November 26, 2018
The Advent 1C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 21:25-36 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 33:14-16 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 25:1-10 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 52 (Lord’s Day 19)
Author: Scott Hoezee
For Luke “as it was in the beginning” might be a good slogan to encapsulate his Gospel’s conclusion. Because when Luke began, we heard a lot of very dramatic rhetoric as to what the coming of the Messiah would entail. Even the Virgin Mary’s song in Luke 1—the Magnificat—is filled with violent imagery. We read about the rich being sent away empty, about the proud being overthrown, and just generally about the great reversal of fortune that would come as a result of the child Mary was carrying.
Then when John the Baptist appears in Luke 3, he also makes claims that are on the grand side. He predicts great upheavals and then claims that ALL of humanity would see these things. His words to even the religious leaders of the day were laced with bracing imagery of axes being laid to roots and such. Both Mary and John the Baptist speak (and sing) in ways that let you know something BIG is on its way!
But then Jesus of Nazareth appears and for the longest time things get kind of quiet. Jesus is doing many good things, saying memorable phrases, healing people. But no valleys were getting exulted. No mountains were falling into the heart of the sea. The haughty rich were snug and secure in their mansions, and the poor were not being filled with good things. It got to the point (as you can read in Luke 7) where even John the Baptist thought he had made a mistake in identifying his cousin Jesus as the great Coming One and so dispatched a cadre of followers to ask a heartbreaking question of Jesus: “Are you the one who was to come or should we wait for someone else?” Loosely paraphrased, John wonders if they should wait for someone better!
But Jesus kept making clear that his kingdom, though real and powerful, was of a different nature than the kingdoms of this world. Finally, however, by the time we get to Luke 21, some of this gospel’s rhetoric appears to have swung around full circle as even Jesus starts to talk about public events that all humanity will see. What’s more, those public events will be dramatic and will send people skittering and scattering. You can almost hear John the Baptist crowing, “Now that’s more like it!” Mother Mary may be smiling approvingly in the background, too.
It’s easy to latch onto this kind of dramatic stuff from either end of Luke’s gospel and make it the whole story. We end up treating the shank of Jesus’ quieter gospel ministry as a kind of gospel footnote, an asterisk, the exception that proves the rule. Hence some make “the norm” of the church’s ministry the loud and noisy and public stuff. But that is, of course, a mistake. We cannot ignore the example of Jesus all through the gospel nor may we forget that even after his resurrection, we find Jesus not engaged in violent actions against the rich and powerful but trudging along beside two clueless travelers en route to Emmaus or appearing in locked rooms or on a quiet and remote mountaintop just before disappearing into the clouds.
Jesus says that when all these big things happen, the end is near, the kingdom is near. But the implication is that until this happens—and it all looks to be a rather unmistakable set of circumstances when the end finally comes—things will probably continue on along the kingdom trajectory suggested by the bulk of Jesus’ ministry. We are to continue to witness to Christ and to his kingdom in Christ-like ways, which is to say in ways that keep an eye out for the downtrodden, the poor, the marginalized. As we do so, we may well continue to work largely in obscurity, even as Jesus did.
Over the long haul, that can get a little discouraging. Jesus knows this. Why else did he conclude with that stern warning not to give ourselves over to dissipation and the like? Jesus knew we’d be tempted in that direction in case we peg our identity—or try to define our successes—solely along the terms and definitions proffered by the world (which tends to define success as anything that is loud, garish, glitzy, headline-grabbing, etc.).
Mary and John the Baptist at the beginning of Luke—and Jesus himself here in Luke 21 near the end of Luke—were not wrong. The kingdom is going to make all the difference in the world. It will be God’s grand reversal of fortunes, God’s glorious return of this creation to what he intended in the beginning. But it may be a while. Meanwhile faithfulness is called for and gospel “success” is defined by all those times we notice the little people, the down-and-outers, the sick and marginalized and proclaim to them Good News. It may not grab headlines—and in a world beset by so many problems it may look like the equivalent of trying to empty the ocean one thimble-full at a time—but kingdom vision sees things differently!
Of course and as always, we celebrate Advent and Christmas and we sing our carols and we light our little candles in an often dark and turbulent world. Many nations, including the United States, are living through divisive times. Political rhetoric seems to be more and more violent as opponents are no longer good-hearted people with whom we happen to disagree but enemies whom we must destroy and set aside. Recent weeks have again seen a spate of shootings and hate crimes even as other things in the news recently—like terrible fires and storms—trouble us deeply.
It will once again be another Advent to test what we really believe. The nations of this world are in tumult and respond the only way they mostly know how: meeting fire with fire. Yet we in the church believe that the kingdom of God is the greater reality, even right this very moment. We believe that the kingdom is spreading like yeast in dough, like a seed germinating and sending down roots silently in the soil. We believe Jesus HAS come once and WILL come again and all that we do—how we pray, how we worship, how we preach in especially times of fear and tumult—has to witness to our ardent belief in the power of Jesus to heal.
In some ways, given the news of the day, it may not feel like a very “Merry Christmas” this year, and that traditional greeting may even stick in our throats a bit, feeling more like an effort to cover over the world’s mayhem than a genuine expression of heartfelt merriment from our hearts. But then, “Merry Christmas” has never been a Christian, biblical saying anyway. We seek the deeper things of joy, not mere happiness. We seek to celebration the coming of shalom and the incarnation of a grace that alone can save us from our sins and this world from its addiction to evil and violence.
We seek something more profound than that which is merely “merry.” And thankfully through the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have that something, too.
[Note: Regular readers of the CEP website recognize that I have now returned from my recent sabbatical. So on this first week “back on the job,” I want to thank Rev. Leonard Vander Zee for filling in so wonderfully for me on the Gospel and Psalm sermon starters since September. I know his work blessed many and I hope that everything we continue to do at CEP will continue to do the same!]
Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2018 Resources are now available on CEP: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/advent-2018/
Paul Scott Wilson, in The Lectionary Commentary, notes that when Jesus uses the word ethnos to describe the “nations” that will be in anguish and perplexity, he’s using the same word he uses for “Gentiles” in verse 24. The sense is that upheaval at the “signs,” as well as their implications, will be universal. By implication, however, Wilson suggests, the Gentiles may not recognize those signs. Fred Craddock, in his commentary, Luke, points out that the word Jesus uses for “this generation” in verse 32, while apparently very specific, is actually quite vague. The word can refer, as we’d expect, to a period of about thirty years. But it can also refer to a period of an indefinite number of years that’s marked by a kind of quality such as suffering, waiting or witnessing.
From Neal Plantinga’ sermon: “In the Interim”:
Be on guard, says Jesus, that you don’t get weighed down with parochial anxieties and parochial amusements to relieve them. Be on guard against that fatal absorption with yourself! Take care! Stay alert! “Stand up and raise your heads because the Kingdom is coming.”
Jesus’ words are an antidote to our sloth, an antidote to our worldly cynicism, an antidote even to our scorn of prophecy buffs. Jesus’ words are meant to raise our heads and raise our hopes. Could justice really come to the earth? Could husbands quit beating up their wives, and could wives quit blaming themselves? Could Arabs and Israelis look into each other’s eyes and see a brother or a sister? Could some of us who struggle with addictions, or with diseases that trap us-could we be liberated by God, and start to walk tall in the Kingdom of God? Could Jesus Christ appear among us in some way that our poverty-stricken minds can never imagine in a scenario that would simply erase our smug confidence about where the lines of reality are drawn?
If we believe in the Kingdom of God we will pray, and we will hope for those without much hope left. And one more thing, one more tough thing. We will work in the same direction as we hope.
In a wonderful book entitled Standing on the Promises, my teacher Lewis Smedes says that hoping for others is hard, but not the hardest. Praying for others is hard, but not the hardest. The hardest part for people who believe in the second coming of Jesus Christ is in “living the sort of life that makes people say, ‘Ah, so that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over our world.”
The hardest part is simple faithfulness in our work and in our attitudes-the kind of faithfulness that shows we are being drawn forward by the magnet force of the Kingdom of God.
According to a story that Os Guinness tells, two hundred twenty years ago the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May, and the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then something happened that nobody expected. Right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the Second Coming. So a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
But the speaker of the House had a different idea. He was a Christian believer, and he rose to the occasion with good logic and good faith. We are all upset by the darkness, he said, and some of us are afraid. But, “the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty.
“I therefore ask that candles be brought.”
And men who expected Jesus went back to their desks and resumed their debate.
Author: Stan Mast
Advent begins this year in burned out cities littered with dead bodies and in a devastated countryside where the deer and the antelope do not play (Jeremiah 33:4-5 and 10). After centuries of divine patience with Israel’s blatant covenant breaking, God has finally had it. This dark book of Jeremiah is God’s word of judgment upon his wicked children and upon those who will be instruments of his judgment.
That judgment has begun to fall, so there is death and terror, deprivation and sorrow everywhere. Picture the bombed out cities of modern day Syria or the fire ravaged hills of California or the whole country of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. But at the very moment when God’s judgment reaches it depth, God speaks an unexpected word of hope. Just when Israel thought there was no hope, God repeats a promise he had made centuries before to David, a word about healing and security, prosperity and joy.
That’s what we have in Jeremiah 30-33, the so called Book of Consolation in the midst of Jeremiah’s tear filled words of judgment. Our text is the exclamation point at the end of the Book of Consolation.
Jeremiah himself is not in a good place; indeed, he is in prison. But as would happen so often to the Apostle Paul centuries later, it was in prison that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. Our text is the second revelation given to Jeremiah as he languished in the “courtyard of the guard (33:1).” It is a word we desperately need in these dark times, so it is a fitting way to begin our Advent journey in 2018.
I speak of dark times primarily because of the political situation in my beloved country, where partisan division has reached historic proportions and the country seems to be coming apart at the seams. The news cycle bombards us with dire warnings. “It’s never been this bad. We’ve never had such leadership. We can’t survive this kind of government gridlock. We are doomed as a country.” Of course, people in places like Afghanistan, North Korea, and South Sudan will tell us that we don’t know how bad it can get when leadership runs amok. We still have a thriving economy and the rule of law seems to be firmly in place. But all around the world we hear voices declaring that things have never been worse.
Our text in Jeremiah challenges us with a very important question in this situation. Who are we going to believe—the word of the secular prophets or the word of the Lord? Earlier in Jeremiah, those secular prophets (claiming to speak for God) had declared that all is well; prosperity and security are our lot in life. Now, after years of bad news (Jeremiah lived through 40 years of disaster), those same prophets are declaring that there is no hope. Two times in this chapter alone, God quotes those prophets: “You say about this place, ‘It is a desolate waste without men or animals (verse 10).’” And in verse 24 God says, “Have you noticed that these people are saying, ‘The Lord has rejected the two kingdoms he chose?’”
In our text for this first Sunday of Advent, God has a counter word for a dark time. Don’t believe what those talking heads say about your future. Listen to this word from Yahweh. “The days are coming,” says Yahweh, “when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.” Read chapter 33 carefully and you will hear over and over, “The Lord says, the word of the Lord came to me, this is what the Lord says….” In our age of the 24 hour news cycle, God’s people need to be confronted with this question. Who are you going to listen to? Who will set the tone of your life? Who will you believe as you face dark times? CNN, Fox News, CBS? Or the God of Israel who made a promise that has great implications for our world today?
Here is the word of the Lord for Israel and for us. “In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line….” Of course, this harks back to the promise God made to David in II Samuel 7 and reiterated in David’s last words in II Samuel 23. “You will always have a son on the throne of Israel. David’s line will not die out.” But Israel was about to be dragged off into exile and the last Jewish King was going along for the ride. The monarchy was over. It had been an abject failure in the last years of the two kingdoms, and now it was dead. So, the promise of Yahweh had come to nothing. Everyone could see that. Everyone said that.
But the Lord says something very different than the popular pundits and the pusillanimous preachers. There is coming a time when Yahweh will raise up a little sprout, a shoot from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1), “a righteous branch from David’s line.” And he will do what these failed kings did not and could not do. First of all, “he will do what is just and right in the land,” exactly what God appointed leaders are supposed to do—act righteously and defend justice, especially for those who are victims of injustice. Second, and precisely because he does what is right and just, that Branch will save his people. “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”
What Israel needed (and what every nation needs) in order to be safe and secure, prosperous and happy, is a leader who does what is right and just. Or, as verse 17 (not, unfortunately, part of our reading today) puts it, what we all need is a king and a priest. “For this is what the Lord says, ‘David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, nor will the priests, who are the Levites, ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.” God will provide leaders (or more correctly, a Leader, the Branch from the line of David) who will restore both government and religion, who will rightly render the affairs of the people and will lead them in their worship of God.
This, of course, points ahead to the fullness of time when God sent forth his Son, the greater Son of David to do precisely what God promised here in Jeremiah 33, but in a greater way than Jeremiah or any of this contemporaries and countrymen could have imagined. This promise was not limited to Israel’s future prosperity and security. Indeed, much of Israel rejected Jesus because he did not restore the fortunes of Israel in the way our text seems to promise. Instead, Jesus restored the Kingdom of God to the whole world and is in the process of bringing that Kingdom to the fruition promised here in Jeremiah 33.
In fact, this promise helps us see the breadth of the hope promised by God to David and his line, which includes all who put their hope in the Branch. He not only makes us right with God, but also brings a kingdom filled with righteousness and justice. Israel was looking for a rebuilt nation that resembled what they had under David. Christians often focus on a heavenly dwelling that has little to do with this earth. Our text corrects both extremes. Ours is not, so to speak, merely a vertical hope; it is also a horizontal hope. Yes, of course, Jesus reconciles us to God, but he also promises to reconcile us to each other and the creation in the new heavens and the new earth.
I can’t say it better than The New Interpreter’s Bible, so I’ll simply quote. “The vision of the future and of God’s blessing that permeates the Scripture is not simply spiritual, interior and personal… the God who saves is also the God who blesses. That blessing is found in the provision and maintenance of life, in the continuities of birth and growth and marriage, in the sustaining of lives by work and economic gain, in the rich joy that human intercourse brings to individuals and communities…. [that is] the restoration of this world to its proper character as God’s creation.”
I am not talking here about how humans will be able to build the Kingdom of God on earth. This is not the secular hope that drives modern culture. This is the Gospel hope centered in Jesus Christ. Our text summarizes that hope in the name found at the end of our text, “The Lord Our Righteousness.” Whether that is the name of the restored Israel/Jerusalem (as here) or of the Branch himself (as in 23:6), the idea is that the righteousness that will reconcile us to God and to our fellow humans and to creation is a gift from God.
Indeed, God himself is our righteousness. This sounds a great deal like the theme of Paul’s magnum opus, the Letter to the Romans. “But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” The righteousness of God in Jesus Christ declares us righteous in God’s sight and makes us righteous in God’s world. We can take no credit for the restoration of our relationship with God or for the restoration of God’s creation. The Lord alone is our righteousness.
In the season of Advent, we look back to the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s surprising promise and we look ahead to the brave new world the promised Branch will bring. This promise will sound foolish to the prophets and preachers who alternately glory in human potential or wallow in human failure. But this is what the Lord says, and it is as certain as day and night.
Indeed, Jeremiah 33 ends with God anchoring the certainty of this promise in the rhythms of creation. “If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them (verses 25 and 26.” As surely as day follows night, God’s covenant promise will send the King and Priest to restore right relationships and right religion in Israel and in the world.
Advent starts out small, with a single Branch, but ends with the world rid of thorns “far as the curse is found.” (“Joy to the World”)
When my wife and I moved into our condo 20 years ago, there was a stand of tall verdant trees lining our backyard. Over the years, those trees have died a branch at a time, until there was nothing left but skeletal trunks devoid of all branches and leaves. The last trunk fell in a windstorm last month and now lies across the boundary line. There is no way a new branch will grow out of that dead piece of wood and become the basis of a whole new forest. That’s how dead Israel looked to the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day. Only a prophet in touch with the living God could come up with the impossible promise of our text—“I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
When I read Psalm 25, I find myself drawn to its utter realism. If you enter into the rhythms and patterns of these verses, what you will find is probably something akin to your own life. If you are like most people, including most Christian people, then the pattern of your piety is probably something of a see-saw: there are ups and downs; good, strong seasons and dry, weak seasons. Clearly this is the experience of this Hebrew poet, too. Just look at how the various parts of Psalm 25 are interspersed and woven together. (By the way, this sermon starter will encompass the whole Psalm, despite the Lectionary’s cutting off the reading at verse 10.)
On the one hand there is lofty praise of God as the psalmist lifts his entire soul up to heaven, placing himself squarely before the throne of Yahweh in a fervent desire to praise God. On the other hand those words are followed by honest admissions of hardship, loneliness, and grief. Even those who lift the essence of themselves up to God are not guaranteed that they’ll never have a bad day!
On the one hand there are places in this psalm in which the psalmist expresses firm desires to learn about God and live according to his divine ways only. On the other hand those same verses are accompanied by other passages which unstintingly confess sins past and present. The sins and follies of youth are laid out for God to see, but so are the struggles and setbacks of the psalmist’s present life. The life of faith is not always a bed of roses, and we don’t always come out smelling like a rose ourselves, either!
On the one hand there is in this psalm some truly soaring rhetoric on how God rewards the faithful, satisfying with good stuff those who fear God and who strive to live by the light of God’s covenant. On the other hand it is clear that despite this belief that God gives good things to his beloved ones, nevertheless this psalmist faces the traps and snares of his enemies. Worse, this current crisis has multiplied what the psalmist describes in verse 17 as some troublesome thoughts in his heart–a passage that sounds suspiciously like how a person might describe major depression.
There is here praise but also lament; piety but also pity; fond aspirations but also sinful failures; firm hope but also real hurt. A description of real life does not get much more honest or realistic than this!
Probably this psalmist had exactly real life in mind when he wrote this, too. Psalm 25 is one of several poems in the Hebrew psalter that is an acrostic, which means that each successive line of this psalm begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Since the Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two letters, Psalm 25 has twenty-two lines, the first one beginning with the Hebrew equivalent of the letter “A,” the second one starting with the letter “B” and so on down to the equivalent of the letter “Z” in the last line (this larger unifying frame is another reason not to cut off the reading at verse 10).
One of the reasons psalms got written as acrostics was to help people memorize the poem. In a time when no one had access to books or any other kind of printed material, people had to memorize everything. They could not just go and “look it up” in their own personal copies of the Bible. By composing a poem as an acrostic people would have an easier time memorizing it. The ABC pattern is a mnemonic device.
Perhaps this psalmist wanted to make sure that people could memorize his poem for two reasons: first, because he knew how well his poetic sentiments fit in with real life. This psalm is something worth carrying around with you as you lead a similarly real life of sin, suffering, hurt, and disappointment. But second, and just as importantly, this psalmist wanted to remind people that in and through all these varied experiences is ever and always the need to be instructed by God. The psalmist wanted people to memorize a poem about instruction by God because it is precisely the very act of memorization–of rehearsing something over and over until you make it a part of who you are–that is the key.
The solution to sin, the way through suffering, the method for clinging to God’s rich promises even during periods when you yourself don’t seem to be on the receiving end of those promises–in and through it all this psalmist clearly believes that receiving divine tutoring is somehow the answer. This may not be an obvious answer. This may not be an easy answer. Being instructed by God may not eliminate life’s pains or even, all by itself, tie off every loose end of life. But in receiving divine instruction there is somehow hope.
In the course of this poem just about every conceivable Hebrew verb and synonym having to do with instructing gets used at least once. The psalmist dug deep into his Hebrew thesaurus to pummel readers with a variety of words having to do with education. He asks God to instruct him in the course of his hymns of praise, in the course of his petitions for help, in the course of his pleas from the midst of life’s valleys. In fact, let’s scan through this poem specifically to note how frequently this motif pops up.
In verse 4 the poet talks about God’s ways and paths and asks God to guide and to show these divine roadways. In verse 5 God’s truth comes to the fore, and the psalmist pleas that God will guide to and also teach that truth. In verse 8 he begs God to instruct him and then in verse 9 petitions that God again guide and teach. Verse 12 features yet another request for instruction and verse 14 depicts Yahweh confiding his covenant and making known the truth of his love and faithfulness.
The posture of the faithful over against God is one of humble submission to the ongoing education God alone can provide. Unlike people today, and perhaps unlike people in many eras of history, this psalmist sees sin and turns to divine tutelage as the solution. He sees suffering and seeks to understand it based on what God can divulge through further instruction. He experiences loneliness and so decides to learn more about God’s covenant faithfulness as a way to parse those lonely times.
We think of the word “disciple” as meaning “follower,” and in a sense that’s true. But the original word used in the New Testament for “disciple” really means “student.” The original disciples hooked up with Jesus not merely to tag along behind him to see what might happen next. No, they apprenticed themselves to Jesus because they sensed that he was an interesting rabbi at whose feet they dearly desired to learn the great things he would impart to them, his inner circle of learners.
As Dallas Willard has pointed out, part of the realism of the gospels and of their presentation of the teacher-student relationship can be seen in the fact that so very often in the gospels you find Jesus basically bawling out his disciples. He was not rejecting them but loving them. Good teachers take their students with utmost seriousness–it would be profoundly unloving to let students persist in error. Discerning students likewise are willing to be corrected. It’s not fun to be corrected and it can be frustrating, too. But only a fool would enter college under the assumption that there’s nothing the faculty can teach him that he doesn’t already know. Only an even more foolish person would assume that professors exist merely to validate everything you already believe and think you know.
Disciples are students. They follow the Master not merely to be close to where the action is but to learn. But I wonder if we sometimes forget that today. It seems that maybe we’ve kept the follower part of our definition of “disciple” but have largely left the student part alone. We join a church and just kind of trot along with the crowd, coming to worship more to watch what happens than to do any hard thinking; turning worship into an event to make us feel a certain way more than a time to make us think a certain way.
But when worship becomes entertainment and sermons a spectacle to be observed more than a lesson to be chewed on and mulled over, then disciples become spectators not learners. It’s bad enough if we treat worship as a passive entertainment experience but if at the same time we also restrict our Christian learning to only that hour or two of worship on a Sunday, then we all but ensure that we will not often, if ever, assume the posture of Psalm 25. We will not make a part of our daily lives this psalmist’s example of trying to make sense of life’s richly varied experiences by being incessant and attentive students of God.
Psalm 25 was written as an acrostic to help people memorize it, carry it with them, make it part of the warp, woof, and weave of the everyday. But how well do we or our contemporaries do in seeing life as a learning experience at the feet of God?
But precisely what—I hear you asking—does this have to do with the first Sunday in Advent? In one sense I confess that I have no idea why this was chosen for Advent 1 in the Year C Lectionary. But maybe we can say this: Advent is—or should be—the first surprise in a Gospel message chock full of surprises. Jesus came to this earth to teach very new things. He came to reveal the hidden depths of things we thought we already knew and to reverse a lot we had all along only assumed was correct. The only way you are going to “get” Jesus and his Gospel message is to assume the posture of a very faithful, very loving student. You are going to have to listen carefully and well.
In this sense, then, maybe Psalm 25 is a good way to begin Advent after all.
Of all the images in Psalm 25, perhaps the one in verse 14 is the most striking. There the psalmist depicts Yahweh as beckoning to the believer, summoning the faithful with a gentle wave of the divine hand. Once we respond to God’s hailing of us, God drapes his arm around our shoulders, pulls us in tight, and then, to use the word of verse 14, he confides in us–he cups his hand to our ears and whispers to us about his covenant love and faithfulness.
It is an intimate image showing how much God loves us and how much we, in our own love for God, delight in receiving his very personal instruction of us as to his ways, his love, and above his faithful grace that will never let us go. Despite our sin, our shortcomings, our suffering in this present world, God confides in us, let’s us in on a little cosmic secret. And the secret is that God’s got the whole world in his hands, including us. He won’t let go. It is that stunning revelation that should make us, as faithful students, say in response, “Really! You’ll never let go?! Tell me more. Tell me more.”
[Note: Regular readers of the CEP website recognize that I have now returned from my recent sabbatical. So on this first week “back on the job,” I want to thank Rev. Leonard Vander Zee for filling in so wonderfully for me on the Gospel and Psalm sermon starters since September. I know his work blessed many and I hope that everything we continue to do at CEP will continue to do the same!]
Some time ago I read an article about memory in which the author pointed out that printing written materials was never designed to replace memory but to help us memorize better. But over time, precisely because we have so much that is already written down, the act of memorizing has waned. It is sort of like what happens when you get a telephone which can store twenty or so phone numbers in its memory: eventually you forget the very numbers you call the most frequently. “My phone has memory, I don’t” we sometimes joke. And it’s true.
So it goes with many things, including Scripture. When you’ve got a half-dozen Bibles scattered around your house, you assume that you have such ready access to the Bible that you don’t need to spend much time memorizing its texts or meditating on them. But even as storing a number into the memory of your phone is very different than storing it in your own brain, so also the words in an unopened Bible on the shelf next to the dinner table: those words are not going to float across thin air and somehow become part of who you are. Making them part of your very self requires reading, reflecting, memorizing.
Of course, being a believer means far more than knowing a lot. Also, you don’t have to be a brilliant scholar to qualify as a faithful believer. Indeed, there are some very bright scholars in the world who know reams about the Bible but who are not disciples.
True discipleship combines knowledge with love, ardent desire for God with a life that shows that same fervor in daily patterns of holy living.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Author: Doug Bratt
This first Sunday in the season of Advent liturgically marks the beginning of a season of waiting. Not just of waiting to celebrate Jesus’ first coming. Advent is also the season in which God’s adopted sons and daughters at least try to concentrate on waiting for Jesus’ second coming.
We’ve had 2,000 years of practice at that waiting. Yet practice at waiting for Jesus to come back hasn’t yet made perfect. Some Christians, in fact, have at least figuratively spent two millennia trying to figure out just when, how and for whom Jesus will come back.
Paul at least hints that the Thessalonians to whom he writes this week’s Lectionary text struggle with some of the same issues. Yet he’s startlingly generous with his praise for them as they await Jesus’ return. In fact, Paul speaks in glowing terms about the Thessalonians’ “faith and love.”
So throughout much of this week’s Epistolary Lesson the Thessalonians sound like the kind of people preachers and teachers would want to fill our churches … until we get to the end of verse 10. There Paul writes, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.”
It almost makes modern church leaders want to say, “Oh come on! You can’t be serious. You’ve just spent all that time praising the Thessalonians’ love and faith. Yet now you suggest their faith is somehow ‘lacking’? You should see what we have to deal with every week!”
The Greek word for that word “lacking” hints at something that needs to be restored or completed. When fishermen’s nets had holes or people’s bones were broken, they were literally “lacking.” Those who repaired those breaks were literally said to “supply what is lacking.” So verse 10 suggests that there are holes and breaks in the Thessalonians’ response to God’s grace.
When I read about the Thessalonians’ “lack,” I think of one of the most decadent inventions of all time: the chocolate waterfall machine. Such machines pour out their chocolatey goodness over things like fruit and marshmallows. They’re made up of a kind of “tower of bowls.” When the liquid chocolate fills the top bowl, it cascades down to a lower bowl that, when filled, overflows onto yet another bowl below it.
If we were to compare the Thessalonians to a chocolate waterfall machine, Paul would be saying they only have enough of the chocolate that is faith to fill the top bowl. Their faith is stuck in its top bowl. They don’t seem to have enough faith to overflow onto other bowls.
Those who preach and teach 1 Thessalonians 3 will want to look for ways to join its author in complimenting their hearers. They’ll want to look for specific examples of faith and faithfulness they’ve observed in them. If they can do so honestly, those who proclaim this Lesson may even want to say their feelings for their hearers are a lot like Paul’s for the Thessalonians.
Yet Paul at least invites those who proclaim as well as hear 1 Thessalonians 3 to also ask if our faith is still somehow “lacking.” If we just have enough faith to fill part of us. If we need someone to supply what is lacking in our faith, to top it off so that it may overflow onto the bowl that is our neighbor.
Of course, we naturally assume there isn’t much “lacking” in us. In his novel, An Innocent Millionaire, Steven Vizinczey describes a Mafia hit man named Baglione. He doesn’t see himself as a “killer.” After all, he reasons, of all the people he could have killed, he killed only nine and spared hundreds. Baglione considers himself a “man of extraordinary restraint.”
Yet it isn’t just contract killers who deceive themselves. Self-deception is, after all, one of the evil one’s most powerful but insidious tools. It’s far easier to recognize where our neighbors’ faith is “lacking” than where our own does.
So while those who proclaim 1 Thessalonians 3 wait for “our Lord Jesus” to come “with all his holy ones,” we might contemplate just what’s lacking in the faith of our churches and us. With the Spirit and the Scriptures’ help, we might ask God to identify for us where our faithful obedience isn’t quite full to the top.
Yet the Spirit doesn’t just help us identify the flaws in our Christian lives. That same Spirit also helps us to grow in our Christian faith and practice. The Spirit doesn’t just point out that our chocolate waterfall bowl isn’t quite full of faith. The Holy Spirit also helps us overflow with the “chocolatey goodness” that is love.
Paul doesn’t, after all, tell the Thessalonians to increase their love so that it overflows. Nor does he tell them, “Strengthen your hearts so that you may be pure and holy …” He recognizes that not even the holiest people can do those things by themselves. So the apostle writes, ““May the Lord make your love increase and overflow (12) … May [God] strengthen your hearts” (13).
Here is great grace: God does for God’s beloved people what we can’t do for ourselves. God doesn’t just give us the gift of eternal life. God also strengthens the loving response to God’s grace that is our Christian life.
When Paul talks about such love, he’s talking about more than an emotion or attraction. Love is also the Holy Spirit-fueled choice to do things like pray and work for a neighbor’s well-being. Paul prays that God will make that greatest of all gifts both “increase” and “overflow.”
In fact, it’s almost as if he says, “May God make your love grow and grow and grow.” The biblical scholar Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrases this as, “May the Master pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over …”
Yet Paul doesn’t, as our culture would expect, long for us to love ourselves more and more. He probably recognizes that few of us naturally need God’s help to desire what’s best for ourselves. No, Paul wants our love to overflow like a chocolate waterfall machine onto each other.
Of course, we’re not surprised to hear that God wants to increase the Thessalonians’ love for their brothers and sisters in Christ. But Paul may surprise us when he adds: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else …” After all, it’s a plea for God to increase the Thessalonians’ love for their neighbors who are outside their circles of family members and friends.
In doing so, the apostle recognizes that God doesn’t just empower God’s people to love for the people who already love us. God doesn’t even equip us to love just the people we like and who like us. God invites Jesus’ followers to what a colleague calls a “bigger love.” God empowers us with a love that stretches to the great “everyone” out there.
Paul begs God to pour so much love into us that it overflows on to “everyone else” who’s not part of our community. He even prays that God will so fill God’s adopted sons and daughters with love that it overflows onto strangers and even our enemies.
That too is a great grace. After all, while Jesus too calls us to love and pray for our enemies, we don’t naturally love them. When we’re honest with each other, most of us have to admit we’re not even sure we want to love our enemies. Yet the Holy Spirit doesn’t just want to equip God’s adopted children with a desire to love our enemies. The Spirit also empowers us to actually love them, to choose to long and pray for both their well-being and them.
Few examples of the kind of love about which Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 3 were more expansive than Louis Zamperini’s. The Holy Spirit so filled him with love that it overflowed onto the least likely of all recipients. Laura Hildenbrand describes part of it in her outstanding book, Unbroken.
Japanese soldiers captured and sent Zamperini to a prisoner of war camp. There he fell under the command of Corporal Mutsuhiro Wantanabe, among the most sadistic of all Japanese prisoner of war commandants. The one whom POW’s called “The Bird” took special pleasure in killing prisoners only after torturing them slowly and for a long time.
After his release from the prison camp, Zamperini suffered greatly. He probably endured what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Zamperini was obsessed with returning to Japan to hunt down and murder “The Bird.”
Eventually Zamperini did return to Japan, but not to kill Wantanaba. He described why in a letter to him: “As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance…
“The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love has replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, ‘Forgive your enemies and pray for them.’
“I returned to Japan in 1952 and was graciously allowed to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison … I asked then about you, and was told that you probably had committed Hara Kiri, which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you had also become a Christian.”