April 12, 2021
The Easter 3B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 24:36-48 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 3:12-19 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 4 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 John 3:1-7 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Old Testament Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 47 (Lord’s Day 18)
Author: Scott Hoezee
The end of Luke’s Gospel sums it all up pretty well. In swift strokes of Luke’s quill, we move from Easter Sunday evening directly to the Ascension of Jesus (just beyond the bounds of this lection). We learn from Luke’s other New Testament contribution, Acts, that Jesus lingered in physical form for a good forty days after Easter. But neither here in Luke—nor in the first half-dozen or so verses in Acts—do we glean a single idea of what was said or done across that nearly six-week stretch of time.
Jesus was right here, walking the earth as its resurrected Lord and King and yet Luke (a skilled narrator of gripping and cracking good stories if ever there was one) finds not a single tale worth telling. All we get instead is the revelation that the resurrected Jesus opened the disciples’ minds so they could finally connect the dots and discover that all of Scripture—the whole Bible as they then knew it—had found its Yes in Jesus. Jesus is the Rosetta Stone of Scripture (if not of all reality)—if you know who he really is, you see how within his own person and ministry and now resurrected presence every thread, every strand, every story, every promise, every prophecy winds and wends its way straight to him.
Apparently that is all they will need to know. All that remains is for them to receive the power that will not only solidify this all in their hearts and minds but will give them the boldness to proclaim the truth of Jesus to the whole world. That power (in the form, of course, of the Holy Spirit) would come eventually but in the meanwhile and up until then, what Jesus revealed to the hearts and minds of the disciples on that first Easter evening was apparently thee #1 thing that had to happen during those forty post-resurrection days. Once Luke conveys this to us, he’s finished with the forty days.
Everything that needed to be shown and told and taught had already taken place, apparently, in Jesus’ ministry as narrated in the whole Gospel up to this point. All that remained was for the disciples to understand how all that they had experienced in Jesus’ presence represented nothing short of cosmic history coming to a head. The meaning of the past, the hope for the present, and the content of the future was all inside the resurrected Lord. Once they understood that (no small thing to grasp, by the way!), there was really nothing more for Jesus to say or do.
Let’s be honest as preachers: this snippet of Luke seems a tidge short on drama and content. Yes, it’s wonderful and amazing to note that Jesus popped from out of thin air to be with the disciples that evening and yes, it’s curious to see Jesus pop a piece of broiled perch into his mouth to prove he was a physical being and not a ghostly apparition, but once you’ve pointed those things out to a congregation, the narrative is pretty well finished.
And yet . . . the import and impact of what happens in this short reading is stunning. Think of it: what this means is that we, too, as latter-day followers of Jesus are charged with grasping how all things come together in Jesus (cf. Colossians 1:15-23 to see Paul’s breathtaking summary of this outrageous truth). So often—especially in our soundbite era—we tend to reduce the Christian faith and our practice of it to slogans, to bumper stickers, to four spiritual laws or forty days of purpose or seven basic principles of this or that. But the story is so much bigger than this. Jesus isn’t just our chum, our mentor, our pal, or even just our own personal Master or instructor on life lessons.
Jesus is Lord. Jesus is King. And the reason he is King and Lord and is even now “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” (as we casually say in reciting the creed each week in some churches) is because everything there is to know about the universe comes together in him. Yes, that is a big and outrageous claim. It was a big and outrageous claim when Jesus first made it on that first Easter evening as it is reported in Luke 24 and it is certainly a big and outrageous claim given what we now know about the size and age and complexity of the universe.
Easter, the resurrection, who Jesus is and what he means for the cosmos: these are not small, intramural matters that we can easily understand or wrap our minds around in an instant. These are properly jaw-dropping matters that elicit wonder but also a kind of enthusiasm to probe those Scriptures that all witness to Jesus. In some places within the church world it seems that serious sermons and the exposition of Scripture have been shoved aside—or at least downsized a bit—in favor of other things designed to engage and entertain congregations. But this brief passage from Luke 24 reminds us that there can finally be no substitute for the genuine article of reading, studying, pondering, and understanding the Scriptures and how they call come together in Christ Jesus the Lord and King.
This is all big, serious stuff.
Thanks be to God that this is so!
Questions to Ask / Issues to Address
“While they were still talking about this . . . Jesus himself stood among them.”
I wonder how often those of us who preach and teach in the church realize that far from being an isolated incident in Luke 24, this kind of thing happens all the time. Richard Mouw once reminded us that as children, we are often told by adults to watch our language when we are “in polite company.” But as Mouw also went on to note, a key reason why Christian people discipline themselves to guard their lips and monitor their speech is because of our Christian belief that when it comes right down to it, we are always in polite company. “The Lord is near,” as Paul put it in Philippians 4.
Yes, he is.
The truth is that every time we get together—whether excitedly or doggedly or with a hint of boredom in our voices—every time we get together to talk about Jesus, to debate a theological point, or to present some sermon we have worked on, Jesus always comes and stands in the midst of us (whether he is always minded to greet us with “Peace be with you” is another matter . . .). We can never merely talk about God or Christ or the Holy Spirit without being aware that we are speaking in their presence as well.
True, this can lead some people to all kinds of spooky “Big Brother” and other Kafka-esque scenarios of paranoia. But as Psalm 139 reminds us, God does indeed know us right well and from top to bottom and at every moment of our lives—in fact, the psalm claims that God knows us better than we know ourselves! But the good news is that God is the One who can be trusted with such comprehensive knowledge. This is a loving God, not a tyrannical despot who will use what we say against us.
Still, it’s startling to think that when we speak of Jesus, he is always standing right in the midst of us whether we notice him at first or not. And like the disciples, there may be times when, upon realizing this, we too are startled and frightened by his presence. But maybe remembering that we live all of life in the presence of Christ (through his Holy Spirit at least) will have a properly humbling effect on us in terms of what we say about Jesus. At the very least we are reminded that when we preach and when we teach and when we talk about theology or bandy about ideas about spirituality and the like, we can never finally engage in idle chit-chat. We are not talking about only ideas at the end of the day but about a Person, and about a very personal God.
That, after all, is a key teaching about Easter and about the resurrection story that consumes Luke 24: if we believe what we celebrate at the core of the Christian faith, then we do believe Jesus lives. And even if we don’t want to go as far in the direction of pop piety as the lyrics of those songs that claim that Jesus talks with us while the dew is still on the roses or that he walks with us along life’s narrow way, even so we do believe he is alive and is alive as a very real person and, through the Spirit, as a very real personal presence in our lives.
The Christian church made clear long ago that our faith is not first and finally about ideas and concepts only. We’re not Gnostics seeking to be saved through a word of knowledge. We’re not Eastern-like mystics who believe that the key to spirituality is to find ways to transcend this world’s physicalness so as to drift into realms of pure thought and consciousness. No, our faith is gritty and fleshy and tangible and involves nothing short of the renewal of all things: lakes, mountains, tadpoles, tangerines, real human bodies.
Two weeks after Easter, this lection reminds us that Jesus is always present in our midst when we talk about him and that at the end of the cosmic day, we would not want it any other way.
In Luke 24:44 we are told that Jesus’ instruction in the Scriptures included “the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.” That latter inclusion—and the Psalms—is unique in the New Testament. Although there is a time or two when a specific psalm gets mentioned (Jesus mentioned a psalm in Luke 20:42, for instance) this is the only place where the Scriptures are summarized as not just Law and Prophets but also the Psalms. Taken together, that is the traditional triplet that was used as shorthand for the entirety of Hebrew Scripture or what we often call the Old Testament. Jesus was indeed saying to the disciples on the eve of that first Easter day that his resurrection fulfills not just an individual passage or set of passages but the whole of all God’s revelation to humanity.
My friend and former Calvin Theological Seminary President Neal Plantinga tells a story of something he experienced while talking to a man on death row at the huge penitentiary of Angola in Louisiana. Neal talked to an African-American man wearing wire-rimmed glasses, spectacles that gave this convicted murderer what Neal called “a professorial air.” Neal asked him how he passed his days there in prison and in reply, the man picked up his NIV Bible from his bedside stand. “I read this, Our Book,” the man replied. “You know, sometimes I realize that on any given day or across any given time, most everything good that happens or is said in this world somehow comes from this, Our Book. The truth of the whole world and everything that happens in this world somehow is in here, and I get to have a copy of all that right here in my cell. Isn’t that something? I just know I will never get to the bottom of it.”
As Plantinga then observed, too often in the church, we have a far too low opinion of just what it is we have in that thing called The Holy Bible—Our Book.
Author: Stan Mast
This is the second major sermon in the early church. Like the first one, it was occasioned by a miraculous event, in this case the healing of a beggar who had been crippled since birth. “While the beggar held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade.”
While Peter and John and the other apostles had done other miracles after Pentecost (2:43), this one drew a huge crowd, “all the people,” that is, all the Jews who hadn’t responded to Peter’s Pentecost sermon. This was their second chance to join the 3000 who had repented and been baptized on Pentecost. Thus, it has a sense of urgency, a sharply worded boldness, and a fuller explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
People who are weary of the church’s incessant arguing about theology sometimes yearn for the “simple message of the early church.” That’s understandable, but this sermon is anything but simple. Like the other recorded sermons, this one explains the event that drew the crowd together, confronts them with their sin, proclaims the centrality of the risen Christ using the Old Testament to elucidate who he was, calls sinners to repent and turn to God, and shows the deeper meaning of the work of Christ. (Cf. Acts 2, 4, 10 and 13 for the other messages.) There is much for contemporary preachers to learn from Peter.
The first thing that strikes me here is the way Peter deflects attention from himself and John. This whole thing is not about them. In fact, he is almost outraged that the people are focusing on himself. “Men of Israel, why do you stare at us as if by our own power and godliness we had made this man walk?” All of us are susceptible to the lure of fame. We don’t want to be simply liked and accepted; we want to be loved, even adored. Peter was a big man who naturally took the lead, but there is no hint of “I” in his message. He directed all attention to Jesus.
Indeed, that was his message in a nutshell to these “men of Israel.” “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers has glorified his servant Jesus.” The end point of that sentence is the main point of any Christian sermon. That sentence is not only ingenious; it is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
For example, note how Peter both connects with his hearers and connects Old Testament and New by calling God, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers.” Peter is saying in effect, “I’m not talking about some strange new god here; I’m talking about our God, the One True God who has revealed himself to us Jews. And you can’t really understand the New Testament without understanding the Old. The whole Bible is about one thing—the One God focusing his work of salvation on Jesus.”
Again, note how Peter emphasizes both the humiliation and exaltation of Christ in 4 words—”glorified his servant Jesus.” On the one hand, Jesus was just a servant, a humble peasant who died a humiliating death. On the other hand, he was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, whom God has glorified in his resurrection, ascension and session at God’s right hand. The rest of Peter’s sermon explains both that humiliation and exaltation.
Jesus’ deepest humiliation came at the hands of his fellow Jews, who “disowned” him. Peter does not mince words in naming sin and sinners here, so much so that it might make us uncomfortable. This business of directly blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death has historically been the root of terrible anti-Semitism that has no place in the church.
So, it’s important to note how Peter is not anti-Semitic. He does not condemn these people for being Jewish; he himself is Jewish. He blames them for their sin, and he offers them complete forgiveness for that sin. “You killed the author of life…. [if you repent and turn to God] your sins [will be] wiped out (verse 19).” Their sin of disowning Jesus Christ is not a permanent blot on the name of the Jews; it is a sin that has been completely forgiven for all who repent and believe. But Peter knows that a sin must be named and a sinner must be convicted of that sin before repentance and faith will come. Thus, he is hard on sin.
The climax of this part of the sermon comes in verse 15. “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witness of this.” This is how God glorified his servant Jesus—by raising him from the dead after these folks had killed him. That’s the heart of the Gospel. If Jesus was not physically raised by God, then he is still a dead man, however great he may have been. He lies in the ignominy of the grave. But, good news, God glorified that man by raising him from the dead. We saw it and heard it.
Having established who Jesus is, Peter returns to the miracle that had drawn this crowd together—“this man whom you see and know was made strong.” It wasn’t “our power or godliness” that made this cripple walk; it was Jesus who did it. Our only role was to have faith, faith in Jesus name, the faith that comes though Jesus. Once again, it’s all about Jesus, the Jesus whom you disowned and killed but whom God glorified by raising from the dead.
Then, in a gracious move that puts the lie to anti-Semitism, Peter seems to let them off the hook. “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” You didn’t know that the Christ had to suffer. You had pictured a victorious Christ defeating his enemies with power. So, when you crucified him, you didn’t know what you were doing (as Christ had prayed from the cross).
But you could have known, should have known, because God had foretold a suffering Christ through all the prophets. What you just did “is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.” You acted in ignorance, but that’s no excuse. It doesn’t let you off the hook.
Rather, it calls you to “repent and turn to God.” That’s the only thing sinners have to do, even those who committed the worst sin possible. Just do a complete U turn, turn from your sin and turn to God. Here, the word “repent” is metanoia, which means to change your mind completely. Specifically, change your mind about Jesus—you looked at him all wrong, you hated him, and you intended to kill him. So, change your view of him, your feelings about him, and your purpose with respect to him. Accept him as the Risen Messiah, love him with all your heart, and decide to make him your Lord and Savior. By doing that, you are turning to the God who sent him. Turn to God in Christ. And you will be saved.
Here’s what salvation will look like. First of all, your sins, even this great one, will be wiped out. God will never hold it against you, will pardon you, will erase it from your record, will never bring it up again, will forget it ever happened. If God does that, the church dare not hold it against the Jews.
But salvation in Christ involves much more than individual forgiveness. Or more accurately, forgiveness will produce “times of refreshing,” a new lease on life. This was already happening for the 3000 who had converted at Pentecost. They were experiencing a whole new life in the community of the redeemed described in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35. Already the hard life dominated by the principalities and powers of sin and Satan and death and the Empire was being replaced by the fresh life of the Kingdom ruled by the Risen Christ.
That new life would one day come on the whole world. Verses 20-26 aren’t part of our reading, but they should be, because the work of the Risen Christ is bigger than individual forgiveness and the creation of a new community. One day, the Lord will once again “send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. For now, he must remain in heaven, until the time comes for God to restore everything as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”
We see a foretaste of that restoration in the healing of the crippled beggar. But God has promised more, much more. And God will keep his promise when Jesus returns. God’s ancient promise to Abraham, the promise to bless the whole world through Abraham’s offspring—that world embracing promise will come true when Jesus Christ returns.
Not such a simple sermon, is it? It’s all there, the basis for all the theology developed by the church in later years: Old Testament and New, old prophecies fulfilled and new ones made, the person of Jesus as the Christ, the stern denunciation of sin and the strong call to repent, salvation individual and worldwide, the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of all things, Christ in heaven now and returning later. At the center of it all is this message—“The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… glorified his servant Jesus by raising him from the dead.” That’s the message that changed the world back then and will do so again today.
The anti-Semitism that many have found in this text is but one example of the sin of Adam and Eve after their original sin—the sin of blaming others for the very things we do. That lovely old hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended,” places the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion squarely where it belongs. “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you? It was my treason, Lord, that has undone you. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I was it was denied you; I crucified you.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
It is easier so see in some Psalms more than others but many of the Psalms were written for two or sometimes three voices. Psalm 4 is clearly to be understood as having two speakers (at least two): the psalmist and Yahweh, the God of Israel. It’s pretty obvious that the psalmist is speaking in verse 1 and then again in verses 6-8. It is also pretty clear that God is speaking in response to the psalmist’s prayer in verse 2 and in verses 4-5. Verse 3, however, is a bit of a conundrum. The first part seems to be still God talking and yet the second part of the verse could be the psalmist but it’s not very clear that this is so. Perhaps it is God speaking from verse 2 all the way to verse 5 but if so, the inclusion of the line “the LORD hears when I call” seems an odd thing to be on God’s lips.
Or might that actually be a third voice? Could that be a line we are to imagine that God’s “faithful servant” utters? It’s not the psalmist but the faithful servant God set aside for his service. Probably there are as many theories out there as there are Bible commentators on the Psalms and probably it has been argued every which way but loose. You can decide for yourself whether to make too big a deal out of this in a sermon—it could be one of those scholastic distractions that is more interesting to pastors than to people who listen to pastors preach—but for sure we need to make clear that most of this psalm is dialogic. The psalmist prays and God answers.
As such, it is a curious exchange. Rather surprising even! The psalmist cries out to God from some situation of distress and seems really sincere about it. But when God answers, he comes at the psalmist with almost a snarl. The poet says “Help me, O God” and God replies, “Then stop deluding yourself with false gods!” Whoa! God then talks about his faithful servant and we have that oddity at the end of verse 3 just mentioned. But then it’s right back to talking about humbling oneself before God, reflecting on one’s life (and presumably taking a sober assessment on one’s life) while lying down at night. “Sober up and shape up!” seems to be God’s main message here.
The psalmist then comes back to talk starting in verse 6, asking a question he claims many are asking: When will God prosper us? He then asks for God’s face to shine upon him, to give him joy, and closes by thanking the Lord for giving him a sense of security.
Not to be too critical of the psalmist but did he even hear what God had said? It is as though God says “Repent! Shape up!” and the psalmist replies, “Yeah, OK, whatever. So when are you going to start being nice to us again?” It’s an odd response! Almost a juxtaposition. God just told the psalmist what had to happen if Israel wanted to prosper. But did the psalmist hear that or not?
Probably we should give the psalmist here the benefit of the doubt and assume he had not dismissed out of hand what God had said. A more charitable reading could be that he did hear what God had said and so when he responds with “Many are asking when will you prosper us,” he is saying in essence, “OK, lots of people are asking what’s wrong such that your face does not seem to be shining on us and now I know the reason why and am going to tell others what you said about delusions and false gods.”
In short: we will try to do what you said, O God, and then we hope your face will shine upon us once more.
If this way of reading Psalm 4 is correct, then it is instructive for all of us. No, this side of Easter and Pentecost we should not conclude that every time something goes wrong in life it is because God is punishing us. Indeed, we believe the punishment for all of our sin was already laid on Jesus. That fact, however, does not cut the nerve that connects actions with consequence. If we behave badly or take foolish risks or let our spiritual life lapse, we may find that life does not go as well as we might like it to go.
In this Eastertide season, we know that our God in Christ has given each of us the Holy Spirit to direct our paths. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, our job is to “Keep step with the Spirit.” If and when we fail to do that, we may not feel as good spiritually as we wish. Of course, the obverse of this particular coin is also true: plenty of Christians do just fine in their walk with Christ and still suffer cruelly in their lives. There are no simple formulas the likes of which Job’s friends tried to foist on him.
Still, when we lie on our beds and find ourselves having time to examine our hearts and lives, we should hope that the Spirit can help us to see where our discipleship is flourishing and where we have some repairs to make. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we know that God has made it so that we can dwell securely and in safety. But that means the shape of our entire living ought to form a giant Thank-You card to God for all God’s mercies to us.
I read a semi-snarky comment once that when you talk to God, it is called prayer but when God talks to you, it is called schizophrenia. In addition to the fact that we should never use a psychiatric condition in a cheeky way, the impulse behind this bit of snark is also wrong theologically. In Psalm 4 the psalmist prays and somehow God answers. Did the psalmist literally hear a voice? Probably not. But when we pray and meditate on God’s Word, we do properly expect that God will speak to us, reveal Godself to us, whisper by the indwelling Holy Spirit things we need to know and to apply from the Bible. So yes, it would be really unusual if during a time of prayer or meditation Jesus appeared to us or we heard an audible voice. But it is not at all unusual to hear God speaking “in accents loud and clear” as the old hymn once put it.
1 John 3:1-7
Author: Scott Hoezee
It keeps coming up like a bad burp. So much of 1 John is lyric. Few passages talk better about the meaning of love than ones you can find in John’s first epistle. The opening verses of this third chapter likewise are simply gorgeous, waxing eloquent on the love lavished on us by God our Father and how this makes us children of God. This is wonderful prose, almost poetic actually. And in so many ways it encapsulates the essence of what makes the Gospel the amazing Good News it is.
And yet . . . no sooner does John says this and he feels compelled to loop back to another sub-theme in this letter: sin. It’s pretty obvious that whatever was going on among the people to whom John addressed this letter, something had gone wrong in their attitudes toward sin. We got this message in also last week’s selection from the opening chapter and now here it is again, coming almost as a seemingly unwelcome intrusion to the lyric words about the lavish love of God and being children of God and all that.
“You are children of God! You live in him and so are pure! And, oh, by the way: if you keep sinning you are no friend of God!!” As in the opening chapter (and just into chapter 2) that we looked at last week, so here: John is no idealist. It’s not as though he expects anyone (himself included one would presume) to exist as blameless or sinless this side of glory or of the full in-breaking of God’s kingdom. But again and again here it is the “keeps on sinning” idea that bothers John the most and that we can surmise must have taken some kind of a foothold in the communities to whom John is writing.
Was it another version of what Paul encountered and so addressed now and again: let’s sin more so that grace may abound? Was it a mistaken view of Christian liberty that said we don’t even need to worry about sin anymore since Jesus took it all away? Or was it something darker still, something that stemmed not from naïve or mistaken views of grace and salvation but in fact actively taught that so long as you professed some kind of lip service to this Jesus fellow, you could get away with pretty much anything you wanted in your personal life? Was this not just some “Sunday Only” type of Christianity but in fact a direct attempt to undermine the faith by almost dismissing “sin” as a category of thought altogether?
It’s hard to say. It could even have been some early form of Gnosticism that claimed that so long as your spiritual thoughts and secret knowledge of God were pure, what you did with your body or how you behaved in this (very unimportant) material world did not matter or count. Whatever the origin of it all, John saw it as a clear undermining of the faith and as a fundamental misunderstanding of the effect God’s lavish love and grace were supposed to have on us.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that too often we think that what sanctification is all about is sort of like taking a horse and training it to run a little faster than it used to run. In actuality, Lewis noted, what happens to us as believers once we become engrafted onto Christ is not like taking a regular old horse and teaching it to run faster but more like taking a horse, outfitting it with a pair of wings, and teaching the creature to FLY! The saved life in Christ is not just any old life made a little bigger or brighter or some such thing. It is to take a human life and transform it into a whole new mode of existence.
Or as theologian Laura Smit once put it, too often we think that what it means to ponder something like “goodness” when it applies to God is that we look at human goodness and our definitions of goodness and then just make them bigger. We are good. God is GOOD! But in reality, Smit notes, “goodness” in God is not just human goodness magnified but is of a different quality altogether. Thus, if we are to share in God’s goodness—if we are to bear the Fruit of the Spirit of goodness a la Galatians 5—then it means having something quite new move into our lives from God’s side of things.
Lewis again: we think becoming a disciple after baptism is like God coming into the house of our hearts and putting up some new drapes and slapping on a few new coats of paint on the same old walls. In reality God comes in, knocks down most of the walls, and starts to build something brand new.
In this Eastertide, we encounter the apostle John here saying pretty much the same things. You cannot be casual about sin, you cannot willfully wallow in sin, you cannot just let things slide in your life and still think you are in Christ. To do so shows merely that you don’t “get it.” Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s one thing to get confused in math class. You just cannot see the relationships among the numbers to make sense of a certain proof or algorithm. You don’t get it. You might “get” other facets of math, but not this one.
But to keep on sinning, John says, is not just a little error. It’s not a side part of the faith you don’t get like just not seeing how one facet of mathematics functions. No, in this case you are missing the whole thing. You cannot be just a little bit wrong on this point and still be in Christ. It’s kind of all or nothing on this one.
Grace saves but if you really received it, grace transforms. Inevitably. So if you keep abusing people, keep hurting people, keep hating people, keep committing adultery or stealing or lying or any number of things and have no desire either to stop such activity much less confess it as wrong, well then, that’s not a mistake. It’s a different world altogether that has nothing to do with being children of the heavenly Father. The Lectionary cuts off this reading rather unnaturally at verse 7, probably to avoid all that scary (and unmodern) talk about the Devil and being children of the Devil. Oooh, that seems over the top.
But it’s not. It’s actually a logical follow-through and it was meant then—and is meant now—to shake us up to wonder whom we are really serving in how we live.
In short, you don’t get to enjoy the lyric and lovely truths in the first few verses of this reading if that does not result in an entirely new quality of life for you every day and in every way. This is not an easy message, and it probably will seem frightening mostly to people who have already been transformed and want nothing to do with such behavior. But you never know: John hopes he can still crack through to those who are still outside Christ (though they may try to fool themselves otherwise).
So you keep putting the gorgeous and lyric truths out there for all to see in the hope that the day will come when you will not have to follow that up all the time with warnings about all this other unhappy stuff!
I guess that’s what preaching is all about!
In one of his books, Tom Long mentions a friend who serves as a hospital chaplain somewhere. One Ash Wednesday he slipped away from the hospital long enough to attend a mid-day service and so he returned to work a bit alter with a cross-shaped smudge of ash on his forehead. At one point as he entered the room of an older woman who was a patient that day, she immediately grabbed a Kleenex and said, “Come over here, dear, you seem to have gotten into something” and was clearly getting ready to clean up his dirty forehead.
“No, no” the chaplain said. “You see, this smudge of ash is from an Ash Wednesday service where I was reminded that I am weak and frail, sinful and vulnerable and that soon enough my own life will return to the dust. But it also reminds me that on his cross, Jesus took all that away and has made me new and alive again.”
The old woman thought for a moment and then said “I think I want some of that too.” And so borrowing from his own smudge, the chaplain made the sign of the cross on also her forehead.
What we want in preaching is what John wanted in proclaiming the lavish love of the Father for us his children: we want to present the Good News in so lyric and compelling a way that others will want it, too.