January 08, 2018
The Epiphany 2B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 1:43-51 from the Lectionary Gospel; 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 86 (Lord’s Day 32)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sample Sermon: “The Child’s Leading”
Don’t you wish sometimes you could have been there, could have seen them in person? I mean the disciples and, of course, Jesus himself. You hear people say things like that once in a while. Wouldn’t it have been something to have been able to meet Peter, to shake Matthew’s hand? What if even now we could somehow go back in time to hear the Sermon on the Mount? Often when people wish for such things, the motivation seems to be a combination of healthy curiosity and the idea that maybe it would be easier to believe the gospel if we could have seen gospel events unfold before our very eyes.
But I myself doubt that latter point. I am not at all convinced that seeing the disciples would make the gospel easier to believe. In fact, seeing the disciples in person might just make it more difficult! The disciples were not, after all, from among society’s upper echelons. They were not highly educated, well-dressed, or outwardly impressive. The odds are that if you could have met up with Jesus’ band of followers, the first thing that would have struck you would have been their commonness. You would perhaps notice their dirty fingernails, the callous on Philip’s big toe, the missing teeth that were on such obvious display every time James grinned. You might be surprised at how short and stubby a couple of them were and would note the poor grammar that they often employed.
We need to forget about the illustrations from those well-meaning children’s Bibles some of us grew up with. In those pictures the disciples tended to be pretty handsome with well-groomed beards, sporting robes worthy of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. In such depictions the disciples were always clean and remarkably Anglo-Saxon looking. The fashions may have changed over time, but in an era when tunics and robes were what people wore, we often visualize the disciples wearing the ancient equivalent of Armani designer suits. Probably, though, they were far more common and ragged looking. But this morning, we need to wonder if we are so very different from them ourselves. Maybe we’re not much to look at, either. But as we may yet see, maybe that’s Good News after all.
Because somehow that rag-tag group of uneducated fishermen were in touch with the deepest truth and dearest secret of the universe. Those ordinary fellows changed history by their witness. It’s quite remarkable. In fact and as Frederick Buechner once noted, this all has a fairy tale-like feel to it.
Most everybody has a soft spot in their hearts for fairy tales. There is just something about a fairy tale’s reversal of expectations that intrigues us. There is something delicious about finding out that the frog is really a handsome prince, that the ugly duckling is the one that grows into the most resplendent of all swans. We enjoy it when the moment of truth comes for the characters in a story, as when the Hobbits discover that the scruffy-looking character of Strider, whom they never quite trusted, is actually the true king of Gondor.
Fairy tales are stories of transformation, and that’s what happened to these simple people we call the disciples. If you took the disciples and brought them all together into one room, you would never in your wildest imagination guess by looking at them that this weak-looking pack of ordinary folks could change the world. But they did. The disciples changed the world because it was to them that the secret of the universe was first revealed.
That’s why Jesus called them in the first place. If you’re going to save the world, you’ve got to start somewhere. And if in the end you’re going to save the world through humility, gentleness, compassion, and sacrifice, it makes sense to begin with a bunch of fellows who couldn’t get much more humble if they tried! The messengers fit the message. In fact, over the course of his ministry if Jesus had any significant struggles with his disciples, it was the struggle to keep them humble and ordinary-looking. Every time a couple of them started angling for power or arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest, Jesus slapped them back down to the street level of service.
The disciples needed to be common, ordinary, and above all humble if they were going to do Jesus any good and so change the world. Still, Jesus did need them and that’s why he called them. But in the calling process, there was more going on than we realize. Our passage from John 1 is a case in point. Jesus has already attracted Simon Peter and his brother Andrew when he calls also a man named Philip to follow him. No sooner does Philip join Jesus’ still-small group of disciples, and he runs to fetch his brother, Nathanael. Near as we can tell, Nathanael, though a follower of Jesus, did not become one of the inner-circle of twelve disciples. Yet his particular call to follow Jesus is remarkable.
Based on the external evidence alone, you’d have to say that Nathanael dove in based on little more than a kind of spiritual parlor trick: Jesus claims to have seen Nathanael sitting under a fig tree even before Philip went to go get him. The fact that Jesus seemed to know that was a neat trick but not exactly the most startling thing in the world! Still, it was enough for Nathanael to sign on even as it motivated him to declare openly that near as he could tell, Jesus was the Son of God and the king of all Israel. Nathanael’s confession was pretty simple but in this story, Jesus reveals some pretty amazing things if we pay close attention to this story. Because twice in this brief passage there are very clever, very telling allusions or references to a key Old Testament figure: Jacob.
The first reference crops up in the curious way that Jesus greets Nathanael. Jesus says, “Well now, here comes a true Israelite, a man in whom there is no guile.” The NIV translated that as “in whom there is nothing false,” but that’s not quite right. The Greek word used in verse 47 is the word for “guile,” which can also mean craftiness, being tricky, underhanded. There are not too many biblical characters who are described as being full of guile, but the most famous person who was a trickster par excellence was Jacob himself: the crafty deceiver who eventually was re-named Israel. That’s why some have paraphrased Jesus’ words here to say something like, “Here is an Israelite with no Jacob in him! Here is a son of Jacob who is not a chip off the old block!”
Jacob, as you may recall, always got ahead in life by his own wits. He relied on his own cunning and craftiness to snag life’s goodies. He outsmarted dim-witted Esau, did an end-run on his nearly blind father Isaac, and then spent the better part of twenty years finding ever-more creative ways to snooker his Uncle Laban out of just about everything he owned.
For some reason, though, God liked Jacob. Once, when fleeing the wrath of Esau, Jacob had a dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. In that dream God assures Jacob that despite all the stunts Jacob had pulled, God was with him. And God would stay with Jacob, finally and quite literally wrestling him into an understanding that the best things in life come by grace alone. It’s not about the power to snag what you want. No, it’s about being humble to receive what only God can give.
“Here comes an Israel who is not Jacob,” Jesus basically said when he first saw Nathanael coming his way. It was nice for Jesus to say this, all the more so considering that the last thing Nathanael had said before meeting Jesus was a kind of sneer: “Nazareth! Can anything, or anyone, good come from that backwater town!” That’s what Nathanael said, and apparently it was an honest thing to say.
Because Jesus as much as replies, “You’re right, Nathanael: I’m not much to look at. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m the One!” Nathanael believes this, and Jesus then responds by declaring himself to be the living Bethel. When Jacob had that dream of a ladder to heaven, he declared the place where he had the dream to be “bethel,” beth-el, Hebrew for “the house of God.” Jacob was surprised to find himself at the intersection between God and this earth. And so he called the spot “God’s House,” “Bethel,” the place where God and people meet up. But in John 1 Jesus now tells Nathanael that he himself is that intersection point: if you were with him, you were in the presence of God!
It’s as though the whole story of the whole Bible is getting a re-boot, a fresh start. Jesus is founding a new Israel, a brand new people. Gone are the days of craftiness and guile when people had to live by their wits to survive. A new era of innocence has dawned, a time that requires an almost child-like, naive ability to embrace the fairy tale-like truth of Jesus. It may be yet another way of saying that to enter the kingdom of God, you need to be like a little child. And in many ways, Nathanael and the others were like children.
If you wanted to be cynical, you could say that the only reason Philip and then Nathanael were so quickly impressed by Jesus was because they were rather naive bumpkins. There is something innocent, child-like in the way Nathanael comes to faith, and even Jesus says as much. “You believe just because I told you about the fig tree!? That’s nothing! Just wait until you realize that I am the walking, talking Bethel–the place where God and humanity, meet! Just wait until you see the angels, my friend!”
But far from criticizing Nathanael’s simple faith, Jesus is commending it. This is someone who is innocent enough to believe that something not just good but something of God really did come from Nazareth. Apparently we need a little naiveté to embrace the gospel’s fairy tale-like depiction of God himself living inside the man Jesus. We need a little holy innocence to believe that in that small band of ignorant fishermen, a cosmic treasure lay hidden. The disciples, as it turns out, are the frogs who turn into princes.
And when it comes right down to it, we know that we are no more impressive-looking, no more outwardly dazzling than those simple disciples we meet in the Gospel story. The world still thinks the church looks like a dead end, a non-starter. In recent years popular New Atheist authors like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have publicly sneered at people of faith and have used words like “immature” and “retrograde” and “child-ish” to describe what they think of people like us. Christians who go to churches on Sunday mornings are no different, Richard Dawkins has said, than people who believe in the tooth fairy, in river sprites, in spirits who inhabit elm trees.
But by grace we know that somehow, we, too, have been put in touch with the dearest truth of the universe: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. We don’t mind being child-like if that’s what it takes to believe this. And so we hang onto our faith in the gritty realities of this world. Because in fairy tales, as surely in our present situation, dark and terrible things are present; good and evil wage horrific battle, and some good things are lost along the way. But the child-like aspect of faith keeps hope alive because our willingness to embrace and believe the unlikely has given us a glimpse of Joy. We’ve caught an Epiphany glimpse of a larger world in which God is the Creator and Jesus is the true King.
We don’t stop noticing the bad things that happen, and sometimes in the teeth of war and its carnage, of death and the sufferings we endure on this earth, sometimes the Joy-inspired hope we bear causes us to weep even more than those who don’t have faith. We are innocent enough to believe unlikely things but not so innocent as to miss seeing that the gospel often has a tough time making it in a world of guile, cynicism, and despair.
Our eyes are open, not shut, and we see again and again the very realities that required God’s Son to become incarnate here, right in the midst of life’s struggles and sorrows. We follow Jesus but always we remember that the shadow of the cross is ever present. That cross is what it took for even God’s own Son to start setting things to right again.
It’s a lesson the disciples learned eventually, too. Through betrayals and denials and abandonment, the disciples went the distance with Jesus, finally and by grace alone arriving on the other side of that great event we call Easter.
That’s the only place you ever find Nathanael again, too. Nathanael makes just one other appearance in the Bible and it comes in the very last chapter of John. Nathanael is a kind of book-end character for John’s gospel, appearing in only the first and final chapters. By the time you get to John 21, Jesus had been killed dead in plain sight of the disciples. The shrewd powers that be looked at Jesus, asked if anything good could come from Nazareth, and concluded, “Nope,” and so they dispensed with him, crossed him out. But in the ultimate reversal of expectations, the dead one became alive again. And finally the morning dawned in John 21 when Nathanael and the others were fishing in a boat only to see some hazy figure on the distant shore, cupping his hands to his mouth and calling out, “Catch anything?”
They knew then who he was and so rowed back to the shore as fast as they could. Nobody said much. John says they didn’t even dare to ask, “Is it you, Jesus?” They felt like they were in a dream, a dream of heaven come down to earth. But you know how it is with good dreams sometimes: you don’t dare say anything for fear you’ll wake up and it will all disappear like a soap bubble wafting in the air. But they knew it was Jesus.
Nathanael knew it, too. This Jesus now looked like he had been to hell and back, bearing scars and looking somehow different, changed, but he was undeniably alive. And when at breakfast that morning he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them, there was no longer any doubt who this stranger on the beach was. He was the same man who, years before, told Nathanael that he hadn’t seen anything yet. Having now been to the cross and back, Nathanael agreed.
Back on that day when he first came to faith, Nathanael had been pretty innocent all right. But in a way, despite all he’d seen, suffered, lamented, and wept about, he was still innocent, still child-like enough to believe that the one he watched die was alive again, that the truth of Jesus as our living Bethel was no dream. And every once in a while, out of the corner of his eye, Nathanael was just sure he saw the flutter of angel wings above Jesus’ head.
And by grace, so can we. So can we. Hallelujah and Amen.
*** My thanks to Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row 1979, pp. 115-117) for some inspiring help on some of this sermon’s reimagining of Nathanael.)
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
Author: Doug Bratt
Nothing quite grabs our attention like a voice in the night. After all, it almost always signals trouble. The voice may be that of a child from the next bedroom: “Grandma, I’m sick,” or a teenager’s cell phone: “Dad, I’ve run out of gas.”
Sometimes, of course, the voice in the middle of the night says nothing important. A few years ago my cell phone jarred me out of my sleep at about 3 a.m. When I answered it, the voice on the other end sounded inebriated (as I also probably did to the caller). Yet the phone call grabbed and held my attention for a long time anyway.
Since Hannah and Elkanah had been unable to bear children, Hannah had gone to the temple to promise to give back to the Lord any son God chose to give her. Eli, her feeble old priest, however, confused her weeping and praying with drunkenness.
Yet God knew that desperate Hannah was sober. God graciously gave Elkanah and her the son for whom they’d longed, wept and prayed. They responded by lending their son Samuel back to the Lord.
Old Eli’s family was far less connected to the Lord. Eli was Israel’s head priest. So he spent his life telling the Israelites what he thought God was saying. That meant that Eli had to try to listen to God in order to help Israel listen to God.
Yet that couldn’t have been particularly easy. 1 Samuel 3 begins, after all, by mourning that “in those days the word of the Lord was rare.” It’s as if God either didn’t talk much in Eli’s day or people simply didn’t listen to God very much. In any case, God was clearly not grabbing peoples’ attention. Certainly not Eli’s rowdy sons’. They, after all, were scoundrels who had no interest in carrying on their dad’s work, except to the extent that it enriched them. Eli’s sons preferred carousing and womanizing.
So God decided to work outside Eli’s family channels. Instead of choosing a mature person to proclaim the good news, God chooses a child. God will, after all, proclaim God’s faithfulness, even if God must use a kid to do it. God “finds,” as it were, that child in the spiritually crumbling house of Eli where Samuel is serving God under Eli’s guidance.
Samuel’s boss is so old that he’s losing his eyesight. In that way Eli’s a sad symbol of Israel. After all, in Eli’s time, “everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25). What’s more, “there were not many visions” (1 Samuel 3:1) when Samuel was helping Eli. So 1 Samuel 3’s Israel has grown blind to God’s ways, work and will.
That’s one effect, after all, of doing what’s right not in God’s, but our own eyes. When you and I do what we think is right instead of what God says is right, it’s almost as if we build up spiritual cataracts. We find it hard to see God at work, even when it’s right in front of our eyes.
Yet while spiritual darkness seems to engulf Eli, his family and Israel, light does still flicker. After all, our text reports, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out” (3). The lamp to which that refers is the one that God had told Moses to make. It was a sign of God’s lasting presence that the priests fueled with oil the Israelites brought to the temple.
Yet our text at least implies that temple lamp is flickering as 1 Samuel 3 opens. Perhaps that merely means that it’s almost dawn. However, it may also imply that the lamp that is God’s presence is in danger of dying out in Israel.
So it’s somehow appropriate that, when God comes, it’s when virtually no one can see anything. When God comes to Israel, Eli and Samuel, everyone is still asleep, not just spiritually, as our text implies, but also physically.
Yet when God does talk in the middle of the night, it’s not to old Eli to whom God has been trying to talk for years. God doesn’t speak to the old priest who has spent his life trying to listen for God’s voice.
God speaks, instead, to a little boy whom Will Willimon suggests was listening for nothing more than his blind boss’s voice. This son of Hannah and Elkanah’s desperation is still so young that he doesn’t yet know the Lord.
Yet God has a way of speaking to the people whom we might not expect and who might not expect God. God speaks, after all, to morally flawed characters like Abram and Sarai, Jonah and Deborah. In our day God has spoken to people we’ve tried to marginalize like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa.
Yet apparently the sound of God speaking is so rare in Samuel’s day that no one quickly recognizes it. While God speaks to Samuel, not once, but three times, each time the boy confuses it with Eli’s voice. Twice, as well, even Israel’s doddering old priest confuses God’s voice with some kind of dream his helper is having.
Now we might expect young Samuel, who doesn’t yet faithfully seem to know the Lord, not to recognize God’s voice. Yet wouldn’t we expect Eli to recognize that voice quickly?
His experience reminds us that it takes some practice to recognize God’s voice. In fact, it’s no easier for citizens of the 21st century to hear God speaking than it was for Eli and Samuel. The voices around us are, after all, often loud and shrill. North American culture, for example, has turned parts of its media and politics into a shouting match where many yell but few listen, especially to those with whom we disagree.
On top of that, the voices inside us are also very loud and insistent. They naturally demand that we do what’s best for those we like and love, as well as ourselves. Our natural sinfulness makes it very hard to distinguish between God’s voice and our self-interest.
So young Samuel must learn to listen for God’s voice. He needs doddering old Eli’s help to finally hear the God who has tried three times to speak to him in the night. Samuel needs his mentor to teach him to say: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Yet when finally God speaks, God’s message is, frankly, in some ways chilling. I even sometimes wonder if old Eli regretted urging Samuel to listen to it. God’s message is, after all, a message of disruption and upheaval.
God warns Samuel that desperate times are coming to Eli’s family. They will fall so far, hard and fast that Eli’s dying daughter-in-law will eventually deduce that God’s glory has simply abandoned it.
Yet God’s message to Samuel also communicates hope. While the lamp of God’s presence may be just smoldering like glowing embers in Samuel’s day, God promises to blow those dying embers into a roaring fire.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that while the word of the Lord is “rare” as our text opens, by the end of the chapter it’s coming fast and furious. Because God is with Samuel, God lets none of the prophet’s “words fall to the ground” (19). God’s Spirit gives Samuel’s words so much power that none of them are wasted. In fact, those words are so powerful that it becomes hard to distinguish them from God’s own words.
As a result, people from all over Israel eventually recognize that Samuel speaks for God. Where God’s word was once as rare as a Texas snowstorm in July, at our text’s end God is constantly revealing himself through Samuel’s words. The lamp of God is again burning brightly, however temporarily.
Spiritual darkness may still threaten to blot out the light of God’s presence in our world, just as it threatened to extinguish the light of the world that is Jesus. Wars and recession seem to threaten to snuff out the light of the world. Yet the light that God’s presence still shines brightly, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So God still speaks, by God’s Word and Spirit. The only question is whether God’s adopted sons and daughters are listening. God gives the Holy Spirit whom God’s people need in order to hear God speaking. God has also given God’s Word by which we measure other voices.
Yet sometimes we think that God’s voice is hard to hear. After all, God sometimes speaks through people whom society easily ignores. God speaks through people with whom we don’t always theologically agree. God speaks through our Christian brothers and sisters in third and fourth world countries. God, by God’s common grace, sometimes even speaks some truth to us through followers of other religions.
So can God’s people listen closely enough to hear God speaking? Can we put aside our theological and ethnic pride long enough to hear God speaking through what sometimes seem like unlikely spokespeople? Can we, quite simply, join young Samuel in saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”?
In their book, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, editors Lee Sparks and Kathryn Hayes Sparks quote the wonderful preacher, Fred Craddock as saying, “The Bible takes listening very seriously. The Bible’s term for ‘listening’ is translated most often as ‘obey.’ The Bible doesn’t know the difference between ‘listen’ and ‘obey.’
“Listening is fundamental, but it is so hard to do. We have marvelous mechanisms for not listening. The Bible recognizes this. Recall that marvelous passage about the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4b-5, ‘Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord opened my ear and I was not rebellious.’ The wording literally is ‘God dug out my ear.’ You don’t just listen—it takes an act of God to really listen.”
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Author: Stan Mast
A little more than half a year ago (July 17, 2017), I wrote a sermon starter on the first and last parts of Psalm 139 on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website. Since I spilled a lot ink on the entire Psalm there, I’ll merely highlight some of those comments here and add a few that are relevant for this Second Sunday after Epiphany.
One might wonder what this text has to do with Epiphany. We get a clue when we consult the other Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading for today. The call of Nathanael in John 1:43-51 was, for Nathanael at least, a mini-Epiphany. Jesus’ intimate knowledge of this man whom he had never met convinced Nathaniel that Jesus was, indeed, “the Son of God… the King of Israel.” The call of Samuel in I Samuel 3:1-10 anticipates the call of Nathanael, and echoes the claim of Psalm 139 that God knows us from our earliest days, even from the womb. Further, those beautiful words in Psalm 139:13-18 about God’s careful creation of our bodies has ties to the reading from I Corinthians 6:12-20, which calls us to “glorify God in our bodies.”
God’s extensive and intensive knowledge of every detail of our bodily existence is an epiphany of God’s glory. Such knowledge, says the Psalmist in verse 6, is “too wonderful for me….” All we can do in the face of such knowledge is adore our glorious God.
The main point of Psalm 139 is that God’s knowledge of us is not merely intellectual; it is relational. The frequency of the pronouns “I” and “you” highlight that relation. God is not an idea or a force, an “it.” God is a person who can be addressed personally, a “you.” And the Psalmist is not merely a faceless cipher, one of a billion grains of sand. Each of us is, to God, a distinct person, an “I.” God knows us, not “from a distance” (as the old song put it), but as a lover. The main word for “know” here is the Hebrew yadah, which can mean everything from simple recognition to sexual intercourse. The many other words for “know” (5 more of them) in this Psalm suggest how intimately God knows us.
The God who knows us is not the unknown God of the Athenians (Acts 17). This God is Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, who has not only hinted at his own existence in a series of private mystical mini-Epiphanies, but has also taken Israel by the hand and revealed himself in a series of very public historical acts. In other words, the God we are to adore is not an idea to be comprehended, but a person who has acted in concrete physical events. Yahweh is known by his deeds, and he calls us to trust and obey and adore.
Though the relationship between God and his people is intimate, it is not equal. We can never know God in the way God knows us (but cf. I Corinthians 13:12). Yahweh knows our words before we even speak them (verse 4). Indeed, he even knows our thoughts before we think them, if that is the meaning of “you perceive my thoughts from afar” in verse 2. If we are free creatures and can change our minds whenever we choose, how can God know our thoughts before we form them? We certainly cannot know the mind of Yahweh in that way (Romans 11:34).
As further evidence of the inequality of our relationship with Yahweh, verse 5 says that God “hems” us in—“behind and before.” There is much disagreement about the meaning of that phrase. Is it prohibitive, in the same way that walls and fences hem in prisoners? Or is it protective, in the same way that a baby’s crib keeps her from falling into trouble? Being closely watched and guarded can be a threatening reality, or a deep comfort.
The Psalmist suggests that he means the latter with his tender language about God’s knowledge of his life even before it began and after it ends (in verses 13-18). Accordingly, perhaps the sense of “you have laid your hand upon me” is “you have blessed me by laying your hands on me,” or even “you hold me in your hands” the way a mother cradles her infant.
At any rate, God hems us in, but we can’t hem God in. We are dependent; God is completely independent. He is, after all, Yahweh, the great “I am what I am.” That difference makes the intimacy of God’s covenant with us all the more glorious. That the eternal self-sufficient ruler of the universe should commit himself to us is beyond comprehension.
The Psalmist details God’s deep involvement in his life with these famous words about being “knit together in my mother’s womb.” As “precious” (verse 17) as that thought is to the Psalmist, some of what follows is problematic to some contemporary Christians. For example, the pro-life use of verses 13-16a in the battle against abortion causes some pro-choice folks to question whether those verses actually prove the personhood of the fetus. At the very least those verses prove that conception and gestation are not merely natural processes. God is intimately active in the creation of each human being. That fact, of course, makes every human being worthy of love and respect and dignity, regardless of their age, sex, ethnicity, health, preferences, class, or politics. These verses provide the foundation for a kind of biblical bill of rights.
Another example of the difficulty some Christians have with verses 13-18 centers around that word “ordained” in verse 16. Any talk about ordaining, especially if it is pre-ordaining, or pre-destination, is anathema to those who stand for the free will and self-determination of humanity. While I can appreciate the desire to preserve the importance of human choice, this verse is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the notion of God’s sovereignty. From the beginning, when God decided to create everything, to the end, when God will bring everything to a happy conclusion, the Bible emphasizes that God is actually in charge of human existence.
That clear biblical emphasis, however, does not answer the question about how God exercises his sovereignty over against or in cooperation with human choice. When the Psalmist says, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be,” that doesn’t tell us exactly what God wrote in his book. Does that mean simply the length of our lives? Or does it mean every single detail of each day? Did God decide what each day would hold? Or does God simply know what I will do?
This is a great mystery about which both Christians and non-Christians have argued for millennia. At the very least, the Psalmist is telling us that our lives are not random bits of dust floating in the cosmic wind of a mindless universe. We are the unique creation of the Master of the universe. He knows each of us intimately from the heights to the depths, from the east to the west, from birth to death, and even before birth and after death. The Psalmist doesn’t claim to understand such knowledge. All of the debaters in this ancient argument about God’s sovereignty would do well to adopt the posture of the Psalmist. “How precious are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand!”
The last sentence of our reading is ambiguous. “When I awake, I am still with you.“ That might mean, “when I wake from the exhausted sleep brought on by my efforts to comprehend God.” Or that might mean, “when I awake from death.” Either way, my frail efforts to understand God and my fragile life on earth will end the same way. “I am still with you.” Nothing can break the covenant that you have made with me. Think of Romans 8:38, 39.
Completely comprehending God is not the key to life. God’s knowledge of me is the key to life. Or to put it differently, the knowledge that brings life abundant and eternal is the kind of relational knowing that Psalm 139 is all about. As John 1:18 puts it, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” Not as an idea, but as a person, a person who was knit together in his mother’s womb and was born to trouble at the hands of mockers (Psalm 139:19-22). “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17:3).”
In these days of deep loneliness and isolation, it is comforting to be assured that we are known in a way we cannot comprehend. When we wonder about God’s involvement in our troubled lives, Psalm 139 shifts our focus, so that “suddenly we find ourselves no longer questioning the limits of God in our lives, but considering our own limits in the context of the life of God.” (Carol A. Miles)
The kind of knowledge explained in Psalm 139 can stir fierce scholarly debate, but it can also create deep personal comfort. One of my grand-daughters was just diagnosed with an electrical blockage in her heart. At the age of 14 Molly might need a pacemaker for the rest of her life. I asked my daughter–in-law how she was doing with this disturbing turn of events. She confessed to being sad and worried, but, she said, “God has already written the story of Molly’s life.” And that gave her great comfort, because she believes that God knit her daughter together in the womb and has hemmed in her life with hands that are nail scarred.
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Author: Scott Hoezee
In Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, at one point someone observes a husband and wife stealing coy glances at each other over dinner and just generally displaying their love. This leads one character to utter the wryly cynical observation, “The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.” That line is funny because it is a riff on the much more common line about people airing their dirty laundry in public. When a family bickers at McDonald’s, when a married couple continues an argument from home even when seated at someone else’s dinner table, we say it’s bad form, like holding up soiled clothing for all to see.
But if the media and the tabloid press are any indication, all the world loves public displays of dirty laundry. Nothing so swiftly arrests people’s attention as a public dispute, a cat fight between two old friends. We in the church likewise know that the world pays precious little attention to Christian folks until and unless something scandalous can be displayed. If you go to YouTube, you’ll find any number of video sermons but the ones that get millions of views are not solid and orthodox proclamations of grace but ridiculous sermons that are loaded with silliness or fraught with controversial statements. Clean laundry doesn’t sell newspapers. Dirty laundry on the other hand . . .
All of which brings us to I Corinthians 6. It’s pretty clear when reading through I Corinthians that this letter was written in reply to a letter the Corinthians had first sent Paul. Reading between the lines, we can tell that the Corinthians bombarded Paul with all the questions that emerged from their fractious little band of believers. Scholars think that the congregation in Corinth was probably not much larger than 50-75 people. That’s not much but if the history of the church has proven anything, it is that where 2 or 3 are gathered, there arguments may abound.
And so they wrote to their founding pastor and said things like, “Pastor Paul, we’re not sure whom we’re supposed to follow in this Christian thing: some are following you, others claim Peter, others claim Apollos, and a few think they have Jesus all to themselves. Any ideas there? Pastor Paul, we’ve got a guy here who has shacked up with his mother-in-law. Thoughts? Pastor Paul, when we have potlucks that include the Lord’s Supper, all the food is getting snapped up by the rich members who can knock off work earlier than the poorer folks, who end up going hungry. Any opinion? And oh yes, a faction of our members believes there is no such thing as the resurrection from the dead. Is that important or can we live with diversity on that one?”
Questions, questions, questions. And mostly Paul answers those questions the way you’d expect. Whom should you follow? Christ alone, for goodness sake! What to do with the sexually immoral man? He’s out! What about the Lord’s Supper? Wait for one another for the sake of Jesus, who always waits for you. And the resurrection? It’s just a wee bit important (and if it isn’t, then we are of all people the most to be pitied!).
Those are the answers you’d expect from Paul. But in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul gives an answer that is decidedly unexpected. The questions must have gone something like, “Pastor Paul, a few of our members have cases pending at the Corinth Circuit Court. Do you have any opinion on Christians filing lawsuits against one another? And how about some of our men from the flock still visiting the local prostitutes? Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
Now you’d expect Paul to be about as blunt as a spoon here and say, “You’re suing one another?! Knock it off!” And in essence that is what he says but the way Paul gets there is quite simply startling. Because Paul says far more than “Kindly settle your disputes in-house and don’t bother with secular judges and as to the prostitutes: NOOOOOO!.”
Paul’s actual reply—while still conveying his negative judgment on these activities—is more nuanced and more theologically supple because what made Paul’s jaw drop in response to these questions was his shock over the congregation’s inability to realize who was who in the cosmic scheme of things. And so his response is laced with the rhetorical question, “Do you not know?” And what was it that the Corinthians seemed not to know? That they are saints. That they are members of an eternal kingdom of light and wisdom. That from God’s perspective, the lowliest member of the congregation was wiser and more important than even the smartest lawyer or judge in the world. That they have been made one flesh with no less than Jesus himself. Thus when you become one flesh with a prostitute, guess who comes into the bed with you . . .
“Do you not know? Do you not know? This was the answer the Corinthians didn’t see coming. The Corinthians saw themselves as one more little social network, one more civic association, one more little Members Only club. There was the Rotary Club, the Garden Club, the Book Club, Friends of the Library, the PTA, and the church—aren’t they all the same? That’s what the Corinthians thought. But Paul looked at them and saw saints in shining robes on their way to take up their graced place in God’s eternal kingdom.
But what about our congregations today? Maybe lawsuits and prostitutes are not the issue but what are the issues of the day and do we know who we are as members of Christ’s Church in the face of those matters? Do we parse out our lives from the vantage point of our being the shining body of saints Paul saw?
We live in a society that encourages us to see the church as just one social network among many. Our culture encourages us to bow down before the real centers of power that are located in Hollywood, on Madison Avenue, and above all in Washington D.C. And so we are wowed by celebrities of all kinds. We’re fascinated by Britney and Paris and Oprah and Angelina, by Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise and George Clooney. We spend hours reading about their antics and their deeds. We watch the TV to absorb every nuance of what happens in the citadels of “real power” in Congress and on Wall Street and at the Supreme Court. And even in the realm of fictional characters, we gravitate to the TV shows about lawyers and doctors and judges and CEOs. Speaking as a pastor, I can tell you that we clergy frequently pine for the cache, the prestige, the sheer social clout that gets afforded to other professionals in ways that seldom come to pastors.
So Paul comes to us, gets in our face, and with wonder in his eyes asks yet again, “Do you not know who you are?” We’re enamored with and impressed by all the wrong things. The best status in the world, both now and most certainly in eternity, is already ours! We’re saints. We’re children of God. We are the target of all the grace and mercy and love Jesus Christ our Savior has to offer. Do you not know?
Knowing this helps us deal with those who treat us as fools for being Christians. And goodness knows that in recent years we’ve seen a small floodtide of best-selling books that say exactly that. The unholy trinity of Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens assure us that being people of faith is retrograde, backward, delusional, and irrational. To these people, belief in God is no different than a belief in the tooth fairy. Similarly, maybe our neighbors see our coming to worship every Sunday as a waste of time. Maybe pastors sometimes feel dwarfed by the prestige of other professionals. Maybe we do get called foolish and silly by some. But so what? We are the eschatological community of the cosmic Christ! We’ve got a spot reserved for us by grace in nothing short of the New Creation of our God. We’ve got a front-row seat for all eternity to witness all the great things our Creator and Redeemer God has done and will do. The slights and insults and snide critiques we receive for now really don’t quite compare to all that.
By every worldly standard and from every objective point of view, the little church at Corinth was a mess. It was an embarrassment. The grown-ups at Corinth were behaving like silly school children, squabbling and scrapping on the playgrounds of life. They couldn’t even get through a simple little potluck without hurt feelings. They couldn’t hold a worship service without members muttering under their breath as they walked back home. I’m glad we don’t have these problems in any churches today . . . But how wonderfully startling it is to see Paul look at this pathetic little band of believers and, with a tear in his eye, be able to say, “You’re saints! You’re God’s shining community! You’re beautiful!” That’s what the eyes of love can show you. That’s what a God-informed vision shows you.
Years ago in the movie Moonstruck there is a charming scene in which a married couple in their late-60s are talking one night before bed. The husband is standing at the bedroom window, bathed in the light of a brilliant full moon. From the other side of the room his wife says, “You know something: standing there in that light with that look on your face, you look about 25 years old!”
Well, no he didn’t! He was a wrinkled old man with a paunch and bags under his eyes and hair that was now more white than even gray. But to his wife’s eyes of love, he was still the young buck she had fallen in love with four decades ago. Paul’s view of the church at Corinth was like that. He saw the Corinthians bathed in the light of God’s grace in Christ and even though an objective observer would see just a contentious bunch of galoots, Paul said, “You know something, standing there in that light of Christ, you look like the saints of God.” And so they were. When we can go out into the world knowing who we are and holding our heads high as the children of God, maybe some in the world will see Jesus in us, too. It would be like airing our clean laundry in public!
Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11 now over 16 years ago, Time magazine came out with a special edition. The lead article in that edition was written by Time editor Nancy Gibbs who opened her article this way: “Aggressors have always known that if you want to humble an empire, you attack its cathedrals.” In other words, in a capitalist society of free enterprise, those soaring Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were our national church, our cathedral, the place where we as Americans placed all our hope and confidence and pride. Among the many pictures of the Twin Towers that got published in the wake of their destruction was that picture of a little church that was near the base of the towers. The picture has the church in the foreground but is angled upward to show the majesty of those towers of glass and steel that fairly dwarfed the church building.
That’s pretty much the world’s perspective all the time: the church is dinky, tiny, uninfluential, ridiculous. The church is properly dwarfed by the soaring citadels of money and fame and power. And sometimes we let this worldly view of the church influence us. We feel helpless. We feel despair. We feel small. We wish we would rub shoulders with the big boys and really shake things up. But then, long about the time we feel that way, the Holy Spirit gently cups our faces in his hands and whispers into the ears of our hearts, “Do you not know? Do you not know? Do you not know?”