July 08, 2019
Author: Scott Hoezee
If you are a baseball fan, you might remember a bizarre play in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series playoff between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers. The game was tied 2-2 in the 7th inning and Texas had a man on third base. The Toronto pitcher had just thrown a pitch to the Texas batter at the plate who did not swing at the pitch. The Toronto catcher then threw the ball back to the pitcher as usual except that he accidentally threw the ball into the batter’s bat, causing the ball to bounce out into the infield. The Texas player who was on third saw this, knew what it meant, and ran home to score a go-ahead run. Pandemonium ensued but . . . as it turned out, there is a rule that covers this. When the ball hits the bat—even if thrown by the catcher—it is a live ball and is in play. The runner on third was correct to run home and score the run. Only the keenest of baseball experts knew that that rule existed. It was Rule 6.03. Look it up!
(It’s too good not to watch again so you can view the confusion here.)
But there are always experts in rules around.
Take Luke 10. We begin with a lawyer. True, this man was not a lawyer in the contemporary sense of that term. Rather, this was a religious man trained not at law school but in a seminary. He became a lawyer not by taking the bar exam but by taking a Bible exam in which he had to demonstrate his nimbleness in stringing together long and complex verses about God’s rules for life. It was a perfectly legitimate area of scholarship but it did have one drawback: when you spend your life parsing rules, commands, statutes, and laws, you sooner or later conclude that the life of faith is all about doing certain things and not doing other things.
It really is like the person who devotes himself to learning every last rule of baseball: there is finally only one reason to pursue such a goal and that is gaining the ability to make judgments on what is fair and what is foul in an actual game. Understanding the infield fly rule or what constitutes a major league balk is totally boring if it is just a theory. That knowledge does you no good when you are shopping for groceries or shoveling snow off your driveway some morning. No, you need to see a game before you can use what you know. That’s why people who know the rules the best tend to be the same people who watch the most baseball!
So also with people like this lawyer: he had spent his whole career pondering laws and regulations. There had to be some payoff for knowing all this, and so life became a giant game in which lawyers were the divine umpires who made all the religious calls.
Given all of that, it is no surprise to hear this lawyer say to Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” If there is one thing the gospel makes clear, it is that in the long run, the answer to that question is “You don’t have to do anything.” On this occasion, however, Jesus lets that go because he knows that if he plays into this lawyer’s hand a bit, he can make a strong point. The lawyer asks what to do, and so Jesus goes straight for what he knew this man already regarded as the biggest “To Do” list in the world: the Law of God.
“Well,” Jesus says, “what is written in the Law? What’s your scholarly assessment of it?” Without missing a beat, the lawyer reels off Deuteronomy 6:5 as the summary of the whole Law of God. And he’s right. On another occasion when someone asked Jesus for the greatest commandment of them all, that same verse was also Jesus’ own answer. So in this situation, what else can Jesus say to this lawyer except, “You are absolutely correct. Do this and you will live.”
Of course, Jesus meant do this perfectly, which was his none-too-subtle way to force everyone back to grace again. No one who is honest would claim he has always led a life of perfect love. So if perfection is the requirement for admission into the kingdom, then each one of us is in very dire straits (unless there is such a thing as grace, that is).
This man unwittingly goes on to prove that very point. As a sharp lawyer, he paid attention to and defined every word. It is said that someone once came up to a lawyer and said, “If I give you $100, will you answer two questions for me?” The lawyer immediately replied, “Sure, now what’s your second question?” Similarly here, the lawyer is watching every word and so seeks a definition for the term “neighbor.” Preferably it will be a definition that will get him off the hook. You see, he is aware that there are people in this world whom he has not loved as a neighbor. But he could justify himself provided that the people he had unlovingly ignored hadn’t counted as his neighbors to begin with. (He’s banking on some obscure Rule 6.03 to get him off the hook.)
“Who is my neighbor?” the man asks. And his hope is that Jesus will say something to the effect (in Frederick Buechner’s wonderful embellishment), “Very well: henceforth a neighbor (hereafter referred to as the party of the first part) shall be defined as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence, unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereafter referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as the neighbor to the party of the first part and one is then oneself relieved of all responsibility of any kind to the matters hereunto appertaining.”
Well, if you are looking for a loophole to maintain the fiction of your perfect love for God and neighbor, then that type of reply would help a great deal indeed. The people who would then count as your neighbors would be restricted to a handful of folks whom you already know and probably also already love. But to state the incredibly obvious, that is not the answer Jesus gave. Jesus does not give a legal definition but instead tells a story.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem . . . .” That’s how he begins. The Greek text says anthropos tis, which could be translated literally as “a certain man” or could more colloquially be translated as “some guy.” Some guy, some anonymous fellow of indeterminate age, of unspecified ethnicity, and of unknown origins was taking a trip. He could be anybody, and just that is Jesus’ point: he is anybody. The lawyer probably wanted to interrupt Jesus right here. “Hold it, Jesus. What man are we talking about? Can you describe him? Is it anyone I might know? Is he Jewish? A Gentile? Gay, straight? Roman or Greek? Slave or free? What man?”
Even had the lawyer asked this, Jesus would not have answered. “A certain man, some nameless, faceless fellow was taking a trip and got mugged. They beat him half-senseless, took his wallet and then left the guy in his underwear, crumpled in the mud of a ditch.” The man is left like roadkill, and two religious figures treat him like roadkill, too, actually walking on the other side of the street to avoid seeing him, much less helping him. Jesus says the third passerby is a Samaritan, and at this point I picture the lawyer clenching his teeth. A Samaritan. Today it would be like hearing the word “Nazi” or “Taliban.” Samaritans, of course, were not like Nazis, but they were regarded almost that darkly.
Nevertheless, Jesus uses a Samaritan as the parable’s hero. He approaches the man in the ditch, does first aid in the field, and then takes the man to a hotel, where he puts him up, pays for everything, and promises to return in a day or two to see how he’s doing and again settle the account. We don’t even know in this story if the mugging victim ever regained consciousness to see who was helping him. But it doesn’t matter: the Samaritan is not thinking of himself. His focus is on the other person (and in this way he stands in stark contrast to the lawyer whose focus seems to be mostly on how good ole’ #1 is doing. Remember, Luke already told us that the lawyer was seeking to justify himself).
Now at this point you assume that Jesus will say, “You asked who your neighbor is, and now I’m telling you: your neighbor is that anonymous man in the ditch.” That would make sense for Jesus to say that. The man had asked, “Who is my neighbor” and so Jesus shows a faceless and nameless crime victim as his parabolic answer to that question.
But take very careful note: that is not what Jesus says.
Instead, Jesus turns things around and asks, “Now, which of the three passersby acted as a neighbor to the mugging victim?” This is a subtle shift in emphasis, but it packs a wallop! You see, we tend to think like this lawyer: we think that what we need to do is scan the society around us to see who out there counts as my neighbor. But here Jesus says that figuring that out is less important than making sure that you yourself act as a neighbor to everyone you meet. Who those other folks out in society are, how they treat you, what they look like, whether or not they seem like folks with whom you have some stuff in common is not nearly so important as making sure that whoever they are, you are their neighbor.
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. In the end Jesus says, “Nevermind that: are you a neighbor?” Of course, the two questions are related: the implication of the parable is that indeed, everyone is my neighbor and that is why I must be a good neighbor to them. But the shift in emphasis in verse 36 reveals again Jesus’ desire that we become bearers of love everywhere we go. If our hearts are full of grace, mercy, compassion, and love (for both God and everyone else), then we won’t ask, “Who is my neighbor” because it won’t matter: the question becomes irrelevant if you are yourself already being a neighbor.
In the Greek of Luke 10:30, the phrase “anthropos tis” is very generic. What is not generic in this story is the identity of the person who, in the end, even this conniving lawyer is forced to admit is the one who demonstrated mercy. So when you think about it, when Jesus says his famous line “Go and do likewise,” he is not propping up some gospel of works righteousness after all. No, he is telling this very proper, very Jewish, very pious man to go and be a Samaritan. He’s telling him that what the gospel is all about is becoming what you once despised. It’s becoming what you have never been and for a long time at least never even wanted to be. Coming from the lips of an incarnate Savior who let himself become human . . . well, such words gain a great poignance.
President Franklin Roosevelt spent a good deal of his life concealing the fact that polio had rendered his legs useless. FDR developed a battery of techniques to keep people from seeing him as physically helpless. He always wore dark pants cut long to conceal his leg braces–steel braces painted black so they’d blend in with his pants. Sometimes for a speech in a stadium the Secret Service would build a large ramp so that FDR’s entire car could drive up to the level of the lectern. For press conferences Roosevelt invited reporters into the Oval Office so FDR could remain casually seated at his stately desk.
Above all Roosevelt perfected the illusion of walking. He would lock his steel braces at the knee and then, with a cane in one hand and his other hand holding onto the arm of a Secret Service agent, Roosevelt would swing his legs from side to side, propelling him forward. This was tremendously difficult work which typically resulted in FDR’s shirt and suit coat being soaked with sweat. Yet all the while FDR smiled, bantered casually, and gave that characteristic toss of his head as though he were just taking a casual stroll.
Yet one day FDR compassionately did the exact opposite of hiding his disability. It happened while visiting a veteran’s hospital which had a ward filled with soldiers who had lost limbs to Nazi and Japanese bombs. On this occasion FDR insisted the Secret Service push his wheelchair very slowly through the ward even as the president displayed his useless legs. He wanted the amputees to see his vulnerability and so convey the message that if he could rise up from his own handicap to become president, their lives were by no means over despite the tragedy that had befallen them.
When we exercise compassion, we participate in the greatness of God who did for all of us wounded, incapacitated sinners what FDR did for those wounded men long ago.
Author: Stan Mast
Your average preacher will not choose this testy passage from Amos to preach on today. Amos is not a book to read if you are in need of easy encouragement. I cannot imagine the perpetually smiling Joel Osteen preaching on this text. Maybe you cannot imagine yourself doing that either. I mean, what can this ancient prophecy of judgment upon Israel possibly say to the contemporary church? Let me suggest some angles that might make this bristling text a real blessing for the contemporary church.
For one thing, though the compilers of the Lectionary were undoubtedly not thinking of this, our reading for today just happens to fall a week after the Fourth of July in the United States and a little more than two weeks after Dominion or Canada Day in Canada. In other words, this is a time when much of North American culture is focusing on country. Our text gives us opportunity to talk about God and country.
Can you preach a patriotic sermon on Amos 7? Yes, but not in the traditional way, not in the God-is-on-our-side sense. Indeed, Amos was accused of near treason for preaching his message of doom on his country. His hard patriotism was seen as conspiracy and he was asked to leave the country. “The land cannot bear [Amos’] words.”
But his message came from God, who addressed these hard words to “my people.” A truly patriotic sermon can take a country to task for the way it has strayed from the right way God has revealed. True love of country must always be subservient to true love of God, though your people might not be able to hear such a message in these politically charged times, especially if you are perceived as representing either the red or the blue side (in the US). But I encourage you to preach on this text, because it gives us a much-needed word from God for times like these.
There are three things in this text that must be emphasized if people are to hear the Word of the Lord about God and country: a plumb line measuring God’s people, a prophet who speaks for God, and a prophecy that will come true.
First, God measured his people with a plumb line. Amos, the seer, sees God standing beside a wall that is straight and true because it has been built with a plumb line. Two words of caution. If you are an American, you may be tempted to focus on the idea of a wall, but don’t go there. The text has nothing to do with a wall; it’s about the plumb line. In addition, many folks, especially children, won’t know what a plumb line is. So, show them one and explain how builders use one.
This picture of God standing in the midst of his people holding a plumb line is something you want your people to see. Now, you should know that the word translated “plumb line” is a rare one and scholars aren’t sure what it means. Originally, it had the sense of “tin,” which makes no sense. So over the year the rabbis developed this idea of a plumb line, which is used to insure that a wall is straight up and down, rather than bowed and crooked. Whatever the word meant originally, the text is clearly about the fact that God’s nation is out of true, bowed and bent, crooked and about to fall over, because they haven’t governed their lives by God’s right standard, the Law, the Torah.
In our multi-cultural world, there are as many standards for behavior as there are people. People do what is right in their own eyes, according to their fundamental beliefs. Democracies allow us to do that, in fact, encourage us to do that. So, the idea that there is one standard, one measurement of right and wrong, is hard to sell. That’s why Amos is so important, and so difficult. It reminds us that God has given us enough revelation of his will to enable us to build strong, straight, true lives. And God judges us by his standard.
By God’s standard, we have not built well. According to Amos, God has had enough. That’s one of the stern warnings in this text. It is part of a series of visions. In the first two God relents from the punishment he is sending on his sinful people. He sends a plague of locusts (verses 1-3) and a fiery conflagration (verses 4-6), but the prophet pleads with God not to destroy his people entirely. In each case, God “repents” of his intended punishment.
But in our text, God’s famous patience (Exodus 34:6,7) has run out; “I will spare them no longer.” In a nation that has no fear of God, this is an important, albeit unpopular message. God’s patience is long, centuries long, millennia long, but it has limits. There will come a time when God will spare us no longer, and even if our nation doesn’t believe that, it is crucial that the church does. We need to bear prophetic witness, not only to the unrighteousness and injustice that ruin a nation, but also to the very real judgment that God will finally visit on such a nation. God will relent and repent countless times, but when a people finally will not repent, God will act in judgment. That is not what God really wants, but in the end it is what must happen if God’s cause in the world is to succeed.
Amos is very clear and fearless. “The high places of Isaac shall be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.” Amos is talking about the alliance of religion and government, about an ancient form of civil religion in which religion serves the national interest and the nation relies on religion to shape the morals of the nation. God hates that, because both church and country must serve God and God alone. When religion and nation become idols, God will intervene and destroy idolatrous worship and government.
Amos had gone too far with his bold prophecy (and your people might think you have, too). So, Amaziah, one of the priests of those “high places and sanctuaries,” particularly the main sanctuary at Bethel, reports the words of Amos to King Jeroboam. Amaziah hears the prophecy as a conspiracy against Jeroboam and as a message that will kill the national spirit. That’s understandable. Over the course of my long ministry, I have often heard cultural and national leaders heavily criticize the prophetic voice of the church as unpatriotic, even treasonous. Think of the anti-war messages of the 60’s and the civil rights sermons of the last 30 years. Such an understanding of prophetic preaching led to threats of removing the church’s tax exempt status or seizing the sermons of firebrand preachers.
Amaziah took it a step further, telling Amos to not only shut up, but even to get out. “Go back to Judah—earn your bread there and do your prophesying there.” Amaziah exerts all his priestly authority (and presumably Jeroboam’s royal authority) to expel Amos from Israel, silence his treasonous words, and save the country from collapse under the weight of his words.
Then Amaziah exposes the crookedness at the core of Israel’s tottering walls. “Do not prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the King’s sanctuary and the temple of the Kingdom.” What a mouthful of blasphemy! “Bethel,” literally, “the house of God” has become the King’s chapel in the service of the kingdom of Israel. God’s house has become Jeroboam’s private little house of worship.
What this implies, of course, is that Jeroboam is in charge, not Yahweh. Religion is in service of the Kingdom, and that is why the Kingdom is rotten, filled with injustice and unrighteousness. As Solzhenitsyn said of atheistic communism, “Where there is no God, everything is permissible.” The same is true of a nation that uses God for its own purposes, that makes God a servant rather than the Master. Amaziah demonstrates how easy it is to mix up our agenda with God’s.
But Amos resists the effort to dismiss him and his words from the nation. He protests that he is not a prophet for hire, as Amaziah not so subtly suggests. Indeed, he is a prophet not because he was part of a prophetic school or because his father was a prophet, but because God snatched him from a farming life and commanded him to go to Israel with a hard word from God. You tell me to “shut up and get out,” but God told me to go and prophesy. Don’t try to silence a prophet. It will not go well with you.
Indeed, Amos turns Amaziah’s words back on him. Amaziah has claimed the authority of Jeroboam to expel Amos from Israel, but now Amos claims the authority of Yahweh to expel Amaziah from the blessing of Israel. Amaziah will die in a pagan land, his children will die by the sword of invaders, his property will be given to others, and his wife will be left with no way to support herself except prostitution. And although Israel will not be completely destroyed (as by locusts and fire earlier in the chapter), it will be sent into exile, away from their native, God given land. That’s exactly what happened some years later.
What good news!? Well, actually it was, if you were one of the poor in the land who had been victimized by the powerful. And it was, if you were a true believer like Amos who bemoaned what had happened to religion in his time. And it was, if you were a faithful Israelite who saw the crookedness everywhere and wondered when (or if) God would ever do anything about it. If you had completely bought into the corruption of a nation that had turned away from the true God, this prophecy is unalloyed bad news. But if you longed for the reign of God to make your nation pure and right again, it is good news to hear that God will act to redeem his people from their sins.
In the end, this message of judgment is part of the Good News. There is a God who has given us a standard for behavior that will make life right and true. That same God holds humans accountable for their crookedness. That God speaks into our human condition with warnings and promises that will come true. Further, that God acts in human history to make a people for himself who will be light for the world. What’s more, the God who sends his people into Exile will finally bring them back (cf. Amos 9:15). And from that returned remnant, God will raise up a Redeemer who will save his people from their sins by taking those sins on himself and by being exiled from the presence of God on a cross. Through it all, even a sinful people are “my people (verse 8).”
In Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, the section entitled “The Grand Inquisitor” is “the classic depiction of an institution (the church) that has things so well under control that it does not even need Christ anymore.” (The New Interpreter’s Bible)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In his book years ago The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom lamented the decline of true education in this nation’s colleges and universities. Bloom decried the way many professors had dispensed with the traditional canons of literature in favor of whatever was trendy and vogue. He mourned the fact that critical thinking and thoughtful discernment had been displaced by that great hallmark of postmodern purity: openness. The mark of being educated, Bloom sadly wrote, shifted from being a person with a sharply honed mind to being someone who is open to all and critical of nothing.
Meanwhile in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (released about the same time when Bloom published his work) Mark Noll lamented what he perceived to be a marked decline of education in also Christian circles. Noll gnashed his teeth over the fact that there were precious few evangelicals recognized as excellent scientists, political analysts, historians, economists, or writers.
In many ways things have gotten worse since Bloom and Noll wrote their tomes. Neither author in the 1980s could have foreseen the rise of social media and the shoot-from-the-hip (and don’t bother to think too long) style in which people now bandy about their opinions as if they were long-considered, well thought out concepts or precepts. Noll and Bloom could not have known that split-screen shouting matches on cable news outlets would replace careful argumentation and thought.
But that is why Psalm 25 is such a challenge. Because if there is one overriding theme or motif in this ancient poem it is this psalm’s presentation of the notion that the way to address the challenges of life is through further education and instruction. When I read Psalm 25, I find myself drawn to its utter realism. If you enter into the rhythms and patterns of these verses, what you will find is probably something akin to your own life. If you are like most people, including most Christian people, then the pattern of your piety is probably something of a see-saw: there are ups and downs; good, strong seasons and dry, weak seasons. Clearly this is the experience of this Hebrew poet, too. Just look at how the various parts of Psalm 25 are interspersed and woven together.
On the one hand there is lofty praise of God as the psalmist lifts his entire soul up to heaven, placing himself squarely before the throne of Yahweh in a fervent desire to praise God. On the other hand those words are followed by honest admissions of hardship, loneliness, and grief. Even those who lift the essence of themselves up to God are not guaranteed that they’ll never have a bad day.
On the one hand there are places in this psalm in which the psalmist expresses firm desires to learn about God and live according to his divine ways only. On the other hand those same verses are accompanied by other passages which unstintingly confess sins past and present (the Lectionary stops short of some of those confessional verses but they are a vital part of the larger psalm). The sins and follies of youth are laid out for God to see, but so are the struggles and setbacks of the psalmist’s present life. The life of faith is not always a bed of roses, and we don’t always come out smelling like a rose ourselves, either!
On the one hand there is in this psalm some truly soaring rhetoric on how God rewards the faithful, satisfying with good stuff those who fear God and who strive to live by the light of God’s covenant. On the other hand it is clear that despite this belief that God gives good things to his beloved ones, nevertheless this psalmist faces the traps and snares of his enemies.
There is here praise but also lament; piety but also pity; fond aspirations but also sinful failures; firm hope but also real hurt. A description of real life does not get much more honest or realistic than this!
Probably this psalmist had exactly real life in mind when he wrote this, too. Psalm 25 is one of several poems in the Hebrew psalter that is an acrostic, which means that each successive line of this psalm begins with the next letter of the alphabet. Since the Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two letters, Psalm 25 has twenty-two lines, the first one beginning with the Hebrew equivalent of the letter “A,” the second one starting with the letter “B” and so on down to the equivalent of the letter “Z” in the last line.
One of the reasons psalms got written as acrostics was to help people memorize the poem. In a time when no one had access to books or any other kind of printed material, people had to memorize everything. They could not just go and “look it up” in their own personal copies of the Bible. By composing a poem as an acrostic people would have an easier time memorizing it. The ABC pattern is a mnemonic device (which also might argue for reading the entire Psalm and not coming to a full stop at verse 10).
Perhaps this psalmist wanted to make sure that people could memorize his poem for two reasons: first, because he knew how well his poetic sentiments fit in with real life. This psalm is something worth carrying around with you as you lead a similarly real life of sin, suffering, hurt, and disappointment. But second, and just as importantly, this psalmist wanted to remind people that in and through all these varied experiences is ever and always the need to be instructed by God. The psalmist wanted people to memorize a poem about instruction by God because it is precisely the very act of memorization–of rehearsing something over and over until you make it a part of who you are–that is the key.
The solution to sin, the way through suffering, the method for clinging to God’s rich promises even during periods when you yourself don’t seem to be on the receiving end of those promises–in and through it all this psalmist clearly believes that receiving divine tutoring is somehow the answer. This may not be an obvious answer. This may not be an easy answer. Being instructed by God may not eliminate life’s pains or even, all by itself, tie off every loose end of life. But in receiving divine instruction there is somehow hope.
In the course of this poem just about every conceivable Hebrew verb and synonym having to do with instructing gets used at least once. The psalmist dug deep into his Hebrew thesaurus to pummel readers with a variety of words having to do with education. He asks God to instruct him in the course of his hymns of praise, in the course of his petitions for help, in the course of his pleas from the midst of life’s valleys. In fact, let’s scan through this poem specifically to note how frequently this motif pops up.
In verse 4 the poet talks about God’s ways and paths and asks God to guide and to show these divine roadways. In verse 5 God’s truth comes to the fore, and the psalmist pleas that God will guide to and also teach that truth. In verse 8 he begs God to instruct him and then in verse 9 petitions that God again guide and teach. Verse 12 features yet another request for instruction and verse 14 depicts Yahweh confiding his covenant and making known the truth of his love and faithfulness.
The posture of the faithful over against God is one of humble submission to the ongoing education God alone can provide. Unlike people today, and perhaps unlike people in many eras of history, this psalmist sees sin and turns to divine tutelage as the solution. He sees suffering and seeks to understand it based on what God can divulge through further instruction. He experiences loneliness and so decides to learn more about God’s covenant faithfulness as a way to parse those lonely times.
We think of the word “disciple” as meaning “follower,” and in a sense that’s true. But the original word used in the New Testament for “disciple” really means “student.” The original disciples hooked up with Jesus not merely to tag along behind him to see what might happen next. No, they apprenticed themselves to Jesus because they sensed that he was an interesting rabbi at whose feet they dearly desired to learn the great things he would impart to them, his inner circle of learners.
Disciples are students. They follow the Master not merely to be close to where the action is but to learn. But I wonder if we sometimes forget that today. It seems that maybe we’ve kept the follower part of our definition of “disciple” but have largely left the student part alone. We join a church and just kind of trot along with the crowd, coming to worship more to watch what happens than to do any hard thinking; turning worship into an event to make us feel a certain way more than a time to make us think a certain way.
But when worship becomes entertainment and sermons a spectacle to be observed more than a lesson to be chewed on and mulled over, then disciples become spectators not learners. It’s bad enough if we treat worship as a passive entertainment experience but if at the same time we also restrict our Christian learning to only that hour or two of worship on a Sunday, then we all but ensure that we will not often, if ever, assume the posture of Psalm 25. We will not make a part of our daily lives this psalmist’s example of trying to make sense of life’s richly varied experiences by being incessant and attentive students of God.
Psalm 25 was written as an acrostic to help people memorize it, carry it with them, make it part of the warp, woof, and weave of the everyday. But how well do we or our contemporaries do in seeing life as a learning experience at the feet of God?
Some time ago I read an article about memory in which the author pointed out that printing written materials was never designed to replace memory but to help us memorize better. But over time, precisely because we have so much that is already written down, the act of memorizing has waned. This is also why we don’t even know the telephone numbers of people we call all the time: they are stored in the phone’s memory so you just hit “Jill” such that if you ever need to call Jill from a phone that is not yours . . . These days if you want to win “Jeopardy” on TV like the recent champ Mr. Holzhauer, you had better know a lot in your head. For most of us, though, we don’t need to remember stuff: we can always look it up on line after all.
So it goes with many things, including Scripture. When you’ve got a half-dozen Bibles scattered around your house, you assume that you have such ready access to the Bible that you don’t need to spend much time memorizing its texts or meditating on them. But even as storing a number into the memory of your phone is very different than storing it in your own brain, so also the words in an unopened Bible on the shelf next to the dinner table: those words are not going to float across thin air and somehow become part of who you are. Making them part of your very self requires reading, reflecting, memorizing.
It means being a student of God, in short.
Author: Doug Bratt
When my family and I first moved to the Washington D.C. area to serve the church I pastor, a wise colleague told me to read a lot of books. He said members of area churches like it when their pastors quote books. “They’re smart people who like to learn things,” my colleague told me.
The intellectual hunger of the members of the church I pastor is one of the many things that make my ministry with and to them so enjoyable. Yet when I think about what I see God doing in our church, knowledge is no longer what I first think about. I’m mainly impressed by her service to God and love for her neighbors.
Paul begins his letter to Colosse’s Christians by telling them that when he prays for them, he always thanks God for them. Why? Because they’re so smart or wise? No, the apostle thanks God for the Colossians’ faith and love that are growing out of the fertile soil that is their hope in Jesus Christ.
Now that doesn’t necessarily mean the Colossian Christians like each other. Paul thanks God because God is replacing the their anger and lies that divide groups with gentleness and forgiveness. Colosse’s Christians are learning to lovingly accept even people who come from different races, backgrounds and cultures.
That love along with their Christian faith that receives what God offers in Christ Jesus grows out of the gospel. The gospel isn’t, after all, just a set of truths about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It’s also a power through which God works. The gospel, says Paul in verse 6, bears fruit and grows. It produces not just a new understanding of who God and God’s adopted sons and daughters are, but also the new creation that is faith, love and hope in action.
Paul has probably never met the Colossian Christians to whom he writes our text. He’s only ever heard of them from his colleague Epraphas who planted their church. Yet what Paul has heard about the Colossian Christians fills him with thanksgiving that he pours out in his prayers to God. So is there any reason for him to keep writing to the Colossians?
Those who proclaim Colossians 1 might do well to talk about the faith and love that’s concretely growing out of our hearers’ own hope in Jesus Christ. We might mention the ways we see they’re loving and caring for each other in their church, neighborhoods, workplaces and communities.
Yet the apostle doesn’t just pray his thanks to God for the Colossian Christians. He says he also never stops praying for them. Verse 9’s “We have not stopped … asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will…” at least suggests that something is still lacking in Colosse’s Christians, in spite of all the amazing things they’re doing. After all, you don’t need to fill a gas tank that’s already full of gasoline.
So Paul is at least suggesting the Colossian Christians don’t yet fully know God’s will. Though they’re faithful, loving and hopeful, they aren’t yet completely wise or understanding. Colosse’s Christians still need more wisdom.
However, the apostle also implies this is something they can’t do on their own. After all, he prays that God will fill them with the knowledge of God’s will. That suggests the Colossian Christians need God to give them complete spiritual wisdom and understanding.
God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally want to hurry to consider what God wants us to do. However, Paul reminds us that before we can do any of that, we first need God to act in and on us.
On Pentecost the Church celebrated the Holy Spirit’s equipping of Jesus’ followers to boldly speak the gospel in a variety of languages. We remembered how Peter insisted God pours out that Spirit on all who call on God’s name through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit equips us, he adds, to prophecy, dream dreams and see visions.
Now Paul describes to Colosse’s faithful brothers and sisters in Christ the tools the Spirit gives us in order to speak and obey God’s Word in that way. The Holy Spirit graciously fills us with the knowledge of God’s will, as well as spiritual wisdom and understanding.
Here, really, is Paul’s first allusion to why he writes to Colosse’s Christians. Heresy seems to have grown deep roots in their young church. So the apostle is trying to dig up those roots by disproving that false doctrine. Yet Paul also understands he can’t do that by himself. So he tells the Colossian Christians he’s praying God will fill them with the knowledge of God’s will, as well as spiritual wisdom and understanding.
Jesus’ followers long to live what Paul calls in verse 10 “a life worthy of the Lord.” We want to bear fruit in every good work, grow in the knowledge of God, as well as endure and be patient. Yet Paul insists that begins with God’s filling us with the knowledge of God’s will, spiritual wisdom and understanding. While one key to growing in godly speech and behavior is knowledge, they don’t grow out of just any kind of knowledge. They grow out of the “knowledge of” God’s “will.”
That’s something our Christian ancestors perhaps understood better than we do. They talked more about doctrine and theology than we do. Yet our Christian ancestors sometimes stressed a kind of intellectual Christianity that focused on ideas and doctrines but neglected Spirit-empowered love.
Now, however, we’ve perhaps swung too far away from that emphasis on the content of our Christian faith. Modern Christians sometimes tend to focus on experience and relationships. It’s almost as if we’ve come to assume we grow through spirituality, not through knowledge. This Sunday’s RCL Epistolary Lesson calls God’s adopted children back to a kind of middle way that centers on the true knowledge that God graciously gives us.
The apostle identifies some of that essential knowledge in verse 13. There he talks about our rescue from “the dominion of darkness.” In doing so the apostle reminds us that while God created us for a faithful relationship with himself, we’ve made ourselves Satan and his allies, sin and death’s slaves. God, however, Paul continues, “brought us into the kingdom of the Son” God “loves.” In other words, God has freed God’s dearly beloved children to love and serve the Lord through his beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
Of course, God graciously chooses to use us to expand our understanding of God’s will. So God’s adopted sons and daughters read and study the Bible, as well as participate in the sacraments. We learn and sing Christian songs and hymns. We read the Christian classics like C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity and Augustine’s Confessions. We learn and recite our creeds and confessions. Yet none of that will help complete our understanding of God’s will without God’s help.
However, we don’t need God to complete our knowledge of God’s will so we can win Bible trivia contests. We want God to expand our knowledge so that we can live more Christ-like lives. God wants to use our right knowledge of God’s to lead to right behavior.
Consider, after all, how some wrong ideas about God might lead to wrong behavior. If, for example, God is not somehow the creator of everything that is created, then we may assume that it doesn’t matter how we treat the creation. And if God hasn’t saved our whole selves to serve God and each other, it doesn’t matter how we use, for example, our bodies or money.
In verses 10 and 11 Paul insists full knowledge of God’s will produces all sorts of tasty “fruits.” Living lives worthy of the Lord. Pleasing God in every good way. Doing every good work. Great endurance and patience.
Yet Paul basically ends the text the RCL appoints for this Sunday by suggesting that complete spiritual wisdom and understanding primarily produces thanksgiving. When we learn more about God and God’s will we become more fully thankful for every good thing God gives us.
In fact, the apostle repeatedly mentions thanksgiving to Colosse’s Christians. It doesn’t just basically bracket our text. Thanksgiving is also one of this letter’s central themes.
Paul most longs to see in the church gratitude to God for the extraordinary things God has done in Jesus Christ. He longs to see the sign of the healthy Christian life that is gratitude to God for the great things God continues to do in the world and in our lives.
Apparently Garrison Keillor once said we’d all be better off it we started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. Yet our strong sense of entitlement makes us reluctant to take that advice.
The television show “Family Guy’s” creator Seth McFarlane booked a seat on 9/11 on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. But because he arrived late at the airport, he missed his flight that hijackers flew into the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center.
Yet when someone asked him if that made him think of the rest of his life as a gift, McFarlane answered, “That experience didn’t change me at all. It made no difference in the way I live my life. It made no difference in the way I look at things. It was just a coincidence.”
Lew Smedes defied the 20-1 odds of surviving lungs spattered with blood clots. When his doctor congratulated him, he didn’t feel particularly grateful, partly because he hadn’t thought at all about dying.
A couple of nights later, however, Smedes felt himself what he called “seized with a frenzy of gratitude.” He recalls, “My arms rose straight up by themselves, a hundred-pound weight could not have held them at my side. My hands open, my fingers spread, waving, twisting, while I blessed the Lord above for the almost unbearable goodness of being alive on this good earth in this good body at this present time.”