately leaves out of our reading. I suspect it is omitted because it ruins the picture of utter dejection in the rest of the chapter. If the lesson to be learned from Job 23 is that even believers can challenge God in this bitter way, then we don’t want a note of genuine trust and hope to intrude. But it is there in the text, and it is there in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is a Gospel reminder to all of us when we feel like Job. Yes, we can complain and challenge and even rebel, but let us never forget that God is at work even in our worst suffering, doing something good. “But he knows the way that I take (even when I don’t know the way that he takes); when he has tested me (that’s what this is about, even though I hate it), I will come forth as gold.” (Cf. I Peter 1:6,7 and Romans 8:28-30). Let us not use this lovely passage to stifle heartfelt lament and even rebellious challenges to God. But let us not allow our bitter complaint to drown out the joyful sound of the Gospel either.
After this tiny flicker of hope, Job returns to his bitter complaint and (incongruously right after verse 10) his terror of God. In verses 11-12, he answers the scurrilous accusations hurled at him by Eliphaz in Job 22:5-9. I am innocent, damn you! No, he doesn’t say that, but I’m guessing that he feels it.
But then Job bends the knee before the sovereignty of God in verses 13-14. He knows that God is in absolute charge of everything, even his terrible suffering. “He carries out his decree against me.” Here his knowledge of God doesn’t bring him the kind of relief we heard in verse 10. Now he is back in the darkness of his suffering and the darkness terrifies him. No, God terrifies him in the darkness. And why not? In spite of his residual faith, Job has been mangled by God (he thinks). Why not be afraid of God?
Well, here is a place where Job should have learned a lesson from the error of his friends. They assumed that their knowledge of God’s justice gave them an easy answer to the problem of Job’s suffering. And they were wrong, dead wrong. Job assumed that his knowledge of God’s sovereignty gave him an answer to the problem of his suffering. It was God’s will. God did it to me. But Job was wrong, dead wrong. Yes, God is sovereign. Yes, he does what he pleases. Yes, he has decrees. But no matter how much correct doctrine we know, we can’t assume that we understand the ways of God with us. It is more complicated than the smartest of us can ever comprehend. As Rick Morley puts it: “Every time life collapses in front of us and we’re left sitting in the dust, it isn’t time to blame ourselves or to blame God.” The fear of the Lord that is the heart of wisdom is not terror in the face of God’s sovereignty; rather, it is reverence before the covenant God whose ways are always good, but often mysterious.
I like the way the NIV translates verse 17, because it encourages us to speak even when the darkness envelops us. “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.” Job does keep speaking in chapter 24 where he questions the seemingly unjust way the world is organized.
How can we speak to our people as we consider Job’s bitter complaint? Two approaches suggest themselves to me. First, we can legitimately use this text to encourage our people to utter their lament. Job’s words here are the very words some of your folks will bring with them into worship this week. It is helpful, indeed, profoundly moving to discover that the depths of our despair are found in God’s Word. Even if we are impertinent to the point of rebellion, God has heard it before.
What’s more, God did not reject his servant Job, even when Job’s mouth uttered words close to blasphemy. Were some of Job’s words sinful? Probably. And God did confront Job in such a massive way that Job finally put his hand on his mouth and repented in dust and ashes? Yes, indeed. But God did not reject his hurting child. Rather, he held him gently, albeit invisibly, as Job flailed and howled in his pain. That’s encouraging.
Second, and even more encouraging, is the fact that God himself has flailed and howled in his pain. The comfort we receive from this painful book is not just the “misery loves company” theme that humans know so well. Even more we are comforted by the Gospel message that “misery has company” in the person of God Incarnate. Job’s cry about God’s absence in the midst of great injustice was a foretaste of Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross. No matter where Job looked, he couldn’t find God. Neither could Jesus. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The great difference between Job and Jesus is that Job could never have guessed why he was the victim of such apparent injustice. From an early age, Jesus knew that he was about his Father’s business, the business of demonstrating and satisfying justice. Jesus was “a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate God’s justice, because in his forbearance God had left sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did this to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justified those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:25,26).”
That is God’s response to Job’s bitter complaint about God’s absence as Job experienced what felt like injustice. God is always just and he is the justifier even of those who accuse him of injustice. God could do such a counter-intuitive thing because in his sovereign love he sent his Son into the darkness that so terrifies us.
At the heart of Dicken’s classic novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, there is a story that resonates with the stories of both Job and Jesus. Doctor Manette is imprisoned in the Bastille for reasons he cannot understand. For 18 years he was confined to a dark dirty cell with nothing to do, except make shoes. He eventually lost his mind.
As the French Revolution begins, his former servant, DeFarge, secures Manette’s release from prison at the request of his daughter, Lucie, and family friends. (DeFarge and his fierce wife become leaders in the Revolution.)
Safely back in England, Manette gradually regains his mind and his position as a respected doctor. In spite of his intense dependence on Lucie, he blesses her marriage to Charles Darnay, who, it turns out, is the son of the cruel aristocrat who had Manette committed to the Bastille. Darnay does not know of that connection and has, in fact, renounced his title and property. But when a former servant is arrested by the revolutionary forces, Darnay goes to France to rescue him.
He is promptly arrested himself as one of the aristocrats who made life so hellish for the peasants who are now in charge. Upon learning of Darnay’s arrest, Manette races off to France to rescue him from the Bastille and the guillotine. That’s when he learns that he is a legend among the Revolutionary forces. His imprisonment gives him immense power and authority in the Revolution. And he awakens to the fact that his terrible, unjust suffering has now equipped him to save his son in law. What seemed so meaningless and cruel has made him an agent of redemption.
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
It seems odd that Psalm 22 should crop up in the lectionary at this time of year. We tend to associate it with Lent and Holy Week, not the middle of autumn. Lots of you will probably turn to another of the lections for your text for that reason alone.
But hold it. Psalm 22 in October actually offers the preacher options for a couple of important reasons. First, it liberates Psalm 22 from being merely a prophecy about Christ’s death on the cross. It’s hard not to see all the uncanny direct parallels with what happened on the cross. While that’s a legitimate and important use of the text, it neglects another equally important one.
Psalm 22 is a lament, at least the section we read here. Someone wrote these words, not with Jesus in mind, but out of the crucible of their personal experience. Centuries before Jesus quoted these words from the cross, someone in mortal pain cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
Which brings me to the second reason why you might want to choose this text that seems so out of season. It challenges us with one of the main reasons why people might lose faith in God. He seems too often like an absent deity. Too often, when we cry out in need or pain, there is nothing but silence and absence. It embarrasses us, it angers us, it casts the shadow of doubt over many people’s already tenuous faith, and not least, your own.
The remarkable thing is that the Bible itself is not reticent on the subject. You can find those doubts and struggles with God’s absence all over the Bible. Of course, almost every Psalm of lament, like this one, expresses the pain of God’s absence, but beyond that it crops up all over, especially in the Old Testament.
There’s Job, where God seems absent to the suffering Job, while we get to look behind the curtain to see something of what God is up to, and it’s not very nice. There’s Isaiah 45:15, where, right in the middle of a series of staggering promises, the prophet admits, almost as an aside, “Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself.”
It’s a big theme in the prophet Habakkuk:
How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds. (1: 1-2)
And a little further:
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (1:13)
But, more relevant to pastors, it’s the experience of your people all the time. When grief overwhelms, when death snatches a loved one, when cancer strikes a teenager, when tsunamis hit killing thousands, we are right back there with the Psalmist, feeling forsaken, and shaking our fists at the silent heavens.
The first thing people need to hear, I think, is that this is not merely a problem pointed out by atheists or those who have “lost their faith.” It’s not as though the Bible has tried to hide this issue from us, and now the critics have discovered a loophole. The Bible openly acknowledges that this is a real problem for believers. It asks often and agonizingly, why is God absent; why is God silent?
It’s good to know that our doubts and fears about the hiddenness of God are nothing to be embarrassed about. We don’t have to hide them. They are as biblical as God’s promises. We even hear them on the lips of the Lord himself.
The crux of the matter is the contrast in the Psalm between God’s gracious presence and agonizing absence. After beginning his cry of pain, the Psalmist points out that God is sometimes amazingly present.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
But then the Psalmist wonders why is God so far away when I am suffering. “I am a worm and no man.” In other words, it must be that I don’t deserve God’s intervention and help. But no that can’t be; I have known the Lord’s care and experienced his love.
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
With that thought, he returns hopefully to prayer:
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
The Bible confronts us with an uncomfortable and agonizing theological truth. God is hidden from us. He is what Karl Barth called Deus Absconditus, the hidden God. But, as theologian Fleming Rutledge writes, that’s not all of it.
God is not just hidden on general principles. If God is hidden, it is because he hides himself. He means to be hidden. It is God’s nature to be out of the reach of our senses. There is a distance between God and ourselves that cannot be bridged from our side.
This is a hard truth for us to learn. Our Sunday School upbringing has tended to make is think that God is always available, always knowable. always explainable. Well, there comes a time to put away childish things. God is God, and we are not God. The old hymn addresses God in a way that our happy, clappy worship songs tend to miss.
Immortal, invisible God only wise
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most gracious, most glorious, the ancient of days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.
God is hidden, but not in darkness, but inaccessible light, light so bright, so heavenly, we are blinded by it.
We cannot understand or know the ways of God simply because we are limited, blind, sinful mortals, and God is the Creator of all things, infinite, omnipotent, almighty, and hidden behind a cloud of unknowing.
Children often get angry at their parents for refusing things, denying things. The reason, as every parent knows, is that the child is a child, and cannot hope to understand the complexities of the world, the limits of reality. When I was a kid, one of my favorite TV shows was “Father Knows Best.” The recurring (patriarchal) theme was that kids don’t get it. They can’t see the big picture. Take that simple reality and multiply it a trillion times, and you have God.
The startling thing the Bible tells us is that we need not suppress our childish frustrations with a God we cannot always understand. God invites us to voice them, even to scream them. And most astonishing of all, we find these words of hurt and frustration, of abandonment and pain, on the lips of God’s own Son.
God has assumed our weak, limited, human ignorance of the God’s own ways. God’s own Son descended into the hell of God’s silence, hiddenness, and seeming abandonment. And he did so at exactly the moment when, in the terrible darkness of Golgotha, God’s holy love was bearing our sin and healing our brokenness.
God remains hidden in inapproachable light; God’s ways are inscrutable to human understanding. We don’t know, we cannot know, the particulars of what God is about in the events of our world and our personal lives. What God has given us is the promise that no matter what happens in the world, God is constantly pursuing his loving purpose, his covenant commitment to make all things new in Jesus Christ. Or, as Paul puts it, “In all things, God works for good to those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28)
Preaching the Text:
1). If we are going to really grapple with the pain of the hiddenness and silence of God, we need to face it squarely, not from a safe perch of theological certainty. One of the darkest and most heartfelt expressions of rage against God’s hiddenness is a in a novel called “The Blood of the Lamb” by Peter Devries, who happens to come from my own Dutch Calvinist tribe, and was an alumnus of my own Calvin College.
Known mostly as a comic writer, he wrote this one uncharacteristically autobiographical novel sometime after the tragic death of his young daughter from leukemia. The blood of the lamb refers this to Christ’s blood, and the tainted, diseased blood of Devries’ little lamb, his daughter.
Here’s the central scene as described by blogger Jonathan Hiskes:
For all of Wanderhope’s (the main character) Job-like arguing with the divine, his climactic action is a wordless gesture. At the false hope of Carol’s last remission, he brings a celebration cake with white icing. Then he learns of the infectious outbreak that finally takes his daughter. Hours later, drunk, he passes the church of Saint Catherine, where he has stopped during the previous months to plead for his daughter’s survival. He sees the cross above the door. He gazes at the crucified figure, considering the impotence of a savior who can suffer but not prevent suffering. He remembers the frosted cake, retrieves it, and hurls it into the face of the dying Christ, an awful twist on the old comic gag. He collapses to the sidewalk in tears.
Devries closes the chapter with these words, “Thus Wanderhope was found at that place which…was said to be the only alternative to the muzzle of pistol: the foot of the cross.” (University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 238)
2). The quote from Fleming Rutledge above comes from an article entitled “Divine Absence and the Light Inaccessible. The entire article powerfully addresses the issue of God’s hiddenness. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/divine-absence-and-light-inaccessible
Author: Doug Bratt
At least some Christians generally think of corporate worship as relatively sedate. I suspect that the worship services of most of us who write and read these sermon starters leave worshipers feeling pretty safe.
However, the author Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, writes about the dangers of meeting God in church. She compares worship to “children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church,” Dillard writes. “We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense; or the waiting God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Most of those who proclaim Hebrews 4 were also probably taught to think of reading God’s Word not as children playing with TNT, but as a blessing. It is, after all, our only infallible rule for faith and life that comforts and strengthens, as well as blesses and encourages us. We think of reading, studying and meditating on the Scriptures as one means by which we open ourselves to God gently preparing us to love God above all and our neighbors as ourselves.
So when God’s beloved children open God’s Word for our devotions, few of us buckle on crash helmets. When we open God’s Word during our worship services, we don’t pull on our life preservers or buckle our seat belts. God’s Word is to us, after all, less like a boat ride in a storm than a balm in Gilead.
Yet this week’s epistolary lesson suggests, to use Dillard’s analogy, that opening God’s Word can be like children mixing up a batch of TNT. After all, to use our text’s imagery, that Word sometimes falls on us like a lethally sharp meat cleaver (12a).
One of my favorite restaurant’s servers remove from their ovens whole roasted chickens that they then slice into quarters. Their lethally sharp cleavers slice through chicken joints and marrow as though they were just warm sticks of butter. I involuntarily almost jump each time I hear their cleaver fall, wondering if it caught any innocent fingers in its lethal path.
Hebrews 4:12-16 suggests that something like that happens whenever God’s people open God’s Word. We hear God’s call to us to confess our sins and whack! God’s Word slices through us like a butcher’s meat cleaver or surgeon’s scalpel.
We hoped we might slip by with just a few devout words about the white lies we’ve told or the gossip we’ve spread this week. You and I assumed no one would ever know about our sinful thoughts and attitudes.
But whack! God’s Word exposes what we thought we could keep hidden from each other and perhaps, hopefully, even God. God’s Word slices right through what we’d assumed we could keep “covered.”
Even those who proclaim Hebrews 4 probably know what it’s like to go to church, hoping for a quiet hour but experiencing a loud word of condemnation. Have you written a lesson or message on a Scripture and felt the icy steel of the blade that is God’s Word slicing through you right to the quick?
Those who read this Sermon Starter haven’t slaughtered schoolchildren in the past few weeks. I certainly hope that none of us have sent lewd emails to or abused minors in any other way. No, most of our sins were so private that no one even knew about them.
Yet when God’s people encounter God’s Word, it has an amazing way of exposing even those private sins. It ruthlessly exposes the wrongs we thought we could keep hidden. And it leaves us feeling very vulnerable, helpless, and defenseless before God’s serrated Word.
God’s Word sometimes makes God’s adopted children want to scramble to find someplace to hide. But Hebrews’ author insists no place to hide exists. God’s Word is, after all, “sharper than any double-edged sword …” (12). In fact, it’s so razor-sharp that it even exposes sins about which we’d forgotten or of which we weren’t even conscious.
Yet while God’s people can’t hide any of those sins from God, while God’s Word often leaves us feeling vulnerable, God remains amazingly merciful. Though God knows about and exposes even the sins we keep hidden from each other, Hebrews 4:12-16 reminds us that God remains stunningly gracious.
There is, to begin with, great grace in the way God refuses to allow God’s adopted sons and daughters to continue to sin against God and each other. God mercifully disrupts our sometimes deeply engrained patterns of hurting each other by uncovering even our secret sins. God graciously tries to protect the people around us by exposing the ways we hurt them by what we say and do.
Yet God doesn’t just do this to graciously protect our neighbors. As our text reminds us, God also exposes our sins in this way in order to graciously heal us. God shows God’s children our sin so that God may also show us its solution. God graciously gives us a “faith” to which we can “hold firmly” (14), even when we have nothing else to which to cling in our sinfulness.
That faith desperately clings to the Jesus who went through what his adoptive brothers and sisters endure every day. That faith desperately clings to the One who experienced all of the kinds of temptations we can experience. That faith desperately clings to the One who endured what we endure, yet resisted every temptation.
After all, while this Jesus was like us in every way except that he was “without sin” (15), he was also unique. While he was fully human, he was also what our text calls “the Son of God.”
So this Jesus was both willing and able to obey God perfectly. This Jesus satisfied God’s demands of perfection for our sakes. This Jesus has returned to heaven and is now somehow seated at God’s right hand.
And because this Jesus Christ, “our great high priest” (14) obeyed God perfectly, God doesn’t leave us exposed. God’s people don’t have to fear the slicing power of the blade that is God’s Word. You and I don’t have to stay silent when God invites us to confess our sins.
We don’t have to try to hide our sins from God. God’s adopted sons and daughters can confess even the sins that God’s razor-sharp Word has laid open because we know that God forgives us, for Jesus’ sake. We can confess our sinful helplessness before the lethal blade that is God’s Word.
We know, after all, that we must confess our sins to God. However, we also know that, for Jesus’ sake, God longs to show us God’s amazing grace. On top of all that, God’s people know that the ascended Christ, the Son of God somehow intercedes for us before his and our Father. In a way we can’t fully comprehend, Hebrews 4 invites us to imagine that each time God’s children sin, the ascended Christ steps before the Father to say something like, “Remember that this is one for whom I lived, died and rose again from the dead. Forgive him … for my sake.”
In the church that I pastored during the early ‘90’s, I thoughtlessly neglected a couple that was physically and spiritually needy. The woman was enduring agonizing medical problems that required lengthy and often painful hospitalization. Over a period of about a month I called them only once and never visited them.
The longer I avoided them, the more I dreaded visiting them. Yet I knew that I had to go to and admit my sin to this dear Christian brother and sister. When I eventually went to them, the husband rightly scolded me, exposing my sin of neglect. Then, however, the husband and wife extended to me the undeserved salve of mercy and grace. Once they’d exposed my sin of neglect, they graciously covered me with their (and God’s) forgiveness.
I later realized that I didn’t just go to that couple because I knew that I needed to confess my sin against them. I also went to them because I knew they loved me. So while I expected them to scold me, I also hoped they’d graciously forgive me.