May 30, 2016
Author: Scott HoezeeThe incident in Nain recorded in Luke 7:11-17 is like one of many gospel snapshots we find in the four gospels. At the end of the fourth gospel, the Evangelist John flatly stated that Jesus did far more than anyone had ever written down. It seems that sometimes the evangelists threw in this or that incident for good measure, leaving aside who knows how many others but including this and that event just because they were inspired to preserve it. This incident in Nain is like that. Jesus’ presence in this nondescript village just appears out of nowhere as do the main characters in the story. They appear out of nowhere and promptly disappear into the mists of history as soon as the story is finished, too. In other words, there is something wonderfully mundane, everyday, quotidian about this story. The anonymous widow at the center of the tale is not a celebrity or a member of the royal family or anyone else of note. (It’s striking how few of the people whom Jesus healed in his ministry are given names in the gospel narratives—it’s a mighty thin percentage, actually.) Indeed, she is both a widow and a person without a male heir (at least there is no living male heir as the story opens). That means that she could hardly get more marginalized in the Ancient Near East. The fact that God’s revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures makes everywhere clear that he has a soft spot in the divine heart for widows—and despite the many laws and statutes designed to give widows extra consideration—the fact is this was an oft-exploited group. They were invisible to most observers. But not to Jesus. His eyes always picked out those whom others overlooked: tax collectors in treetops, a sick woman touching the hem of his garment in a crowded marketplace, blind men being shushed at a city gate. So also here: Jesus sees this hapless woman and perceives in her situation something far more dire than run-of-the-mill grief. The death of her only son cinched her status as a social cipher. Like Naomi in the Book of Ruth, this woman of Nain had no man to protect her, provide for her, or to care for her in her own old age. Yes, that sounds perfectly chauvinistic and patriarchal in ways that make people’s skin crawl today, but that was the world in which this woman lived. As the Jews say to Oskar Schindler at the end of the film Schindler’s List, there is a saying in the Talmud: “He who saves one life, saves the world entire.” So also here. When Jesus restored her son to her, he was restoring her world entire. When in verse 15 we are told that Jesus “gave him back to his mother,” he was returning to her far more than this young man. He was returning to her no less than her very life. But that’s what the kingdom of God always does: it restores us completely. And so very often—as in Luke 7—the places where the kingdom bursts forth are precisely in the everyday circumstances of ordinary folks like you and me. Because we all know that when you get right down to it, what ails us in this sorry old world is not this or that one thing—yea verily, not even death itself. What finally ails us is that nothing is in plumb, everything is out of sync. Relationships fracture and splinter along multiple lines simultaneously. In so much of life it’s never a matter of fixing just that one thing and then all would be well. We need the whole package reconnoitered. And that’s what Jesus does by raising this son—he (temporarily) rescued this young man from the clutches of death but in so doing Jesus did so much more. A sermon on this text, therefore, could be a good opportunity to remind ourselves that the restoration project that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection make possible is grand and glorious in its scope. The Creator God who in the beginning fashioned every single thing that exists will not fail to be equally comprehensive in the re-creation of all things. Indeed, that return to the full flourishing of the entire cosmos is what we mean when we speak so lyrically of the kingdom of God. This lectionary passage comes in the Year C cycle in the Sundays after Pentecost, a stretch that broadly fits the liturgical designation “Ordinary Time.” So how good to be reminded through this mundane, ordinary incident that God continues to come to us and to restore us in all the ordinary times of our lives. Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address: His heart went out to the widow and so Jesus said what we all want to say when our hearts go out to someone in grief: “Don’t cry.” I love how utterly human (and divine!) Jesus is here. He’s affected by grief same as we all are. “Don’t cry.” That’s what we all want to say in those situations. Of course, when your seven-year-old daughter is crying because she misses Mommy while she’s away on a business trip for two days, then with justification and true comfort you can say, “Aw, honey, don’t cry. Mommy will be back before you know it.” But the situation is rather different in case Mommy is not away but is in fact dead at a young age from breast cancer. Then when your daughter cries, you let her cry because it’s fitting that she be sad and express a grief that is tearing her little heart out. Even then, though, you want to say “Don’t cry.” You want to say that because deep down in your soul what you most dearly want to do for people in grief is exactly to take away the source of the crying, to undo whatever happened to bring the tears in the first place. And we all feel that way because at the end of the cosmic day we have this sense—inexplicable in one way given the tragic world in which we find ourselves—that this is not the way things should be. Barack Obama has frequently been criticized as being too cool and aloof for his own good. “President Spock” some have called him in reference to the emotionless Vulcan from Star Trek. Yet unlike any sitting President in memory, the nation has watched Obama cry more than once when terrible shootings have taken the lives of children. But then, we all weep for such things. Or we should. And mostly we do. We weep with the President and with so many others because so much in this world is not the way it’s supposed to be. But then, who knew that fact better than Jesus, the Son of God who created this world for shalom and flourishing in the first place? In the Year C Lectionary this incident in Luke 7 is paired with the story in 1 Kings 17 of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, the end part of which also involves the raising back to life of a dead son (and an only son at that). The parallels between these stories cannot be missed. The wonder performed by Elijah indicated the presence of God among his people in Israel, even at a time when so much else in Israel was in spiritual tatters. The ability to perform miracles was a key calling card for the prophetic mission of these pivotal figures from Israel’s history. Now in Luke 7 Jesus’ ability to perform many wonders is a sign not just of the divine presence in Palestine but of the very nearness of the coming kingdom of God. We cannot preach on Luke 7 without being aware of the very next incident involving the disciples of John the Baptist. When John sends word to Jesus, questioning whether Jesus really is the Promised One or not, Jesus points to his ministry—including to the raising of the dead—as proof that no one else and no one better was to be anticipated. He was the One. But even as the religious leaders rejected John (as Jesus goes on to say in Luke 7:27ff), so they rejected Jesus, albeit for different reasons. John was reckoned to be demon-possessed on account of his wild attire and off-beat diet. Jesus was reckoned to be of no account precisely because he did not lead such an ascetic lifestyle. Apparently, when it came to the Pharisees, there was just no winning. But this is a reminder that the signs performed by Jesus in his public ministry were not designed to make all things well instantly for every last person in the area nor to make people strain forward for some over-realized eschatology by which death and disease would soon be eradicated 100%. As has been noted by many, of all the people in Palestine who died that same day as the widow of Nain’s son, only the one son was raised. And he died again one day, too. For every blind and deaf and lame person whom Jesus healed in the course of his ministry, there were probably 100 in the vicinity who received no such healing. The miracles were foretastes of kingdom fullness, not the fullness itself. The miracles (or signs as John called them) were arrows pointing a certain direction, they were not the destination that was being indicated. As C.S. Lewis once put it, only a fool confuses the highway sign for “Chicago” with the city itself. This may be an important lesson for the Church today, particularly in the face of any and all preachers who make grand claims as to the outcome of living the Christian life. Yes, the Church does rich ministry in this world today. And as we do our work in Jesus’ name, we should expect that as a result of the Church’s praying, some sick people will be healed, some fractured marriages will be reconciled, some prodigal sons and daughters will return to the fold, some Christian businesspeople will succeed wildly and earn gobs of money. And when these things happen and when the Church subsequently praises God for answered prayers and for golden opportunities and for the divine providence that makes it all possible, the Church is not wrong to attribute such gifts and such instances of goodness to God. Of course, in a world where we still attend the funerals for people we prayed for; in a world where some parents die without ever seeing their wayward children return to the Church; in a world where some perfectly conscientious Christian businesspeople lose their shirts—in a world where not every prayer is answered, we cannot prove to the skeptic that better outcomes are anything other than dumb luck or sheer chance. But part of the Church’s confession is that we do believe in providence, and if we cannot explain why our every prayer is not answered the way we might wish, still we confess that many prayers are answered in ways for which we properly give thanks. But if it’s wrong to chalk up everything to mere happenstance and luck, it’s equally wrong to say that being a Christian means never having a bad day. Those well-meaning (but finally misguided) preachers who say that being a Christian promises “your best life now” and other tangible signs of prosperity and happiness forget that even when Jesus was on earth—as well as in the earliest days of the Church as recorded in Acts—not every good person, disciple, apostle, or Christian followers of the Christ had every prayer answered, every misfortune reversed, and every business venture succeed. Luke 7 reminds us that we can be grateful to follow a Savior with the power to raise the dead. Seeing this gives us profound hope. Jesus really is who he said he was and since this same Jesus promised us a kingdom of shalom, we can take him at his word. Mostly, though, we find ourselves in the situation of John the Baptist and his disciples: we have to believe the testimony of what the disciples witnessed. “Go back and report to John [who was rotting in prison, remember] what you have seen and heard.” We have the witness of powerful, kingdom signs. Sometimes some of that power touches our lives. Every day the hope and joy of that kingdom is available to us. But many times we cling fiercely to the promises even when our dead children are not raised back up, even when (as Habakkuk sang) the fig trees of our lives do not bloom and there is no fruit on the vine and no cattle in the stalls. Even then. . . . even then, we believe the gospel. We’ve been told what the disciples saw and heard. We believe in the Savior at the story’s center. And it’s enough. Textual Points: Commentators note the fact that the young man immediately began to speak upon being raised back to life. This, they say, is a clear indication that he was not merely convulsing or experiencing some weird post-mortem tremor. No, he was fully alive and thus able to engage in that one activity that is so key to the building of uniquely human community: he speaks. Language is that vital feature to human life that connects us one to another in an intimate way. So this young man’s ability to talk is not only a sign that he really is alive again after being genuinely dead but also a sign (as noted elsewhere in this set of sermon starters) that Jesus has done far more than repair one broken-down human body: he has restored an entire community and all the wonderful, life-giving relationships involved therein. Illustration Ideas: As Lewis Smedes wrote some years ago, it is of course natural to want healing for ourselves or certainly for someone we love. It's natural to pray for such things, too. But Smedes also sees a spiritual danger in reducing the Christian life to mostly an exercise in seeking greater ease, comfort, and healing. Perhaps such a focus blinds us to the unalleviated suffering that is all around us, particularly among the very same poor and disenfranchised people who occupied such a central place in Jesus' own ministry. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the same TV preachers who pray the most over some suburbanite's bursitis are also the last folks from whom you will ever hear much talk about doing something to minister to the poor, the homeless, and all those others in society who live without protection, without adequate health care, without enough food to eat. But, Smedes asks with no small degree of poignance, how can we trumpet Jesus' power and presence for ourselves if we pay more attention to the alleviation of our own ailments than to the many others who suffer every day? How can we claim to have concentrated doses of Jesus' power if we do not first have Jesus' heart for this world's suffering masses? Because remember: Jesus was no Oral Roberts-type who stood up in front of a camera proclaiming from a safe distance that he just knew that somewhere out there in the world at that very moment someone in Capernaum had just been delivered from arthritis and that someone in Bethlehem had just been released from a demon. That's not how Jesus operated. No, he got so close to the people who lived on the margins of society as to be defiled by them, according to the religious conventions of his day. He got touched by menstruating women, he touched dead bodies, he touched "unholy" lepers. These were not healings of the already well-off performed from some safe distance. Instead, these were quiet manifestations of God's glory in precisely the last places on earth where the religious folk of that time thought religious folk belonged! If miracles were "signs" or arrows pointing us to the deeper realities of God's kingdom, then surely one of the directions in which we get pointed in the gospels is toward our being with the very people whom others mostly avoid. We go to all kinds of people in order to show them that God loves them whether we can solve their every ill or not.
1 Kings 17:8-24
Author: Doug BrattWe live a world that death and violence seem to have in their iron-like stranglehold. All too often they appear to have both the dominant and final word in our world. In the midst of this culture of violence and death, however, God is in the business of constantly giving life. Death stubbornly looms over this Sunday’s appointed text. In fact, it looms even before our text unfolds. After all, as we read I Kings’ grim description of Israel’s first kings, we read about deepening depravity It makes me think of our visit to Mount St. Helen’s about a year after it erupted and sent deadly rivers of mud and lava crashing down its slopes. The sight was unforgettable: miles and miles of trees stripped and knocked down like so many dominoes. It basically smothered every living thing under a deep blanket of mud. Our text’s Israel seems smothered in a kind of moral deadly mud. Her kings seem progressively sinful. Yet just when we think it can’t get any worse, 1 Kings 16 introduces us to King Ahab. He only “did [even] more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any before him” and “did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.” God, however, won’t let such depravity go unchecked. So God warns Ahab that no moisture will fall on Israel “in the next few years except at” God’s “word.” To use this starter’s earlier imagery, God promises that a kind of volcano of death will erupt on Israel in the form of a drought. This deadly word is a direct challenge to Baal, Canaan’s god of vegetation and rain. He was “dead” during the dry season. However, Baal always came to life during Palestine’s rainy season. His misguided followers believed that Baal sent the rains, dew, thunder and lightning. So when it doesn’t rain when it should, God hopes that people will see that Baal is only a dead myth. Clearly, however, this deadly confrontation with Baal causes hardship. If, after all, there is no rain, there is no food. Even God’s prophet Elijah doesn’t escape this misery. In order to survive, he must run away and hide. When we visited Mt. St. Helens after the deadly volcano, we were startled to find a lovely pink flower blooming springing up through the thick layer of mud. It was like a tiny island of life in a vast ocean of death. In the midst of Israel’s drought’s “mud,” 1 Kings 17 points to three lovely pink flowers that spring up. In fact, it’s almost as if in the midst of our world’s ash and mud, God is constantly growing little pink-red flowers. First God sends Elijah to the “Kerith Ravine.” There he drinks from the bubbling “brook” that God still sends splashing through the ravine. Twice a day in the ravine the prophet even eats the bread and meat that God sends ravens to feed him. Eventually, however, this source of “good” food and drink dries up for Elijah. Yet God still won’t let him starve. God sends him to a new place to find good things. But we can only imagine the shock that jolts the prophet when he learns just where another kind of pink flower will bloom. After all, the Lord sends Elijah to “Zarephath of Sidon,” Baal’s “home turf.” It’s also what Jezebel, King Arab’s almost unspeakably wicked wife, calls home. So if Elijah is to live, if another pink flower is to grow in the mud, it will be in the deep valley of the shadow of both spiritual and physical death. Pagan Zarephath is, after all, also drought-stricken, leaving it just as thirty as Gilead is. Even on his “home turf,” Baal, the local hero of vegetation, is unable to feed anyone. However, the poor and other vulnerable members of society most acutely feel Baal’s failure’s withering affects. Even more so then than now people like widows, orphans and strangers had no human resources to turn to when they or society in general were in trouble. That’s a reason God always took special care of people on Israel’s margins. Here, however, this special care has a special twist. For God has commanded one of those vulnerable people, a widow, to take special care of his hungry and thirsty prophet. She’s a rather unlikely resource of support. After all, the widow’s just trying to scrape together a few sticks so that she can prepare a final meal for her son and her before they starve to death. The prophet asks her to stretch her thin resources. This clearly catches the widow between the demands of ancient hospitality and the harsh reality of famine. She has a little water, but virtually no food. How, then, we wonder, will she ever be able to feed one more mouth? Elijah, however, isn’t afraid. By God’s gracious Spirit he bids the widow to join him in his confidence in his life-giving God. The prophet assures her that her meager supplies won’t run out until the Lord again sends rain. Remarkably, the widow shows that she grasps that confidence by doing just as the prophet had told her. She feeds Elijah and her family from what turns out to be a bottomless supply of flour and oil. So the living God graciously grants her family, her guest and her life in the midst of what we can only imagine as pervasive death. However, to use this sermon starter’s earlier analogy, it’s as if the mud finally overwhelms the widow and her son. The boy becomes increasingly sick until he finally dies. To his mother, it’s as if God saved him from starvation just to let him die of sickness. So the widow blames Elijah. “What do you have against me?” she rails at the prophet. “Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” Here, for the first time the widow raises the issue of her sin. It seems as if she deduces that the man of God’s presence has drawn God’s attention to her. The widow seems to infer God has finally sat up and noticed the extent of her sin. And now that God has figured out how bad she really is, the widow infers, God has punished her by killing her son. Now while his followers claimed that Baal could send rain, they never claimed he could raise the dead. In fact, some scholars suggest the god Death, Mot, actually swallows Baal up. So the religion of her area can’t offer Zarephath's widow hope. In the midst of such immediate death, however, the living God again offers hope and life. Elijah turns out to be God’s instrument of life again. He scoops up the dead boy in his arms and carries him upstairs to a room. And in response to the prophet’s prayer, the Lord graciously brings the boy back to life. So God, through Elijah, gives the widow one of the greatest presents she can receive. “Your son is alive,” he tells what we can only imagine as an immeasurably grateful mother. As a result, the widow recognizes that Elijah is indeed a man of divine power. What’s more, she now realizes that the prophet genuinely speaks the word of the Lord that controls even drought and rainfall. Richard Nelson suggests our text is essentially a preliminary round to the main bout between God and Baal. Its issues of who sends rain, gives food and raises the dead points ahead to Mount Carmel’s great question: Who is God? Yahweh or Baal? This is a story about a God who gives life but also sometimes mysteriously allows death. Ultimately, however, this story shows that God’s power is on the side of life. God, after all, equips the widow to miraculously give Elijah life-giving food. And in the secrecy of an upstairs room, he also raises the dead to life. In a world where AIDS threatens to obliterate a continent’s entire generation and throttle its succeeding generations, this is gospel indeed. In a world where starvation is a fundamental fact of life, this is gospel indeed. In a world where cancer and other potentially fatal diseases seem to lurk all around us, this is gospel indeed. In that context of great death, the news that Yahweh is God and on the side of life is pure gospel. It gives God’s people the courage to face the Ahab’s and Baals of our own time and to battle them in potentially mortal combat. After all, we have Jesus Christ, who becomes the focus of God’s desire for life. Yet he seems no more likely a candidate to deliver life than a destitute widow or hungry prophet. Jesus Christ seems to simply be just an itinerant evangelist who ends up being crucified like a common criminal. Yet in his ministry Jesus Christ offered life in the midst of death by providing food, healing the sick and raising the dead. At the cross, however, Jesus Christ also submitted himself to the power of death that was ultimately planned by his heavenly Father. Yet his last word is one of life. For at Christ’s resurrection God showed that he wants to give life to all God’s beloved children. Illustration Idea This Sunday’s appointed text is full of recognition that God is the giver of all good gifts. By contrast, in his compelling book, The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nahisi Coates says his mercurial father "was some sort of blessing, but he made it hard to feel that way. He was a practicing fascist, mandating books and banning religion. Once he caught [Coates' brother Big Bill] praying at the kitchen table and ordered him to stop -- 'You want to pray, pray to me. I put food on this table'."
Author: Stan MastEaster and Eastertide have now passed this calendar year and yet in the Sundays after Pentecost the Lectionary provides us with some wonderful poetry to help us continue living into and celebrating Easter. With its imagery of death and resurrection, Psalm 30 is a perfect post-Easter Psalm. Its purpose is to keep the memory of our deliverance from death alive by voicing the deliverance again and adding our profound thanksgiving for it. It is, as one scholar put it, a prayer that is wholly praise, but the praise comes out of answered prayer. From beginning to end, Psalm 30 is a many splendored thing, filled with some of the best lines in the Bible. The fact that it has three introductory notes in the superscription suggests that it can be used in a wide variety of settings. It is simply “a Psalm, a song.” It was intended “for the dedication of the house (a better translation than temple).” And it is “of David.” Some scholars insist that we can’t take the “of David” literally, but others see a close connection between this Psalm and David’s experience in I Chronicles 21:1-22:6. In a burst of regal hubris, David ordered a census of his army. “Let’s see just how great I am.” God was very displeased with David. After all, the Lord, not the army, was the true source of David’s prosperity and security. So God visited his wrath upon Israel for David’s sin. The results were deadly, because the angel of the Lord moved through Israel as he had once moved through Egypt. There was death everywhere. David repented and God relented and there was life again. That’s when David began to prepare for the construction of the temple, even though he knew that his son, Solomon, would be the actual builder. Perhaps those experiences of sin and judgment, of death and new beginnings, and of preparation for the building of the temple are behind the superscription, “For the dedication of the house. Of David.” It is certain that Psalm 30 came to be applied to Israel’s exile. Was it sung at the dedication of the second Temple, after a presumably dead Israel was restored to life and favor with God? Perhaps. We know for sure that in Jewish liturgical practice, it was chanted at the Hanukkah feast that celebrates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabeus after the desecration of that temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. Indeed, the word “dedication” in the superscription is the Hebrew word hanukkah. Not only does Psalm 30 resonate with key stories in Judaism, but it also anticipates the central story of the Christian faith. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to read this Psalm as a description of Jesus experience on Good Friday and Easter. We can’t help but notice all these references to “death/the pit/the grave” and to being “lifted/brought up/spared.” That reference to the temple in the superscription might remind a creative preacher of Jesus’ words in John 2:19. After he cleansed the temple, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The Jewish leaders, of course, didn’t understand this saying. Indeed, they used it later as an accusation at his trial before the Sanhedrin. His disciples understood that “the temple he had spoken of was his body” only after “he was raised from the dead.” It is probably far too speculative to imagine Jesus singing this song of resurrection as he exited the grave. But it surely would have been suitable for that resurrection/rededication of the “temple of God,” where we now meet God in person. Further, who can miss the applicability of this Psalm to our individual lives? The description of the trouble in the text seems to be almost intentionally general. We’re not told what the depths were, who the enemies were, what illness was healed, etc. It’s almost as though Psalm 30 was written in generic language so that any and all of God’s people could relate to the experience of having their lives radically changed by God. That is the theme of the Psalm—change effected by the Sovereign Yahweh. That theme is repeated again and again through a pattern of alternation and reversal that is woven through the entire Psalm: “I called… you healed; “anger… favor,” “weeping…rejoicing,” “wailing… dancing,” divine displeasure… divine pleasure (verse 5), divine pleasure… divine displeasure (verse 7), silence of the grave (verse 9)… “my heart will not be silent (verse 12).” With these lovely literary turns of phrase, the Psalmist captures the changing shape of our lives. Through all the changes of life, God is the sovereign Lord who alone can save. Note how God is the mover in all of those radical turns in life. Again and again our God gives us a new lease on life through a gracious experience of resurrection. (See today’s readings from the Gospels and the Epistles for biblical examples—Peter in John 21 and Paul in Acts 9.) Not only does the Psalmist burst forth in praise and commit himself to continue that praise all the days of his life, but he also calls on all the saints to join him in this song of thanksgiving. Indeed, it is possible to read the “I’s” of the Psalm as an expression of corporate identity. The “I” is Israel, the church, all the people of God. For the miracle of resurrection, all of God’s people must join in praise. This is something we can’t do alone. What God has done in the resurrection of Jesus and in our own resurrection is too big, too important to celebrate alone. So “sing to the Lord, you saints of his….” As I said above, this Psalm contains some of the best lines in the Scripture. A careful exploration of them will help us appreciate the miracle of resurrection/salvation, so that we may give more profound thanks. Take verse 5, for example, which talks about God’s anger. “For his anger lasts only for a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Many Christians today don’t want to hear anything about God’s anger, but the Psalmist echoes the rest of Scripture in unabashedly saying that our sin makes God angry. That is not the only or the final reality, but it is a reality. Thankfully, God’s anger lasts only a moment, but that’s not how life feels all the time. When we know that we have sinned and God is angry, it can seem as though the sun will never shine again. But what we feel is not reality, not the greatest reality. In fact, weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. Again, verses 6-7 can help us explore the sin that can sink us into the depths of despair, but from which God can raise us to the heights of praise. The Psalmist’s sin was the quintessential sin of our age—pride, hubris, expressed as complete self-reliance. “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’” In David’s case, it was the size of his army that made him feel completely secure, rather than the size and love of his God. For us, it might be the size of our portfolio, the security of our job, the strength of our connections, or the number of our achievements. Anticipating the bloviating of our politicians, David took credit for the prosperity of his life and nation. But God showed him that it is God who raises up and God who brings low. That’s the point of verse 7; the sovereignty of God controls the ups and downs of life. Now, we can make bad use of that truth, but it is a truth that must be preached in our self-sufficient age. Pride goes before the fall. And only God can raise up the fallen, even from the grave. Verses 8-10 might also be fruitful ground to cultivate sermonically. Here we have a humble sinner crying to the Lord for mercy. There’s a point to preach. We don’t deserve resurrection; when it comes, it is sheer mercy. But more interesting is the way the Psalmist reasons with God as he pleads for mercy. Almost like Abraham bargaining for Sodom or Moses pleading for Israel after the Golden Calf, David asks God what good it will do God to destroy him. “After all, if I’m dead, who will praise you? Will the dust?” Of course, behind this kind of reasoning is a less than New Testament understanding of life after death. Revelation had not progressed that far yet. Apparently David believed that when he died, that was it. It remained for Jesus to declare, “I am the resurrection and life. Whoever believes in me shall live, even though he dies. And who lives and believes in me shall never die.” At this moment in the history of redemption and revelation, David’s best argument for mercy was that his continued existence would mean continued thanksgiving to God. His death silence his praising lips. Strange as that reasoning may be, it does point us ahead to the end of the Psalm in verses 11-12 where the resurrected one commits himself to give thanks forever. God “has turned my wailing into dancing, [and] removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.” Having received his life back, David will spend the rest of his life giving thanks. There’s a simple, but profound truth in David’s commitment. Thanksgiving is the necessary response to God’s deliverance. To fail to give thanks after the miracle of resurrection is to make life unbalanced and distorted and diminished. After Jesus healed those ten lepers, only one returned to give thanks. With astonishment and sadness, Jesus asked, “Where are the others?” Indeed. Reality has been forever changed by the Resurrection of Jesus and our attendant mini-resurrections. How can we not respond with a lifetime of thanks? Illustration Idea Just when we thought Rocky Balboa had shuffled off this mortal coil, he’s back in a new movie called “Creed.” In my less than sanctified state, I loved those bloody tributes to the underdog who rose up from apparent defeat to vanquish the invincible foe. It was thrilling to see Rocky dancing in victory on the stairway. There is something to admire in those who will not quit. But those movies, and hundreds like them, are an expression of a kind of American can-do attitude that might make genuine salvation almost impossible to grasp. When we see our success, security, prosperity, and salvation as the result of our own efforts, we are danger of a great fall. Indeed, sometimes it takes a fall to make us see the truth. “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ O Lord, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.” It’s not about us; it’s about the God who raises up the fallen, and replaces weeping with rejoicing, sackcloth with clothes of joy.
Author: Scott HoezeeIt’s not easy to preach on a text that in some ways resembles a person’s resume. Most of the verses in this Year C Lectionary reading are taken up with a brief autobiographical sketch of what happened to Paul and where he traveled in the period after Jesus confronted him on the Damascus Road. Let’s be honest enough to admit that there is not a lot of inspiring material in all that. What’s more, we might be a bit uncomfortable with some of Paul’s recollections in that they seem oddly self-important, almost self-congratulatory. About the only passage that rivals this is material from the very end of 2 Corinthians where Paul is so desperate to vindicate himself and his credentials in the face of the “super apostle” detractors who were ruining his reputation in Corinth that Paul gets downright boastful about what all he has experienced and suffered for the Gospel cause. As noted in the previous sermon starter from the first dozen verses of Galatians 1, Paul has already fairly lunged at the Galatian Christians for their inexplicable slide into rank heresy by accepting the false teaching that to be TRULY saved, Jesus’ sacrifice alone was not quite good enough. Something like obedience and various ceremonial practices had to be tacked onto Christ’s cross if any given believer was going to cross the salvation Finish Line. In upcoming verses and chapters Paul is going to have a lot more to say about what’s wrong with that line of thought. But first Paul makes a slight detour so as to bolster the legitimacy of what he had preached by establishing clear as day from WHERE Paul had gotten his ideas about this whole salvation by grace alone scheme he had preached in Galatia. Basically his line of argument goes like this: First, he used to believe something close to the opposite of salvation by grace. He was a “work your own way to heaven” Pharisee type who just knew from the top of his head to the soles of his feet that God grades on the curve and salvation is all about racking up merit points with the Almighty. Second, to crack through his thick theological skull on such matters, no less than Jesus himself revealed the truth to Saul (soon to be Paul) and there was absolutely no doubting Who it was doing the revealing of all this to him. Third, when you have it straight from the horse’s mouth, there is no need to check it out with anybody else or get anybody else’s permission to start preaching this Gospel. Thus, Paul felt no need whatsoever to go get an embossed “Gospel Preaching License” from even the high and mighty Apostles themselves. He just went straight to work in preaching the truth God himself had delivered to him. Finally, after three years (!!) he got around to meeting up with Peter and one other apostle named James but you get the feeling it was more a courtesy than an attempt to seek their stamp of approval. (Indeed, at this point Paul leaves out the fact that it was Paul who ended up having to straighten out PETER on certain subjects!!) Paul then went on to preach among some churches who had prior to that time known only his fearsome former reputation as a Jesus hater. But once they realized Jesus himself had turned Paul around, there was doxology all around on account of Paul’s testimony. Again, it feels odd to see Paul so overtly turning the spotlight onto himself. Something about this level of, well, almost bragging feels off-putting, out of place. But Paul is not doing this for his own sake. He’s doing it to save the Galatians themselves from the false gospel—which Paul has already made indelibly clear is NO GOSPEL at all!—that was having an influence in that church. It was Paul’s way of saying NOT “Look at me” but instead “You know what? FORGET about me and focus on the One who gave me the Gospel I preached to you in the first place!” If there was no other way to shore up the source of Paul’s message than tell his own story, so be it. But it is the God and the Christ of God at the real center of that story that matter. The conversion of Saul of Tarsus into Paul the Apostle most assuredly counts as one of the Bible’s greatest stories. Whether or not it is history’s most amazing conversion story could be debated but probably not for long. Let’s just say that to have a BETTER conversion story, you have to feature not just the turning around of a formerly really hostile person but that person also needs to go on and become responsible for bringing the Gospel to every non-Jewish person in the world and for composing 48% of the New Testament. Well . . . if you set the bar that high, probably no subsequent conversion story will ever quite clear it! Still, what exactly is there to preach on here? Probably there are multiple possibilities but in an age when so many people question the authority of any given source of information—in a postmodern time when validating any truth through experience is often thought to be more important than whatever that truth may be or where it came from in the first place—perhaps it is a good thing to be reminded of where we Christians believe the Gospel of Christ Jesus came from. It came from God. And even as Paul did not feel the need to check this out with the Apostles or any other human authority figure, so those who are convicted by the Holy Spirit of Jesus that Scripture is God-breathed should not feel like the Bible’s authority is threatened today or needs validation of various kinds or has to pass muster of the academy or the guild or higher critics or the Jesus Seminar or Richard Dawkins. We can no more prove this than Paul could. Like Paul we can only bear witness, share our testimony, tell our story. Any given person will believe that testimony or not. It was finally up to the Galatians too. But, of course, by sketching out his own story, Paul is not so subtly challenging the false teachers in Galatia to tell their stories. “Where did you get your ideas?” Paul is implicitly asking them. “Let’s see if you can tell a story as good as mine about what no less than the Christ of God himself told me.” Christians have long believed that the Bible is nothing less than an astonishing gift of a gracious God who so very much wants to be known by us. The Bible has gotten plenty knocked around in history and certainly in recent times too when even some in the church have dissected it and chopped it up and thrown out the inconvenient parts. We fancy that we ourselves are better arbiters of what to accept or not accept than the God who the Church has long believed is the actual Author of the book. Paul knew that such attitudes would never do. If the Source of our preaching is not firmly established as being beyond doubt, then one message is as good as the next and even the false teachers in Galatia had as fine a shot at hitting the Truth mark as Paul had. But if Paul is right, if the Church has been right, if the Holy Spirit has been blowing through those pages of Scripture all along, then we have an unspeakable source not just of truth but of comfort, of joy, of profound hope in a world where the news headlines on any given day seem calculated to knock the wind of all hope clean out of us. Yes, at first glance these autobiographical musings by Paul don’t seem to have a lot of homiletical heft to them. But at second glance . . . something in these very verses come pretty close to being the whole ball game! Illustration Idea “He wasn’t much to look at. ‘Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose.’ Years after his death, that’s the way the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes Paul, and Paul himself quotes somebody who had actually seen him: ‘His letters are strong but his bodily presence is weak’ (2 Cor. 10:10) . . . Nobody’s sure whether he ever got to Spain the way he’s planned or not, but either before he went or soon after he got back, he had his final run-in with the authorities, and the story is that they took him to a spot three miles out of Rome and right there on the road, where he’d spent most of his life including what was in a way the beginning of his life, they lopped off his head. At the end of its less than flattering description of his personal appearance, the Acts of Paul and Thecla says that ‘at times he looked like a man, and at times he had the face of an angel.’ If there is a God in heaven, as even in his blackest moments Paul never doubted there was, then bald-headed and bowlegged as he was, with those eyebrows that met and that over-sized nose, it was with angel eyes that he exchanged a last long glance with his executioners.” (From Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 128-133.)