February 08, 2016
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. (In the 1978 Superman movie Clark Kent saw his blood for the first time only after he had given up his super powers to marry Lois Lane. Thus, when a bully in a diner slugged Clark in the mouth, the blood that trickled from his lips was for him a novelty. Not so for Jesus.)
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 (see another section of these sermon starters for a pondering of that line). 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—more powerfully—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.
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: Doug Bratt
Giving to the church is a notoriously difficult subject for preachers, deacons and other church leaders. It raises very hard questions. How is giving money or even time or talent to the church actually giving to God? Are there other ways to give to God besides giving to the local church? How much should people give to the church? If they choose to tithe, should they base it on their gross or net income?
Yet perhaps thinking about giving to the church in connection with the book of Deuteronomy and the first Sunday in Lent is even more problematic. It would seem far easier to preach on Deuteronomy 26 in the context of a series of sermons on Deuteronomy that would allow the preacher and teacher to explore the book and chapter’s context. What’s more, it’s hard to understand why the Lectionary appoints this passage for the first Sunday in Lent, a season during which the Church remembers Jesus’ suffering that culminates in his crucifixion.
There’s little we can do on this particular Sunday to address the challenge of preaching on Deuteronomy 26 without having first preached on some of the passages that come before it. Perhaps the best thing a preacher can do is to spend some time during the message describing its context (and maybe promising to return to a fuller study of Deuteronomy’s riches later in the year!).
It may be a bit easier to think of Deuteronomy 26 as a Lenten passage. After all, just as Lent’s events remember God’s faithfulness in Jesus Christ, Deuteronomy’s author grounds its ethical invitations in the faithfulness of God. In fact, Moses doesn’t even tell the Israelites just how much of their firstfruits they should bring the priest. He simply invites them to bring “some of” their firstfruits. Apparently the offering must also somehow fit in a basket (2).
This offers those who preach and teach Deuteronomy 26 a chance to explore with hearers why Moses leaves the amount to be offered relatively open-ended. Why is there is no talk of something specific like a “tithe” here? Might it be dangerous either to or not to tell the Israelites how much to give?
Moses invites the Israelites to bring some of their firstfruits to the tabernacle as an expression of their thanksgiving to God for all God has done for them. It’s an expression of their understanding that God is the true source of life. Moses speaks of a God, after all, who doesn’t just give Israel a home in the land of promise. God has also given her the “firstfruits of the soil” (10) and “all … good things” (11).
This is, of course, a radically counter-cultural profession not just for God’s Israelite people, but also for people in all times and places. Israel easily succumbed to the temptation to join her neighbors in viewing nature and its gods as the source of life. Yet citizens of the 21st century aren’t all that different. We easily assume what we have is not a gift from God, but the product of our hard work or good luck.
Moses invites the Israelites to give because God has so richly given to them in the first place. In fact, since this passage comes at the end of Deuteronomy 12-25’s lengthy code of laws, it reminds the Israelites of their reasons for obeying all the statutes and laws God has handed down to them through Moses. They offer God not just their firstfruits but also their obedience as a way of thanking God for being so faithful to them.
This offers Deuteronomy 26’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on why obedience is such an integral part of God’s peoples’ lives. We don’t obey because that’s how we earn God’s approval. We don’t obey just because it’s good for us, our neighbors, society and the whole creation. We live obediently, including giving generously, as a way of thankfully responding to God’s faithfulness to us.
In fact, every part of Deuteronomy 26 is grounded in remembrance of God’s faithfulness to God’s Israelite people. It begins with verse 1’s “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you.” It’s an explicit reminder that Israel’s life in the land of promise will not come as the result of her military prowess or Canaanite cowardice. She will have a home there because God has graciously given her that home.
Yet that gift is no spur-of-the-moment grace. Moses invites Israelites to say when they present their produce, “I have come to the land the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us” (italics added). This grounds our text’s profession in God’s ancient promises to Abraham and his family.
Verses 5-9 specifically rehearse God’s historical saving actions. That description reflects Israel’s weakness and vulnerability. Their “father was a wandering Aramean” (5) who became a refugee in Egypt. The Egyptians “mistreated” the Israelites’ ancestors and made them “suffer” (6), forcing them to “cry out to the Lord,” the God of their fathers” (italics added).
Those who preach and teach this passage may want to reflect on its “eschatological” character. After all, Moses speaks it outside of the land of promise; Israel has not yet received the gift God had promised her ancestors. Yet Moses shows he’s completely confident Israel will eventually receive that gift. He doesn’t, after all, say, “If you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you.” He says, “When you have entered the land …” (1) (italics added). Such eschatology, however, always shapes current thought and practice. So how might this promise of the land invite Israel to live faithfully as she awaits it?
There is also something very tactile about this text’s invitations. “Take,” Moses says in verse 2. “Put” and “go” (3). “Place” and “bow down” (10). “Rejoice” (11). Add to those calls the invitations to “say” (3) and “declare” (5). Those who preach and teach Deuteronomy 26 may want to reflect with hearers on the relationship between such action and verbal professions. Does its actions somehow reinforce those professions? If so, how?
There may also be fertile soil for reflection in the identity of those who rejoice with Israel in God’s bountiful gifts. In verse 11 Moses says, “You and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you …” (italics added). Israel has known what it’s like to be homeless and vulnerable. When she finds a home in the land of promise, Moses challenges her continue to remember the refugees who live with her.
How, then, might Deuteronomy 26’s preachers and teachers see this as a Lenten passage? Perhaps because both the passage and season invite us to react on the basis of what we remember. Luke 4:1-3’s Gospel text is the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. It reminds us of Israel’s forty years of struggle in the wilderness during which Moses speaks the Old Testament lesson. It suggests part of the reason for Jesus’ faithfulness is his awareness of God’s faithfulness to his Hebrew ancestors.
However, the Lectionary’s choice of Deuteronomy 26 also serves to remind God’s 21st people that our own generosity is grounded in God’s generosity with us. We give because we remember how God gave us, among countless other good gifts, Jesus Christ to live, suffer, die, rise from the dead and ascend to the heavenly realm. Compared to that gift, even the most extreme Christian generosity is quite paltry.
In the chapter “God and a Grateful Old Man” in his beautiful book, My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir, Lewis B. Smedes writes, “I remember how Doris and I, on three different trips to an adoption agency, came home with three very different children who now, after ‘many a conflict and many a doubt,’ nurture a warm affection for the aging parents who made so many mistakes in bringing them up.
With memories like these, gratitude comes as easily as my next breath. I remember magnificent things and I remember little things, and I feel grateful for them both. I remember that Jesus died to do whatever needed doing to let the river of God’s love sweep me to himself, and I also remember the Velcro that makes it easy to put on my sandals. I remember my mother’s weary weeping after a long week’s labor, and I remember the pleasure Doris and I had with our first garage-door opener…”
Then, however, Smedes’ gratitude take a wistful and perhaps surprising turn: “But, then, when I thank God for being so very generous to me, I seem to imply that he must be a stingy crank to many others. When I remember that a thousand times ten thousand are living out a thousand varieties of hell on earth, my joy feels self-centered and obscene to me. This is why, on my little island of blessing in this vast ocean of pain, my ‘thank you’ always has the blues.”
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 91 has what Karl Jacobson calls a “checkered” history. On the one hand, it has been a source of inspiration and comfort to millions of Christians. The great theologian Athanasius said to Marcellinus, “If you desire to stablish yourself and others in devotion, to know what confidence is to be reposed in God, and what makes the mind fearless, you will praise God by reciting the 91st Psalm.” When I preached on this Psalm in my last church, several WWII veterans told me that their pastors had given them this Psalm as God’s Word for their coming battles, and they were heartened by it.
On the other hand, our Lectionary reading from the Gospels (Luke 4:1-13) on this first Sunday of Lent tells us that the Devil quoted Psalm 91:11 and 12 in his climactic attempt to move Jesus to sin at the very beginning of his ministry. Focusing on the promises of protection that emboldened my combat veterans, Karl Jacobsen writes that some have accused this Psalm of making promises so remarkable that the unwary reader might be lured into superstition or foolish confidence. For example, English clergyman Leslie D. Weatherhead went so far as to say, “It’s just not true.” And he discarded Psalm 91 as unfit sermon material.
So what do we do with such a checkered Psalm? Well, it is clear to me that Psalm 91 is a very fitting passage for the beginning of our Lenten journey. Even as the temptation of Christ in Luke 4 reminds us that Jesus’ journey to the cross was filled with difficulty and danger from the very beginning, Psalm 91 addresses the dangers we face when we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. “Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come,” and all Christians know there are more to follow. Quite apart from the particular dangers of the Christian life, the whole world is living in a time filled with “the terror of the night.” Who can’t relate to “the pestilence that stalks the darkness and the plague that destroys at midday?” Psalm 91 speaks directly to a world fixated on safety and security. So, we shouldn’t discard it just because it is difficult.
But how do we handle this Word of God rightly (II Tim. 2:15)? Well, we could focus on the fact that Psalm 91 shares a common theme with the other lectionary readings for this first Sunday in Lent, namely, the importance of calling on the name of the Lord when we’re in trouble. According to Deuteronomy 26, Israel did that when they were in their Egyptian Bondage, and the Lord delivered them. Romans 10 promises that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Our Psalm is filled with deep faith in God. “I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”
So we could use Psalm 91 to encourage a frightened and insecure people to call upon God in deep faith. The Psalm gives us good fodder for that emphasis with its opening words about God. In verses 1 and 2 the Psalmist uses four of the most common and powerful words for God: Most High (elyon in Hebrew), Almighty (shaddai), Lord (Yahweh), and my God (elohim). Each word emphasizes some dimension of the Divine that can encourage us in dangerous times. Because he is high and lifted up, he is not caught up in the cause and effect of the world. Because he is our faithful covenant Lord, he will not forsake us in the fray. Because he is “my God,” he will not lose me (the “you” of Psalm 91 is always singular) in the melee of humanity.
Our people already “dwell in the shelter of the Most High.” That is probably a reference to the Temple, the house of God, the place where God’s people gather to worship. We can encourage our gathered worshippers to “rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” When you call on him in the heat of battle, God will “cover you with his feathers,” like a mother hen or, better in this context, like a mighty eagle. God is, indeed, our refuge in times of trouble. Call on such a God and he will deliver you.
But that brings us face to face with the great problem of Psalm 91. How will God deliver us? The Psalmist makes some sweeping promises of protection. “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” Really? Were no Christians killed in a hail of arrows/bullets in WWII, after being given this Psalm by their pastor? “You will not fear… the pestilence… or the plague…?” Weren’t there any Christians among the thousands who died of Ebola in Africa? “Then no harm will befall you, no disaster will befall you.” Then no believers died in the Twin Towers on 9/11, and no child of God lost everything in Superstorm Sandy, and there were no Christians slaughtered in the mass murders that have recently terrorized the world?
These extravagant promises of protection from harm and danger just don’t seem true to our lives. What’s more, these promises don’t seem to mesh with other parts of Scripture. To pick just one, Romans 8 seems to say that danger and difficulty will always threaten the true believer. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’” God does not keep all these bad things from us. But, Paul continues, God will keep us in all these things, so that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
So, if our experience and our Bible tell us that we are not protected from danger the way Psalm 91 says we are, what shall we do with Psalm 91? Discard it, as Weatherhead suggests? No, we should read it more carefully in the light of the rest of Scripture. So we could, for example, treat this Psalm as a piece of wisdom literature, like the Proverbs. Proverbs aren’t promises; they are careful observations of what is usually true. They don’t guarantee what will happen; they tell us what will generally happen. If it is legitimate to read Psalm 91 as wisdom literature, then it isn’t making universal promises; it is simply telling us what is usually true. More often than not, those who call on the name of the Lord will be kept from harm. Typically, believers are more secure than non-believers. We would all like that to be true. But is it? Is that our experience? Is that the teaching of the rest of Scripture? And is Psalm 91 really wisdom literature?
Another approach to this Psalm would be to focus on the qualifiers of the promises. These promises come true for those who actually meet the conditions the Psalm spells out. The Psalm begins by speaking of the individual “who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,” who says, “I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.’” Verse 9 is very specific. “If you make the Most High your dwelling….” And verse 15 is similarly pointed. “Because he loves me…, I will rescue him; I will protect him for he acknowledges my name.” These promises are for those who genuinely trust and love and acknowledge the Lord God. Could it be that the apparent failure of the promises is actually due to the failure of our faith?
I don’t think so. In fact, such an interpretation puts us perilously close to the “name it and claim it” theology that devastates so many believers. “If you don’t receive, it’s because you didn’t believe.” But grace is not contingent on faith. Faith receives grace, but grace is sovereign. God is perfectly capable of acting when we have little faith and he often acts precisely to create greater faith. God is not a cruel parent who dangles a gift just above the reach of a needy child saying, “Just jump a little higher and it’s yours.” Psalm 91 calls us to believe and it promises protection to those who do, but it doesn’t set a high bar and tell us that we can have the protection only if we can jump so high.
So what are we to do with this Psalm? I think the key is in verse 8. After promising that all the trouble in verses 5-7 “will not come near you,” the Psalmist says, “You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.” Is that the trouble from which God will surely protect us– the punishment of the wicked? Are all of the military dangers of verses 5-7 and the natural dangers of verse 13 simply an Old Testament way of promising the spiritual salvation of the New Testament? Can we legitimately interpret “the great lion and the serpent” as the Devil, that ancient serpent who goes about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour? Think of the Devil trying to derail and defeat Jesus in Luke 4. Should we read “tread and trample” in the light of the first Gospel promise in Genesis 3:15?
In other words, should we see these extravagant promises of protection from all sorts of enemies as yet another example of the way the Old Testament pointed forward to God’s great act of deliverance in Jesus Christ? Heaven knows that the New Testament is full of such “spiritualizing” of Old Testament history, people, ceremonies, and promises. A text like this can help us give color and texture and specificity to what it means to be saved by God through Christ.
The concluding oracle from God in verses 14-16 certainly fits with such an interpretation with its general words: “I will rescue him, I will protect him, I will answer him, I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life (eternal life?) I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” Should we read those verbs in the light of our lectionary reading from Romans 10:13? “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Earlier I quoted from Romans 8 where Paul simply assumes that believers will be plagued with trouble of all kinds. But remember that he ended that litany of woes with a litany of victory. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is, even if pestilence stalks in the darkness and plague destroys at midday, even though arrows may fly and bombs may explode, even when physical harm and natural disaster devestate our lives, God will deliver all true Christ followers from the spiritual dangers that will come upon the wicked. As Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27, 28)
That is a way to take this “checkered” Psalm seriously, though not literally, and point to Jesus Christ as our only security in a danger-filled world.
After the multiple murders in Colorado Springs and the slaughter in San Bernardino, President Obama went on live TV to address the concerns of a shaken America. He acknowledged that it is very difficult to stop committed terrorists and lone wolf psychopaths, but he said that we are safe. He urged us not to be afraid, but to be vigilant. Many wondered how we are supposed to live by that kind of advice. How safe are we? That is the question confronting America right now. It is the question that has haunted the human race ever since sin introduced violence into the story of humankind. It is the question to which Psalm 91 suggests an eternal answer.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Romans 9-11 can make for tough reading. Paul is clearly tortured here where the question of the future of the Jewish people is concerned. In these three chapters it is almost as though Paul is thinking out loud, trying to write his way to a solution to a vexing theological question: now that God’s covenant people Israel has rejected God’s promised Messiah, what will become of God’s promise to save them? How will they get back in with God? Or do they need to get back in with God at all? Might God’s promise be enough to save even the unbelieving who missed God’s Christ when he arrived?
On and on the questions go until finally a seemingly exasperated and exhausted apostle just sings the doxology in Romans 11:33-36 and calls it good.
It may seem odd that Paul writes all this in plain view of the Roman Christians, many (most?) of whom were probably not Jewish. Maybe it was Paul’s way of not just revealing the passion of his own heart for his own people but also of helping the Romans appreciate all the more keenly the amazing gift of grace they had been granted. After all, if it really was an open question whether God’s millennia-long relationship with Israel was now in danger on account of their having missed the true Messiah, then isn’t it all the more wonderful and stunning that Gentiles have now been added to the family of God on account of having it revealed to them that Jesus is Lord and Christ!?
Well, in the midst of all that the handful of verses the Lectionary has carved out for the Year C First Sunday in Lent are mostly free of all the pathos and bathos of the surrounding chapters. True, one ought not read these verses without being aware of that context. That is, Paul’s talk about believing in one’s heart and confessing with one’s mouth that Jesus is Lord is not a free floating theological observation. This is part of what he HOPES will happen in the hearts of and on the lips of his fellow Jews.
And it is what we yet today should hope will happen to everyone we know. Believing in Jesus and affirming that God raised him from the dead is the only way to eternal life. Such a confession just IS life, in fact. And the reason is because it’s not something anyone will tumble to on his or her own. This is not obvious. This is not some easily accessed historical observation. Believing it is a gift of grace through faith (that much was abundantly established earlier in Romans).
Probably we are ourselves not sufficiently stunned by all this often enough. Faith can feel inevitable to us. Some of us “grew up in the faith” and cannot remember a time of unbelief. We don’t have any “Before and After” conversion stories to tell. Being a Christian believer and affirming the Apostles’ Creed become for some of us akin to why we vote Republican or Democrat: because Mom and Dad did and so I do too. That’s how I was taught to view things.
But faith is not inevitable—it is a sheer miracle of grace. What’s more, faith is a funny thing. On the one hand what could be simpler than to say “Just trust God and confess with your mouth and you will be saved”? Just say it. Just articulate it. There is a wonderful simplicity to that. On one level, then, the bar for baptism and the bar for admission to the Lord’s Table is pretty low: we’re not looking for sophisticated religious treatises or some Ph.D.-level depth of insight into theology. Say “Jesus is Lord” and believe he is Lord because the story of Easter is true and you’re in. It’s that simple.
And yet . . . it’s not simple at all. There is a depth to that confession that comes only from God and only by grace. Faith is like how I once heard someone describe the Gospel of John: on the one hand it’s like a shallow pool in which even a toddler can splash around safely. On the other hand and at the same time, it’s like the deepest ocean whose depths would take many lifetimes—if not all eternity—truly to plumb. A child can splash in it, an elephant can drown in it! That seems about right. Faith is at once wonderfully simple and wonderfully complex.
Perhaps it is what my friend Neal Plantinga has called a “second simplicity.” Most everyone knows—and anyone with a couple months’ worth of piano lessons can plink out on a piano—the simple little tune “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” And yet in the hands of a master like Mozart, that simple tune can go through amazing variations that turn it into something majestic and profound (watch a highly talented 11-year-old girl play Mozart’s variations here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezvj-De6bxY ). There is a simplicity beyond simplicity, a second simplicity of nobility and depth. Faith is like that.
As a reading for the First Sunday in Lent, these verses gain in poignancy. Because in Lent we follow Jesus to his cross and watch the One we believe is no less than the very Son of God (God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made) die a hideous death. The Light that shines in the darkness was nearly snuffed out after all. Or it was snuffed out actually—by every human standard of life and death, Jesus was dead. Even his followers—to a person the New Testament makes clear—figured that was it. End of story. They thought they had found the Messiah but . . . well, we all make mistakes sometimes. Or as the Emmaus-bound travelers put it “We had hoped . . .” HAD hoped. All the heartbreak of the cosmos is in that pluperfect past tense expression.
Lent is that paradoxical and outrageous season when we celebrate the faith that only God can give that allows us to see past the pluperfect and into a glorious future tense where all hope is revived and every lost life is redeemed. Lent is when we make it clear that we believe in our hearts and now confess with our mouths that Jesus was raised from the dead as both Lord and Christ and nothing has been—or ever will be—the same again.
In Lent we celebrate faith: profoundly simple and simply profound.
Paul may have been in a painful frame of mind as he wrote Romans 9-11 but he was in touch with the mystery that just is grace and faith. In Lent and at all times we can but read Paul’s words, fall back in wonder, and say loudly and clearly “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The YouTube clip referenced in this sermon starter could be an illustration. Or perhaps ideas will come by interacting with two quotes:
“One of the great confessions of the New Testament is Thomas’s ‘My Lord and my God!’ The new angle of vision that Thomas brings to bear on his faith inaugurates a new age for the church. With his newfound perceptions comes a fresh blessing for successive generations. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’ Jesus says. Physical sight is no longer requisite for faith. The old adage ‘Seeing is believing’ is reversed. Now you believe first. Afterwards you see. It is belief that provides the vision to see things differently and the perception to make new things happen.” Peter Marty
“Humor is concerned with the immediate incongruities of life and faith with the ultimate ones. Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence which threaten the very meaning of life. Humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” Reinhold Niebuhr.