March 04, 2019
The Lent 1C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 4:1-13 from the Lectionary Gospel; Deuteronomy 26:1-11 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 91:1-2, 14-16 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 10:8b-13 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 128 (Lord’s Day 52)
Author: Scott Hoezee
“He ate nothing during those days and at the end of them, he was hungry.” Luke 4:2
This curious line in verse 2 is easy to glide past en route to the real drama to come once the devil shows up to woo Jesus to his side. At best we see this as the tee onto which the devil will place the ball of the first temptation but after that, we forget about Jesus’ hunger as we move on to the heights of the mountain and the Temple.
But what if there is more import tucked into that little line? What if it has something to do with not just the first temptation but all three temptations and, as a matter of fact, with the whole course of Jesus’ ministry?
What if it even has something to do with every last one of us?
What I mean is this: we are told as Luke 4 opens that Jesus is “full of the Holy Spirit” following his baptism. A bit later in this same chapter (at the head of what was a Lectionary passage a few weeks ago in Epiphany) in verse 14 we will again be told that Jesus is filled with the power of the Spirit. That is the kind of thing you expect to read about the incarnate Son of the one true God. But we all know that the mystery of the incarnation is that all that divine power and presence within Jesus did not vitiate his true humanity.
The presence of the divine in Jesus did not result in some souped up human nature. Jesus was no Clark Kent who only appeared to be a mild-mannered person but who underneath was impervious to bullets and such. No, Jesus was the genuine human article through and through. The day will come when the lash will draw real blood from his back. So after several weeks with no food, he was terribly hungry. He was actually verging on the beginning of starvation. It made him vulnerable not just to a temptation to turn stones into bread but to all the other temptations, too. When you’re really hungry, you might also be a little on edge, a little ornery, a little low on patience. Shucks, most of us get that way after a few days of dieting and Lean Cuisine!
In short, Jesus found himself in the kind of circumstance in which the devil sees an opening, and we’ve all of us been there, too. The devil is, if nothing else and as C.S. Lewis reminded us in The Screwtape Letters, an opportunist. We see this reflected even here at the end of this lection: “He left him until an opportune time”
That final line of in Luke 4:13 causes this story to end with a bit of a thud. Make no mistake, Jesus’ victory over the devil was real and significant. But it wasn’t over yet. Mostly in the balance of Luke’s gospel, we will not again encounter so overt a reference to the devil’s temptations of Jesus as we get in Luke 4. But that should not cause us to forget that far from being the END of Jesus’ struggles with temptation, Luke 4 was placed at the head of the gospel so as to set a tone for all that was to follow. The last line here in verse 13 tells us, “From here on out, be aware that the devil will always be knocking on the front door of Jesus’ heart whether or not this gets mentioned specifically.”
But that’s just the point: Jesus was one of us and thus the devil could look for vulnerable moments of opportunity to get at Jesus same as he does for all of us. For centuries people have wondered whether Jesus really could have sinned, really could have given in to the devil here or at one of those more “opportune times” to which verse 13 makes ominous reference. Many of us grew up with the tacit assumption that, of course Jesus could not have sinned. There had to be some divine failsafe built into his humanity that would have snapped and locked into place had Jesus’ human side so much as wavered under the searing heat of a temptation. The divine nature would have overwhelmed the human at that point to prevent disaster.
Theologically, though, the church has long argued against seeing things that way. The orthodox Christology that emerged from Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon all insist that neither of Jesus’ two natures influenced, changed, or altered the other. Divinity was not watered down, humanity was not supercharged. The human nature did not make him less divine, the divine nature did not make him less human. So we’re left to conclude that if Jesus successfully resisted temptation his whole life long, it was because somehow, by the Spirit’s influence on Jesus in a way that went beyond his having also a divine nature, Jesus as also human really did summon up the power not to give in to sin and evil.
Let me be clear on that: the Holy Spirit as the third Person of the Trinity operated within Jesus’ heart and mind—within his human nature—in a way different and separate from the fact of his having a divine nature as the second Person of the Trinity incarnate. If I am right about this, that would mean the Spirit’s witness to Jesus’ human nature does not violate the orthodox claim that Jesus’ divine and human natures remained separate from one another with neither mixture nor confusion of the natures resulting. The Spirit could speak into Jesus’ human nature—and provide help—in a way that did not bring Jesus’ divine nature to bear in a way that would soup up his humanity after all.
Why might this be significant? Because as we stand at the head of the Season of Lent with this Year C passage, we are reminded of our own sinfulness and mortality—that was the message of Ash Wednesday. We are mortal and shall die. We are sinful and so need salvation. But although we lack what Jesus possessed—namely, a divine nature to co-exist with our human nature—it may turn out that Jesus had no special advantage on the human front beyond what we also have: viz., the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Did the Spirit work differently for Jesus than for us? Is that what accounts for his perfection and our yo-yo like moving back and forth between resisting some temptations only to give in to others? Let’s admit these are difficult questions to probe.
But let’s admit, too, that contained in the Luke 4 narrative is not just a story that can result in our admiring Jesus for his willpower but also a narrative of hope for all of us. If Jesus could get hungry the same as the rest of us (and for the exact same reason), then perhaps he resisted temptation in the same way—and on account of tapping into the same power—that is available to the rest of us. In that case we can preach on Luke 4 as providing not just hope for Jesus but hope for all of us as we are tossed about on many rough seas of temptation, too.
As C.S. Lewis once said, only the person who never yielded to temptation knows the full strength of temptation. If a hurricane roars ashore somewhere, which person will be in the best position to talk about the strength of the wind: the one who was blown over immediately, the one who managed to stay on his feet until the wind hit 75 MPH, or the one who never was blown over, not even when the wind topped out at 130 MPH? Obviously the one who was able to resist the storm’s fullest fury is the one who knows better than anyone what all it took to stay on his feet. So also with temptation: Jesus never wavered. The devil threw everything he had at Jesus, took all his best shots, but Jesus never fell. Jesus is the only realist, Lewis said, because he alone knows the full fury of temptation. Because of that Jesus knows better than anybody how much strength we need. And so, by his Holy Spirit, he gives it.
In this Lenten Season of our lives, it’s well for us to remember how titanically Jesus struggled with sin every day of his life. But there is an application here for also us: if the devil continued to look for more opportune times to get at even Jesus, we can assume as believers today that we are being stalked no less certainly. True, as people of Pentecost we have a major advantage now in having the Spirit dwelling right within our hearts, giving us a power to resist temptation that is wonderful. But let’s never assume that where sin and evil are concerned we face nothing but smooth sailing in life! We live every day from the riches of God’s grace.
We’re lost without it.
Note: Our 2019 Year C Lent and Easter resources are now available. In addition to the weekly postings here on the “This Week in Preaching” page, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas on this page: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2019/
Matthew is more overt about this than is Luke, but as commentators have long noted, it is surely significant that every reply Jesus gives to the devil is a quote from the Book of Deuteronomy. In Luke 4 Jesus went where the Israelites once went: out into the wilderness. The desert is a tough place to be. It’s a place of uncreation, of sin and evil and, hence, of raw temptation. The Israelites, however, so often failed their wilderness tests. Jesus would succeed where they failed and so initiate a New Israel. What’s more, Deuteronomy was the book of covenant renewal, charting the way forward for the Promised Land AFTER the time of the wilderness had passed. So by invoking Deuteronomy so consistently, Jesus was not only recapitulating Israel’s wilderness period but was also fulfilling for all of us in the New Israel all the promises of joy, rest, and shalom that the Promised Land stood for. Tucked into Jesus’ replies, in other words, is a whole lot of covenant fulfillment and hope!
It didn’t quite go down this way in Tolkien’s book but in Peter Jackson’s film versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, we witness the steady, relentless (but often subtle and quiet) attacks of Gollum on Frodo Baggins as Frodo attempts to carry the Ring of power to Mordor so as to destroy it. Bit by bit, innuendo by innuendo, whisper by whisper Gollum wears Frodo down, poisoning him against the truest friend anyone has ever had (Samwise Gamgee) and wooing Frodo to Gollum’s side. Seldom is Gollum overt, seldom does he make anything remotely akin to a bold or obvious move. But he whittles away at Frodo’s determination and seizes on every opportunity to make Samwise look bad in Frodo’s eyes until finally Gollum succeeds in turning Frodo against Sam. Sam is sent packing, leaving Frodo unprotected and now utterly vulnerable to Gollum’s full frontal assault in trying to get the Ring back for himself.
As the devil knows and as one can detect in Luke 4 and beyond, it’s not the big moments of life that bring us down into sin and tawdriness, it’s all the little compromises the devil makes us commit along the way that leads to destruction.
Author: Stan Mast
Like all good preachers, Moses knew how important it is to end your sermon with a story. After multiple chapters of “do this and don’t do that,” Moses is coming to the climactic end of his sermon to Israel. They are at the last stop in their wilderness wandering, standing at the brink of the Jordan River about to enter the Promised Land. Moses has been reminding them of the Torah that will shape their lives over there in the land of milk and honey for which they have longed out in the desert. To cement that Torah in their minds, he reminds them of how they have gotten this far, using a story, the story, the story at the center of their existence as a nation and as individuals. That story is embedded in a ritual they are to perform when they finally arrive in The Land.
The Christian preacher may well wonder how to preach this quintessentially Jewish text in a Christian setting, particularly on this First Sunday of Lent. What on earth does Israel’s story as rehearsed in this uniquely Jewish ritual have to do with the story of Christ’s suffering and death? We are not standing at the edge of Jordan about to take possession of the Promised Land. We are standing on the other side of the cross and empty tomb. How do we read and preach this text in the light of the finished work of Christ?
Well, let’s consider the situation of the writer/editor of this text. All scholars know that this was written after the time of Moses; his death is described in the last chapter of Deuteronomy. So, someone else, at a later time, put Moses’ long sermon into print. One of the most intriguing theories is that it was committed to the written page around the time of Josiah’s reforms (II Kings 22-23). Israel had wandered far from the ways of the Lord, and King Josiah called them to repentance and reformation. They had fallen into the sins of self-reliance, fatalism in the face of hostile human powers and the indifference of natural forces, and worship of the sexually charged gods and goddesses of their neighbors. Josiah called them back to Torah. And that included reminding them of the story of their salvation.
Interestingly, the story, as told in our text, does not include the giving of Torah, or the creation of the world, or even the calling of Abraham. The story begins with the journey of Jacob, “who went down into Egypt with a few people….” What follows is the story of a journey, the journey of a man with no land (“a wandering Aramean”) into what became the land of bondage. Then, after being delivered by “the Lord our God,” that new nation journeyed to “the land the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.” When they arrive in that land, they are to remember how they got there and give a special offering to the Lord and then celebrate their inheritance.
In this season of Lent, we should remember how the Lord our God has kept his promises and brought us into our inheritance. We should offer our first and best to God as an acknowledgement that all we have comes from him. We should rejoice in all the blessings he has given us by his mighty hand and outstretched arm. And that celebration should include “the Levites and aliens among us.” Yes, we must read this text in Deuteronomy across the reality of the cross and empty tomb, but it can help us move through our Lenten journey with a more thoughtful and celebratory frame of mind.
When we Christians think of our inheritance, we recall passages like I Peter 1:4, which calls us to praise God for “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you….” That language can make us forget that our inheritance is ultimately “the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness (II Peter 3:13).” With its constant focus on “the land,” our text from Deuteronomy can help us focus on that final eschatological blessing. For Israel the final destination on their journey from landlessness through the land of bondage and the barren wilderness was “the land the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us (verse 30.” Read our text carefully and you’ll see how central “the land” is in their story.
That will be a Lenten reminder that “this earth is my home,” I’m not “just a-passing through” to my home “a-way up there, somewhere beyond the blue” (as the old spiritual put it). Jesus did not come to redeem us from the earth, but to redeem us for a renewed earth. As proven by a cross planted on a hill faraway, ours is a very much land-based faith.
As you read carefully, notice how often the land is “given;” the Hebrew word natan (give) is used 7 times, one of which is, ironically, Egypt giving Israel hard labor. The other six are the Lord giving the Land. In spite of Israel’s bloody battles of conquest, God wanted to remind them that they didn’t conquer it; it was given to them as a gift.
This is the major theme in the story of Israel, and in our story. We did not accomplish our salvation. It was done “with a mighty hand and [two] outstretched arm[s].” All “the good things” we have “the Lord your God has given” to us and our households. No works righteousness here! This is a text that calls for a Lenten focus on “Christ alone.”
It doesn’t take a genius to see Israel’s sins reproduced in our lives. Like Israel, we tend to slip into self-reliance. We can become fatalistic as we are overwhelmed by the hostile forces aligned against us and reduced to meaninglessness by the cosmic vastness of the universe. And who hasn’t been seduced by our sexualized culture. Lent is a time to repent of forsaking the Lord our God and wandering off into the wilderness of those sins.
But Lent is not only a time of repentance in dust and ashes. Our text reminds us that our sorrow over sin must always be overcome by our joy at what God has done for us. Our joy is not the giddy celebration of New Year’s Eve; it is the thoughtful offering of our first and our best to God as an acknowledgment that everything we have comes from him. “And now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given to me (verse 10).” That is the end of the story of redemption in our text. It is a reminder that we cannot truly rejoice until we remember how we got here on our journey.
Lent, then, is not just a time to repent of our sins and remember the story of our salvation; it is finally a time to rejoice over all the good things, both physical and spiritual, God has given us. And our text reminds us that we rejoice not just by holding onto the good, but by sharing it with “the Levites and the aliens among us.” If that isn’t all that clear in this text, see its parallel in Deut. 16:11,12. Our joy must spill over into generosity to those who don’t have as much, who are in the land with us, but haven’t been blessed the way we have.
The centrality of story to repentance and rejoicing almost needs to proof. If you don’t remember how much God has done for you, how very central his saving works are to your existence, it is almost impossible to repent of the sins Israel had fallen into—self-reliance, a sense of futility, and adherence to the religion of sexuality. Just think of how foreign the whole concept of repentance is to a post-modern culture that has relegated the whole Judeo-Christian story to the museum of “the silly stories that people used to believe.”
On the other hand, you can’t really rejoice in how good you have it if you’ve forgotten that it all came from God. If you earned it, you might enjoy what you have, but you won’t rejoice before the Lord. When my father sank into the forgetfulness of Alzheimers, he lost his capacity for joy. Oh, he could smile when he saw a puppy or a child, but he couldn’t rejoice over the story of God’s work in his life. He had forgotten it. Only when someone reminded him of the story could he recover a bit of the joy. I’m guessing that’s why he loved to go to church right up to the end.
A good story is not only crucial at the end of a sermon. If it is God’s story, it is the very heart of it.
Psalm 91:1-2, 14-16
Author: Scott Hoezee
It is an unhappy fact that with very little effort, we could update the language of Psalm 91 to fit our present age (and although the RCL only takes the first and last few verses, this Sermon Starter will encompass the whole psalm). Talk of a “fowler’s snare” sounds suspiciously like the kind of traps terrorists like to spring on the unsuspecting. Talk of a “deadly pestilence” reminds us of things like Ebola or Cholera. Talk of terrors in the night sounds like a description of burglaries, rapes, and murders. When you hear language that refers to thousands falling to their deaths, you are reminded of major terrorist attacks like the one visited on the U.S. on September 11, 2001.
These days there is fear aplenty for all of us. But there is also a fair amount of cynicism fueled by uncertainty. Can we really be secure? Can we ever build enough walls, hire enough TSA personnel at airports, invent ever-more-sensitive scanners to look for explosives and guns?
Yes, Psalm 91 could be retrofitted to describe the times in which we live. But a description of the times is not the core of this ancient psalm. The main message of Psalm 91 is not “Times are bad” but instead “Times are bad but for that very reason your confidence in God needs to be stronger than ever!” The threats around us make people nervous, uncertain, afraid, and cynical. Psalm 91 conveys a counter-message: the poet who composed these words wants to tell us that instead of letting the wider world determine how we feel, we need to let our ultimate confidence in God become the lens through which we view the wider world. God, not current events, is what shapes our viewpoints, informs our hopes, and brings us a confidence that avoids cynicism.
Throughout this psalm God is presented in several ways but all of them deliver the same message: security. The God of Israel is said to be like a fortress, a refuge, a high tower in whose shadow you can be concealed from those who are out to get you. God is compared to a mother bird who will cover you with the feathers of her wings. The faithfulness of God is compared to a shield, a fortified rampart or wall. God is a kind of “safe house” where angels are at work to keep evil at bay and to catch you even if somehow you do still fall.
To put it mildly, the language of Psalm 91 is unstintingly confident. There is no hesitation here. There is not even the hint of a proviso, caveat, or conditional phrase. Nowhere does the psalmist say, “Well, OK, maybe you will get killed but then God will whisk you to heaven.” The rhetoric here is far more crisp than that. Listen: he will save you; you will not fear; a thousand may fall but it will not come near you; no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near you; you will not strike your foot upon a stone.
If you were to take all of this straightforwardly, it sounds like an iron-clad guarantee. It makes it sound as though being a faithful follower of God will give you an automatic pass in all of life. If someone shoots a sub-machine gun into a crowd, the bullets will always miss you. If someone with Influenza A sneezes on you, the microbes will always die before you get infected. The plane you are flying in will never be hijacked, if you get drafted to fight a war, the Lord himself will be your flak jacket–you will come home in one piece.
That’s what this seems to be saying yet when we read this, in the back of our minds we immediately think, “But we know things don’t always work out this way.” We all know counter-examples of a Christian person who did get sick and died, who was not spared when a plane crashed, who went to war and came home in a body bag. If becoming a believer provided insulation from every danger in the world, millions would flock to churches first thing tomorrow morning.
But most of us have already known enough grief, suffering, sickness, and sorrow to know that we would never dare make such open-ended promises to people. So where does that leave us in terms of making sense of this psalm?
Maybe a good place to begin is to remember that Psalm 91 is not the only psalm in the Bible. There are 149 other psalms, and to understand any one of them, it’s a good idea to keep in mind what you can learn from the others. As most of us already know, there are lots of psalms that admit and lament that many times, even for followers of God, life is difficult and we are not spared every harm and injury and sickness that may come our way.
All you have to do is back up three poems to Psalm 88 and you can read there the darkest and most dreary psalm in the Bible. Psalm 88 is almost exactly as long as Psalm 91 but there is not one happy verse in the whole thing. It looks like the mirror opposite of Psalm 91. Psalm 88 goes on and on about how bad life is, how much the psalmist is suffering, how far away God seems to be. Psalm 91 says, “No harm will come near to you.” Psalm 88 says, “From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death . . . I am filled with despair.” Psalm 91 concludes with “He will call upon me and I will answer.” Psalm 88’s last line is “You have taken my loved ones from me; the darkness is my best friend.”
So even within the Book of Psalms there is reason to conclude that despite all its grand, sweeping promises, Psalm 91 must not make us forget that even faithful believers suffer. We also know that if we look at the rest of the Bible, there are many examples of God’s servants suffering. Jeremiah and most of the other prophets did not have an easy time of it. The last great Old Testament prophet, and the first great New Testament character, is John the Baptist, who had his head lopped off by Herod. Jesus promised his disciples that they would suffer for his sake, and from the murder of Stephen onward, we know that most of the apostles were arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and finally executed.
But if all of that is true, what do we make of Psalm 91? Where is this high-flung rhetoric supposed to lead us? Maybe we can start to figure that out by recalling the most famous time that Psalm 91 was ever quoted. Ironically, the single most well-known recital of this psalm came from the lips of the devil himself (which is why in the RCL this psalm is paired with Luke 4 in the Gospel lection). Satan led Jesus up to a very high place and tempted Jesus to step right off the edge because, after all, didn’t God promise in Psalm 91, “He will give his angels charge over you so that you will not dash your foot upon a stone”? The devil knows the Bible. He knows the parts that look like blank check promises just waiting to get cashed. “Give it a whirl, Jesus,” the devil sneered.
But Jesus refused. Jesus knew what we also need to remember: the promises we find in the Bible are not supposed to become fodder for some divine “fear factor”-like dare. We are not supposed to base our faith on whether or not we can force God to come through for us. If we insist on testing and proving every article of faith, there will be no end to it. Jesus knew that is the wrong way to read and use the Bible.
Psalm 91 is not something you are supposed to go out and try to prove. Psalm 91 is not supposed to be a type of litmus test as though you are supposed to think that if your life does not already look exactly this safe, secure, and completely snug, then there is something wrong with your faith.
What Psalm 91 does say is that no matter what happens, if God is your bottom line, your refuge, the place you most want to be, then there are several wonderful things that can never change. First, God loves you and wants you to flourish. God does not wish harm on any of his children. We can ponder where God is when bad things happen in our lives. We can argue back and forth for a long time whether or not God ever “permits” bad things to come our way. And we can affirm that God is able to use unhappy events to make us stronger so that we can in turn help others. That may be so, but based on the witness of the Bible we need to know that God does not desire us to be hurt. Whatever else Psalm 91 says, it lets you know that if you make God your refuge, you can be assured that God will receive you. When you run to embrace God, he is going to hug you back, not slap you in the face!
Psalm 91 is a call to confidence in God and so is a call away from the cynicism of our age. At a time when many people seem to live only for the moment (because beyond that, who knows what will happen), Psalm 91 is a call to confidence in a God who, if you make him your resting place, will never leave you. Nothing will separate you from this God because it is the very power of God that fuels his determination to be with you always, even if the worst somehow comes, even when one day you die as we all must. Psalm 91 shouts a loud “No” to the cynics who say that you cannot rely on anybody. You can rely on God! You can have confidence that he wants the best for you.
There are maybe a million whys and wherefores that come up when bad things do happen to followers of God. And there are no easy answers. But Psalm 91 is here to proclaim that whatever reasons one may try to advance to explain bad things, there is one that can never be allowed to stand: the idea that bad things happen because God wants them to or because God is indifferent to suffering. No, God is for us. God is with us. God wants the best for us and will deliver that once and for all one day. Psalm 91 tells us to trust that this much is true. And that’s not a small thing to know.
Note: Our 2019 Year C Lent and Easter resources are now available. In addition to the weekly postings here on the “This Week in Preaching” page, you can see some other ideas and find links to other websites with Lenten/Easter preaching and worship ideas on this page: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/lent-2019/
Lewis Smedes once wrote that we should avoid being fake or hypocritical and just admit that deep down what each one of us wants is some enjoyment in life. Deep down we hope that the day may come when people will stand up and cheer over something we did. We want the bells to ring and the Hallelujah Chorus to sound for us, too. Smedes even said that anyone who claims otherwise, anyone who says he could care less about whether or not anything good ever happened to him, such a person is not only being dishonest but is probably a bit of a nasty person.
Our great God created us for joy and one day, as C.S. Lewis predicted, joy itself will be the serious business of heaven. So as Psalm 91 reminds us, already now we can be confident that our God wants us to feel joy. God wants us to make him our very home, the place we want to be more than anywhere else.
Author: Doug Bratt
This may seem like a rather peculiar text to proclaim at the beginning of the season of Lent. After all, we generally think of Lent as a season of repentant preparation for our celebration of the two most important events of the Christian year, Good Friday and Easter.
Romans 10, however, may seem like a stimulus to such repentance only by way of a kind of negation. That is to say, Lent might shape our understanding of this text so that we read it, “If you don’t confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (10), you need to repent of that failure.
Yet what if those who proclaim Romans 10:8b-13 saw it as an opportunity to invite our hearers and ourselves to confess and repent of our natural sense of spiritual self-sufficiency? What if we used it to summon both others and ourselves to a greater reliance on the One who has already done everything needed for the sake of the world God so deeply loves?
Such an approach, after all, fits the literary and theological context of the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Broadly speaking, Paul devotes a large part of chapters 9-11 to expressing his anguish at so many of his Jewish contemporaries’ failure to receive God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ.
“Israel,” Paul mourns in 9:31 ff., has “pursued a law of righteousness … they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.” While Israel is “zealous for God,” her “zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” ” (10:2-3). To boil down a complex argument, Paul insists that Israel relied on herself to try to please God through obedience to God’s laws instead of simply receiving God’s grace with her faith in Jesus Christ.
But, of course, we know that Israel is not alone in that rather large “boat.” In fact, all of us have by nature voluntarily clambered into the “same boat.” We naturally assume that our hope lies not in the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but in our obedience to God. At our Lenten best, Christians confess that while we don’t profess it, we often act as though it’s up to us to be “righteous” enough to satisfy God.
Our contemporaries might not use “righteousness” language. However, as Fleming Rutledge notes, “There is no one alive who does not make explicit or implicit judgment on other people’s ‘righteousness’ … In spite of our abandonment of biblical language, we still have a sense, however vaguely articulated, of a standard of goodness out there somewhere” (“Preaching without Distinction,” in Not Ashamed of the Gospel, Eerdmans: 2007, p. 307-8).
Whether we think we need to be “righteous” in order to somehow please God, our neighbors or even ourselves, all of us naturally strive to be good and moral people. Otherwise, we fear, we run the risk of condemnation by some god, society or perhaps even ourselves. Those who proclaim this part of Romans 10 would do well to explore that with our hearers, perhaps offering examples that fit our own contexts.
Yet those in whom God’s Spirit has done and is doing God’s saving work have been shown a better way. The Spirit has shown us that we’re unreliable when it comes to being righteous. It’s not just that our righteousness is inconsistent at best. It’s also that we simply can’t be righteous enough to satisfy our holy and righteous God’s expectations (nor society’s or our own, when we’re honest about it).
We profess that we are not, in other words, spiritually independent. We are, instead, entirely dependent. There is only one “Lord” (10), only One who calls the shots in both our world and us. And it’s not us. It’s Jesus. If we are to somehow survive beyond the death of our bodies, we can’t rely on ourselves. We can’t raise ourselves from the dead. We are completely dependent on the God who raised Jesus from the dead to raise us, both physically and spiritually.
Paul even seems to affirm that complete dependence with his use of passive verbs in verse 10. He writes not, “It is with your heart that you justify yourself,” but “It is with your heart that you … are justified” (italics added). The apostle doesn’t add, “It is with your mouth that you save yourself.” Instead, he insists, “It is with your mouth that you … are saved” (italics added).
That extensive use of the passive voice has two implications. One is that we simply can’t justify or save ourselves. Secondly, however, it implies that we not only need but also have someone to justify and save us. Paul’s repeated emphasis on God’s saving work earlier in chapter 10, as well as throughout his letters, leaves us with only one conclusion: God graciously justifies and saves those who cannot justify and save ourselves.
This dramatic rescue is, Paul adds, graciously offered to not just Jewish people or just gentiles, but to all of us. “Anyone,” Paul insists in verse 11, “who trusts in [God] will never be put to shame.” Yet as if the apostle worries we may not get that, he adds in verse 12, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.” And as if Paul worries we still can’t get that through our sin-thickened skulls and -hardened hearts, he adds, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (13).
Christians’ minds may run quickly to Jewish people’s failure to recognize this. Wasn’t that, after all, one of Jesus’ chief accusations against Jewish religious leaders in particular? That they’d forgotten the massive scope of God’s grace? That those religious leaders had come to assume that God loved only “insiders” like them?
Of course, such religious “provincialism” was the source of some of Jesus’ greatest frustration. But I imagine that Jesus is no less frustrated with and grieved by my own inclination to be stingy with God’s grace. Since God has graciously given me the Holy Spirit who leads me into God’s truth, God may, in fact, be even more frustrated with my own frugality with God’s grace than God was with Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries’.
Those who proclaim Romans 10 may want to spend time plumbing some of the depths of the contrast between the lavishness of God’s grace and our narrow perceptions of that grace. We might explore some of the caveats we assume God adds to that grace. We might ask each other and ourselves how our various labels that we like to attach to people hinder our recognition of God’s grace in their lives.
In his article, “’A Rather Antinomian Christianity’: John Updike’s Religion,” in the March 13, 2015 edition of Pubic Discourse, Gerald R. McDermott calls Updike ‘a man of many contradictions. Though he was both spiritual and religious, he was also a serial adulterer. Widely celebrated as one of America’s greatest writers, his work was dismissed by some critics as stylized pornography with nothing serious to say. Although he recognized the devastation the sexual revolution was wreaking on families, he abandoned his first wife and children to marry one of his mistresses…
As [author Daniel Ross] Goodman pointed out, Updike was stubbornly religious throughout his life. He told an interviewer, “I’m a religious writer . . . I try to show people stuck with this kind of yearning [for other men’s wives and for morality and religion].” He was a regular churchgoer, recited the Lord’s Prayer with his children when he tucked them into bed at night, and defended Christian theism from his days at Harvard in the early 1950s until his death almost sixty years later. Even Couples is shot through and through with religion…
‘How could a man be so religious and yet be so enthusiastic for infidelity? The answer seems to lie in his religion. It was a strange sort of Christianity that rejected the strictures of traditional faith, choosing divine comfort while rejecting divine commands [italics added]. In other words, it was gospel without law, grace without repentance, the love of God without the holiness of God.
‘To be sure, Updike held on to parts of historic Christian belief. He rejected philosophical materialism as a failure to make sense of emotion and conscience, and defended Christ’s divinity against his first wife’s Unitarianism…
‘In Updike’s religion, then, there are no commandments we are meant to keep except the obligation to accept what is: “Religion includes, as its enemies say, fatalism, an acceptance and consecration of what is.” Our only responsibility is to “appreciate” the great gift that life represents. He learned from Barth that the next life is simply this life in review, and from his Lutheranism, he wrote, “a rather antinomian Christianity”—the idea that there are no laws we should fear or live by—which he was “too timid to discard.”
‘There is no hint of final judgment. Nor is there any imperative to repent or improve ourselves: in Begley’s words, “Original sin may be inescapable, but any concerted effort to improve one’s game resembles a righteous struggle for salvation.” And if there was anything he learned from Barth, it was that all human efforts to save ourselves are wrongheaded and futile. As one critic summed it up, Updike “radically divorced” Christian theology from Christian ethics.’