February 18, 2019
The Epiphany 7C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 6:27-38 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 45:3-11, 15 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 107 (Lord’s Day 40)
Author: Scott Hoezee
If you are a preacher who likes to highlight the fact that Jesus was always friendliest toward the very same “sinners” that were shunned by the religious authorities of his day, then it can be a little disconcerting to hear Jesus in this passage use the word “sinners” in what sounds like a pejorative way. After all, when (as at the beginning of Luke 15) the Pharisees and others noted that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them,” you can hear the sneer and snarl in their voice as that word “sinners” rolled off their curled lips. For the Pharisees and others, “sinners” was a derogatory term, like today calling someone a “loser” or a “lowlife” or some other such epithet of derision.
So it’s difficult to imagine Jesus’ curling his own lips in some kind of a derisive sneer here when he again and again says to the disciples, “What credit is it to you if you do such-and-such? Shoot, even SINNERS do that much.” But perhaps there is another way to read this—a way of understanding these verses that will keep Jesus clear of doing what, all things being equal, we would all agree would constitute a rather un-Christ-like thing; namely, putting someone down in a mean-spirited fashion.
First, we need to let Scripture interpret Scripture and in the case of Luke’s wider gospel, it is clear that so-called “sinners” were indeed the people to whom Jesus wished to extend his love first and foremost. Jesus did keep company with such people and when (a la Luke 15) the religious authorities criticized Jesus for doing so, Jesus told parables and made analogies that made it clear that he came precisely to reach out in love to just those people and that when one of those lost souls gets found, there is great rejoicing in heaven. So whatever nuance Jesus gave to the oft-repeated word “sinners” here, it cannot mean that he is using that term derisively the way others in his day did. That would cut against the grain of the rest of Luke’s gospel and its presentation of Jesus.
Second, even within this immediate context, Jesus is telling the disciples to show love and deference and kindness to precisely the kind of people who would be deemed “sinners” by the religious authorities. So although Jesus is drawing a distinction between disciples and “sinners,” the fact is that this distinction is being drawn in the service of being kind to precisely those same so-called sinners. Again, this disposition militates against viewing “sinners” here as a category of people whom Jesus is dismissing out of hand or is being intentionally derogatory toward.
We in the Church sometimes talk too glibly and easily about those who are outside the Church. Not a few high profile pastors and columnists and radio personalities these days are good at bashing “secular humanists” or “the left wing” or “the liberal media” or “those whacky ACLU types.” But it’s difficult (at best) for us to follow Jesus’ advice here in terms of loving those who disagree with us (and even those who take advantage of us) if as a matter of fact we spend a fair amount of time within our church circles (much less within sermons or the context of worship) bashing those same people through the use of derisive labels.
Truly to follow Jesus’ advice here requires a fairly radical set of behaviors—so radical, in fact, that most of us would have to admit we don’t generally come anywhere close to carrying out the full extent of Jesus’ advice here. But we surely will never make even a beginning here if we use our rhetoric to pigeonhole and deride the very “sinners” we are called to love.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
Why does Jesus recommend what he does? Wouldn’t this make us into chumps? Won’t we become the world’s doormat if we assume as passive a posture in the face of abuse as Jesus seems to suggest? Most churches I know are pretty careful about handing out money to folks who wander in off the streets looking for a handout. We even here and there have systems within a given city or county to keep track of people who “abuse the system” by going from one church to the next, telling the same sad story in each place. (“My car is out of gas and my father is in the hospital in Chicago. If I could have $20 to get down there, that’d be wonderful. I’ll be able to pay you back later when I come back through this area . . .”) We even send emails from one church to the next warning people about these “frequent fliers” who exploit unsuspecting churches.
We mostly don’t live the way Jesus recommends. We’re wary of being take advantage of. On those few occasions over the years when I did slip someone a $10 or a $20, I was later told by my deacons what a mistake I’d made. “Keep handing out money like that, pastor, and they’ll be lined up out the door before you know it!”
It seems like we’ve spent a good deal of church history trying to figure out ways to parse Jesus’ words here so as to avoid our becoming suckers and chumps. Just watch what happens in case someone suggests that these verses have implications for even politics and international affairs. Many people will spring to their feet and tell you in no uncertain terms that these are instructions for disciples in the context of their private lives of devotion to God. To suggest this could be in any way applied to military conflicts or the affairs of state is to make a big category mistake, some will say (and to an extent they have a point. Still . . .). Other times we make grim jokes. “Why did you hit that man back?” we will ask someone. “Well, I turned both cheeks, he slapped them both, and since I was fresh out of cheeks to turn, I slugged him!”
In my city there is a wonderful clothing and furniture ministry. The store is open for shopping at certain designated hours of the week. Customers usually stream in once the doors are open. The shoppers browse through neatly laid out racks of clothing, coats, and accessories as well as aisles of small furniture items. When they are finished “shopping,” however, they just leave with their stuff. There is no check-out counter, no cash register. It’s all free. I think it’s a great ministry. But some time ago a member of my church who is a landlord of many apartments in the city derided the ministry. “You should see the boxes of clothes and stuff these poor people leave behind when they move or in case they get evicted. And they all come from that ministry in the city there. What a waste.”
Jesus’ words here are hard, radical, and demand of us and of the Church generally a lifestyle and set of practices that we find difficult to imitate. So why would Jesus say this? Why would Jesus set us up to be chumps and suckers, wide open to abuse? Does anyone really operate this way?
Listen: “Then . . . you will be children of the Most High because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”
Ahhh. Now we get it. Jesus is recommending no more and no less than the same thing he’d seen all along in his Father. As the Son of God himself, Jesus is speaking from divine experience. When you are the Creator God of the entire cosmos, you sooner or later get used to seeing people snarfing up and consuming all the bounty of your creative imagination yet without even once giving a sidelong glance back to the Giver of all that good food, good wine, and good everything. Seeing ungrateful people is a commonplace for God. God has spent altogether too much time watching delicate creatures fashioned in his own image strutting around this world and fancying themselves to be “self-made people.” God has witnessed altogether too many people sighing over the glories of a crimson sunset only to see those same people marveling at how this whole big and beautiful world of ours just happened to evolve all on its own.
“Because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” That line reveals much as to what is behind Jesus’ rhetoric in Luke 6. It also tells us in an instant that if we think that following Jesus’ advice here is a quick path to becoming a sucker or a chump, we’d best wonder about that a little. Unless, that is, we want to so label God . . .
This entire passage is an example of Jesus’ oft-used rhetorical technique of “so much more.” In some places it is more clearly stated as the “ad miniore maius” principle, the “how much more so” idea. If some people manage to love those who love them back, how much more shouldn’t you go the extra mile to love the unlovable, to lend to the unreliable!” The principle here is summed up with the image of the measuring cup in verse 38. In baking the experts always tell you to be mindful of really getting that “1 Cup of Flour” that the recipe calls for. If you just casually dip a measuring cup into a flour jar, you might think you have a full cup of flour but there may well be air pockets. When recipes call for 1 Cup, they mean 1 packed cup in which the chef has made sure to tamp the flour down, tap the cup on the counter to release air, and just generally make sure you’ve got one full measure indeed. Jesus’ image here suggests making double-sure that you have the fullest measure possible. But then he engages in a little hyperbole by saying that once you have tamped it down to make sure you’ve packed in as much as you can, dip it in one more time and let it overflow! It’s a wildly generous and, just so, wonderful image!
In John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, readers get to know the Joad family pretty well. The Joads are dirt poor “Okies” who are forced by the Dust Bowl to travel cross-country to California where, they have been led to believe, a virtual paradise awaits them. There will be plenty of work, warm weather, a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables to eat.
Along the way they encounter every imaginable hardship, including losing to death both the grandpa and grandma who had set out with them. They are in perpetual need. But as they travel, something comes up almost like a refrain and it is to the effect “Never go to rich folks to ask for help because they won’t give it. It’s the poor that always helps out folks. From what little they have, the poor share in a way the rich never will.”
It’s a quirky paradox of life: the more you have, the more you calculate before giving something away. You want to insure your investment. You don’t want to be snookered. Yet those who have very little give more freely. The very people who by all rights ought to be watching out for every penny they have are often the same ones who are generous to a fault.
It feels like the kind of thing Jesus was getting at in Luke 6.
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Author: Stan Mast
The theme for this Sixth Sunday of Epiphany is the same in all four Lections—reversal of fortune. Psalm 37 and Luke 6:27-38 talk about loving enemies, thus reversing the usual response to those who abuse us. I Corinthian’s 15:35-50 expounds the great doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which reverses the apparent victory of our last enemy, turning the indignity of death into the glory of the resurrection body. And Genesis 45 gives us a dramatic narrative of reversal, as the brother sold into slavery by hatefully envious siblings not only confronts them in his new role as Prime Minister of Egypt, but even saves them from their mortal plight.
Of the four readings, this one from Genesis will preach the best, in my humble opinion, because it puts the wisdom of Psalm 37, the teaching of Luke 6 and the doctrine of I Corinthians 15 in a narrative form. Everyone loves a story, especially one as filled with ragged tension and blessed resolution as this one.
This is a wonderful Epiphany text because of the phrase in verse 1, which the Lectionary inexplicably omits. “So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers.” There is plenty of darkness in the story— the darkness of his brothers’ sin, the darkness of Joseph being sold into slavery and then confined to prison on a false rape charge, the darkness of Jacob’s family situation as a world-wide famine moved him to send his sons outside the Promised Land in search of food, the darkness of Joseph’s Machiavellian manipulation of his brothers just prior to this Epiphany. Now here in the darkness of sin and slavery and famine and terror, Joseph makes himself known to his brothers.
In this Egyptian Epiphany, Joseph not only makes himself known as the long lost and presumably dead brother, but, more importantly for us, he makes known God’s intention in the whole sordid story of Joseph’s enslavement and ultimate enthronement. Three times he says, God sent me here. You sold me, but God sent me. You intended to eliminate your annoyingly proud brother, but God plans to “preserve for you a remnant on earth.” You wanted to enslave me, but God wanted to “save your lives by a great deliverance.” So, he concludes in verse 8, “it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Out of your great sin God will give you great abundance as you settle in the land of Goshen near me. And in the final reversal, the brothers who sold him into far off Egypt come near to Joseph in near worship and overwhelming gratitude.
What mattered was not their intention, but God’s. What mattered was not the darkness of sin and slavery and famine and terror, but God’s intention to use all of that to accomplish God’s good purpose. What an epiphany for them, and for us.
But I wonder if people will be able to believe that message today. The brothers were filled with confusion, and incredulity, and panic, and terror as they stumbled around in the darkness of their situation. That’s how we feel when terrible things happen to us personally, or when the world sinks into famine, or goes up in flames, or drowns in hurricane-caused flooding, or cowers in terror before border control agents after a long journey through hell. Can we believe that God intends to do something good, something great, something unimaginably salvific through these disasters that devastate our lives and our world?
I love stories with happy endings, but there are so few around these days. It seems as though every novel I’ve read recently ends with conflict unresolved, things still a mess, not a ray of hope anywhere in the cloudy sky. I don’t like that, probably in part because I’m a closet romantic, but more because I’m a Christian and I believe the Gospel, the ultimate story with a happy ending. That’s why I love this story of Joseph. Though it’s as full of the nasty stuff of life as any post-modern novel, it ends well with more than a hint of the Gospel. That’s why I would entitle my sermon on this text, “The Road to Heaven is Paved with God’s Intention.”
That, of course, is a take-off on the old proverb often attributed to Samuel Johnson, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The proverb is a warning to all those who mean well, but fail to deliver: the alcoholic who resolves to stop drinking, but resists going to AA and dies of liver disease, the over-weight 40 year old who begins a diet every month, but keeps eating all the way to a heart attack, the sinner who intends to stop her habitual sins, but doesn’t engage in the spiritual disciplines necessary to change her life, the well intentioned national leaders who develop policies to defeat terrorism or to fix the health care crisis, but instead create a mess for the next generation to clean up. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s a pessimistic proverb that is very true to real life.
You really have to read the rest of Joseph’s story to see the Good News that the road to heaven is paved with God’s intention. Our text ends with Joseph joyfully reunited with his now penitent brothers and tearfully embracing his youngest brother, Benjamin, but the story gets better and better. News of this reunion reached Pharaoh, who generously offered Joseph’s family not only food for their journey back home, but also a new home in the choicest land in all of Egypt.
The brothers went back to the land of Canaan and told their father the good news that his long lost and presumed-dead son was still alive and was, in fact, the ruler of all Egypt. Jacob was understandably incredulous, but when they told him all of Joseph’s words and when he saw the carts provided by Pharaoh to carry the whole family back to Egypt, he was convinced. “My son Joseph is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.”
But when Jacob and his family reached the far southern reaches of the Promised Land, he hesitated. How could he leave the land God had promised to him and his ancestors? How could he leave heaven on earth and go off to pagan Egypt? He would not take one step further down this road, until he knew that it was paved with God’s intention. So God came to him in a dream that very night in Genesis 46:3 and 4, and said, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.”
With those promises under their feet, Jacob and his family, all 70 of them, went down the road to Egypt. They were royally welcomed by Pharaoh, who kept his promise and gave them property in Goshen which was filled with lush pasture for all their flocks. More important, it was in the northeastern corner of Egypt, as close to Canaan as they could get and still be in Egypt.
Genesis 47 says that the famine continued for the next 5 years making life so miserable for the people of Egypt that they all sold themselves into slavery to Pharaoh in exchange for food. But Jacob’s family prospered there in Goshen, growing in numbers and in wealth.
Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 more years and at the age of 147 gathered his sons to give them his mixed blessings, which you can read in Genesis 49. Then he gave them strict instructions to bury him not in Egypt, but back in the Promised Land in the same grave where his grandparents and parents and wives and were buried. He wanted to return to that little slice of heaven on earth where he belonged. Genesis 49:33 says, “When Jacob had finished giving these instructions to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.”
Would his children honor his command? Would Pharaoh give them permission to leave and come back? Of course! The road to heaven on earth was paved with God’s intention. So when Joseph asked Pharaoh for permission to make the long journey back to Canaan, Pharaoh not only agreed but also sent his entire royal court with them accompanied by an immense armed escort. So Jacob’s sons did exactly what their father asked, providing a splendid funeral for him in the Promised Land.
When they returned to Goshen, however, the brothers were filled with fear that with daddy gone, Joseph would at last exact vengeance for their cruel treatment. But Joseph calms their fears with those wonderful words that are the theme of the entire story, the verse in Genesis 50:20 that reveals God’s heavenly intentions in their hellish actions. “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.”
Joseph stayed on in Egypt for the rest of his life, for over 50 more years, until he was 110 years old. When he was about to die, he gathered his brothers around them and made them promise to take his body back to the Promised Land. His last recorded words to them in Genesis 50:25 are a divinely inspired insight into God’s intention for them. “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place.” And then he died.
He had come to the end of the road that led from Canaan to Egypt, a road littered with sin and sorrow and suffering, a road that often seemed like a dead end. But he knew that even after death it would all finally turn out for good, because of God’s good intentions. So he lay down his head in peace—peace with his brothers, peace for his grieving father, peace for his posterity, peace for himself, peace with the God who had been with him at every turn in the road that would finally take him back to the Land of Promise, to heaven on earth. Sleep in peace, Joseph. Sleep in heavenly peace.
Here’s how I would end my sermon on this text in Genesis 45. Can you believe that story? Its ending is almost too good to be true. A more relevant question is, Can you believe that it is the story of your life? Do believe that you are on the road to heaven? Do you believe that all of the hellish things along the road will be transformed into something heavenly? Do you believe that the road of your life is paved with God’s intentions? I want to help you believe that by focusing in one more time on that phrase in the theme verse of Joseph’s life—“but God intended it for good….”
Joseph knew that God’s intentions are not like ours, mere wishes or resolutions, the kind of fragile plans that can be so easily broken, the kind of intentions with which the road to hell is paved. We intend all kinds of good things, but then the weakness of the flesh or the wavering of the will or the forces of nature or the powers of history destroy our intentions. And we land in a hell we never intended.
God’s intention is not a wish or resolution, but a firm promise that he will faithfully keep because he is the God of the covenant. Indeed, God’s intentions for Joseph were rooted in his covenant promises to Abraham years before that would be fulfilled in Jesus years after. The intentions of God are solid rock because they are set in his covenant love that promised to save the world through Abraham’s seed. If you are a believer in Christ, your road to heaven is certain because it is paved with the granite of those ancient promises.
I cannot tell you exactly how God’s good intention interacted with the evil intention of Joseph’s brothers, or how that works in our lives. This is a great mystery. God clearly did not over-rule all of their intentions; a great deal of evil happened to Joseph. God used their evil intentions; as a result of them a great deal of good happened to a lot of people. Did God move them to evil? No. Did he allow their evil? Yes. Did he use their evil? Absolutely. In a way that both allowed their freedom of choice and fulfilled God’s granite promises, God was actively involved in every step along the road that led Joseph to sleep in heavenly peace. God did not just manipulate the events of Joseph’s story from on high like some Machiavellian puppeteer. Rather, God went with Joseph, even into the depths of hell created by his brothers’ evil. And that finally resulted in the good that God intended.
As we make our way along the road, sometimes feeling as though God is not with us, we often say, what possible good can this do? Last spring two of our grandchildren suffered one illness after another. One would get well as the other got sick. Sometime they were both sick. It went on and on, and we said, what good can come of this? The thousands of people who have lost homes in the fires and floods of 2018 ask that same question, as do family members who have lost a loved one to suicide or accident or disease. This story answers that question with one word—salvation. “God intended it for good, to accomplish what is being done, the saving of many lives.”
The problem is that we often think too narrowly about salvation. We think it means only forgiveness of sins and a place in heaven, and that seems too spiritual and remote in those moments when we feel like we’re in hell. So it helps to see that salvation for Joseph meant not only that his family was saved from famine, but also that they were saved for prosperity. It meant that they received a place on this earth where they could be at peace—peace with each other, peace with themselves, peace with God, even peace with the forces of nature that had ravaged the earth. That’s what God intends to give to those who trust him—peace, perfect peace, the Shalom of paradise, the peace that comes when God is with us.
So many stories have unhappy endings these days, because people don’t believe what Joseph believed. If you want to enjoy God’s perfect peace, you have to believe that the road you’re on will lead to the Promised Land because it is paved with God’s good intentions. Of course, the only way you can believe that is to focus on Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate Egyptian Epiphany, because through his journey into hell, he reversed everything.
An old song summarizes the complex story of Joseph:
God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright design and works his sovereign will.
You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
Author: Scott Hoezee
Across the spectrum of poems in the Hebrew Psalter are prayers that fit most every occasion and season in life. Laments, petitions, confessions, praise, thanksgiving; songs that fit happy days and songs that fit rotten days; lyric expressions of trust and bitter cries of abandonment and anger. It’s all in there. That’s an important thing to remember when we preach or teach the Psalms. Because given the rich and supple texture of the Psalms taken as a whole, it would be a mistake to take any one Psalm in isolation and absolutize it, make it sound like everybody in the church has to think the way this psalmist thinks and they must do this all the time.
Psalm 37 is a good example of why we ought not do that. Because here is a decidedly “sunny side up” sort of Hebrew poem and prayer. This is at least one of those “glass half full” Psalms and it may even be a “glass filled to overflowing” kind of prayer. This psalmist’s confidence in God and in the inherent fairness of the universe is either breathtaking or a bit unnerving.
Bad people, we are assured over and over, always come to nothing. It’s not that they never have a good day but it is more like: Who cares even if they do? In the end there’s just nothing to those who thrive on ill-gotten gain. They will choke on their wealth in the end. Meanwhile, it’s clear sailing for those who trust in God. Every desire of your heart will be granted. And—in a verse the Lectionary would have us skip over—we are assured that it just never happens that righteous people suffer. “I have never seen a good and righteous person or their children go hungry or fail to get what they need” the psalmist croons in verse 25.
So one reads all of this and is tempted to say, “Really? Are you serious? I can make a list as long as your arm of good, holy, Christian people in this world whose kids die, who are hungry, who have their homes foreclosed on by the bank. And I can also point you toward some really pretty devious and wretched folks who are getting along just fine, thank you very much, and who show no signs of slowing down or being miserable. Get real!”
Is this a valid response to the hyper-confident tone of Psalm 37? Well, in one sense yes and if for no other reason than the fact alluded to above: there are other Psalms in this collection of 150 poems that lament loudly and firmly the fact that the wicked do often prosper while the righteous do often get the short end of the stick and suffer. We cannot preach on Psalm 37 is isolation from those other honest laments that size up the world rather differently and in somewhat starker terms than this Psalm typically does.
In short, life and our outlook on the world does not always look like Psalm 37 and, apparently, neither need that be the case in order for us to qualify as faithful believers in God. Sometimes the faithful can lament life’s apparent unfairness and that’s OK to do before the face of God.
Even so, that still leaves us with the question of what to do with and what to make of this psalmist’s exceedingly optimistic and sunny outlook. And let’s just set off to one side the fact that some of us know people who actually do talk like this all the time. And let’s leave to one side the fact that when they talk this way to us at the funeral home where we are getting ready to bury a loved one or in the hospital room where we are still absorbing a stingingly bad diagnosis, these people are not our favorite folks. If anything we are tempted to tell them to take their optimistic piety and . . . well, do something with it.
However, can we even so see that Psalm 37—even if it’s not always true in the short run of life—nevertheless represents a valid vision for the long run? True, knowing that at the end of the day “all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well” does not always give us a lift when we’re downtrodden and sad. And also true, we are often better off not trying to cheer someone up with that idea when things are legitimately terrible for someone. But isn’t this finally our Christian hope for the kingdom of God? For all the ins and outs of life that we flat out cannot comprehend on a day to day basis, don’t we finally believe that there is a loving and faithful and gracious covenant God at the bright center to all existence? And if we believe that, can’t we be encouraged by the little signposts we see now and then in life that remind us that in the end, God will straighten this whole mess out?
I will cease asking rhetorical questions to affirm that there is something to all that. Psalm 37 may be the wrong thing to lob at someone we know who is in active and acute pain. But it’s not a bad place to turn if and when we need to have reaffirmed for us our ultimate hope in a God of justice and righteousness who has a plan to iron out life’s wrinkles by and by.
Psalm 37 may also provide some spiritual guardrails for our lives in another sense: because now and then it can be very tempting to go along with the crowd, to cheat on our taxes because, what the heck, everybody else who does it gets away with so why shouldn’t I? This Psalm can be a check on us when we are tempted to think, “What good is it being honest when some exceedingly dishonest people can rise to some of the most powerful positions in the world without ever paying a price for their serial dishonesty and lying? If virtue doesn’t pay, I’ll try vice.”
Even though it is true that the wicked and the dishonest and the criminally devious can get along just fine in life, nevertheless we as believers need always to be checking ourselves to see whether we have aligned ourselves with our holy God of all righteousness or not. For all we know, maybe Psalm 37 was even written by someone who was attempting to do just that: to call back to morality and faithfulness some friends who had thrown up their hands in defeat when it came to trying to live virtuously and who were seriously considering throwing in their lot with some of life’s shadier characters since it seemed to work out just fine for them.
Again, there’s a Psalm for almost every season in life. These poems have lots and lots of uses for lots and lots of occasions. No, we ought not make them a one-size-fits-all prescription for how every believer should feel at every moment. But there are moments and there are people who need a dose of Psalm 37 now and again, including our own selves sometimes. And on those occasions we can be glad even for a Psalm that strikes us as a little too hopeful by half!
Many of us are familiar with—some of us are very familiar with/hooked on—the film The Shawshank Redemption. If it is true in one sense—as suggested in this Sermon Starter—that Psalm 37 is designed in part to give wavering believers some hope in God’s ultimate designs for the universe, then thinking about hope might be appropriate.
Early in the movie, Andy Dufrense talks to his fellow inmates about the need to hold onto hope. But Andy’s friend, Red, isn’t buying it. Hope is dangerous when, in fact, there is no good reason to have it.
But later in the film, after Andy escapes Shawshank Prison and after Red is paroled a couple years later, Andy manages to get a message to Red in the form of a letter inviting Red to join Andy in the Mexican town where he has started a new life. And he reminds Red that hope is neither dangerous nor bad. It is, in fact, the best of things.
Maybe that is in part what Psalm 37 wants to remind us about when we too look around us and wonder if there could ever be a blessed reason to have any hope. Psalm 37 says that hope just might be the best of things after all.
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Author: Doug Bratt
It may be a good thing that the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday comes up only about “once in a blue moon.” Its sections of 1 Corinthians 15 contain, after all, what N.T. Wright, to whose book, Paul for Everyone: I Corinthians, (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003) I owe great deal for this Starter, calls “a hugely important discussion.” Yet the Lesson is also what Wright calls “long [and] dense,” and contains what I think is imagery with which many of its 21st century readers are probably unfamiliar.
Those who follow the Lectionary’s suggestions for Epistolary readings recognize the emphasis Paul places on the resurrection for the life of God’s adopted sons and daughters. In 1 Corinthians 15’s first 11 verses, he talks at length about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Yet beginning with verse 12, he turns to talk about Christians’ coming resurrection.
1 Corinthians 15’s tone suggests that at least some Corinthian Christians were skeptical about both Jesus and Christians’ resurrection. In fact, in verse 12 the apostle asks, “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” Then, in verses 29 and 30, he goes on to ask (somewhat mysteriously to us), “If there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour?”
Those who somehow proclaim this Sunday’s Lectionary Epistolary Lesson may want to reflect on how at least some their own contemporaries share the Corinthians’ skepticism about the resurrection. While I wasn’t able to identify any recent surveys about, for example, American attitudes about the resurrection, polls suggest that about 80% of Americans believe in some kind of heaven. While this may at least imply that many Americans believe in the resurrection of the dead, since life after death may to some people refer to reincarnation or survival of some kind of spirit, it seems that talk about a bodily resurrection is both greatly needed and hugely important.
But, frankly, while Paul asks, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” (35) he answers those questions in what are, to at least some of us, mysterious ways. His talk about planting and harvesting is, after all, agrarian. So perhaps relatively few people beyond farmers and some gardeners are going to be familiar with his resurrection analogy in more than a passing way.
As a result, most people who proclaim 1 Corinthians 15:35-38 and 42-45 may want to take Wright’s advice by hurrying to what he calls “the heart of the passage that has puzzled many people many times in the past, and still does” (220) – verse 44. There, after all, Paul describes the bodies of God’s adopted sons and daughters who die before Jesus returns at the end of measured time: “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”
Most of us at least sense what a “natural body” is. It’s that with which God created us and for which God tenderly cares and provides throughout our earthly lives. Those who proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday may want to take some time to describe the “natural body.”
However, Paul reminds us that our natural bodies that God so “fearfully and wonderfully” (Ps. 139:14) creates are also subject to physical death. That is to say, every last body God ever created will die, unless Christ returns in glory first.
But how should we understand that “spiritual body” (44) that Paul says God will someday graciously raise? As John Burgess notes in The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings (Eerdmans, 2001), Paul is at least contrasting “the body that we are now with the body that, in and through the power of God, we will be” (230). The gospel writers may offer some clues about the nature of that spiritual body in their descriptions of Jesus’ resurrected body. The fact that Jesus ate, as well as could be touched recognized suggests some continuity with his pre-resurrection, “physical body.” However, the fact that some people struggled to recognized the risen Jesus and that he could pass through locked doors also at least suggests some discontinuity between his “physical” and “spiritual” body.
But Wright goes one step farther in his contrast of the “physical” and “spiritual” body. He suggests that the contrast Paul is “making is between a body animated by one type of life and a body animated by another type. The difference between them is found, if you like, in what the two bodies run on” (ibid, 221).
We know what, by God’s grace, our “physical” bodies run on. They’re, in a sense, “animated” by what Wright calls “the normal life which all humans share” (ibid). So, for example, our consumption of food and drink helps do things like keep our healthy hearts beating, blood circulating, brains operating and lungs functioning.
However, Wright adds that the bodies God will graciously and powerfully give us at the resurrection will be animated not by the life that animates our physical bodies, but by what he calls “God’s own spirit.” He refers to Paul’s words in Romans 8:10-11 to bolster this argument: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you.”
Yet Paul also seems to at least suggest that our “spiritual” bodies will also be somehow materially different from our “physical ones.” When Christ returns, after all, he insists that we will all be “changed” (51). Yet what will be changed is that while our physical bodies are perishable and weak, our “spiritual” bodies will be imperishable, glorious and powerful (42-43).
This promise of resurrected, “spiritual” bodies is, as Neal Plantinga writes in A Sure Thing (CRC Publications, 1986, 259), “marvelous enough for those of us who are now healthy. But think of what it means for those of us whose bodies now need repair.”
Some people who have physical disabilities and those who advocate for them are beginning to at least suggest that those disabilities are such an integral part of their persons on this side of the new creation that they’ll carry them into the new creation. I’m not in a good place to address that debate. But I personally know some people who have physical or intellectual disabilities who long to be able to shed them in the creation.
So perhaps we might consider ending our proclamation of this section of 1 Corinthians 15 with Plantinga’s paraphrase of C.S. Lewis: “If the body you are now driving is a junker, take heart. One day God will give you a new one” (ibid).
In his marvelous review of the movie E.T: The Extra Terrestrial, Calvin College professor Roy Anker wrote for this CEP website , he notes, ‘A lonely, heartbroken boy, Elliott, all of ten or twelve years old, stumbles upon a similarly bereft and needy creature, a rather funny-looking alien from only-God-knows-where.
‘Elliott’s father has run off with his secretary, and the alien’s friends have left him behind lest they be captured by marauding American scientists. Neither of these two is very formidable, to say the least, for they are indeed among the least of these—both exiled and also alien, albeit in different ways.
‘They need each other, big-time, and fast friends they become, first out of necessity and then from within a deep well of love, given what they do for each other . . . Mid-way through, as the alien lies dying on a gurney in a lab, because earth’s atmosphere is not so good for aliens (and ever less so for humans too), Elliot himself also begins to die.
‘Until, that is, the creature, named ET by Elliott for extra-terrestrial (the name, appropriately, begins and ends with the first and last letters of Elliott’s own name) severs his tie with Elliott in a gesture of supreme love, for without Elliott’s “life” he cannot live, “withdrawing” himself from Elliott so Elliott might live . . . And while viewers watch and wonder and even weep at this, as I did back when, we don’t really get it, at least not yet, meaning the full shebang of the story the film tells.
‘In order to dispel any mental “fuzz” about what’s going on here, it all comes rather clear, shockingly so, as if suddenly slapped in the face. Though skeptical of his plan, Elliot’s mates make off with the government van holding the remains of supposedly demised ET. With the Feds in hot pursuit, they come to a stop in park, and there they dispute just why they’re doing this wild stunt.
‘And at that moment, so to answer all their perplexities and fears, the rear doors swing open, clouds of white smoke (dry ice) billowing out, and through the fog steps a majestic looking ET, draped as he is with a white death cloth over his body, risen and resplendent, his warm red heart aglow once again.
‘The image borrows from Christian pop art of Jesus emerging from the tomb, grave-cloth over his head amid a cloud of white smoke or whatever. It is, in fact, the climactic moment, the pivot, showing viewers what love can do and that all will be well.
‘And, lo, all the noisy boys fall dead silent at the sight of the suddenly revivified ET, now majestic and luminous. Sometimes even the movies have actual icons, and this shot makes one of cinema’s most “telling,” not only explaining but radically overturning audience expectations of what is reasonable and smart. And for this there are hardly words, “it” simply being “it.”
“The lowly exile and fugitive, neither attractive nor powerful (or so it seems), a being who has brought love and hope to the forsaken (Elliott). Though hunted and dead, he is alive again and shows forth, now transfigured, masterful, regal, and luminous. He has made the “christomorphic” journey, moving from forsaken outcast to he who makes the world into what it was intended to be in the first place. It is, indeed, in Frederick’s Buechner’s words, the story “too good not to be true”.’