July 05, 2021
The Proper 10B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 6:14-29 from the Lectionary Gospel; 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 85:8-13 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 1:3-14 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 70 (Lord’s Day 26)
Author: Scott Hoezee
How sordid. How tawdry. How stupid. How tragic. It’s all here in Mark 6 where we learn to our shock and sadness that the last great Old Testament prophet and the first great New Testament gospel herald, John the Baptist himself, was done in because of a boozy promise made by an oversexed older man who had been turned on by a scantily clad teenager who did a dance for him and his equally besotted party companions.
Having kept his hands off of John the Baptist out of fears of a Jewish reprisal in case some harm came to John—and anyway Herod also found himself oddly drawn to John’s words—Herod even so now seals John’s fate after all because of a moment of weakness in which he promises to give a pretty young girl just about anything she wants. (“What’ll it be, you hot little thing? You want the moon? I’ll give ya the moon . . .”)
How can it be that so vital a figure in salvation history gets murdered on account of so tawdry an event? This is no glorious martyrdom. This is not Stephen testifying to God’s grace and seeing Jesus just before the fatal stone strikes him in the head. This is a silent beheading in a prison cell, as swiftly enacted as it was stupidly arranged.
Only the back-story here provides a glimmer of something positive to say about how it all came about. According to a very helpful article by Craig Keener in The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans, 2001), John the Baptist was probably the only figure who had the courage (and the holy pluck) to stand up to Herod Antipas. This is not the Herod who was around when Jesus was born nor is this the Book of Acts Herod who later persecuted the church and killed, among others, James. But what this middle Herod shared in common with those other two was a real nasty streak of immorality, self-aggrandizement, and corruption.
He had been married originally to a Nabataean princess whom he later dumped in favor of marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. As Woody Allen might say, the heart wants what it wants, and Herod’s heart wanted Herodias. So even though it made him guilty of multiple sins (adultery and incest among them) and even though it angered the king of the Nabataeans (to whom Herod’s first wife fled in humiliation after Herod took up with his sister-in-law Herodias)—and even though this later led to a military conflict with the Nabataeans in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed—nevertheless Herod married Herodias, and no one save John the Baptist had the moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was.
Had John just stuck to baptisms and some harsh pronouncements about the Pharisees and such, he would have been OK. But John landed in prison because he had the temerity to question the morality of Herod the Tetrarch (he never was actually designated a king and when he petitioned Rome for the title, Caesar Gaius Caligula banished Herod and Herodias to Gaul for the rest of their lives). As has too often been the case in history, the powers that be are content to regard religion as a kind of hobby that seems to satisfy certain needs people have. And so long as it stays in the realm of “hobby,” religion and the people who practice it are left alone. But when the religious start to stray out of that designated realm, that’s when things get ugly fast.
So John questioned the king’s morality, even rebuking him for his deeds. This landed him in prison. But then, as though to prove John right that it’s both wrong and foolish to cross certain moral boundary lines, the tangled web Herod wove ensnared both him and John the Baptist on the occasion of that fateful party when Herod’s lust for his niece (turned stepdaughter) and the evil machinations of Herodias behind the scenes all caught up with Herod, leading to John’s summary and ignominious demise.
Well, that’s the story and if it’s a vignette of evil and tawdriness you’re looking for, you could hardly do better than Mark 6:14-29. But to return to the earlier point, what if it’s the case that what you’re looking for is a Gospel text to preach to God’s people? What if you’re aiming for an instructive passage on gospel hope and grace? This passage doesn’t fit the bill!
Maybe as good a way as any to approach this homiletically is to use this as an example of why the world needs the gospel to begin with. Yes, you could make the bottom line of this sermon something along the lines of, “And so we, too, need to be morally courageous in denouncing the evil we see around us also today.” You could use this as a bolster to the conducting of the various “culture wars” in which many today participate with holy relish and verve.
But suppose you prefer not to end your sermons with a moral “To Do” list in which people feel that the main facet of the Christian life is how well we behave and so earn our place in God’s good graces. Maybe one way to avoid preaching a finger-waving “Go and do likewise” message is to let the tawdriness of the story remind us that if ever we needed a reminder of why only the death of God’s Son can save this sorry old world, this story provides that reminder. The world is locked in endless cycles of death and destruction. We are quite literally hell-bent on messing up, on following the desires of our hearts into all kinds of dead-end alleys that lead only to suffering.
Something has to break through to this world of ours. Something has to snap these destructive cycles. Something has to narrate a different story and point in a different direction. Thanks be to God that we know what that “Something” is: it is the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord, the Son of God who became the servant of all. Because of Jesus, the bottom line of our lives does not need to be something like the sad spectacle with which this story ends as John’s devastated disciples sadly bury his headless corpse. Because of the gospel, the end of the story is finally resurrection, restoration, and the clarion cry, “Behold, I make all things new!”
As this sordid story makes clear, only the gospel has the power to let us hope for such a vision of restored humanity.
And it’s no accident that the very next story—and the next lection in Year B—is the story of Jesus’ being revealed as the Great Shepherd of his sheep who feeds his people with life abundant even in a desert waste of a place. That’s the hope that bookends this sad, sad story in the middle of Mark 6.
Why does Mark seem to back into this story about John the Baptist’s death? It’s an odd way to tell the tale. He does not tell this story at this juncture in his gospel because it fits chronologically. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that John’s death had happened some while back, well before Jesus sent out the twelve disciples for their first-ever solo ministry experiences.
It creates a bit of a jolt for the reader. Suddenly we hear that some people, Herod Antipas included, were concluding that John the Baptist was back from the dead. But when you hear that, you’re shocked.
“Dead!!?? John is dead? I didn’t even know he was sick! What in the world happened!?” And then it’s as though Mark says, “Oh, that’s right—I haven’t told you that part of the story, have I? Well, it went down this way . . .” and then Mark launches into this grim narrative.
Why does Mark tell it this way? Why did he plunk this grim narrative right in the middle of the otherwise highly encouraging story of the disciples’ success in ministry and the miraculous (and much-loved) story about Jesus’ Feeding of the 5,000? Those other stories are so positive, so full of light and hope. So why does Mark darken the narrative horizon here with a story that, all things being equal, really does not need to be relayed at this particular moment?
It seems as though Mark is not only darkening the atmosphere here but that he is quite probably intentionally darkening it. Maybe part of the reason is that Mark knows that the cross is the key to the gospel. That’s why in Mark Jesus’ true identity is perpetually hushed up until the moment Jesus is dead on the cross and the soldier nearby declares Jesus to be the Son of God. The so-called “Messianic Secret” pervades Mark until Jesus may safely be identified only after he is dead. Until then, Mark never wants people to run ahead or assume anything resembling a triumphalist air. We have to follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha if we are really going to understand who he is and what the gospel brings.
So maybe Mark is tempering things a bit by inserting this sad reminder of sin, evil, and death. Lest we readers conclude that ministry is only about the kinds of success and excitement the disciples encountered—and lest we think that it’s only all about getting our needs met (as in Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 that follows)—we are reminded that faithfulness can bring suffering and even death. We are reminded that what will finally cure what ails this sin-sick world will be something far more startling than healings, exorcisms, and miracles of feeding. What a world as sordid as this one needs will be, finally, the death of God’s beloved Son. Things are that bad in this world, as the story of John’s beheading may remind us.
One wonders at times how many bad things have happened in history because certain leaders dared not appear to be weak. In his most recent volume on “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” premiere biographer Robert Caro makes it clear that much of what drove and animated Lyndon B. Johnson was a deep-seated fear of never looking like a failure, of never being seen as a failure the way his own father had been.
So even though he was determined to become President of the United States one day, in 1959 and early 1960 LBJ doggedly did not put himself forward as a candidate for the 1960 Democrat nomination. He wanted it desperately but dared not say it out loud for fear that then if he did not get the nomination, people would look down on him. That was bad enough but Caro tells us that when his fifth and final volume on Johnson comes out, it will become clear that this fear of failure—the fear of becoming his father all over again—is also why so many tens of thousands of young men would lose their lives in Vietnam. Johnson could not back down—not even when backing down was the most eminently sensible thing to do as most people could see clearly.
In Mark 6, Herod has some of this going on, too. He can’t be seen as a failure. He can’t let go of power, even when that power overtakes his better judgment and results in an innocent man’s beheading. Ah, the tangled webs we weave . . .
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12B-19
Author: Stan Mast
There is no question what this text is about—the ark of the covenant. It is mentioned over and over, nine times in all. So is David; his name comes up even more. David brings the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem. That’s what this text is about. But, so what? Why was that so important back then? And what does this old story have to do with us today? To discover that, we’ll have to explore the parts of the story that the RCL leaves out of our reading. More on that in a moment. For now, let’s follow the ark as David brings it into his capital city.
All is well in Israel. They have a new King, God’s own choice to lead God’s chosen people. King David has conquered Jerusalem and established it as the strategically placed capital city of all Israel, renaming it “the City of David.” With help from his first international ally, David has built a splendid cedar palace. His family has grown as he added wives and they had children. And he has just won two overwhelming victories over Israel’s perennial enemies, the Philistines.
All that remains is to get the ark of God into the new capital city, so that it is not only the political but also the religious center of Israel. That ark was the centerpiece of Israel’s religion, the most visible symbol of the presence of God among his people, the place where “the Lord Almighty… is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark (verse 2).
King David has recently become the symbol of God’s presence with Israel (cf. II Samuel 5:10). But he knew the ancient tradition about the ark, so he realized that he needed to bring the ark into his city. Then that city and his kingship would visibly become the city and kingship of God. As one scholar put it, “When David brings the ark to Jerusalem, he literally brings God into the center of his kingship.”
Where was the ark? Well, that golden box has had a rough time of it recently. When Israel decided to use it as a centerpiece of its battle strategy in its war with the Philistines, marching into battle with the ark leading the way, the strategy backfired. The Philistines captured the ark and took it home, celebrating their victory over not only Israel, but also Israel’s not-so-powerful God. Or so they thought, until things began to go terribly wrong. Their main god was toppled from his throne and a terrible disease broke out among them. Quickly tracing this misfortune to the power of Yahweh, they sent the ark packing on a cart. It ended up in the home of Abinadab, where it lay gathering dust for quite some time.
David saw his recent victories over the Philistines as the perfect opportunity to bring the ark home, his home, Israel’s home, so he goes to the home of Abinadab. Imitating the Philistines and ignoring God’s specific instructions back in the olden days (Ex. 25:12-14 and Num. 4:5-6, 15), David puts the ark on cart and begins the hilly journey to Jerusalem, with help from Abinadab’s sons.
According to parameters of the reading given to us by the RCL today, what ensued was what one scholar called a “rolling party of joy surrounding the slowly moving ark.” “David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with song, and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.”
The next thing we hear in our reading is that David led the procession from the house of Obed-Edom to Jerusalem with great rejoicing. There is no hint in our reading of how the ark got to that house, nor of what terrible thing had happened before it got to that house. All we’re told is that David continued to celebrate the progress of the ark into Jerusalem with sacrifices and dancing so unrestrained that it offended his wife, Michal. More on that later.
Our story ends with the ark being placed in a specially designed tent and David offering numerous sacrifices before the Lord. With God firmly ensconced in the City of David, that is, with the presence of God visibly in midst of his people, David blesses them in the name of the Lord Almighty. He gives them food for a ritual feast of celebration and they all go home happy and blessed. As we used say in my childhood church, “Thus endeth the reading of God’s Holy Word.” God is home. David is King. Jerusalem has become the City of God. All is well.
Except, of course, that things are not at all well, not with Uzzah and not with Michal. I suspect the RCL skips their stories because they ruin the celebration of the main story. But I find that it is often in the dark parts of the story, in the prickly parts that make us scratch our heads in confusion that we are most vitally engaged by God. So, let’s probe these unpleasant parts of this pleasant story.
Uzzah and his brother Ahio were assisting in the process of moving the ark. They were familiar with it, as it had been in their home for some time. Thus, when the oxen pulling the cart stumbled and the cart wobbled and the ark looked like it might tumble to the ground, Uzzah naturally reached out his hand to steady it.
But, to everyone amazement and shock, God immediately struck Uzzah dead for touching the ark. Uzzah’s helpful act was seen by God as irreverent and God’s anger flared out at Uzzah. The poor well intentioned man died there beside the ark.
What the heck!? That’s what David said, or something like it. He was stunned, as all subsequent readers of this story are. And he was angry, angry at God, so angry that he cursed that place, giving a name that commemorated the outrageous thing God had done. What’s more, he was afraid, afraid of a God who would do such a thing. So, he stopped the procession to Jerusalem because he didn’t want such a dangerous object anywhere near him. “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?”
That’s how the ark came to reside at the home of Obed-Edom. It stayed there for 3 months. It might have stayed there in perpetuity if Obed-Edom hadn’t been so blessed by the presence of the ark of the Lord, which meant, of course, the presence of the Lord himself. When David heard about that blessing, he reconsidered his anger and his fear and brought the ark to Jerusalem, where he and his people were blessed by God for many years.
So, all’s well that ends well? Well, not really. We still have to consider this terrible event. What are we to make of it? It seems so out of character for the God who delivers his beloved people, the God who identified himself as Yahweh, the covenant partner of Israel, “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellions and sin (Exodus 34:6, 7).” How could such a God just obliterate a faithful Israelite for a well-intentioned action?
The only possible answer anyone has ever given (apart from leaving it out of the story as the RCL and many preachers do) lies in the next word in the above quote from Exodus 34:7—“Yet. Yet, he does not leave the guilty unpunished….” There is a “yet” to God, a something more, another dimension of his incomprehensible person.
That “yet” is, of course, his holiness, his wholly otherness, that prohibits mere humans from treating God as one of us, as “one of the boys,” as a buddy we can slap on the back and have a beer with. Someone has referred to the biblical tradition of the “absolute, untouchable, dangerous holiness of God.” We’ve seen it on Mt. Sinai. We’ve heard in the warning about the danger of seeing God’s face. We don’t like it, because it is off putting. But it is a reality.
That’s why the God who wanted to dwell among his people in order to bless them gave them very specific instructions about how to handle the visible symbol of his presence. It had to do with rings built into the ark through which long poles were inserted. Specially chosen priests hoisted the ark by those poles so that no one would touch the holy symbol of the Holy One. When Uzzah did touch, he violated the firm rules for how God’s people were to deal with the holy. And the result was exactly what everyone should have expected. Which makes us angry and afraid. I will return to that later.
Now we have to see how the story really ended—with two very angry people, David and one of his wives, Michal daughter of the late King Saul. When David had danced with all his might at the front of the procession bringing the ark into Jerusalem, his wife Michal was standing at a window observing the spectacle. And that’s exactly what she saw, a spectacle, the embarrassing spectacle of her husband, the King of Israel, leaping and twirling and shaking his booty right in front of everyone, including the slave girls of Israel.
How humiliating, how un-kinglike, how vulgar! Indeed, that’s the word she used—vulgar—as though there was something indecent, almost obscene about David’s dance. Maybe there was. Verse 14 says that David was wearing only a linen ephod when he danced. An ephod was the undergarment worn by the priests, a tightfitting, sleeveless, hip length garment that went under the more ornate robe. David has apparently cast aside his royal robe and danced in this undergarment. Some have speculated that as he danced, his genitals came into view, while others think it was simply a matter of his not being dressed in a manner fit for a King.
Whatever the case, she was outraged, and she let David know in no uncertain terms.
David’s celebrative mood was instantly transformed into royal rage. He informed her that he wasn’t a bit concerned about being dignified and kingly; he was simply being a joyful servant of his King. I’m not worried about what you or those slave girls think. I was dancing “before the Lord.” To David, this outlandish dance was nothing less than a demonstration of his thoroughly faithful commitment to Yahweh, a commitment so deep that he was willing to relinquish his respectability in the service of his God. He was truly a servant of the most high and holy God.
And that was the end of that, literally. Indeed, Michal never had a child, perhaps because they never had sex again at the insistence of either angry partner or perhaps because God closed her womb. With that childlessness, the line of Saul came to an end. Indeed, that lineage might have contributed to the intensity of the emotions between her and David. “My Daddy would never do something like that!” “Oh yeah, well God passed over your daddy and chose me. So, you can take your Daddy and… forget having any more children to further his line.”
Many a freewheeling preacher, wanting to encourage more full-bodied worship in an uptight church, has used this text to advocate for liturgical dance. That is not an abuse of the text, but it may miss the main point. The main point is seen when we compare these two prickly stories—the sudden death of a well meaning Uzzah and the long celibacy of a well meaning Michal. They both point to the issue of how God’s people are to approach and live in the presence of God.
When we come into the presence of the living God, we can’t be too careful and we can’t be too joyful. Uzzah was not careful enough, Michal was way too careful. Uzzah was unthinkingly presumptuous, while Michal was priggishly Pharisaical. On the one hand, we can’t approach God too casually, but on the other we can’t be so strict that we don’t experience the joy of the Lord. Don’t touch, but dance your head off! Respect the holiness of God, but rejoice in the grace and mercy of God.
All that is a bit hard to keep straight, which is why we can be glad that we have a sure-fire way to approach and live in the presence of God. The letter to the Hebrews takes all of these Old Testament rules and rituals and institutions and stories and says, “In Jesus Christ all of this has been fulfilled. Jesus is ‘better’ than any of those holy things.”
So, for example, Hebrews 4:14-16 describes Jesus as a High Priest who has gone through the heavens and through our temptations. Thus, he is a sympathetic high priest who can usher us into God’s presence. “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace in our time of need.” Hebrews 10:19-22 continues that theme of entering into the Holy Place (where the ark was kept) with confidence. “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith….”
Thus, in the end, this story with its joy and its anger, its good news and bad, invites us to approach the Holy God through his Son who has satisfied all the requirements of the Law and suffered all the penalties of the law. Remember that God is God and rejoice that God has become one of us, so that we can come to him with confident joy.
The story of Uzzah and its frightening parallels scattered through Scripture reminded me of the well-known bit of dialogue between Susan and Mr. Beaver in C.S. Lewis’ delightful tale, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mr. Beaver is introducing Susan to Narnia where Aslan rules. Speaking of Aslan, the magnificent lion who is the Christ figure in the story, Mr. Beaver says, “Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the Great Lion.” “Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he safe—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion….” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver… “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Further, reading this story brought to mind the ancient Jewish custom of not speaking the Name of Yahweh, in part because of the Third Commandment and in part because of stories like this one. That reminded me of the great villain in the Harry Potter series, Voldemort, “He Who Must Not Be Named.” He is pure evil, while God is pure good. But God must not be trifled with. His love is too fierce.
Author: Scott Hoezee
To be honest, Psalm 85 is a little all over the place. The first four verses reflect a time when God forgave Israel for some transgressions and restored them. But then the next set of verses seems to indicate Israel went backwards, sinned again, and so found itself under the wrath of God again. And then we get to the last sections that are our actual Lectionary selection but that may or may not flow smoothly from verse 7. The psalmist pledges to listen to God and seems more upbeat again about the promises of God and about God’s glory dwelling in the land.
Then we get to the very last verses which are the most well-known parts of this poem with its lyric language about love and faithfulness meeting up and righteousness and justice sharing a kiss. But honestly, these verses seem to come from out of nowhere. Where does the psalmist see this happening? Where is faithfulness springing up from the earth or where is righteousness both looking down from heaven and also going before God as a preparation for God’s very steps? Is this related to needing to be delivered from God’s wrath? Is it a hoped-for future?
Truth is, this psalm feels like a loosely stitched together pastiche of sentiments. A lyric thanksgiving for deliverance is followed by a plea for restoration followed by some pledge of faithfulness followed by an almost eschatological vision of an earth filled with shalom. So were one to preach on this whole psalm or even just the last portion as assigned by the Lectionary, how should the preacher proceed? The whole thing reminds me of the anecdote that claims that Winston Churchill once sent a pudding back to the kitchen complaining that the pudding lacked a theme.
Or might there be a way to view this psalm that brings it closer to home after all? What if we thought of this psalm’s mish-mash of thanksgiving, repentance, pledges of faithfulness, and wistful hopes to see a renewed creation as a reflection of just how many of our lives go sometimes? Sometimes we all feel like what is now referred to as “a hot mess.” We ricochet from being so grateful to God for his forgiving grace back into some failure that necessitates our receiving more grace.
This in turn is sometimes followed by a fierce determination to clean up our acts and maybe this in turn leads us to long for a day when we won’t have to keep repeating this same old sad cycle because God will be all in all. Love, faithfulness, righteousness, justice: they will all dance around one another in the sheer delight that just is God’s shalom when we ourselves but also the whole of creation will at long last be what God intended for the whole shebang in the beginning.
But we can take our cues as to what to long for from the vocabulary in especially verses 10 and 11. Clustered here are some of the most theologically rich words in the Hebrew language. The “love and faithfulness” that meet are chesed and emet, the latter being that #1 trait of God’s for which Israel gave praise again and again. It’s not just “love” but God’s overflowing lovingkindness, all that is within God that makes God inclined to be forgiving and gracious. And the second word is the word from which we also derive “Amen” and its other meanings include “truth” or that which is flat out right in the world. In the New Testament these would be “grace and truth” and how can one hear those words without thinking of John 1’s description of that which the Word of God made flesh abounded in: he was full of grace and truth.
Next up is righteousness and peace and here again are the loaded Hebrew words zedek and shalom. The righteousness here is the very core of who God is, it is every straight moral line in the universe, the standard against which crookedness is determined. And of course shalom is so rich a Hebrew word it is now a part of many languages in its untranslated form. It’s “peace” all right but not peace in the sense of an absence of conflict or the opposite of war. No, it’s shalom in the sense of everything in the world contributing to the wholeness and the flourishing of everything and everyone else in the world. It’s a creation in which every last thing that exists is webbed together to everything else in one vast network of flourishing and delight.
This is the world we long for: a world where grace leads the way, where truth is what most makes people enthusiastic, where everything that was ever meant to be right is all that there is and is linked together to everything and to everyone else in a world that adds up to just one constant reality: Shalom.
We all have our ups and downs. Psalm 85 maybe really does reflect our too-typical experiences in a world that is not yet perfect and nor are any of us. Not by a long shot. But God’s Word assures us we are on course for that better, lyric world sketched in the final verses of this poem. And as Christians we know this more certainly because the things longed for in this psalm’s final vision really did all come together in the person of Jesus the Christ. He is the one full of grace and truth, he is the one in whom righteousness and shalom co-exist in perfect harmony. And he is the one who died and rose again so that faithfulness really did spring forth from the earth on Easter morning and the righteousness of God’s One and Only is now paving the way for his every footstep as he leads us all to the better day that just is the Kingdom of God.
The seeming pastiche of ideas that Psalm 85 seems to contain—the perhaps spiritual ups and downs reflected in the experience of this psalmist—reminds me of a couple things. First, it reminds me of what the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has identified as the “Vertical Habits” that are at the core of Christian worship. When it comes right down to it, worship consists of really just a few basic elements including simple, almost child-like language that says “Thank You” and “I’m Sorry” and “I Promise.”
But something of the spiritual ups and downs reflected here also reminds me of writer Anne Lamott who once said that once you strip away all the specifics, her prayers to God come down to basically just two prayers: “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Author: Doug Bratt
Christians know that God didn’t create us to “eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we die.” Yet that popular philosophy raises a number of interesting questions. It makes us wonder how God’s people should evaluate the purpose of our lives. How do we think about why God has put us here?
Something in a sermon by the Rev. Fleming Rutledge stimulated my thinking about that issue. She said, “American Christians, for the most part, are not thinking theologically. To think theologically means to think from God’s point of view… We are thinking sociologically, politically, psychologically, experientially, nationalistically, spiritually and even religiously, but not theologically.”
Perhaps no biblical passage provides a better antidote to thinking from a human point of view than the text the RCL appoints as its Epistolary Lesson for this Sunday. In the middle of the summer of the year of our Lord, 2021, Ephesians 1 helps Jesus’ friends think about the purpose of our lives from God’s point of view.
This is one of those sweeping biblical passages whose grandeur nearly overwhelms us. But it may have also nearly overwhelmed the apostle Paul. After all, as a colleague says, Ephesians 1’s words seem to almost burst out of him like the air out of a popped balloon or like floodwaters spilling over a crumpled dam. In fact, our whole text is one long sentence in its original language. So we might picture those who first read it aloud as taking a deep, deep breath and then letting loose with a stream of 13 verses of nearly unbroken glory.
Yet one of Ephesians 1’s proclaimers’ greatest challenges it to help hearers at least begin to glimpse just how sweeping it really is. It, after all, covers immeasurable eons of time, beginning even before creation and ending with the return of Jesus Christ. And in between Paul insists that God planned in the fullness of time “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together.”
What’s more, the apostle invites a culture that looks at virtually everything from a human perspective to look at things as God looks at them. God is, after all, the initiator throughout this whole magnificent passage. Eight times “God/he” is the subject of a sentence. “We/you” is the subject of only four sentences. And in three of those sentences the people God creates in God’s image are little more than the passive recipients of God’s blessings. What’s more, in the fourth we read about the amazing results of receiving all of this grace.
Paul tells his Ephesian readers that God blessed, chose and predestined those whom God has adopted as God’s sons and daughters. However, he also insists that God has freely given grace to us, has lavished grace on us, has made known to us the mystery of the gospel and has redeemed us.
It’s hard for Ephesians 1’s proclaimers to lead our hearers on a full exploration of this biblical goldmine. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, one of Britain’s great twentieth century preachers, once preached on it for six months to his undoubtedly fascinated congregation.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson over a slightly shorter period – say, 25-40 minutes or so — will want to note a couple of things. Quite simply, as many commentators and preachers note, this passage is almost all about Jesus Christ. He, after all, is his adopted siblings’ link to our heavenly Father, the Creator. Christ is both the means and the goal of our salvation. In him all things hold together. Our text reminds us that Christ is what Len Vander Zee calls “the glue that binds the universe.” So it’s no wonder that our text makes both its hearers and proclaimers look so passive.
All that Jesus’ friends need and all that we’ve now received or ever will receive took place “in Christ,” as Paul repeats a remarkable eight times in this short passage. After all, God chose us “in Christ” before the creation of the world to “be holy and blameless in his sight.” Among other things, this means that God somehow linked Christ and us together in God’s mind.
In the mysterious mists of eternity, God graciously chose to make those who didn’t even yet exist God’s own children through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Though God knew that we would be unholy and blameworthy, God chose to make us holy and blameless.
That makes Ephesians 1 a song of grace for the whole world. It sends God’s people out to all spiritually darkened places and people that need the gospel of God’s redeeming love. It, after all, reminds us that God’s people don’t choose whom God saves. What’s more, while we also don’t know whom God has chosen, we do know that the faithful reception of God’s grace is a sign of that choice.
Those whom God has chosen God also adopts as God’s forgiven sons and daughters. That means that, among other things, God graciously gives us access to God so that we know that God will hear and answer our prayers for our best.
However, because of what Jesus Christ did, God also shapes and molds God’s dearly beloved people to be more and more like our Savior. That work of transformation may be painful. The Holy Spirit, after all, takes a wire brush to scrub away the dead skin of God’s adopted sons and daughters’ sins.
Paul reminds us, however, that God didn’t just choose to make us God’s children whom God transforms to be more and more like Jesus Christ. God also reveals to us some of God’s plans for the future. In sending Jesus Christ into our world, God has revealed a mystery to us.
While we often think of a mystery as something we need to solve, Paul simply refers to it as what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. By sending Jesus Christ, God shows God’s dearly beloved people how much God loves both God’s whole world and us. Christ’s coming shows that God plans to lovingly unite all things in Jesus Christ.
As Vander Zee notes, in Ephesians 1 God insists that because of God’s love and Christ’s victory over sin and death, history is not some meandering path towards nothingness. God insists that we aren’t some chemical accident that wandered out of oblivion and moseys back toward annihilation. God insists that we aren’t alone, unconnected and ultimately left to our own devices.
No, God’s plan is to finally bring all things under the loving rule of Jesus Christ. Our destiny is to finally experience perfect love between God and all of God’s children, as well as the rest of God’s creation. One day, Paul promises, God will unite all of God’s creation in God’s love, unity, peace and wholeness so that we can worship the Lord forever in the glory of God’s new creation.
How, then, shall God’s adopted sons and daughters live? Ephesians 1 invites us to begin by remembering that God chose us, made us God’s children and is moving us toward eternity in God’s glorious presence. In the words of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, we are God’s “saints,” God’s “sons” (and daughters!) and God’s “possession.” In the stirring words of the Heidelberg Catechism, we belong to God in life and in death, and in body and in soul.
As a result, God’s people seek to live to what verses 12 and 14 refer as “the praise of” God’s “glory.” Quite simply, God chose God’s people before we were even born to bring glory to God. The Westminster Catechism’s first question and answer summarizes this purpose beautifully: “What is the chief end of man? To glorify him and enjoy him forever.”
As a colleague notes, the glory of God is the revelation of God. So to glorify God is to serve the Lord by our words and actions as the gracious God that God is. To live to the praise of God’s glory is to orient our lives in such a way that they always honor not us, but the Lord.
However, to live to the praise of God’s glory is also to do all that we can to encourage others to live for God’s glory as well. Quite simply, God’s choice to adopt us as God’s children propels us to encourage others to recognize that choice in their lives as well.
God has done all the heavy lifting in choosing us, making us to be more and more like Jesus Christ and eventually drawing us into God’s eternal presence. That, however, is no excuse for passivity. Instead it motivates Jesus’ friends to bring that good news to the whole world.
A number of years ago Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko wrote about a man named Bill Mallory who traveled to India to discover the meaning of life. He didn’t, however, find it. On his return to the United States the disappointed Mallory saw a sign outside a Chevron gas station that read, “As you travel, ask us.” So each time he entered a Chevron station, he would say to an attendant, “I’m a traveler, and I’d like to ask a question. ‘What is the purpose of life’?”
Sometimes Mr. Mallory received answers like, “I’m new here” or “I don’t remember reading anything in the manual about that.” Mostly, however, he just got blank stares. Yet Mallory’s persistence made him famous among Chevron station employees. Eventually a Chevron district manager called him to suggest he put his question on paper and mail it, with a self-addressed envelope, to corporate headquarters.
A few weeks after Mallory did precisely that, he received a letter back from Chevron’s customer service department. So what was Chevron’s corporate headquarters’ idea of “the purpose of life? To have a company credit card, an application for which it sent to him.
While Royko’s story may make us smile, a credit card may actually be a good metaphor for the purpose of life for many North Americans. After all, we use credit cards to buy the bigger, better, faster, more beautiful things we so deeply crave that we easily assume give us the meaning we perhaps even more deeply crave.