March 11, 2019
The Lent 2C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 13:31-35 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 27 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Philippians 3:17 – 4:1 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 95 (Lord’s Day 34)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Luke knew how to spin a tale! Today he’d likely be a best-selling writer no matter what his genre: novels, biographies, essays. Luke had style, narrative panache. Dip into any of his stories in The Gospel that bears his name or in The Book of Acts (that he also authored) and you see this readily.
That’s why I cannot quite figure out this quirky 13th chapter in Luke’s Gospel much less make a lot of sense out of the five short verses the Lectionary carved out for this Lenten lection. Before we look at those “foxes and chickens” verses, consider the whole chapter.
Jesus seems to be bobbing and weaving a lot here. On the one hand he issues warnings about the doors of the kingdom snapping shut on you at a moment’s notice, on the other hand he seems to say the kingdom of God is wide open, it’s on the move, it’s as huge as a giant mustard tree and as pervasive as the presence of yeast in a ball of dough. We’ve got fig trees that get a second chance and people coming from all points of the compass to sit at God’s banquet table. Then again, we’ve got knocking and pleading and a curt rebuff from the master of a house whose front door just won’t open for certain folks.
Then after all that we have the counter-intuitive event of some Pharisees seemingly trying to protect Jesus, which in turn elicits from Jesus some odd statements about today and tomorrow and the next day and gathering up chicks.
Winston Churchill once sent a pudding back to a restaurant kitchen complaining that “It lacks a theme.”
Well . . . just what is the theme of this chapter, dear Luke?
Maybe it’s that the kingdom of God is mysterious but also wonderful. Maybe the theme here is that the kingdom is everywhere to be seen, everywhere to be accessed such that if the day comes when you find yourself forever and anon outside of that kingdom, maybe it was because you were all along too busy being obsessed with pesky rules that kept you from seeing real people as real people, from seeing real miracles as miracles, from rejoicing over the north, south, west, and east people sitting at the table with you because you were too hung up on how strange and foreign they seemed to you.
God will give the “fig tree” of your life every second chance he can. He’ll perform wonders before you like healing a crooked woman’s spine. And all the while his kingdom is growing up around you like a mighty tree and is spreading all around you like invisible yeast that is even now poofing up the whole ball of wax into something that will glorify the Lord. But if at the end of the day all you can do is wish for Jesus to move to another neighborhood . . . well, when the day comes when all the pounding your fist can handle on God’s front door does you no good, don’t pretend to be shocked.
Because, you see, I am convinced that the Pharisee’s “warning” to Jesus about Herod is a feint. It may or may not have been a fabrication, an outright lie, but it was conveyed to Jesus not to protect him but to get him out of their sight. They couldn’t pin anything on Jesus, and his teachings and healings were generating palpable enthusiasm among the masses. Jesus was already far more popular than the Pharisees had ever been (and this should come as no surprise to anyone in that the average Pharisee was about as much fun as an impacted wisdom tooth). Their left-handed attempt to hustle Jesus away only showed how content they were to stay on the outside of whatever kingdom Jesus was talking about.
So when Jesus tells them to go tell Herod “that fox” that he wasn’t going to take his marching orders from him, he was really telling these foxy Pharisees to take a hike, too. Yet there was enough love and compassion (and grace) in Jesus that he couldn’t leave it at that, either. If Herod and these Pharisees were the fox in this scenario, then Jesus was the mother hen trying to gather up chicks under his wings. Of course, in their encounters with foxes throughout history chickens have not tended to fare well and, indeed, very soon Jesus will die and even the chicks who had stayed closest to him the longest will scurry away and scatter. But for those who ultimately come back to Christ the Hen, for those who see in him even so a sheltering wing that can protect them into the kingdom of God for all eternity, there will be new life after all.
Because the kingdom is growing steady and sure, its branches reaching up to heaven by now, its yeasty presence permeating and having its wondrous effect throughout the very fabric of existence. In the Lenten Season this odd passage from the end of this quirky chapter reminds us both of the kingdom’s reality and of our need to rejoice in that kingdom no matter how many surprises it delivers.
The world is still filled with foxes, and we chickens don’t always think we have a chance. Thankfully we now know that the Mother Hen under whose wings we take shelter has some other names, including the Lion of Judah. Here’s a chicken that will survive!
It reminds me of the time Winston Churchill—to mention him again!—brought down the house at the Canadian Parliament when he mentioned that Hitler and his generals had said that when it came to conquering Britain, Germany would wring Britain’s neck like a chicken.
Churchill then paused and said, “Some chicken! Some neck!”
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/
What did Jesus mean about “today and tomorrow and the next day” as he twice references such a three-day sequence in this passage? He cannot mean that literally in that he is a long ways from dying and rising yet. It seems that this phrase is reflective of a deeply Jewish way of referring to a key period of time. Things that come in three-day sequences are fraught with significance. We know that the premiere example of this is Jesus’ crucifixion and burial followed by his being raised on the third day. Indeed, the line from the Creed “the third day he rose again from the dead” is perhaps one of the most well-known lines to Christians all over the world.
In this passage Jesus may not be referring to his resurrection but he is referring to something very significant taking place on that third day when, as he says, he will reach his goal. In fact, the word in the Greek that Jesus uses in Luke 13:32 and that is translated as “reach my goal” is a cognate form of the verb teleo, which Jesus will utter from also the cross in declaring “It is finished.” However, Jesus does not utter that particular word from the cross in Luke’s gospel. So it could be that his use of this word here serves as a kind of substitute for Luke’s having him say it from the cross.
This may not be the most savory example but the spectacle in Luke 13 of the Pharisees approaching Jesus to help him and protect him allegedly from Herod reminds me of the scenario that dominates the last part of the landmark movie The Godfather. As the aging Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) approaches the end of his life, he hands the reins of power in their nefarious mafia business to his son, Michael. But the old Don has been around long enough to know that once he is out of the way, all bets will be off and the other East Coast mafia families will move in and try to kill Michael. And he knows something else: the betrayal will come from a trusted friend who will suggest to arrange a meeting between Michael and the next-most-powerful mafia kingpin, Don Barzini. “And at that meeting,” the Don tells Michael, “you will be assassinated. So whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting, that’s the traitor. Don’t forget that.”
No sooner is the old Don dead—indeed, at his very funeral—Michael is approached by long-time family friend Tessio (played by Abe Vigoda, pictured above with Michael played by Al Pacino) who says he’s got things all arranged to make peace with Barzini if only Michael will come to a meeting. Michael agrees but, of course, never goes to any such meeting. He knows that this “friend” trying to help him is offering him no real help at all.
When the Pharisees come to Jesus in Luke 13, they appear to come as friends, as people who have Jesus’ best interests at heart. Herod has been making ominous noises, they claim, so you’d best get out of town. But even as Michael knew that Tessio was only pretending to have Michael’s best interests at heart while actually plotting his downfall, so Jesus could see right through the Pharisees here. In a nice twist of irony, Jesus tells the Pharisees to go back to Herod and deliver the message that Jesus is not about to stop.
This, by the way, neatly trapped the Pharisees. After all, what were they doing talking to the Jewish enemy, King Herod? If they really had such easy access to him as to be able to deliver Jesus’ message back to the King, just what did that say about the Pharisees? Did they or did they not have the best interests of their fellow Jews at heart?
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Author: Stan Mast
This is one of the great seminal passages of Scripture, on a par with Genesis 1, Psalm 23, and John 3:16 in importance for both Jews and Christians. But what a mixture it is, filled with peculiar ancient inheritance customs (adopting a slave to become your heir), divine promises that still shape international politics today (the Land is given to Abraham’s children in perpetuity), doctrines that are central to the Christian Gospel (faith is credited as righteousness), and mysterious ceremonies (a smoking pot and a fiery torch passing between pieces of butchered animals).
At the heart of it all is this business of covenant—God’s promises and Abraham’s response of faith—that runs right down the spine of the Bible and forms the basis of God’s dealing with humanity. Fascinatingly, Abraham’s vaunted faith is not exactly steady. He begins with an almost sarcastic question in response to God gracious introduction and promise of great reward. Even after he believes God and it is credited to him as righteousness, his faith is riddled with questions and doubt and he demands proof that God will really do what God has promised.
In this sense, Abraham is just like us as we journey along in this Lenten season, believing but questioning, trusting but doubting, looking for certainty in the darkness. The only certainty is the God who always initiates, who always responds, who always keeps his promises, who is present in the darkness, whose grace is at the heart of the covenant. As Paul so precisely put it, we are saved by grace through faith—the prepositions being absolutely crucial in the doctrine.
Rather than make some random comments on this homiletically lush text, I’ll just give you a sermon from my past, entitled, “Questioning God in the Darkness.” Hopefully, it will suggest some fruitful angles into this text.
Parts of this story are so bizarre that we can’t related to them at all. You and I have never cut up animals and arranged their bloody body parts in a row, for example. (We’d be arrested on charges of cruelty to animals if we did.) But for all its strangeness, this is a story many of us can relate to very easily. We know what it’s like to begin a walk with God, as Abram did. (This sermon was part of a series on Abraham, focusing on having a personal walk with God.) We’ve heard God’s call to believe his promises and leave our life in a sinful world and walk with him as pilgrims in a foreign land.
In the beginning our walk with God was sweetness and light. Oh yes, there were times when we strayed from the path of obedience and faith, under the pressure of circumstances, as Abram did in Egypt (Genesis 12). But God was merciful, led us out of the trouble we had caused for ourselves, and brought us back home to himself. We have faced major choices along the way (Genesis 13), and we’ve had conflict with the world (Genesis 14), but God has blessed every step of the way. By and large, walking with God has been good.
But then came the darkness. After years of walking by faith in the promises of God, you have discovered that they haven’t come true. You have not seen the kind of results the Word of God promises. You’ve gotten sick, or lost a loved one, or faced financial ruin, or seen your children walk away from the Lord. And you began to struggle with your faith. You question God in the darkness. What can even God do in this impossible situation? How can I be sure that God will do what he has promised?
That’s where Abram is in his walk with God in Genesis 15. With God’s blessing he has just won an astounding victory against a much larger army in Genesis 14. Here God comes to him with words of assurance. “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” What you’ve just experienced, I will do again. You can expect me to reward you handsomely in the future.
What a wonderful word from God! But Abram is struggling with his faith. So, he responds not with a “That’s great! Thanks a lot, God!”, but with a question, a sad, despairing, almost bitter question. “What can you give me since I remain childless….” It’s not an unbelieving question; he does call God, “Sovereign Lord.” He believes God is in charge of his life, but he’s struggling to believe that God can do what he has promised.
At the age of 75, Abram first heard the promises of God about a wonderful future filled with blessings. But now the future looms as empty as Sarah’s womb. Without children, there is no future for Abram, and no future for those great promises God had made. God has repeated those promises at least 3 times now, but it has been years since Abram’s walk with God began and he’s not getting any younger—probably 85 by now. What is the likelihood that I will have a son? And without that, God, what can you give me that will matter?
Abram is questioning the Word of God, the very Word on which he had staked his life before this, because he has come against a thick and impenetrable darkness. His life is simply out of sync with the promises of God and he can’t see how God can possibly do anything about it. In fact, Abram is about to take the future into his own hands. Maybe I’ll adopt Eliezer, a servant in my household, to be my heir, and to take care of me in the future. Since you haven’t kept your promise, Sovereign Lord, maybe I’ll have to take care of myself. What can you give me since I remain childless in spite of your promise to give me a family?
What does God do when our faith questions him in the darkness? He calls us to faith by repeating his promise. He says, “This man, this slave, will not be your heir, but a son coming from our own body will be your heir.” Then he takes Abram outside into the dark of night and points to the heavens and says, “Count the stars, if you can. That’s how many your offspring will be.” Rather than being angry with Abram’s question, God reassures him that the promise will come true. And he adds an object lesson, something Abram can see—thousands of points of light in the darkness that symbolize his descendants.
And Abram got it. “Abram believed God and he credited it to him as righteousness. That, of course, is repeated by Paul in Romans as proof of his great doctrine of justification by faith alone. Abram was not a righteous. Think, for example, of what he did with his wife in Egypt. But he believed God’s promise and God credited that faith to him as righteousness.
But there are times when we can’t trust that way. Repetitions of God’s promises and even visible signs of God’s faithfulness leave us in the dark. And we continue to question God. So did Abram. Even though he trusted when God repeated the first covenant promise about a son, he wasn’t so sure when God repeated the second promise about the land.
That’s not unusual. Faith waxes and wanes. We can trust God in one area of life, and struggle in another. Indeed, sometimes moments of great faith are followed by times of doubt. So, when God repeats the second promise of the land, Abram responds with a question we know all too well. “How can I be sure? How can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
He hasn’t lost his faith. Again he calls God, ”Sovereign Lord.” But he isn’t sure he can trust God with this matter of the land. It’s bigger than an heir. It’s huge, a whole land. Abram has been in the land for 10 years now and he is still just a visitor, living in tents here and there. And he is surrounded by people who already possessed the land. The end of this chapter lists 10 different nations living in Canaan at the time. In view of all that, “How can I be sure that you will give me this land?”
How does God respond? With a bizarre command. “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Those were the four kinds of sacrificial animals in Israel. Abram obeys and, for some unexplained reason, cuts the larger animals in half, and arranges their bloody carcasses in 2 rows, with the dove on one side and the young pigeon on the other. Why did Abram do that? What on earth does this strange ritual have to do with knowing for sure that God will keep his promises?
Things get even murkier, as God sends an even deeper darkness. “Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.” But, as was the case on Mt. Sinai, God was in the darkness and spoke to Abram out of the darkness. I won’t go very far into the promises of verses 13-16 because the Lectionary skips over them. Suffice it to say that God make specific promises about Abram’s future and the future of his descendants. In the darkness, God is saying, “I have a plan for your future. The road that stretches before into the darkness is all laid out by God.” The darkness is ruled not by the forces of darkness and evil and chaos and chance, but by Yahweh, the Sovereign Lord. He will keep his promise to those who walk with him in faith.
Here’s how we can be sure. “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces of the animals.” What on earth? Well, the firepot and torch represented God himself, as on Mt. Sinai where God was in the smoke and fire and darkness. Why did God pass between the pieces of sacrificial animals? The next verse explains. “On that day God made, or cut, a covenant with Abram….”
That made instant sense to Abram, because it was common practice in that ancient world. When two parties wanted to enter into a covenant, an unbreakable agreement, with each other, they would kill sacrificial animals and arrange them as Abram did. Then they would walk together down their corridor of carcasses, their boulevard of blood, as a way of swearing that they would be faithful to each other. It was like signing an iron clad contract, bristling with clauses specifying penalties for non-compliance and non-performance.
This strange ceremony was saying in effect, “May God do to me what I have done to these animals if I don’t keep my promises.” The marvelous thing here is that only one of the covenant partners walked through the boulevard of blood. It was God alone who swore he would keep his promises, on pain of death. May I be sacrificed like an animal if I do not keep my promises to you.
How can we be sure God will keep his promises in this darkness in which we now find ourselves? The Bible says, God has cut a covenant with us. But he did that in a stronger way than he did with Abram. Think of the thick and dreadful darkness that enveloped Calvary at noon that awful Friday. Think of God’s only Son being sacrificed on the cross.
God didn’t just symbolically pass through a corridor of carcasses, walking untouched down a boulevard of blood to prove his faithfulness. No, the Lamb of God offered his own body as a sacrifice, shed his own blood, subjected himself to the blazing fire of God’s justice, as a guarantee that God will keep all his promises to the children of Abram, who trust God as Abram did.
God didn’t just swear to keep his promises on pain of death. He died so that we could know for sure that he will keep his promises no matter how dark it may get in our lives. Heaven and earth may pass away, but the Word of the Lord stands forever. You can stake your life on it. God did.
At a large prayer summit, the guest speaker gave an illustration of Genesis 15:6. Rev. Juan Luis Ortiz was from Argentina. When he came to the United States and saw all the sales coupons in the paper, he didn’t believe the promises made on them. “It’s a trick,” he said to his wife. “It won’t work.” But then he went to a pizza place. The man in front of him ordered a large pizza with three items, and it was $12.75. Ortiz ordered the same thing. But when the man got his pizza, he got 2 pizzas for $12.75, while Ortiz got only one. Why? The man had a two for one coupon. And said Ortiz in a heavy Argentinian accent, “The light went on. And I believed.” I said to my wife, “Those coupons are true. We have to trust them and use them.” Then Ortiz held up his Bible at the prayer summit and said, “This is God’s coupon book, filled with great and precious promises.”
Covenant ceremonies involving the shedding of blood were well known among the Native Americans in the olden days. I’ll never forget a scene from the movie, “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Wales, played by Clint Eastwood, is being pursued all over the west by a gang of renegade soldiers. His life is further complicated by the threat of attack by band of Indians. But Eastwood rides directly into the Native camp and with steely coolness challenges the chief to make peace with him. The chief is impressed with Eastwood’s bravery and agrees to peace. They seal the deal by taking out their knives, slicing across their palms, and clasping hands, thus mingling their blood and making the peace sure. Their blood was central to the covenant of peace between them.
Author: Scott Hoezee
C.S. Lewis said somewhere that when you add it all up and consider it all together, in the end we would all find that our prayer life is also our autobiography. Who we are, where we’ve been, the situations we’ve faced, the fears that nag us, and not a few of the core characteristics of who we are as individuals: all of it can be, and really should be, detectable and on display in the way we pray. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to formal prayers we say in public. Maybe it doesn’t include fully even the prayers we say with our family at the dinner table. But prayer as autobiography in the sense Lewis meant emerges more from the sum total of our private prayers more than from anyplace else.
Because it is in those intensely private moments that we spend with our God that we lay bare our souls, that we open up our hearts, that we maybe cry out to God in ways we’d be embarrassed to let anyone else see. It’s when no one else is listening except the God who loves us that we confess the more craven parts of our hearts. For better or worse, the temptations with which we struggle and which we confess do reveal something about who we are. It’s when we are in quiet moments of prayer that thoughts occur to us that maybe we don’t tumble to at other times (and that we would not utter were other people listening in).
But the point is that over time, our prayers are our autobiography, the story of our lives, the patterns of our thinking, the priorities that rise to the top. Psalm 27 is like that, too. Here is a psalm that has long been a favorite for many. It contains memorable turns-of-phrase, several of which are among the Bible’s staunchest statements of trust in God. True, this is also one of those psalms that contains a kind of ancient language that is somewhat remote from our experience. If you really think about it, many Psalms can come off as a bit foreign-sounding. In one of her many wonderful books, Anne Tyler shows us the character of Maggie who, near the opening of the novel, attends a funeral. In the course of the funeral, the minister read what Maggie thought was a really lovely psalm, which was a relief to Maggie since she had always been under the impression that the psalms were forever going on and on in a paranoid way about enemies and attacking armies.
Psalm 27 does have some of that kind of talk. We don’t go through most of our days thinking about our lives in quite the military-like language used in some of Psalm 27. But despite the foreignness of some of that, this is nevertheless a psalm we feel we can relate to, a psalm that bursts with precisely the kind of trusting confidence in God we all would like to have. But when I read this entire psalm aloud recently, I was struck by the fact that when you look at the whole poem, you realize that this is not simply one long string of statements of confidence, trust, and repose. Instead, this looks to be the autobiography of this psalmist, replete with a variety of spiritual and mental dispositions.
To see this, look at the sweep of these verses. Again, the strong and staunch statements of confidence are what most of us already know about. With the Lord God Yahweh as his light and his salvation, as the stronghold of his life, of whom or of what would he ever need to be afraid? Evil men with butcher knives could stalk him in dark alleys by night, but he would not be afraid of them. An entire army with horses and chariots and strapping soldiers bearing swords could march on him, yet would he be confident in the protection of his vastly superior and much stronger Lord God Yahweh.
That’s how the psalm begins. It is also how it ends. Verse 13 again speaks of confidence. In between those opening verses and that closing one, we read a smattering of similar predictions of success and of being kept safe. The psalmist is sure he’ll triumph over his enemies, that he will be exalted in victory, that he will therefore have any number of occasions to sing to God and to shout for joy. All in all, that much sounds like the confessions of some kind of saintly superstar, of a man whose faith is the kind of bulwark that could make the rest of us feel like pious amateurs.
But then there are those other parts of the psalm. Starting in verse 7 we begin to hear something a little different. “Hear my voice when I call, O Lord God Yahweh! I am seeking your face the way my heart urges me to do, so do not turn your servant away.” Actually, it says something starker than even that in verse 9: it says not only “do not turn your servant away” but also “do not turn your servant away in anger.” This is followed by a plaintive plea not to reject or forsake the psalmist. Then comes verse 12 where the psalmist, who earlier had expressed such utter conviction that God would always help him to triumph over his enemies, suddenly this same psalmist is all-but begging God not to turn him over to his enemies. And you can detect more than a twinge of anxiety at the end of verse 12 in the description of those evil people who are snorting out the hot stinky breath of violence–what’s more, they are quite literally breathing right down the psalmist’s neck.
But finally comes that lyric verse 14, a verse we have all repeated to ourselves many times. “Wait for the Lord, be strong and take heart, and wait for the Lord.” That verse is beautiful and it is true, but has it ever struck you that the posture of waiting seems a very different one than the posture we envisioned for the psalmist in verses 1-3? After all, does anyone enjoy waiting? Waiting in line, waiting in a traffic jam, waiting for your turn to use the bathroom, waiting for your table to be called to the buffet–these are all common experiences but not necessarily our favorite ones. “Are we there yet?” the kids ask from the back seat of the car. “No, we have a long ways to go yet, you’ve just got to be patient!”
But then there is that other kind of waiting. What will the lab results be when the pathology report of your biopsy comes back? “How is that surgery on our child going?” we wonder as we bide our time in the Waiting Room at the hospital. Is there anything more agonizing than waiting for the dawn on those nights when your anxiety keeps you from sleeping? Waiting can make minutes draw out like a blade. You glance at the clock on the Waiting Room wall, you turn over in bed to see the glowing numbers on the alarm clock’s display and you sigh deeply to see that it’s been only five lousy minutes since the last time you checked.
“Wait for the Lord” the psalmist says in conclusion. In fact, he says it twice. Wait. That’s the bottom line of Psalm 27. Waiting. Maintaining confidence while waiting. Bucking ourselves up to be strong of heart while waiting. That last verse leaves a different taste in your mouth than those boldly confident verses from elsewhere in the psalm. Earlier you might have thought that here was a psalmist who could not be shaken and just maybe we suspected that the reason he could not be shaken is because this is one of those lucky fellows for whom the Lord seems always to come through immediately. He always gets his prayers answered, and pretty swiftly at that.
But not so. Psalm 27 is this person’s autobiography. If we’re honest, then we’d have to admit that taken all together, this psalmist reminds us a lot of ourselves. If we have faith, then we have a level of trust in our God, who is the target of our faith. Faith involves hope and trust precisely because, as the apostle Paul says in one of his epistles, we cannot at this point see our God the way we can see lots of other things in life. We hope for what we do not yet have, Paul says. And so while we await the consummation of our salvation and that day when our faith will be made sight, we hope and we trust.
That’s where doubt and fear can seep in. Even if we have very confident trust (as does this psalmist), if there is the least little fissure of doubt, anxiety can creep in. It’s like trying to seal up your house to keep mice out. Try as you may, the fact is that the mouse can get through an opening the size of a dime, and it’s pretty tough to seal up every dime-sized fissure in the walls. So with the psalmist, we also have lots of confident things to say about the providence of God. But also with the psalmist, we have those times when our prayers switch from phrases like, “Though an army besiege me my heart will not fear” to things like, “O God, protect me! Here they come! They look ugly and dangerous! Don’t abandon me, please!”
Frederick Buechner once said that doubt is the ants in the pants of faith: it keeps us moving and alive! Paul Tillich once said that doubt is not the opposite of faith but is, for now at least, a part of faith. So in Psalm 27, there’s really no huge disparity or conflict between stark statements of trust and plaintive pleas for protection. We know what this is like, and we know that our God understands this, too.
So there you have it in Psalm 27: the heights of confident faith and the depths of the anxiety that can still come to us when the bottom seems to be dropping out. Here we have both the loving and cozy relationship the psalmist has with God and all those glowing words about meditating on the beauty of God in the temple and yet we have also words about those times when we hide our faces from God out of fear that he’s mad at us for our sin. Above all, we have in the end that admonition to wait. We wait because we don’t have all the answers just yet. We wait because we don’t yet know whether or not any given prayer will be answered the way we hope.
Our lives of discipleship in this world are varied. Because of that, there are those Sundays when we can belt out a hymn like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and feel the truth of it clean down to our toenails. And then there are those Sundays when we can’t get through it without our voices cracking because lately God has seemed to be on vacation.
The psalmist who wrote Psalm 27 can relate to all that. But so can the God he served and the God in Christ we serve. Because this is the loving Creator and Redeemer who sticks closer to us than flesh is to fingernails. Even if your father and mother rejected you, this God would not. It’s just not in him. So even though our lives have their share of ups and downs, the constant steadiness of God is a reassuring source of refreshment for us. The Lord is our light and our salvation. Always. Of whom, then, shall we be afraid?
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/
Trust is the word you employ when you are sure about something yet without necessarily having it nailed down as a piece of knowledge. By way of an analogy once used by Richard Mouw: let’s say someone comes to you and claims to have seen your son smoking marijuana this past Friday night. But suppose that in reply to this accusation you can say, “That’s not true because last Friday night, my son and I were at a baseball game together and we were together the whole evening.” If you could say that, then you would not need to trust that your son didn’t do such a thing–you’d know it. But what if your son really had been out of your sight that Friday evening? In that case you’d have to go and ask him about it. If he swears that this is not true, and if you have good reason to believe that your son is not a liar, then you will trust him. You’ll go back to the accuser and say, “My son denies it, and I trust him.” But you won’t finally know. And, alas, we’ve all invested our trust in people who did turn out to be lying to us.
So with the psalmist we do trust our great God. We trust the Jesus in whom we have placed our faith for salvation and eternal life. What’s more, we do have good reason, a solid foundation for this trust. As John Calvin famously said over and over, although it’s not open to scientific scrutiny or proof, the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit affirms for us that God is real and that God is love and that our God is reliable. But until that day when our faith is made sight, the fact that we have trust means that we don’t have quite that level of confidence that comes with verifiable knowledge.
And so we trust. We wait.
Author: Doug Bratt
We generally think of citizenship as, for instance, American, Canadian or whichever geographic country we call “home”. That citizenship not only identifies us but also shapes at least some of our attitudes and behavior.
The Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday, however, is not about national, but heavenly citizenship. That citizenship too, writes Paul, defines not only our identity, but also our behavior. So like what shape does that citizenship take?
Interestingly, and perhaps puzzlingly, Paul says that heavenly citizenship looks a lot like his lifestyle, like his “example” (17). Yet such a claim may make those who proclaim this passage wince. Few of us, after all, have enough courage to claim to be role models for other people.
Of course, others may choose to imitate us. I’ve read that Johan Sebastian Bach watched and listened very carefully to the organist and composer, Dietrich Buxtehude. Bach’s many trips to Buxtehude’s church deeply influenced his own music’s style and vitality. Nothing, however, suggests that Buxtehude actually told Bach to imitate him.
So what’s going on when Paul encourages the Philippian Christians to follow his example? It perhaps helps to remember that “many enemies of the cross of Christ” (18) surround his readers. As Earl Palmer (The Lectionary Readings: Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans, 2001, 363) to whom I’m indebted for many of this Starter’s insights, notes earlier, Paul had warned against the legalism of the Judaizers. These enemies of the cross taught that all Christians had to follow the Law of Moses. Here, however, the apostle warns of an opposite danger. Enemies of the cross who call themselves Christians seem to be allowing their Christian freedom to justify any behavior they desire.
As Fred Craddock (Philippians, John Knox Press, 1985, 66) notes, Paul probably wrote to the Philippians around the time of the beginning of the heresy that is Gnosticism. Gnostics taught that the body isn’t important because people have a purely spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. They thought that they were so spiritual that God didn’t care what they did with their bodies.
When Paul calls the Philippian Christians to imitate him, he knows that many people surround them are Gnostics or others who don’t follow Jesus Christ. As a result, while they have many potential role models, Paul is one of the few who’s a disciple of Jesus. That’s why the apostle writes that instead of patterning their lives after various enemies of the cross, the Philippians should imitate him.
Enemies of the cross’ fate, after all, is destruction, not the resurrection. Their desire is to satisfy their own desires, not share in Christ’s sufferings. Their glory is in their own shame, not in God’s work in Christ.
The 21st century certainly has its own share of enemies of the cross of Christ. Some are legalists who assume they must somehow earn God’s approval. Others are hedonists who think God doesn’t care about what they do, as long as they don’t harm anyone else.
God’s grief over such enemies of the cross shapes God’s adopted sons and daughters’ own thoughts about and actions towards them. Instead of merely loudly criticizing them, we weep for them. Instead of summarily condemning enemies of the cross to hell, you and I pray they would allow the Spirit to make them citizens of heaven.
Christians long for all people to live as citizens of heaven. After all, heaven is a kind of municipality that holds our citizenship papers. In other words, it holds our primary loyalty. Of course, the idea of heavenly citizenship may sound completely otherworldly. We might assume citizens of heaven are those who “speak of pie-in-the-sky and take no thought for present realities.” However, those whose citizenship is in heaven are simply those whom God rules from that realm. We are those whose rights, responsibilities and resulting lifestyle God shapes.
Of course, Christian citizens of heaven are also citizens of the communities and nations in which we live. The Scriptures, in fact, talk about the shape of good citizenship, challenging us to pray for and respect those God has put in authority over us. The Scriptures also at least imply that heaven’s citizens must call our various leaders to leadership that advances the well-being of all people.
God’s beloved people live on this earth, in this time and place. So when our nations’ laws don’t conflict with God’s law, we obey them. However, our primary values, commitments, loyalties and allegiances always lie in heaven, with God’s will. So while we’re appropriately loyal to our earthly government, our true home, our true Ruler, our true citizenship, is elsewhere.
As Palmer (ibid) points out, these two citizenships in some ways overlap each other. If we live as good citizens of heaven by, for example, loving our neighbors as ourselves, we fulfill many of our responsibilities as citizens of our home countries. If, on the other hand, we’re irresponsible citizens here and now, we may not be responsible citizens of heaven.
Americans used to think that Christian and American citizenships completely overlapped. We assumed that because we’re relatively free citizens of a republic, we have no problems with our country. Increasingly, however, American Christians sense that something’s wrong with our country and culture. Our loyalties to heaven and its Ruler increasingly conflict with our loyalties to our countries and their leaders.
Our countries, after all, want to make us good and decent citizens. Jesus Christ wants to make us disciples. Our culture wants us to be successful and powerful. Jesus Christ wants us to be servants. The world calls us to sacrifice everything to the gods that are money, sexual fulfillment, power and prestige. God calls us to sacrifice everything to follow Jesus Christ.
That means that God’s beloved children’s relationship with this world, even with its countries of which you and I are citizens, will always be a troubled one. Our loyalties may conflict over issues like our countries’ use of military power and treatment of the poor.
Will Willimon suggests that history gives us many examples of how it’s easier to be a citizen of a particular country than of heaven. Much of the German church, for instance, found it easier to be a citizen of Nazi Germany than of heaven. That left it unwilling to see things like the Holocaust clearly and call it by its proper name. Instead many German Christians, including most of their most prominent leaders, were all too eager to let the Nazis brutalize Europe.
Some Christians, however, though they didn’t always know what to do, at least retained the vision to say what was true. Some members of what we call the Confessing Church looked at Hitler and said “No!” In a time of great compromise, some brave Christian citizens of Germany still remembered that they were citizens of heaven.
Karl Barth wrote the “The Barmen Declaration” that tried to help the Confessing Church see things clearly. While most German Christians were listening to Adolph Hitler, he wrote, “Jesus Christ . . . is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”
The Germans, however, certainly didn’t have a monopoly on comfort with being citizens of some realm other than heaven. The American church far too so long either condoned or remained silent about the evils that were slavery and segregation. We also stood largely silent while we decimated our Native American population.
Many voices have competed and still compete with Jesus Christ for our attention and loyalty. God’s people don’t naturally listen to Jesus any more closely than most German Christians did. We naturally listen to voices that glorify wealth, power and prestige, as well as exult military might and political power.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this second Sunday in Lent reminds us that we are citizens of heaven. It invites God’s children to seek to serve and worship Jesus Christ in all things. Citizens of heaven try, as Jesus did, to be honest, faithful to our promises, loving toward our enemies. We honor the poor, suffer for righteousness’ sake and, so, point to God’s amazing power to create a loving community.
Yet the cross of Jesus is a chilling reminder of the world’s hostility toward citizens of heaven. It’s a sign of what happens when Christians view reality the way God, not the world, views things. The cross is a sign of what may happen when we obey the demands of our heavenly citizenship more than we obey the demands of our nations.
Yet citizens of heaven can involve ourselves fully in living as God’s servants, as Jesus’ disciples, in this world that’s so scarred by sin. After all, we know where, if not exactly when, the “finish line” will come. We know that when Jesus Christ returns, he’ll complete the good work he has begun in us. When he returns, he will remake us to be fully citizens of heaven who so closely resemble him.
We spend much of our lives reaching for our various passports of this world. You and I sometimes look at them to remind us of what it means to be citizens of this world. In worship, however, we reach for our true passport as citizens of heaven.
In worship God reminds us of our ultimate values and commitments. In worship, we remember to whom and what we’re most loyal. In worship we remember that being a citizen of heaven makes all the difference for how citizens live on earth.
A civil disturbance broke out in a country an American pastor was visiting. His tour guide reassured his group as it huddled in a hotel lobby, “Remember, you are American citizens. You are protected by the American government.” The pastor says the sense of that protection impressed him.
But even more, this pastor/tourist remembers his guide adding, “Remember, you must behave like citizens from a law-abiding democracy. You are Americans.” That impressed the pastor even more. His tour guide was, after all, saying that their American citizenship not only defined their identity, but also shaped their actions and reactions.