January 27, 2020
The Epiphany 4A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 5:1-12 from the Lectionary Gospel; Micah 6:1-8 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 15 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 39 (Lord’s Day 15)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Suppose you could combine the personality traits of the Beatitudes and put them all into one person. What would Mr. or Miss Beatitude look like?
Well, he would be consistently kind and yet also a bit shy, shunning the limelight. He would always downplay his own actions by claiming they were never enough to achieve what he really wants, and so we might conclude he has a bad self-image.
This would be a person quick to lend a hand to anyone in need but also quick to get a bit depressed every time she hears a news story about an oil spill off the Louisiana coast or after seeing pictures of children gassed to death in Syria–this would be a person as often as not who looked distressed and seemed often to be on the verge of tears; someone who could never shrug off anything.
This would be a person who was transparently religious, someone whose heart seemed so centered on the God of his faith that most everything he did would come off looking like an offering. This would be a person who would seem perpetually restless and dissatisfied with lots of life’s facets. She’d be someone who consistently gave money to environmental groups, who volunteered to clean up highways, who pitched in on programs to aid the homeless, who talked at dinner parties about the need to do something to help those who live in poverty or who are gripped by addictions to opioids or pornography.
In short, Mr. or Miss Beatitude might not always be a barrel of laughs. As often as not she’d have a serious look of concern on his face or a tear of sympathy in her eye; she’d rather talk about substantive issues of global climate change or the war on poverty than engage in typical cocktail party blather. She might just be busy enough with helping the disenfranchised that some would sneer at her as someone who was naively “out to save the world.” (All of this is why it was such a travesty years ago when a certain TV preacher published a book titled “The Be (Happy) Attitudes.” Happiness is not necessarily in the mix for those who follow Jesus’ words here.)
Mr. Beatitude or Miss Beatitude might even be seen as a trouble-maker and a nuisance, what with all his or her restless talk about issues, causes, and politics, not to mention the fact that there seems to be no satisfying this person–he’s always hungering and thirsting for something better for others. And so it’s quite possible that among some people anyway, Mr. or Miss Beatitude would be ridiculed.
You see, the life of Mr. or Miss Beatitude will be a busy and restless and maybe even a nettlesome one not because he or she is trying to get to heaven but because folks like this have seen the kingdom in Jesus and they’re not going to settle for less ever again. As such, there is a curious paradox running through the Beatitudes. On the one hand it is clear that graced followers of Jesus don’t really “fit” in this world. In this sense Matthew 5 seems to validate the old spiritual that says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passin’ through.”
If, as Jesus predicts, we get ridiculed and persecuted, part of the reason will be because we’re not hewing to the world’s agenda. We’re going to challenge a lot of conventional wisdom and shake up the powers that be. On the other hand, though, the Beatitudes do not call us to be world-shunning folks. We are not to pretend that society or culture don’t matter, that politics is beneath our notice, that the environment can slide into a hell of pollution because this world isn’t our home anyway seeing as we’re headed for heaven.
No, instead the Beatitudes make clear that we are to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness not in the sweet by-and-by but right here, right now. We are to make for shalom here. We are to be meek right here and if we are, we are promised to inherit the earth–the earth, you may notice, is what Jesus promises.
Jesus easily mixes up his talk about “the kingdom of heaven” with his talk about this earth. Apparently in Jesus’ mind there is no dichotomy. You don’t have to choose between heaven and earth because down the line, the two are going to merge. In sum, blessed are you if you can see the world the way Jesus sees it. Congratulations to you if you already feel and act and live in these ways because it shows that when it comes to God’s kingdom, you “get it.”
There is a long-standing biblical debate as to whom Jesus taught: were these words addressed to everybody or to just Jesus’ inner circle of disciples? Many scholars believe that although some in the crowd may have overheard Jesus, it does appear that Jesus is forming a circle around him of only the disciples and that he is now teaching them. Recognizing that helps us to remember two things: first of all, the fact that these words were for the disciples reminds us that the Beatitudes are not entrance requirements for kingdom membership but instead are a description of what kingdom living is like after you have been saved by grace.
If Jesus had spoken these words to the crowds, then it is possible you could read the Beatitudes this way: “People, listen up! If you want to be on my good side, if you expect for me to take you to heaven, then here’s what you have to do: you have to be nice and merciful, work toward peace and only then will you be good enough for me.” But that’s not how it goes in Matthew 5. Jesus has already called the disciples through the out-of-the-blue invitation of grace. They are already kingdom insiders.
In other words, the Beatitudes show how you live after grace not how you earn grace (which you can’t do anyway, of course).
To the world, the Beatitudes look like a formula for a disastrously dull and melancholy life. Instead, as C.S. Lewis wrote, the people around us think that money and sex and booze and the high life are as good as it gets. To folks like this the Beatitudes sound roaringly stupid. But such people are like an ignorant little child who says that he’d rather just go on making mud pies in some slaggy alley in the slums simply because he can’t imagine what it means that you just invited him to go to the beach for the weekend. People in this world are far too easily pleased. They think mudpies is as good as it gets when really they and we all have been made for joy! Blessed are you if you know the joy that is our God in Christ for it changes everything!
Author: Stan Mast
In the midst of the glory of Epiphany we encounter this sobering and bracing text about God’s lawsuit against his sinful people. How is this an Epiphany text? The only connection I could find lies in that little word “showed” in verse 8. After the whole court proceeding laid out in verses 1-7, God reveals what he requires of his people. A careful study of God’s requirements will finally lead to a revelation of what God has done for his guilty people. So, we can get to Epiphany from here, but we have to go to court first.
God calls the court into session way back in the Eighth Century BC, during the last days of the divided nation of Israel. Micah prophesied about and during the same time as the prophets Isaiah and Hosea. His message is similar to theirs, including the condemnation of Israel’s reliance on empty ritual to appease their obviously angry God. Our text is unique in its judicial format. And it ends with the famous and often misquoted and misunderstood words about what God actually does require of his sinful people.
In verses 1-2, God summons Israel into court to hear his accusations and to prepare their defense against the charges that follow. This is a picture of God that many of your hearers won’t like very much—God as a plaintiff, a prosecuting attorney, a stern judge—but this is part of the biblical revelation of our covenant God. He is not only full of lovingkindness (hesed in Hebrew), but also full of justice (mishpat in Hebrew). And, as we will read in verse 8, he calls us to be full of both as well.
Micah takes pains to assure Israel that what follows come from God, not Micah. “Listen to what the Lord says….” I didn’t make this up; it comes straight from God. God is calling his sinful people into the witness stand and calling the everlasting mountains to serve as the jury in the case he is bringing against his people. “For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.”
It is fascinating that this stern summons is followed immediately by a poignant self defense on God’s part. Is your sin somehow my fault? Did I do something wrong that led you astray? Was I unfair or unkind in some way? “My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me.”
God’s answer to his own question actually becomes part of his case against them, because God has done nothing but good to them. “I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery.” I provided splendid leaders during that time of salvation in the persons of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. When you were opposed on your journey to the Promised Land by Balak king of Moab, I turned his own prophet, Balaam son of Beor, against him, defeating your enemy. I gave you the land of Canaan from top to bottom.
Did I, Yahweh your God, do something wrong, so that you rebelled against me with good reason? No, I did only “righteous acts” on your behalf. You knew those acts, but as you settled into the land of promise and assimilated into the pagan culture of that land, you forgot my “righteous acts.” That’s the heart of your sin; you did not remember me and my work of salvation. And you took on the religious practices of the peoples among whom you live.
That’s why Israel responds to God’s accusations with an offer of sacrifice. Like the pagans who thought they could appease their gods with a sacrificial system, Israel took the sacrificial system given to them by God and turned it into a ladder leading to God. We are way down here with our sins and God is way up there in his holiness. How can we climb up to heaven? “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?”
Their answer? “Sacrifices.” Note how the sacrifices mentioned in verses 6-7 increase in cost and volume, beginning with burnt offerings of a year old calf, proceeding to thousands of rams and 10000 rivers of oil, and ending with the horror of child sacrifice, “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul,” as did worshippers of the horrific Moloch. Moving from the reasonable (and even commanded by God) to the absurd (and forbidden by God), the guilty Israelites ascended the ladder of sacrifice. If we rely on sacrifice to win back God’s favor, what does it take? How many and what kind?
Now, in fairness to Israel, God did require sacrifices of his people. The Torah is full of rules and regulations dealing with an elaborate sacrificial system. They were definitely part of Jewish religion. But they were never intended as a ladder to heaven, as the way they could win God’s favor, earn their salvation, appease an angry God. And they were never intended to replace the central obligations of the covenant of grace, as laid out in the Ten Commandments and summarized with memorable brevity in verse 8 here.
So, God cuts through all the talk about what kind of sacrifice God needs and summarizes his will for his people of all times and places. “He has showed you, O mortal man, what is good.” What I’m about to say is not new. I showed it to you long, long ago, but you have forgotten, even as you have forgotten my “righteous acts.” “And what does Yahweh, your covenant Lord, require of you?”
What follows is as neat a summary of God’s will as can be found anywhere in Scripture. Yes, the Ten Commandments spell out obedience. And yes, Jesus’ summary of the Law in his two sentences about loving God and neighbor captures the heart of obedience. But these words show us how that loving obedience looks in everyday human life. “To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Earlier I mentioned how God is both loving and just, dealing with us in both hesed and mishpat. So, it should not be surprising that God calls his covenant partners to deal with our fellow humans in both hesed and mishpat. Made in God’s image, we are to treat others as God treats us. So, we must act justly, defending the rights of others, and we must love mercy, taking care of the hurts of others.
There is so much to say about these simple words. Isn’t it true that we want justice, but not for ourselves? For ourselves, we want mercy. And isn’t it true that we want mercy, but not for others. For others, we want justice. All of which shows how complicated these simple terms are. As one scholar said, “Doing justice and loving mercy are strained partners.”
A vigorous pursuit of justice leaves no room for mercy, but a soft display of mercy makes justice impossible. Wendell Berry put it well when he said, “Justice that is not framed by love creates a downwardly spiraling society of anger, hate and brutality. Relationships—family, neighborhood, community—simply will not work without a framework of justice that is massaged and conditioned by mercy.” On the other hand, is it right to be merciful to someone who has done wrong? Shouldn’t there be appropriate penalties and sacrifices for wrongdoing? Should mercy cancel justice?
These, of course, are exactly the problems that plague our society today. How can we both act justly and love mercy? The answer, I suspect, lies in the third phrase in this famous verse—“to walk humbly with your God.” Neither justice and mercy are possible if we don’t walk humbly with our covenant God. We won’t be able to show mercy unless we have experienced God’s mercy. We won’t know what justice is apart from God’s justice. God will keep us from being too hard with justice and too soft with mercy.
This is precisely why our culture and our personal lives fall so far short of justice and mercy. We don’t walk humbly with our God. Indeed, many versions of this text are used in social justice campaigns, but they leave out those crucial last words. I saw a Huffington Post blog the other day that was urging people to vote, using this text. Here’s how it read. “Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Vote.” No mention of God, let alone “our God.” There can be no genuine humility until we realize how much we rely on God for justice and mercy. Without a personal relationship with a personal God, our text becomes just another impossible burden for an already burdened human race, something we simply cannot do.
So, in the end, your sermon on this text must call people to walk humbly with God as they seek to do justice and act mercifully. Perhaps the best way to do that is to remind them of what God has done for them. Take them back to all that talk about sacrifice. All of our attempts to win God’s favor by sacrificing this or that will never work, but God in his mercy has satisfied his justice by the ultimate sacrifice.
The God who tested Abraham’s faith with the command to sacrifice his only son, the God who called Israel to offer their firstborn sons to God as living sacrifices, has offered his only begotten Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins (Romans 3). Yes, he requires justice and mercy and humility, but we cannot do what he requires. In his mercy, God humbled himself and satisfied his justice in the sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God.
I know that many folks today, including many in the church, balk at this talk of justice and sacrifice. But the fact is that we will not walk humbly with our God until we embrace his righteous acts on our behalf. The epistolary reading for today sums up the importance of the cross. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” (I Corinthians 1:18) Only when we acknowledge that and embrace the crucified and risen God will we be able to do justice and love mercy in a broken world.
It is fascinating to me that so many people balk at the idea of God as judge when our society is fixated on judicial proceedings. In the United States, we have spent weeks watching the impeachment proceedings against President Trump, with almost violently passionate pleas for justice on both sides of the political divide. And many of the most contentious issues of justice and mercy in American society will finally be adjudicated by the nine justices of the Supreme Court. We want justice and we need mercy, but so many of us don’t want anything to do with a righteous Judge or a merciful Savior. Is it any wonder that we are in a tangled mess where both sides proudly claim to be absolutely right, like God?
Author: Scott Hoezee
In the Gospel sermon starter for this Year A Sunday we wondered what a person would be like if you could combine all of the traits of Jesus’s Beatitudes into one individual. What would Mr. or Miss Beatitude look like? Now in Psalm 15 we see something similar: what would a person be like if absolutely everything that this poem lays out really were true of just one person?
The short answer is this: that person would look like Jesus. Indeed, that person would all-but have to be Jesus! A colleague of mine noted with me recently when I was in the midst of grading a batch of sermons from the Parable of the Good Samaritan that when the early church theologians like Origen and Chrysostom and others read this parable, they all came to the same conclusion: who is the Good Samaritan? Jesus.
So yes, at the end of that parable Jesus tells the lawyer whose question prompted this story to “Go and do likewise.” And yes, that makes that passage easy picking for finger-wagging pulpiteers to scold people into going and doing likewise. But the truth is that short of a person’s becoming Jesus, it would not be possible. Indeed and for now, it is only the living presence of Jesus by the Holy Spirit inside any given person that anyone would have even a remote shot of behaving like the Good Samaritan in Jesus’s tale.
That can and needs to be the same bottom line when we consider Psalm 15 as well. To put it mildly, the psalmist has set the spiritual bar a tad high here! That might be less daunting were it not for the fact that the psalm begins by asking the question as to what kind of person is allowed to have life and fellowship in the presence of God. Alas, the answer to that question based on what follows would seem to be: No one. Or at least no one I have ever met and certainly not the person whose reflection I see in my bathroom mirror every morning. Even the best of Christians I have ever met could not—were they honest—tick every box every day and all the time from Psalm 15’s checklist of virtues. Indeed, the more holy a person is, the more likely that he or she would be honest enough to acknowledge his or her shortcomings (at least now and then) when it comes to Psalm 15’s described behaviors.
Again, the spiritual meaning of that is plain enough and I will loop back to it below. But first notice how the psalm ends: the person who fits this description will “never be shaken.” How might we understand that line? Well, perhaps in the sense that one would not have to tremble in one’s boots when standing before the Almighty and Holy God of Israel. If you really lived in these ways consistently and on a daily basis, what would prevent you from meeting the gaze of God? What would make you avert your eyes or look down at your shoes or fidget nervously on account of what you know God knows about who you really are? So such a person would not be on shaky ground in front of God and in his holy dwelling place.
There may also be a second sense of how to understand how such a person would not be shaken. If you lived the way Psalm 15 describes, you won’t be shaken in the sense of not living with nervous fears tickling the back of your mind of being found out about something. If you never lie, you don’t need to work so hard to keep track of your lies lest you accidentally contradict yourself at some point. Always tell the truth and you won’t worry about being found out for falsehood. Speak well of other people and you cannot be credibly accused of besmirching someone’s character. Keep your promises even when it hurts and you cannot be accused of being a fair-weather friend. You will not be shaken. Even if someone accuses you falsely, you will know it is false. You are on solid ground at all times. Surely this is an easier way to live than being in constant fear of being found out for this or that past lie, broken promise, misdeed, and so on.
But let’s get back to the main spiritual upshot of Psalm 15: it is one of those lofty pieces of spiritual aspiration that actually serves as an indictment of how most of us live all the time. Is this meant to drive us to despair? If it were the end of the Bible’s story, there would be no choice. Despair would be the outcome.
Of course, however, Psalm 15 is not the end of the story. A psalm like this drives us to God’s Christ, to Jesus, who came full of grace and truth in order to live the Psalm 15 life we cannot do so that Christ’s righteousness in all such matters could become our own righteousness by grace alone. Who can do everything all the time that Psalm 15 lays out for us? Only Jesus. Even King David whose psalm this ostensibly is did not live up to this. Solomon didn’t. No future Son of David did until the ultimate Son of David came. And thankfully he did not come for his own sake but for our sakes so that he could take what he was and give it to us as a gift.
So who can dwell in the sacred tent or live on the holy mountain of God? Only Jesus. Only Jesus and all those he brings with him. Thanks be to God!
It can be exhausting to live a duplicitous life or to keep track of your own lies. A clear example of this came at the courtroom climax of the film A Few Good Men. The hard-bitten Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) is in charge of a Marine platoon in Guantanamo Bay. One day he secretly ordered a that a troublesome Marine private named Santiago be given a “Code Red,” which was when fellow soldiers would rough up a given individual to motivate him to straighten up and fly right in the future.
But the Code Red went south and the private died. To cover up the incident, Col. Jessup tells the lie that he had actually arranged to have the private transferred so as to prevent him from being harmed by fellow soldiers who did not like him—Santiago was slated to move out the very morning after he ended up dying.
But Col. Jessup also told the lie that he had given all of his troops strict orders not to touch the private. But when the prosecuting attorney (Tom Cruise) puts 2 & 2 together, he saw a disconnect he could exploit. Col. Jessup prided himself on the fact that his orders were always followed. So if Jessup had ordered the private not to be harmed, why did he also have to order him transferred so as to keep him from being harmed? Both things could not be true, and in an explosive scene, the Colonel is trapped in his own words and ends up confessing to the truth: he had ordered the soon-to-become-fatal Code Red (and so had perjured himself earlier and suborned perjury from his other officers).
That’s the thing about lying—you have to work extra hard to keep track of it all. Those who always tell the truth, on the other hand, live with no such unsettling thoughts. They will never be shaken. (But as noted above, even for believers, even that can come only with Jesus’ help!)
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Author: Doug Bratt
In a fine Sermon Starter on this text (from which I drew numerous ideas for this Starter), Scott Hoezee suggests that there’s a danger in spending as much time in church and around Christians as some preachers and teachers do. It’s that this whole Christianity business all starts to make too much sense to us. That we also begin to wonder why Christianity doesn’t make sense to everyone else too.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul doesn’t claim that this whole Christianity business makes sense. He doesn’t even hint that Christianity’s truths should be perfectly obvious to everyone. The apostle insists the gospel message is “foolishness” to at least some people.
He, in fact, uses some form of “foolish” not just once but four times in our text’s seven verses. The root of the Greek word that we generally translate as “foolish” or “folly” is moros. It’s also the root of the English word “moron” that we sometimes angrily or critically throw around. So it’s as though Paul is basically saying the message of salvation through Christ’s death on the cross is naturally “moronic.” That the message of salvation through Christ’s death on the cross is, dare we say, a little insane.
Of course, the gospel of the cross isn’t foolish to God’s adopted sons and daughters. The Holy Spirit has graciously convinced God’s people that the gospel is, in fact, true. God has graciously persuaded us that message is “the power of God” that’s greater than all of humanity’s power, intelligence and wisdom.
But if we who hear and proclaim I Corinthians 1:18-25 are to carry this gospel into a new week, it’s good to remember that it naturally seems foolish. To riff on one of Hoezee’s images, reading the gospel is naturally a bit like walking into a car dealership and spotting an attractive car. You sit in it, turn on the radio, move the seats back and forth, maybe even take it for a test drive … and then you walk away from it. You decide the car is not worth any more of your attention. It’s basically foolishness to you.
We might think of our text’s Corinth as a kind of ancient New York City or Toronto. It was, after all, a kind of crossroads where various traditions and languages converged. Its citizens exchanged ideas the way others exchanged money for goods. Corinthians liked to “test drive” the “cars” that were various religions.
So they would have felt very much home in a 21st century West that increasingly loves to be spiritual without being religious. Our culture has become a veritable flea market of ideas and philosophies. We’re constantly trying them on to see if they fit us. We also shed ideas and religions about as often as we scrub away dead skin follicles.
To the spiritually curious Corinthians, says Paul, the whole gospel seemed like complete foolishness, utter nonsense. The idea of a convicted felon being the bearer of God’s forgiving love was about the wildest thing any Corinthian intellectual worth her weight could imagine.
What’s more, the whole concept of a crucified but resurrected Jesus didn’t make much sense to many of Paul’s Jewish neighbors either. Since at least some of them were expecting someone who would live to pave the way for God’s coming, they assumed the Messiah would kill the pagans, not be killed by them.
Yet the whole idea of the gospel didn’t seem foolish just to sophisticated Greeks and Jews. It also seemed moronic to ordinary Corinthians. They seemed to be looking for some kind of reasonable god who would help them when the going got rough. But Paul offered them a God whom most others abandoned when the going got tough.
Yet the whole gospel thing looks little more reasonable to our neighbors than it did in ancient Corinth. “Come on,” at least some of our acquaintances say, “you’re trying to tell us that someone had to die for us to live?” Our co-workers wonder what sort of bloody, vindictive God would demand that. In fact, even Christians sometimes struggle to understand what it is about Jesus’ death on the cross that turned us from God’s enemies into God’s beloved children.
A few well-meaning colleagues would like to do something about the Christian gospel’s “foolishness.” They claim to want to help Christians communicate the gospel to thoughtful modern people. Some have tried to package the Christian faith in a way that our contemporaries find more suitable. So some of these scholars have, for example, “freed” the gospels by basically shrinking Jesus down to a teacher of good morals.
Yet as the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable of neither inflicting deep wounds nor healing them.” If God’s beloved people can get that through our heads, we can bring that gospel to the people who surround us. We can share what looks like foolishness with even the smartest, most sophisticated people we know.
Of course, few of the Corinthians who’d faithfully received and then shared this foolishness seemed to be Corinth’s “brightest and the best.” In fact, most of them were people whom their neighbors overlooked, exploited and pushed to society’s margins. Corinth’s Christians were people whom their contemporaries viewed as “fools.”
To make things worse, those Corinthian Christians sometimes also acted like fools. They struggled to live in ways consistent with the gospel message. Some of them sued each other and refused to sit together at the Lord’s Table. Other Corinthian Christians separated themselves from the church because they thought they were more spiritual than other members.
“But God …” says Paul in verse 27. It’s one of the apostle’s favorite phrases he loved to use to describe an apparently persistent human problem and then show how God graciously stepped in to fix it. The whole idea God’s salvation through Christ’s death on the cross is naturally scandalous and foolish. But God, Paul insists, through Christ’s death saves “those who believe.” God graciously transforms what seems like foolishness into something the Spirit equips us to receive with our faith.
The apostle notes that Corinth’s Christians had been “nobodies.” But God, adds Paul, made them “somebodies.” Not necessarily the kind of people their world recognized as somebodies, but the kind of people that really mattered. God, says Paul, chose those Corinthian “nobodies” and called them through Paul’s proclamation of the crucified Christ. God made those Corinthian nobodies into God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Perhaps some who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson share Corinth’s Christians’ humble status. Others are among society’s wisest and most influential people. But it seems that growing numbers of people think of both lowly and powerful Christians’ faith as “foolish.” They think it makes God’s adopted sons and daughters superstitious or extremist. Of course, not all of our neighbors, co-workers and friends think of God’s people as zealots or fools. But they well may assume that what we believe is foolish.
No mentally healthy person wants to look ridiculous. We don’t want to go back to middle school where our clothing, good grades or choice of friends sometimes made us feel foolish. Even God’s dearly beloved people naturally want people to admire, or at least tolerate us.
So it’s very tempting not to “boast” about our Christian faith, much less, the Lord. In fact, the most natural response to contempt for Christianity is to hide our faith. Or to talk about it hesitantly, as though it’s something we almost have to apologize for.
That’s one reason why Christians’ faithful involvement in the local church is perhaps more important than ever. As our culture views Christianity with growing disdain, God’s adopted sons and daughters need to hear God and fellow Christians remind us that we’re not contemptible. We need other Christians to encourage us to keep “foolishly” following Jesus Christ. God’s dearly loved people need God and Christian brothers and sisters to tell us we’re not “nobodies,” but God’s dearly beloved sons and daughters. You and I need other Christians to encourage us to keep sharing the foolish gospel in loving and patient ways.
Yet we also remember that no amount of wisdom or cleverness will convert anyone to Christians’ ways of thinking about God and God’s ways. While Christianity makes sense, none of us thought our way into God’s kingdom. Even C.S. Lewis, who took an intellectual approach to his conversion, always credited the Holy Spirit for his transformation.
So both those who proclaim and those hear this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson share our faith and lives with people with deep love and humility. But we never forget that only what Paul calls “the power of God” at work through the Holy Spirit can save anyone.
Yet perhaps more than anything God’s people need to cultivate a healthy relationship with the Lord in order to truly live as what perhaps growing numbers of our neighbors think of as fools. We need to pay more attention to God’s voice than our culture’s. After all, our true value doesn’t lie in what society thinks of us. It lies in God’s view of God’s people as God’s beloved children who for Jesus’ sake deeply please the Lord.
Ronald Numbers’ biography of Seventh-Day Adventism’s founder, Ellen White is entitled Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White. In it he describes the deep disappointment many of White’s contemporaries felt when Jesus failed to return on the date predicted by William Miller.
Thirty-two others, the director of the New York Lunatic Asylum claimed, became insane because of their disappointment over Jesus’ failure to return on October 22, 1844.
A link between mental illness and religion sounds old-fashioned, and dare we say, foolish to 21st century Christians. Yet Numbers says 19th century American psychiatrists generally believed that excessive religious zeal often caused insanity in people predisposed toward mental illness.