July 03, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
If you are a baseball fan, you remember that bizarre play in Game 5 of last October’s playoffs 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.
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.
“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. God is a compassionate giver of life whose compassion so floods his heart that it sometimes overwhelms what even God suspects may be his own better judgment! Of course, these days compassion is a darling trait in the “back to virtue” and “return to character” movement. Politically we now hear about “compassionate conservativism.” The Century 21 real estate folks recently ran an ad in which they claimed that the realty agents with the golden jackets really care. “It’s not just listings, it’s listening by the real estate company with compassion.”
But these casual references to compassion probably serve to empty the word of its real meaning. So what is compassion? Neal Plantinga defines it as a genuine distress over another person’s suffering accompanied by a firm desire to relieve that suffering (and then to actually relieve it if possible). Compassion involves a gut-level, emotional response to another’s hurt followed by a desire to relieve the person of that hurt.
Author: Doug Bratt
Amos is tough and blunt. He says things no one wishes to hear today any more than they did almost 3,000 years ago. He’s enough to make even the boldest 21st century preachers and teachers shy away from both his message and him.
In the text the Lectionary appoints for this particular Sunday, God shows Amos a vision of God standing near a wall that had been built straight. There God holds what most modern translations call a “plumb line” (8). While Amos 7’s preachers and teachers may be tempted to go to great length to describe a plumb line, it’s probably enough to simply say it helps to measure a wall’s straightness.
Of course, the Lord is more concerned with moral than physical “straightness.” So God speaks of setting “a plumb line among” God’s “people Israel.” God’s conclusion? Israel is “out of plumb;” she’s morally crooked. She deserves to be knocked down because she has failed to keep her part of God’s covenant with her.
Yet Israel assumes God is still on her side. God even seems to reinforce that by referring to her in verse 8 as “my people.” Yet that relationship between God and God’s people is strained, not by God but by Israel’s actions. God hasn’t rejected Israel. Israel has rejected the Lord.
Amos 7 doesn’t explicitly describe how Israel has proven to be God’s unfaithful covenant partner. For that preachers and teachers need to turn to other parts of the prophecy. They might refer to Amos 5:10-12’s: “You hate the one that reproves in court and despise him who tells the truth. You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain … you oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”
Yet Amos 7:13 also at least hints at some of Israel’s crookedness. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, one of the northern kingdom’s major shrines, speaks it. Yet while he’s a priest, he makes it clear that he derives his authority not from the living God, but from his king. Amaziah is more interested in Jeroboam’s security than the truth of God’s Word. In fact, the first person to whom the priest speaks in this text is not Amos with whom he so sharply disagrees, but his boss, King Jereboam.
Amaziah claims Amos is trying to undermine both the monarchy and Israel. He lies by claiming the prophet is raising a “conspiracy” against Jereboam. On top of that, Bethel’s priest enigmatically warns his king, “the land cannot bear all his words” (10). It’s not clear whether he means Amos’ words may lead Israel to repentance, destruction or something else. It is clear, however, that Bethel’s priest’s first priority is not the living God or God’s Word. So while Amaziah recognizes Amos as a “seer” (12), he does his best to silence the prophet or at least redirect his criticism to other people.
What’s more, Bethel’s priest calls Bethel, one of the northern kingdom’s major shrines, “the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom” (italics added). So to one of Israel’s religious leaders, Bethel is not God’s sanctuary or temple. It’s Jereboam and Israel’s. Amaziah claims what actually belongs to God for his king and country.
This offers bold preachers and teachers an opportunity to reflect on modern temptations to confuse civil and genuine religion. While that danger seems to be fading in many western countries, it seems alive and well in the United States. What does it mean that citizens of both their country and God’s kingdom owe their primary allegiance to God? How does the state try to claim for itself what properly belongs to God? How do Christians sometimes willingly surrender to our countries’ claims on us?
If our hearers don’t think these are important issues, invite them to hear Amaziah, Bethel’s “priest” whose name sounds similar to God’s prophet’s. Their messages couldn’t be less similar. Amaziah basically tells Amos to “Shut up! Pack your bags and message and crawl back under whatever southern rock you crawled out from under!”
In verse 9 God prompts Amos to tell crooked Israel that God will destroy her religious and political “high places.” But with verses 16 and 17 Amos’ warnings become far more personal and, arguably, more ominous. When Amaziah demands that Amos stop prophesying against Israel, Amos responds by warning that God will punish Israel’s wives, sons and daughters. What’s more, he warns Amaziah that he’ll suffer the humiliating fate of dying in a pagan land. And to top it all off, God’s prophet warns God will send Israel, whose priest tried to chase Amos out of the land, out of the land God had promised to give Israel into exile.
While we sometimes think of much of verses 16-17 as God’s punishment, we might also think of Israel’s fate as one she chooses for herself. When religion no longer speaks to issues of sexuality, what’s to stop anyone from being as sexually promiscuous as a prostitute? And if religion no longer speaks to issues of violence, does anything restrain our sons and daughters from going to and dying in war the way Amos promises Israel’s will? What’s more, God’s prophet warns Bethel’s priest he’ll die in a pagan land. Yet might we not argue Israel has already become a pagan land? Is it too much of a stretch to imagine Amaziah dying in pagan Israel?
Is there anything God’s 21st century adopted sons and daughters can learn from this ancient prophecy? Those who discover those truths may need to be bold in order to proclaim it. After all, God’s Word today is no less unsettling than it was in Amos’ day. Those who try to proclaim that Word may feel pressure to “tone it down” or preach and teach it somewhere else.
Among other things, like so much of the Old Testament, Amos 8 reminds God’s people that God is very much present with and to them. That presence is one of grace. However, it’s also of an expectation of the appropriate faithful response to God’s amazing grace. God is still holding a “plumb line” to the walls that our lives. God is, in other words, paying very close attention to what God’s people say, do and even think.
Amaziah’s response to God’s Word delivered by Amos also warns those who claim to preach and teach that Word. Some of us play similar roles to those played by priests like Amaziah. Yet we’re also tempted, like Bethel’s priest, to try to silence or redirect God’s Word, especially when it hits too close to home. People also still long to hear our own desires instead of God’s will affirmed by preaching and teaching. Only people who, like Amos, seem willing to give up nearly everything should even contemplate preaching and teaching God’s sometimes judging Word.
Finally, however, when we read, preach and teach Amos 8 in the light of God’s work in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, we’re amazed to see how much we escape through Jesus Christ. He experiences in his own person the destruction and exile God promises Israel. Jesus Christ, in a sense, falls by the Roman sword for our sakes, for our forgiveness. We escape Old Testament Israel’s fate only because of God’s amazing grace manifested to us in Jesus Christ and received by us through faith.
Bethel’s priest Amaziah essentially tries to shift the blame for Israel’s problems onto God’s prophet Amos. It’s reminiscent of Elif Shafak’s book, The Architect’s Apprentice’s description of the reaction to a plague that struck 13th century Istanbul.
When that plague struck, people initially accepted the blame. “We trespassed,’ said the imam. “Sin entered the world,” said the priests. “Repent we must,” said the rabbis. And the people did, thousands of them.
“Then, as if in unison, people stopped saying it was because of them. It was others who had brought this upon the city; others with their impiety and debauchers. Fear turned into resentment; resentment into rage. And rage was a ball of flame you could not hold in your hands too long; it had to be thrown at someone.”
So in late July a mob entered Istanbul’s Jewish neighborhood looking to throw the ball of flame that was its rage at its Jews. However, the Jewish residents heaved the ball of flame that was their rage at Istanbul’s Christians.
Author: Stan Mast
On first reading (and, I confess, second and third as well), I could not imagine preaching on Psalm 25. I mean, it jumps all over the place and has no easily discernible preaching theme. In one place it seems that David has a guilt complex, in another a persecution complex, and in still others an inferiority complex and perhaps a psychosomatic disorder. Everything is wrong for poor David. No wonder it is widely considered something of an ugly duckling among the Psalms. It has all the attractiveness of (I must admit) my own prayers. Indeed, maybe that’s the best way to approach it. Psalm 25 is the spontaneous, unrehearsed, non-artistic prayer of everyman and everywoman.
But upon further reflection and with the help of several expert exegetes, I’ve discovered that Psalm 25 is really a lovely swan, a very carefully crafted work of art. For one thing, it is an alphabetic acrostic; every new verse beginning with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Why would David go to all that trouble? Well, if we study the Psalm carefully, we’ll find that he uses nearly every available Hebrew word for instruction. That’s the purpose of the Psalm—to instruct people in how to pray when they are in trouble. The alphabetic acrostic was designed to help them remember the ABC’s of prayer, a bit like the acronym ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication) that has helped many a high school student learn to pray less selfishly.
The petitions in each verse were chosen to fit that alphabetic pattern, which helps to account for the seemingly random character of the prayer. But the end result is not an artificial prayer; in fact, the combined requests represent the great concerns of the ordinary believing life. The acrostic “has been used to the poet’s purpose to create a genuine and poignant prayer that gathers up the needs and hopes of the people who live in the midst of opposition to their faith, facing the dangers of history, aware of their sinfulness, but trusting the Lord and living in hope of the Lord’s salvation.” (James Luther Mays) Or as the hoary old commentator Delitzsch put it: “it contains nothing but what is common to the believing consciousness of the church of every age.”
What’s more, there is a discernible chiastic structure in Psalm 25 that helps us find its central theme. It looks like this:
A vss. 1-3 contrast: the righteous/enemy
B vss. 4-7 request for instruction
C vss. 8-14 covenant relationship
B’ vss. 15-18 request for deliverance
A’ vss. 15-21 contrast: the righteousness/enemy
Karl Jacobson summarizes the effect of this chiastic structure. It “seeks to guide the reader from (or perhaps through) the stark contrasts of reality—the righteous and the enemy—and the fearsome threats of shame and treachery. The two fold structure of acrostic and chiastic deftly guides the reader/prayer to the promise/reality of the covenant cradled at its center.”
So, how do we preach this lovely swan of a prayer that centers on covenant? In spite of its art (or perhaps because of it), it is still so filled with such disparate stuff that it’s hard to decide what to focus on in a sermon. So, let’s try an inductive approach, simply walking into the Psalm verse by verse until we find something we can focus on in a sermon. The very first thing we hit in our search is this passionate opening plea that reveals both the posture and the heart of prayer. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”
One can picture David with upraised arms, reaching up to God, holding his soul, (in Hebrew) his nephesh, his very life in his hands. Psalm 25 instructs us that prayer is not first of all petition, or thanksgiving, or lament, or confession, though all of those things are important aspects of prayer. Prayer is, at its heart, holding up our lives to God, because all of life depends on God. As David says next, “in you, I put my trust, O God.” A sermon on Psalm 25 could start and stop right there by contrasting David’s prayer with the way most of us try to control our own lives.
But David moves on to plead with God about his enemies. This concern with enemies is, understandably, a constant theme in the Psalms, whether they spring from the life experiences of David or from the national experience of the Exile. In the Exile, Israel was overcome by her enemies, in spite of her trust in her covenant God. That was a deeply embarrassing thing; they were shamed by their defeat and deportation. So praying about enemies who might put us to shame has always been a part of prayer.
Is it today? As I think about my life, I’m not immediately aware of any personal enemies. But if I think deeper, I can identify people or organizations that are deeply hostile to my biblically oriented faith and life. And reading the news I can easily spot religious fanatics and philosophical movements that would love to wipe out the church of Jesus Christ. As I think about my human enemies, I recall Paul reminding us that our battle is not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers, with the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. So, a sermon on Psalm 25 could focus on how to pray about enemies.
Or, we could focus on that theme of shame and its frequent companion, guilt. I’m not at all sure that David is making that modern day distinction between guilt and shame. You know, guilt is about what we do, whereas shame is about who we are. But, quite apart from modern psychology, David is very concerned about shame, and he clearly feels very guilty his sins, even those of the distant past. “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you are good, O Lord.”
Note how David asks God to have a selective memory; don’t remember my sins, but do remember me. That would be rich sermon fodder. It might be helpful to explore guilt and shame with a post-modern generation that feels little of the former (because of a moral relativism that doesn’t recognize the absolutes of God’s law) and is overwhelmed by the latter (because a history of broken families has left them with deep questions about self-identity and self-worth).
But I think that the most fruitful avenue for preaching (and the one most true to the Psalm itself) is this theme of instruction. “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me. Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.” Not content with deliverance from enemies and forgiveness of sins, David focuses on learning and doing God’s covenantal will (“the demands of the covenant”).
Put theologically, David knows that being part of God’s covenant of grace involves more than justification and deliverance. It also includes sanctification, a life in which “integrity and uprightness protect me…. (verse 21)” We cannot do God’s will if we don’t know it. So prayer is incomplete without a fervent plea for instruction. With Israel, we know that God wants us to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5, 6).” But we genuinely don’t know what that involves in a morally gray world.
It might be helpful in your sermon to explore the number of spheres in which we are confused about God’s will. Politically, which party/candidate best reflects God’s will for society? Economically, what is the best way to organize the markets? And what does God want us to do with our money? Relationally, how must we deal with raising our children? What should we do with a troubled marriage? Socially, how can we best help the poor, the marginalized, the sexually different? Whether you use the Ten Commandments or the Seven Deadly Sins, you should help your congregation see our desperate need for God to teach us his way.
But don’t miss the fact that the central obligation of the covenant is to “walk before me and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1) Covenantal living is first of all God centered living. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” And this is where we need God’s help the most. We do not know how to center our lives on the invisible God. And we’ll never find out by just thinking hard, by investigating religious phenomena, by experimenting with spiritual practices. While those things might be of some help, only God can help us live God centered lives.
David insists that this instruction cannot be earned; it is the gift of God’s grace. “Show me, teach me, guide me…, for you are God my Savior.” All of salvation is a gracious gift, including the part we have to work at. So we must pray about our sanctification. And God will answer, because of who he is. “Good and upright is the Lord…. All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful, for those who keep the demands of the covenant.”
This blend of demand and gift, of human responsibility and divine grace, addresses the “easy believism” of relativistic postmodernism and the strict legalism of conservative right wing ideology. God’s covenant makes demands on us, but only God can show us the way to live by those demands.
That way is the way of the Spirit of Christ, as Paul said so definitively in Romans 8:1-4. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so God condemned sin in sinful man in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit.”
Every sermon should have one riveting image to capture the imagination of the listeners. As I meditated on this Psalm, I kept seeing an image that is hanging all over my home. It is the image of a path through wild country. Whenever my wife and I vacation in the mountains of Colorado or the desert of Arizona, she takes striking pictures of lonely paths leading off into the distance between snow covered peaks or cactus filled wasteland. That is a picture of “the way of the Lord” for which we pray in Psalm 25.
Recently I received a request to preach at a summer vacation chapel on the shores of Lake Michigan. They asked me to address a theme. I’ll share their request because it may help you think about the prayer for instruction in Psalm 25. “Many people get the idea that one can ‘just believe in Jesus’ and then really do nothing else. Many Christians have so emphasized the need for conversion, for the opening act of faith and commitment, that they have a big gap in their vision of what being a Christian is all about. It is as though they were standing on one side of a deep, wide river, looking across to the further bank. On this bank you declare your faith. On the opposite bank is the ultimate result- final salvation itself. But what are people supposed to do in the meantime? Are there bridges between the two? The bridges in question go by many names, and one bridge is named character.” Source: N.T. Wright. After You Believe. Why Christian Character Matters.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Paul is just getting warmed up. He is about to launch into one of the single most exuberant sections in any of his letters (this will be next week’s Lectionary text) and go on a verbal tear of breathtaking proportions. But first things first: he needs to greet, give thanks for, and give encouragement to the Christians in Colossae who would read this letter. This is pretty standard letter-writing fare for Paul (with the exception of the Letter to the Galatians, which, as we noted a few weeks ago, skips the usual epistolary niceties in order to get right down to some serious scolding). But even within the standard format, Paul sets the agenda a bit for the letter to come in the face of the specific circumstances he knew any given congregation was facing.
In scholarly circles there is a fair spectrum of ideas as to what the Colossian situation was. It appears, however, that the besetting temptation of the Colossians was a form of Gnosticism mixed in with Jewish mysticism and high-flying spiritual visions. The Gnostic part claimed that our physical bodies—and therefore what we do with them—are not all that important. This was a convenient thing to believe in the first century Greco-Roman world as it was awash in sexual perversions and prostitution and all kinds of practices that could make even some contemporary societies look tame by comparison.
But the physical was unimportant compared to working your way up through the spiritual realms via various archons who could provide the secret words that would give you access to the pleroma or the fullness of spiritual ecstasy and enlightenment. This Gnosticizing Judaism appears to be what a lot of ancient religious ideas appear to have been (and what not a few contemporary religious ideas seem to be); viz., a real hodge-podge of cobbled together beliefs and ideas borrowed from all over the religious spectrum. The combination of downplaying the importance of the physical realm (and of our physical bodies) with secret spiritual enlightenment led to practices by also those who confessed to be Christ’s followers that were very much of the old order of things.
In Colossians, then, Paul is going to work overtime to make it clear that Christ is the pleroma / fullness of God and people should not look elsewhere or into secret realms to find what Jesus so clearly already is. What’s more, the old self and its practices will need to be taken off like a dingy moth-eaten sweater in favor of putting on the shining new garments of Christ and of his holy righteousness.
In these opening verses Paul sets the stage well for what is to come. Yes, he is profoundly grateful for the Colossians, for their faith, for their efforts to live a God-glorifying life. Paul gives thanks for them but also is praying for them, recognizing they face some long societal odds in staying true to the Gospel. “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.”
It is not secret words of knowledge the Colossians need but the knowledge and wisdom God alone can and will give by the Spirit. Embrace that knowledge, Paul urges. But then Paul immediately goes on: knowledge like this does not exist for its own sake or for some ethereal, heady purpose. No, right knowledge issues in right behavior—orthodoxy leads to orthopraxis. Knowing the truth of the Gospel leads to a life worthy of the God who gave us his only Son so that we can bear fruit. Knowledge issues in deeds. Wisdom yields righteousness. There is no separation of the physical from the spiritual. The Son of God who was made flesh is interested in what we do with also our own flesh, and if righteousness and holiness do not show up in every aspect of our lives, something is wrong.
But it is even more dramatic than just that. “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” What we have in the work of Christ is cosmic in scope. We have spiritually and literally been moved from one realm to a whole new place, from darkness to light. “In Christ” is Paul’s favorite two-word summary for the new reality Christians have as a result of baptism. We dwell in a different zip code now, in a different realm and space than before. But you don’t want to import darkness into the light zone and so the old works of darkness—old ways of thinking, speaking, acting—are dead and gone and have no place in the light. The past has been redeemed and our past deeds done in ignorance and darkness are forgiven. But the grandeur of that forgiveness means at minimum that all else changes for us, too.
Of course, then as now the challenge is to lead lives of the light even though we are still surrounded by so many who are in the dark. Physically we still have close proximity to the darkness and that provides an abiding, running challenge for believers not to mix together the practices of neighbors with lifestyles that should be unique for those in Christ. In many ways—and as Paul will make clear throughout Colossians—the Christian life is an ongoing act of discernment as to what is prudent and proper and what is not. Not everything from the larger world or society is to be rejected—Jesus shines in all that’s fair, as the old hymn puts it. But there are so many practices that clearly cross the line and so many more than exist in the shadowlands between the light and the darkness that require serious pondering (and on which Christians of equally good conscience might disagree).
But the point is that this is all eminently practical and ties in with everyday existence. There is nothing mystical or secret about the Gospel. In fact, it should be plain for everyone to see when they take a look at how Christians live.
Paul’s use of realms of light versus realms of darkness has a long history in literature and is one of the more common ways by which distinct realities are juxtaposed to this day in books, TV shows, and certainly also in films. When I think of the dramatic and stark contrast between such realms, I am led to Peter Jackson’s final film in the Lord of the Rings series, and particularly the nice visual contrast between the dark and dim realm of Mordor and what the heroic Hobbit Frodo wakes up to in the city of Minas Tirith after the evil Lord Sauron is definitively defeated. This clip shows the contrasts between sorrow and joy, between darkness and light, between a realm of death and a realm of exuberant new life as well as anything I can think of:
You can watch more of the scene of Frodo’s awaking to the realm of light in this clip: