July 16, 2018
The Proper 11B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 from the Lectionary Gospel; 2 Samuel 7:1-14a from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 89:20-37 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 2:11-22 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 15 (Lord’s Day 5)
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Be specific! Show, Don’t Tell!”
Those are fairly common pieces of advice from me when I grade student sermons. Generalities, undefined words like “this” or “that,” brief lists that quickly conclude with “and so on” or “et cetera” just don’t cut it. The concrete and the specific always trump the vague and the general.
I guess it’d be presumptuous of me to tell that to Mark.
Mark tells us in 6:34 that Jesus taught them much (in the Greek it’s just the word polla, “much, a lot”). He taught them a whole bunch of stuff, to be colloquial about it. But what kind of stuff? What did Jesus discern these “sheep without a shepherd” needed to learn and to hear most of all? Did he snow them with more parables that they had a tough time making sense of initially? (Mark did say earlier in this gospel that Jesus never taught anything without using parables.) Did he teach them more plainly about the Kingdom of God and about the grace of God that is the true center to the universe? Did he do a Sermon on the Mount-like listing of beatitudes, sketching out in that way the shape of the kingdom-filled life?
We could speculate endlessly on this, and we could make some pretty educated guesses, too, based on the rest of Mark’s gospel. But we’ll never know the precise content. So maybe we can better focus on something else that is rather remarkable here. Jesus saw these large crowds of people and he had compassion on them. They seemed lost. They were like sheep unable to find green pastures, moving through life without a goal, without the security a shepherd could provide. That, after all, is the implication of Mark’s pastoral image here: sheep without a shepherd were vulnerable, were unable to care for themselves, were liable to getting lost and/or injured.
That was how Jesus viewed them and so what does he do? He teaches them a lot of stuff. He teaches them. That’s not typically our response to such a thing in the modern world. We think that the solution to most any problem you could name would be to give people more stuff. What people need is a secure investment portfolio. They need purpose in their lives (and a good bit of that purpose will be to learn how to earn more money and provide material security to the family). We don’t need to teach people lots of stuff we just need to give them lots of stuff—or give them methods by which to get at that stuff—and they will be fine.
People themselves seem impatient with being reduced to students who have to learn. Ads for various technical institutes try to lure students to their hands-on computer repair training by reminding them that all that worthless stuff you learn at liberal arts colleges not only fails to make you any money one day, it just slows down your progress toward a lucrative career. This mentality seeps into the church, too, of course. Sermons need to either be very short or, if they are going to be longer sermons, they need to focus less on content and more on application, on how to get at a better life through tips on child rearing, business practices, marriage enhancement, and the like. Anything in an adult education forum that smacks of a content-heavy lecture is shunned by some.
Yet in Mark 6 when Jesus sees the crowds, he knows just what they need. Eventually they will need bread and fish, true enough, and he’ll provide that, too. But the compassionate vision of Jesus probed deeper and so he knew that the very first thing they would need was to learn a few things about God, creation, and their relation.
The crowds that day apparently lapped it up. But eventually in Mark when the content of the teaching got a little tougher to swallow—all that cross-bearing, death, and sacrifice stuff—they’d fall away. Only those who really understand Jesus’ teaching and learn it over the long haul see the sense of it all and find the joy and the new life of it all. That’s maybe a lesson the contemporary church still needs to hear and above all to learn as well.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
What is the Lectionary up to here? Why skip two impressive miracles (the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ calming of the winds on the lake after walking on the water to get to the disciples in the boat)? Why keep the focus instead on Jesus’ enormous popularity at this time and also on the twin themes of teaching and healing?
Perhaps this is the Lectionary’s mid-summer way to remind us of something that Tom Long thinks comes very close to the heart of Mark’s Gospel: viz., the idea that if you focused only on the miracles—and if those miracles caused you to move too quickly toward Jesus—you would miss the depths of what Jesus is really all about, seizing only the surface of Jesus but failing to get at what really matters down in the deep places of the Gospel. To get at that takes time, Long says. Maybe that’s why Jesus taught in parables—they slowed people down, puzzled them, made them think and ponder. And for some, maybe that was just long enough to understand, too.
Long is likely onto something. Already in the opening part of Mark Jesus both taught with authority and did eye-popping miracles, but in Mark 1:27 what the people initially raved about was Jesus’ new teaching even more than his miracles. Shortly thereafter when the four friends lower their paralyzed friend to Jesus through a hole they had dug in the roof, Jesus uses the occasion for a teaching on the nature of forgiveness, indicating that although he could (and did) heal the man’s crippled limbs, the real miracle that day was Jesus’ firm declaration that his sins had been forgiven, too.
Mark wants us to focus on the teachings of Jesus even as Jesus in Mark keeps his messianic identity a secret, hushing people up about it particularly after various miracles. In fact, in Mark it’s important to notice the trajectory of Jesus’ ministry. Here in Mark 6 Jesus is nearing the zenith of his popularity but soon enough—starting especially in Mark 8—Jesus will turn toward the cross and begin to talk more and more about sacrifice and taking up the cross and denying oneself and losing one’s life. No sooner does that happen and the very crowds who thronged around Jesus in Mark 6 get thinner and thinner and thinner until finally even the disciples fall away one by one to the point that in the end Jesus dies utterly alone (with only a Roman soldier left to witness to his identity as the Son of God).
The point of all this is that when preaching on these two snippets of Mark 6, we need to keep in mind Mark’s overall theme of suffering and sacrifice. We need to remember that Mark knows better than anyone that the truest identity of Jesus would be disclosed finally only on the cross. And so we need to remember that in our world also today, faithfulness demands that we stick with the true message of Jesus whether it proves to be a winning formula as the world knows such things or not. And if the gospel and the New Testament generally are any indication, that true message is going to meet resistance as often as not as it always carries with it the ring of counter-culturalism.
In a time when the power of the mass media and the pervasiveness of popular culture seems able to swamp and swallow up most everything in its path, the call back to faithfulness to the gospel we cannot hear too often.
If you look at the Greek text of Mark 6:34 in an edition like Nestle-Aland, you’ll note that the phrase “sheep without a shepherd” (literally, “sheep that did not have a shepherd”) is italicized, indicating the editors’ hunch that this was meant to be a kind of quote or an allusion to something else. Commentator Robert Guelich points out that indeed, this phrase was one used often in the Old Testament to describe the people of Israel and, as such, is yet another Old Testament overlay on this event. The feeding miracle that follows is clearly meant to reveal Jesus as the Messianic Great Shepherd of the Sheep in fulfillment of prophecies from Isaiah and Ezekiel even as the later reference to how Jesus made the people to sit down on GREEN grass is evocative of Psalm 23.
Jesus wants to be our shepherd. What he perceived in the crowds in Mark 6 was first and foremost that they needed someone to shepherd them. And in John’s gospel we know that Jesus delighted in tagging himself as “the Good Shepherd.” That is, of course, a lyric image. Christians have long taken comfort in it, composing scores of hymns on this theme and creating so very many stained-glass window depictions of Jesus as shepherd. But how often do we realize that to some people, that may not seem like a comforting image at all? Because the way you get into that shepherd’s strong arms is precisely the path of self-denial Jesus will eventually talk about in Mark (and that won’t prove so popular to the people back then).
We need to be carried by Another precisely because we cannot make our own way, we cannot find our way. So we turn ourselves over to God in Christ and, in so doing, declare that we are not our own anymore. We do not belong to our own selves. Another has a prior (and a total) claim on us. Again, however, some people find that idea to be anything but comforting.
It is difficult for those of us who are so thoroughly familiar with the gospel to conceive of how this may sound in the ears of an outsider to the faith. In fact, it may even strike some of us as bizarre that anyone could look at the image of the Good Shepherd and see something offensive in it. But let’s give the world some credit: maybe those who are offended by that image are more in touch with its radical nature than those of us who look at it without batting an eye.
You see, what we too easily forget is the truth captured by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship. “When Christ calls a man to follow him,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “he bids that man to come and die.” We sacrifice our sense of self. We don’t stop using the personal pronouns “I” and “me”. But we place our sense of self in the context of who we are in relationship to Jesus.
Sometimes we forget how difficult that self-sacrifice is. But maybe part of the reason is because we fail to live this out in our day-to-day lives. We might do well to ask ourselves how often we reflect on our being owned by Christ, the shepherd of whom we are but the sheep of his pasture.
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Author: Doug Bratt
Some of the people to whom we proclaim 2 Samuel 7 feel a little like David. After all, Israel’s king has been very busy battling both Israel’s internal and external enemies. He has also just finished fighting a domestic “battle” with his wife, Michal.
Some people will come to our churches from “battling” neighbors, co-workers and family members. Even Sunday’s “day of rest” with its church and family demands sometimes feels like a battle. So some will come to us looking for renewal in preparation for tomorrow’s “battles.” Even those who proclaim 2 Samuel may be searching for some rest. If, however, we are, with David, to find that rest, we’ll need God to give it to us.
Even as our text’s David “rests” in his home, perhaps with his feet up and a cool drink in his hand, he notices that something is awry. There’s a sharp contrast between his home’s luxury and God’s “home’s” austerity. While, for example, the king’s home’s walls are made of cedar, God’s “home’s” walls are made of canvas.
It just doesn’t seem fair to David that while he lives in a palace, God’s ark lives in a tent. 2 Samuel implies that, as a result, David wants to stop resting and do something about that discrepancy. He wants to give God’s ark a permanent home that is a temple that matches God’s centrality in Israel’s life.
Of course, David may also have a political motive. Just as he’d once tried to make God’s ark a unifying force in Israel, he apparently wants to give a temple a similar role. If, after all, David builds a temple in Jerusalem, everyone in Israel will have to come to “his” city to worship God.
The Nathan who appears first appears in 2 Samuel 7 initially agrees. To him David’s building plan seems like what one preacher calls a “no-brainer.” “Go ahead and do it,” David’s pastor basically tells his parishioner. After all, Nathan sees no conflict between religious and political expediencies.
God, however, almost immediately revokes David’s building permit. God, after all, doesn’t need fancy digs. God, in fact, seems to suggest that God enjoys living in a tent. That kind of “mobile home” is, after all, a visible reminder that God travels with the Israelites wherever they go.
This same God still goes with the “travelers” that are God’s 21st century adopted sons and daughters. Yet while God gives God’s people short rests, God hasn’t yet given us our eternal rest. You and I won’t rest completely until we rest eternally in the glory of the new earth and heaven.
While David wants to make all the arrangements for God, God seizes control of temple building plans. The God who has already done so much for Israel and her new king insists on being the central actor in this drama. God alone will move David and Israel’s story ahead.
Yet this may have felt like an ominous development for David. Could he, he must almost certainly have wondered, still count on this God who has just turned down his offer to build a temple? Or should Israel’s king fret that his rule will be as fragile as his predecessor’s was?
God’s reassurance is quick and clear. God insists that God’s refusal to let David build a house for the Lord is not a sign of God’s anger with him. In fact, almost as if to reinforce that message, the God who has been with David explicitly promises to continue to stay with both his family and him.
The God who took David out of the pasture and into the palace now promises to also make his name “great” (9). The God who has been with David now also promises to create a safe space for his people and him (10). The God who has protected David from his enemies now promises to also give rest to both Israel’s king and his subjects.
This God is the same, the Scriptures insist, “yesterday, today and forever.” This God has provided everything God’s beloved children need, and more, in the past. This God also promises to provide everything we need in the future.
Yet even after God promises David fame, safety and rest, God’s not done making remarkable promises. In fact, God really doesn’t get to the heart of God’s promises until God insists that God will establish a “house” for the king (11).
Biblical scholars note that the full beauty of this promise doesn’t really shine through until we understand that the word that God uses for “house” (bayit) has three meanings in Hebrew. It can mean “house,” “temple” or even “dynasty.” David had wanted to build a house that is a temple for the Lord. God, however, stunningly reverses roles by promising to build the “house” that is a dynasty for David. God rejects “temple,” but promises “dynasty.”
Virtually no North Americans talk about the “house of Bush” or “the Trudeau dynasty.” For a dynasty you have to go to a place like the Netherlands. The Dutch refer to the “House of Orange,” meaning that all their monarchs must be descendants of William of Orange.
2 Samuel 7’s Israel, however, has had no such “house.” None of Saul’s sons, after all, succeeded their royal father. In fact, all of those heirs to Israel’s throne have died. God, however, promises to create a kind of lasting “house” for Saul’s successor David who’d wanted to build God a house.
So when David’s family buries him with his ancestors, God insists that his son Solomon will succeed him on Israel’s throne. What’s more, though Solomon will sin nearly as much as Saul did, God promises to treat him differently than God did David’s predecessor. God, in fact, promises to treat David’s son Solomon much like God would God’s own son.
So when Solomon does wrong, God won’t reject him. God will simply punish him much like any loving parent punishes his or her child. So even when Solomon is unfaithful to God, God promises to remain faithful to him, for David’s sake.
As a father of three sons, I can imagine how much these promises meant to David. After all, there’s little I long for more than for our sons to experience God’s gracious love and faithfulness throughout their lives. I long for them to continue to always remember that God is their Father and that they are, by God’s grace, God’s adopted sons.
Yet I sometimes think God’s promise about David’s sons would have choked the king up had he realized just what kind of people they’d turn out to be. Think, for instance, of his two of his oldest sons. Solomon will use his immense wisdom to collect wives and follow other gods. Absalom will die for stealing David’s wives and throne. Yet God unconditionally loves these sons of David anyway. In fact, God even allows one of them to build the house God that David wanted to build.
Until David it almost seems as if some of God’s promises to Israel are relatively conditional. Many of them seem to hinge on Israel’s faithful response to God’s grace. It’s what one biblical scholar calls “the ominous ‘if’ of ethical requirement.” So when, for instance, Israel sins against God in the wilderness, God punishes her. When Saul is unfaithful to God, God gives his throne to David.
In 2 Samuel 7, however, God graciously turns that “if” into a “nevertheless.” God insists that nothing David or his descendants can do will cancel God’s love for them. So God, says one scholar, essentially gives David and his family a “blank check.” While God will sanction them for sinning, God won’t do so forever.
2 Samuel 7’s promises give the Israelites hope that someone even greater than David will eventually become their king. They plant hope in Israel that one of David’s ancestors will even bring about the shalom that proved to be so elusive, even during David’s reign.
Some Jews, of course, became convinced that one of David’s descendants is this great Son of David whom God has promised. So, for instance, two men who are blind refer to Jesus as a “Son of David” and the crowds that welcome Jesus into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday greet him as “the Son of David.”
David’s descendants show sad creativity in being unfaithful to God. In fact, only one of them, Jesus, will be completely faithful to God. Yet God will remain stubbornly faithful to David’s family. The uneven works and faith of David and his family will not have the last word. God’s unconditional love, in Jesus Christ, God’s new “tent” among us, is decisive.
In Jesus Christ God’s adopted sons and daughters find the rest for which we’ve longed ever since God chased our first parents out of their garden home. God promised Israel through Moses that Israel would find rest in the land of promise. God gave rest to David in 2 Samuel 7. God also promises rest to David, his family and his people in the future.
However, in Jesus Christ, David’s greatest Son, we finally find that rest from both our sins and our work to somehow save ourselves. After all, the God whom Jesus says never stops working has done everything we need to find our rest in God alone.
I have always found the term “worship wars” to be bitterly ironic. In Jesus Christ, after all, God has given God’s adopted sons and daughters both peace with himself and rest from our sometimes-frantic scramble to save ourselves. God has also graciously equipped God’s adopted sons and daughters to live in peace with each other.
Yet we sometimes wage war with our fellow Christians over things like worship styles and content. We contest every square inch of ground that is music, liturgy and even the proclamation of God’s Word. Sometimes those battles even seem most pitched on the Sunday that is the day of rest for many Christians.
Is it any wonder, then, that not just Sunday’s activities but also its tensions sometimes leave us more exhausted at 8:00 p.m. than we were at 8:00 a.m.? Yet this exhaustion might present those who proclaim 2 Samuel 7 with an chance to explore how we might open ourselves to God’s gift “rest” from those worship battles.
Author: Stan Mast
Before I dive into this difficult Psalm, I must get two preliminary comments out of the way, the first merely personal, the second deeply textual. On a personal level, I must point you to a previous Sermon Starter on this very text written just 7 months ago (see the Archive on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website for December 18, 2017). My comments here will be abbreviated because I said so much about this text in that posting.
On the textual level, I must point out that the Lectionary reading today is a classic example of taking a text out of context and thus missing the actual message of the text. Psalm 89:20-37 seem to be a glowing description of God’s covenantal blessings on King David, but they are really a part of the shocking experience of God not keeping those covenantal promises. The real point of Psalm 89 is expressed in the words of verse 38 and 39, “But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have renounced the covenant with your servant.” Scholars call this a royal Psalm because it is about David, but it is more deeply an agonized lament because it is about the horror of what has happened to David’s line. Thus, to preach the Lectionary reading all by itself would be homiletical malpractice. We must focus on the verses right after our lection.
Having gotten that off my chest, I must confess that preaching Psalm 89 properly is still a tough task. Indeed, after carefully studying it, I come up with two very different ways to preach it. First, it is a perfect example of those moments in life when it seems for all the world that God has let us down, has broken his promises, and has left us all alone in the darkness of despair. Its value, then, is to assure us that we aren’t the only ones who feel that way, that God does not reject us when we feel such despair, that, in fact, such feelings of God forsakenness are essential to an honest faith.
But second, this Psalm is a perfect example of those moments in life when our justifiable feelings and the incontrovertible evidence of our experience lead us to a complete misreading of what has happened to us. It may feel as though God has rejected us, spurned us, broken his promises and renounced his covenant, because our lives have become a complete hell. But, in fact, God’s love and faithfulness are still at work in our lives, so that his promises are sure and his covenant unbreakable.
Let’s focus on that first reading of the Psalm for a moment. For 36 verses, all is sunshine and roses. After a lovely introit (verses 1-4) focused on those twin divine attributes so crucial to covenant (love and faithfulness), the Psalmist sings the praises of God the creator, who defeated the forces of chaos and rules over his creation with righteousness and justice (verses 5-18). God is in heaven and all is well on his earth.
Then in verses 19-37, we move into the area of redemption, as the Psalmist sings the praises of God for the blessings he has given to David and by extension to all Israel. In a series of lovely couplets, God’s role in David’s kingship is highlighted. Verses 20-21 anchor his entire reign in God’s electing and sustaining love. Verses 22-23 promise that God will crush all David’s enemies. Verses 24-25 promise that God will extend David’s kingdom. David will be first among all the kings of the earth because of God, say verses 26-27. Finally, in verses 28-29 God pledges that David’s dynasty will last forever. It is true that verses 30-32 issue a strong cautionary warning that God will chasten disobedience severely. But the reading for today ends with a powerful reassurance. God’s love and faithfulness absolutely guarantee that those covenant promises to David will never be broken. His line will last forever. God is unalterably the covenant partner of his people, so all is well with Israel.
But, no sooner are those words written on the page than they are apparently erased. In a stunning reversal of the Bible’s typical use of that adversative conjunction (”but”), Psalm 89 says, “But you have rejected, spurned, renounced….” In an almost word for word reversal, all the promises of verses 20-29 are cancelled in verses 40-45: the impregnable walls have been broken, the enemy has conquered, and the splendor of the King has been ended. He is covered with a mantel of shame and his crown lies in the dust. The unthinkable has happened and all that is left to the humiliated King and his people is prayer, not the grateful soaring praises of verses 1-37, but the agonized, even angry lament of verses 46-51. “How long…. Will you hide yourself forever?” “O Lord, where is your… love and faithfulness?” The blessed “anointed one” of verse 20 has become the taunted “anointed one” of verse 51.
This is the quintessential example of what Walter Brueggemann calls the Psalms of Disorientation. After a lifetime, yes, even centuries of God’s love and faithfulness, everything we thought we could count on from God is ripped away from us. It turns out that the good life we had enjoyed, the blessings we had experienced, the fellowship with God we had counted on—all of that was simply the calm before the storm, the best of times before the worst of times, the good news before the inevitable bad news that “God has rejected and spurned us.”
What shall we do when it doesn’t all turn out happily ever after? Well, we can sit confused and dejected in dust and ashes. Robert Davidson puts it well. “The celebration of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness (in verses 1-37) simply underlines the bleakness of the present. In the darkness of tragedy, does remembered faith provide a basis for hope, or does it merely lead to despair? That is a very personal question to which people today give different answers.”
He is right, but Psalm 89 shows us another way to respond to such unthinkable tragedy. We can cry out to the God who seems to have deserted us. In our despair, we can still express our faith. “How long, O Yahweh? O Yahweh, where is your love and faithfulness?” The presence of Psalms like this one in the sacred songbook of God’s people speaks volumes. This experience of God-forsakenness is not unique to me. My feelings of disappointment and sorrow and even anger are acceptable, even expected. Psalm 89 “provides a way for our relationship with God to go on when the worst has happened and we feel that God has left us alone with broken promises. It is Good News that we are not flawed for wanting to be (and really being) angry with God. It is Good News that God wants an honest relationship with us.” (Beth LaNeel Tanner)
That is one way to preach this Psalm. It is a refreshing corrective to the kind of stiff-upper-lip, just-buck-up, it-must-be-God’s-will preaching I often heard in my youth. It allows us to be human in our faith, while not rejecting faith when it seems that God has rejected us. And that’s good. No more fake smiles, no more plastic saints. Let’s be real with God.
While not rejecting that approach to Psalm 89 and to the experience it so painfully describes, there is another way to preach it. That is to preach it exactly as it stands– not just the lament of verses 38-51, but also the promises of verses 30-32. There God promises that, if David’s line is disobedient, God will chasten severely. And God kept that promise, severely.
In other words, there are two parts to our Lectionary reading. In verses 20-29 and 33-37 God says that his love is unconditional, that his election of David and line is eternal, and that he will never break his covenant. But in verses 30-32, God says that he will chasten severely those he loves unconditionally. David’s line may be elect, but it is not exempt from his severity. Turning away from God’s covenant has terrible consequences. But that chastening, that severity, those consequences are not the end of covenant, or the severing of love, or the breaking of promises.
In other words, the Psalmist is simply wrong in what he says in verses 38-39a. God has not rejected, or spurned, or renounced, or broken. God has done exactly what God said he would do, precisely as an act covenant faithfulness. The Psalmist has drawn the wrong conclusion from his experience. The thoughts behind his feelings, though entirely justifiable, are not true to fact. Even though we have incontrovertible evidence that God has rejected (verses 39b-45 describe exactly what had happened to Israel’s king), we may be totally wrong in our conclusion. And even though our feelings are valid and shouldn’t be repressed, we might be responding with legitimate emotions to a wrong understanding of what has in fact happened.
Yes, Israel went through terrible times and they should have felt terrible about all of that. But God had not rejected or spurned or renounced or broken. His promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty came to fulfillment at the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:32 and 33, et al). In Christ, God’s love and faithfulness came to full expression. In Christ, all the promises of God are yes. In Christ, we are never separated from the love of God. So, when we think that God has rejected us, that God has broken his promises to us, that God doesn’t love us, we are simply wrong. Christ, the Son of David, the eternal King, is the proof.
Now we need to be careful how we preach this second perspective on Psalm 89. We must be gentle with people who feel the anguish expressed in the lament of this Psalm. We must not silence lament and questions. Psalm 89 gives us permission to speak thus, perhaps even encourages us. But to leave people with the mistaken impression that God has actually done what they think and feel and believe he has done is to leave the Gospel unspoken in the midst of the most terrible human pain. That is not only a disservice to the Gospel, but also a failure of pastoral compassion for the Lord’s people when they need it the most. Feel their pain, but preach the Gospel; “I will not take my love from them, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness (verse 33).”
I recently heard a Lutheran pastor in Arizona tell the true story about a friend who is a hospital chaplain. This chaplain called on a woman who was dying of lung cancer. She did not receive him well. She was an embittered Catholic who said, “I hate the church. Get the hell out of here.” As he slunk out of her room, the charge nurse caught his sleeve. “She gets two cigarettes a day at 3 PM. Come back then and take her to the smoking area.”
That’s exactly what the chaplain did. But nothing happened. She sat and smoked in smoldering silence. But he kept coming back. After a number of days, she began to tell her story, a story of a hard life filled with abuse and deprivation, and now this sentence of death. One day, after one more expression of bitterness and despair, she asked the chaplain to get her a crucifix. And even though he wasn’t Catholic, he did.
When she received that crucifix, she clasped it to her chest and held it there, day after day. Then, just two days before she lapsed into a coma and died, she said, “Do you want to know why I wanted this crucifix? It reminds me that he knows. There is nothing I’ve been through that he hasn’t been through. He knows. He’s been there.”
He’s been there, even there in the darkness of the cross, when he cried out with the writer and readers of Psalm 89, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Because he has been there, we never will be, even when we are convinced that we are.
Author: Scott Hoezee
When a text begins with a “Therefore” or a phrase like “After these things . . .”, you as a reader know you have to back up and read what came just before. Sometimes we don’t do that, of course. We have come to view the Bible as so many chopped-up chapters and verses—with convenient sub-headings thrown in by Bible translators and editors—and so we figure we can dive in most anywhere there is a sub-heading and just hit the ground running with nary a backward glance at what came before. The Bible is a Whitman’s Sampler of passages that stand alone just fine on their own.
Not true. “Therefore” Ephesians 2:11 begins. OK, so what follows is the logical conclusion of what Paul had written before. And what is that? That we are saved by grace alone. That we were all once “dead” as doornails in our sins and trespasses but we have been made alive through an out-of-the-blue and completely undeserved fell swoop of divine grace. The Son of God died to make this happen. This is no cheap gift, no inexpensive grace, nothing to sniff or to sneeze at. This is deadly serious, life and death in the ultimate sense of both words. You were dead but now you are alive. It’s all grace so forget about merit or earnings or status or your own moral scorecard and history of achievement. You have been made all new by God’s stunning grace and, as Ephesians 2:10 reminded us, that ought not lead to some quiet life of doing nothing but rather a life of producing the fruit of good works that will be the natural overflow of that tidal wave of grace that saturated your life.
“Therefore . . .” Paul begins in verse 11. And what follows is most remarkable, though all these centuries later we can scarcely imagine how radical Paul’s words here really are. Because especially for the Jews, there was no more wide and deep a chasm in life than the one that separated them spiritually from all other people. They had been elected out of the nations for God’s glory and the difference between them and anyone else you could name could not have been more significant. No mere human being could ever bridge that divide. This was a spiritual Grand Canyon and one did not merely leap across it just by getting a good running start.
True, there were things that could happen to bring an outsider in but it was complicated. A minor surgery (literally) was involved for the men folk. A whole lot of education in a very complex set of Laws was involved for everyone. And then a hyper strict adherence to those Laws was expected. But in truth . . . even when that was all said and done, the outsider remained second class to a degree. Sure, they could be tolerated on the inside of God’s chosen people if they toed the line and all, ate what they were told to eat, did not violate the Sabbath, and so on. But whereas the Jews could trace their relationship back to God with a thick line drawn by a Sharpie, these other folks had a kind of dotted line connecting them to God—not so thick a line, maybe not a permanent line, and for sure not as good a line.
But no more, Paul says. Now everyone’s line of connection to God is as thick and rock solid and permanent as can be. And guess what? Everyone’s line is drawn by the same Sharpie for the same reason and it is all about Jesus and zero about lineage, heritage, ethnicity, obedience, or anything else (and above all it sure did not involve that whole circumcision thing). “Therefore” from now on all comparisons are out of order. All hostility and judging of one another is forbidden. There is no longer an “us vs. them” mentality because there is no “them” in Christ but only “us.”
“We are all bricks in one and the same spiritual edifice,” Paul claims “and we became those bricks by grace alone so that no one can brag or boast or claim some superior path toward brickdom!”
Actually the first few verses of this lection from Ephesians 2 might have sounded pretty good to any Jews reading this letter. It would not be too difficult to read into Paul here a kind of condescending tone. “Now listen up, you Gentiles, you outsiders, you foreign-born non-Jewish folks: you are darn lucky to have been brought near. We used to exclude you for good reasons, you know, so be thankful!”
That is not at all what Paul means, though. Because as you read on, his rhetoric turns to his fellow Jews to say “Same goes for us, folks. We, too, are in Christ now for the same reason and by exactly the same route as our Gentile brothers and sisters. Spiritual pedigree is so yesterday! We are all one now. No difference, no differentiation. Therefore . . . let’s not even use that kind of vocabulary anymore. Words like ‘insider’ and ‘outsider,’ like ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’ have no meaning anymore in Christ. So don’t talk that way. Not anymore.”
Again, our awareness these days of how deep and wide and uncrossable that old barrier was—or how high and unclimbable that old separation wall once was—is dim at best. It’s hard for us to appropriate the level of astonishment this passage deserves. But the idea that in Christ those who once upon a time could not have been more different from one another are now ONE is startling.
Think of any other group today whom you regard as the “other” over against yourself and your group, your tribe. And, alas, there are many options for this. Ours is a divided world along more racial, ethnic, socio-economic fronts than we can grasp at any given moment. Can members of the Ku Klux Klan conceive of being made one with the African-American people they now terrorize? Can Skinheads and Neo-Nazis imagine happily being unified with the Jews? Can those who scream purple-faced about “illegals” crossing the southern border envision what it would take to welcome those people as full brothers and sisters without differentiation?
If we could imagine something of the radicalness of any of those scenarios (or any others you would want to propose), then we might start getting close to grasping the revolutionary nature of Ephesians 2. And if we begin to sense what it would really take to bring unity and reconciliation among those groups today that clearly see themselves as radically different from and superior to other groups they could name, then you start to grasp how hard the work of Christ really was and why it was that it took a supreme act of sacrifice on a cross to pull it off. In truth, humanly speaking we can hardly begin to imagine or hope for the kind of reconciliation among hostile groups just listed here. “It can’t happen” is what we are more likely to say.
Yet in Christ it did happen. The Gospel is that radical, that explosive, that revolutionary, that mind-boggling. To tame the Gospel, to reduce it to some easy steps toward being nicer; to domesticate the Gospel and make it apply to only the small things of our lives . . . . well, that is all a disservice to the Lord and Christ who went so far to bring about the kind of new world of which Paul writes in Ephesians 2.
Do we dare in this divisive age even to dream such dreams? Do we dare to proclaim such radical hope? Do we dare call believers to live in such a radical way?
Be careful with what you do with what comes after the “Therefore . . .”
In the charming movie Babe there is a kind of refrain that describes the social structure (as it were!) of the farmyard at Hoggett Farm where the story takes place. Over and again the narrator of the film would refer to the sheepdogs and their attitudes toward the sheep or the sheep and their attitudes toward the dogs or . . . or, the fill-in-the-blank farm animal vis-à-vis any other animal group. And the line was always the same “Everyone knew that sheep were stupid and there was nothing in the world that would convince the dogs otherwise.” Of course, the humorous irony of the film is that every species thought the same about every other species, except that as viewers we know it’s not true—they are all “intelligent” in their own way. They could talk to each other, reason with each other, respect each other if only they tried. At the end everyone’s affection for the little pig Babe—the pig who thinks he’s a sheepdog—forces the groups to try to communicate. When they do, amazing things happen: they understand each other, can help each other, and can transform life on Hoggett Farm as a result.
I realize this may seem a trite illustration but the filmmakers clearly structured this movie to force us to make the connection to our own lives as people. What group of the “other” do we have hard and fast beliefs about that we are sure no one in the world could ever talk us out of? And how sure are we at the end of the day that we are correct about all that? Are there possibilities we have not thought of before? Are we so certain reconciliation and new ways of thinking about Group X are impossible?
Well, humanly speaking it may be so. But as Christians who believe in the power of Christ, we must never think that “nothing in the world could convince us otherwise” about so-and-so. Because greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world.