Last Epiphany A
February 13, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Compared to any number of you reading this sermon starter, I’ve had it easy in life so far. My “enemies” (such as I’ve had them) have not exactly risen to headline-grabbing people who kidnap children, rape women, or kill other people. Still, I’ve been hurt by others and even harder to take, I’ve seen people hurt those whom I love.
A couple of years ago my wife was summarily fired from a job into which she had poured heart, soul, and mind and at which everyone in her institution (except her boss) knew she did an exceedingly excellent degree of quality work. But she was fired anyway and the reasons were personal, political, and petty. And mean. And so I began what I confess was many months of a deep hatred toward the two or three people who conspired to get rid of my wife. I fantasized violent scenarios in which I took on a Tony Soprano persona. I wanted to be Tony Soprano and live into the idea that the best way to deal with this world’s mean people is to rough them up, slash their tires, break up their offices with baseball bats.
I am not happy I thought these things. I am far more ashamed to say I at times relished feeling that way. I had my reasons (I told myself). But left unchecked and had all of that taken over the center of my being, I would have become something worse than that which I despised.
“What kind of people do you want to be?” Jesus essentially asks. “What is your most basic desire in life?
Is it forever to watch your own bottom line or is it to watch the bottom line of other people? To make sure you are taken care of first and foremost or to take care of others? Who are you really? Are you basically a critical, cynical person who refuses to forget even for a moment that old so-and-so owes you a buck, owes you an apology, owes you an invitation to dinner, owes you a phone call? Are you so self-absorbed that you are forever calculating what you’ve got coming? Well, my people, if so, then get off it!”
Our hearts need to be tuned to the frequency of gospel love and we need to apply that love to all those around us, including even those who are bona fide enemies. In verses 43-48 Jesus admits that there is such a thing in life as enemies–people who work against us, who poison the boss’s mind against us, who don’t like us one whit, who turn up their noses when they see us approaching. Jesus does not ask us to recognize such people for anything less than they are, he just asks us to work at loving even them.
“Anybody can love their friends,” Jesus says, “because that’s natural. The real measure of the loving, grace-filled, gospel heart is its ability to drum up some compassion even for the folks with whom you won’t spend relaxing evenings around a dining table, even for the people who won’t have you over for tea because they’re too busy sneering at you behind your back. Loving them is the real challenge!”
We look at all people, in other words, through the eyes of God. That’s probably why verse 45 includes that seemingly out-of-place line about God sending sunshine and rain on good people and bad. Have you ever wondered what that’s doing in this passage? I suspect it’s there to remind us of God’s common grace. This is a fallen world chock-full of people who don’t give God the time of day. Even still, however, God sends gifts, talents, love, virtue, successful businesses, and healthy crops to all kinds of people. If God can do that, shouldn’t we work hard at sticking with all kinds of people as well?
“You need to be perfect like God is perfect,” Jesus says in the end. In this context Jesus uses the word “perfect” the way you might refer to a “perfect tomato.” The sense of the word is that we need to be ripe, mature believers. We need a whole-hearted, whole-souled commitment to God’s creation and every person in it. We need, in short, the eyes of God–eyes that scan the horizon not first for what we can get out of life but what we can contribute to life for the shalom and flourishing joy of all.
None of this is meant to deny the difficulty of all this. None of this is meant to sweep under the pulpit the fact that sometimes people wound us so badly that we can at best love them only from a distance because the relationship is shattered. None of this is meant to deny that we need to allow the government to punish con artists and those who intentionally suck the lifeblood out of us or our neighbors. And none of this is meant to deny that sometimes the process of forgiveness can take years. None of this is meant to deny the phenomenon perhaps all of us have experienced at one time or another: just about the time you think you’ve forgiven Georgette, you are reminded of something which sets you right back to square one again. (Sometimes time does not so much heal all wounds as it mutes them a bit.)
But all of this is meant to say that in the midst of a world full of jagged edges and crooked people Jesus is trying to mold a certain kind of heart. But in a world of clutching egos, rampant crime, legitimate hurt feelings, genuine enemies, and clueless folks who bungle up our lives, we need all the help we can get.
And the fact that it’s Jesus saying all this, I guess we can expect he’s there to help us by his Holy Spirit in living all this out, too.
Note: Sermon resources for Lent and Holy Week are now up on our website: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2017/
To riff on a well-known C.S. Lewis line, everyone agrees that loving enemies and forgiving the people who hurt us are great ideas and most everyone agrees on that right up until the moment they are confronted with an actual enemy and with a real-life hurt inflicted on them by someone. Then all of a sudden this “turn the other cheek” stuff starts to look like fine advice for other people, for people who do not have to face circumstances anywhere near as raw and complex as what we are currently facing.
It is a sad but telling feature to our lives that we tend to condemn in others what we excuse in ourselves. We assume that no one else in the world faces precisely the dynamics we face. What we see through our own eyeballs and what we feel inside our own hearts are not shared by others because nobody has ever been hurt the way I have been hurt. No one has an enemy as pernicious and cruel as my enemy. Others can turn the other cheek but I am going to hit back before I get destroyed. Others can be loving and forgiving but I am going to use the good sense God gave me and be wary and defensive.
Now if we could only get around the fact that the person dispensing all these recommendations had the worst enemies ever and endured a hatred he could never in a million lifetimes have deserved. And if only we could get around the fact that despite enduring the worst that those enemies could hurl at him, he still managed to rasp out in a moment of agony: “Father, forgive them—they know not what they are doing.”
Explain that away and you can let yourself off the hook once and for all . . .
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Author: Doug Bratt
If you can’t remember the last sermon or lesson that you preached, taught or heard on a text from the book of Leviticus, you’re not alone. Even most of the preachers and teachers I know who are committed to communicating the Scriptures’ full truth seem reluctant to talk about Leviticus. By appointing just one text from Leviticus in its three-year cycle, even the Revised Common Lectionary suggests that it shares our aversion to it.
It’s not just that many Christians believe that by perfectly fulfilling Leviticus laws, Jesus eliminated our need to obey the ceremonial ones. It isn’t even just that Leviticus sometimes seems so, well, earthy and crude. It’s also that Leviticus seems more out of touch with 21st century realities than most of the Bible’s books.
Of course, the New Testament quotes two verses from the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. The apostle paraphrases verse 2’s “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy” in 1 Peter 1:16. What’s more, both the gospels and New Testament letters repeatedly quote verse 18’s, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
However, those who wish to preach and teach Leviticus 19 in its full beauty will want to “drill down” past verses 2 and 18 in order to tap some of its resources. To do that, we’ll need to help our hearers understand some of the context of this rarely read book.
The Lord initially addresses Leviticus to people whom God has freed from Egyptian slavery but who have not yet claimed the land God has promised their ancestors and them. The book looks ahead to the time when God’s Israelite children receive that land of promise and want to know just how God wants them to live in it.
Yet as Callie Plunket-Brewton suggests, Leviticus 19 doesn’t offer prescriptions for individual behavior in the Promised Land. Instead, God longs for this to be a kind charter for the kind of community that takes seriously God’s gracious presence among her.
The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday begins with verse 2’s relatively familiar, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” This offers preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore just what it means to be “holy.” Is there a quantitative or qualitative difference between the holiness that characterizes God and that to which God summons God’s adopted sons and daughters?
Brent Strawn points out that God’s holiness has several facets. While God is intrinsically holy, that holiness seems to include an element of separation. God is holy in part in that God is wholly other from what God creates. What’s more, God’s holiness appears to include a kind wholeness and completeness. God’s holiness is of one piece, without exception.
However, Leviticus 19 suggests that God also reveals at least part of God’s holiness in its laws. Since perhaps especially the late 19th century, at least some North American Christians have seemed to tend to think of holiness as largely personal. We’ve come to assume that a holy person is one who especially prays, reads the Bible and goes to church a lot. Some traditions have emphasized a kind of holiness that avoids the taint of “worldly” activities like smoking, drinking alcohol, gambling and some kinds of dancing.
Leviticus 19:9-18’s verses on which the Lectionary invites us to focus, however, summons us to think of holiness as bending God’s children away from ourselves and towards other people. They focus on how God’s holiness manifests itself partly through Israelites’ interactions with their neighbors. They suggest that the way we interact with other people matters, not just to our neighbors, but also to the Lord. We are “holy” (2) when we love our neighbors in concrete ways as we love ourselves (18b).
Plunket suggests that dealing honestly with each other is really the beating heart of verses 9-18’s guides for holy loving. After all, there God invites God’s Israelite sons and daughters to interact justly with each other in “business,” in the courts of law and even in their fields. When that happens, it’s not just individuals, but also whole communities flourish; they’re able to live out the purposes for which God created them.
However, God seems to be especially concerned that God’s children live holy lives in their interactions with their most vulnerable neighbors. To be holy, insists God, is to look kindly on those who are “poor” (10, 15) and “alien” (10), as well as the “hired hand (13) and those who live with physical disabilities (14). It is, quite simply, to treat them the way God treats them.
Yet Leviticus 19’s “neighbors” aren’t just, as Plunket goes on to point out, “others.” In it, after all, God invites God’s adopted children to be holy in their interactions even with members of their own families and communities. In verses 17 and following God says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart … do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against your own people (italics added).”
Leviticus 19’s preachers and teachers might want to ask themselves and their hearers if God is perhaps inviting Egypt’s former slaves to shift from a theology and ethics of scarcity to that of abundance here. After all, for more than forty years the Israelites have had to live a kind of “hand-to-mouth” existence in which, while God always gave them plenty to eat, God deliberately doled it only out in “day-sized” portions (except on Fridays).
Now, however, God is leading Israel into the land of promise that her spies have told her flows with milk and honey. So the Israelites will no longer have to operate from a stance of careful portions. She will, as long as she remains faithful to God, have more than enough to eat and drink. We can only imagine, however, that such a move required a whole new way of thinking and living, a wholly holy way of thinking not just about themselves, but also their neighbors. A holy way of living that Leviticus describes quite vividly.
Yet one might argue that a “theology” and ethics of scarcity still dominates some 21st century thinking. It’s not just church boards that wonder if they have enough resources or are trying to do too much with them. It’s also corporation boardrooms and national war rooms that are tempted to base decisions on fears that we won’t have enough space or resources.
While God calls God’s adopted sons and daughters to be good stewards of all of God’s countless good gifts, God has also been in most cases extraordinarily generous with those gifts. Yet it’s very hard to treat our neighbors, especially vulnerable ones, in holy ways when we’re always wondering if God has given us enough, if those neighbors will drain our limited resources.
Finally, however, it’s also very important for Leviticus 19’s preachers and teachers to remember that it’s more than just “Chicken Soup for the Ethical Soul.” This is more than God’s summons to all of God’s people to be nicer people. God, after all, grounds this whole text in God’s holiness. “Be holy because … I am holy (italics added) ” (2). Note, too, how often God inserts some form of the reminder “I am the Lord” into Leviticus 19 (10, 12, 14, 16, 18).
We love our neighbors as ourselves because God gives himself away in love towards God’s whole creation. We deal honestly with each other because God deals so honestly with us. We care for our vulnerable neighbors because God cares so passionately for and about them. And in so doing, we contribute to the well-being and flourishing of the whole creation that God so deeply loves.
Note: Sermon resources for Lent and Holy Week are now up on our website: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2017/
In his book, Now and Then, Frederick Buechner describes how as a seminary student, he was assigned to work part-time in an East Harlem parish. He says about the regular parish staff members whom I think Leviticus 19 would call “holy”: “They had caught something from Christ, I thought. Something of who he was and is flickered out through who they were. It is not easy to describe. It was compassion without sentimentality as much as anything else, I think—a lucid, cool, grave compassion. If it had a color, it would be a pale, northern blue.
They never seemed to romanticize the junkies and winos and deadbeats and losers they worked among, and they never seemed to let pity or empathy distort the clarity with which they saw them for no more if no less than what they were. Insofar as they were able to approach loving them, I got the impression that they did so not just in spite of everything about them that was neither lovely nor lovable but right in the thick of it.
There was a kind of sad gaiety about the way they went about their work. The sadness stemmed, I suppose, from the hopelessness of their task—the problems were so vast, their resources for dealing with them were so meager—and the gaiety from a hope beyond hope that, in the long run if not the short, all would in some holy and unimaginable way be well.”
Author: Stan Mast
119 asserts again and again (almost ad infinitum) that the Law of God is the source of joy and delight, because it gives life and light. But that’s not how the Law feels to most of us most of the time. And, as we saw last week, that’s not how Paul talks about the Law in many of his epistles. So, who is right? Well, both Psalm 119 and Paul. God intends his Law to be a blessing to his people, but it often isn’t. That’s because we don’t understand it correctly and we try to keep it in our own wisdom and strength. Psalm 119 explains the correct approach to God’s blessed Law.
The main assertion in our reading for today is that God must be our Teacher. “Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees…. Give me understanding…. Direct me….” Because it is God’s law, we will not be able to understand it unless the Law Giver teaches us.
It may seem to us that we can interpret God’s law properly if we just use our heads– read carefully and think clearly. But when we approach God’s law that way, one of two errors can occur. First, we can idolize the law, making it more important that God. It is the medium by which God relates to his people, but it is not God himself. Ancient Pharisees and modern day legalists tend to focus on law so much that it actually gets in the way of communion with God. Some might call this a kind of bibliolatry. Psalm 119 reminds us that the Law comes from Yahweh, but it is not Yahweh.
Brueggemann correctly points out that Psalm 119 is first of all a call to utter trust and submission to God, not a call to works righteousness. Our willingness and ability to obey Torah comes from God, as does our redemption when we don’t obey. “It is by mercy and not by obedience that we live.” But it is easy to get that wrong, if we approach God’s law without the guidance of our Teacher.
The second error that arises from a self-directed approach to God’s law is the exact opposite of that first error. Instead of a kind of divinization of the law, people over-humanize it. So rather than being seen a communication directly from God, the law is read as a collection of human moral conventions from the ancient world. Instead of divine revelation, the law is a human invention, the finest result of the moral reflections of the first monotheists. If that’s what “God’s law” is, then we moderns are free to come to different conclusions about how to live. “God’s law” is nothing more than a helpful set of ancient ideas to be consulted, but probably not obeyed.
Over against those two misunderstandings of Torah, Psalm 119 insists, every time it uses one of its 8 words for law, that it is “yours.” Thus, to understand God’s law properly, we need instruction from God himself. Given that it comes from the incomprehensibly complex mind of God, it follows that God’s law is not simplistic or reductionistic. Accordingly, the Torah-oriented life can’t be reduced to one dimensional commandment living. Brueggemann may put this too strongly, but he is surely headed in the right direction when he says, “Torah is a starting point, a launching pad from which to mount our on-going conversation with God…. So Psalm 119 explores a wide range of issues related to faith—not the whole of biblical faith, but the indispensable beginning point.”
So the heart of our 8 verses for today is this prayer that the God who gave his law now teach us what it means and how to keep it. What deeper meaning could there be? Our other lectionary readings for today give us a hint. Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 (especially verse 18) and Matthew 5:38-48 focus on love for neighbors and even enemies. This is the heart of Torah, which could be and has been easily missed if we focus on all the negative “thou shalt not’s.” We can’t see the forest of love for all the trees of law. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for doing this very thing in Matthew 23:23. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” Clearly, Jesus was talking about the centrality of love for neighbor that demonstrates our love for God.
This is not a problem limited to ancient Jewish legalists. In my own Dutch Reformed tradition, for example, there was once such an emphasis on Sabbath observance and on being separate from the world by avoiding “worldly amusements” that we paid virtually no attention to loving our unbelieving neighbors. Our idea of witnessing was to tell our neighbor that she shouldn’t cut her lawn on Sunday. And our righteousness consisted largely in what we did not do. We were obedient “do be’s,” filled with both self-righteousness and guilt. We needed to pray with the Psalmist, “Teach me, O Lord, so that I can understand” not only the letter, but also the spirit of the law, pairing careful obedience with other centered love. Psalm 119:33-40 is a great text for any community that tends toward legalism.
That is even more obvious when we notice that this is the “he” stanza of Psalm 119. Remember that Psalm 119 is an extended alphabetic acrostic, each of its 22 sections corresponding to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This is the section in which each of the 8 verses begins with the Hebrew letter “he.” One enterprising Hebrew scholar points out that “he” is the characteristic letter of causative verbs. That suggests that each of the verbs in the first clause of each verse is the cause of the action in the second clause of each verse. So, “teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees” is the cause of “then I will keep them to the end.” “Give me understanding” is the cause of “and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart.” And so forth.
This tells us something profound. God’s gracious action is the cause of our obedient reaction. In other words, we cannot keep God’s law in our own wisdom and strength. It is only by God’s grace that we can live by his law. Obedience requires God’s prior grace. This is precisely where so many well-intended moral renewal projects go wrong. I remember reading Benjamin Franklin’s list of rules for self-improvement, and being impressed and depressed. He and we need God to teach us again and again that merely having God’s rules for happy living will not make us happy. We cannot keep them unless the grace of God gives us a push, keeps us going, guides our progress, and forgives our failures.
Note how Psalm 119:33-40 asks a gracious God to do all those things. “Turn my heart toward your statutes” sounds like “give me a push.” “Give me understanding” suggests “keep me going.” “Turn my eyes away from worthless things” is the prayer of someone who has not kept her eyes on the prize and has strayed off the path. And “fulfill your promise” and “take away the disgrace I dread” can be read as a reference to salvation following disobedience. Each of the petitions in this stanza of Psalm 119 is a prayer for God’s grace as we undertake an obedient life.
When I think about all of that, it is clear to me that Psalm 119 (like the rest of the Law and the Prophets, ala Luke 24:27) points to Christ in a number of ways. Most obviously, Jesus was the great Teacher of the Law. The legal experts of his day tried to convict him of false teaching with a trick question in Matthew 22:36. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” In the spirit of what I said above about the heart of the Law, Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God…. Love your neighbor as yourself….” But he also upheld the letter of the law, even down to its depths, as he so clearly demonstrated in the Sermon on the Mount, especially Matthew 5:17-20. Jesus is the teacher for whom Psalm 119 prays. And Jesus is the bearer of the grace we need to keep that law (cf. Romans 8:1-4 to which I alluded last week and II Cor. 3:18).
But best of all, Jesus takes care of our disobedience, so that we do not suffer the penalties so fearfully promised in Deuteronomy 30. He kept the law perfectly, not simply to show us how to do it, but even more to atone for our not doing it. Usually, when we think of atonement, we focus on his sacrificial death for our sins, but his obedience of God’s law was also crucial to our salvation.
The letter to the Hebrews emphasizes Christ’s passive obedience, his atoning death, but it also stresses his active obedience. Think of these mysterious words from Hebrews 5:7ff. “During the days of Jesus life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him….(emphasis mine)”
And Hebrews 10, that locus classicus for the doctrine of Christ’s once for sacrificial death, also highlights the importance of Christ’s obedience to God’s written will. Quoting from Psalm 40, the writer of Hebrews puts these words in Jesus’ mouth. “Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God.’”
Psalm 119 assures God’s people that the way to blessed living is to walk faithfully in the Law of God. But, given our sin, that assurance of Psalm 119 is good news only when God teaches us the Law’s true meaning, when God’s grace enables our obedience, and when Christ is at the center of our obedient faith and the cause of our forgiveness. Otherwise, the Law causes us to cry out, “What a wretched man I am! Who shall rescue me from this body of death?” If we read Psalm 119 in the light of the Gospel, we can cry instead, “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)
Note: Sermon resources for Lent and Holy Week are now up on our website: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2017/
Imagine a class of first grade students. They are sitting in a state-of-the-art classroom with all the latest technology at their disposal. In front of them on brand new desks are volumes of the very best first grade curricular material. But there is no teacher in the room. Though they have all they need at their fingertips, they will not learn and grow and thrive without a teacher. That is why Psalm 119:33-40 is a prayer for a Teacher.
1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
Author: Scott Hoezee
The wonder of grace. That is what this brief passage is all about. At the end of these verses Paul once again loops back to previously sounded themes about the wisdom of the world versus the apparent foolishness of the cross. He also hits for a third time the silliness of the Corinthians in balkanizing and forming factions by choosing this or that human leader as their primary champion. We have looked at that already in recent sermon starters here at the Center, and if you have been preaching through 1 Corinthians lately, you need not loop back to all that in yet another sermon.
Instead, we focus on a jaw-dropping message: by the grace of God and by no small a miracle, each one of us has become a walking, talking, breathing Temple of no less than God’s own Holy Spirit. Each of us is a mini-Temple and together as any given congregation we create an even bigger Temple, a bigger concentration of the presence of God himself in the midst of his people.
In a recent speech given at Calvin College’s The January Series, N.T. Wright did a magisterial job of showing how this Temple talk here in 1 Corinthians 3 is part and parcel of a Bible-wide narrative that began in Genesis 1 and that will conclude in Revelation 21-22. For those with eyes to see, Wright noted, the creation account in Genesis 1 is God’s very intentional, very careful setting up of a Holy Temple in Eden, a place into which God intended to move with his divine presence so that he could then also live side by side with the human beings who bore his very image.
Of course, sin disrupted this first Temple and so God had to make do. And he does. In the Book of Exodus—which does not merely follow Genesis sequentially in the canon of Scripture but that is in fact a direct SEQUEL to Genesis—God has now increased his covenant people and no sooner does he free them from captivity and give them his Law and he immediately launches into those chapters in Exodus we tend to skip: long and detailed architectural instructions for building a Tabernacle. Moses then follows those elaborate instructions and builds this portable tent/Tabernacle.
And if by Genesis 3 already we saw the tragedy of God’s having to move out of his creation Temple due to the sin of Adam and Eve, Exodus 40 gives us new hope as the glory of God’s very presence engulfs and fills the Tabernacle in the wilderness. God is once again dwelling amongst his people. Exodus 40 shows a small undoing of the tragedy of Genesis 3.
That was temporary, though, and eventually the Tabernacle would be succeeded by a Temple in Jerusalem, the key place in which was that Holy of Holies with the Mercy Seat atop the Ark of the Covenant. From there God dwelled in Zion and ruled his people—and really all the earth. We need not rehearse the sad subsequent history of Israel nor the sad, sad picture we get in Ezekiel when the prophet sees the glory Presence of God departing the Temple and moving up into the hills around Zion. Sin has once again torn the fabric of God’s relationship with his people. It’s a bit of an echo of Genesis 3 all over again.
But God was not done. Someone was coming who would start to bring the glory back. And it was the Evangelist John who connects the dots for us when he frames up the incarnation of God’s holy Word / Son in the words of John 1:14: “The Word was made flesh and TABERNACLED among us, full of grace and truth and we have seen his GLORY.” Jesus is now the incarnate Tabernacle / Temple of God (as John’s heavily theologized Gospel account makes plain) but even he is not the end point of God’s desire to dwell once again in all creation.
The Spirit will come at Pentecost and when this happens—and as Paul makes plain in 1 Corinthians 3—all believers become living Temples of this very Spirit as God has made a major advance to the fullness of his dwelling again on the earth and with his people. And to see that final descent into a New Creation in which there is no Temple because the whole thing just is the Temple of the Lamb of God, then fast forward to Revelation 21.
It is all finally one big story and as Paul knows and tells the Corinthians, it is all finally also a story of Grace, Grace, Grace. If we are properly gob smacked by the revelation that each of us now houses something of the divine, we are further bowled over to see that even when we do this imperfectly, we get saved anyway. The Lectionary asks us to skip verses 12-15. Granted, Paul’s imagery here is a little odd and this passage could easily be twisted into some works-righteousness scheme of salvation if one were not careful. But in context it is still all about grace. God does expect us to build on the solid foundation that just is Christ and his Gospel. Whether we build mightily and sturdily or poorly and weakly, however, we will still emerge saved because Temples of God’s Holy Spirit are just going to endure with that Spirit one way or the other!
What a message! What a comfort! And what a spectacle whose truth requires a pretty good imagination sometimes. How hard it is to look out on the average congregation and see Temples. What we see are some very fit and nicely dressed folks and some rather chubby folks whose fashion sense seems a bit behind the curve. We see sullen-looking teenagers who look anywhere but the hymnal when it’s time to sing and we see wizened saints who stand several inches shorter than when they were young and in their prime, their old bodies quite literally shrinking down. We see people with too much make-up, with spikes through nostrils and ear cartilage, with nice complexions and acne-pocked ones. Blue-eyed, blond, brown-eyed, brunette, red heads, suntans, freckles, bushy hair and bald heads, hearing aids and glasses . . . everybody. But there they all are, Paul reminds us, an assemblage of just so many Temples of the Holy Spirit. Graced people all of them, the whole blessed lot of them.
Now that will preach!
Excerpt from a sermon on Exodus 40:
Imagine it had been possible at any point in Israel’s wilderness wanderings (and starting in Exodus 40) to be able to see a satellite photo of the camp. Somewhere in the midst of all those rag-tag hovels and tents of God’s desert-wandering people would be what we call the Tabernacle. And it is highly doubtful that on that satellite image anyone would have cause to see that and then jump up to declare “Holy smoke! That is where God is living!!” Nope. Just a tent.
As for someone looking at a satellite photo of the scene in Exodus 40, so for us when we look in the mirror, so for anyone who bothers to take a good look at any one of us: it takes faith to see and believe that God is right here. I no more look like the dwelling place of God than that Tabernacle at Sinai looked like the most important place on earth. When I am walking through the mall, visiting an amusement park, or looking for the nicest tomato in the grocery store produce section, I cannot tell just by looking around me who is a tabernacle of the Spirit. For that matter, neither can my fellow shoppers see this in me, as though I exuded a halo glow or something.
Sometimes when I’m out and about, clad in my denim shorts, my Princeton t-shirt, and my tennis shoes, I’ll crack a joke, make people laugh, and then a few minutes later maybe someone will discover for the first time that I am a pastor. Often people respond by saying, “You don’t look like a minister!” I’ve never done it, but probably what I should say in reply would be along the lines of, “That’s nothing–what till you find out that I’m the dwelling place of the Most High God, too!” Saying that would likely sound merely arrogant, and probably not a little queer, but I’m here to remind each of you tonight that if you are a baptized follower of Christ Jesus the Lord, that’s who you are, too.
The dwelling place of God is not a golden throne room, bathed in an amber light, and decked out with rich tapestries and curtains. More often than not the dwelling place of God is a tired looking tent in a desert wasteland, a carpenter’s son from a small town, the gap-toothed Iowa farmer driving his Massey-Ferguson tractor across a field of corn, the flour-dusted face of the old woman lovingly making an apple pie for her grandkids, the harried CPA trying to get her columns of figures to add up, the awkward teenager making profession of faith and hoping no one in the congregation much notices the pimple under his chin. These are the latter-day tabernacles of God’s Spirit!
Exodus 40 gives us God-in-a-tent, but there was so very much that led up to that climactic change-of-address on God’s part. The people who wrote Exodus down did not want us to forget the bigger story and the faithfulness that led up to it all. This evening we also recall again all that led up to the gospel and to that big day of Pentecost that changed you and me from ordinary lumps of clay into tabernacles of the living God. It is a story that spans cosmic history, that involves the blood, sweat, and tears of God’s only begotten Son. It is a story fragrant with grace and laden with truth.
And if you believe that old, old Story and are willing to savor and review and revel in its many details, then for you as for the people in the wilderness long ago, you know the one thing that is worth knowing more than anything else that has ever been or that will ever be: you know that the end is glory! Such knowledge ought to be enough to help sustain each one of us through the trials and terrors of this present age. We are not who we appear to be as perceived by the casual observer. We are glory-filled people whose end destiny is the glory of living forever in the presence of God. You wouldn’t expect a modest tent in the desert to convey all that. The fact that it does reminds us once more that it is precisely in the ordinary places of life that our God most often meets us and fill us with his very Self. The end is glory, my friends. Thanks be to God!