June 20, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Apparently Jesus did not know that he was supposed to take the long way around Samaria. That was a rule of thumb observed by the Jews in his day to avoid all contact with those Samaritan “lowlifes” who had the temerity to believe, among other silly things, that they could worship God just as well from their temple as from the big Temple in Jerusalem. For their part, the Samaritans were happy to return the favor in taking the long way around Jerusalem when they traveled as well as being perfectly happy to have folks like Jesus and the disciples take the long way around so that they likewise would not have to encounter any Jews.
In framing this story the way he does, Luke is clever on many levels. First, he makes clear that Jesus has a growing sense of his destiny. When verse 51 famously tells us of Jesus’ resolute faceward turn toward Jerusalem, we know as readers that this is far more than some little itinerary detail from Jesus’ travels. Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem to save the world through his own sacrifice. Knowing that, we as readers likewise sense that the trek through Samaria is not merely a matter of expediency. Yes, Jesus has no time to take the long way around but it’s more than that. Jesus also needs to head through Samaria because his purpose includes those folks, too. How odd it would be if Jesus were to sense afresh his divine vocation only to skirt Samaria.
Think of it this way: if a white man in the early 1960s sensed a divine calling to help eradicate radical racism in the American South, wouldn’t it be odd if the first thing this man did was to avoid eating at an integrated restaurant that served also “colored folks”? You can’t fight racism and buy into its worst practices at the same time.
So for Jesus: he could not set out for Jerusalem and the salvation of the world and then buy right into one of the tensions of this world that was tearing it apart.
But, as the gospels make everywhere clear, the world that needs saving does not necessarily hanker for that same salvation. So the Samaritans treat Jesus and company rather shabbily. Unbeknownst to them, their Savior was in their midst but, as John put it right up front in the prologue to his own gospel, the world that Jesus made in the beginning and the same world that Jesus came to save “received him not.” It’s sad but not unusual.
It’s a fair bet that the disciples did not share the fullness of Jesus’ divine vocation or the purpose that was summoning him to Jerusalem. At best they had foggy and messed-up ideas of a political messiah and a politicized kingdom of Israel. In any event, what ticked them off about the Samaritan treatment of Jesus was not their failure to recognize the Savior in their midst but what was to their minds the altogether too typical rudeness of those Samaritan idiots. Like most folks in their day, the disciples did not need any excuses to despise Samaritans just generally. Given that their disdain was on simmer all the time anyway, it didn’t take much to crank up the heat a bit and bring it all to a full boil.
And so here James and John, seeing the Samaritan disrespect, immediately become furious and ask Jesus if they should call down judgment on these folks. Who knows what made them think they could call down “fire from heaven” and get it but apparently they did conclude that if Jesus told them to call down fire, fire would come. Not to put too fine a point on it but this was not exactly what Jesus had in mind.
Indeed, once again Luke was clever in composing this account. Notice that in verse 51 Jesus senses that “the time approached for him to be taken up TO HEAVEN.” Now, not 3 verses later, James and John want to call down fire FROM HEAVEN. Just what did James and John think heaven contained? Jesus was headed toward heaven to become the ultimate cosmic decanter of grace and mercy unto salvation. THAT is what the heavens were soon to become thanks to the gracious work of Jesus through his sacrifice. James and John saw the heavenly realms as anything but gracious. Indeed, they saw it as a kind of divine arsenal to fry greasy sinners like the Samaritans.
It seems like in the Church today something of this same tension exists. As preachers, we need always to wonder what conception of the divine realm we inculcate into our people. Do people see the God of heaven as a gracious and compassionate God in Christ? Or do they see God as the one holding up the rolled-up newspaper ready and eager to swat every little infraction that occurs? True, we don’t want the extreme of God as a kindly old softy who is incapable of being perturbed (much less angered). In a world of genocide and terrorism and starving children, we need a God with spine. But what is the fundamental disposition of our God in Christ?
We know what James and John thought. But we also know that Jesus rebuked them.
Therein lies a truth to savor.
Questions to Answer / Issues to Address
In Luke 9:54 Jesus rebuked James and John for their Rambo-esque desire to fry off a few Samaritans. As noted elsewhere in these sermon starters, the reason for that was clear enough: Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to save all people (including Samaritans, therefore) and so it made no sense for Jesus to kill in judgment the very people for whom he was soon going to die in mercy and grace.
Given that, it may seem a little odd to see this same Jesus immediately pivot from that to verses 57-62 in which Jesus seems downright off-putting when it comes to the kingdom of God. The same Jesus who was deferentially kind toward rude Samaritans who refused to welcome him now seems a bit rude toward some folks who seem eager to hop onto his kingdom bandwagon. Two people volunteer with earnest zeal to follow Jesus and a third person is directly called at Jesus’ initiation. Their reasons for being rejected—or at least seriously put off—by Jesus vary a little but none of the reasons seems outlandish.
Why would Jesus scare off one man by promising him a homeless existence? Why would Jesus seem so brusque toward a man whom he himself called at the same moment the man was sunk deep in grief over a dead father? Why would Jesus refuse so much as a familial farewell for the final fellow? It all seems rather over the top. Surely we are not to conclude from these verses that followers of Jesus may not sleep in their own beds at night. Surely we are not to take away from Luke 9 the idea that funerals (if not grief over dead loved ones just generally) are forbidden to followers of Christ. Surely we are not to conclude that loving our families and having normal attachments to them count as disqualifying looks back from the plow when it comes to kingdom work.
If the cost of following Jesus is to lead an itinerant life free of family obligations and attachments, it’s fair to wonder just how many believers across the millennia have really, therefore, followed Christ at all. Luke 9:57-62 is, therefore, one of those hyperbolic gospel passages that tempts people to cash out the passage completely, chalking it up to mere metaphor or overstatement that we are free to translate into kinder, gentler ideas. Jesus said to be homeless. So we take this to mean that, like the Puritan idea of “weaned affections,” we are to have homes but not be too attached to them. Jesus says to let the dead bury their own dead and to not be so attached to loved ones that we feel the need to say good-bye to them before taking a mission trip. So we translate this to mean that we have to love God MORE than spouses and children and parents but we can and will still love spouses and children and parents a very great deal indeed.
Is Luke 9 a reminder of gospel commitment in the midst of our ordinary lives or a call to quit our ordinary lives in favor of a gospel-focused ministry that will shove aside all the usual trappings of life?
Because it is historically clear that God can and does work through people who own homes and who love their families and who attend the funerals of their loved ones, we cannot deny that something of the “translation” of this passage mentioned above is inevitable. But let’s not translate it too quickly or too glibly.
Fred Craddock once delivered a sermon on “The Gospel as Hyperbole.” In this message he pointed out that the gospel is loaded with statements that are, on the face of them, ridiculous. We’re told to remove the logpole from our own eyes before criticizing others. We’re told that if we have even a smidge of faith, we can move mountains into the sea. We’re told a shepherd would abandon 99 sheep in favor of searching for just one that wandered off. We’re told that if everything Jesus did were written down, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written. We’re told stories like the one about a man who was forgiven a debt of a million gezillion dollars who then turned right around a about choked another man to death for the 50 cents he owed him. Ridiculous. Over the top. Who can take such hyperbole seriously?
But as Craddock went on to point out, it’s all a little less ridiculous once you come to realize that the kingdom of God Jesus came to announce—and whose arrival and presence he calls others and us to likewise announce—really does contain the cosmic power for salvation unto all people and all creatures. If the kingdom of God is anything close to what we think it is, we really cannot overstate its power or beauty. We cannot exaggerate enough to convey the punch of this kingdom and of the God of all grace who through our Lord Jesus Christ has saved us from darkness into light.
So let’s not as preachers take the radical language of Luke 9 and too quickly render it pedestrian after all. No, not all believers are called to leave family and home behind, but some are. William Willimon says that while he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke for many years, he received any number of complaints from parents but many of those complaints all boiled down to just one complaint. His phone would ring and the parent on the other end of the line would say, “What did you all do over there at Duke? Our daughter went to school to become a research scientist but now she says she is going to become a medical missionary to Haiti. You ruined her life. Why did you do that!?”
Well, why indeed? But whether we are called to leave behind kith and kin, we are all called to a radical commitment to the gospel. And if in the midst of our lives that sometimes mean turning down a promotion, saying hard things to our children, denying our families the dream vacations taken by others, or any number of other sacrifices both great and small in service to the power and beauty of the gospel . . . well, we ought not be surprised.
In fact, the only thing that should be surprising is the presence of all those people in the pews each week who seem to think that being a Christian makes so little dent in their lives at all.
For folks such as this the Lord has a word from Luke 9. Will we speak it?
Note the wider context of the Lectionary reading from Luke 9:51-62. There are so many crosscurrents here. This lection is preceded by the story of Jesus’ welcoming a little child as well as by the brief coda to that of John saying they saw a non-disciple driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus there says that if they are not against Jesus, they are for him. Kingdom workers are, apparently, everywhere whether they formally associate with Jesus’ band of disciples or not—even little children get special mention! This lection is then followed by Jesus’ sending out 72 people to do more work. So there are workers all around, both known and unknown. In the midst of all that, we can see the Samaritan opposition—as well as Jesus’ radical words on the cost of discipleship—in a different light. Yes, some oppose Jesus. Yes, the true depths of following Jesus require radical sacrifice. But hope abounds, too. The work goes forward both in ways predictable and in ways totally unpredictable.
Do we understand the radical, quite total demands of the gospel? Sometimes a sideways illustration reveals how neatly we are able to sequester some parts of life after all. Barbara Brown Taylor once said that if a man in the church loses his job, the pastor may well call this person to offer sympathy and prayer.
But suppose that a pastor one day got wind of the fact that a certain member of his congregation had gotten a big promotion at work along with significantly more pay. And suppose the pastor then called this person and said, “Charlie, I’ve heard your news and so was wondering if it would be OK if I came by sometime to pray with you about this. I’m concerned about the temptations this new venture may throw your way as well as what it may do to your ability to serve here at church. So I’d like to pray for God’s strength for you in the face of this new success.”
Probably we’d be taken aback. But as Brown Taylor notes, that is only because we do cordon off parts of our lives from the total claims Jesus makes on us. We act as though we are our own after all and so why would the church have anything to say to us so long as life is chugging along smoothly? If we ask that, however, we reveal that we, too, quietly resist the same self-denying sacrifice that seems so offensive to some outside the church.
It looks as though the only way you will ever see this self-denial as a source of comfort is if you die and are reborn. You need to kill off ordinary ways of defining value and bring to life a whole new set of values. The place to start is by admitting that without God, you are lost in sin’s wilderness and unable to find your own way out. Once you know that, you are wide open to the call of the one who hopefully says, “Follow me.”
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Author: Doug Bratt
God doesn’t usually whisk presidents, pastors, church leaders and other workers up to the heavenly realm upon their retirement. Nor do their successors generally actually pick up their articles of clothing. Yet it’s appropriate to reflect on this Sunday’s appointed text anyway. God, after all, remains deeply interested in human leadership and its transitions.
2 Kings 2’s Elijah has known for a long time that Elisha will succeed him. Yet it’s almost as though he deliberately tries to shake his successor as he chases him from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho. Elijah repeatedly tries to convince Elisha to stay behind.
Along the way they encounter, among others, “the company of the prophets.” These were very early prophets whom the Lord used to counter both Israel’s’ kings claims to absolute power and false religions’ invasion of Israelite society.
Elijah meets several of these companies along his apparently pointless trip. Perhaps the Lectionary omits verses 3-5 because it’s hard to know why II Kings describes his meandering, except to show that Elisha is determined to stay right with Elijah. It also reinforces the company of prophets’ message that God is going to take Elijah away.
When he finally arrives at the Jordan River, Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the water with it. This parts the Jordan so that Elijah and Elisha can walk through it on dry ground, much as Israel earlier crossed the Jordan and even earlier crossed the Red Sea.
On the far side of the Jordan, Elijah asks his disciple what he can do for him before he leaves. Elisha answers by saying that he’d like a double share of his mentor’s spirit of prophecy. He’s treating his mentor as his father by asking for the inheritance Israelite fathers gave their oldest sons. Before Elisha can inherit a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit, however, Elijah insists he must pass a rather strange test. Elisha must somehow watch mentor be taken from him up to heaven.
We sometimes think God took Elijah to heaven in the chariots of fire. However, verse 11 insists that Elijah goes up to heaven “in a whirlwind.” Other places in the Bible link such a whirlwind to God’s action or revelation. Elisha passes the test of succession, according to verse 12, by seeing his mentor mysteriously disappear in this whirlwind.
In response, Elisha says something strange that we hear again only at his own death. “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” (12). Clearly horsemen and chariots were fairly common symbols of royal power. These particular horsemen and chariots are, however, in some ways extraordinary. They’re horsemen and chariots of “fire,” which the Old Testament so often links to God. Twice II Kings they’re part of God’s unseen army, sometimes only visible to eyes of faith, battling God and Israel’s enemies.
So we sense that these fiery horsemen and chariots are God’s secret weapons. We might even equate them with some of God’s hosts of heaven with which God battles God’s enemies. Often the Old Testament describes “holy wars” in which God fights for God’s people. During the Exodus, as well as the time of the judges and Joshua, Israel’s battles are actually God’s battles.
Yet this still leaves us to wonder why God associates weapons like fiery chariots and horsemen with prophets like Elijah and Elisha? The answer nudges us toward one of our text’s lessons about leaders of all sorts. While even prophets are tempted to wield various weapons of war, God’s word is one of God’s most effective weapons. God uses the word God gives to prophets like Elijah and Elisha to do things like challenge kings, defeat the Syrians and topple royal dynasties.
The need for God’s prophetic word through Elijah and Elisha to King Ahab was particularly great. Many of Israel and Judah’s kings wandered away from God. However, the prophet’s contemporary, King Ahab, was particularly determined and systematic about it. So in such a dangerous time, God used God’s prophets to turn the tide of faithlessness.
2 Kings 2’s preachers and teachers may want to use this as an avenue to explore 21st century faithlessness. While many Americans still go to church, many parts of our culture seem increasingly antithetical to the gospel.
In this context, we commission church leaders to be kinds of prophets. The Christian Reformed Church’s Form of Ordination calls its elders to do things like “be compassionate, yet firm and consistent in rebuke and discipline.” God also expects them to gently speak out when those in our care fail to follow Jesus Christ.
The Form for Ordination also challenges deacons to “be prophetic critics of the waste, injustice and selfishness in our society,” and to “be sensitive counselors to the victims of such evil.” God expects our deacons to lead God’s people in speaking out against the evil of things like materialism, greed and waste.
The things against which God’s 21st century prophets speak out are in some ways even more powerful than the ancient dynasties and countries against which Elijah and Elisha spoke out. Our hearts, even after God has redeemed us, are stubbornly sinful and resistant to God’s will.
However, the word of God God’s people speak doesn’t just convey interesting information about our need for repentance. It’s also, by God’s Spirit, a mighty force that affects what it speaks. Jeremiah called the prophetic word a “fire” that burned in his bones and a hammer that shatters rocks in pieces.
God allows Elisha to see the hidden forces, the horsemen and chariots of God’s Word. This shows the Lord’s prophet that the Lord’s words will also be a weapon in God’s warfare against God’s enemies. Yet those who lead Christ’s Church may not see that weaponry with such clarity. The words we speak may not seem to change anything, much less topple dynasties and change human hearts. Yet, by God’s Spirit, Christians’ words and actions will be powerful.
The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, however, remains mysterious. After all, it describes Elijah’s apparently pointless trip that only some inner drive seems to fuel. At every point along his trip’s way he seems to want to separate himself from the ordinary world.
Elijah tries to get rid of Elisha who doggedly follows him. The company of the prophets knows that Elijah is going to be taken away, but Elisha won’t let them talk about it. And when Elisha and Elijah finally do reach the eastern shore of the Jordan, fiery manifestations of God’s power separate them.
What’s more, all of this happens in a kind of timelessness. It occurs, after all, between the reigns of kings Ahaziah and Jehoram. Elijah also ascends to heaven from a private place on the far side of the Jordan where only Elisha can witness it.
In short, this is a story about a realm where there is, as Elizabeth Achtemeier writes, “no time or place.” This story describes the realm of eternity, the realm of God. It’s a mysterious realm, a reality that now God hides from ordinary eyes. God does, however, give, if still imperfect, glimpses of that heavenly kingdom to the eyes of faith.
2 Kings 2 gives God’s people a glimpse of the unseen world where there is great power and death no longer exists. From that realm the Lord sends God’s Son and Spirit to do mighty things. From that timeless realm and reality God shapes our world. God even graciously uses flawed but called prophets like church leaders to speak out for righteousness.
2 Kings 2’s preachers and teachers also remember that Jesus calls all of us to stand in Elijah and Elisha’s prophetic tradition. We grieve with and for those whom violence, in its many ghastly forms, has victimized. In a time of much war and persecution, we weep with victims of things like poverty, starvation, abortion, various terror and war. We grieve injuries and loss of life on all sides.
However, we also see in this violence the need for our own confession. Sin, after all, muddies even our best intentions and efforts. Sin runs through every human heart and structure, as well as every human government. So Christians ask the Lord to forgive us for our sins of violence, both those we’ve committed and those we’ve allowed others to commit. We also ask the Lord to send us a renewed measure of God’s Spirit to rekindle in us our love for our neighbors.
However, even as we pray, we commit ourselves to humbly but boldly speaking out for peace. It’s not easy. In our highly politicized culture, after all, we sometimes see those who speak and work for peace as troublemakers. That’s why Christians seek to remember that our primary loyalty is not to any nation or political party, but to Christ’s kingdom.
Our world belongs, after all, to God. So even as we prophetically speak out to others and pray to the Lord, we commend our world to God’s care. After all, God loved it so much that God sent his Son to redeem it.
In a sermon on this passage, Samuel Wells tells the story of about a famous preacher whom he calls “a bit of a fraud.” After all, while the preacher’s sermons were great, no one ever realized that his staff assistant wrote them. The famous preacher, after all, never acknowledged all of the help his assistant gave him in preparing such marvelous messages.
Eventually the assistant’s patience ran out. So one day the preacher was speaking to thousands of eager listeners and at the bottom of page two read the rousing words, “And this, my friends, takes us to the very heart of the book of Habakkuk, which is …” only to turn to page three and see nothing but the dreaded words, “You’re on your own now.”
Nearly ever pastor has felt like that famous preacher at one time or another. Even those who never plagiarized famous sermons have felt the weight and isolation of their calling. Perhaps that’s why we should long to hear people tell us not, “What a great sermon that was!” but “’The spirit of Elijah is resting on’ you.”
Author: Stan Mast
On this sixth Sunday of Ordinary time, reading the sixteenth Psalm brings back extraordinary memories for me. In my Bible, I have underlined many individual verses of Psalm 16 over the years and I’ve filled the margins with dates and notes that remind me of why I underlined those verses. For example, verse 6 is highlighted because on Palm Sunday, 1978, I was installed as Pastor of the Heritage Christian Reformed Church. Psalm 16:6 was the theme verse of that church. The charter members derived their new church’s name from the RSV translation of the last part of that verse (“a goodly heritage”). For the next 9 years I often said that “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”
Further, verse 8 was a rock of refuge for me during the economic crash that set off the Great Recession in 2008. As the market plummeted down and down, putting my retirement nest egg in increasing jeopardy, I was fixated on money. Then God used verse 8 to redirect my vision and recalibrate my faith. “I have set the Lord always before me….” That’s what I must look at, not the market. My vision often wandered back to the numbers, and then the second part of that verse came to the rescue. “Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Even if I can’t keep my faith focused on the Lord, he is still at my right hand.
Verses 9-11 are also heavily underlined in my personal Bible, probably because of the many funerals I have conducted and, more personally, because of the number of times I have looked death in the eye. I can imagine that the Apostle Peter had underlined those verses in his “Bible,” because he focused on them in his first sermon on Pentecost, using them to proclaim that the crucified Christ had risen from the dead in fulfillment of prophecy.
Even if you don’t have that kind of personal connection with Psalm 16, it is a marvelous preaching text for this day because of its focus on security. Its opening words set the tone. “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.” In a world fixated on security and safety, that is an existential prayer for everyone. Daily bombings and shootings around the world remind us of how precarious our existence is. Death is in the news everywhere. The world seems to be falling apart and fear is in the air.
What can we do to secure our lives? We can hire more TSA agents and buy more elaborate screenings devices. We can seal our borders with huge walls and fly more high tech surveillance drones. We can buy expensive insurance policies and develop fool proof financial plans. But in the end, we all know that we can’t make our lives secure, not really. Death will come for everyone.
So is there no security and safety in a terrifying world? Yes, there is, says David, who had known terror on every side. “Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.” That’s the point of the whole Psalm and the key to security—those two words, “in you, in God, in Yahweh.” Only the living God can make us secure in the face of certain death. But whether we experience that security will depend on whether we can say what David said in verse 2. “I said to Yahweh, ‘You are my Lord (adonai in Hebrew), apart from you I have no good thing.’” In our sermons on this Psalm, we should focus on those two names for God.
We will never find a deep sense of safety and security if we have a general belief in God. We will experience complete security only if we see God as Yahweh, the covenant God, the God who wants a personal relationship with us, who takes us by the hand and walks with us through history, who, indeed, has entered history and become one of us in Jesus Christ.
And we will not experience security unless we view him as Adonai, as Master and Lord to whom we belong, body and soul, in life and in death. If we view God as a friend or as a therapist or as a dispensing machine or as a last minute rescuer, we will live our lives in fear. But if we know that we belong to him completely, we will be able to trust him to make life secure. “The Lord fills the horizon of the Psalmist. The Lord is everything to him. It is this focus on God, absorption in God, identity with God, the Lord who is the source of life, that gives faith a confident hold on life.” (James Luther Mays)
Trusting God that way is not easy, especially when we are surrounded by people who “run after other gods.” Verses 3 and 4 are notoriously difficult to interpret, but the general idea seems to be a contrast between trusting other gods and trusting the only true God. David lays a challenge at our feet here. When the whole world is putting its trust in better technology, in the political process, in economic development, in educational reform, in military action, in homeland security measures, in personal security programs, don’t run after those other gods. “I will not drink of that cup, I will not take their names on my lips, I will not bow down at that altar.” “Yahweh is my Adonai, apart from him I have no good thing.”
Those last words of verse 2 help us think about the meaning of security. Does Psalm 16 guarantee that no Christian will ever be blown up by a terrorist’s bomb, or be duped out of her life savings by a con artist, or be permanently disabled by a drunken driver, or get fired by a vindictive boss? Of course not. We know better. We’ve experienced disaster and tragedy ourselves. Well, then, what kind of security does God provide?
As I said, David gives us a hint when he confesses, “Apart from you I have no good thing.” That sounds like a variation on the more famous Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want, or I lack nothing.” That smacks a bit of a prosperity Gospel guarantee, but, of course, what follows in Psalm 23 has nothing to do with health and wealth. Nor does Psalm 16 talk in economic or medical terms. The “good things” that comprise true safety and security are much deeper and more spiritual than mere food and fitness.
Verses 5 and 6 seem to be about land, but they are really about the Lord. Using language that is reminiscent of Joshua 13-19, where Yahweh apportions the Promised Land to the 12 tribes, David rejoices in the fact that Yahweh himself is his portion. Even if David loses the land, as Israel did in the Exile, he will still have a place to dwell, a pleasant place, a delightful inheritance. Our security is not tied to a plot of ground or anything built upon it. It is tied to the Lord, who is our refuge, our portion, our cup, our possession. Psalm 73:25 and 26 puts it this way. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” If that is our confidence, we are truly secure.
Further, in verse 7 David rejoices in another dimension of security. In our insecure world, people are always searching for another thing they can do to make things secure. After the terrible bombings in Europe this year, security officials were asked, “What else can we do to guarantee that these kinds of things won’t happen again?” And the answer was, “We have no idea.” Everyone is looking for answers.
That’s why David rejoices in God’s leading. You may recall that David mentions such leading in Psalm 23: “I shall not want. He makes me lay down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters… he guides me in paths of righteousness for his names sake.” No wonder David says here in Psalm 16, “I will praise Yahweh who counsels me….” In a lost world, where everyone is trying to find their way in a trackless wasteland, it is a great source of security to know that the living God is leading you, speaking to your heart with his Word and his Spirit. When he says, “even at night my heart instructs me,” David is probably referring to his conscience as counseled by the Spirit.
This is security. In a world where we can lose anything in a split second, we cannot lose God. In a world where everyone is looking for a way to live happily and fruitfully, we have the leading of God himself. And, in a world where everyone will die, we have the assurance that death won’t get the last word in our lives. God will, and because of that “my heart is glad, my tongue rejoices, and my body will rest secure.” Even when I die physically, I have complete security, “because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your Holy One see decay.”
Who is that “Holy One?” It might be David himself or any other Israelite who takes refuge in Yahweh as David does in verses 1 and 2. Or it might be corporate Israel, taking refuge in Yahweh in Exile, looking forward, as Ezekiel 37 does, to the day when God raises those dry bones from the grave. Or it might be any believer today who trusts God to give life after death, even as we confess in the Apostles Creed—“I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.”
Or most important, the Holy One is Christ himself, at least according to Peter and Paul in the earliest Christian messages. It is fascinating and telling that the very first evangelistic proclamation of the Gospel relied so heavily on Psalm 16:9-11. According to Peter in Acts 2:24-32, the idea of Jesus resurrection was not some novelty dreamed up by fanatical followers of a dead Rabbi. It was the fulfillment of a prophecy given by Israel’s greatest king and unexpected prophet. And according to Paul in Romans 8:11, I Corinthians 6:14, II Corinthians 4:14, and many other passages in his epistles, Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of ours.
A sermon on this text should be permeated with the joy of verse 11. Because of the eternal security we have through Christ, a believer’s life should be a joyful affair. In the Good News of Christ’s resurrection, God has, indeed, “made known to me the path of life.” Even though we journey through a vast and howling wilderness filled dead bones, God is our portion and our possession, who leads us day by day. Even death cannot destroy our joy, because “you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasure at your right hand.” Note that the promise of eternal pleasure does not focus on the physical pleasure of having 70 virgins, but on the spiritual pleasure of being in God’s presence. And being God’s treasured possession does not lead to jihad, but to joy. The security that comes from belonging to Jesus Christ leads to a joyful affirmation of life even in a world filled with death and sorrow.
After 9/11, America has poured untold trillions of dollars and man hours and technological expertise into creating what we call “Homeland Security.” We all support the general idea of trying to make our nation secure from terrorist threats. But we also know very well that no amount of human effort can produce genuine security. Talking about all that human effort will provide us with a ready-made opening for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ….” (First question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism)
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Author: Scott Hoezee
Most of Galatians can be summed up through a subtle reversal of a traditional saying: “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Paul has whacked and whacked away at the false teaching that infiltrated Galatia—the teaching that we can and must add something to the cross of Christ for salvation to be truly effective. Get circumcised, keep laws, observe certain customs and rituals and THEN you are really saved in a way you would not be were it only a matter of trusting in Christ’s work alone.
So Paul has been shouting “Forget about your deeds” over and over. “It’s not about you!” By late in this epistle you are reminded of a part of the courtroom scene in the movie A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson’s tough-bitten Colonel Jessup barks at Tom Cruise’s Lt. Kaffee, “Are we clear?” “Yes, sir.” “Are we CLEAR?” “Crystal.”
“Dear Galatians, when it comes to your works not meaning ONE SINGLE THING in terms of contributing to your salvation, are we clear?” “Yes, Pastor Paul.” “Are we CLEAR?” “Crystal.”
And then . . . then comes Galatians 5 and we take a decisive turn to Paul’s suddenly saying “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Now Paul pivots to saying that God has set us free in Christ but not free to do whatever feels good or whatever we want. No, freedom is to be in service to others and in service to God above all and what that means is that there are a whole lot of things you simply cannot do as a baptized follower of Christ. There is a whole category of things called the works of “the flesh” and these have no place in the Christian life. Sexual immorality, orgies, witchcraft, temper tantrums, getting roaring drunk, envy and pride and other community-ripping stances: all of these must be avoided. Christ did not set you free to be a jerk. Christ did not set you free to be a self-indulgent party person.
Instead of indulging these fleshly acts we are to pursue Spirit-filled acts and then grow what Paul goes on to call the “fruit of the Spirit.” Nine lovely character traits are listed, each flowing out of the prior and all together making up a matched set. Unlike the gifts of the Spirit—that differ person to person—the fruit of the Spirit are to be common to all. You cannot say you are called to the fruit of kindness but that self-control is not something you need. No, each fruit implies the other eight fruit and together they make up Christ-like identity and character in us.
Before considering a couple other ideas on how to preach on this fairly large text, a note first on the larger issue: how can Paul say “Forget about your deeds” and “Ponder well your deeds” in the same letter without this being merely incoherent? Shouldn’t this be one or the other? Does the end of Galatians undercut the prior material?
No, and the reason is because although no one has ever been more forthright and clear about salvation coming only through the grace of Christ’s cross than Paul, no one knew better than Paul that with baptism comes a whole new person and a new creation. For Paul the indicative always precedes the imperative and if Paul’s letters contain a lot of imperatival command statements on Christian living, that is only because Paul saw the grace of Christ as being at once deeply salvific and deeply transformative.
For Paul it was never a matter of saying “Become what you are not by behaving better.” It was always a matter of “Be who in baptism you already are.” It was never “Behave so God will save you.” It was always, “God already saved you so act like it.” There is a tight linkage—even etymologically—between the grace that saves and the gracious lives we lead as a result. Charis leads to eucharis which leads to the profusion of charismata in our lives. Grace makes us thankful and thanksgiving issues in the gifts and fruit of the Spirit and their exercise to God’s glory and to our neighbor’s benefit in the church and in the world.
It’s always something of a tightrope walk for us preachers. We know on the one hand that there are any number of closet legalists in the congregation. They already half believe the heresy that beset Galatia and so any talk from the pulpit about the need for moral living and fruit production just props up their false view that God grades on the curve and they are getting to heaven on the installment plan after all. Finding a way to talk to these people about morality while still leaving the full punch of salvation by grace alone intact requires regular effort to separate these things out.
On the other hand there are any number of overly entitled people in the congregation, including some from the younger generation who don’t seem to have as much difficulty with shame and guilt as they maybe should. Oh they get grace all right but the flipside of moral living, sacrificial giving to the church, and bearing much fruit does not get as much of a hearing from those who lean in the direction of moral therapeutic deism and the out-of-touch, insouciant god of that branch of modern thinking. To talk to them about grace without dismissing the need to respond morally and seriously and in service to God and neighbor also requires regular effort to point out these connections.
What’s a preacher to do? Well, preach grace until it looks like antinomianism is a danger and preach discipleship and bearing much fruit until it looks like legalism is a danger! And do both simultaneously and regularly until the rhythms and connections of all this start to sink in over the longer haul of the preaching life in the congregation. (Hey, nobody ever said preaching was supposed to be easy!)
But one way to preach Galatians 5 is to use the nine fruit of the Spirit to sketch such a lyric portrait of a beautiful, generous life that it flat out looks inviting to all who hear the sermon. We can’t scold people into being loving, peaceful, self-controlled, gentle and all the rest. But we can share vignettes of what such a life-giving life looks like. In an age when everyone seems angry, entitled, hacked off, selfish, and filled with me-first strong arm tactics to get their way, don’t we long for more loving people who are kind, good, peaceable? Don’t we pine to see self-control and patience and a deep-seated joy setting the tone for our interactions with each other, for our politics, for our very church communities? Many of us know people who are already good examples of this. We need to share their stories, hear their testimonies, be inspired by their examples.
“Keep step with the Spirit” Paul writes near the end of this chapter. The Spirit is leading the way and blazing the trail. We are already free from fear and anxiety, knowing God loves us in Christ already and has saved us fully by his cross. What remains is just trotting along after the Holy Spirit to see all the rich, juicy, abundant fruit that Spirit can and will grow on the branches of our lives.
C.S. Lewis regularly looked for ways to keep Christians from confusing the fruit of their salvation with the root of grace that alone makes the Christian life possible. One of his better known such examples involves the 6-year-old little boy who comes to his father and says “Daddy, can I have $5 to buy you a present?” The father obliges the child and pulls a $5 bill out of his pocket. Later the child comes back to the father to give him the gift he bought. The father is, of course, thrilled with the gift and thanks and praises and kisses the child for his thoughtfulness and his generosity.
But, Lewis notes, only a fool would conclude the father came out $5 ahead on the deal.
We don’t bring to God anything he did not already give to us. But he is as thrilled as he can be when we bring to him the gifts of our spiritual fruit. And as loving children, it thrills us to offer these and to receive our Father’s beaming love over and over again.