June 12, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Be careful what you pray for—you might just get it! You can see a little of the dynamic of this bit of proverbial wisdom in the pivot from Matthew 9 to Matthew 10. At the end of Matthew 9, Jesus tells the disciples to pray that more workers would be sent out into the ripe harvest fields he saw all around him. If we assume that the disciples took their master’s urging seriously and did indeed pray for more workers, they soon discovered that God answered their prayers by sending out the disciples themselves! No sooner do we turn the corner into Matthew 10 and immediately the disciples are sent out into those harvest fields to do ministry in Jesus’ name. Their prayers were answered and the answer was them!
In many ways Matthew 10 is a remarkable chapter but also a strange one. The Common Lectionary has recognized the richness of Matthew 10 by dividing the bulk of its verses up among no fewer than three different Sundays in the Year A cycle. Here we get just the first 8 verses, most of which are devoted to a listing of the disciples and then to the broadest commands Jesus gives them for their new mission (viz., to go to the lost sheep of Israel only for the time being and to do a ministry of preaching, healing, and exorcism).
But stepping back a bit, we can wonder about something we don’t often ponder, which is why and how it can be the case that Jesus authorizes such a powerful ministry for disciples who were clearly—at least as of that moment—completely clueless as to the meaning and shape of Jesus’ wider mission. It’s like authorizing some high school students to go out and start building skyscrapers even though they really do not yet understand the basics of engineering and the mathematics that (literally) undergird technical marvels like the Empire State Building.
In the gospels, the disciples remain clueless about the fundamental things of Jesus. Indeed, if Luke’s account is to be believed, most of their misunderstandings as to the nature of Jesus’ kingdom persist all the way until Pentecost. Remember Acts 1 and the moments right before Jesus’ ascension into heaven when—even at that late date some forty days after the resurrection—the disciples ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” A question like that does not get asked by people who understand the kingdom.
And yet even so in Matthew 10 Jesus tells these people to go declare “The kingdom of heaven is near.” But can you preach that message and not understand the kingdom? And lest we think that all these instructions were meant to go into effect only after Pentecost, remember that Jesus’ restriction to stick with the Jews locates this ministry and this proclamation as taking place prior to the Great Commission (when Jesus will open up gospel ministry and proclamation to all people from all nations).
So in essence what Jesus does in Matthew 10 is to tell disciples who really do not grasp the full richness of Jesus’ kingdom to go proclaim that same kingdom’s nearness. And since in the ears of many Jewish persons a proclamation of the kingdom would sound like a political message—and since the disciples were perhaps not in a position to clarify the spiritual nature of Jesus’ kingdom in that they shared this perception at this time—it’s fair to wonder just what Jesus was doing sending out these disciples with the core of his message!
Perhaps here is a good chance to reflect on some of Thomas G. Long’s observations on the shape of Matthew’s gospel. First, we need to remember that although the disciples in Matthew obviously still do not have everything figured out, neither are they presented as being clueless and repeatedly in the dark the way they get presented in, say, Mark’s gospel. As an illustration of this, Long reminds us of the parallel incidents in Mark 8 and Matthew 16. The story is the same: the disciples and Jesus head out in the boat but the disciples forgot to bring lunch along. So when Jesus says “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees,” the disciples all get a little white around the gills and say, “Oh dear, he’s mad that we forgot to pack lunch!” But in Mark, even after Jesus tries to explain what he had really been getting at, the bottom line of the story is Jesus, with brow furrowed, plaintively looking at his bewildered disciples and asking, “Do you still not understand?” Apparently they did not. But not in Matthew. Matthew assures us that after Jesus explained what he had been getting at, “then they understood.”
The disciples “get” more in Matthew and so in this particular gospel, it may appear a bit less risky to send them out with the message of the kingdom on their tongues.
But Long also reminds us that in Matthew there is great urgency to getting the kingdom message across. Indeed, there is so much urgency that it’s worth the risk of sending out even less-than-fully-informed disciples to start beating the bushes and getting the message out there. As Long says, for Matthew the circle of light is small—there is in Matthew great fear that people will fall out of the light and into the darkness. And so even messages of judgment and stern exhortation are seen by Matthew as finally loving, not unloving. Judgment exists to help people, not hinder them; judgment is for the people, not against them.
So the urgency of the situation—and Jesus’ sorrowful sense of how lost people were without the guidance of God, their great shepherd—is what propels the disciples out into ministry even before they are as fully informed as they might otherwise have been.
Today in the church we often lack either this sense of how bad off people are or, therefore, the sense of urgency Matthew felt. Perhaps this is part of why Matthew 10 seems strange to us. Not only are we not familiar with activities like driving out demons and healing diseases right on the spot, we’re also not all that familiar with the fire-in-the-belly sense of mission Jesus experienced even among his own people (the “lost sheep of Israel”). To preach on Matthew 10 requires not just the usual cultural translation to bridge the gulf of history from then to now but also a little bit of wondering about our ecclesiastical situation today and what we might do—even in an age of tolerance when overt missions and proselytizing is frowned on by the culture and sometimes even many in the church—to recover something of Jesus’ sense that this is work that simply needs to be done.
“The kingdom of heaven is near.” What can we do also this day to invite others into that kingdom with all the urgent—but loving—intensity that invitation deserves?
Questions to Consider / Issues to Address
In a cartoon I once saw there were two somewhat rough-looking characters emerging from a church after a worship service. As they walk down the church steps, the one man is saying to the other, “Well, the news wasn’t all bad–at least I ain’t made no graven images lately!” Among other things, this little cartoon may remind us that in church and in our preaching, we can be rather casual in tossing around language that people mostly don’t encounter the rest of the week. If the gospel is true, however, then any apparent gap between what we talk about in church and what goes on the rest of the week must be only apparent and so not a real gap. That is to say, if there is simply no such thing as “graven images” in life, then talking about such an unreal thing in church ushers us into the realm of fantasy, of a fictional world that has no true connection to the actual world.
So also in Matthew 9 and 10: Jesus is going around announcing the kingdom of God and authorizing his disciples to do the same. He also casts out demons left and right, healed all manner of diseases (indeed, Matthew 9 tells us that Jesus healed ALL the diseases he encountered) and again tells the disciples to start doing the same. Yet this can sound so foreign to our world and even to us in the church.
All of these works are the result of the kingdom’s approach. But just what does even that mean? Usually we are far too casual about this idea of God’s kingdom. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” we solemnly say each time we intone the Lord’s Prayer, but when we finish our prayer and open our eyes, we do not see any such kingdom. It is difficult for us to conceive of a kingdom that is not also a definable place on the map–a realm with borders and with visible signs that this particular place is different from all other places.
Most of us know what such markers might be like. Cross the border into Canada and immediately lots of things look different: highway signs, street signs, traffic lights. Everything is in kilometers, some traffic lights have something called a “Delayed Green.” The lines painted on the roads may be a different color. In England the entire flow of traffic is reversed, which is why some of us very nearly got hit when crossing some London street because we instinctively looked the wrong way to see if any cars were coming.
A kingdom or country or nation or realm would rather be like that, we think. Kingdoms are defined by their different customs, signage, currency, and habits. So it is perhaps no surprise that when even Christians pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, they quietly assume that this is something that will happen only, or at least mostly, in the future. When God’s kingdom comes, we’ll all know it because living inside the borders of that kingdom will be just as obvious as being in a different country even today. But although we do believe in the reality of the New Creation that is yet to come, it is nevertheless wrong to relegate God’s kingdom to any other place, dimension, or time than this place, this time.
As Dallas Willard has written, the kingdom is real and it is real now. Because a kingdom is that realm where the effective will of the king determines what happens. In a sense, we all have our own little kingdoms in life–those places where what we want happens. If we say it, it goes. Maybe this is in our households, maybe it happens at work in the department of which you are the manager. But wherever a person can say, “Well, that’s the way I want it and so that’s the way it is going to be,” then that is in a real sense a kingdom, a place where your influence rules and makes stuff happen.
That’s why the kingdom of God is real and that’s why we can see it, right now today. The kingdom is present wherever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray. The kingdom is present wherever Jesus nurtures certain behaviors and lifestyles that we call the fruit of the Spirit. The kingdom is present wherever people pour water over the heads of babies or take bread and wine to their lips all simply because Jesus told us that this is the way we are to act in remembrance of him.
The kingdom is present wherever a believer somewhere refuses to go along with some scheme because she believes it is untruthful and that going along with it would make her less transparent to Jesus. Whenever and wherever a woman says no to abortion, whenever and wherever a college student refuses to participate in some binge-drinking party, whenever and wherever someone refuses to cut corners on his taxes, whenever and wherever a kindly old woman brings light into a neighbor’s darkness by speaking a word of peace, whenever and wherever a man sits down to tutor a homeless child, and whenever and wherever all such things are done because all these people believe there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus, then there–right there and right here and right now–the kingdom of God is present because the effective will of Jesus is calling the shots.
The message we have to proclaim and to embody and to exemplify is the same now as it has always been: the kingdom of God is at hand. Today as much as ever, people need to know that this kingdom is real and available. They need to see the joy and the possibilities of that kingdom in us. Because often people are too easily satisfied just to make do with what is quick and easy and cheap. People settle for sex or liquor or a rock band or the distractions provided by entertainment. They look to these things to save them, or at least to help them move forward in a grim world. But, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, we are far too easily satisfied. We’re like a child who turns down an invitation for a day at the beach and chooses instead to stay sitting in a slum alley making mud pies just because the child really can’t imagine how much better a day at the shore can be. “What could be better than making these slimy mud pies?” the child might think. Ah, if only he knew!
In Matthew 10:8 the NIV translates Jesus’ words as “Freely you have received, freely give.” Other translations like the NRSV say, “You received without payment, give without payment.” Both translations are dancing in the right neighborhood linguistically and theologically but both miss the real punch of the original Greek. In the Greek Jesus utters just 4 words here: “DOREAN ELABETE, DOREAN DOTE.” But the word DOREAN there is the accusative of the word DOREA, which means “gift” and when used in the accusative like this, it is emblematic of something that comes gratis, as a gift. It carries with it the idea of being totally undeserved (and hence unexpected) and can even trickle over into meaning something like “unreasonable” as when Jesus says in John 15:25 “They hated me without reason” (in the Greek, EMIMESAN ME DOREAN). In other words, this is a word that traffics in the area of divine grace, of that wild—almost irrational and incredibly lavish— and prodigal gift of God that always comes to us from out of a clear blue sky as the greatest gift ever given or received. That is what the disciples are supposed to pursue in their ministry: they are to embody and proclaim and proffer the same divine grace that they received from Jesus.
Dallas Willard writes that when he was a boy, rural electrification was just happening and power lines were being strung throughout the countryside. But suppose even after the lines were up and running you ran across a house where the weary family still used only candles and kerosene lanterns for light, used scrubboards, ice chests, and rug beaters. A better life was waiting for them right outside their door if only they would let themselves be hooked into the power lines. “My friends,” you could proclaim, “electricity is at hand!” But suppose they just didn’t trust it, thought it was too much of a hassle, and anyway didn’t believe the promises that things might be easier with this newfangled juice running into their house. “If it’s all the same to you, we’ll stick with the old ways.”
Maybe the kingdom is like that: it’s here, it’s real, it’s right outside your door. The kingdom of God is at hand! Don’t be so easily satisfied with the temporary pleasures of sex and money, power and food, cable TV and the wonders of technology. A better, exciting, hopeful, joyful kingdom of life is real. We need to be in the business of driving away the demons of doubt, despair, cynicism, arrogance, and anything else that hinders people from believing our message and so entering Jesus’ kingdom. The kind of unclean spirits Jesus so routinely encountered have not gone off duty, my friends. Just look around. It is because they remain so real and powerful that we must proclaim and also live under the rule of God right now. The kingdom of God is at hand. We live knowing that this is true! We live to help others believe it, too.
Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
Author: Doug Bratt
“The trouble with a lot of religion,” my colleague John Buchanan once said in a sermon on Genesis 18, “is that it is so predictable; there is no room for surprise in it.” He then goes on to quote the theologian Sam Keene as saying that surprise – and wonder – is at the heart of religion.
Verse 14’s question, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is hardly surprising. Its answer, however, is surprising, if not shocking. It’s in fact so shocking that when God answers it for people better suited for winters in Arizona than building a nursery, they quake with laughter.
Genesis 18’s Sarah would never see ninety again and Abraham had already lived for more than a century. So when the angel told Abraham that the stork was on the way to his tent, Genesis 17:17 reports he fell on his face laughing. On top of that, Genesis 18:12 reports that when the Lord repeats that audacious promise in earshot of Sarah, she stands behind her tent door so that her guests won’t think she’s rude as the tears of laughter stream down her cheeks.
Laughing Abraham is the main actor of the first part of the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. He dominates it with a series of active verbs and commands. The scene’s context of Abraham drowsing in the shade during the heat of the day is almost somnolent. Yet the pace of scene itself, particularly of verses 6-7, is, as Walter Brueggemann, to whose Genesis (John Knox Press, 1982) I’m indebted for large parts of this sermon starter, points out, almost frantic: “Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. ‘Quick,’ he said, ‘get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.’ Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant who hurried to prepare it.” [Italics added]
Brueggemann says this breathless pace hints that the narrator has something important and unexpected to tell us.
The visitors who come to visit Abraham and Sarah, as visitors often do, inject chaos into their hosts’ lives. After all, Abraham and Sarah’s mealtime table is small. It has only two place settings, because Abraham and Sarah have no children together.
So when Abraham tells his wife to quickly both put out three more place settings and prepare food to fill them, chaos probably breaks loose in his otherwise probably quiet household. Yet that chaos is nothing compared to the chaos their guests introduce with their shocking news.
In the second scene, the narrator slows the pace, perhaps to emphasize the dramatic importance of what he’s describing. Abraham becomes an observer who “stands” while his guests consume the meal Sarah has provided. Perhaps as they eat, those guests take the lead, giving Abraham their startling news. Without fanfare the Lord simply tells him, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a child.”
The announcement nearly thrums with what Brueggemann calls a dramatic sense of wonder. It’s not, after all, just that Sarah and Abraham are already “old and well advanced in years” (11). It’s also that Sarah is “past the age of childbearing” (11). She even thinks of herself as “worn out” and of her husband as “old” (11). She’s almost certainly already menopausal.
God, however, insists that God is about to turn Abraham and Sarah’s whole world upside down. They’re going to need to add a leaf to the family table, as well as build a nursery and make some trips to Buy Buy Baby. Abraham and Sarah will, after all, have a baby within a year.
Yet as Brueggemann points out, it’s ironic that while Abraham’s story is largely about how Sarah and he accept God’s call, they don’t accept God’s promise to give them a son. Abraham and Sarah, instead, laugh at it, not with joy and happiness, but with skepticism and despair.
That’s why verse 14’s, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is the central question of not just Genesis 18, but also Abraham’s whole story, as well as, arguably, the entire Scriptural record. After all, God wants to transform not just Abraham and Sarah’s family and attitude, but also the whole world’s.
While it may seem to us like a rhetorical question, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is a question that always awaits an answer. Certainly we hear echoes of it repeatedly in the Bible. It’s a question people like Joseph, Moses, David and Jesus’ disciples must answer. You and I might even say that “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” is the fundamental question that all of us must answer.
After all, as Brueggemann suggests, how we answer that question in a sense shapes nearly everything else. If, after all, as he notes, you and I believe some things are too hard for the Lord, we’re confessing that God is not really God. After all, we’re limiting God’s power and freedom. If, on the other hand, we accept the fact that nothing is too hard for the Lord, we accept God’s freedom and power to act according to God’s good purposes and plans. You and I accept it so much, in fact, that we’re able to entrust God’s world and ourselves to God alone.
Of course, since we naturally answer “No” to the question of whether anything is too hard for the Lord, as Brueggemann points out, Genesis’ answer to that question stretches beyond typical human experience. It shatters the limits that logic and common sense place on God’s world as well as God’s work in it.
Our text ends with a poignant exchange. Verse 15 says that when God confronts Sarah about her laughing response to God’s question, she “was afraid, so she lied and said, ‘I did not laugh.’ But he said, ‘Yes, you did laugh’.” Sarah isn’t just skeptical; she also can’t even own up to her own skepticism. That, along with Abraham and Sarah’s laughter of disbelief suggests they still believe that some things are too hard for the Lord.
Thank God, then, that God’s gracious resolve to grace them with a future through a son doesn’t depend on Abraham and Sarah’s readiness to accept it. God will carry out God’s own plan, in spite of their skepticism. Abraham and Sarah will have a son, even though he won’t be born in the context of faith.
Yet while God’s Word is convinced that God is able to do what seems impossible, Abraham’s descendants, of whom God has graciously made us a part, aren’t always equally convinced. Is anything too hard for the Lord? Is God’s power finally limited to what we can imagine? Or is there some other power that limits God’s power? Can God’s world finally say “no” to its Creator and Sustainer?
The New Testament raises the question, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” about Elizabeth. Her husband, Zechariah, mourns Luke 1:20, did “not believe” God’s promise his wife and he would have a son. Luke portrays Mary, on the other hand, as one who does not doubt. After all, Luke 1:45 tells us that she believed “that what the Lord had said to her would be accomplished.”
What Jesus later tells Peter and the other disciples in some ways echoes what God said to Abraham and Sarah. After all, in Mark 10:27 he insists, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” The one who knew that God is completely free to be God professes that, in fact, “All things are possible with” God.
In doing so, Jesus invites Genesis 18’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us to embrace that faith with him. After all, as he tells his disciples, in Matthew 17:20, “Nothing will be impossible for you.” We can, in fact, as the apostle Paul later insists, do all things through the Christ who gives us strength.
As Brueggemann goes on to note, however, God doesn’t promise everything, even to people who trust God’s promises. Only what’s consistent with God’s sometimes mysterious but always good purposes is possible for the Lord. So while God promises us a future in God’s new community, God doesn’t promise you and me everything we want.
In Gethsemane, even Jesus faced the issue of whether everything is possible with God. In Mark 14:36 he prayed, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Yet Jesus learns that everything but one thing is possible for God. The one thing God can’t do is one things Jesus wants — remove “the cup.” God can’t take away the reality of Jesus’ suffering and cross.
So our text doesn’t let us assume that all things are naturally possible. Instead, it suggests that because of God’s nature, all things are possible for those who faithfully endure the sometimes-long night of our hopelessness. After all, even Abraham and Sarah will eventually have to be willing to surrender their son.
Faith is, as Brueggemann reminds us, a scandal. Its promises are beyond both our expectation and all evidence. No wonder, then, that Sarah was afraid. God gives the promise, but calls many of us to a long wait.
Is anything too hard for the Lord? Certainly not healing from our broken and painful past. Certainly not healing from our infertility or cancer. Certainly not healing for our broken relationships or faith in our unbelieving sons and daughters. All things are possible with God.
Of course, some things are improper for God. Other things may lie outside of God’s good purposes. Nothing, however, is too hard for the Lord, except to be unfaithful to God’s self, plans and purposes, as well as God’s adopted sons and daughters.
In his remarkable book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sacks writes about Jimmie, who remains forever stuck in 1945. Jimmie is a likeable person with whom you can have a nice chat. But if you leave the room after even a two-hour conversation and then return a little later, he’ll greet you as if he’s never met you. This vacuum locks Jimmie into a fluid but finally meaningless present moment. Without anything to look back on and or look forward to, joy is simply impossible for him.
But Sacks says there is one time when Jimmie shows something like joy, when something that looks like wholeness and calmness replaces the vacant look on his face. That’s when he receives the Eucharist.
When Sacks grieved the toll his disease took Jimmie’s soul, the nuns told him to come for communion. When he returned, he found that Jimmie was able to fully participate in the service, reciting the familiar lines, saying the prayers, and going forward to receive the wafer. And when he did, Jimmie’s face shone with both peace and joy.
My colleague Scott Hoezee writes that God was at work in Jimmie in ways that made him a “living, breathing, walking, talking showcase display window of a very surprising grace.” Sacks knew there was no good neurological explanation for this. “But,” as Hoezee adds, “perhaps grace has its own reason.”
Author: Stan Mast
It is not hard to figure out what Psalm 100 is. The superscription says simply, “For Giving Thanks.” Thus, it was probably used as liturgical accompaniment when a thank offering was given in the Temple. Perhaps it called on those who offered such a sacrifice to have the proper attitude of worship, rather than just going through the motions. On one level, then, it is simple praise. But on another level, a level we may not notice at first, it is subtle politics.
Let’s look at the simple level first. This is a quintessential praise song or, more correctly, a call to praise. Note all the imperatives addressed to the worshiping congregation–“shout, worship, come, know, enter, give thanks.” Psalm 100 is an urgent command to do something so simple, yet so profound that we struggle to do it consistently. As the old praise song from the days of my early ministry put it, Psalm says, “Let’s just praise the Lord.”
In those early days, I was helped in my prayer life by that now hackneyed acronym, ACTS. Comprehensive prayer should consist of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. That helped me because most of my prayers immediately and persistently focused on supplications, petitions for me and mine. On a good day, I might start with a time of thanksgiving, if things were going particularly well. And on a bad day, a day I was experiencing my deep Calvinist guilt, I might spend a good deal of time in confessing my sin, telling God what was wrong with me. But I found it very difficult to begin my prayers telling God what was right with him. Prayers filled with simple praise are very difficult to do.
So Psalm 100 is a very helpful model for us. Though it is filled with imperatives, it does not feel negative or heavy handed at all. Instead, it is filled with positives that sing. The dominant note is joy and gladness. We are called to joyful songs and thanksgiving and praise. What a helpful reminder for us when we feel like complaining, accusing, pleading, or lamenting—all of which are perfectly legitimate purposes for prayer throughout the Psalter. Psalm 100 urges us not to lose our praise when times are hard.
This is the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time. The great Feasts of the Christian year are behind us; we have celebrated the extraordinary life and work of Jesus for half a year. Now we focus on how we are to follow that Jesus. The use of Psalm 100 here at the beginning of Ordinary Time suggests that praise is the preferred voice for ordinary time, the ordinary voice of those who believe in the Jesus who has done all those wonderful things for us.
In fact, that focus on faith in God is precisely the emphasis of Psalm 100. Why should we praise God all the time? After the first three imperatives, the Psalmist says, “Know that the Lord is God.” This is not “the good Lord” of country music singers, the generic God of American civil religion. This is Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. The last part of verse 3 is a reference not to creation, but to covenant. “It is he who made us and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” That’s the central reason to give praise to God all the time. He is Yahweh who has made us his own by his saving work in Israel and, preeminently, in Jesus Christ.
The Psalmist helps us to praise God even in hard times by reminding us of three specific aspects or benefits of belonging to Yahweh/Jesus. First, he is present, “there” in a real way. So we are called to “come before him… enter his gates… his courts.” Clearly that is a reference to the Temple, where Yahweh dwelt in a special way, though he was the God of heaven and earth. If you were a faithful Jew, you didn’t need to wonder where God was in difficult times; he was right over there, through those gates, in those courts.
And now Yahweh is right over there, in Christ who called his body the new temple. “In him all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19) We can rejoice as Psalm 100 commands us to do, because Yahweh is present to us always in the person of Jesus. “I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Second, God is not only present; he is also our Shepherd. We are “his people, the sheep of his pasture.” This recalls Psalm 23, of course, where Yahweh is our Royal Shepherd who takes care of all our needs, so that we “do not want.” And it anticipates Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. God is not some sort of vague spiritual Presence; God is our personal Savior through Jesus. We belong to the Good Shepherd who purchased us by his own blood, the blood of the Lamb.
Third, and this is already implied in those ideas of Presence and Savior, we should be joyful always because this God “is good.” We should offer the Lord our thanksgiving, not because he is all-powerful and should be feared, and not because he is unpredictable and needs to be placated, and not because he is complicated and needs to be dealt with carefully. We should come to Yahweh with joyful songs simply because he is good.
The Psalmist is quite specific in his definition of God’s goodness. It does not consist first of all in all the good things God give us; that is often the first thing we think of when we have to find reasons to be joyful. No, the Psalmist focuses on the covenant God has made with us. Right after confessing that Yahweh is good, his next words are those two covenant soaked words chesed and emunah, love and faithfulness. No matter what is happening to us we can count on the love and faithfulness of our God in Christ. I like the way James Luther Mays puts it: “as far as time runs, the future is ruled by the chesed and emunah, the lovingkindness and faithfulness, of Yahweh.”
OK, so there’s the simple way to preach on Psalm 100. Now let’s take a look at the subtle politics in this Psalm. So far we have focused on the special relationship Yahweh has with Israel, but notice how the Psalm opens—with a call for “all the earth” to shout for joy to Yahweh. He is Israel’s God, but all the earth is called to know that he is King over all the earth. I use the word “King,” because Psalm 100 is the capstone to a group of Psalms (93-100) that claim Yahweh is king over all people, all nations, all lands. Now Yahweh is King over “all the earth.” This a blockbuster political statement, what Mays calls a “theopolitical” proclamation.
Thus, when the Psalmist says, “Know that the Lord is God,” he is speaking not only to Israel, but also to all the nations and peoples of the earth, all of whom had their own gods and kings. In fact, in the Hebrew of verse 3 there is a little Hebrew pronoun (hu, meaning “he”) used in connection with Yahweh. It gives verse 3 this meaning. “The Lord, he is God” or “the Lord alone is God.” The covenant making God of Israel is the only God there is, the only King there is. You may have your gods and your king, but they are not the only God and the true King.
All the gods of the nations are fickle and fallible, so they needed to be courted and placated. But Yahweh is the covenant making and keeping God on whom we can always rely. He is simply trustworthy. Recall the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in I Kings 18. When Baal did not respond to the frenetic prayers of his prophets, Elijah suggested that perhaps Baal was off on a trip, or taking a nap, or relieving himself in the water closet. Baal cannot be relied on. When Elijah prayed a simple prayer, God rained down fire and consumed the offering. Do you remember what the people of Israel shouted in response? “Yahweh, he is God. Yahweh, he is God.” That was a theopolitical confession, as it is here in Psalm 100.
In Israel’s day, the question was not, “Is there a god,” but “Who is God?” In spite of the rising tide of atheism, that is still the question of our day. The world is full of polytheistic possibilities. Not only are there great world religions that make claims for their gods, but there are also nearly divine political leaders who claim that they and they alone can fix the problems of their country or even the whole world. All of us, even the most religious, have a tendency to rely on aspects of the created order to give us security in the face of multiple threats.
Psalm 100 stands up in this theopolitical world and says, “The Lord, he is God. He alone is good and trustworthy. He alone rules the future in his love and faithfulness.” So, we have to decide whether we will trust the palace of the king or the Temple of the King. Is Jesus Lord, or is Caesar? If we put our trust in Trump or Trudeau, in the US or Canada, in Republicans or Democrats, in the military or in money, in our own intelligence and our efforts, in our gods or our kings, we will not be able to shout for joy all the time. This simple call to praise presents us with a political message that is not so subtle after all. Whom or what shall we worship? Which power structure will we embrace as divine?
But this polemical message also has an evangelistic corollary. Psalm 100 calls the whole earth to join in the praise of Israel. Jesus was born an Israeli and recruited his disciples from those ranks and did all of his work of salvation in Israel. But after he rose from the dead, he told his Jewish disciples to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. The Risen Christ proclaimed that he had all authority in heaven and on earth. But his first use of his authority as the Resurrected King was not to condemn those who worship other gods and kings, but to invite them to worship him and obey “everything he had commanded.” “Jesus, he is God! He is good.” “Shout for joy to Jesus, all the earth!”
Knowing that Jesus is Lord is not a purely, or mainly, intellectual endeavor. Indeed, the word “know” in the Hebrew is yada, which is first used in the Bible in a very interesting context. “And Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bore a son.” (Genesis 4:1, RSV) Knowing Jesus may begin with learning some facts and giving assent to them. But we don’t really know Jesus as God until we enter a close personal relationship with him, a relationship characterized by trust and intimacy and communion. Think sex and you have it.
A contemporary praise song speaks of “ten thousand reasons” to praise the Lord. Psalm 100 gives us just one, and that is the Lord Jesus himself, with all that involves. If we can focus on him, then we can obey all the imperatives in Psalm 100, even if those 10,000 reasons are missing for the moment.
Author: Scott Hoezee
By now many of us have heard about the recent flap regarding the well-known contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone.” Seems a certain hymnal committee wanted to formalize what a number of congregations had already done informally on their own and that is swap out language about how on the cross “the wrath of God was satisfied” in favor of words that did not contain any divine pique. (The hymn’s author, Keith Getty, did not grant this request, by the way, so the hymn was dropped from the new song book.)
In a similar vein, most students of Scripture know that if you want properly to delimit a pericope in the first part of Romans 5, the natural break comes in verse 11, not verse 8 where the Lectionary would have us come to a full stop. But that would require our reading those nettlesome verses about God’s wrath and our having been enemies of God. We are ok with verse 8’s talk of our being sinners but let’s not mess with any wrathful imagery.
Well . . . Paul seemed to think we needed a full-orbed picture of these matters and so did go on to talk about God’s due wrath over sin (he sounded this note in Romans 1 already as well). But really, who wants a God incapable of some righteous anger? Given the evil that we witness in any single day’s news cycle, who would want a God who knows all of that and more and yet who can do no more than smile and hope that tomorrow’s news will be a little better? When infants in Syria are gassed to death, when young concertgoers in Manchester are obliterated by a suicide bomber, when chemical companies willingly kill off every living thing in a river because dumping their sludge there was more convenient than other options, when a man who pledged to love his wife beats her mercilessly day after day–when all of this goes on, why would any God worthy of our worship do no more than shrug or sadly shake his head?
Doesn’t it make sense, and doesn’t it offer us hope, that the one true God would lash out with indicting judgment?! As C.S. Lewis once wrote, yes, we all want a God of love, but if God is love, then his love is by definition something more than sentimental kindness. God’s love is a holy love–a love that cannot ignore or weakly wave away evil deeds and people. Many of you no doubt recall the scene in Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” when Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are describing Aslan the Lion for Lucy. “Oh dear,” Lucy says, “I think I should be quite frightened to be around a lion. Tell me, is Aslan quite safe?” “Safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.”
God’s very goodness makes him a bit unsafe in a fallen world. God cannot and must not tolerate sin. If he did, we would have no hope of ever getting out of a cosmos that seems hell-bent on maiming the innocent, beating up the weak, polluting what’s clean, and just generally getting away with whatever it can to increase the bottom line. We must expect that God will have some kind of reaction and we must hope that his reaction will be something far stronger than merely pleading, “Oh dear, please don’t do that.”
What’s more, for Paul this well-rounded picture of God is precisely what now generates our hope. We were impious, irreverent creatures once upon a time. We smelled of sin. We did things that properly summon up anger from even our fellow creatures much less a holy and righteous God. AND YET . . . the fierce love that burns brightly at the very heart of our Triune God was greater than our sin, stronger than any anger borne of God’s recoiling from our evil. God could have given in to his anger, could have justified wiping us all out. But he did not. No, in the midst of all that came the incarnation of God’s Son and his life of sacrifice that culminated in the cross.
This generates now no less than our hope of glory. And if it seems paradoxical to have hope in a world as filled with grim news and terrorist acts as this one, don’t let that make you doubt your hope, Paul says. Since our hope spun out of paradox in the first place, clinging to it paradoxically in a tough world fits a larger pattern and keeps our hope secure after all.
And how desperately we need hope. In his book, Standing on the Promises, Lewis Smedes reminds us that our souls need hope the way our lungs need oxygen. Because we are inextricably temporal creatures who are forever moving into an unknown future, we need hope to keep us moving lest we become stuck, struck dumb with a paralyzing fear of the future. Hope is God’s gift to us in this broken world–it keeps us moving. Of course, the nettlesome twin sibling of hope is worry. If hope is what keeps us going, worry is what makes us cautious in our steps. If hope helps us to stride forward with confidence, worry is what makes us slouch even as we duck our heads in fear of the next blow that may wallop us up-side the head.
But we need not live that way, Paul tells the Romans (who themselves were living in the heart of the Empire’s evil darkness). There is no blow coming to the side of our head—Christ took that for us at the very moment we most deserved to receive it ourselves. God did the seemingly impossible to get us rescued from the darkness of sin and evil and if God could do that, then the hope that comes from such a daring move only gets more galvanized in the throes of our own sufferings and our own sorrows in this present time. It is as though our hope of glory has been inoculated against the disease of this fallen world on account of its already having emerged from all of that sinful tawdriness in the first place.
This is the Gospel and its central paradox at its finest. Paul understood it. And now it is our privilege to proclaim it!
Although it was an 18-year flashback, the evil Lord Voldemort’s attempt to kill the infant Harry Potter became a climactic moment in the series/films as we learn what it was that prevented Harry from dying that night: it was love. Harry’s mother, Lily, interposed herself between Voldemort and her son and the love in her was so strong as to cause Voldemort’s death curse to rebound and hit him instead (though it killed Lily herself, too).
What’s more, this love then attached itself to the only living person left in the room, young Harry himself. And it left a mark on him that could not be erased (Harry’s signature lightning bolt forehead scar was but a token of the far more indelible mark on his soul). Even after Voldemort managed to come back to life, he could not kill Harry but could only destroy the part of his own dark soul that had also attached itself to Harry in that early moment. Voldemort could destroy the piece of himself that lived in Harry but not Harry himself—his mother’s abiding sacrifice and her love shielded him and could not be touched by evil.
The hope Paul describes in Romans 5 is like that. It was forged from a sacrifice done for the unsuspected and the undeserving. The love of God that overcame our sin and evil produced a hope that now lives in us and cannot be undone by the evil forces of this world. It is secure. It ensures we will live forever in our Father’s kingdom. It is a living hope. And it cannot die.