July 24, 2017
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
Author: Scott Hoezee
In our seminary preaching classes, we familiarize our students with Paul Scott Wilson’s little mnemonic device to ensure sermon unity: The Tiny Dog Is Now Mine or TTDINM in which each of those letters is preceded by the word “One” as in “One Text,” “One Theme,” and so on with the “I” being “One Image.” When preaching, we tell our students, select a single, central image and let that work its way all through the sermon for the sake of clarity. One good image in a sermon is much better than 4 or 5 competing and disparate images.
But in the latter portion of Matthew 13, Jesus is on something of a simile binge. The kingdom is . . . a mustard seed . . . a bit of yeast in dough . . . a hidden treasure . . . a pearl of great value . . . a net catching fish. Jesus here slides easily from the agricultural to the culinary to the marketplace and to the fishing trade. It all seems jumbled together at first blush. One of my students wouldn’t get away with this in a sermon! (Thankfully, I have never been asked to grade our Lord!)
But even though Jesus is throwing out these various images at a fast and furious pace, he’s also teaching one of the most remarkable truths that emerges from the gospel: namely, the unexpected hiddenness of the kingdom of God.
Jesus always made clear that the kingdom of God was going to save and rescue this world precisely by virtue of its being so very different from the powerful, flashy, showy political kingdoms that otherwise capture our attention. The kingdom of God, Jesus said, looks small, even tiny. It looks foolish. In fact, the kingdom can even disappear completely the way a seed gets buried in the soil. It takes 750 mustard seeds to equal one gram. Drop one of those little wisps into the dirt and you won’t even be able to see it or even find it back if you try. The same is true of yeast in dough: once it’s mixed into the water, flour, and oil, the yeast disappears—you could not separate it back out again (much less locate it) if you tried. Yet these tiny things have great effects.
So also with the kingdom: it’s not what you expect in terms of political clout. The kingdom of God is not about gleaming capital cities studded with marble colonnades and soaring executive mansions. It’s not about some fierce army plowing under the opposition by sheer dint of its power. Compared to all of that, God’s kingdom looks as insignificant as a grain of mustard or a packet of dry yeast. But the kingdom can change hearts. It can change the world. It has changed the world.
The kingdom is here but it’s modest. It’s hidden. It’s quiet. In fact, those who discover the kingdom sometimes tend to stumble upon it almost by accident. The kingdom is a great treasure, but you’re not going to find this valuable commodity posted on the big board on Wall Street. No, you’re going to stumble on it in some remote field. The person who owns the field won’t even know it’s there, but once you find it, your joy will be so massive that you’ll do whatever it takes to buy that field.
All of this is profoundly surprising. We are so accustomed to these images in Jesus’ parables that they typically don’t strike us as absurd or paradoxical.
But they are.
Think of it: the kingdom is a seed scarcely visible to the naked eye and that disappears completely in dirt. The kingdom is yeast which a woman kneads into dough. In Jesus’ day so-called “woman’s work” was disdained such that Jesus was being quite provocative by making a woman the parabolic agent of working the kingdom into this world.
And has it ever struck you that the man who finds the treasure in the field is a little devious? Jesus says that this man finds some treasure in a field that does not belong to him. He then covers up this treasure again so the owner won’t know it’s there and then, without saying a word, he buys this field from the unsuspecting owner. It’s a little sneaky! Suppose you were at a garage sale looking over some old purses. But then suppose you discovered that inside one of those old purses was a wad of $100 bills. Wouldn’t you feel a little shady if you silently purchased it for $3 without telling the owner that she had missed a wee little something when cleaning out the purse before the garage sale?!
Tiny seeds, invisible yeast, woman’s work, a slightly underhanded purchase: had it been left up to us, this is not how we would have described the single most powerful, meaningful, and joyful reality in the universe! But it is how Jesus described it. This is the kingdom Jesus bequeathed to us. It is the kingdom he asked us to pray for and the kingdom in which we asked us to live out the will of God on earth every day.
But this also means that if we take our cues from Matthew 13, then it is clear that both our kingdom living and our kingdom proclamation will be more about quiet acts of loving faithfulness than about headline-grabbing, bullhorn tactics. We cannot present the gospel of a suffering servant like Jesus by being arrogant finger-waggers. We cannot give the world the good news of grace if we mostly position ourselves as stern bearers of bad news and judgment. The kingdom of God represents the most powerful force the world has ever known. But we’ve got to let the kingdom grow and leaven in its own quiet, humble ways if people’s hearts are really going to be changed.
In fact, as commentator Dale Bruner points out, it is curious to notice that in the parables of the treasure and pearl, it is only after the people run across these valuables that they become changed people who sell all they have. That may be one of the Bible’s many hints, Bruner claims, that we cannot force people into the kingdom by first requiring them to follow a prescribed list of good deeds. Once you find the gospel, you have all the joy you need to motivate you to live a changed life. Until then, however, you won’t find much motivation to follow the will of God on earth nor will the church’s acting as the world’s morality police bully people into the kingdom.
And so as bearers of God’s kingdom, we keep plugging away at activities which may look silly or meaningless to the world but that we believe contain the very seed of a new creation. We keep coming to church and singing our old hymns, reciting our old formulas and creeds. All of us who preach keep cracking open an ancient book called the Bible, looking to find within it truths that are anything-but ancient. We keep gathering at sick beds and death beds and whisper our prayers for the Spirit of the resurrection to be with us in life and in death. We keep drizzling water onto squirming infants and popping cubes of white bread into our mouths in the earnest faith that through the Spirit baptism and communion don’t just mean something, they mean everything.
And we keep working for Jesus in this mixed-up, backward world of ours. We quietly carry out our jobs and raise our kids and tend our marriages in the belief that God has designs for all those things and it’s our job to follow them. We keep pointing people to an old rugged cross, having the boldness to suggest that the man who died on that cross is now the Lord of the galaxies.
But we cannot close out our look at Matthew 13 without noticing that after piling up one fiercely quiet and subtle image after the next, Jesus concludes with an image where subtlety goes out the window. There will come a time of reckoning at the end of all things, Jesus says. There will come a time when the “bad fish” will get tossed into a fate that is more than definitely on the grim side. So in the long run, despite all Jesus had to say about the hiddenness of the kingdom in the here and now, the day will come when the kingdom will be all in all and each person will either be in that kingdom or outside of it. We witness to the kingdom in ways consistent with the kingdom, which means lovingly and humbly and compassionately. But witness we must. The stakes are too high to stay quiet.
“Have you understood all these things” Jesus asked. Hilariously the disciples reply with a simple “Yes,” which you just know was not completely true! And to compound whatever fogginess they may had anyway, Jesus then says that if you do understand all this, you’ll be like a homeowner who brings out “new treasures as well as old.” What that means is still a bit of a mystery even 2,000 years later!
“Have you understood all these things?” Sure. Yup. Got it.
Well, probably not. But even yet today we need to understand these things well enough to sense the glory of the kingdom’s hidden nature and yet the absolute urgency of our pointing people to that kingdom every chance we get.
Frederick Dale Bruner in his Matthew commentary (Volume Two “The Churchbook”) believes that the “new and old” image in verse 52 refers to the new teachings of Jesus in the gospel and the “old” teachings from the Hebrew Scriptures and all that led up to the proclamation of the gospel in Christ. In a way, this reflects back on this string of parabolic images right in Matthew 13. For those who had come to believe, based on the Old Testament, that a kingdom was always and only some shining political reality ruled over by people like David or Solomon, the notion of a hidden kingdom is very new indeed. But Bruner notes—in a comment perfect for all of us who preach—that the “new” things are also the endlessly fresh and new applications of the gospel that have come and continue to come all through the ages. In this sense, those of us who preach and who are led by the Spirit to constantly fresh applications of what we now call “the old, old story” are instruments of God to bring out the new things that confirm in every age all that is from of old.
A kingdom, Dallas Willard wrote in The Divine Conspiracy, is a place where one person’s influence determines what happens. In the case of the kingdom of God, the kingdom is not for now a geographic spot on a map but rather the kingdom of God is present any place and every place where the influence of Jesus’ living presence determines the shape of life. Wherever and whenever Jesus’ wisdom, Jesus’ wit, Jesus savvy, Jesus’ words, and Jesus’ love mold the words, actions, thoughts, and life patterns of some person or group of persons, then there is where God’s kingdom is manifest.
We’ve got to show the world how real the kingdom is by how we conduct ourselves. And the first, best way we can do that is to live as Jesus lived. Of course, Jesus did not reach everybody, and we surely won’t either, therefore. To some Jesus appeared misguided, so will we appear to at least some. To others Jesus seemed quintessentially ineffective (what with all those quirky and confusing parables and that rag-tag group of loser fishermen and women of questionable repute who followed him around). So also we may never come close to generating a fraction of the kind of the head-turning excitement that tingles people’s spines every time George Clooney or Jennifer Lawrence walks into a Los Angeles restaurant for dinner.
But we live the quiet, faithful, humble, service-oriented life of Jesus because it’s all we have to go on!
Genesis 29: 15-28
Author: Doug Bratt
Genesis 29 features one of the oddest, often slimiest groups of characters ever assembled outside a North American reality television show studio. Thankfully, then, it’s not oily enough to escape the grasp of God’s strong, gracious hand. In fact, God somehow graciously transforms all of their cheating and resentment into a vehicle for God’s amazing grace.
The Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday shows part of how God keeps God’s promise to be with and watch over Jacob. In it, after all, God accompanies Jacob to his Uncle Laban’s neck of the woods where he meets not just shepherds who know his uncle, but also his cousin, Rachel. All of this leads Jacob to stay with his uncle for a month.
Yet though Jacob is running for a wife as well as his life, it’s clear that God will have to remove a lot of obstacles before he can find a wife. In fact, it turns out that circumstances aren’t the only obstacles to the success of Jacob’s mission. People also turn out to be problematic.
Jacob’s a cheater. Yet he more than meets his match in his Uncle Laban who calls the two of them “flesh and blood” (14), maybe meaning that in more than one way. After Jacob works for him for a month, his uncle offers to pay him more than room and board.
Yet some scholars hear a jarring note in that offer. It, after all, turns Laban from Jacob’s kindly uncle into his employer.
Laban is, in fact, a very clever boss. He knows Jacob is both on the lam and in love with his daughter Rachel. So Laban is very willing to take advantage of his nephew. Much like Jacob willingly takes advantage of Esau’s vulnerability due to his hunger, Laban takes advantage of Jacob’s raging hormones.
Of course, Laban skillfully disguises his manipulation of his nephew. He, after all, signs a seven-year contract with Jacob. Laban promises Jacob that once he’s fulfilled that contract, he may marry Rachel. After all, he says, it’s better to give his daughter (though he never actually specifies which one!) to a family member than to a stranger.
Seven years seems to most of this article’s readers like a very long time to do the hot, dirty work that is shepherding. It’s longer than most of Jacob’s contemporaries had to work for their fiancé’s dads before they could marry. But, says Genesis’ narrator, “it only felt like a few days to Jacob because he was so in love.”
Finally, Jacob seems to clear all of the hurdles to his return home with at least a wife if not also children. His Uncle Laban even throws him a huge party to celebrate his marriage. After that’s done, Jacob wraps his cloak around his bride who has remained veiled throughout the ceremony. He then brings her to their honeymoon suite whose darkness Jacob’s tipsiness and pent-up desire perhaps heighten. There Jacob and his new bride are intimate.
So now most of the obstacles to Jacob’s peaceful return home with a wife seem removed. Yet it turns out that while he finally has a wife, it’s not the one he wanted. Jacob’s Uncle Laban who’s now also his father-in-law has pulled a fast one on him. The cheater has cheated the cheater by swapping out his oldest daughter for his youngest one.
Just as Jacob used the darkness that was his father’s blindness to cheat him, so Laban uses the darkness of their honeymoon suite to fool his nephew. When, after all, Jacob nudges his new wife awake on the first morning of their marriage, he finds it’s not Rachel’s but Leah’s face turning toward him.
That sends Jacob storming out of his home and toward his father-in-law’s. “What have you done to me,” we can almost hear him yell. “I slaved away for seven years for your daughter Rachel. Why did you cheat me by giving me Leah instead?!” Cheating is, as we’re coming to see, what Craig Barnes calls “something of a family problem.”
Uncle Laban manages to calm down Jacob by referring to the same family customs Jacob and Rebekah had earlier tried to undermine. The younger Jacob may have gotten away with taking away his older brother’s privileges at home. But he will not get away with it at his uncle/father-in-law’s house.
Yet crafty Laban proposes a patch for this broken chain. “First finish your honeymoon with Leah. Then stick around and work for me for seven more years,” he tells Jacob, “and you can have Rachel too.”
Jacob’s story sounds a lot like some of God’s people’s own stories. We believe that God is graciously moving us toward God’s good plans and purposes. Yet there are so many obstacles in the way. Genesis 29’s preachers and teachers may want to explore with their hearers what some of those obstacles may be.
Jacob knocks down one more obstacle to his return home with a wife and children by working seven more years for his father-in-law. Yet Genesis’ narrator doesn’t tell us this stint only felt like a few days to him. No, we can imagine they’re instead days of grief and tension. After all, among other things, while Jacob now has a house full of women (two wives and two maidservants), he loves only one of them.
After seven years, however, it seems that Jacob can finally go home peacefully with wives and children. The promise appears to be back on track. Yet one more obstacle to that return pops up. While Jacob’s beloved Rachel is unable to have children with him, his second choice, Leah, turns out to be a kind of baby factory. She basically starts having babies left and right.
So when it turns out that Jacob can’t give her children, a hurt Rachel gives him her maidservant Bilhah. Between Leah and Rachel’s maidservant, Jacob manages to father six sons. When Leah can no longer have children, she gives Jacob her maidservant who has two children with him. God then somehow gives Leah and Jacob three more children together. Only then does God finally give Jacob and his beloved wife Rachel a child whom they name Joseph.
Genesis 29 and 30 tell the startling story of the births of eleven of the heads of what will eventually become the twelve tribes of Israel. They point to the amazing ways God is keeping the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac and, more recently Jacob himself. God’s covenant staggers ahead through all sorts of barrenness, dishonesty and underhandedness.
But Genesis 29’s preachers and teachers may feel like they should don a Hazmat suit in order to even handle this story and then take a long, hot shower after they finish it. After all, its roots lie deep in the mud that is Jacob and Rebekah’s deception of Isaac and swindling of Esau. The story is triggered by Esau’s understandable yet still murderous rage toward Jacob.
His Uncle Laban uses Jacob’s lovesickness to turn him into an indentured servant. On Jacob’s wedding night his father-in-law swaps out Jacob’s beloved for his older sister. Uncle Laban then uses Jacob’s undying love to trap his nephew into serving him for seven more years.
And once they finally get out on their own, infertile Rachel becomes jealous of her fertile sister Leah. So Rachel gives her husband her maidservant. When Leah becomes infertile, she gives Jacob her maidservant.
Yet as my colleague Scott Hoezee noted in a memorable message on this passage, “God is in the details, even if the details are tawdry, typical and mundane.” After all, God doesn’t need perfect saints to advance God’s good plans and purposes.
So, as Hoezee continues, there may be ups and downs for all of God’s adopted children, as well as for Christ’s body that is the Church. Yet God providentially keeps things moving forward in, through and sometimes despite God’s people’s lives.
We glimpse part of that in a detail that this story’s readers easily overlook. Both Matthew 1 and Luke 3 present Jesus’ genealogy. While they start with different people, there are many similarities between the two records. Each includes names we know well, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Yet the name of Jacob’s sons through whom those genealogies run is perhaps striking. It’s not Joseph, one of the true heroes of not only Israel but also the Christian faith. It’s not even Benjamin, the son Jacob’s beloved Rachel dies giving birth.
Jacob’s son whom Matthew and Luke identify as the Savior of the world’s ancestor is the otherwise non-noteworthy Judah. And who is Judah’s mother? It’s not Jacob’s lovely, beloved wife Rachel. Our Lord and, by God’s amazing grace, Savior Jesus’ many times great grandmother is none other than Leah.
Leah, whose name may mean “wild cow.” Leah, whose eyes may be soft but don’t seem to have the sparkle her contemporaries prized. Leah, whose sister Rachel’s glowing description in Genesis suggests she outshone Leah in various ways.
The Savior of the world’s great, great grandma is Leah, whom Jacob never really wanted to marry. Jesus’ ancestor is Leah, whose dad had to trick her husband into marrying her. Jesus’ ancestor is Leah, whose husband was enraged when he learned he’s married her, not his beloved fiancé Rachel. Jesus’ ancestor is miserable Leah, whose husband never quite seems to learn to love her.
Almost all of God’s adopted sons and daughters at least sometimes feel as unqualified as Jacob to carry forward God’s good plans and loving purposes. A few may feel like Jacob’s beloved and lovely Rachel. However, some of God’s people also feel as unloved as Leah.
They’re the last chair in the school orchestra or sit at their soccer team’s end of the bench. They’re the ones who stay home on weekends when everyone else is out having a good time. They’re the people others turn to only when they can’t convince anyone else to hang out with them.
They’re the Leah’s who are the second choice of their parents, siblings, supervisors and co-workers. They’re the Leah’s whom others consider unattractive and unloved, on the outside and sometimes on the inside as well. They’re the Leah’s whom others consider second-class because of things like their skin color, sexual orientation or hitches in their English.
Genesis 29 reminds us that it isn’t just the sometimes-slimy Jacob’s of the world that God loves to use for good. It’s also the world’s Leah’s who are its second choice, but God’s first choice to use to bless both the world and everything in it.
In his marvelous book, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row: 1979), Frederick Beuchner says, “The life of Jacob’s wife Rachel was never an easy one. In the first place, she had Laban for a father, and in the second place, she had Jacob for a husband. And then, of course, she also had her sister Leah.”
Author: Stan Mast
Given a choice, what busy preacher would preach on this reading from Psalm 119? I mean, it is stanza #17 in an endlessly long, apparently meandering, often boring meditation on a subject that most of your listeners won’t care about at all, namely, the importance and beauty of God’s law.
Some brands of Christianity don’t want to talk about Law at all, seeing it as abrogated by God’s grace in Christ. Even Reformed Christians who still think the Law of God is an important part of the Christian life (the famous third use of the Law, about which I’ll say a bit more later), that is, even the likes of me would rather talk about Jesus than Law. And your un-churched seeker dedicated to doing her own thing will be completely turned off by any insistence on objectively defined right and wrong. So why not move on to the other reading from the Old Testament or the reading from the Gospels or the Epistles? Well, consider the following observations.
First, Psalm 119, and this section in particular, is not quite as meandering as it seems at first reading. There actually is a rational movement here. Verses 129-131 are wisdom like statements about the beauty and utility of Torah. It is “wonderful,” it “gives light and understanding,” so that the writer longs for it with a breathless passion. Torah is a means of grace, the means by which God, here addressed familiarly as “you,” connects with and directs his beloved people.
Verses 132-135 is a series of petitions in which the divine “You” is asked to help us live by Torah. We cannot keep Torah by ourselves. We tend to wander from its well laid out paths. We are prone to sin. There are people who would hinder our obedience. We need God’s mercy and grace to know it, obey it, love it, and live by it. Only with God’s help will Torah be for us the delight that it is.
And then verse 136 is an expression of dismay worthy of the Apostle Paul and even our Lord himself. “Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.” Here is a real challenge for modern Christians. How much are we bothered by the lawlessness of our day? Do we weep over the sinfulness of our world? Or have we become hardened by the spirit of lawlessness that has taken hold of our culture? In Romans 1:32 Paul speaks a word that I find devastating. “Although they know God’s righteous decrees that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things, but also approve of those who practice them.” Is that us? Does Psalm 119:136 call us to wake up and repent of moral torpor?
Or think of Jesus in Luke 19:41-44 weeping over Jerusalem, because its inhabitants didn’t recognize “the time of God’s coming to you.” God’s own Word had become flesh and dwelt among them, but his own received him not. Rejection of God’s ultimate revelation of “the Way, the Truth and the Life” made Jesus weep. Or think of Paul’s deep distress over the pagan ignorance of the Athenians (Acts 17:16). I know, this is not an acceptable response to religious diversity in a tolerant society. But if David and Paul and Jesus could weep over what people have done with God’s revelation, we should at least consider it. Or maybe all this will convince you that you should skip this Psalm and move on to other, more pleasant passages of Scripture.
Second, as all students of Psalm 119 know, it is structured by the Hebrew alphabet. There are 22 stanzas in Psalm 119 and each of those stanzas corresponds to a successive letter of that alphabet, from aleph to taw. On top of that, each of those alphabetical stanzas has eight verses, each of which begins with the letter that heads that stanzas. So our reading for today centers on the letter Pe and the first word of each word begins with Pe. That alphabetical structure accounts for what seems to be a disconnected collection of thoughts. What seems to be random is in fact very structured.
The more poetically inclined among your listeners may be mildly interested in this literary feature of Psalm 119, but most will say, “Who cares?” You might be able to grab the attention of the philosophers in your church with these mystical thoughts from the ancient rabbis, as summarized by Patrick Henry Reardon. “The way Psalm 119 is structured by the Hebrew alphabet is a poetic way of asserting that the Law of God is the inner core and essential substance of human language. The primary function of language is the formation of thought in accord with reality, and the world’s deepest created reality… is the Torah, the eternal Law of God, on which the inner being of all created reality is based. The Torah reflects in turn the very being of God, and the final purpose of language is to lead man’s thought to the knowledge of God.” Torah is not so much a list of rules as it is the revelation of God’s own nature. Living by Torah connects us with the Ultimate Reality of the universe.
Walter Brueggemann says something similar, but more practical. Those who live by Torah have made some basic life commitments. “They know to whom they belong, and they will answer. Therefore, they know who they are, and they have settled in large part the moral posture they will assume toward life. There is a focus to life, an absence of frantic moral dilemma, a sense of priorities matched by an absence of anxiety. In a well-ordered world [a world ordered by God’s revealed Will], such a decision can save one from an exhausting, endless reinventing of moral decision.” This take on Psalm 119 may well appeal to your ever striving, always stretching, often desperate millennials who might welcome a fixed point in this turning world.
But shouldn’t that fixed point be Christ, rather than Torah? This is probably the biggest challenge in preaching on the beauty of God’s law; Christ is a more beautiful Savior, a Savior from that very Law. After all, however beautiful the Law may be, we cannot keep it, no matter how much we pray Psalm 119. What we need to preach over and over is the message of Paul 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 he 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.”
Why even bother with Psalm 119:129-136? Well, consider Emily Dickinson’s famous words about telling the truth. “Tell it slant.” We must be careful not to preach the same simple sermon about Jesus over and over. Christ and his saving work is multi-faceted, and we need to take care to expose the full beauty of our Savior. Coming at the Gospel through a Psalm like this can provide a different angle, a fresh slant on the Gospel.
Reardon helps us in this direction. He points out that Christians have always believed that God’s eternal Word has become flesh for us and for our salvation. Call him Word, Logos, Wisdom, Way, Truth, or any of the 8 words Psalm 119 uses for the revealed will of God. The point is that Jesus is the fulfillment of Torah, as he himself said in Matthew 5:17. The Torah, then, speaks of Christ. It points us to Christ and is fulfilled in Christ. As the Latin fathers said, he is God’s Word abbreviated, in the sense that all God has to say is summed up in him.
We can preach Christ from Psalm 119 in at least two ways, maybe even three. We could read it as the prayer of Christ himself, filled with resolve to do the Father’s will. He was the faithful suffering servant, obedient unto death. Hebrews 5:7-9 give some warrant for reading Psalm 119 this way. “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him….” Read verses 129-136 again as the prayer of Jesus. It makes good homiletical sense.
Or we could preach these words as a description of Christ himself. All the words of praise directed here to the Torah are even more fitting as a tribute to the excellencies of the Word made flesh. On the Emmaus Road, Jesus said that Moses and the Prophets, all Scripture, was about him. Insert the name of Jesus wherever you find the words for Law, and you will say some glorious things about who Jesus is and what he does for sinful humans.
Or we could preach on Psalm 119 in accordance with the third use of the law revered in Reformed circles. Our lives are focused on Christ and Christ alone. We must live in love and gratitude toward him. But the Law of God gives shape to our love and gratitude. We focus on God’s law, not as a ladder that leads to salvation, but as a guide for our gratitude. In a world that is careening out of control morally, we should be grateful for guardrails. Christ, who is all we need, has shown us the Way to live, the Truth about the good life, so that we can have Life that is full and free. “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”
In Donna Tart’s national best seller, The Goldfinch, we read this description of the utter meaningless of life. The main character, Theo Dekker, has sunk into a profound depression about his miserable life. “But depression wasn’t the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people kept breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game.”
After a scathing rant about the events of the average human life, Theo ends with this. “But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom. Putting in your time at the office; dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home. It was better never to have been born—never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything.”
Psalm 119 offers a view of life, centered on the Will of God and anticipating the Incarnation of that Will in Jesus, that offers the only sure hope to the Theo Dekker’s of the world.
Romans 8: 26-39
Author: Scott Hoezee
All of us prefer winning over losing. All the world loves a winner. “There is no prize for second place” an old adage assures us. And most of us believe that without question. Once in a while, though, the world embraces a loser. Seldom did this happen more dramatically than at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada.
Some of you may remember Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards. At that time Eddie was a 25-year-old plasterer with thick glasses and a goofy grin.
He entered the Games as England’s only (and first-ever) ski jumper. But Eddie was not very skilled. He fit the description of a born loser: someone who gets a paper-cut opening a Get Well card. Eddie looked decidedly non-athletic. In his yellow ski-jumping suit he looked more like Winnie the Pooh than the sculpted athletes we usually associate with the Olympics. Eddie’s training had been sub-standard and his equipment was second-rate. The airline lost Eddie’s luggage when he traveled to Calgary. On the day of his competition, the Olympic security agents almost did not let Eddie in at all because, they later said, the chunky man’s coke-bottle glasses had such thick lenses they were certain he was an imposter. But he did get let in eventually. He didn’t do very well. Outside magazine said that in the air, Eddie looked like an “errant slushball.” When it was all over, Eddie came in 56th place out of a field of 57 jumpers (but then, the 57th man had been disqualified).
But all the world loved Eddie. Johnny Carson had Eddie flown down to Burbank to appear as a guest on The Tonight Show. TV crews and newspapers from around the world clamored to interview Eddie. Once he got back to England, he was treated like a full-blown celebrity who parlayed his fame into a tidy sum.
To state the merely obvious, Eddie was the exception, not the rule. And even with all the attention paid to him, few people would have held Eddie up as a role model. When someone is as skilled as Michael Jordan, it doesn’t take long before you hear slogans such as “Be Like Mike!” But no one would say, “Be Like Eddie.” Because mostly we identify with those who win even as we distance ourselves from those who lose. If your favorite basketball team manages to defeat a rival team in a big game, even those of us who were nowhere near the basketball court may quite happily declare, “Hooray! We won!” But when your team loses such a game, we are apt to say something like, “Shucks, they lost.” Just how is it that we win but they lose? Similarly in school a student on Monday may be glad to hold up a math quiz and say “I got an A!” even as the next day she may look at a history test and say, “The teacher gave me a D.” We are quick to align ourselves with victories but equally quick to put some daylight between ourselves and defeat.
Given all that, we are glad to discover the apostle Paul’s ringing assurance at the end of Romans 8 that we are victors, winners, cosmic conquerors. In fact, in verse 37 it may very well be the case that Paul coined his own Greek word in a zestful attempt to express the enormity of everything he has written so far in this landmark chapter. In verse 37 Paul says not just that we are conquerors but he attaches the Greek prefix huper, from which we get our word “hyper.” We are not just winners, Paul explodes, we are hyper-winners.
And probably most all of us are only too glad to hear it. As anyone in advertising and promotions could tell us, few phrases arrest our attention and pique our curiosity more than the line “Congratulations! You’re A Winner!”
“We are all winners, hyper-victors, through him who loved us” Paul says. But that is not all Paul says. Many of us are familiar with the phrase “more than conquerors.” But how often do we remember the four words that precede that declaration: in all these things. Paul is not like some slick advertiser who tries to catch your attention by coming up to you out of the blue to saying, “You’re a Winner!” Instead he first writes “in all these things we are more than conquerors” and so the logical question becomes, “In all what things?” Well, in all the things Paul has just been talking about.
Paul writes, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ” followed by a list of potential candidates: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword. Now maybe we can cruise over top of that list without batting an eye, but the reaction of the Roman Christians was rather different the first time they saw this. To them this was a description that hit pretty close to home. Would we be able to refresh the impact of these words if we substituted other items? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall collapsing twin towers, AIDS, anthrax, secularism, unemployment, depression, terrorist plots, divorce, cancer, miscarriages, infertility, suicide bombers, handguns?
You see, when at the head of verse 37 Paul says “in all these things,” he is describing the everyday realities of life that threaten us, that make life unhappy, dicey, and difficult. And please notice that Paul does not say that we are more than conquerors over all these things, as though to say that if we are faithful enough, these difficulties will never come our way in the first place. We are not victors over these things but in them. We do not lead victorious lives because we get spared the pain of this world but rather like Jesus himself, we find victory smack in the middle of this life’s worst realities.
That’s why verse 36 makes clear that we face death all day long even as we are all the time considered like sheep to be slaughtered. That’s what we look like to this world: like sheep to be slaughtered. That line is a quote from Psalm 44 but in a New Testament context comparing us to sheep at the slaughter is a loaded allusion to also Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Lamb that was slain. As followers of the crucified Christ, of the one who was weirdly and paradoxically glorified on a cross (of all places) so we also face death all the day long. We live cross-shaped, cruciform lives of sacrifice and service. We are constantly putting to death the clutchings of ego and desire, of vengeance and the way of violence. We are people told to turn the other cheek, to forgive seventy times seventy times in a life that does not use a calculus of grace but that exudes grace in wildly exorbitant ways.
“Nice guys finish last” a popular aphorism says, and as Christians who walk under the sign of the cross, we reply that if this is so, then we will be quite content to finish last. In your mind’s eye when reading Romans 8:38-39 you need to see assembled before the apostle Paul a long line of people who represent typical Christians in his day and ever since. Standing before Paul and coming up to him one by one, these Christian folks have things to ask. And in hearing Paul’s answer, we need to perceive not just flowery words to counter-cross-stitch onto a wall hanging but a pastor’s answer to deeply pained questions.
And so a woman whose body is riddled with cancer comes to Paul and asks, “Do my tumors separate me from the love of God?” And Paul says “No!” A man in a wheelchair rolls up and asks, “Does my disability separate me from the love of God?” And Paul says “No!” A just-widowed woman who senses the reality of death so keenly her whole body aches with the grief of it all asks, “Does my dear one’s death separate him or me from the love of God?” And Paul says “No!” A man whose clinical depression means he may spend the rest of his days tethered to a vial of Prozac asks, “Does my depression separate me from the love of God?” And Paul says “No!” The woman with an addiction shuffles up shame-faced, eyes downcast as she mutters, “Am I such a bad sinner that I am separated from the love of God?” And Paul says “No!” Finally, before this goes on and on, Paul says, “Listen, everyone! There is nothing in all creation that can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! That covers everyone, everything, every conceivable situation you could ask me about.”
In so many ways the basic orientation of our lives may make us look like misguided folks who value all the wrong things. Some while back the multi-billionaire cable TV magnate Ted Turner said he could never become a Christian because Christianity seems like “a religion for losers.” Microsoft chairman Bill Gates also once derided worship by saying he could think of lots of far more productive things to do with a Sunday morning than singing and praying in a church.
The world hails us as losers whose lives are outwardly no better than the next person’s life. But still we willingly follow our Lord. We walk the way to the cross and go down into death along with Jesus and we do it because we know that somehow, in the deep magic of the cosmos, victory comes through defeat, healing comes through humility. That is the gospel way and we follow it even though it so often leads us away from success as the world defines it. And we do all this because we carry in our hearts the better vision of God’s kingdom. Successful people, the “winners” of society, get ahead by conforming themselves to this world, adapting themselves to its values, working its angles, and going with the flow. Losers like us, on the other hand, do not conform to the world but instead we try to give life the shape of things to come by living into the better patterns of God’s kingdom.
Eddie the Eagle is a lousy ski jumper, but he really loves it. In fact, he had hoped to compete again in a future Olympics. But it turned out that Olympic officials did not like Eddie and felt he reflected badly on the Games. So they instituted what some call the “Eddie rule” which requires all athletes to have finished in the top half of an international sports event as a prerequisite for getting into the Olympics. Doubtless that will keep Eddie, and many like him, out. You see, the Olympic folks don’t mind having people lose but only because without losers there could be no winners. But if a loser gets attention, the winners seem diminished. In this world losers are supposed to fade away quietly so that winners can occupy center stage.
But the secret of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is that we become winners by losing, we gain life by dying, we gain the victory in all these things that pain us because it was precisely for all these things that Jesus came into this world in the first place.
The preacher Fred Craddock once made a poignant comment. In the days when the “Left Behind” series of books sold a scandalous number of copies, Craddock noted the dispensationalist belief that one day all good Christians will be raptured out of this world and be instantly beamed up to heaven before things get really bad here on earth. Craddock finds this teaching to be arrogant. Without even knowing it, those who long to escape suffering by getting snatched out of the world first are basically saying that the disciple is greater than the master. Jesus suffered his whole life. But if we can find a different path to take ourselves, we will.
But even short of some hoped-for rapture there are other ways by which to deny suffering, pain, and difficulty. I once heard a Christian author lament some of the songs he sang in his youth and the way those songs damaged his theological senses. Back in Sunday school this man used to sing, “I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time. Since Jesus Christ came in and cleansed me from my sin, I’m inright, outright, upright, downright happy all the time.” Without for a moment denying the true joy that comes to all who are “in Christ,” still we can properly hesitate over sentiments that rule out of the Christian life things like sorrow, struggle, doubt, sadness.