February 11, 2019
The Epiphany 6C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 6:17-26 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 17:5-10 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 1 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 5 (Lord’s Day 2)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Whereas Matthew gives us the famed “Sermon on the Mount,” Luke gives us much of that same material in what is often called the “Sermon on the Plain.” It’s difficult to know whether this is the same sermon described in two different ways by two different evangelists or whether Jesus had a few sermons in his back pocket that he delivered more than once. (As a former pastor of a congregation who now preaches in a different church most every week, I can relate to the idea of sticking with what works and re-preaching the same sermon over and over a few times!) If this was a sermon Jesus preached more than once—if he once preached it on a mountain and on another occasion presented it on a plain—then that might also explain the addition in Luke of some woes that correspond to the Beatitudes (woes Matthew did not include at that juncture).
In any event, the immediate setting in Luke is a flurry of activity. People are coming to Jesus in significant numbers and everyone is trying to touch him with the hopes they could tap some of the energy flowing out of him. It reminds me of those video clips from Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential race—people everywhere were desperate to touch Bobby. His aides reported that after many campaign appearances, Bobby’s hands would be bloody from scratches even as the ends of his shirt sleeves would frequently be in tatters. Everywhere RFK went, he was greeted by a small sea of outstretched hands.
In Jesus’ day everyone wanted healing. Everyone wanted a better life. Everyone wanted a piece of the man who held out the promise of a better tomorrow. And many were healed. But not all. Many were changed. But not all. Whatever the kingdom of God is for this present time, it is not a ticket to a charmed life in which every believer will be kept free of pain, disease, disappointment, and even persecution.
Maybe that is why, right in the middle of all this ferment and hubbub and excitement, Jesus turns to this disciples and begins to speak a series of Beatitudes or blessings that point to a lifestyle and a mindset that was all-but completely at odds with what most people were, at that very moment, seeking to get from Jesus.
It is difficult to imagine a comparable scenario anywhere else in life. It’s hard to imagine someone’s just getting elected president, riding high on the hopes and dreams and expectations of the millions of people who voted for him, who would then use his victory speech to say, “But you know, I want to congratulate the unemployed in this nation. Some day in heaven you will have it better. And I want to reach out to the malnourished children of our land and bless you for your hunger. And I want to say a word to the hated masses, to minorities and others who feel the sting of racism: some day you will receive a reward.”
We cannot imagine such a thing. A victory speech is the moment to whoop it up, to promise the moon, to tell all the people who have placed their hopes in you that you will not let them down and tomorrow will be a brighter day for all.
But not Jesus. He uses a moment in which people are looking to him and expecting the world of him to say, in all candor, that the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the hated are better off than the rich, the satisfied, the happy, and the well-liked. In saying all this, Jesus is at once describing a future reality of the kingdom of God AND tracing out for us the shape of our present lives now.
The rich cannot hear that they will be sent away empty without receiving the message that they need to share their riches already now, in this present age. We may bless the poor and the hungry and celebrate that in the kingdom they will be taken care of and fed but as disciples, we cannot hear about that future provision without recognizing its present-tense implication for how we live right now. We don’t kick back and ignore the poor and hungry now on account of their being taken care of later. Rather, in Jesus’ name WE begin to care for them already now, instantiating as best we can kingdom patterns in this present moment.
In Luke 6 blessings and curses may have a definite future component but they impinge directly on today as well.
But why did Jesus address just the disciples here? As is the case in Matthew’s version of this sermon, Jesus turns away from the crowds to just his disciples when he begins speaking his beatitudes. Clearly the crowds overheard these things—and clearly these words had implications for those crowds as well—but there must be something significant here about Jesus’ addressing his disciples so specifically. What might that significance be?
Probably there are several reasons but one in particular stands out. In his turn to the disciples, Jesus signals that what he is going to go on to describe is not the kind of person you need to be in order to enter God’s kingdom. Nor is he saying that once you enter the kingdom, these are rules you need to follow, as though you need to make yourself poor in spirit and mournful so that you’ll fit in. Nor is Jesus saying that if you should happen to find yourself experiencing one of the less happy emotions described here, God will swoop in with some kind of quick-fix solution and turn things around for you.
These are not entrance requirements, rules to follow, or a prelude to receiving a reward from God in this life. That’s not what Jesus says. Instead he says that if you are a citizen of the kingdom, then being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungry for the things of God are going to be the natural result of your kingdom membership. Further, the reason this will be the result is because commitment to that whole new world of God is always going to clash with the powers that be and the authority structures of this present world.
This is a vital connection to notice. Jesus is not saying that if you are mournful or persecuted or poor in spirit for any reason, then you will automatically receive blessing and consolation. After all, there are lots of reasons why people might be sad or downtrodden. Someone might be exceedingly mournful that his stock market portfolio is not performing as well as he had hoped, but that hardly qualifies this person for the comfort Jesus talks about! Someone might be very meek, but maybe in some cases it’s sheer sentimentality. The guy next door might feel persecuted and disliked, but maybe that’s the result of his being an unpleasant guy who has a personality that could curdle milk.
The point is that the dispositions Jesus blesses in the Beatitudes are not free-floating but are kingdom-rooted. If you are mournful, then what makes you mourn is the sin you see around you, the disjointedness of life in a world that has fallen so far from God’s loving hopes and intentions. If you are merciful and meek, then it’s not because you’re just an old softy by nature but because the Spirit of God has given you the heart of Jesus. If you are persecuted, then it’s not because you’re an oaf of a person but because you won’t compromise your belief in Christ as Savior. You will live out what you believe the gospel reveals as God’s way, even if that pits you against the “business as usual” practices of others.
That is the pity behind Robert Schuller’s ill-titled book from many years ago, “The Be (Happy) Attitudes.” Schuller turned the kingdom descriptions of Jesus’ Beatitudes into a therapeutic model of positive thinking. Both the traits Jesus describes and the consolations Jesus promises ceased to be gifts of the Holy Spirit given to kingdom citizens and became instead tools and mental ploys by which to feel better about yourself and about your life, come what may. Schuller changed this from the blessed result of being part of God’s new world to being good advice for how to get along in this world.
But if you sheer away the kingdom perspective of all this, Jesus’ words make no sense. From the vantage point of just this life and this world, there’s nothing good about persecution, about being a nobody, about being sad. No one in his or her right mind wants to experience any of that. Also, if the kingdom is not real and not true, then being persecuted for it is like going to jail because you got convicted on a false charge. If God is not real and his new world not true, then there is nothing to hunger or thirst for, nothing to desire, nothing to pursue. If we are mournful, it’s because we’ve seen the moral beauty of God’s new world and, compared to that, we find much to lament in this present world. Again, however, take away that kingdom, and there’s nothing actual to compare this world TO.
The kingdom of God becomes the way we see things, the lens through which we view life. It’s a gift to be able, already now, to see into God’s world. Blessed are you if you can see the world just this way.
In “The Lectionary Commentary” (Eerdmans 2001) David Holwerda points out that Luke’s addition of the curses that are the antithetical versions of the earlier-stated Beatitudes ties in with Luke’s “Jubilee” theology. As Luke presents it, Jesus’ ministry and the gospel he proclaims ties in deeply with the Old Testament notion of Sabbath and with the Year of the Jubilee in which much that had gone wrong with life over the last half-century was reversed and set to right again. This Jubilee theology shapes how Luke presents Jesus’ ministry, from the Magnificat/Song of Mary onward. Reversal and release inform the Lucan narrative, and his particular editorial shaping of what in Luke is the “Sermon on the Plain” bears evidence of this same thematic interest.
Suppose you could combine the personality traits of the Beatitudes and put them all into one man. What would Mr. 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 he hears a news story about an oil spill off the Alaskan coast or after seeing pictures of children starving in the Sudan–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. Anderson Cooper or other TV news folks might always end their shows with a smile and the winning words, “I’ll see you all back here tomorrow, good night.” But Mr. Beatitude generally finds the news to be desolating–just watching such broadcasts yields anything but a smiling “good night” for him!
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 man who would seem perpetually restless and dissatisfied with lots of life’s facets. He’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 drugs or pornography.
In short, Mr. Beatitude might not always be a barrel of laughs! As often as not he’d have a serious look of concern on his face or a tear of sympathy in his eye; he’d rather talk about substantive issues of global warming or the war on poverty than engage in typical cocktail party blather. He might just be busy enough with helping the disenfranchised that some would sneer at him as someone who was naively “out to save the world.”
He might even be seen as a trouble-maker and a nuisance, what with all his restless talk about issues, causes, and politics, not to mention the fact that there seems to be no satisfying the guy–he’s always hungering and thirsting for something better for others. And so it’s quite possible that among some people anyway, Mr. Beatitude would be ridiculed. We sometimes forget that the kingdom attitude and lifestyle Jesus traces out is profoundly counter-cultural. Jesus proclaims as good news what the world regards as a crying shame even as he deems dreadful what the world regards as the ultra-successful.
Author: Stan Mast
It is hard to see why this text was chosen by the Lectionary for this Sixth Sunday of Epiphany, except that its “blessed/cursed” formulary sounds much like Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, which is the Gospel reading for today (Luke 6:17-26 and see the reading from Psalm 1). But there’s nothing here about the revelation of the Lord’s glory, unless we are supposed to see God’s glory in God’s ability to search and understand the incomprehensibly corrupt human heart.
That theme of the wicked human heart seems to be the thread that ties together this otherwise disparate chapter. Some scholars see this chapter as a kind of ugly duckling that is awkwardly placed in the flow of Jeremiah. It contains the usual prophetic condemnations (1-4, 11), a personal confession of trust (12-18), a sermon on sabbath keeping (19-27), and the piece of wisdom literature that is the focus of our reading. But this theme of the human heart is a recurring idea (verses 1, 5, 9, 10). So, I might entitle my sermon on this text, “The Heart of the Matter.”
If you ask the woman on the street to identify the greatest problem facing the human race today, she might answer, “global warming, racism and hate, income inequality, Islamic terrorism, international strife,” or any number of issues that occupy the talking heads in the media. Chances are that no one will identify the human heart as the main problem at the core of all those other problems.
But Jeremiah seems to point there, when he opens this chapter by saying that “sin is engraved with an iron tool, inscribed with a flint point on the tablet of their hearts.” That hardened sin is why God is so harsh in his condemnation of Israel, as we heard in Isaiah 6:9-13 last week. Here in our text, Jeremiah says it’s not just that sin has hardened the human heart, but even more that the heart is “deceitful above all things and beyond cure.”
That word “deceitful” is fascinating because it has the same Hebrew root as the name of Jacob, the deceiver, the schemer, the trickster who would do anything to get his way. Maybe that’s why the heart is beyond cure; it will always find a way to get its way. It is inherently self-centered, unable to see itself accurately and correct itself. It is so turned in on itself that it is crazy; think of the old sign for crazy, fingers turning in circles around one’s ears. No one can penetrate the craziness of the human heart, not even the person whose heart it is. As Paul put it in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
This deceitful, incurable, incomprehensible heart is the root of human sin and misery. Those whose hearts turn away from the Lord are cursed and those whose hearts trust the Lord are blessed. It’s as simple as that, says Jeremiah. There are just two kinds of people in the world—the cursed and the blessed—and the difference is whom they trust. In a world filled with differences and divided by those differences, that is a revelation. Maybe that’s the Epiphany here. It’s not black or white, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, Muslims or infidels, male or female, gay or straight that ultimately matters. It is where the heart of each person places their trust.
Those who “trust in man, who depend on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord” are cursed. Jeremiah describes what cursed means with an image of a bush in the desert, where there is no steady water supply. Such a person will live on the edge of existence, always thirsty for more water, always on the verge of dying, so that when water finally comes in the form of an occasional thunderstorm, it won’t lead to “prosperity” or bounty or abundance. Such a person will survive, but just barely. Life will be parched and lonely and unfruitful at its core.
Those who “trust in the Lord, whose confidence is in him,” whose hearts rest in the Lord so that their security and hope and strength and righteousness and life come from him, are blessed. Jeremiah describes what blessed means with the image of a tree planted by a stream that never dries up. Because its roots are sunk deep in the “spring of living water (verse 13),” the person who trusts in the Lord does “not fear when heat comes,” “in a year of drought.” Her life is always verdant and she continually bears fruit. So, she does not live in fear and worry. Life is abundant for the person whose heart trusts in the Lord, rather than in human beings.
The problem with this analysis of the human race is that it doesn’t seem to be true on a couple of levels. Some of your listeners will question this simple division of the complex human race. Surely there is more to the human race than that—who do you trust? Well, no, says the whole Bible; it really is that simple. Not politically correct, but true to life. There is one God and how you relate to that God makes all the difference in the world. It is the main difference in the world.
Other listeners will question the assertion that those who trust the Lord are always blessed, while those who don’t are always cursed. I mean, does that mean that those who trust the Lord never have bad things happen to them, while those who trust in human might and intelligence only have bad things happen to them? Clearly that isn’t true. The Bible itself wrestles again and again with the fact that the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. And quite apart from the Bible, we all know people who are live with deep trust in the Lord who stagger from one problem to another. Maybe you are one of them.
Our text doesn’t deny that. In fact, it acknowledges that heat and drought will hit the lives of those who trust the Lord. Jesus said, “In the world you will have trouble (John 16:33).” But those who trust the Lord will continue to flourish and be fruitful even in those times of trouble. Fear may come and anxiety may linger, but abundant life is guaranteed. The key is to keep trusting the Lord with all your heart. Self-reliance, independence, autonomy, pride are self-idolatry and will finally leave you cursed.
And we can’t fool God. No one can understand the heart, either their own or anyone else’s. But God does. “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.” God sees beyond our behavior and understands the heart. And God sees how our behavior reveals our heart.
We’ve all heard someone say of a total thug, “But he has a good heart.” He may be an abusive drunk who beats his wife and kids, terrorizes the neighborhood with his gang, sells drugs to children, and steals from everybody to support his habit. “But he has a good heart.”
Or we’ve met people who live exemplary lives, but harbor hearts of darkness. I think of a song by the Kinks, a group from my youth, “A Well-Respected Man.” “Cause he’s oh so good and he oh so fine and he’s oh so healthy in his body and his mind. He’s a well-respected man about town, doing the best thing so conservatively.” But he’s oh so greedy and lustful; he can’t wait to get at his father’s money and the girl next door.
God sees deep into the heart and he sees that out of the heart come the behaviors of life. In the end, we can’t fool God; he will judge everyone by what their deeds revealed about their heart. It’s still the heart’s trust that matters, but the heart’s trust will be revealed in the behavior God will judge in the end. This is a gloomy thought, but it is taught throughout the Scripture. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him, for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (II Cor. 5:10)
There’s something comforting in that doctrine. It means that deeds have consequences, that no one gets away with evil, that the books will balance in the end, that there is justice, even though we have spent our lives saying, “There is no justice in this world.” Yes, there is, and it will be absolutely fair and right, because the Lord sees right through all our deceits and self-justification. So, rejoice! Everyone will get their just reward.
Except that will mean me, too. I, too, have a heart that is deceitful and beyond cure. So, where is the hope in this passage? Where is the Gospel? Well, remember that the difference between the blessed and the cursed is whom people trust. If people will turn from trusting self to trusting the Lord, they will move from cursed to blessed. When Israel trusted in their own strength and skill and alliances, they were like a bush in the desert. But when they transferred their trust back to the Lord, he would make them like a tree planted by streams of water. The word “planted” in verse 8 is a Hebrew word that means “transplanted.” We will be judged by what we do, but we can be saved by whom we trust.
Yes, but what about all the deeds I have done out of my corrupt heart? What about the demands of justice? Can God just forget those awful things? Well, no. But the Judge of all the earth is the justifier of those who put their trust in the Son of God who was judged for us. “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26)
Because of all the mass shootings in the United States in the past several years, it is hard to remember the details of any one of them. But as I worked on Jeremiah 17, I recalled the hard words of the prosecutor in the case of the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting. You may recall how a deranged man pulled out his semi-automatic rifle and simply murdered one theater goer after another. The murderer tried to plead insanity, but the prosecutor rejected that plea because of the hardened horror of the crime. His argument made the headlines, with words that sound a lot like Jeremiah and Romans 3. “Justice demands death,” declared the prosecutor.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Few of us do what many monastic and other traditions have done in history with the Psalms: namely, read them straight through and in order. Instead we bob and weave our way through the Psalms, picking and choosing to read this Psalm or another for no particular rhyme or reason. And so it’s easy to conclude that the collection of 150 poems we call the Book of Psalms is a more or less haphazard collection. The Psalms, we think, are kind of like a “Greatest Hits” musical album by The Rolling Stones or Simon & Garfunkel: these were the best songs over the years and so they all just got slapped together into one album.
But scholars have come to realize that the person or persons who put the Psalter together into its final form did so very carefully. There is an order and a sense to that order. There is a discernible collection of five specific books within the Psalter, each book ending with some version of “Praise be to the LORD forever / from everlasting to everlasting” (cf. Psalms 41:13, 72:19, 89:52, 106:48). These poems were carefully selected, edited, and ordered.
So also the first Psalm does not appear at the head of this collection randomly. Rather it was intentionally placed here to set the stage for all that will follow. As such, Psalm 1 sketches for us the rather stark—some today might say the rather simplistic—worldview from which all of the next 149 poems will derive. And it is pretty straightforward, pretty black and white: everyone in all humanity falls into one of two camps: the Righteous and the Wicked. Again, although this may strike us as a little too neat and tidy, you really cannot understand the theology of the Psalms if you do not accept the operating premise that at the end of the day, every person is in one of two camps. One either lives life oriented to the Creator God of Israel or one does not.
What’s more, Psalm 1 describes the characteristics of each group quite forthrightly: all the imagery of this poem concerning the righteous is about stability, rootedness, resolve. The righteous do not walk, do not stand, do not sit among mockers. They are planted like trees by a riverside with a perpetual source of nourishment from God’s Word, from God’s Law. The wicked by stark contrast are always on the move but in bad ways. They run toward wrongdoing, they blow away like chaff in the wind. In some ways there’s kind of nothing to the wicked. No matter how substantial they may seem in this life, in the end they are dust in the wind. They have no roots, no stabilizing forces in their erratic lives. They bounce from one thing to the next driven and propelled forward by their selfishness and self-centeredness. But for all the things in life they may succeed in amassing, the one thing they can never achieve is a long-lasting firmness of place and identity.
Again, this opening Psalm establishes the landscape for the rest of these Hebrew poems. And indeed, the contrast between the Righteous and the Wicked, between the psalmists who see themselves as innocent and all the others whom they regard as enemies—this contrast will pop up all over the place. Maybe this is supposed to be a God’s-eye view of the world in which God at least can see clean down to the core of every person and so can know without hesitation who is on God’s side and who is not.
That might explain our own hesitation at adopting so black-or-white an outlook ourselves. After all, a lot of the people whom we know as a matter of fact do not spend their days meditating on God’s Word or God’s Law yet they seem like pretty nice folks. A lot of our unbelieving neighbors are people we’d call friends. We would entrust them with the keys to our house. We’d be fine with letting them babysit our kids. They water our plants for us while we are on vacation and we do the same for them. If an emergency came up and we called the neighbors, we’d know for sure that they would hurry over to lend whatever assistance they could.
They don’t go to church, don’t meditate day and night on God—they may not even be sure if there is a God to believe in to begin with. Still, we’d be hard pressed to conclude they are chaff, dust, unrooted and insubstantial people worthy of all the divine wrath God could muster.
Actually, some of us know certain religious people and some whole denominations of Christian people who more or less do have such a grim and straightforward take on anyone who is not a member of their own church. And we don’t generally appreciate those folks that much even as fellow believers and some such Christians are unpleasant enough that—given a choice—we’d rather spend time with our unbelieving neighbors than with those pinched and judgmental folks.
So what do we do with Psalm 1 if it not only sets the stage for the whole Book of Psalms but represents a biblical worldview that gets reflected in other places too? Well and again: maybe Psalm 1 is sketching all of this in ultimate terms. In the short term even we can sometimes see life’s truly wretched, twisted, wicked, and cruel people. Even we can discern the difference between those who commit heinous crimes and those who are loving to all they meet. We can pick out those who devote their lives to patterns of destruction from those who are forever seeking to build up community.
But our vision is limited. We cannot really see into the hearts of others nor know exactly what God will do with good people who seem far from God any more than we can know for sure what to make of those who have the outward semblance of following God but who actually (and sometimes secretly) are leading double lives. When it all shakes out, though, the One whose vision, judgment, and perception are perfect will sort it all out, will reveal those who had been well-rooted in God after all (including maybe any number of people who fit that category who may surprise us) and those who are finally a vapor with roots only in their own self-absorbed hearts (and there may be a few surprise figures in that camp too).
What we do know is this (and it may still seem too simple for some today): if there is a Creator God, then we in the long run lean into his ways and the fruitful patterns for living with delight and flourishing that God established or we do not. We either live for God or we live for ourselves. We either see this creation and the downtrodden within it the way God sees all that or we don’t. In a pluralistic age of tolerance and relativism that vision may be very simply too stark for some folks. But unless we want to believe that reality has no bottom line, no purpose, no final reason to exist (and some do so believe), then we have to affirm that in the end, we are either rooted in God or we are not. We either believe there is one way to live that leads to shalom and another that leads to destruction or we do not so believe and it’s all an individualistic crapshoot.
For now, though, most of us would prefer to throw in our lot with rootedness in God and in his higher purposes for this cosmos. Because that is the way that leads to an ever-verdant flourishing like a tree planted by a riverside.
Something about Psalm 1’s imagery of the wicked being finally nothing but chaff that blows away in the wind reminded me of the film version conclusion of the Harry Potter cycle of stories. Throughout the novels the figure of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” (but who did have the name of Voldemort) loomed large. He was evil, he was strong, he was a master wizard and seemed absolutely indomitable and fierce.
Yet in Voldemort’s final battle with Harry and after Harry and friends had managed to dispose of all those piece of Voldemort’s soul that he had squirreled away in various objects (the last piece residing in his pet snake), once Voldemort’s fatal death curse rebounds back onto himself, it turns out there is nothing to him after all. He literally dissolves into what looks like flimsy ash and paper that very simply blows away on the breeze. He had been nothing after all.
Sort of like Psalm 1’s description of the wicked: they are like chaff. But in truth, that is what the wicked, like Voldemort, had been all along even when they seemed to be at their most substantial and formidable. (You can see the video clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADmsqS8ce0E )
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Author: Doug Bratt
Few things are sadder than the sight of people who place their hopes in something that can’t deliver that for which they hope. Think, for example, about the sad specter of people lined up to buy lottery tickets, pinning their hopes for wealth on a generally worthless piece of paper. Or think about terminally ill people whose families drag them from one doctor to the next, pinning their hopes for recovery on some wonder-doctor or drug.
Yet perhaps even sadder than the sight of those who pin their hopes on false things is the sight of those who finally realize that their hopes are dashed. You’ve seen the look: a son or niece whom the coach cuts from the team. The friend who goes to the manager hoping for a raise but returns with a pink slip. The parents who hope for love and compassion from their children but receive only rejection and hostility.
I’ll never ever forget my first night as a volunteer chaplain at a hospital in Iowa. Doctors had placed a local first-year college student on life support after he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. His family made the desperate three-hour race to the hospital, clinging to some hope that their son might miraculously survive.
However, as doctors gave them the hopeless diagnosis, I watched the hope die on their faces, snuffed out like a trembling flame. If you’ve looked into such a face of someone who has lost hope, you’ve probably glimpsed a bit of death.
In many ways, hope is at the heart of the Christian gospel. It’s also one of the central themes of 1 Corinthians 15. Yet this text is shadowed by potentially misplaced or lost hope. Many of Paul’s contemporaries, like our many of our own peers, had no hope that anyone could be raised from the dead. Even some Christians suggested that God wouldn’t resurrect those who had already died at Christ’s return.
Paul counters this misunderstanding by asking the Corinthians to consider the implications of no resurrection. What, he posits, if God doesn’t raise the dead at Christ’s return? If there is no such general resurrection, the apostle insists, then Christ is not alive either.
And if Christ isn’t alive, then Paul is either a liar or a fool. If Christ is still dead, then the gospel is so much emptiness. If Christ is still dead, the proclamation of the gospel is only so much hot air. If Christ is still dead, there can be no faith and no forgiveness.
At the heart of our faith stands the Bible’s claim that Jesus Christ, once crucified our sins, is alive. But what if he is still dead? If Christ is still dead, churches might as well close their doors, sell the property and make some money off it. If Christ is still dead, people can spend time and money in other places than church.
If Christ is still dead, God’s adopted children can quit praying, reading the Bible and going to church. If Christ is still dead, we can essentially do as we please with each other, and ourselves as long as we don’t get caught. For if Christ is dead, we’re wasting our time, money and efforts in church.
Yet Paul also insists that if Christ is still dead, it’s not just our present lives that change dramatically. It’s also our futures. After all, if Christ is still dead, this life is all there is and ever will be. If Christ is still dead, when we die, we’ll simply cease to exist, evaporating like the morning dew.
In fact, says Paul, apart from a risen, alive Jesus Christ, “we are to be pitied more than all” people (18). Think about the pictures you’ve seen of devastated people whose hopes for the safety of their loved ones have been dashed. If Christ is still dead, we’re even more pitiful than they can be. After all, we are then those who have pinned our hopes on that which can’t deliver. If Christ is, in fact, still dead, our faith is a desperately empty, pitiful illusion.
Christians may disagree about things like the circumstances of Christ’s return and who should be baptized. However, Christ’s resurrection is a bit like the load bearing wall which holds up everything else that you and I believe. If it’s not there, our faith collapses.
Ten times in this relatively short passage Paul uses some form of the Greek word for “to raise.” Six times, in fact, the apostle uses the verb “to raise” in the perfect tense, indicating something that has already happened that has implications for the present.
If Christ is still dead, there is no resurrection of the dead. If Christ is still dead, we have no forgiveness for our sins. If Christ is still dead, our religion is an exercise in futility.
BUT!! Whenever the Bible uses this little word, God’s adopted sons and daughters sit up and take notice.
Of course, “but …” can introduce bad news. “You’ve been doing a great job around here,” but . . .” “I love you very much and always will, but . . .” That little word, “but,” can send icy chills shooting through us.
However, “but …” can also usher us out darkness and into the brightest sunlight we can imagine. “You’ve got this illness, but . . .” “You hurt me, but . . .” “You still need to improve, but . . .”
1 Corinthians 15:20 is one of those instances where the little word “but” sends us not into a dark valley, but into the most glorious sunshine. “But now hear this!” Paul almost shouts there. “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead . . .” Jesus Christ isn’t dead. His body, with John Brown’s in the folk song, isn’t “a molderin’ in the grave.” Christ is alive. God has indeed raised him from the dead.
Think of the looks you’ve seen on the faces of those whose hopes have been fulfilled. The sheer joy on the faces of both former prisoners of war and their loved ones. The looks on the faces of a son or daughter who made the play cast or choir. Or the look of a friend who learns that his or her boss has offered a promotion or raise.
This kind of joy, multiplied a billion times, is the joy that fills our text. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead!” And that historic beacon is a signal of countless wonderful things that are still to come.
Since Christ is alive, his resurrection is just the first among many that are still to come. Since Christ is alive, God will graciously raise all of his followers from the dead when Christ returns at the end of measured time. Since Christ is alive, God is reversing the dismal condition of death and decay that have reigned since Adam’s sin. Since Christ is alive, God makes all of God’s children alive in Christ, not just someday but even already now.
So since Jesus Christ is alive, we can go to the hospital rooms of Christians and gently talk about the hope of the resurrection. We feel bad. Yet we know that death is not the end for Christian patients or any of us. Since Jesus Christ is alive, we can go to funeral homes, funerals and gravesides. We grieve. However, we know that neither death nor the grave has the final word for God’s children.
Since Jesus Christ is alive, you and I can squarely face our own mortality and that of those we love most. For we know that when die, Christ will immediately take us into his glorious, eternal presence. For just as human death came through a human being, Adam, so resurrection comes through a human being, Jesus Christ. As in Adam all die, so in Christ will God make all alive.
We sometimes say you can only count on two things: death and taxes. Paul would add a third certainty. For as certain as he is that all people will die unless Christ returns first, he’s equally as certain that God will make his children alive in Christ.
Empty hope is the grim specter that looms over John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath’s Joad family. The Joads are among the people who suffered severe economic deprivation during the Great Depression. The banks drove them off the land they farmed during Oklahoma’s infamous dust bowl.
Greedy employers in California’s fertile fields and vineyards lured desperate people like the Joads to make the dangerous trip west in search of work. They scattered handbills all over the financially destitute Midwest, promising many jobs at good wages.
The Grapes of Wrath is the heartbreaking story of the Joads’ search for good work. All of the Joads have high hopes for what they’ll find in California. Ma Joad hopes for a big white clapboard house. Grandpa Joad hopes for so much fruit that its juices trickle out his mouth and down his beard. Connie hopes for a good education so that he can get a good job and buy nice house for his family. The Joad children hope for something as mundane as ice.
However, all of the Joads’ hopes are severely dashed. Even fruitful California can’t, or is in some ways unwilling to, give them that for which they hope. Ma Joad who’d hoped for a big white house ends up living in tents, clapboard shacks and even a boxcar. Grandpa Joad dies before he even leaves the state of Oklahoma. Connie abandons Rose of Sharon and their unborn child. The Joad family largely disintegrates as no family member find lasting good work. Sadly, virtually none of the Joads’ hopes come to fruition.
Readers watch the Joads’ loss of hope slowly sap their strength and vitality, replacing them with anger, despair and a general hopelessness. Not until the unforgettable but controversial end of the book do we catch even a fleeting glimpse of any hope.