December 02, 2019
The Advent 2A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 3:1-12 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 11:1-10 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 72:1-7,18-19 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 15:4-13 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 72 (Lord’s Day 27)
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Across the United States in recent weeks, there have been tidal waves of accusation and blame, counter-accusations and blame, judgments and more judgments from the left and from the right and from all points in between. Political parties are said to have been judged by the voters. Individual politicians are said to have been repudiated and put in their place.”
That paragraph is, word for word, how this sermon starter opened in early December 2016. What we perhaps could not have known then is that what I described there in the weeks after the 2016 election of President Trump is that this political upheaval and rancor was about to settle in as a kind of weird new normal. Indeed, if I had not told you this is what I wrote three years ago when last Matthew 3 was the Advent II Lectionary text, you would have assumed I had been describing the last two months in 2019.
Perhaps it was not so different in the days of the Roman Empire 2,000 or so years ago. And into that atmosphere then—and into our fraught atmosphere today—please welcome John the Baptist. And by the way, John is not here in Advent to calm our troubled waters! But that begs the question: how many of our congregations actually have room for him? Is John too shrill?
The Church has always traditionally made from for John the Baptist, and for good reason. As Fred Craddock once pointed out, John the Baptist was the most famous preacher of his generation. People walked for miles just to hear this man and to watch his somewhat theatrical way of preaching. He was a sight to see, all right, but it was his message that arrested people’s hearts. Even people who deemed themselves quite devout before they showed up at the Jordan River ended up going home soaking wet having been baptized by John. Even people who had no intention of confessing their sins suddenly found themselves welling up with tears, telling God how sorry they were, and getting dunked into those muddy waters only to emerge spiritually clean and refreshed.
Of course, like all preachers, John didn’t get through to everybody. Some who came to the Jordan with no intention of getting taken in by this man stuck to that determination pretty fiercely. The religious leaders provided John the opportunity to cut loose with his strongest language. “Sneaky snakes!” John fairly howled! “Somebody set the field on fire and out slithered you all! Well, I’m here to tell you that the days of resting on your laurels are over. Don’t whip out your Members Only temple gold card–your theological credentials cut no ice with me! Don’t tell me about your spiritual lineage or that you are Abraham’s children because if God wanted more children of Abraham, he’d turn the stones into a whole bunch of them. But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Your hearts are as dead as stone already. God wants living trees producing juicy spiritual fruit. If I were you, I’d get serious about that because I’m here to lay the groundwork and clear a path for Somebody big and strong who is coming any minute now. He’s coming with a very sharp axe in his hand and he will chop down and burn to ashes dead trees like you all!”
This was amazing stuff. It shook people up. It would shake us up. The Second Sunday in Advent may be a time to ponder all the paradoxes of Advent and Christmas—paradoxes that would shake us all up if only we took the time to note them. Of course, the problem is that many people even in the pews of our churches see no paradoxes at all. Christmas is as straightforward a holiday as they come. Starting the day after Thanksgiving it’s just one long string of “Holly, Jolly, Merry, Merry, Joy, Joy, Joy” as children’s eyes shine and lights twinkle and we stuff ourselves with food. We might get a little sick of the non-stop cheer-fest but we don’t typically regard it as paradoxical or ambiguous.
But that creates a “teachable moment” in the Church as we try to shake people up and wake them up. John the Baptist’s traditionally prominent role in Advent provides wonderful foil to the other trappings of the season (which is why John the Baptist is wholly absent from pop conceptions of the holiday season). John reminds us that repentance is involved in preparing ourselves for the Christ. What’s more, the way things go in at least North America now, we many times need to repent for how we celebrate Christmas itself!! Now there’s a message that will strike many people as at least as strong as “Brood of vipers!”
What if we now are the people who have become stone-cold in our faith on account of our having allowed the secular conception of the holiday to suffocate genuine piety and deep reflection on the meaning of Christ’s advent in our world? What if we are the ones who pay more attention to decorating an expensive spruce tree in our living room but not much attention at all to the living tree of faith that is supposed to produce the true fruits of repentance? In Advent, do tinsel and shiny ornaments eclipse for us the Fruit of the Spirit? Are we more interested in the still-life golden angel that sits atop our Christmas tree than in living angels who may be God’s messengers to call us to repentance?
At this depressing, frightening, polarizing moment in world history with impeachment and Brexit and Syria and the Kurds and climate change and immigration and all the rest, could it be that John is exactly the shrill voice we need to cut through all the cacophony? Could it be that a common call to repent, to return to our basic humanity, to humble ourselves before God are all precisely what we need to focus us and clarify for us what God’s grand project of salvation is really all about? Fact is, we cannot shut out the cacophony of the moment and we surely will not be successful for long if we try to paper it over with Christmas wrappings and tinsel and bows. That is not what God’s own Son came down to this earth to do either. He came to confront what was, take it head on, and only in that raw engagement with all that is wrong with us could he have a chance to win the victory.
Nobody wants John the Baptist at their holiday party. He’s one messy guest. And so shrill, too. You can’t even get through the first verse of “The Little Drummer Boy” before John is telling you to confess your sins for the umpteenth time (John would scare that poor little drummer kid silly, which may be just as well as that is surely one song that would make John gag!).
John is the kind of Advent guest that forces you to wonder either what in the world is wrong with HIM or what in the world is wrong with YOU.
One hope we still have room for John in our congregations at Advent. His is a voice calling out—a voice we need to hear.
Note: Our specific Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season of 2019.
Matthew 3 confronts us with a textual hiccup common to the gospels and its appropriation of Isaiah 40:3. Most translations of Matthew 3:3 have it as “A voice of one crying in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” But many translations of the original text in Isaiah has it this way: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert, prepare the way of the Lord.’” So which is it? Is the crier in the desert or is the message about the coming Lord dealing with his arrival in a desert place? Conceivably we can see this as a both/and: the reason the crier is calling out in the desert is because it is in the desert where the Lord will come (as indeed happens in Matthew 3 when Jesus shows up in the midst of the desert and departs to that same place after his baptism as well). Either way or both ways the idea is the same: the highway to God’s salvation begins in the place of death and chaos because that is where that message is needed the most.
In her wonderful children’s picture book We Were There: A Nativity Story, Eve Bunting (illustrator: Wendell Minor) turns Christmas upside down for us in ways that are revealing.
The simple story shows us first a slithering snake, then a warty toad, a scary scorpion, a shiny cockroach, a swooping bat, a hairy spider, and a furry rat all on a journey. Each creature introduces itself and then concludes with the words “I will be there.”
As the book ends we are shown more common nativity creatures: fuzzy lambs, doe-eyed donkeys, gentle cows. But as those traditional figures in the stable stand around the manger in which the Babe has been laid by his mother Mary, we see in the corner, unnoticed, that small gathering of the snake, toad, scorpion, cockroach, bat, spider, and rat.
Bunting has found a lyric way to remind us that the coming of the Christ is not all about the traditional and cozy trappings in which we have for too long ensconced the Christmas story but that this is a story for all creatures and that Jesus came to embrace and renew the good, the bad, the ugly; the expected and the unexpected.
A simple children’s story like this reminds us of the paradoxes and unexpected twists of the season, rather the way John the Baptist can shake things up for us if only we take time to listen to his message.
(Note: My thanks to children’s author and Calvin University Professor of English, Gary Schmidt, for introducing me to the Bunting book some years back).
Author: Stan Mast
From the First Sunday of Advent to the Second, the imagery changes, but the message doesn’t. We move from mountains and military in Isaiah 2 to plants and animals and a little child in Isaiah 11. But both texts promise a day when there will be justice and peace on earth. Isaiah 2 was less explicitly Messianic, while Isaiah 11 is unmistakably so. But both proclaim a message that was almost unbelievable, given the situation in which God’s people were living. Sort of like today.
Israel or, more accurately, Judah was living in a tumultuous time. The northern Kingdom had been dismantled and deported. Its Assyrian conquerors were threatening Judah, though the looming power of Babylon would soon replace Assyria. Within Judah, a succession of timid and ineffective Davidic kings made a mess of things. Even a time of material prosperity did not bring a sense of well-being and security. Here in the middle of the mess stands Isaiah prophesying gloom and doom for God’s people with an occasional burst of light and hope.
In Isaiah 11 the prophet looks far ahead of the Exile that hasn’t even happened yet, ahead of that time when Israel will no longer have a descendant of David sitting on the throne, a time when the family tree of David has been cut down. From that dead stump will come a new descendant of David, not just a son of David, but a second David (conveyed by the reference to Jesse). This new Shoot or Branch will be the King whom God promised David in II Samuel 7:12-16. He would be and do what all those other Davidic kings and, for that matter, what all human leaders, failed to be and do. This One will “bear fruit,” the fruit of justice and peace for all.
That’s because this Branch will be filled with the Spirit of the Lord permanently; the Spirit “will rest on him.” One naturally thinks here of Jesus, who was filled with the Spirit at his baptism and, then, led by the Spirit set out to do his redemptive work (Luke 4:1). Contrary to the Kings of Judah in the days of Isaiah and contrary the “kings” of our contemporary world, this Royal Branch will be gifted with all the qualities that will enable him to inaugurate a kingdom of justice and peace.
“The Spirit of wisdom and understanding” will endow him with discernment to make good decisions in governing his kingdom. “The Spirit of counsel and power” will give him diplomatic and military authority to rule. “The Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” will keep him close to God. The “knowledge” here is not merely intellectual correctness or assent to the truth, but an intimate relationship with God. “The fear of Lord” was at the heart of Jewish faith. This leader, contrary to all others, will be centered on Yahweh, living a life of pure piety. Indeed, more than anything else, his greatest delight will be his relationship with God. Obviously, this describes Jesus as the Son of Man and Son of God; “my food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:34)
Because of those 6 gifts of the Spirit, this Branch of Jesse will be able to establish a kingdom that has “liberty and justice for all.” He won’t be swayed by external appearances, whether the filthy rags of the poor or the rich robes of wealth. He “will not judge by what he sees.. or hears….” Rather, with utter righteousness he will do two things, the two things all citizens want from their leaders: tender care for the least and stern punishment for the worst. Take care of the victims and take care of the predators. The prophet answers the two questions all good citizens ask. Will the poor be neglected and will the wicked get away with it?
Of course, not all citizens will appreciate these priorities of the new King in town. Some will wonder if this emphasis on the needy and the poor isn’t a bit on the liberal side of the political agenda. But his isn’t a political agenda. It is the agenda of God found throughout the Old Testament (and continuing into the life of Jesus—see his first sermon in Luke 4). This Messianic King will use all of his righteousness (mishpat in Hebrew) and justice (tsedaqah in Hebrew) to make sure that the least and the last don’t get crushed.
Others will balk at this idea of God slaying the wicked. Isaiah 2 talked about God using his justice to settle disputes among the nations, but here the emphasis is on making sure that those who do wickedness on the earth pay for it. God is too good and too righteous to let the inveterately and unrepentantly wicked simply walk away with no consequences. The consequences are what they have always been; “the soul that sins shall die.” Unless, of course, the sinner turns from his ways and turns to the God who has provided a remedy in this righteous Branch, through whom God justifies the unrighteous.
This shoot from the stump, unimpressive in his birth and in his appearance, will be awesome in his reign, because it will be characterized by righteousness and faithfulness in all he does. The world has never seen a leader like this, but it is dying for one. Isaiah promises that such a one is coming.
When he comes, he will bring a peace that is unimaginable. To help us imagine it, Isaiah draws a word picture that has fascinated and inspired generations, the picture of “The Peaceable Kingdom.” Instead of nations at peace as in Isaiah 2, we see nature at peace. No longer will nature be “red in tooth and claw;” it will be creation restored to Shalom. The survival of the fittest will be replaced by predator and prey eating and sleeping together.
Biologist may well wonder how the digestive tract of carnivores will be able to stomach a plant-based diet, but that is beside the point the prophet is making. Using this animal imagery, he is showing us a world in which little children don’t have to be afraid of anything, thus, the three-fold repetition of the child theme. The theological point is shouted in verse 9. “They shall neither hurt nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” The violent death that entered the world with the fall of humans will not be part of the new world the Branch of Jesse will bring. “And death shall be no more.”
That theological point has been hotly debated by strict evolutionists who argue that death is hard-wired into nature. A world without death is impossible. But the prophet stands in the long line of Scriptural teaching that says death is an aberration caused by sin. It is, indeed, impossible to imagine a world without death, because that is all we have even seen, either in our experience or in a scientific laboratory. But the prophet says that the impossible will be done by the Lord. The full knowledge of him will cause the peace that knows no death, or this peace with no death will result in the full knowledge of him. We have never seen a world in which humans know God as God knows us, but the prophet assures us that the God beyond knowing will one day transform the whole world. That will be accomplished by this little shoot from the stump of Jesse who will make God known.
This part of the prophecy ends with verse 9, but the Lectionary adds verse 10 which is really part of the next section on the return of the remnant. However, it is a happy addition, because it assures Israel and us that God will not stop with the nation of Israel and with the animal kingdom. God will draw all nations to himself by raising a banner among the nations. The appearance of the shoot from the stump of Jesse will begin to rally the divided world to himself. That has begun to happen in a church composed of people from every nation and tribe. As Paul said in Ephesians 1:10, God’s plan is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”
This text will tempt many a preacher to call people to seek justice and peace, following Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous dictum, “If you want peace, work for justice.” While that is undoubtedly true, and needs to be preached and practiced, this text is not a call for action or even a criticism of injustice. These immortal lines simply present unqualified good news. In a world full of failed leaders and injustice and strife, the prophet declares that one day a leader will come who will bring a kingdom of justice and peace to the world. It seems impossible most days, but in these days of Advent, we are reminded that he came once and will come again to finish his work. Thanks be to God.
In the politically and militarily charged atmosphere of the Western world, it is clear that people are looking for a leader who will satisfy their needs. So, you can introduce this text by asking people what they are looking for in a leader. Are you looking for strength or compassion, toughness or tenderness, intellectual prowess or emotional intelligence? Will you be attracted by a fresh new platform, a set of world-changing promises, or an experienced leader who has demonstrated skills? Does age matter, or gender, or upbringing, or church membership? Will the person’s piety make a difference to you, or will you focus on political savvy? Are you looking for someone who will pursue your particular interests, or for someone who has a vision far beyond your own personal concerns? Will you vote for someone who has the right ideas or someone who is personally righteous? What are you looking for in a leader? Now compare that to what God sent in the Branch of Jesse.
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Author: Scott Hoezee
Jimmy Carter is now not only the oldest currently living former President of the United States but he has now lived to become the oldest former President ever. Strikingly, he has also been a former President for nearly 39 years. During those almost four decades of time, Carter’s reputation has soared but, of course, he left office after a single term that most observers regarded as a failed presidency. In addition to the energy crisis and the tanking of the economy, America on Carter’s watch also got embroiled in a hostage crisis in Iran from which Carter and his team could not extricate themselves. The final humiliation for Carter was having it fall to Ronald Reagan immediately after his inauguration to announce that Iran was releasing the hostages that very day. Reagan tried to give credit to Carter for his diplomatic efforts that quite literally went up to the final hour of Carter’s term, but it was too late. Carter was deemed a failure.
What people may forget, however, is that Jimmy Carter was the first President who made human rights the cornerstone of his foreign policy. Politics, economics, military aid, peace negotiations, foreign assistance: everything was secondary to any given nation’s treatment of its people. Strikingly, this had never before been the guiding concern of any President in the past. It may be fair to say that neither has it been priority #1 of any President since Carter, either.
But it was a noble thing Carter did and it was deeply rooted in his Christian faith too. But it was not celebrated with any particular pomp and circumstance at the time and has been fading in memory ever since too. Why? Probably because what people most want to see in their leaders is confidence, bravado, strength, guts, and power. We want our leaders to be strong. We pray for wisdom and confidence. We hope for boldness and for inspiration.
Very often our thoughts are at some distance from the core sentiment of Psalm 72 and its plea that God will endow the king with justice. Righteousness and Justice in a leader may take a back seat these days to Power and Persuasion, to Bravado and Zeal. Having a firm sense of justice does not sell well politically. Reagan called for “Morning in America” not “Justice in America.” Obama ran on “Yes We Can” but you get the feeling “Yes We Can Be Just” might not have ignited into a chant at rallies. Many like the idea of “Make America Great Again” but as bumper stickers go, “Make America Righteous Again” might not work.
Yet this was to be the key trait in Israel’s kings. And as Psalm 72 makes clear, what this would mean for any given leader is that he would have a very soft spot in his heart for the vulnerable, for the downtrodden, for that repeated Old Testament triplet of the widow, the orphan, and the alien. These were the so-called “anawim” that are always singled out in God’s Law as deserving of special care. And, alas, Israel’s ultimate failure to care for these poor and marginalized members of society later became Indictment #1 when the Minor Prophets like Amos and Micah assailed Israel for breaking God’s covenant.
But as Psalm 72 makes clear, it was the king of Israel who was supposed to set the tone. The king was the one who had to be endowed with a special measure of God’s Spirit so as to be able to notice those who cry for mercy in society. The Lectionary skips over verses 8-17, probably in this case for the sake of brevity in that those verses mostly repeat what is already in verses 1-7. However, if you read those verses, then you can see again a major focus on the poor and needy in verses 12-14. Clearly this is the key theme in this psalm and in its depiction of who the king is supposed to be and what is supposed to be a major focus of his royal responsibilities.
But then as now, the odds of having a leader actually be able to see and care for such groups of people seem stacked against kings and presidents and prime ministers. If you are a member of the anawim today—or increasingly also in Israel’s day—then good luck being able to get the attention of an exalted leader. We know who gets cabinet posts and ambassadorships and offices in the West Wing or at 10 Downing Street: the wealthy, the big donors, the flashy celebrities in the worlds of business or entertainment. If you are an ordinary citizen, then during campaigns you might get emails ostensibly from the candidate him- or herself and goodness knows your volunteer efforts for the campaign will be welcomed. But if any of that makes you think you will have a better shot at being heard by the candidate if he or she actually makes it to high office, you will soon find out that is not the case. Your notes, letters, and emails will mostly not get past the first stage of a multi-stage vetting process.
It would take a leader of extraordinary compassion and skill to be able to keep a focus on the invisible members of society when the highly visible folks clamor for the leader’s attention day and night. In truth, no leader of Israel ever actually succeeded in fulfilling the vision laid out in Psalm 72. Some did better than others at keeping the broad contours of God’s covenant but at their worst, the leaders actually trampled on the already downtrodden. Kings became less likely, not more likely, even to be able to see such folks in the wider kingdom once the reins of power ran through their hands.
What kind of a leader could actually possess all the power there is in the world AND still be able to wield that power in ways that would benefit the lowest of the low? Well, the fact that Psalm 72 is a Lectionary text for the Second Sunday in Advent gives you the answer: it’s Jesus. It’s the incarnate Son of God. He alone came to us full of grace and truth. He alone has the divine ability to not get intoxicated with his own power but instead to channel that power directly into the lives of the people who need it most. This is the perfect King of Israel that Psalm 72 pines for.
The only question that remains for the rest of us in Advent and at all times is whether those of us who happily embrace Jesus as the King of kings can find it within ourselves to go and be likewise. Or do we also get intoxicated with power for power’s sake if only we can sidle up to the powers that be in Washington D.C. or Ottawa or London or wherever? Or in our Instagram celebrity-driven culture, do we also only have eyes for the beautiful people who walk down the red carpet at the American Music Awards or the Grammys or the Oscars? Psalm 72 is paired in the Advent II Lectionary with John the Baptist’s shrill call for repentance in Matthew 3. Of what particular sins might John the Baptist be calling us to repent? Maybe not displaying enough concern for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the welfare-dependent, the addict, the lonely, the abused, the exploited.
Who knows how historically or even textually valid certain side notes and superscriptions in the Book of Psalms are. Nevertheless, Psalm 72 has traditionally been listed as the last Psalm that is said to be attributed to or more directly connected to King David. If so, then maybe we regard Psalm 72 as a kind of valedictory address, a bottom line, a final word. Maybe this particular song and its focus on a King for the oppressed represents not only the last word but the best word for what we can all but dimly hope will be true of our world now and into the future of God’s kingdom. If so, it is not a bad final word at all. Indeed, it is a profoundly hopeful word. “Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen.”
Note: Our specific Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season of 2019.
In a blog called The Twelve to which I regularly contribute I did a piece tying in with the U.S. celebration of Thanksgiving Day and on the theme of loneliness. You can read the blog here and perhaps reflect if “all the lonely people” are precisely those people that a king or any leader—including King Jesus—in the Psalm 72 mode might recognize as being people of first importance.
Author: Doug Bratt
I didn’t have much money when I was in college. So I tried to drive as far on a tank of gas as I could. As a result, I ran out of gas in the middle of the night twice … in the space of less than a month. Each time I called my relatively nearby dad to ask him to help me out. The first time he said virtually nothing. The second time, however, he quietly but intensely said, “For Pete’s sake, why don’t you just fill the tank once in a while!”
Paul fills Romans’ chapters 12-15’s spiritual “tank” with calls to be loving, submissive, tolerant and peaceful. But God’s adopted children know it’s hard to be that Christ-like. Nearly all of us can probably, in fact, point to our failures to, for example, love our neighbors even in just the past few hours.
Since I find it strange that the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday begins with verse 4, I’m adding reflections on verses 1-3 that those who stick to the RCL’s guidelines may simply ignore. Paul adds another challenge in verse 1: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” Or as Eugene Peterson so beautifully paraphrases this, “Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter.”
The apostle isn’t primarily talking here about physical or mental strength and “failings.” He’s talking, instead, about the kind of strength that allows some Christians to apply their Christian freedom to a wide variety of practices. The consciences of those whose faith is what Paul calls “weak,” by contrast, won’t let them do at least some of those things. So some Roman Christians’ consciences wouldn’t, for instance, let them eat meat or do much on the Sabbath.
So how do God’s beloved people relate to those with whom we disagree on the kinds of issues that seem peripheral to the gospel? Paul begins by answering that those whose consciences allow them to do more things should not only tolerate, but also support those who are spiritually weak. His picture is of a mom who carries her worn out child to bed. One person’s strength can, after all, help make up for another’s weakness.
Paul understands, however, that it’s most natural for even God’s adopted children to live for ourselves and seek what’s best for us. Yet he also calls those who are spiritually strong to please not ourselves, but our sometimes “weak” neighbor (2). The apostle says that those who follow Jesus look out for others like a good student might keep an eye out for one who struggles. Strong people don’t just look straight ahead, but also sideways and behind us, especially at those whose faith is weaker.
I never met anyone who could build people up better than my friend and colleague Bill. He always looked for ways to compliment people, especially those who were spiritually “weak.” And even when he had to say something negative, he said it with a gentle smile and loving tone.
Of course, Paul understood how difficult that it is for God’s adopted sons and daughters to support and please each other. So what’s the key to our godly care for people whose faith is somehow weaker? From where do Jesus’ followers get the “fuel” to love, submit to and tolerate such neighbors?
In our text Paul points to Christ’ example and God’s power. Jesus Christ gave up his unlimited strength to “bear with” our not only our “failings,” but also even our sins. He somehow gave up his infinite power and wisdom to become like us in every way, except for sin.
Christ never acted in his own self-interest. He always acted for the good of others, of you and me in order to build us into the people God created us to be. In doing so, Paul reminds us in verse 7, Jesus Christ accepted his Jewish and gentile adopted brothers and sisters who are, by nature, his enemies.
I personally preach a great deal on the gospels because, among other reasons, they lovingly describe the Jesus who is the world’s best example of someone who bore with the failings of the weak. The Spirit can also use studies of devotionals on those same gospels to provide “fuel” for our Christ-likeness.
Yet Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice, pleasing and building up others doesn’t provide enough “fuel” on its own to equip you and me to serve each other. All by itself even his example is little more powerful than, say, Paul or Mother Teresa’s. Paul too understood that we need even more than a perfect example. He realized that, for example, simply asking his brothers and sisters in Christ to bear with weak people is like asking them to lift a church building all by themselves.
So in verse 5 Paul prays, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus.” We can’t, after all, love God and each other unless God’s Holy Spirit gives us the “fuel” to do so.
God alone can equip us to support those whose faith is weak. Only God can empower us to live not to please ourselves, but the weaker people around us. Only God can equip us to accept each other as Christ accepted us. In fact, only God can unite God’s dearly beloved people in following Jesus. So much, after all, divides us. We naturally live not for others, but for ourselves. On top of that, we assume that our opinions about debatable matters are the only right ones.
So God’s family members look for ways to both deepen our fellowship and emphasize the things on which most of us can agree. God’s adopted sons and daughters also try to see things not only from our own perspective, but also from that of those who don’t necessarily agree with us.
Yet we still can’t create unity any more than we can make pigs fly upside down and backwards. Only God’s Holy Spirit can unite our hearts. God alone can equip you and me to together glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Of course, this too requires the kind of “fuel” that is the endurance and encouragement that only God can also give. Cultivating Christian unity is, after all, much more like a marathon than a short sprint. It takes a lot of time, energy and patience. It also more closely resembles an uphill run than a flat or downhill one.
That’s why Paul also prays, in verse 13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” He understands that hope is always in far shorter supply than misery. That’s one reason, I think, why former American President Obama’s presidential campaign resonated with so many people. He talked a lot about hope to people whose hope things like racism and the terrible economy were quickly draining.
As we look to the future, after all, it’s easy to lose hope. We wonder what kind of economic and ecological mess we’re leaving our children and grandchildren, as well as neighbors, nieces and nephews. It’s easy for God’s beloved sons and daughters to even worry about what will happen in the next few months.
So Paul prays that God will fill us with so much assurance that even in the worst circumstances God is fulfilling God’s purposes that our hope overflows. That the hope with which God fills us will be like that tea that you keep pouring until it just spills over the sides of your cup. After all, though Paul doesn’t say that, our hope may overflow onto people who are short on it, thereby giving them a bit of hope.
Yet Paul also lifts our vision to see how God has graciously included not just individual Christians, but also Christ’s flawed Church in God’s plans for the world. God’s love is, after all, inclusive, not exclusive. No people or any part of our world are in principle separated from God’s mercy.
Paul calls his fellow Christians to “unity … so that with one heart and mouth” we “may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5-6). When we break the unity for which the apostle pleads and for which Christ prayed, we, in some fundamental ways, break God’s heart. So brothers and sisters in Christ do what we can, equipped by the Holy Spirit, to build Christian unity, both on a local and international level.
Of course, substantial theological differences still mark Christ’s Church. Yet we leave little room for God to fill us with all joy and peace in believing when we focus on those differences. So while we recognize the theological differences that we have with other Christians, we also at least look for ways to understand and even minimize those differences. Jesus’ followers work with Christians with whom we disagree to, for instance, serve the poor and take care of God’s creation. You and I look, as well, for opportunities to welcome and join other Christians into our worship. God’s people also look for ways to build friendships with Christians whose theological emphases are slightly different from ours’.
Sometimes it feels as though we’ve running out to gas as we try to do those sometimes-hard things. God, however, by the Holy Spirit, promises to “fill our tank” so that we may love the way Christ loved us.
Andrew Gross’ The One Man’s Leo is a young man in Auschwitz where his fellow prisoner Alfred is a famous scientist. Alfred tells Leo, “We must continue to have hope. Where there is hope, there is life. And where there is life … there is more to learn, isn’t that right?
“Well, here’s to hope, then,” Leo says. He lifts his teacup and hands it back to Leo. “And here’s to more to learn.” He raises the cup and takes a last sip of tea. “Where our true hope lies. Are we agreed?” “Why don’t we just leave it at hope, shall we.’ Leo answers.”