March 09, 2020
The Lent 3A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 4:5-42 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 17:1-7, from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 95 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 5:1-11 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 28 (Lord’s Day 10)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Across the centuries people always gather where beverages are available. Even today we sometimes call a restaurant or lounge our favorite “watering hole” because it’s the place where we go after work to unwind with our friends over a glass of wine or something. In fact, even the phrase “scuttlebutt” has similar origins from the maritime world of ships and sailors. If you “scuttle” a ship, it means intentionally cutting a hole into the bottom of the boat so it will sink. Also, on board old cargo ships, those big fifty-gallon casks or barrels that were once used to transport various goods were known as “butts.”
So if you “scuttled” a “butt,” you cut a hole in the top of one of those big barrels so that you could then fill the barrel with fresh water. Sailors could then gather at this scuttled butt and dip in their cups for a drink. While standing around and sipping their water, the sailors would also swap shipboard rumors. Hence, “scuttlebutt” eventually became a way to refer to gossip. (A latter day equivalent is “the water cooler syndrome” in which water coolers become the place where employees gather for a cool drink and a bit of office gossip.)
It was probably not a lot different at village wells back in Jesus’ time. It was the town watering hole where everyone gathered two times a day and so where people lingered a bit to tell some tales, catch up on news, and also stay current on all the juiciest town gossip. This Samaritan woman had no doubt long been a favorite subject of such scuttlebutt. Needless to say, when she used to show up at the well in person, a lot of conversation ceased, eyes were averted, maybe even a few dirty looks were directed her way.
So eventually she’d given up. She stayed home when everyone else was out, and she went out only when everyone else was home. In the past, we have maybe assumed that she got what she deserved. We’ve chalked her up as a sleazy, sinful woman. But she may have been a victim, too. Don’t forget that in Jesus’ day, women had almost zero social standing. They certainly could not be the initiators of divorce. All a man had to do was haul his wife out into the street and then say to her three times, “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you” and that was that. The women didn’t have much say in the matter. And so perhaps this woman was the kind of person who, desperate for some attention and affection, hooked up with all the wrong men who, in turn, used her and then discarded her like a dirty Kleenex.
We don’t know that this was so, but one thing becomes clear in the course of her conversation with Jesus: she is not a religious ignoramus. This woman knows some theology! This woman has thought about spiritual matters. She’s aware of the promised Messiah, knows something of the controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans about where God may (or may not) be appropriately worshiped. The town long since wrote her off as a bad sort of person, but inside her skin beat the heart of someone thirsty for God.
But long before any of that becomes evident in this story, this woman first has to overcome her shock at having Jesus talk to her at all. As just noted, her heart no doubt sank when she saw that on this particular day, her plan to avoid all contact was failing. Someone was there. Worse, it was a man. Doubly worse, it looked like a Jewish man. You didn’t see too many Jews in Samaria most days. Jews rather assiduously avoided that area, willingly adding a few extra days to their journey so they could take the long way around that greasy stretch of land called Samaria.
Jesus had opted against that (as is clear in the first four verses of John 4, though the Common Lectionary skips those verses for some odd reason) and so cut straight through the heart of Samaria. So when this woman saw him, she perhaps averted her eyes, grit her teeth, and hoped to get through this as painlessly as possible. But then the man cleared his throat, and she no doubt thought, “Here it comes!” But no, there is a kind timbre to his voice. He even asks her for some water, instead of barking out a demand to her. Probably she should have kept her mouth shut but she is so taken aback that she blurts out, “What in the world is going on here!? You, a Jew, are not supposed to talk to me, a Samaritan!”
Jesus was indeed breaking with convention to engage this woman, which is why the disciples will shortly be so scandalized to witness this. After all, consider these pieces of conventional wisdom that were current in Jesus’ day: “A man shall not talk with a woman in the street, not even with his own wife, on account of what others may say. He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself. If any man gives a woman a knowledge of God’s Law, it is as though he had taught her lechery.”
But Jesus not only speaks with this woman, he speaks the words of life to her. He uses the well as an occasion to introduce the memorable image of living water–a new spring of water that would well and bubble up into all eternity. Needless to say, this woman wants to buy stock in the company that produces this wonderful libation. “OK,” Jesus says, “but let’s bring your husband into the deal, too.” Why did Jesus say that? To shame her, the way the other residents of Sychar would do by mentioning this? No. To embarrass her, condemn her? No, but probably as a reminder to her that she had been trying to slake her thirst in all the wrong ways. It wasn’t sex or meeting Mr. Right or finding companionship that was going to drown her thirst.
Eventually she catches on to what Jesus is saying. Unlike Nicodemus in the previous chapter of John’s gospel, we know how she responded: she raced back to the village and began knocking on doors whose doorsteps she had not darkened in years. Somehow she forgot that she was supposed to avoid these people. Instead she rather quickly becomes a member of the community again. Before this story is finished, villagers are actually speaking to her again (and speaking gratefully at that). (I also find it astonishing that this woman proclaimed the Good News by claiming she had met a man who “told me everything I had ever done!” But wasn’t that “past” exactly what had led to her isolation in the first place? What an alchemy of grace we see here where the past that had made her so miserable now becomes the doorway through which to bring others to Jesus!)
If I ever were going to make a short movie of this incident for a Sunday school class or something, I know what I would want my final image to be. It emerges from a tiny yet telling detail in verse 28 when we are told this woman left her water jug behind. That’s quite an image! Later in verses 39-42 as the Samaritans happily urge Jesus to stay in their village for a while, I picture the whole jubilant crowd hustling Jesus and the disciples back into town.
As the noise of their laughter fades and as the dust from their feet settles in the noonday heat, I would have a camera slowly zoom in on that abandoned water jug next to Jacob’s well. She had come to that well more thirsty than she knew earlier that day. She left sensing she’d never be truly thirsty again. To encounter Jesus is to find life–a stream of living water that wells up in us now; a stream of water that will mount up over time until it becomes finally a mighty tidal wave of cleansing that will wash over the entire world, making us and all things new.
That’s the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God!
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
In “The Lectionary Commentary” (Eerdmans, 2001) Mary Margaret Pazdan points out that the story of Nicodemus in John 3 and the story of the Samarian woman at the well in John 4 form a diptych of contrasting models of discipleship and so provides a vital lesson this early on in John’s gospel narrative. The dichotomies and contrasts are clear: Nicodemus is an esteemed religious figure who comes to Jesus at night to cover his tracks; this Samarian woman is a despised person on the fringes of her village who comes to the well in daylight. Both need a new birth and both wonder about how this will go. Among other things, it’s a fine reminder that no matter who you are, Jesus is the cosmic Word made flesh who alone can give to us what we need. Academic learning and fine religious credentials no more help get you into the kingdom than a tawdry reputation can keep you out!
Among other things, the Samaritan woman at the well was a spiritual seeker. Some years ago, writer Eugene Peterson found an analogy for modern spiritual quests in, of all things, a Winnie the Pooh story. In one of the many tales from the Hundred-Acre Woods, Christopher Robin and company decide to set out one day in search of the North Pole. At one point along the way, young Roo falls into a stream and needs to be rescued. Pooh Bear eventually uses a long pole to fish his friend out of the water. Once this emergency had passed, the animals stand around and discuss what had just happened.
As they are talking, Christopher Robin notices that Pooh is standing there with the rescue pole still in his paw. “Pooh, where did you get that pole?” “I just found it earlier,” Pooh replies. “I thought it might be useful.” “Pooh,” Christopher Robin says excitedly, “the expedition is over! You have found the North Pole!” “Oh,” says Pooh, “I did?” Eventually Christopher Robin sinks the pole into the ground and hangs a flag on it with this message: “The North Pole, Discovered by Pooh. Pooh Found It.” Then they all go home again, satisfied that this quest was successful.
This story, Peterson suggests, bears some resemblance to the way many people in recent years have gone about their various spiritual quests. Everyone knows that despite early-twentieth century predictions that spirituality would retreat as technology and science advanced, quite the opposite proved to be true. The very generation of people that was raised in a technological world of computers, Blu-Ray players, the Internet, and cell phones proved to be one of the most spiritually hungry generations in recent times. In fact, people today use one of the most dazzling of all technological innovations, the Internet, to explore spirituality by visiting the startling array of religious websites that exist in cyberspace.
One estimate claims that there are nearly 10,000 different books currently in print that dole out spiritual advice. Many of these have been best-sellers over the years, which means that some of the same people are buying different books all the time. But that only means that the spiritual pole they confidently labeled as “the North Pole” six months ago must not have turned out to be the end-destination after all. If it had been, they wouldn’t have made yet another expedition to the bookstore in search of newer, fresher, different answers.
Author: Stan Mast
In my last two Sermon Starters on the Old Testament readings for Lent (Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Genesis 12:1-4a), I noted that the Lectionary is focusing on texts that highlight the “one for all” theme running throughout salvation history, culminating in the One who died for all, once for all.
That theme continues here in Exodus 17 with an episode from the ministry of Moses, one of the greatest mediators in the Bible. But as I began to ponder this passage, I wondered why the Lectionary chose this little story, when it could have focused on more momentous events in Moses’ life—his confrontations with Pharaoh, his parting of the Red Sea, his time on Sinai, his intercession for Israel after the Golden Calf debacle. Why this little water story?
After considerable thought, I now think that the RCL made this choice because of the way this water story connects with and highlights Jesus’ claim to be the living water in the Gospel reading for today. Sometimes I criticize the choices made by the RCL, but the combination of this week’s readings is nothing short of genius. Besides the obvious type/ante-type of the Exodus/John passages, Psalm 95 uses the names of the places where Israel complained and tested their God as the exclamation point in an exhortation to listen and obey. And Romans 5 reminds us that sufferings are used by God to sanctify us in Christ, rather than to drive us away from God. The twin themes of water and testing (trial by water?) run through this Third Sunday of Lent.
It is fascinating to note how often water figures in the story of God’s children. After Passover and the Exodus, they are trapped by the Red Sea, which is parted by the power of God through the staff of Moses. Early in their wilderness wandering, Israel begins their incessant complaining about, you guessed it, water, in Exodus 15:22ff. After satisfying that need, God gives manna and quail to quell yet another grumbling rebellion. But soon, a lack of water farther into the journey sets off yet another round of quarreling with Moses and God. Later there will the climactic parting of the Jordan River which opens the Promised Land to conquest.
It is easy to criticize Israel’s complaining, until we empathize our way into their dilemma. I mean, water is utterly essential to life. Our text opens with a shocking statement. “The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded.” Think of that– “the whole community–” thousands, hundreds of thousands of men, women, children, and livestock. Israel is being completely, radically obedient. There is no water and thus no grass and thus no food. Yet, they keep getting up and moving as the Lord directs. Way to go, people!
But it doesn’t take long for this to get old, and dry, very dry. If you are a child, you cry for yourself. If you are a mother, you cry for your child. If you are a father, you cry for your family and your herds. Humans can survive only 100 hours without water, even less in a fiercely hot place, especially when you are walking all day long. So, it is completely understandable that Israel would be thirsty, and testy, and quarrelsome. If we are obeying God’s commands out here in this (God forsaken) country, where is God with the water we need? No wonder they complained.
Except that God has met all their needs up this point. From the moment God heard their cry back in Exodus 3:7ff, God has always come through for his people, often in dramatic, miraculous ways. They have seen those miracles of redemption and provision with their own eyes in the very recent past. Why wouldn’t they simply trust God now and pray for water? Why grumble and complain and quarrel?
The answer is simple—because they don’t trust God, not in this moment. Yes, they have seen God act in the past, and they trusted in that moment. But that was then, and this is now, and what have you done for me lately, O God? “Is the Lord among us or not?” That’s the great question that permeates this story and our own lives. How do we know? What’s the proof that the Lord is among us, and with us, and for us? How can we be sure? What is the test of God’s presence and beneficence?
This whole episode, indeed, the entire history of Israel was about testing. God had promised to be the God of Abraham and his descendants throughout their generations, with all the blessings the promise entailed. As he had done in Eden, God was always testing his people to see if they would trust him and obey him. “You may eat of every tree in the Garden, except that one.” “Leave your home and go to a place I will show you.” “There the Lord made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them. He said, ‘If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes… ‘(Exodus 15:25-27).”
More often than not, Israel (and we, their spiritual heirs) turn the tables and test God. When obedience gets tough and we begin to suffer, we often focus on the suffering and stop trusting God, even though he has always provided in the past. Why do we do that? Listen to the story. When Moses responds to their first quarrelsome complaint with a “why,” the story says simply, “But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled….” Their immediate (and legitimate) need overwhelmed their trust in the God who had promised to meet their needs and always has.
So how do we know if the Lord is among us? For Israel, God had to pass the test of immediate satisfaction. Give us water, show us a miracle, meet our need, and we will believe and obey and stop complaining. If you do a magic trick, you pass the test, and we will believe. If you bend to our will, we will obey your will.
That, in the last analysis, is what this story, and the human story, is all about. Whose will shall prevail? God willed to create and bless the human race, asking only that they keep their place as his image bearers. But humans exerted their wills against God’s prohibition in the vain hope of becoming just like God in all ways. So began the battle of wills that has roiled and ruined God’s perfect creation and its peak creatures.
The wonder of this story and of the Gospel is that God continues to bless his willful, rebellious children. Instead of punishing them for their attempt to test their faithful God, God simply gives them the water they need. This all too familiar story of contention and testing is yet another version of the Gospel of grace, grace in the form of such a simple but essential gift as water to drink.
So, it’s not surprising that our Gospel reading for today (John 4:5-42) has Jesus sitting by a well, dying for a drink of cool clear water. When he asks a Samaritan (!) woman for a drink, the ensuing conversation climaxes with Jesus famous words about being the “living water” that leads to eternal life. She runs back home to tell everyone the Messiah is sitting right over there by the well.
When Jesus’ disciples return from a shopping trip to that town, they wonder if he is hungry. Jesus replies with words that tie directly to the battle of wills that has dominated human history. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work (John 4:34).” What Israel and the church fail to do under the pressure of trying circumstances, Jesus perfectly did, even to the point of death. Indeed, just before he died, he sat in another garden and replayed the scene in the Garden of Eden, with very different results. “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” And so, after suffering the thirst of humanity on the cross, he perfectly submitted to the will of God and cried, “It is finished!”
How do we know if the Lord is among us in our trying times? Look to the cross where God met all our needs, not by magic, but by passing the test of obedience and trust, even unto death. As Paul said in Romans 8:31ff, “What then shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
The titanic battle of the wills that has brought misery to the human race is played out in billions of merely human scenarios- the 3 year old stubbornly sitting at the table long after the family meal is done, because she will not eat those slimy lima beans; the 13 year old throwing a tantrum over restrictions on screen time; the young couple steaming in silence after yet another argument about sex; the life-long prodigal son refusing to come home to God because it would mean submitting to authority; the Rat Pack singer defiantly crooning, “I did it my way!” Of course, with competing human wills, the issue isn’t as simple. But submitting to God’s will is simply the way to peace and life. Why won’t we do it? Because we’re not convinced that God is unalterably “for us.” As Satan insinuated, God is out to keep you from becoming as happy as God.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Growing up in a tradition that had once upon a time been founded on Psalm singing only in church, I sang lots of psalms in my boyhood church even long, long after my Reformed tradition had added also hymns to our standard Psalter Hymnal songbook. Even as a young boy, though, I was struck by one musical psalm setting that we sang pretty often. It was titled “Now with Joyful Exultation” and was set to a pretty jaunty tune in a major key, a tune that had what I could best describe as a fair bit of bounce and lilt.
And that fit wonderfully for most of the words since this song was based on Psalm 95. “Now with joyful exultation let us sing to God our praise . . . For how great a God and glorious is the Lord of whom we sing.” Like its psalm of origin, this song is properly upbeat.
Except on the last line of the fourth verse. . . at which point the final upward bounce of the melody (a jump of a sixth from G to Eb) suddenly seems perversely celebratory as the song concludes with the dire judgment spoken in God’s voice that some people “never in my rest shall share.” I always thought in my heart that after that final phrase we could as well utter a gleeful “Hey-Hey!” as though we were smacking our lips over the prospect of God’s condemning certain people to eternal UN-rest. It always felt like singing a funeral song to the tune of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” or something.
I will give the person who paired Psalm 95 with this hymn tune credit, though: that sudden dark ending to this song is precisely what happens to this otherwise positive and exuberant poem. As an RCL selection for Lent 3A, one wonders if it was that final stanza of judgment that was the rationale for making this a Lenten Psalm because the rest of Psalm 95 could better fit Easter or some other grand holy day of celebration.
As psalms go, Psalm 95 is curious on multiple fronts. First, it is an exultation for certain. Metaphors for God as a Rock, as a King, as a Shepherd are lyric and lovely. God’s redemptive desire is played off against his mighty power as the Creator of all the earth and as the One who is so awesome that he holds whole mountain ranges in the palm of his hand.
It is all positive. Praiseworthy. But then suddenly comes verse 8 when out of nowhere the voice of God speaks. Where this comes from is uncertain as the entire psalm had been up until then a clear address of the psalmist to Israel. But then the focus yanks over to a couple of very dark moments from Israel’s history of desert wanderings, to a couple of failures where the people grumbled against Moses and, by proxy, against God himself. Suddenly anger flashes in the divine eyes that earlier in the psalm had sparkled like limpid pools of divine love in creation and redemption. And then judgment falls like a hammer blow to the back of the head—you didn’t see it coming and then, WHACK, you’re dead. And oh, by the way and while we’re at it, there will be no rest for rebellious people like that.
If Psalm 95 gives you a vague feeling of whiplash, you are reading the poem correctly. And if that Lent-like concluding set of verses is why this was chosen for the Season of Lent, you can understand that. It’s just a mystery how it came into an otherwise upbeat Psalm of Praise. The oddity of setting the dark final words to the psalm to an upbeat tune in that song I just mentioned matches the starkness with which Psalm 95 ends too. It is the proverbial bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky.
Is judgment always this close to praise, or to calls of praise? Do we need to always hedge or qualify a call to praise with a warning of “Do this or else!!”? Even when we are properly thanking God—and/or are being called to thank God—do we need to summon to mind those times in our past when we actually let God down? Is this meant to sharpen the urgency of the praise imperative? To scare us into doing it better in the future, including in the near-term as we ponder whether to follow the direction of the first 7 verses of Psalm 95?
Guilt always seems like a bad motivator, particularly in a Gospel context. Even being reminded of our past failures can leave a bad taste in our mouths. If you are having an argument with your spouse, it feels like dirty pool to have one person bring up a past mistake—that ostensibly had been long ago forgiven—as a way to twist the argumentative knife in now this present moment. But if that feels unfair on the human plane, does it become any less offensive if God does it?
So many questions. But perhaps Psalm 95 can stand as a reminder that we all of us are always walking a bit of a tightrope between a proper posture toward a loving and benevolent God and an improper posture of rebellion or of selfishness. No, we don’t like being reminded that we’ve messed up in the past (and so watch out that you don’t do it again!). And if the reminder of the past is brought up merely to wound us afresh, to make us feel guilty all over again for a sin that has been long forgiven, then that feels manipulative and wrong.
Perhaps, then, there is a way to remember past failures as a prudent reminder that yes, we all for now still have the possibility of lapsing back into failure. No, I don’t need to feel guilty all over again or plead for forgiveness all over again, especially if we know God has forgiven all those past failings. But maybe it can be a good Lenten exercise to remember past sins as a proper goad never to rest on any laurels, never to conclude that we’ve got this whole sanctification thing down pat and don’t need the Holy Spirit’s help anymore.
Instead we are reminded of something that really is a positive Gospel truth: Grace is where we live. It is by grace our past failings have been put away. But it is also only by grace that we can move forward in ways that glorify God. It’s no fun to call to mind those times when we let God (and ourselves) down. But if such a memory drives us once again to the foot of the cross and a complete reliance on Christ’s mercy alone, then that’s not all bad either. And if the memory of God’s having forgiven us for those past failures is vivid for us, who knows: maybe it would even be OK to sing about that to an upbeat tune in the major key of Grace.
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
In a memorable sermon titled “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” Fred Craddock had a lovely line that so well sums up where most of us find ourselves as often as not, and possibly this is something that reflects the larger tension we find in also Psalm 95:
“In my mind I serve God. But there’s another force in my life, and I say ‘I’m going to do that.’ I don’t do it. I say, ‘I’ll never do that.’ I do it. Crucified between the sky of what I intend and the earth of what I perform. That’s the truth.”
Between the sky of our intentions and the earthly reality of our actions. Crucified between them. That’s the truth. And if it’s no fun to remind ourselves of our past failures, it’s also no fun to never remember them so as only to repeat them over and over. And over.
Author: Doug Bratt
While the kind of peace about which Paul writes in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may seem hard to define, it may be even harder to achieve. Perhaps, however, that’s at least partly because we sometimes start to work for peace in the wrong places.
We sometimes first think of the lack of peace in places like the Korean Peninsula and somewhere in the Middle East. Or we may quickly think of the need to work for peaceful relationships between black and white people, or employers and employees, or between leaders and their constituents.
Yet God’s adopted sons and daughters also recognize there’s also an absence of peace within some of our families or circles of friends. We may think too of the need to work for peace between neighbors as well as among co-workers.
But, of course, some of God’s beloved people also know about a personal lack of peace. Some of us feel guilty, angry or disappointed with ourselves. Or we may be dissatisfied with other people, our jobs, relationships or health. Or we may be deeply unsettled by news of the spread of virulent viruses.
There’s so much brokenness that we sometimes first focus on working for peace in those places that most obviously need it so badly. But what if that means we’re, to use a medical metaphor, attacking the symptoms rather than the disease?
Of course, God cares about symptoms of alienation. As a result, God’s adopted sons and daughters care about them too. God longs to bring peace to creation, relationships and individuals. Yet by first landing on those broken places, God’s people skip over the first step on the sometimes-long and steep route to genuine peace.
Paul’s diagnosis of humanity’s most basic lack of peace is blunt. He describes both those who proclaim Romans 5 and those who hear us as “ungodly,” “sinners” and “enemies.” Yet while we see the symptoms of that lack of righteousness in countless places, Paul insists that any enmity really begins with our naturally broken relationship with God.
Of course, some of God’s dearly beloved people have been Christians for such a long time that we can’t remember ever being God’s enemies. What’s more, God’s Holy Spirit has been working in many of God’s adopted children for so long that we’re not nearly as “ungodly” as we might be or some are.
Yet even those who proclaim Romans 5 sense that we’re quite not as godly as we’d like others or ourselves to think. Every time we have to fight temptation, we get the sense that not all is yet completely right within us. We may no longer think of ourselves as “sinners.” Yet it’s sometimes hard to think of ourselves as “saints.”
Such imperfection, insists Paul in our text, is our natural state of being. Even God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally turn our backs, not just on creation and each other, but also on God.
Of course, we usually assume both aggrieved parties contribute at least something to the relational messes in which we find ourselves. In the case of the brokenness between God and God’s people, however, we confess the blame falls completely on us. It’s all our fault. After all, God creates us for a loving relationship with himself, as well as each other and God’s world. God also fully equips God’s adopted sons and daughters to be faithfully obedient. We, however, make ourselves God’s enemies by sinning against not just God, but also other people and the creation.
But, says Paul in verse 1, we now “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” God has made himself our loving Father. God has graciously turned us from God’s enemies into God’s beloved sons and daughters.
In fact, while God calls us to be peacemakers, God’s beloved children don’t have to do anything to make peace between God and us. We simply receive the peace God makes with us through our faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet perhaps even more graciously, God made that peace with us “when we were still powerless [to make things right with God]” (6). “While we were still sinners,” Paul insists in verse 8, “Christ died for us.” “When we were God’s enemies,” the apostle goes on in verse 10, “we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.”
So God didn’t wait for God’s dearly beloved people to take even one faltering step toward God before graciously turning God’s face toward us. God didn’t wait for us to clean up even one square centimeter of ourselves before moving to adopt us as God’s children.
Paul even at least even implies that God somehow graciously moved toward us in Jesus Christ long before any of us were even born. In fact, the Scriptures suggest God chose to adopt us as God’s sons and daughters before anything but God even existed.
Of course, Paul isn’t just talking about individuals in this Epistolary Lesson. He’s also talking about the whole human race. The apostle is basically saying, “Even while humanity remained bogged down in the mess it had made that it is sin, Christ died for it.” Even while, in other words, its sin left the human race God’s enemy, God graciously came to us in Christ Jesus.
Yet what’s true about humanity in general is also true about individuals that include both Romans 5’s proclaimers and hearers. Even its most eloquent proclaimers sense that were it up to us, God’s people would just continue on our merry way away from God as well as each other. What’s more, we naturally try to fix the mess we’ve made with God on our own.
However, Jesus’ followers profess we’ve made such a mess of things with God that we simply can’t fix it. In fact, our efforts to fix things with just make things in some ways worse. So if God were to wait for God’s dearly beloved people to make peace with God, we’d remain God’s enemies forever.
Thank God, then, that God made peace with God’s adopted sons and daughters through our Lord Jesus Christ. That, in turn, frees us to work for peace in places where it’s also so desperately needed. The peace God makes with Jesus’ followers frees us to make peacemaking one of our highest priorities.
Because the dirty little secret the evil one doesn’t want us to learn is that as long as we refuse to work to make peace with other people, we’ll never fully enjoy the peace with God that God gives us. God won’t let God’s deeply loved people fully rest until we’ve done everything we can to be reconciled.
Yet we usually expect those who have hurt us to make the first move to reconcile with us. If you’ve pushed me far enough away, I expect you to take the first big steps to get close to me. In other words, it’s the “sinners” we expect to somehow make themselves acceptable to comparative saints like us.
Our text, however, implies that had God waited for God’s adopted children to tell God we’re sorry, we’d still be on a one-way road to eternal separation from God. If the Lord had waited for us to make the first move, we’d still be moving away from, not toward the Lord.
Thanks be to God, then, that while God’s people were still sinning against and, in fact, sprinting away from God, God graciously moved toward us in Jesus Christ. God didn’t even wait for Jesus’ followers to tell God we were sorry before adopting us as God’s children. God took the first and last, as well as every step toward us to reconcile us to God.
Of course, broken relationships (as well as people) often hurt, disappoint and frustrate us so much that even God’s most saintly people naturally pull away from those who have hurt us. Yet peacemakers who follow Jesus don’t pull back, but relentlessly move toward those from whom we’re alienated.
The Holy Spirit equips God’s people to work for peace by helping us to at least make some kind of contact with people from whom we’re estranged. Where victims of some kind of abuse try to make peace, they must set appropriate boundaries. Yet they still relentlessly work for peace within those contexts.
So our Epistolary Lesson’s preachers and teachers invite all of God’s precious children who long for peace with God, other people and the creation to celebrate the peace that God has already made between God and us. Then we go as well as send each other, equipped by the Spirit, to imitate God by working for peace with those from whom we’re estranged.
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In her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, Eliza Griswold tells the story of James Movel Wuye. He’s a Nigerian pastor who works alongside his former bitter enemy, Imam Muhammad Nurayan Ashafa in the city of Kaduna to change the way Nigeria’s Muslims and Christians view each other.
During the eighties and nineties, the two leaders taught thousands of their young followers people to kill. The imam’s followers even lopped off the pastor’s arm with a machete more than a decade ago.
Now, however, they are partners in an effort to foster unity among Nigerian youth. Yet James and Muhammad remain deeply devoted to both their faith and the salvation of each other. The imam, in fact, says, “I want James to die as a Muslim, and he wants me to die as a Christian.”
In working for reconciliation, the pastor and imam are acting a bit like God.