October 17, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
“I am so glad that Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves ME!”
“How vast the benefits divine which WE in Christ possess!”
“Blessed assurance, Jesus is MINE!”
We sing such sentiments in church all the time. So before we get all squinty-eyed in regarding the Pharisee in Luke 18 as the quintessential spiritual bad guy, we’d best take a long, hard look at how we regard our own spiritual status—yes, how we regard it even vis-à-vis other people.
Consider: Suppose it is your sweet little old grandmother praying over the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. “Dear God, we are grateful that we are not like other families we know: people who don’t know you enough to offer thanks to you, families that have fallen apart and so they never gather around the table anymore. We rejoice that we went to church this morning to do what all people should do: render thanks to you as the Giver of all good gifts.”
So this is Grandma now, not the bad-guy Pharisee (in the all-black ten-gallon cowboy hat as the late Robert Farrar Capon once depicted the Pharisees). What, if anything, keeps her prayer from falling into the error of the Pharisee? Or does nothing keep it from that error? Is it the same mistake all over again? When and how does gratitude go bad, and what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen to us?
To the original hearers of Jesus’ parable in Luke 18, there was nothing startling in this parable–nothing even vaguely unsettling–until Jesus got to the end when he said it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home under the blanket of God’s favor. Because up until that point, the Pharisee was simply being pious. Scholars suggest that the prayer that Jesus places onto the man’s lips was not a caricature of a prayer but appears to have been a standard Jewish prayer of thanksgiving at that time. To those who listened to Jesus’ parable, this prayer was as familiar to them as “Now I lay me down to sleep” or “Our Father, who art in heaven” is familiar to most of us.
It is only right, fitting, and proper to give thanks to God. So if there is something awry here, it must be more in the attitude motivating the prayer than in the prayer proper, and just that is the key.
The Pharisee was not so much grateful to God as he was grateful only when he compared himself to others. Because the moment we begin to stack up our lives against the lives of those around us, it doesn’t take long before the focus becomes what we do, how we act, what we perform. The shape of our lives, and the myriad of activities in which we engage that gives our lives that shape, becomes the taking-off point in our assessment of life.
What we forget when that happens is, of course, nothing less than the grace of God in Christ Jesus. It’s always a balancing act. Should you be grateful that you find prayer not only possible but deeply meaningful? Should you be glad that you have opportunity to engage in ministry projects that benefit the needy in our community? If you are able in your life to avoid committing crimes or cheating on your spouse, should you be thankful for the strength of character that prevents you from walking down certain sordid paths? Of course on all counts! But we must never forget that each of those things is a FRUIT of God’s prior grace at work in us.
A sermon on Luke 18 can help people parse proper Christian gratitude by distinguishing the nature of the Pharisee’s gratitude (which goes off the rails) and the proper, deep-down gratitude for grace that we all rightly nourish as followers of Jesus Christ.
The structure of this parable is striking. When describing the Pharisee, the language all hints at height (as images for pride always do): the Pharisee stands, he (by implication at least) looks up to heaven as he prays, and his very language spirals upward as well as he heaps up a list of all that he does. By contrast the tax collector has all downward words associated with him: he is afar off, he will not look up to heaven, he beats down on his breast, etc.
But it is also interesting to note the set-up for this parable in verse 9: Jesus is said not to tell this parable in the abstract for just anyone and everyone but rather very specifically is said to tell the parable to those who were confident in their own righteousness. That makes you wonder: did a crowd of the self-righteous gather and so prompted this parable or was Jesus so keenly aware of this tendency to self-righteousness that he knew that no matter when he spoke this parable, it would be heard by plenty of people who fit the bill?! I suspect it is the latter! And therein lies a lesson for us also today!
What is one of the most common tendencies of Christians? It is the tendency to mix up roots and fruits. If the Christian life is like a tree that bears the fruit of the Spirit, we have a tendency to turn the tree upside-down. The production of spiritual fruit–the very kinds of things for which we Christians are properly thankful to God–grow OUT OF God’s gracious love. They don’t attract God’s love, they flow from God’s love.
As C.S. Lewis says, the roof of a greenhouse shines brightly because the sun shines on it. The roof doesn’t attract the sun by virtue of being bright to begin with, however! Or, in another Lewis analogy, suppose a six-year-old little girl says, “Daddy, may I have $5 to buy you a Christmas present?” Well, any decent father will give the child the money and, come Christmas morning, will exclaim loudly and gleefully over whatever bauble the child bought. But only a fool would say that by virtue of the gift, the father came out $5 ahead on the deal!
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
This is the “happy” section of Joel but probably needs to be seen in context. More on that at the end of this sermon starter.
For now we can see a connection to last week’s Old Testament Common Lectionary text from Jeremiah 31, which pointed to the promise of God’s giving his people a whole new heart, with his law and his ways inscribed right onto the core of each human being. Now this week we come to Joel 2 and to a similar promise of God’s doing a new thing. But this time the promise centers on a powerful outpouring of God’s own Spirit. As prophetic promises go, Joel brooks few rivals for sheer exuberance and prodigious promises of a hyper-abundance of good things.
Because in the history of God’s people, there were any number of instances of God’s having poured out his Spirit but it was a pretty special and unusual thing to see this happen. That is, if someone were a “messiah” figure on account of having been “anointed” with a special portion of God’s Spirit, most everyone knew about it. The truly messiah-types in Israel were few and far between. There was the king. There were the priests. There were now and then prophets recognized for having quite likely received a special anointing (Elijah, Elisha, and folks like that). But that was about it. Anointings to royal, priestly, or prophetic offices were on the rare side. Israel was not a divine democracy but a theocracy in which God did the choosing in terms of who would be important enough to receive an anointing and who would not.
But then comes Joel 2 and a stunning message that points to what you could almost call the democratizing of God’s Spirit: it was one day going to come to just about everybody without distinction. Last week in Jeremiah 31 we heard the prophet say that God’s internalizing of his ways would render it unnecessary for people to say to their neighbors “Know the Lord” because everyone was going to know God already from the inside out. Now in Joel 2 it could be said that the day would come when it would become unnecessary for anyone to identify which few folks had received a messiah-like anointing of God’s Spirit because the fact of the matter would be that everybody among God’s people was going to be so anointed!
Young and old, boys and girls, men and women, the likely and the unlikely: everybody was going to have a Spirit descend on them that would open up visions and dreams and ways of understanding God and God’s kingdom that had simply not been available on the popular level at any prior time. Everyone would see the great wonders God would work on the earth and in the heavens and they would understand what was what and who was who in the grander scheme of things.
Joel points to Pentecost. Joel points to a day when the Holy Spirit of God would infuse every member of the church in ways that would change everything. And indeed, we now can say that for Christians, the Holy Spirit is a little like oxygen–it is the very air we breathe. The Spirit is the atmosphere in which we exist. “I will pour out my Spirit in those days,” Joel declared. Some centuries later the Apostle Peter on Pentecost said that “those days” were “these days” and those days have never ceased ever since. Across nearly two millennia of church history and within the hearts of untold millions if not billions of believers, that Spirit, so dramatically poured forth on that first day of Pentecost, has been present and active even when there was no obvious drama going on. We live, and we are so very, very blessed to live, “in those days,” in the very days that so many people had for so long yearned to see and experience.
But if the Spirit of God poured out on us believers is, as just noted, a little like oxygen, then it may also be true that like our ongoing act of respiration, we Christians may not be very conscious of the Spirit’s presence in our lives. You have to stop what you’re doing most days if you want to pay attention to your own breathing—and about the only time we actually do this is if we are in a situation where we are afraid of not getting enough air (getting stuck in an elevator, for instance, or waking up at 3:30am with sinuses so stuffed up that you feel a little panicky in terms of getting enough air into your system).
We Christians now live immersed in God’s outpoured Spirit but since our days are not typically filled with the dreams and visions of which the prophet Joel speaks in this second chapter, it’s easy to miss how much we benefit from the indwelling Spirit of God. But a passage like this one may provide a good opportunity for us preachers to remind our congregations what a profound gift it is to be in touch with God on such a personal level. We cannot know—and thankfully neither do we have to experience—what life would be like without God’s Spirit. We mostly are unaware of the gifts, the insights, the abilities we have to do our jobs in the kingdom that are provided by the Spirit alone. But that lack of awareness is no excuse not to make ourselves aware now and again and to do so with profound gratitude for the truth of Joel 2 as it permeates Christ’s church both this day and even forevermore!
But as noted at the outset, perhaps this sermon starter should point out one other curious fact. This is the only passage from the prophet Joel in the entire three-year Revised Common Lectionary cycle. And this is the happiest part of Joel, too. But not to put too fine a point on it, everything in Joel that led up to this lection was pretty grim, clotted with clouds of locust, filled with doomsday scenarios of destruction, and punctuated by urgent cries of repentance (or else!). Why did so much bad stuff have to precede this good stuff? Why can’t we cut to the chase of the happy prophecy (which in its own way the Lectionary has effectively done by ignoring the rest of Joel)?
Probably for the same reason that you actually cannot get to Peter’s Pentecost sermon without passing through Good Friday. The situation of sin and evil that God in Christ had to deal with is serious business. It is shot through with destruction, violence, and scary things. There is a need for serious repentance, for a rending of hearts (as Joel called for earlier in Joel 2), for a wholesale turning away from all that wrecks God’s good shalom.
You cannot get to the outpouring of God’s Spirit and the new day it brings without this engagement with all that is sad and unhappy. There is a lesson in this for the church today, too, especially in all those places on the contemporary ecclesiastical landscape where there is a push to drive away all negatives so as to focus only on sunny promises and happy thoughts.
As Frederick Buechner notes, the word “spirit” gets drained of meaning through over-use. We hear about “school spirit,” the “spirit of ’76,” “team spirit,” “the Christmas spirit.” A sign by a local high school in my area regularly posts the hours of operation for something called “The Spirit Shop.” But it can be difficult to define just what “spirit” means for any of those things. The adjective “spiritual” has not fared much better. This word has been plastered all over the place in the last twenty years to the point where it can define everything from genuinely pious Christian faith all the way over to those who talk about the “zen of economics.” Ostensibly “spiritual people” may be those who attend church every week or those who never go to church but who use their Jeep Grand Cherokee to zip up to the edge of a cliff on weekends so they can meditate on the unity of sky, rock, and soul.
At the same time, again as Buechner observes, we cannot deny that for all its vapory, insubstantial features, the “spirit” of something can be strong and contagious. It is remarkably easy for even a very calm and quiet person to get whipped up into enthusiasm by the “spirit” of a political rally, a football game, or (more grimly) of a lynch mob.
Some years back I saw a movie which had a scene which was at once somber and yet funny. In the scene two good friends are seated in the stands at a New York Giants NFL football game. But they are not really watching the game because one of the two men is deeply sad since his wife had left him the day before. With a crestfallen expression on his face, he tells his friend all about the events that had led up to this tragedy in his life. It is a very serious, unhappy conversation.
The funny part is that while these two men are talking, “the wave” is sweeping through the stadium–this is the phenomenon whereby all the people in a stadium sequentially stand up, raise their arms, give a yell, and then quickly sit back down so that as you look across the stadium, it looks like a human wave is rippling through the stands. So in this scene, although the conversation between these two friends is so dark that they really are paying no attention to the people around them, nevertheless each time the wave reached their part of the stadium, both men stood up, raised their arms, and then sat back down, never missing a beat in their conversation about the one man’s sorrows!
Being in a crowd can make you do funny things–stuff you would not do or say otherwise. Have you ever been to an exciting basketball game only to find yourself screaming like a banshee? There seems to be a certain spirit or power in many situations in life–an influence in which you can get “caught up” and so motivated to do things which are not called for in other situations. On a darker note, some of the same dynamics that can make us jump up and down like everyone else at an exciting basketball game can also lead people to get carried away at post-game parties which turn into out-of-control riots.
There are influences on all of us which are not visible but which are very powerful nonetheless. Parents have strong reasons for warning their children to stay away from “the wrong crowd.” Most of us at one time or another have experienced what can happen when we get caught up in peer pressure. On the other hand, there are good community spirits which can mold people in positive ways. Just think of how the spirit of neighborliness draws the Amish together. There are few spectacles as startling or as moving as an Amish “barn raising” when neighbors from a region come together to build a barn in just one day.
There are many different ways, both good and bad, to get carried away by something. Thankfully, for baptized believers in Christ Jesus the Lord, God has poured out the ultimate Spirit on us all, helping young and old, boys and girls, men and women “get carried away” but in good ways that open us up to all the glory of God!
Author: Stan Mast
For the Jews who composed and sang Psalm 84 (the Sons of Korah according to the superscription), the Temple was the first place you would go to find God. For many modern folks, including some Christians, a church building is the last place you would expect an encounter with God.
Psalm 84 is filled with passion for that place of worship. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord…. Blessed are those who dwell in your house….” Given the fact that so many people can’t even voice a passionate desire to know God himself (“my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God”), a Psalm about passion for a building might seem un-preachable. But let me suggest a way to preach Psalm 84 for both Christian and non-Christian audiences, using an old sermon of mine, entitled “How to Find God, Even in Church.”
The great Jewish scholar, Martin Buber, told this story. Rabbi Baruch’s grandson Yehiel was once playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for his playmate to find him. When he had waited for a long time, he came out of his hiding place, but the other boy was nowhere to be seen. Now Yehiel realized that his friend had not looked for him from the very beginning. This made him cry, and crying he ran to his grandfather and complained of his faithless friend. Then tears brimmed in Rabbi Baruch’s eyes, too, and he said, “God says the same thing: ‘I hide, but no one wants to seek me.’”
Some of us might want to reply to God that we have looked for him, but we haven’t found him. He seems to have hidden too well. We’ve found religion, and doctrine, and the form of worship, and some kind of faith—all the stuff we find in church. But we haven’t found God. Psalm 84 gives voice to our spiritual hunger: “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” And even as it speaks for us, voicing the deep desire of our hearts, it also speaks to us, telling us how to find God, even in church. “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord….”
That is what we want, isn’t it? Deep down inside, so deep that we sometimes aren’t even aware that it’s God we long for, we cry out for an experience of God himself. Indeed, at the center of all our spiritual and physical yearnings is the desire for God in all his personal fullness. “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God—“ not for religion, not for ritual or doctrine or liturgy or preaching, but for God himself. Indeed, God is why we pursue, or put up with, religion and ritual and doctrine and preaching and all that other churchy stuff. We want to find God.
Psalm 84 suggests that we will find God in church. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul years, even faints for the courts of the Lord. Blessed are those who dwell in your house. Better is a day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Why would the Psalmist long for God’s house so powerfully? Because that’s where the Jews had access to God. At the altar they could come before God. In the Temple God lived in a special, almost physical way, hovering in the form of a shining cloud over the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies.
Of course, we don’t have such a building today. In these New Testament days, God is not attached to buildings. His presence isn’t localized; it is personalized. We find God in the person of Jesus pre-eminently, for “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19) He is the new temple of God; in him we experience the presence of God with us. We also find God in human persons in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells. “Don’t you know that you are the temple of the living God.” (I Cor. 3:16) Church buildings are not the house of God in the same way the Temple was.
But our church buildings are places dedicated to God, places where we gather in the name of Jesus to meet God. And Jesus himself said, “Wherever two or three of you meet in my name, there am I in the midst of you.” Jesus is the great temple of God and he promises to be where his followers gather in his name. That’s why our church buildings, however humble or grand, are the places, par excellence, we can find God.
One spiritual pilgrim put it this way. “I looked for God up on the mountain, and I found grandeur; but it was not God. I looked for God down by the shore, and I found relaxation; but it was not God. I looked for God on the golf course, and I found camaraderie; but it was not God. I looked for God in my family home, and I found love; but it was not God. I looked for God everywhere, and I found many wonderful things; but I could not find God. Then I went to church, and there I found God.”
The problem is that so many of us don’t find God in church. Sunday after Sunday, millions come and do their thing, and they don’t find the living God. In fact, for some people, this is the last place, the hardest place to find God. It’s easy to understand why. I mean, there are all those people who irritate, that worship style that turns us off, those issues that upset us so deeply, that preacher with all her mannerisms and attitude. How can we transform our experience of church into the kind of encounter with God that will make us say each Sunday, “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord.”
The Psalmist doesn’t tell us; he shows us. He comes to church crying out for the living God. I know that’s obvious from the Psalm, but it isn’t our practice. The Psalm writer came through the door with just one thing in mind; “my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” Ask yourself honestly, how often do I come to church in that frame of mind? Think about the various moods in which we come to church, the diverse motives that bring us here, the words we speak and the thoughts we think on a Sunday morning: angry, distracted, annoyed, curious, wanting to be entertained, hoping to sing some “good” songs, steaming from a fight with your spouse, resentful because your parents dragged you here, exhausted from a late Saturday night party, worried out of your mind about a problem at work, feeling sick from a bad cold, upset about something in church. It’s no wonder we don’t find God in church! If you want to find God here, you must come through the door seeking him, yearning for the living God, wanting to meet God more than anything else.
There is a key phrase in verse 5. “Blessed are those who strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.” If we want to find God in church, we need to treat going to church as a pilgrimage, as part of our heart’s pilgrimage. Or better yet, we must remind ourselves that life is a pilgrimage, a long journey to the heavenly Jerusalem with its joy and peace and love. As in ancient Israel, the road to Jerusalem is long and steep and arduous. It winds through barren places and over steep mountains and sometimes even through the Valley Baca, which means the valley of weeping or the valley of dryness.
Coming to church, then, is like pulling off the road into a rest stop, like finding oasis of refreshment and renewal for the next stage of the journey. But to experience church that way, and thus find God here, we have to prepare our hearts. “Blessed are those who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.” It is a heart pilgrimage. Whether you find God in church will usually be determined by the heart you bring through the door. If you come hungry, and thirsty, and weary, and needy, crying out from your heart for the living God, you will find him. Then, in the words of verse 7, “you will go from strength to strength, until each appears before God in Zion.” You will meet God, even in church.
Except it’s not that easy. Abraham Kuyper in his classic devotional book, Near Unto God, talks about how difficult it is to return to God when once you have drifted away. “Return is not so easy. When we’ve gotten ourselves lost, we don’t, on our own, find our way back. Our best efforts end in frustration, in near despair.” But Kuyper found deep comfort in these words from Psalm 119:176, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant, for I do not forget thy commandments.” And of course, that’s exactly what God does all the time; he comes seeking us like the shepherd who would not rest until his 100th sheep joined the other 99 in the fold.
I love the way the great German theologian Juergen Moltmann put it in an article in The Christian Century. He was not a believer before World War II; he became one in a prisoner of war camp for German soldiers in Scotland, when he read about the sufferings of Christ. He writes, “This early fellowship with Jesus, the brother is suffering, has never left me since. I never ‘decided for Jesus’ as is so often demanded of us, but I am sure that then and there, in the dark pit of my soul, he found me.” And he concludes, “I was still searching, but I sensed that God was drawing me, and that I would not be seeking him, if he had not already found me.”
I think back to that story about the little boy whose friend did not come looking for him, and what his grandfather said about God. “God said, ‘I hide, but no one comes seeking me.’” Well, I can imagine someone coming to Jesus at the end of it all, crying and asking, “Where were you when I needed you? Where have you been all my life, especially in those dark, dry times?” And I hear Jesus say, “I’ve been out looking for you, but you weren’t there, in church, crying out for the living God with all your heart.” I can imagine that, and it makes a point.
But the fact is that Jesus will not stop seeking until every last one of his sheep is safely home. What a comfort that is, and what a motivation to seek God. You will find him; you can’t miss, if you seek him. But you must seek; you won’t find until you do. So as we continue our journey, make this the prayer of your soul, the cry of your heart: “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” Then you’ll find him, even in church, especially in church.
The cry of the Psalmist in Psalm 84 is the cry of every human heart, but sadly most people aren’t aware of that, because their minds aren’t in touch with their hearts and souls. We’re like that wasp on which George Orwell play a cruel boyhood trick. In one of his many excellent essays, Orwell describes this trick and makes a devastating point. “The wasp was sucking jelly on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that has been cut away is his soul, and there was a period—twenty years perhaps—during which he did not notice.”
Orwell was talking there about a cultural shift in the western world, but what he says has a very personal application. Many people have lost their soul, their spiritual desire for the living God, and they don’t notice. Their minds have been cut off from their heart of hearts. Life goes on, and they think that everything is normal. Until they have to fly, until they face ultimate issues. Then they know that something dreadful has happened. They have been cut off from the spiritual side of themselves, and all they feel is a longing for home, for intimacy, warmth, community, not the longing for God.
In fact, there was an article in the Atlantic Monthly a while back about a new religion that has risen out of this loss of longing for God. It’s called apatheism. Jonathon Rauch writes, “Someone asked me about my religion. I was about to say, “Atheist,” but I stopped myself. ‘I used to be an atheist,’ I said, ‘and I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it has been years since I really cared one way or another. I’m an apatheist.’ Apatheism is not caring about one’s religion, and even less about other peoples. Rauch claims that even church goers often rank high on the apatheism scale. They go to church for a variety of reasons, but they just don’t care very much anymore. Their longing for God has gotten cut off, and they don’t even notice.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Author: Scott Hoezee
There are lots of passages like this in the Bible even as we sing such sentiments in any number of songs and hymns. I am referring to texts that seem to have an utter confidence that God always comes through in the clutch. In this part of 2 Timothy 4 it’s the verse where Paul confidently says God will rescue him from every evil attack. That’s right up there with Psalm 103 and those lines about how God will always deliver us from the pit and heal all our diseases. Or the end of the short hallel Psalm 113 where it sounds like God will always settle childless mothers into homes full of children and set paupers at the tables of rich princes. Or the words of Jesus about prayer where he makes it sound like every time we ask, seek, and knock we will receive, find, and have the door opened for us just as we hope.
These things are all in the Bible and so you just have to believe they are true and yet . . . there is that whole school of hard knocks realism thing that makes you always want to say, “Yes, but . . .” Fact is, lots of childless couples never get the baby they long for. Most poor people stay that way and don’t eat off bone china with the elite. Lots of our diseases take our lives and—to riff on C.S. Lewis—many of us have pounded on God’s door until our knuckles were raw and bleeding and it most certainly was not opened unto us. Indeed, (Lewis again) all we seem to hear is the sound of the door being bolted and double-bolted on the other side.
All preachers know how dodgy it is to present such texts to a congregation that inevitably consists of people still grieving the unhealed cancer that took a spouse or the unanswered prayers for a child’s safety while serving in Iraq. I recall both Lewis B. Smedes and the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor talking about “the problem with miracles;” viz., the problem is that not everybody gets one. As a teacher of preaching, I again and again have to counsel with students whose sermons ended with a wonderful story of the three-year-old whose leukemia was miraculously healed. “You can tell that story,” I always say to the student, “but do so in a way that shows you know that three rows from the back of the sanctuary there is a couple who prayed just as hard for their little one’s cancer but who had to bury the tyke in the local cemetery even so.”
But here’s the thing with these passages, and it’s a bit easier to see in 2 Timothy 4 than in some places: Paul says God will rescue him from every evil attack but this is said in the context of his already having stated he was being poured out like a drink offering. It is said in the context of his confidence that God would bring him into the kingdom soon, and you can be pretty sure that Paul knew that would happen via his own death. Paul actually expected the day to come soon—and historically we know it did—when one of those evil attacks would be the last one he’d have to endure because he’d be dead when it was over.
Actually and in the wider witness of Scripture, all those seemingly blank-check-promise passages are set in the context of a world where the evil often prosper, where the poor suffer endlessly, and where good people often finish last. The Bible—and Jesus himself—is eminently realistic about all that. Only the very worst of the health-and-wealth crowd manipulate Scripture to promise that it will always turn out sunny for believers (and if things go sour, well then, look into the mirror to see who is the one with the weak faith).
OK, but then how DO we take Paul’s confident words here and all those other texts? If they are not literally true for the forces we face on earth, why write—and now read—such verses at all?
Because the eyes of faith always see the larger picture and the deepest horizon of God’s reality and kingdom. In the longest possible run God would deliver Paul from every evil attack because even the one that ended up being the final such assault got turned, by the alchemy of God’s grace, into the doorway to life eternal in Christ Jesus. God will heal every disease because even the sickness that finally makes us draw our final earthly breath merely ushers us into that place where every tear is dried from every eye and where sickness and sorrow shall be no more.
Cynics and critics would argue that this is too neat by half. Some might point out that what all this means is merely that Christians really cannot be confident of anything and that prayer remains a crap shoot whose outcomes we can but pretend to be hopeful. But all of that would be true only if we had faith merely to turn God into the cosmic ATM who meets our every whim and wish on this earth. If we serve and glorify God because of his larger plans and the cosmic goals he has already as good as achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then confidence and hope remain viable and true.
For now and in our grief and disorientation when terrible things happen, it’s fine to shake our fists in God’s direction and have our share of Psalm 88 days of lament. God can take it. But it’s also true that God is there to hear all that precisely because in Christ he’s been there personally and nothing can separate us from his love—not even our anger at God for not helping or healing us every time as we had hoped and prayed.
Paul is able to end this section in doxology, giving God alone the glory forever and ever because God is the one who deserves it even when the bottom is dropping out on us. There are no easy answers, and foolish is the preacher who pretends she has it all cased. But taken in context, even Paul’s most confident statements here and elsewhere serve mostly as arrows pointing right at the crucified Son of God and his amazingly creative way to turn even death into a defeated enemy for him and for all who follow him. These are not easy truths but they are ultimately glorious ones and the day will come in God’s heavenly kingdom when we will see all of that with startling clarity.
Commenting on the raising of Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5:
“[The high point of the incident was not when Jesus raised the girl] but earlier when Jesus told Jairus, ‘Do not fear; only believe.’ If Jairus was able to do that, then he would have survived whatever happened next, even if Jesus walked into his daughter’s room, closed her eyes with his fingertips, and pulled the sheet over her head. Her father’s belief would have become the miracle at that point, his willingness to believe that she was still in God’s good hands even though she slipped out of his . . . I do not expect any of us will stop praying for miracles. I hope not because the world needs all the miracles it can get. Every time you hear about one, remember that you are getting a preview of the kingdom. There is simply no formula for success, which is a real relief for those of us who cannot seem to ring the bell. Maybe we cannot do it because it is not our job. ‘Do not fear; only believe.’ That is our job. The rest is up to God.”
— Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Problem with Miracles” in Bread of Angels (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997, p. 140).