July 23, 2018
The Proper 12B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 6:1-21 from the Lectionary Gospel; 2 Samuel 11:1-15 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 14 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 3:14-21 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 125 (Lord’s Day 50)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Hang on to your hats, preaching partners, because we are beginning a 5-week odyssey in John 6. Granted this is an important chapter but 5 whole weeks of preaching sermons on variations of Jesus’ being the bread of life can be a bit taxing. Having skipped over the Feeding of the 5,000 in last week’s Common Lectionary gospel text from Mark 6, the Lectionary now picks up this miracle as John records it in his own sixth chapter. (Knowing that lots of “bread of life” stuff is coming up, you could on this week preach on the walking on water part, and I reflect on that in the second section “Questions to Ask / Issues to Address,” section of this sermon starter article.)
There are quite a few rather obvious differences between the two accounts. Mark clearly shaped his own version of the story to highlight Jesus’ role as the Messianic Great Shepherd of the Sheep. Mark’s account was thus redolent of imagery from Psalm 23 as well as various “sheep without a shepherd” texts from Ezekiel and Isaiah. John lacks those details but instead nestles this story in close proximity to the upcoming Feast of the Passover while also using this story and Jesus’ subsequent walking on water as more “signs” that Jesus is the Chosen One of God. Unlike Mark’s account where we are actually unsure to what degree the crowd was aware of the feeding miracle that had occurred, in John they not only know what happened, they use it as a reason to try to seize on Jesus so as to force him to become a king, a political rival to all things Rome.
This must have been an occasion of great wonder but also of great joy and hilarity. As the basket of bread and fish kept going and going without being depleted, waves of laughter must have accompanied it. By the time the basket got to the fiftieth person, you can almost imagine his shouting back to the first person in line, “Hey, Sherman! Isn’t this the same fish you ate?!” As astonishment gave way to joy, as growling stomachs gave way to stuffed bellies, the people realized Jesus truly was a great man of God.
Only the Creator himself could “play” with the very stuff of creation as to pull off this feat. As the Son of God, Jesus held in his hands the kernels of wheat from every field on the planet as well as the fish in every stream, lake, and ocean. Through his hands alone the bounty of all those fields and streams was channeled to this hungry gathering. Not surprisingly, they right away wanted to make him their king. Who can blame them? We always hope our leaders will somehow find the wherewithal to make available to all the people the riches of the land. Smart politicians who want to be elected promise just this, too. “Vote for me and taxes will be cut to give you more money, production will be increased to give you more food, the economy will grow to give you more of . . . everything.”
A chicken in every pot and all that . . .
So also these people perceived that since Jesus could so richly provide the good stuff of life, they would set him up as their new leader. But Jesus wants nothing to do with this, and so he gets out of there. Because much though the feeding of the hungry is a sign of Jesus’ larger purpose, this miracle is only a sign of Jesus’ salvation but it is not the same thing. Jesus does not want to be made a king who will just keep producing more wonder bread because Jesus knows that in the long run the business of eating and drinking is quite literally a dead end. Even as any individual meal can sustain us just so long before we need to eat again, so the entire enterprise of eating and drinking can only keep us going just so long, and then we die. The bread of this earth cannot keep us alive forever.
That’s why, when a loved one is gravely ill with some disease, we do not conclude that if we run to the kitchen and whip together a ham and Swiss sandwich, we can make this dear one eat and so keep on living. No, it doesn’t work that way. These days doctors are able to fasten a feeding tube into patients who are too damaged or too sick to eat the normal way. The high-protein goop that gets delivered through such tubes can sustain the person biologically, and yet in at least some situations the family members watching all of this conclude that the life this tube is sustaining is finally no life at all. So although we may agonize about it, we may ask for the forced feeding to stop in recognition of the fact that true life has now stopped in ways that bread and butter, calories and protein can no longer help.
What Jesus did on the mountainside that day for those 5,000 folks was wonderful. It was a sign of the kingdom. But it was not the kingdom. To get at the real reason Jesus had come, to solve the deeper problems of life and death, Jesus had to say something else, which is what he goes on to do in the last part of John 6. There Jesus presents himself as the true bread of life. Somehow by eating his flesh and drinking his blood we can find a new form of life–eternal life.
Since that part of John 6 is coming up in subsequent Lectionary readings in the coming weeks, we will wait to ponder the way John 6 closes, but clearly we cannot read this feeding story completely in isolation from where it will ultimately lead in this chapter.
Then as now, we’re altogether too eager to settle for the quick fix. Holy patience insists we stick with Jesus over the long haul, following him all the way to a cross that is not only not a quick fix, it even looks like the end of everything. But only when we stay with Jesus that long do we actually discover the beginning of everything.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
John’s presentation of the well-known incident of Jesus’ walking upon the water is strange by most any reckoning. For one thing, it seems odd that the disciples took off for Capernaum by boat without Jesus. We’re told Jesus had not yet joined them, but once they were all on the other side of the lake, it’s not the least bit clear how he would be able to join them later on, either. It’s as though, while on a cross-country trip, dad pulled the family car out of the rest area and back onto the highway before little Jimmy had come back from the bathroom. Jimmy is not likely to be able to catch up once he comes back to the parking lot only to see the car zooming away at 65 MPH. Why leave someone behind?
We’re also told that although a strong wind had come up, the disciples are not reported to be in any grave danger (as the other accounts of this incident seem to convey). These are pretty experienced seaman and so they can handle some bigger swells. The only terror reported in this incident is when Jesus is seen serenely walking on the water. Once they realize it is Jesus, however, they let him climb aboard. But then we’re told not that the winds ceased or the sea became calm but only that (through what looks to be some kind of hyperfast transportation) the boat more or less disappeared from where it had been out on the lake only to reappear at the very shore toward which they had been headed all along.
So unlike other accounts of this where Jesus’ mastery over the creation and its elements is the key sign, it’s a little hard here to know what the sign is. Surely walking on water with about as much ease as walking on a gravel road is an eye-popper. And surely whatever quirk it was that suddenly made the boat appear at its destination—having gone from Point A to Point C without, apparently, having passed through Point B—is curious as well. But we receive no reaction from the disciples here, no words that indicate they were properly wowed or that they connected any dots between what happened and Jesus’ identity as the Lord of Creation.
But maybe in John the dots have to be connected by us as readers. Because we need to get beyond the English translation of John 6:20 where Jesus is depicted as saying, “It is I; don’t be afraid” so as to recall that what Jesus really says there is “I Am! Don’t be afraid.” Yes, a “dynamic equivalent” translation would have Jesus saying the equivalent of “It’s me!.” You know how that goes: you walk into the house only to have a family member elsewhere in the house call out, “Who’s there?” to which you reply, “It’s me, honey!” As such, you’re merely identifying yourself, putting at ease your fellow family member who might otherwise be a bit uptight as to who was entering the house.
But you can’t be familiar with John’s Gospel and miss the significance of the phrase “I Am.” The first time came in John 4 as Jesus revealed his Messianic identity to the Samaritan woman at the well. She said, “We know the Messiah is coming” and Jesus replied “Ego eimi,” “I Am.” Now in John 6 we get this again and, of course, many more memorable “I Am” sayings will follow. And taken together we know that in John this pegs Jesus’ identity to Yahweh, the Great I Am of Israel, the God who revealed the divine Name to Moses at the Burning Bush long ago.
The one walking on the water that day was Yahweh, was the Creator God himself. For those with theological eyes to see, John doesn’t need to make Jesus calm a storm or have the disciples express wonderment over how even the winds and waves obey Jesus. It’s enough to know Who it was walking on those waters.
And then it’s also no wonder to discover that having heard the freighted words “I Am” from the lips of Jesus, the disciples instantly arrived at where they were going. When you’re in the presence of God himself, you are always right where you should have been all along and where you will want always to be thereafter, too.
When compared to the Synoptic accounts, John 6:16-21 is discovered to be quite different. As Raymond Brown reminds us in his commentary, Chrysostom (among others) concluded that John’s version of Jesus’ walking on water is so different from the Synoptic accounts that John is quite probably narrating a different event altogether. Most commentators in history have disagreed with that conclusion, but we do find significant differences in detail, leading Brown to think that John’s may be the more primitive version of the story to which the Synoptic evangelists added various details and overlays of interpretation. What may be significant, however, is that one detail that all of the accounts share is the inclusion of Jesus’ saying, Ego Eimi, “I am” to identify himself.
Throughout history and across many very different religious traditions there has long been a curious linkage between spirituality and food. The Old Testament has its share of dietary restrictions and laws, many of which to this day translate into what observant Jews regard as kosher or non-kosher foods. Although the Christian faith has largely left behind such strictures, we still regard gluttony as one of the deadly sins, and some Christians also promote strict vegetarianism. Then there is the Roman Catholic “no meat on Friday” rule, which made the headlines a few years ago when St. Patrick’s day fell on a Friday during Lent, thus causing a number of Catholic bishops to suspend the rule for just March 17 so the Irish could celebrate with their traditional corned beef and a pint of Guinness!
Even some of the foods we eat each week have a religious background. In the mid-1800s there was a group of people in America known as the Millerites–a Christian sect firmly convinced that Jesus would return sometime late in the year 1843. He didn’t, setting off what was called “the Great Disappointment.” At least some of these folks, however, made the best of the situation by declaring that as a matter of fact Jesus had returned but that it had turned out to be an invisible, spiritual advent. Believing themselves to be living in an already-present millennial kingdom, these Adventists decided that as part of this new identity they should invent alternative foods as a sign of their not being fully in this world. So one preacher named Sylvester Graham invented a new kind of cracker for his congregation to eat–yes, the Graham Cracker. Peanut butter was also invented at this time, as was a variety of cold breakfast cereals, including something called a “corn flake,” perfected by Adventist devotee John Harvey Kellogg in a spiritual community located in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Food and spirituality have long been yoked, but aside from observing occasional periods of fasting, no religious group has ever said it would never eat anything again. We all know we must eat and drink to live. If we go much more than three days without water or a month or so with no food, we will die. Many organizations nobly work every day to get food to this world’s starving. The fact that thousands of children die of starvation every day is as vivid, and utterly tragic, a sign of this world’s broken condition as anything.
We need food to live. Those of us blessed enough never to have to worry about our food also have the luxury of being able to enjoy this creation’s bounty in all its manifold variety. We even celebrate those skilled at serving up particularly tasty cuisine, whether it’s Aunt Millie whose pot roast cannot be topped or Julia Child whose “Boeuf Bourguignon avec Champignon” is so fine we’ll shell out thirty or forty bucks just to get a plate of it.
We need food; we appreciate it. The crowds around Jesus on that long ago day as reported in John 6 were no different. They were hungry, Jesus fed them and so he quickly rose in their estimation because of this miracle.
2 Samuel 11:1-15
Author: Doug Bratt
When my family lived in West Germany in the early 70’s, teenagers celebrated New Year’s Eve by lighting firecrackers. Among their favorites were strings of firecrackers that they linked together. One lit fuse would eventually produce a whole string of small explosions.
2 Samuel 11 is a bit reminiscent of those firecrackers. After all, just one little “spark” causes a whole string of “explosions” that eventually scar a number of people. Yet the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday starts apparently innocently enough. It recounts a basically ordinary day during the time of the year when kings often go out to fight each other.
David, however, stays home. So Israel’s king is not, as one preacher points out, where he’s supposed to be. When, however, you’re not in the right place, as that preacher also notes, temptation can be very powerful.
Maybe David is just too tired to fight this year. Or perhaps it’s that he has already defeated most of his country’s biggest enemies. David has subdued the Philistines, Moabites and Edomites. In any case, this spring Israel’s king decides to just send his best general and soldiers, including one Uriah, a Hittite, to mop up his last enemy.
Yet while David may be too tired to stay awake all afternoon or bored to fight, he isn’t too tired to take a walk on his rooftop. From there he can see signs of his success: Israel is united, Jerusalem is established and the economy is strong. Yet from the rooftop of his lavish palace, David can also see a beautiful woman who is bathing. She turns out to be Bathsheba who just happens to be married to David’s soldier, Uriah.
Sin, however, often grows and flourishes in the fertile soil that is sight. I may, after all, see my neighbor’s house or car and, as a result, covet it. Sin, however, seldom stops with such seeing. Undisciplined vision can easily become like a firecracker that lights another firecracker that is sinful action.
This may be, in fact, even truer for men than women. Some experts suggest while that things like smells can trigger romantic feelings in women, sight has immense sexual power in men. So those who want to remain faithful are careful about both where we put ourselves and what we look at.
The David who has put himself in the wrong place to look at the wrong person sends for Bathsheba so that he can do the wrong thing to her. It is hardly a romantic encounter: “David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her … Then she went back home” (4). There is, as Scott Hoezee points out, no courting, no conversation, no tenderness, no love – just male lust.
Samuel had warned Israel that that kings are takers. Yet while David has not yet taken much in the past, 2 Samuel 11’s king is apparently different now. Since he’s now in full control, he seems to assume he can take whatever he wants.
We sometimes say that it takes “two to tango,” meaning that adultery always involves two people. However, David has unlimited royal power over his Israelite subjects. Bathsheba is, what’s more, a largely powerless woman who would endanger herself if she refused her king’s advances. Essentially, then, David takes advantage of his position to sexually assault Uriah’s wife.
So David’s lust is the match that lights the first explosion that is his assault of Bathsheba. This in turn lights a second kind of firecracker: the conception of a child (5). Uriah’s wife learns that she’s pregnant, not by her husband, who’s still off fighting David’s battles, but by David.
So for the first time, Bathsheba speaks: “I am pregnant” (5). She makes no demands or threats. Uriah’s wife doesn’t have to say anything more. After all, she probably realizes that her message alone threatens not just her, but also David’s whole world.
Since Israel’s king wants no one to know that Bathsheba’s child is his, he tries to trick Uriah into being intimate with his pregnant wife. Then both Uriah and everyone who sees him enter his home will assume Bathsheba’s child is his.
So David summons Uriah home from the front. Yet the furloughed and refreshed soldier foils his scheme. When, after all, Uriah leaves his king’s palace, he doesn’t go home to sleep with Bathsheba in their bed. He, instead, sleeps at the palace entrance with the rest of the king’s servants.
Bathsheba’s husband remains, after all, loyal to his comrades who are still out in the field, sleeping in tents. Even God’s ark, he says, remains in a tent. Since everything about which he cares is still at risk, how, Bathsheba’s husband asks his commander-in-chief, can he possibly be unfaithful by enjoying himself?
So a frustrated king tries one more ploy. He gets Uriah drunk, hoping that alcohol will dissolve his inhibitions. Yet even drunk, this soldier again foils David’s plot. Perhaps, in fact, he’s so drunk that he just passes out, not at home, but right back in the place where he’d slept the night before. Ironically, then, a drunken Uriah proves to be more faithful than a completely sober David. Even an inebriated foreigner is more disciplined than his sober Jewish king.
Sin, however, doesn’t just grow out of being in the wrong place. Sin doesn’t just move from sight to action. Sin also often entangles others in its strong and sticky web. Until now, David has been the only responsible sinner in the whole episode. In his lust he has conquered vulnerable Bathsheba all by himself. He alone has also tried to cover up his sin by duping Uriah.
However, when that doesn’t work, David decides to enlist Uriah’s commander’s help. He entangles Joab in his sin’s web by ordering him to station Bathsheba’s husband where the fighting’s the heaviest. Then, David tells his commander, abandon Uriah, exposing him to the enemy’s expert marksmen’s lethal fire.
David’s cynical desperation shows that it has no boundaries. Earlier he’d tried to cover up his adultery by trying to convince Uriah to sleep with his wife. Now it’s Uriah whom the king cynically sends with his own death warrant to the firing squad. Uriah carries the precise suggestion for how David can cover up his rape of his wife.
With Hoezee, I sometimes wonder what Joab thought when he received this message. Did he question why David wanted Uriah killed? Did Joab flinch even just slightly at the thought of essentially condemning one of his best soldiers to die?
We certainly wish he’d had the courage to say “no” to David’s order. Yet just as Bathsheba would have risked her life by refusing the king’s invitation, so Joab also would probably have endangered himself by refusing the king’s order. So we’re not surprised that he obeys orders.
The story’s denouement is quick but outside of the parameters of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. So those who stick to the suggested text will have to decide how much, if any, of the rest of the story they want to include on this Sunday. (Here is, by the way, yet another occasion on which preachers and teachers sometimes question the limits the Lectionary imposes on some of its texts).
Joab follows David’s orders. He, in fact, puts not just Bathsheba’s husband but also other Israelite soldiers right where the enemy defenders are the fiercest and most lethal. If, after all, he reasons, Uriah isn’t the only Israelite who falls under those archers’ withering fire, no one will even suspect the king planned his demise. So David entangles perhaps as much as a whole regiment or company of soldiers in his sinful web.
Yet David doesn’t just enlist Joab to join his tawdry conspiracy. He, in a sense, also draws his unwitting enemies into his tawdry plot. The Ammonites, after all, carry out Israel’s king’s “contract” on Uriah. They become his hit man.
Those who proclaim or hear 2 Samuel 11 may have, like David, have lit a fuse that caused a string of other explosions of sin. Or perhaps someone else lit a firecracker that exploded in their face, like it did in Uriah’s, causing them deep pain.
Thankfully, then, there is some gospel in our narrator’s later assertion that David’s sin displeased the Lord. There’s good news for those in whose faces the firecracker that is sin has blown up. Sadly, however, this story’s explicit gospel doesn’t come until the next chapter of 2 Samuel and David’s life.
God will let David suffer the consequences of the lit string of firecrackers that is his sin. While David and Bathsheba’s young son will soon sicken and die, God will take David’s sin away. God will let David live to father more descendants, including, in a sense, Jesus Christ. God will remain tenaciously faithful to sinful David, just as God remains faithful to sinful people like us, for Jesus’ sake.
Yet is there gospel within the limits the Lectionary imposes for this Sunday? Perhaps it’s this: 2 Samuel 11 reflects the Scriptures’ honesty about human sinfulness. Divine inspiration doesn’t provide divine cover-up. God’s people can be honest about our as well as others’ sins because God’s people’s Scriptures are honest about them.
In his Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis recounts a conversation between Screwtape, senior devil, and Wormwood, a junior devil and Screwtape’s nephew: “You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God].
“It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their accumulative effect is to edge the man away from the light and toward the Nothing. Murder is not better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
The incline from David’s staying home from battle to murdering Uriah and other Israelites is, in fact, a very gradual one.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 14 is not my favorite Psalm; I’ve never preached on it. And it is not a Psalm that occurs over and over in the RCL like Psalm 23. It is easy to see why. It is about as politically incorrect as anything in the Bible. It’s not the sweet political incorrectness of the Gospel, with its message that there is only one God and only one Savior, Jesus Christ, in whom all people must believe if they would be saved. This is the sour political incorrectness that labels atheists as fools, asserts that their lack of faith in God leads directly to grossly immoral lives, claims that all the spiritual seekers in the world are headed in the wrong direction, and says to all the do-gooders in the world, “No one does good, not even one.” Is this the way to address all the non-Christians in the world? How would we preach this in the average church?
The paragraph above assumes that Psalm 14 is about avowed atheists out in the world. That might be true, in which case it should be preached to the church as a comforting assurance. In spite of the apparent power of these secular scalawags, God is still in his heaven and still with his people. Yahweh is a refuge for them in a world going to hell, and our Lord will finally save his poor beleaguered people. So, rejoice, anyway.
But what if Psalm 14 is speaking not about professing atheists far from the church, but about practical atheists in the heart of the church? Notice that these fools “say in their heart, ‘There is no God.’” These are not people who speak their non-faith, who make a verbal profession of unbelief. They speak in their heart, in the secret places of their interior lives, from which issue all the actions and words of their exterior lives. They are not theoretical, but practical atheists, people who live as though there were no God, Christians in name, but pagans in practice.
Could that be? John Calvin thought so, directing comments on Psalm 14 to the clergy of his day who did not care properly for their flock. His take on Psalm 14 clearly grew out of the anti-hierarchical Reformation of his day. But Robert Davidson says the same kind of thing in a broader way. He thinks this is directed “against those in Israel who thought they could live as though God were practically irrelevant and who, thus, drew wrong conclusions about the moral fabric of society. Because they are practically godless, they have no moral restraint. With God on the sidelines, they are free to oppress the poor and needy and amass wealth unjustly.” If we adopt that interpretation of Psalm 14, our sermon becomes a warning to the church about its practical atheism with implications about social justice.
To help you decide which tack to take, let’s take a careful look at the Psalm. Many scholars say that the very first line does not give us a definition of a fool; a fool is anyone who denies the existence of God. Rather, a fool is one who is morally deficient, who does not live by the law of God. That raises the question of the relationship between denying God and living immorally. The Psalm seems to say that denying God leads inexorably to immorality; that is certainly the order of the words. And that seems to be the arc of the biblical story; think of Genesis, where wanting to be God is precisely what led to the first actual sin. Deny God, commit sin.
But other readers think that the denial of God has its root in moral corruption. The people who say, “There is no God,” are people who are already corrupt. Indeed, they deny God precisely because they are corrupt. One thinks of the words attributed to one of the French existentialists (I recall that it was Sartre). “I did not believe in God because I wanted to have sex whenever and wherever and with whomever I wanted.” This resonates with John 3:19-20. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”
Whichever way the causation goes, it is clear from Psalm 14 that practical atheism and immoral living go hand in hand. When God is not at the center of life, life goes terribly wrong. Many will deny this, particularly the devotees of today’s militant atheists, who see God as a delusion that leads many astray. Granted, there is plenty of evidence that misguided church people have visited their fair share of suffering on the world. But Psalm 14 insists that those misguided religionists have done so much evil precisely because they were practical atheists who took the law into their own hands. Brueggemann sums up the argument of Psalm 14 in a way that skewers both theoretical and practical atheists. “When the Creator is not honored, creaturely life disintegrates and degenerates. The end result is a life filled with terror. There are no guards, limits, or boundaries, but everything is continually at risk.”
Because of this combination of atheism and immorality, “All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Here one must inquire about the referent of “all.” Is this “all” qualified by the words that come just before? Does it mean that all who deny God and live immorally turn away from God and do no good, ever. And are there others, “the company of the righteous (verse 5b)” who still do good?
Or does “all” mean everyone in the world, no matter who they are? No one, absolutely no one does good, ever. That is how the apostle Paul uses these words of Psalm 14 in his argument in Romans 3. He quotes these opening words as part of his claim that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and thus can be saved only by God’s grace that gives the righteousness of Christ to all who receive it by faith. As Craigie explains, Paul uses Psalm 14 to say, “The fool is not some sub-species within human nature; all human beings are fools apart from the wisdom of God.”
Whether Psalm 14 is referring to the mass of humanity who can do no good because they have turned away from God or to the crypto-atheists in the community of the righteous, the Psalmist is sure that they won’t get away with it. They might have dismissed God and decided to live as though there is no God, but God is very much involved with his people.
“The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of man to see….” This is the first use of God’s covenantal name in Psalm 14, and it must be intentional. The atheists may dismiss a generic God from their lives, but the God who has reached down to take a whole people into his care is still watching. What he sees is not pretty. Verses 3-5a may be read as God’s verdict on the foolish wicked. Two phrases in particular stand out.
“Will evil doers never learn?” The implied answer is, “No,” because they are unteachable. They are willfully ignorant, determined in their rejection of God’s will, committed to pushing God to margins of life so that they can be at the center. If left to themselves, they will never learn. Thankfully, God does not leave fools alone, but pursues them in his sovereign love.
The second phrase that begs for attention is in verse 5. God looks down on humanity and says, “There they are, overwhelmed with dread.” The twin of Psalm 14, Psalm 53, adds a fascinating condition to that dread; “where there is nothing to dread (verse 5).” As Brueggemann said above, “When God is not honored, creaturely life disintegrates and degenerates. The end result is a life filled with terror.” Of course! Where there are “no guards, no limits or boundaries…, everything is continually at risk.” So, there is a kind of sub-dermal, unspoken, often unacknowledged dread that permeates the soul of humanity that says, “There is no God.”
Interestingly, the Psalmist in verse 5b says that it is the presence of God, not his absence, that produces this dread; “for God is present in the company of the righteous.” Is the idea here that God’s continued presence with his poor persecuted people strikes terror into the hearts of the wicked who devour the poor like bread? In spite of all the centuries of opposition to the company of the righteous, they still stand and even flourish, as a testimony to the presence of God with them. And that fills their persecutors with an unnamed dread of the God they have dismissed.
However we understand that dread, the Psalmist is very clear that he expects God to finally save his people. Already now, Yahweh is their refuge. As we wait for the Lord to appear and make all things new, we have a hiding place in the Rock of Ages. And he will come out of Zion, which meant the earthly Jerusalem for the Jews who read this first and it means the heavenly Jerusalem for Christians who read it today. While Psalm 14 may be a sharp rebuke to believers who are practical atheists as evidenced by their lives, it is also a warm encouragement to those believers who are still focused on the God who comes. Verse 7 is the heartfelt prayer of all who center on God. “Oh, that salvation… would come… When God restores the fortunes of his people, all will rejoice.”
Salvation will come, when Christ comes. Indeed, he already has. And Psalm 14 offers us two ways to preach Christ to a world and a church that looks like Psalm 14. First, we can pick up on Paul’s use of this Psalm and preach the Good News of justification by faith alone. Whether we focus on the whole world in which no one does good or on those practical atheists in the church, we can say, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are freely justified by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:22-24).”
Or we can preach about the coming kingdom of God in which God will make all things right. Psalm 14 is an indictment of the age old human effort to manage the world in ways we think are better than the ways of Yahweh. By pushing God to the margins and making man the measure of things, the world will be a better place. That was the first lie, the greatest temptation, the energizing dream of a rebellious humanity. But it has always led to a fall, and brokenness, and terror, and death. There is only one way that life works, and that is with the King on the throne.
So, Psalm 14 leads us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And it calls us to organize our lives in a kingdom way. Psalm 14 is not simply an argument that fools can’t overthrow God’s governance, but also an assurance that God governs for “his people,” “the poor” and “the righteous.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.”
One way to connect Psalm 14 with the moral and spiritual climate of our culture is to tap into the blazing debate about morality and theology. On the one side, traditional theists have always claimed that humans can’t be good without God. “If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” said Dostoevsky. “Nonsense,” thunder Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. God is the problem. In God’s name, intolerance and persecution and violence have spread over the earth. Adding to the debate is a book by the Harvard humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein. Good Without God argues that classical humanism is perfectly capable producing goodness in humanity without reference to God.
Author: Scott Hoezee
The Bible is inspired. But that does not mean it is always “inspiring” in the typical sense of that word. There are plenty of Bible passages that very nearly repulse the reader: all-out war in the Old Testament where men, women, and children are slaughtered; psalms that delight in smashing babies against rocks. Other Bible passages merely befuddle the reader and can take a lot of work to make sense out of. For instance, just how is it that the dishonest shrewd manager in that one parable of Jesus is held up as some kind of hero?
The Bible is inspired if not always inspiring.
But then every once in a while you run across a passage like this one. Paul himself is the font of no small amount of difficult texts that furrow the brow to interpret. Paul himself was known for some run-on sentences that could pile on subordinating clause after subordinating clause until—in one instance—you had a single sentence with about 272 words in it. But not at the end of Ephesians 3. No, here is an inspired text that not only inspires, it almost lifts you out of your chair and wings you straight into the precincts of glory. Here is a prayer and a doxology and a benediction so lyric it makes you want to sing or shout or dance (or all three at once!).
Paul had just been reviewing with the Ephesians the wonderful fact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had been opened not just to the Jewish people from whose history salvation had come but also to the Gentiles, which was shorthand for everyone on earth. And then comes verse 14 as Paul begins to tell the Ephesians how he prays for them.
He does not pray that they will be healthy and safe.
He does not pray they will be successful and wealthy.
He does not pray that they will find a way to stand up to political foes in the Roman Empire.
He does not pray that they might experience their best life now.
No, he prays for strength by the Spirit to bring Christ more fully into their hearts.
And then he prays they might receive power, but not political power, not worldly clout to legislate their version of morality for pagan Ephesus, not brawny power with which to defeat their enemies.
No, he prays they may receive power to grasp something very nearly ungraspable: how wide and how long and how high and how deep is the love of Christ so that through this glorious piece of ineffable knowledge they might be filled up to the very brim of their lives with God’s own fullness.
And then, as Paul’s own heart—so full itself to the measure of the love of Christ and the fullness of God—as Paul’s own heart begins to burst out of his chest, he sings a doxology that doubles as a blessing as he gives all the glory to the One who not only can do what we ask but even more than we could imagine.
Actually, calling this “inspiring” seems a bit insipid.
But it cuts to the heart of everything. This is the Gospel at its lyrically powerful best. Oh, Paul is no ascetic. He is no unrealistic, other-worldly figure serenely cruising high above the common concerns of everyday life. He knows we all need bread and water, clothing and shelter, health and wellbeing. Yes, yes, and we all pray for such things. Paul himself was not adverse here and there in his letters to thank various congregations for sending him gifts that sustained his life and ministry and brought him comfort and joy on this earthly plane.
Yet the core of it all—that which soars high above our mundane concerns and that which under-girds our very lives—is the love of Christ and the fullness of God in our hearts. Take that away and nothing else matters. Add that and we can endure all kinds of otherwise tragic and unhappy things without our faith being decimated by them.
There is also this, however: this high, long ,wide, deep love of Jesus alone endures and stays with us beyond the boundary lines of our short time here on earth. It endures and transcends the narrow, shrunken boundary lines within which people try to lead meaningful lives on this planet.
At the bright center of the universe there is love. Abounding, unimaginable love. It is the source of all we know. It is the deepest answer to our hardest questions. It is our destiny. Paul wants the Ephesians and everyone to be filled up to the brim of as much of this very love as we can manage to perceive. Because as with this inspiring inspired passage of Scripture, when that happens, the end of the matter is never-ending glory. Forever and ever.
As we have noted before in other epistles, Paul probably wrote to the Ephesians from a prison cell. Perhaps no more than a single shaft of sunlight pierced a crack in a brick wall and penetrated the gloom of Paul’s cell. All was darkness and, by all human measures, Paul’s condition was likewise bleak and conducive to dark despair.
Yet there was perhaps that single beam of light. And through that beam Paul was able to follow its source clear back to the sun. It still shined even while he was in the dark. It always shines as does the source of that star’s power: the love of Christ and of God. It was just the one shaft of light. Not much to it. Not much to go on. You could barely even read a book in so small a light beam. But it pointed to so much more. Paul did not despair over how small his light was but took joy in how large was the ultimate source of that light. Follow along the path of that light beam long enough and you arrive at nothing short of glory.