May 22, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Every once in a while someone discovers a recording that until then no one knew existed. Maybe it’s John F. Kennedy on the phone with Nikita Khrushchev or some other famous person having a conversation with yet another high profile person. Once the recording comes out, it’s fascinating because now we get to eavesdrop on an important conversation that took place between two really famous and important people.
John 17 gives us the chance to “overhear” an intimate conversation between Jesus and his Father.
Talk about the ultimate eavesdrop!!!
When you think about it, it’s rather stunning to realize that we are privy here to a conversation between two members of the divine Trinity. That alone is a signal that the things Jesus is praying about are already true: namely, that through the glory of Jesus’ ministry, we have gained access to the God of the universe. Jesus prays for the Father to be mindful of us, to protect us, and the mere fact that we get to hear Jesus ask for this is proof right there that this is going to come to pass. Indeed, it’s true already!
That’s why we get to hear all this.
Jesus here distinguishes between “the world” and his own followers. For the moment, he has only the followers in mind. He’s praying for believers, not for the rest of the world. But the fact is that there is a distinction to be observed between the church and the rest of the world and, further, we know from earlier in John and in Jesus’ discourses that we can anticipate the world no more recognizing us than it recognized Jesus. And since we know what that clueless world ended up doing to Jesus . . . well, we can assume more of the same will come to us latter-day folks who bear Jesus’ name.
So we do face a hostile world. But the good news of this prayer is that we don’t face it alone. We’ve got no less than the Sovereign God of the universe on our side!
But there is one line in John 17:11 that is worth pondering. Jesus asks the Father to protect us “by the power of your name,” which is intriguing all by itself, but then Jesus goes on to say that the name in question is “the name you gave me.” Just what name is this? Raymond Brown believes that the name in question is essentially “Yahweh” or the great “I AM” of the Jewish tradition. If so, and in the context of John’s gospel, this corresponds to the “EGO EIMI” formula that Jesus used again and again in the fourth gospel’s famous series of “I Am” statements (“I am the bread of life . . . I am the light of the world . . .etc.).
God is the great I AM of Israel, the God who told Moses “I am what I am and I will be what I will be.” The fullness of this God came to us in Jesus. He gave glory to God through all that he said and did here on earth. We share in that glory! What’s more, we benefit from and live off the riches of God’s glorious power as he guards and nurtures and protects the church at all times. There is glory all around, even if we too often lack the eyes to see it.
There is a lot going on in this oft-called “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus in John 17. But on the Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost when the Lectionary assigns this particular text, we are reminded that although Jesus has gone away physically and is now in session at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, the power of God the Father Almighty is right here with us by the Holy Spirit.
In John 17, we get to eavesdrop on a conversation between Jesus and his Father. Sometimes eavesdropping is a bad thing, of course. But sometimes when you overhear a conversation, you hear people you love saying really wonderful things about you. And when that happens, you feel great. Christians listening in on this conversation have every reason to feel great based on what they hear! We are a people of glory protected by the glorious power and love of God. What a gift it is that Jesus let us listen in on his prayer!
John 17:11 is the only place in the New Testament where God is referred to as “Holy Father.” Although Jesus is now and again referred to as the “Holy One” and we know that the Spirit is ever and always the “Holy Spirit” in Acts and thereafter, this is the only place where the Father is called “Holy Father.” It may not be a terribly significant point but in this context it may be part of John’s attempt to invoke the traditions of Israel and of God’s being the Holy One of Israel in connection with verse 11’s further mention of “the name” of God by which Jesus asks the Father to protect the church.
In John 17 Jesus prays to the Father to protect his people, to be in and with and for his people. But often we in the church forget that all the energy and love of the Father is with us, is inside us. Have you ever seen one of those Hoberman Spheres? A scientist by the name of Hoberman figured out how to make an amazing thing called an “icosadodecohedron.” It is a round ball made up of hundreds of rods, each one of which is multi-jointed to others. (See this demo video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Q63hSmbhxA ).
Some years ago at a science museum in New Jersey, my family and I saw a giant one of these in the museum’s great hall. When that particular Hoberman Sphere is fully expanded, it is a ball that spans probably thirty or more feet in diameter–it’s quite huge. But when it is compacted and all the parts of the sphere are collapsed in on each other, the whole thing shrinks down to something not much bigger than a giant beach ball.
The power of God in the church is like that. The Father’s power spans the universe and beyond. Yet by a miracle of God’s Holy Spirit, it can collapse down into something that can fit right inside the church. And when by faith that power is inside of you, then you know that God’s might is always in service of love for God’s children. It’s the mystery of the incarnation all over again. When the apostle John began his gospel, he was very clear that the Son of God was the Word of God who had made this entire creation. But then he says, “The Word became flesh.” The powerful Son of God who fashioned every atom in the universe somehow managed to contract all the way down to no more than a zygote inside a maiden’s uterus. The Word of the Father, full of grace and truth and containing the very power of creation, made himself so small that for a time, you would have needed a microscope to see him!
In a poignant moment of C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia,” the children at one point walk into what appeared from the outside to be no more than a shabby little building. But once they step into it, they discover a vastness they could not have guessed at before. “Why,” Lucy exclaims, “it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside.” “Yes,” another character replies, “something like that once happened on earth. In a place called Bethlehem there was a tiny stable whose inside was bigger than its outside because that stable contained the whole world.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Why do you stand here looking into the sky? is the compelling question around which, in some ways, the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday revolves. However, it’s also a question that the Lord might pose to Acts 1’s preachers, teachers and those who listen to us: Why do you stand here looking into the sky?
Acts 1:9 reports that Jesus has ascended and somehow disappeared into a cloud. His disciples whom he leaves on the ground, however, can’t seem to move or walk away from his “launch pad.” So they seem frozen in place, staring up into the sky, perhaps straining their eyes to catch just one more last glimpse of Jesus.
Are Jesus’ disciples stunned? Probably. Puzzled? Perhaps. Worried? Maybe. Their mouths may even hang open as they look up into the sky. Yet we can hardly really blame Jesus’ disciples for just staring.
We suspect that at least some of these disciples who now stare up at the sky had watched, from a distance, Jesus suffer and die. They were also among those to whom Jesus appeared after he rose from the dead on the first Easter. After all, after “suffering,” Jesus “showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” However, just as his disciples get used to having him around again, Jesus disappears again.
So are Jesus’ disciples are trying to see where he went? Are they waiting for him to somehow come right back? Or do some of Jesus’ disciples, remembering what happened at his transfiguration, expect the cloud hiding Jesus to evaporate, leaving him among them again?
I sometimes wonder if the disciples’ “looking up into the sky” is a kind of metaphor for the natural inclination of both ancient and modern disciples of Jesus. After all, God’s people too sometimes get caught just looking up into the sky in one way or another.
Like Jesus’ disciples, we sometimes look up into the sky by getting caught up in speculation about when exactly he’ll return. Some Christians spend a lot of time, for example, wondering if increased trouble in the Middle East or disasters like earthquakes indicate Jesus will return very soon.
Acts 1’s preachers, teachers and those who listen to us may also stand here looking up into the sky by asking what God is going to do for us. We may look up and just ask how the Lord’s going come down and fix our families or finances, or how the Lord’s going to give us a spouse or more friends.
Or we stand here looking up into the sky by just waiting for some perfectly clear message from God about what to do in a particular situation. God’s adopted sons and daughters may wait for some audible or visible message about whom we should marry or what work we should do.
Jesus’ disciples had hoped that he would finally establish God’s kingdom of justice and peace, perhaps embodied in a restored Israel. And since Jesus hadn’t yet restored such a kingdom, those who stand looking up into the sky wonder when he’ll do so.
We know how Jesus answers his wondering disciples in our text. Never mind the times and dates, he essentially tells them in verse 7. There’s no way for people to answer that question. The establishment of and timetable for a kingdom of justice and peace lies in God’s hands alone.
Yet that doesn’t mean that the disciples should just stand around staring up into the sky and waiting for that kingdom to “come” to them. No, Christ challenges his followers to testify to what they know and have experienced. He sends them to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (8).
Yet Jesus calls his disciples to stop looking into the sky and start being his witnesses only after he promises them “power when the Holy Spirit comes on” them. In many ways this promise may be even more central to this text than Jesus’ call to witness in ever-widening circles.
After all, not all Christians range far in their witness. However, God does give all Christians the power to witness through the Holy Spirit. That powerful gift shapes the lives of all of God’s adopted sons and daughters, whether we go to the “ends of the earth” or just next door.
So while God calls Jesus’ followers to stop looking into the sky and start being his witnesses, verse 8 reminds us that’s not something they can muster on their own. Being God’s witnesses isn’t first of all about reading the right books and going to the right conferences, though they can be useful. Being God’s witnesses is, first of all, about being baptized with the Holy Spirit. Being God’s witnesses is about receiving the power of the Holy Spirit.
So how can those whom we teach and to whom we preach know if Christ has called and sent them to be his “witness?” If they have the Holy Spirit. Those who love and trust Jesus Christ as the one who saves them from their sin can know that God given them the Holy Spirit. After all, since faith is only and always a gift, its presence signals the fact that the Holy Spirit has already come on those who have it.
Yet those who have the gift of faith also have even more. God’s adopted sons and daughters have the Bible’s account of God’s wonderful work in our world, including God’s work in Christ. God’s people also have our own stories of God’s work in our lives.
So Acts 1’s preachers and teachers can announce that God has given God’s people everything they need to stop standing and looking into the sky. After all, God has equipped God’s children with everything they need to be Christ’s witnesses, not only around the world, but also in their own neighborhoods, schools and workplaces.
Sometimes, however, even Christians who have both the powerful gift of the Holy Spirit and stories to tell assume they can’t be Christ’s witnesses. That’s why preachers and teachers always remember and remind people that “witnesses” are simply people who tell others about what has happened to them.
After Jesus healed a man who was blind, the religious leaders tried to discredit his witness. He responded by simply telling people what had happened to him. “One thing I do know,” the healed man reports in John 9:25. “I was blind but now I see.” He doesn’t say anything spectacular or original. The formerly blind man merely tells what happened to him.
Something has happened to not just God’s people, but also to God’s entire creation – Jesus’ cross and resurrection. In Christ, God has broken into sinful lives and made a whole new world for those who receive God’s amazing grace with their faith. God’s children witness, then, by simply telling, by what they do and say, what has happened to them in Jesus Christ.
So when is the church most like what God calls her to be? When she’s adding many new members or meeting the needs of existing members? While both those things are good and important, the church is perhaps most like the church God calls us to be when it stops staring up into the sky and starts being God’s “witnesses.”
Yet no matter how powerful the Holy Spirit and our message are, God’s children may not neglect another crucial ingredient of being Christ’s witnesses. After all, our text ends with verse 14’s report that “They all joined together constantly in prayer . . .”
As Will Willimon notes, active people might have expected Jesus’ disciples to do something more “useful” after Jesus ascended to heaven. Yet after they obey Jesus by returning to Jerusalem, the disciples’ first response to Jesus’ ascension is to pray. As Willimon goes on to point out, the disciples somehow understood, God expects more from God’s people than just busyness and hard work. You and I understand that the church must also be busy praying, perhaps especially praying for all who are Christ’s witnesses.
Notice, however, how Jesus’ disciples, along with a number of other people, begin to pray. Jesus’ followers, according to verse 14, “joined together.” That means that these followers of Jesus don’t just pray in the same place and at the same time, but also for the same things.
However, Jesus’ followers’ prayers are also persistent. According to verse 14, they “joined together constantly.” Jesus’ followers are persistent in their prayers as they wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
This strongly suggests that those who would stop staring into heaven and start being witnesses always begin, continue and end with prayer. That those who want to stop standing and start witnessing begin by figuratively getting on our knees in prayer.
Jesus has promised to come back, indeed, somehow in much the same way that he left in the first place. In the meantime, however, God has given God’s people work to do. I like the way the biblical scholar John Stott summarizes the angels’ implied message to Jesus’ disciples (and us): “You have seen Jesus go. You will see him come. But between that going and coming there must be another. The Spirit must come, and you must go – into the world for Christ.”
In an earlier Sermon Starter on this passage, my colleague Scott Hoezee tells of putting his German to use by reading an old German fairy tale book a fellow German major at Calvin College had bought at a local garage sale. He notes the original German fairy tales were brutal, unlike their American versions, which seem to have been sanitized and tidied up. Their authors wrote the stories to teach children lessons. Hoezee says those authors clearly believed that scaring the wits out of kids was the best way to get their point across.
One of those stories was entitled “Hans Guck-in-der-Luft,” which Hoezee roughly translates as, “Hans Head in-the-Clouds” (literally: Hans Look-in-the-Air). Its author meant to teach children to pay attention to what they are doing and where they are going. Hoezee writes, “to make the point the title character of Hans is a little boy who is forever daydreaming, forever walking around with his eyes fixed on birds, butterflies, treetops.
The result is that he keeps bumping into lampposts, tripping over uneven sidewalks, running into old ladies. Throughout the story adults chide Hans for his dreaminess and they warn him to pay attention, to get his head out of the clouds. But Hans does not listen and so at the end of the story he walks straight off a cliff and is smashed to death on the rocks below.”
Psalm 68: 1-10, 32-35
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 68 is known as the most difficult Psalm, but it is a fine choice for this Seventh Sunday of Easter, also known as Ascension Sunday. The connection to Christ’s Ascension is rooted in the way the early church read it, as evidenced most clearly in Paul’s use of verse 18 in Ephesians 4:8-13.
Within the Psalm itself there are hints that the church’s appropriation of this Psalm for its celebration of Christ’s Ascension was fitting. The opening call, “May God arise, may his enemies be scattered, may his foes flee before him,” sounds a lot like Paul’s description of Christ’s victory over God’s enemies in Ephesians 1:20-22. After recalling how God’s power had raised Christ from the dead and “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion…,” Paul says that God “placed all things under his feet and appointed him the head over everything for the church….” Further, the title given to God in Psalm 68: 4 and 33 (“him who rides on the clouds” and “him who rides the ancient skies above”) echoes the description of Christ’s ascension in Acts 1.
So, Psalm 68 is a good alternative text for this Ascension Sunday, if we can get past its difficulties. Some of those difficulties are textual. Says one scholar, the average preacher will may be intimidated by “uncertain texts, rare words, allusive language, and shifting styles.” But that same scholar says, “Whatever its uncertainties, to read it or to hear it read is to experience something of the awesome, wonderful majesty of the warrior God who saves his people and brings his kingdom.” (Mays)
In that quote we encounter the other, and greater, difficulty with this Psalm. That difficulty is the theology summed up in the phrase “warrior God.” Many preachers and listeners will struggle with the militant, some might say triumphalistic tone of this Psalm. In a day of interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance, when the emphasis everywhere is on the unity of the human race, Psalm 68 seems like a throwback to the days of a muscular Christianity that allied itself with nationalistic pride. In those good old days churches sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” ambivalent about which soldiers were marching off to which war. This unease with a “warrior God” is surely what led the Lectionary to omit the fiercest words of verses 11-31.
It would be easy for the queasy preacher to simply skip this Ascension Psalm to avoid these difficulties. But Kathryn L. Roberts has an interesting, counter-intuitive observation. “In a time when violence is too quickly and slickly the answer, it would behoove the church to lean in to the difficulties Scripture often tells about God, rather than editing them out.” In other words, maybe Psalm 68 with its military tone is precisely the text we need for this Sunday, which just happens to be the Sunday before Memorial Day in the United States, when we remember those who have fallen in war.
But how do we handle all of those literary difficulties? We can’t even get to the theology if we can’t make sense of the Psalm’s words. The introductory notes in the NIV Study Bible suggest a helpful way to grasp the meaning and movement of various parts of this complex Psalm. It is a processional liturgy that celebrates the glorious and triumphant rule of Israel’s God by tracing God’s march from Mt. Sinai (in the days of Moses) to Mt. Zion (in the days of David). In the theology of Israel’s history, the events at Mt. Sinai marked the birth of the Kingdom of God among his people, while the placement of the ark in Jerusalem marked the establishment of God’s redemptive Kingdom in the earth. In other words, what we have in Psalm 68 is not a war hymn, but a Kingdom hymn; not a glorification of violence, but a celebration of God’s great campaign to restore Shalom on earth.
There are 9 stanzas in the liturgy, which roughly coincide with the stages in that march: verses 1-3 are a call to begin the journey with God in the lead (see my comments on these verses later); verses 4-6 remind God’s people of the benevolence of their warrior God; verses 7-10 recall the wilderness journey from Sinai to the Promised Land; verses 11-14 celebrate God’s victory over the kings of Canaan; verses 15-18 picture Yahweh’s ascent of Mt. Zion, as symbolized by the elevation of the ark of the covenant; verses 19-23 assure God’s people of God’s future victories; in verses 24-27 the procession comes into view; verses 28-31 are a prayer that God will muster his strength to subdue his enemies as before; in verses 32-35 the procession ends with a full throated call to praise the God of power who is enthroned in his sanctuary.
Here are some points that will help you flesh out the theme of celebrating the victory of our Warrior God. First, there is no question that the first stanza (verses 1-3) pictures a rough, tough God. And why not? He has enemies, after all, and he did not start the fight. It was the Adversary, the Accuser, the Destroyer who enlisted human beings in the fight against a merciful God who created all things good. It would be totally wrong for God to allow the forces of evil to destroy his good earth and his beloved children. Any God worth his salt must defend the world he loves and defeat those who would destroy it.
The call that opens this Psalm is the cry of all God’s children who have been caught up in the war initiated by evil. “May God arise, may his enemies be scattered… may you blow them away….” I know, that sounds like an advertisement for a violent video game. But it is, rather, a call for help from sad and suffering people. “But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before the Lord….” Other Psalms echo the questions of God’s suffering children: “Why are you so far off, O Lord? Why do you wait? How long will you allow us to suffer?” Psalm 68 puts that sentiment in stronger terms. It’s time to act. “May God arise!”
The next stanza in the liturgy of victory is a reminder that our warrior God is a Savior, the Savior of the helpless. Verses 4-6 show the tender intention of the God who goes to war. His heart is wide open to the marginalized, the oppressed, the victims of evil. He is “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.” He “sets the solitary in families; he leads forth the prisoners with singing.”
That last phrase is undoubtedly a reference to Israel’s exodus from the house of bondage in Egypt, but the rest of that stanza reveals God’s heart for all those who suffer under the hand of evil. Indeed, Exodus 22:21-24 shows how fierce is God’s concern for the least and the last. “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.”
The third stanza (7-10) praises God for his care in the dry and barren places of the journey. Even when God’s people pass through the wilderness, God marches with them. In the most unlikely places, he showers his grace upon them. In lovely language that tempers the violence of other verses, God is praised for both thunderstorms that shake the earth and showers that make it bloom. The Promised Land had grown weary under the dominion of evil, but God’s powerful grace symbolized by rain “refreshed your weary inheritance.”
Our reading for Ascension Sunday skips over the next 20 some verses, because they are studded with violence, warfare, and blood. But there is also a steady emphasis, like a drumbeat, on the presence, power, and danger of God’s enemies. There are “beasts among the reeds” waiting to attack, and “bulls among the calves of the nations” ready to charge. There are “nations who delight in war.” It’s not as though God is out to pick a fight, as though God enjoys fighting, as though God is a bully. It is rather that the enemies of God’s campaign to restore peace won’t give up, so he can’t/won’t either. He loves his world too much to let evil ruin it.
And even though Psalm 68 talks about God’s people plunging “their feet in the blood of their foes,” the Ascension connection of the Psalm reminds us that the Son of God shed his blood even for his enemies (Romans 5:9-11). God is not a blood thirsty Warrior. But war and blood are a part of life, so our God immersed himself in our lives (even the blood and the war) to bring peace.
If we read Psalm 68 in the light of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, we can understand why it ends with shouts of praise. In a world seemingly dominated by the power of evil, we celebrate the victory of God over evil. “Sing to God… to him who rides the ancient skies above…. Proclaim the power of God…, whose power is in the skies. You are awesome, O God, in your sanctuary; the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.”
Those last words give us opportunity to remind people that our Warrior God is the Savior of the World. Therefore, we who follow him are obligated to use the power he has given us to participate in his world saving campaign. And we do that best, not by picking fights with those liberals/conservatives/Muslims/Republicans/Democrats, but by showing mercy to the least and the last and the lost. In a culture fiercely divided into “them” and “us,” let us be the ones who reach out to “them” in the name of our Conquering and Compassionate Savior.
But even more important than emphasizing our role in God’s peace campaign, let us be sure to focus on the victory of Christ. As important is as social justice is, the center of the Gospel is Jesus and what he has done for us. So, as Americans celebrate on Memorial Day what humans have done to preserve the peace by making war, let us celebrate today the sacrifice of Christ, who died violently to make us free and bring us peace. Ascension Day is a celebration of the victory of the Crucified God who arose and now “rides the ancient skies above.”
We humans love to celebrate our victories. On Memorial Day tomorrow there will be parades all over America. On July 4, there will be fireworks and concerts. We celebrate all victories: the winner of the Super Bowl, the team who emerges victorious in basketball’s March Madness, the triumphant candidate in the Presidential campaign, and our grandchild’s monstrous (read dribbler between the shortstop’s legs) home run.
Psalm 68 calls us to celebrate the greatest victory in the history of the world, and the glorious homecoming of the conquering Hero.
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
Author: Scott Hoezee
The novelist Richard Ford said once that the goal of the characters in his novels is this: “All we want is to get to the point where the past can say nothing about us.” In the postmodern world, people hanker to be free-floating. They want to live with the illusion that they are inventing reality as they go along. Identity cannot be inherited, cannot be handed down to you by someone else. Your identity needs to be forged (and also constantly re-forged) through having a variety of experiences.
It is telling that one of the most popular TV shows in the late 20th century was Seinfeld, a program that was touted as being “a show about nothing.” Every week there was an episode that presented two or three concurrent storylines involving the show’s regular characters. Generally speaking, though, any given episode had nothing to do with the prior week’s installment of the show nor would it have any connection to whatever the next week’s show would be about. Each episode was indeed about “nothing” in a wider sense. There were some running gags and a few recurrent themes, but if you were to take all of the Seinfeld episodes and consider them all at once, you would not be able to construct a plot or storyline that showed some kind of character development from beginning to end.
At the risk of making too much out of a comedy show, there is a sense in which Seinfeld is emblematic of a wider phenomenon. Today people resist what some refer to as a “meta-narrative.” Is there finally one, big story as to what life is all about? If you look at the history of the universe, is there a plot? Is there any narrative movement from the story’s beginning, toward the story’s middle, and culminating somehow in a climax that will tie all the narrative threads together in some coherent, meaningful way? Or is history finally pointless? Is history just one thing after another but without any development or purpose? Is all of life like Seinfeld: a series of things that is finally about nothing?
To understand the Bible, and specifically 1 Peter 4-5, you need ultimately to believe in a meta-narrative that catches up the entire cosmos. The verse that jumps out at you from the Lectionary selections from chapters 4 and 5 is 1 Peter 5:7 and the assurance that “God cares for you.” But I wonder if we always appreciate what a person needs to know in order to believe that there is a God who cares for him or her. It seems simple enough to us. To tell someone, “God cares for you,” is such a positive thing–you’d think anyone would be eager to hear and believe this. But what does believing this require of a person.
Suppose that someone says to me “Your wife cares for you, you know.” What do I have to know in the background of my life to believe that claim? Assuming I deem this to be credible–that is, if I hear that my wife cares for me and am able to believe it readily–what will inform that belief? It will be my history with her. It will be our story together. I will believe she cares for me on the basis of a hundred little things, and quite a few big things, that happened over the years. I’ll recall how we built our relationship and our trust in one another through our dating years, leading up to our decision to get married. I’ll remember little things like how she remembered to pick up my favorite food at the store or took care of a household chore that I usually do on a week when I was too busy to do it myself. I’ll remember the tears of sympathy she shed when I was upset and how she hugged me on a day I was sad and in tears myself.
I’ll reach for what could be called the meta-narrative of our life together. That’s why if someone I don’t know very well says to me, “I care for you,” I’ll be at a loss as to whether or not to believe that. I’m going to want some time to discern if that’s true. Even if this other person exudes kindness, how can I be sure that he or she really cares for me? Until I have some evidence that this is so, I will keep my cards somewhat close to my vest. I’m not going to make myself vulnerable by telling you my darker anxieties. Not right away at least.
It is precisely here that we can begin perhaps to detect the challenge that faces us preachers to convince people in this day and age that God cares for them. If people resist living inside a larger historical framework, a meta-narrative that encompasses finally the entire universe, then they also resist accepting the very history of God with his creation that is necessary to accept the idea that this God cares for people in a personal, intimate way.
If you look closely at I Peter 4-5, you will see sprinkled throughout these words hints and whispers of a larger story. To believe that God cares for you, you need to believe that God created you along with everything and everyone else. It is much more difficult to believe in God’s care for you (or for anyone) if you believe that the very existence of humanity was some kind of historical accident. The meta-narrative needs to have a good beginning if it is going to proceed forward to some kind of good conclusion.
The story’s beginning needs to be that God created us in his own image precisely to share his life and love with us. God created us so that he could communicate with us the same way a parent wants to start communicating with a newborn as soon as possible. If we can believe this, then we may believe that no matter how far off the rails life in this world finally got, no matter how cut off from God any of us might feel at any given moment, no matter how miserable we may at times feel as we suffer in this world, God is still with us. If the story began with a Creator God who loved us, who wanted the best for us, and so who is still pulling for us despite the odds stacked against us in a fallen world, then we can believe he still loves us.
All stories need a beginning. But then it goes from there. We further need the continuing story of the covenant. We need to believe that when this world started to go in a direction God didn’t like, he didn’t merely watch us go but ran to catch up with us. We believe he worked through people named Abraham and Sarah to start something brand new out of which would eventually come the salvation of all. We believe he built a beachhead through a people named Israel. We believe he brought out of that people one named Jesus, who was and is a full member of the divine, Trinitarian community. And we believe that this story has a midpoint, a climax, when that beloved Son of God got hoisted onto a cross and died only to rise again three days later.
All stories need a beginning and a middle if they are ever to get to an end. But they also need a theme. In this case, the theme is God’s pitched battle against the one Peter identifies as that marauding, prowling lion called the Devil. It’s a battle God has waged because of his intense love for us, but if you take away the opponent, if you write off the devil (as many today do) as a metaphor, a symbol, then a good bit of the story’s drama is gutted. We need to know that the reason we feel tempted, anxious, or hurt is because there is another who seeks to do us harm. We’re not merely caught up in a web of neurotic goings-on that we can solve on our own if only we get the right therapy. When the day is done, someone is out to get us.
This creation is up against something. Better said, it’s up against someone. The love of our God, the fact that he cares for us, is shown in the fact that he does not let us stand alone. In fact, the final defeat of that devil was taken care of by God’s Son Jesus for us. That’s why Peter can also call this Christ Jesus the Chief Shepherd. That is also an image of caring, of love, of tending to us as we wander through this often difficult world.
All of that is part of the larger meta-narrative that you need to embrace to believe that there is a God who cares enough for you that you can entrust him with your darkest fears and anxieties. Yet much of this story needs to be held on faith. This is where my earlier analogy about why I trust my wife breaks down. My personal history with God does not include my having been present at the creation, at the call of Abraham, or even at the cross of Jesus Christ. Most of this story’s details go beyond my short lifespan. I have to accept this on faith and then, by God’s Spirit, have it confirmed through subsequent experience with the God to whom my faith connects me in a living way.
How can we preach this to the millennial generation? One thing that won’t work is simply telling people what they have to believe. If we just give them a long list of doctrines and beliefs and historical facts and ask for their assent, we won’t get far. What people value today is relationship, authenticity, a credible witness that comes not in the form of a logical presentation so much as seeing something lived out in your and my life.
This is perhaps where Peter’s focus on suffering comes in. Today more than ever Christians need to be honest. We cannot present Jesus as some kind of magic cure who will automatically end all suffering in this life. Roadside billboards that proclaim “Jesus Is the Answer” strike lots of post-moderns as too neat, too easy, and so finally false. Even with Jesus in our hearts, we do not have all the answers. Even with the Holy Spirit in us, we are not free from suffering. To witness to the fact of God’s care requires that people believe the larger story. But that requires their seeing in our lives an authentic story being lived out as well.
Peter makes even our sufferings in this present age part of the larger story, the meta-narrative. By connecting these unhappy parts of life with the suffering of Christ, and by seeing ourselves as caught up now in God’s cosmic battle with the devil, we recognize that suffering does not mean God has abandoned us. In ways we cannot understand, these terrible things will somehow contribute to the salvation and restoration of all things. When in this chapter Peter tells the elders to be examples to the flock, there is a sense in which he is almost sounding a postmodern note, asking Christians to be authentic. We need to have a relationship with people in the context of which they can see how we fit ourselves inside the same larger cosmic story in which we are inviting others to orient their lives.
The God of all grace has called us into an eternal glory. It’s all a gift that we have received by grace. And this gift brings glory. But we get the fullness of the glory only after we have suffered a little while. History is so full of suffering. The sorrows across the ages, like the sorrows that fill this world at this very moment, are confounding and massive. Who of us could stand if we were, in one in-rushing of sound, able to hear every sob being wailed forth in the world right this second? If we could hear every moan of children starving to death in the Sudan, every cry of a mother in Syria whose child was accidentally killed, every cry of disorientation from the drug addict lying in some inner city alleyway, every Hospice patient gasping for what will be his final breaths: if we could hear just that which is going on now, much less the sum total of all creation’s groanings in history, it would shatter us.
How we need to know and believe and live out the idea that there is a God who cares for the whole creation. How we need the benediction Peter gives that assures us that after we have suffered a little while, there is yet a victorious God in Christ who will restore us, make strong and firm and steadfast unto an eternity of glory he has prepared for us and the entire cosmos.
Stories of the fairy tale variety begin with “Once upon a time . . .” and often end with “And they lived happily ever after.” Many times looking for a “happily ever after” ending for the history of the world seems too good to be true, too much to wish for. But as Frederick Buechner once pointed out, somewhere in the history of the universe there needs to be one fairy tale that will finally come true. We believe the gospel is just that story. Because in the end, the larger story we tell and into whose narrative we invite all others is a story that is too good not to be true.