July 17, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
The Lord’s Prayer is hands down one of the most famous prayers ever. So how ironic it is to notice that in Luke’s presentation of this prayer, the narrative details are very sparse. Today if we were documenting the first-ever presentation of something that went on to become very famous and momentous, we’d want to nail it down to a specific date, place, and occasion. But in Luke 11:1, Luke very casually says that when Jesus uttered this model prayer, it happened “one day” when Jesus was praying “in a certain place.” The curious reader wants to ask, “Well, WHAT day was it? WHERE did this happen?”
But Luke gives us no such clue. Given how sizeable Luke’s narrative skills are, you have to assume there was a reason for this. And I think we can guess at the reason: the disciples saw Jesus praying so often that it was, as a matter of fact, difficult to recall the precise day and location of the time he gave them this particular model prayer to follow. Had Jesus prayed only rarely or on only certain high ceremonial occasions, then maybe it would have been both easy and important to record a few more details. But Jesus prayed so regularly that in the minds of the disciples, it all blurred together. This was not like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—a one-time, rather unusual event worthy of a very specific memorializing. When someone prayed as much as Jesus did, it really didn’t matter where this precise incident took place—the point is that Jesus prayed all the time to the extent that the disciples finally just had to know how to do that themselves.
All of which leads to an important point when it comes to preaching on Luke 11: often we think that what the disciples asked for were the words to say when praying. But in reality what the disciples wanted was not a litany of key phrases or a checklist of prayer items. What they were inquiring after was how they could, in imitation of their Master, turn the entirety of their lives into an extended act of prayer, the same as they observed was the case for Jesus himself. (And if this perspective on Luke 11 is correct, we could observe a degree of irony in the fact that subsequent generations of Christians did turn the Lord’s Prayer into a word-for-word memorized form of prayer!)
When you frame the Lord’s Prayer as a way first of all to pray without ceasing, the specifics that Jesus mentioned make more sense and take on a new meaning. Because when you think about it, each petition and phrase Jesus gives is a nearly all-encompassing reality.
What do we pray for? The hallowing of God’s very Name. That’s pretty cosmic. What do we pray for? The coming of the kingdom. Hmmm, that’s pretty big, too. What do we pray for? Daily bread and ongoing forgiveness—we pray to be forgiven on the basis of the fact that we are ourselves engaged in acts of forgiveness all the time. What do we pray for? That we not be led into temptation. And when is it that we don’t want to be tempted? Is it just for the next half-hour or so? The balance of this particular day? Just tomorrow? Or is temptation something we want to avoid forever and anon?
Let no one who hears us preach on this passage conclude that what the Lord’s Prayer is mostly all about is a list of certain requests. In a way, the two brief parabolic examples that Jesus gives back up this perspective on life as ongoing prayer. The “Friend at Midnight” story reminds us that prayer pops up all the time and does not wait for convenient seasons or moments. Prayer isn’t always polite. Prayer cannot be sequestered to safe corners of our lives. Life is bumpy and unpredictable. So also will be prayers that occur across the whole sweep of just such a life.
And what about the father-son analogy with which Jesus concludes? As any parent can tell you, a son or daughter who asks for a fish or an egg is unlikely to make such a request just once. Kids have this annoying need to eat all the time! And as any parent can also tell you, sometimes the sheer volume of requests from your children can, now and then anyway, tempt you to want to throw them the odd snake or scorpion. Oh, not literally, of course. But there are those times when, after being asked by your daughter for the fifteenth time in a row if she can have just one more cookie—and after your having said “no” to this request fourteen times in a row—sometimes even good, conscientious parents fairly throw the cookie at the hapless kid. “There! Eat it! You happy now?!”
Oh dear. Patience can wear thin. We repent of such things, of course. But the point here is that it’s not the nature of the request per se that can cause a person to erupt so much as it is the constancy of the requesting. Thanks be to God, Jesus tells us that our Father in heaven manages to hold things together far better than we frail, fallible human beings.
Bottom line: we tend to think that the content of prayer is the key. In truth, Jesus always seemed more interested in the incessant nature of prayer and its never-ending desire to stay connected to the Father, who alone gives us all good things.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
Where did the Holy Spirit come from? Until the final verse of this lection from Luke 11, there had been no mention of the Spirit. Jesus says something in conclusion that we didn’t necessarily see coming. The model prayer Jesus gave was all about bread, forgiveness, and the avoidance of temptation. The subsequent little parabolic examples he gave were likewise about common, everyday realities like bread and eggs. So how arresting it is to then come to the capper of this teaching on prayer to hear Jesus saying that God will give “the Holy Spirit” to those who ask for it. But where in the twelve verses that led up to this last line is there any mention of the Holy Spirit? Jesus’ model prayer doesn’t mention the Spirit. The people in the analogies aren’t talking about the Holy Spirit. So why does Jesus conclude with mentioning something that has not cropped up before?
Maybe the answer is that whether we know it or not, in all our praying, in all our asking and begging and pleading with God, what we are finally asking for–and what we for sure will in the end receive–is nothing less than the indwelling Spirit of the Living God. We pray in the power of this Spirit, who is our sacred companion that brings to us the fullness of Christ Jesus in our hearts. And when we pray in the power of the Spirit, we find that same Spirit living in us and assuring us that no matter what happens, we serve a loving God who holds us tenderly every moment of our lives.
That is perhaps the best piece of news in Luke 11. This passage began with the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. Jesus did that wonderfully but in and through all the specifics he laid out, these final words tell us that it was the Holy Spirit we have been seeking all along. When Jesus tells us to ask, to seek, to knock and then says that we will be answered, that what we seek will be found, that the door will open, he’s talking about the Spirit of God there. Anyone with much experience with prayer knows full well that despite the blank-check appearance of verses 9 and 10, God does have to say no sometimes, the door does remain shut sometimes, what we seek remains elusive sometimes. We know this.
But if it’s the Holy Spirit we receive in and through all of our praying, then we can understand Jesus’ words here a little better without getting forever hung up on the counter-examples that just about every person in a given congregation could mention. If God always gives the Holy Spirit to those who pray, then even when a prayer goes “unanswered,” God has provided a deeper answer after all. This is not an easy truth. If someone in your congregation prayed for a husband to recover from cancer and he died, then that person is right to come to you as a pastor to claim she didn’t get what she prayed for. Period. And who on this earth would dare to say he or she knows the why or wherefore of such a thing? But even still, as a praying person, this woman received the Holy Spirit to help her even in the grief that came despite her most ardent prayers that it would not come. The love of God is not less because something did not come. The proof of that abiding love comes through the gentle ministry of the Spirit, assuring us all that the gospel is still true, the hope of the resurrection is still real, and Jesus remains in our hearts by his Spirit.
Not even our Lord Jesus would expect us to give thanks to God for an unanswered prayer. If you doubt that, consider the example of Jesus. One dark night long ago in a placed called Gethsemane, he made a request and, in the end, his Father had to say no. A certain, bitter cup of suffering would not pass from Jesus. The next time we know Jesus prayed, he was crying out in dereliction, “My God, my God, why? Why have you forsaken me?” Jesus moved from an unanswered prayer to a lament and yet his prayer life remained intact. His Father had said no, had had to abandon him for a time. But before he bowed his head and died, Jesus said to this same Father, “Into your hands do I commit my spirit.” In our lives, too, our every prayer contributes to the thankfulness we owe to God. Even at our most disappointed, the Holy Spirit is in us and we receive the further anointing of that same Spirit every time we pray.
There is a slight variation in the request for bread between Matthew’s presentation of this prayer in Matthew 6 and Luke’ presentation here in Luke 11. Matthew uses the word for “today” (SEMERA) whereas in Luke 11:3 Luke uses the general phrase for day (HEMERA), giving his presentation more the sense of “day by day,” thus lending more of an ongoing feel to this particular request. It’s not just today that we need the gift of bread but day after day after day. As noted elsewhere in these sermon starters, the disciples, in asking that Jesus teach them how to pray, were doing more than seeking a litany of requests or a catalogue of key phrases. They were actually asking for Jesus to teach them how to turn the entirety of their lives into an extended form of praying even as they had seen to be the case in Jesus’ own life. Luke’s way of making the request for bread go on and on and on adds to this sense.
Some while back I heard about a video that someone made to illustrate what it might be like to be God. It runs for just over an hour and it features nothing but one person after the next making a request, asking for advice, seeking direction, requesting money, and so on. Face after face after face appears on the screen, each in a plaintive mode of asking for something. It’s curious that Jesus more than once illustrates prayer with images of exasperation. In Luke 11 we have a friend at midnight baying for bread from someone already tucked cozily into bed. A few chapters farther on in Luke we find the parable of the unjust judge who finally gives in to the persistent widow not for any noble reason but just to get her off his back.
It has always struck me as odd that Jesus would use these somewhat negative images to talk about prayer. Surely we don’t want to think of God as being exasperated but maybe just maybe Jesus, as the Son of God, knew what it was like to be barraged day and night by an endless line of people asking for advice, money, direction, or whatever. It is a credit to the almighty power of God that he is able to handle the simultaneous prayers of millions, if not billions, of people all the time.
Do you remember the opening scene to the holiday classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life? The camera careers in and around the streets of Bedford Falls and from every single house on just about every single block of the city we hear people praying for George Bailey. With voices tumbling on top of one another, you hear over and again, “Dear Lord, be with George, with George, bless George, O God, be with George, George Bailey, bless George.” Of course, those people were all praying for the same thing but in reality exactly such a chorus of prayer takes place at every moment except that most of the time the requests and petitions are all different from one another. At the same moment you are praying for your child to recover from the flu, your neighbor next door may be praying for her son in Iraq. Meanwhile, the folks in the house across the street are begging God to help them make ends meet even as the people in the house next to that one are praying for rain to fall over in Iowa so their brother-in-law’s corn crop won’t fail. In the wider cosmic scheme of things, prayer is a universal constant, the sheer volume of which staggers the imagination.
Author: Doug Bratt
Few parents seem to pick their children’s first names on the basis of their meaning anymore. It appears many pick names on the basis of their popularity or family history.
Israelites, however, chose their children’s names because of their meanings. So, for example, Hannah names her son Samuel because she “asked the Lord for him.” And an angel tells Joseph to name his son Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.”
In fact, biblical names are so laden with meaning that when God transformed a person’s character, God also changed her name. So, for example, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham when God makes him the father of many nations. And Saul the persecutor of Jesus’ followers becomes Paul the follower of Jesus when God converts him.
Names also play a major role in this Sunday’s Old Testament Lectionary text. In fact, we know relatively little about its messenger except his name. Hosea’s name means, “he has helped” or “he has saved.” So the prophet’s name is appropriate for someone who speaks God’s redeeming word to Israel. God had, after all, “saved” Israel from Egyptian slavery, “helped” her through the wilderness and planted her in the land of promise.
Israel, however, rebelled against God not only in the desert, but also in her beautiful new home. It’s a malady that still inflicts God’s adopted sons and daughters. When God’s people need God’s help, we often quickly pray to God for it. We even sometimes make promises to be more faithful to God if God just gives us a job or restores our health. Yet, like Israel, as soon as God gives us what we’ve begged for, we naturally turn away from the Lord again.
Hosea’s Israel had, in fact, turned away from God her divine husband who’d given her so much in order to give herself to other lovers. Israel turned to the Baals of Canaanite fertility religion. Hosea often calls this sin “unfaithfulness” toward Israel’s Husband, the Lord.
In verse 1 Hosea emphasizes that his message for adulterous Israel is “the word of the Lord.” However, as is so often the case, that word comes to and through a human being. In this case it comes through Hosea. Yet as the Old Testament scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier noted, the fact that the Bible tells us so little about this messenger shows that God’s message is far more important than this man.
And yet God’s message is, in many ways, a personal one for its human transmitter. In verse 2, after all, God calls Hosea to marry what the NIV calls an “adulterous” woman. Paraphrases and other translations are more graphic in their description of Hosea’s wife’s immorality. Eugene Peterson refers to her a “whore,” while the New Revised Standard Version calls her a “wife of harlotry.” The Bible’s original language, after all, suggests that Gomer wasn’t just unfaithful; she was also probably a prostitute.
Hosea 1’s preachers and teachers might want to reflect with their hearers on Hosea’s possible reactions to God’s call. They may find it hard to even imagine God calling them to marry someone like the guy who was intimate with many of their high school classmates. Or like the women who work for sleazy “escort services” or walk some big cities’ streets.
Most of us can’t imagine God calling us to marry such a person because faithfulness is at the heart not just of so much of God’s Word, but also all human relationships, including marriage. Yet here God calls someone who preaches about that faithfulness to give his heart to someone who’s been completely unfaithful.
On top of that, God calls Hosea to have children with his adulterous wife. This will make them what verse 2 calls “children of unfaithfulness.” It’s easy to miss our text’s ambiguity about Gomer’s children’s paternity. Verse 3 reports that Gomer bore Hosea a son. Yet neither verses 6 or 8 mention Hosea. They simply report that Gomer had a daughter and another son. So Hosea 1 at least leaves open the possibility that the prophet is not the father of his wife’s second and third children.
Had we been Hosea, most of us would have been very reluctant to obey God’s command to marry such a promiscuous person. At least some of us might even have vigorously argued with God about it. Yet Hosea 1 says nothing about the prophet’s reluctance. It simply reports that Hosea “married Gomer daughter of Diblaim.” The prophet probably at least suspects, though this text doesn’t make that implicit, that his marriage is some kind of “sign.”
God, after all, often commanded prophets to do something symbolic rather than speak. So, for example, God told Jeremiah to wear a wooden yoke as a sign that Babylon would soon enslave Israel. Many modern marriage ceremonies include not just words, but also similar signs, including the exchanging of rings. Wedding rings, after all, symbolize spouses’ lasting commitment to each other.
In our text, God commands Hosea to perform a similar symbolic act by giving his children certain names. God tells him to name his oldest Jezreel, because he’s a sign of God coming punishment. After all, while Jezreel was a beautiful city with a beautiful name, Jehu began his reign there. And that king, who initially opposed the worship of Baal, eventually vigorously promoted it in Jezreel. On top of that, Jehu killed many people in Jezreel.
So James Limburg suggests naming a child “Jezreel” would be a bit like naming a child “Auschwitz” or “Darfur.” Hosea’s son’s name is, after all, like a walking reminder of the violence Israel has perpetrated.
When Gomer has a second child, God tells Hosea to give her a name that seems to have a beautiful ring to it. After all, the word ruhamah refers to the kind of “mercy” that characterizes the Lord himself. In fact, it often described a mom’s love for her daughter who completely depends on her.
However, the prefix lo negates that meaning. Gomer’s daughter’s name actually signals not God’s compassion, but God’s coming punishment. After all, while God has had compassion on Israel from the beginning, Lo-Ruhamah means that God will no longer show her such mercy. So giving a child such a name might almost be like naming a child “damnation.”
After perhaps another two or three years, Gomer has another son. The prophet obeys God’s call to name him “Lo-Ammi.” After all, while God repeatedly promised to be Israel’s God, God vows to no longer be her God or view her as his people. Through centuries of Israel’s unfaithfulness and disobedience, God had remained extraordinarily patient with her. Now, however, Hosea’s son’s name announces that God will abandon Israel to her enemies who will destroy her.
Israel has, after all, like an ancient bride, completely depended on the Lord for her very life. However, since Israel has been unfaithful to the Lord, God announces that God’s marital relationship with her is null and void. By calling Hosea to name his third child, “Lo-Ammi,” God announces that God is deserting Israel, his first love. So naming a daughter that might be a bit like naming a child, “punishment.”
There is, as James Limburg points out, a terrifying progression to Hosea’s children’s names. The first announces a future without a king. The prophet’s daughter’s name points to a future without God’s compassion. His youngest son’s name, however, announces a future without God.
Many 21st century North Americans assume we’re self-sufficient gods who don’t need the living God. We, however, completely rely on the Lord for every good thing. You and I couldn’t, in fact, draw even one more breath unless God was somehow giving it to us. God is the generous giver of every good thing we have.
In the midst of all of the destruction that Hosea promises, God startles us in verses 10 and 11 with promises of good gifts for unfaithful Israel. After all, there the Lord promises that the Israelites, whose numbers will be decimated, will someday again be as numerous as the grains of sand along the seashore. God, who will abandon Israel, promises to eventually again turn back to her in gracious love. God promises that Israel, that will be divided, will again be united in the future as one people under one king. And the land of promise that will be stripped of its people and fertility will someday again be full of Israelites.
Of course, this prediction seems too optimistic in the light of what actually happened to Israel. After all, only a small remnant of the Israelites ever returned from their various exiles. By Jesus’ time, Israel was little more than an occupied flyspeck on the world map.
Yet God’s people, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, have now become nearly as numerous as the grains of sand along the seashore. People from all over the world have received God’s covenant of grace through their faith in Jesus Christ. However, the fulfillment of God’s promises through Hosea in our text remains incomplete. Both Israel and all the nations still await our final salvation. So God’s word through Hosea still strains toward the future God has planned for his people.
In the meantime, however, we remember that our own name announces something similar to Hosea’s children’s. Not names like Linda or Jose, Ryan or Bella, Smith or Kim. No, the name that God has graciously given all of us: “Christian.”
By giving God’s children that name, after all, God pronounces judgment on the world’s ways of doing things. By naming us Christians, God reminds our world that God rejects hatred, violence, oppression and injustice. By naming you and me after God’s Son, God insists salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. So the only question that remains is whether our lives reflect our names.
In his book, Peculiar Treasures, Frederick Beuchner has a typically delightful way of describing Hosea’s children’s names. He calls them “queer names like Not-pitied-for-God-will-no-longer-pity-Israel-now-that-it’s-gone-to-the-dogs so that every time the roll was called at school, Hosea would [score] a prophetic bull’s eye in absentia.”
Author: Stan Mast
At first glance Psalm 138 is simply a royal psalm of thanksgiving offered to God in response to some special experience of personal salvation. It includes an invitation to the royalty of the earth to join in praising the God of this King, whom the superscription identifies as David.
Many scholars don’t take the superscriptions literally. The “I” of the Psalm, then, becomes a representative or personified Israelite speaking for the whole nation. So, James Luther Mays, for example, sees Psalm 138 as “a general song of praise by the restored community in the post-exilic period, written under the influence of the prophets whose words are gathered in Isaiah 44-66,” particularly the prophetic words predicting deliverance from that Exile.
I’m not sure it is necessary or possible to decide between those two different takes on the Psalm. Indeed, maybe it began as a personal thanksgiving that was adopted liturgically by the whole body of believers. That is surely what it can be for us as we apply it to our congregations today– a model of the way we should give thanks to God for his ways with us and his word to us. With those 9 lepers in the Gospel story, we often don’t return to give thanks. Perhaps that’s because we just not very good at it; we’re at a loss for words. And perhaps it’s also because we don’t always (or often?) have the Psalmist’s experience of directly answered prayer; “When I called, you answered me.”
Whatever the reason for our struggle with praise and thanksgiving, Psalm 138 has some very helpful and unusual guidance for us. Take, for example, the movement of moods in the Psalm. It begins as sunny as a summer day in verses 1-3, where the Psalmist can’t say enough good things about Yahweh. Then, it swells to boisterous or audacious in verses 4-6, where the Psalmist moves outside his own lovely experience with God and encourages the kings of the pagan nations all over the world to join him in praising Yahweh. Finally, the Psalm ends realistically with its admission that “I walk in the midst of trouble.” That trouble doesn’t make the Psalmist doubt his God. He still expresses complete confidence that Yahweh will continue his saving work in his life, but he does conclude with a brief heartfelt plea that Yahweh will finish his work in him. Such is, and should be, the movement of our prayers.
Some brief textual notes may help you flesh out your sermon. The Psalmist speaks directly to Yahweh in verse 1, promising to praise/thank/confess out loud. The Hebrew word there has the sense of making public, not keeping it a secret, making known how great Yahweh is. But the following phrase, “with all my heart,” suggests a deep interiority. My public praise comes from the bottom of my heart, from the depths of my being. Our praise, then, must be born in the secret depths of our hearts, but it must not be kept secret. Both secrecy and superficiality are enemies of proper praise.
Part of the public audience for the Psalmist’s praise is “the gods.” Though there are a few references like this to “the gods” (cf. Psalms 135 and 136), the Old Testament’s typical attitudes toward other gods is much more dismissive. They are nothing, vanity, incapable of seeing, hearing, acting. So, what is going on with this relatively positive reference to “the gods?” Some scholars take the easy way out by translating this “the angels.” But this could also be a reference to the gods of the nations who are mentioned in verses 4-6. The nations think their gods are real, so I will praise the true God in the presence of these supposed gods, as a way of putting them in their place. Not only Israel will hear my praise, but so will the kings of the nations and the gods to whom they look for help.
The Psalmist gives two reasons to praise Yahweh—who God is and what God has done. It is very important to make this distinction, because many Christians offer poor praise because they haven’t seen God do anything. The Psalmist says, “When I called, you answered me.” But that is not the experience of many Christians disappointed by unanswered prayer.
So the Psalmist’s words in verse 2 are a crucial reminder. I will praise your name “for your love and faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word.” The Hebrew words chesed (love) and emet (faithfulness) are huge covenant words in the Old Testament. They are associated with the name of Yahweh in that locus classicus of Exodus 34:6,7. When Moses asked to see all of God’s glory, God said that wasn’t possible. But he did offer to let Moses see his back from the cleft in the rock. “And God passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness….’”
Even if we don’t often see answers to our personal prayers, the Psalmist directs us to praise God for his long history of loving and faithful involvement with his covenant people. That historical involvement has exalted the name of Yahweh, because he has kept his words of promise through all the generations. If Mays is right in his corporate reading of this Psalm, then “the return from exile exalted the Lord’s name by fulfilling the prophecies of salvation made in the Lord’s name.” When I can’t identify answered prayers in my own life, I can praise God for his long history of keeping his promises in the lives of his covenant people.
But the Psalmist insists that God does hear our personal prayers. That’s the second reason to praise Yahweh. As I said before, this will be a sore spot for some of your congregation members. You can approach their disappointment in several ways. You could use the Psalmist’s sunny testimony in verse 3 as assurance that God has indeed answered their prayers; they just haven’t noticed. Or you could encourage them to keep praying by holding up David’s testimony as the words of a man who often felt that God had deserted him (see the many psalms of lament). David was no Pollyanna; he knew the pain of God-forsakenness. But he did not forsake God. He kept praying, knowing that God does hear and answer. Whatever you do with verse 3, be sure to empathize with those who can’t say those words. But don’t shy away from asserting what David so cheerfully confesses.
In verses 4-6 we hear the Psalmist doing something audacious. He joins his voice to the bold claim we first hear in Psalm 2, the claim that Yahweh has appointed his anointed King as king over all the earth. In Psalm 138 that anointed King of Israel turns to the kings of all the earth and calls on them to join him in praising the God of Israel. In doing that, David and Israel “are carrying out their vocation to be witnesses before the gods and nations to the sovereignty of God revealed in his salvation.” (Mays) According to Genesis 12:3, Isaiah 43:9,10, Isaiah 44:8, and other texts, such world-witness is what God had in mind from the beginning of his covenant relationship with Israel.
The call of verses 4-6 points ahead to the eschatological vision of Revelation 5 and 7, where all nations gather around the throne of the Messiah and praise God. A new world order, in which the lowly are raised up and the arrogant are brought low, will be filled with praise to the true God who has fulfilled his word. That vision should embolden us in our missionary calling. One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, God’s anointed King, is Lord of all. We should call the princes and the paupers of the nations to acknowledge his Lordship right now.
From such soaring thoughts, the Psalmist comes down to earth with the frank admission that there are times when “I walk in the midst of trouble.” We should rejoice in this realism. Even the sunniest, most exuberant Christian will have trouble. Jesus promised it in John 16:33. So the presence of trouble is not a commentary on the quality of our faith. It’s just the way things are.
But here’s more of the way things are. “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes, with your right hand you save me.” The Psalmist is sure of that and we should encourage our congregation to share that certainty. God has stretched out his hand by becoming flesh in Christ. His nail pierced hands are the guarantee that nothing can separate us from the chesed and emet of Yahweh. As the old hymn put it, “The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
Indeed, “he who began a good work in us carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) Long before the day of Christ, David was sure of that, because of the certainty of the covenant. “Yahweh will fulfill his purposes for me; your love (chesed), O Yahweh, endures forever….” What a resounding conclusion to this sunny, audacious, realistic Psalm!
But wait. That is not the end. Strangely and surprisingly, it ends with a heartfelt plea; “do not abandon the works of your hands.” What’s up with that? How can someone so sure of God love and faithfulness in verses 1-8a suddenly entertain the possibility of God abandoning him? What kind of faith is that? It’s my kind of faith, and yours. We are all a mixture of certainty and questions, faith and doubt, assurance and fear. “Lord, we believe; help us with our unbelief.” The Gospel itself is always characterized by the tension between the “already but not yet.” We affirm “thine is the kingdom” and we pray “thy kingdom come.”
Psalm 138 is true to life and to the Gospel. Even those who praise God need to plead with God. And even those who aren’t sure that God answers should praise God. The Psalm and the Gospel assure us that he will finish the work he’s begun in us. The God who has us in his hand will not loosen (the literal meaning of “abandon” in verse 8) his grip. So we can be “bold and stouthearted” as we praise God for taking hold of us and plead with God not to let his grip weaken.
When you preach on Psalm 138, the church in the United States will find itself in a highly politicized situation. The Republican and Democratic National Conventions surround this Sunday. David’s invitation to the rulers of the earth made me think about Trump and Clinton. It might be fruitful to ask how many of this year’s candidates for political office could speak this Psalm from the heart? Can you imagine these American candidates praising God “when they hear the words of your mouth,” which refers to “the Lord’s grand commitments to his people?” What would they think about David’s claim that God looks favorably on the lowly, but views the haughty from afar? As our politicians make promises about what they will do for our country and the world, Psalm 138 reminds us that Yahweh calls all of us to “bow down toward [his] temple,” which, of course, is Jesus. Psalm 138 is a call to re-orient ourselves around the ways and the word of God in a world dominated by the ways and words of would-be kings and queens.
Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sample Sermon: One of the finer films from the 1980s is Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies. The film chronicles the story of Mac Sledge, a one-time country-western singing star whose life later dissolved into a fog of alcohol and shiftlessness. Divorced from his wife and estranged from his only daughter, Mac staggers through life until one night he collapses onto the porch of a small, lonely little motel and gas station out in the middle of nowhere on the Texas prairie. The motel is run by Rosa Lee, a young widow who is raising her boy, Sonny, and trying to make ends meet. Even though Mac is a shipwreck of a human being, grizzled, drunk, and despairing, Rosa Lee takes him in, sets him to work for her, and through this, transformation comes to Mac’s life. Over time he kicks his drinking habit, becomes a kind of father figure to young Sonny, ends up marrying Rosa Lee, and begins to attend the Baptist church in which Rosa Lee is a member of the choir.
In one lovely scene, both Mac and Sonny are baptized one Sunday morning. After the pastor dunks him into the waters of baptism, Mac stands back up, blinking and drenched, water dripping down off his balding head and glistening on his grizzled beard. It’s a portrait of grace. But after the service, Sonny and Mac are sitting outside the motel and Sonny says, “Well, we done it. We got baptized.” “Yup, we sure did,” Mac replies. “You feel any different?” the lad asks. Chuckling, Mac says, “I can’t say I do, not really.”
But we as viewers know the truth: Mac is different. Deep down on the inside of his heart and soul, Mac is a changed man. But outwardly it’s true: the baptism doesn’t seem to change much, and it surely doesn’t make life necessarily any easier. In the course of the film Mac manages to have a kind of reconciliation with his estranged daughter, now in her mid-20s. But no sooner does this good thing happen and the daughter is killed in a terrible car wreck. Near the end of the film, still grieving, Mac stands in the middle of a vegetable garden and tells Rosa Lee that he doesn’t understand life. He can’t understand the tender mercies of God that led him to Rosa Lee and to the transformation his life so badly needed. But then, he can’t understand why his daughter had to die, either. We often hear people pondering why bad things happen in life, but Mac is honest enough to admit to being equally flummoxed by the good things. Grace can be as arresting as tragedy.
Mostly, though, grace and tragedy, the good and the bad, co-exist in this life. Yet as Christians journeying through this world, we say that the one thing that makes the difference for us is the one thing that, by all outward appearances at least, seems liked it could not possibly make any difference: baptism. Baptism is a watery sacrament. It is literally watery, of course, but not a few people today would regard it as watery in the more metaphorical sense of being insubstantial, thin, colorless. In a world so full of problems and tragedies, evil and dread, how could baptism make a dent?
But there can be no doubting that Paul believed baptism is the single most powerful moment in a Christian’s life. Colossians 2 is a remarkable passage for many reasons, not the least of which is the theological freight that Paul loads onto baptism. And it all ties in with Paul’s favorite two-word phrase: “In Christ.”
In Colossians 2, it is nothing short of startling to see how often Paul talks about our being either “in Christ” or “with Christ.” It all stems from baptism, Paul says. Baptism somehow catches us up in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. Once you are baptized in the power of the Holy Spirit, it’s almost as though you need to send out the spiritual equivalent of those “Change of Address” cards that people mail out to everyone they know after moving into a new house. Because Paul teaches us that after baptism, we are spiritually relocated. It’s a change-of-address for our hearts.
Actually, Paul talks about this “in Christ” idea all over the place across his thirteen New Testament epistles. Scholars have struggled ever since to draw a bead on precisely what Paul meant by this central phrase. We Christians have grown accustomed to it and so lose sight of its novelty and punch. But surely even our eyes would widen if we ran across someone who claimed that as an American he believed himself to exist “in Jefferson.” We’d wonder what a Hindu could possibly mean if he claimed to be “in Gandhi” or if a Muslim was said to exist “in Mohammed.” We talk about our being “in Christ” and we do so pretty casually. But what in the world does it mean?
For Paul it clearly means more than seeing Christ Jesus as an inspiring role model or as something in which you have keen interest. People do sometimes say things like, “These days I’m really into yoga” or “Lately I’ve been trying to get into jazz music.” But that’s just a way of expressing interest in something. But being in Christ means far more.
So maybe being “in Christ” is a way to express the location of your hope. Sometimes people talk that way. A general might tell his troops, “I’ve placed all my confidence in you, boys!” Sometimes you tell someone, “I’m putting my trust in you. Don’t let me down!” But this seems a bit weak, too. Paul doesn’t indicate that we’ve placed just part of our lives into Jesus’ hands. He doesn’t seem to be saying that it’s only our love or our trust or our hope that is now located in Christ. Paul says the totality of who we are is located in Christ.
Maybe the radical nature of this is captured through something the late Lewis B. Smedes once wrote when he suggested that being “in Christ” points to a “situational Christology.” That is to say, what Jesus did on the cross and in rising from the dead created a whole new situation in the cosmos. There was an actual shift in the universe’s balance of power. As Paul writes in verse 15, the powers and authorities that had been vying for cosmic supremacy were disarmed and turned into a spectacle. What’s more, the written code—the kind of spiritual IOU that we all owed to God for having spoiled his world—that IOU was nailed to the cross and stamped with the word “Cancelled” in the ink of Jesus’ blood.
The only way to make sense of the idea that we now dwell “in Christ” is to believe that concretely speaking, Jesus created a new situation in the universe. When you through baptism enter that new situation, when you cross the border into the new world Jesus made, things become possible for you that simply would not be true were it not for Jesus.
It’s a whole new world now because of Jesus’ victory over death and the devil, over sin and guilt. The situation is new. And in baptism we get drawn into that new world. Objectively speaking, there is power available for changed living. There is wisdom available to discern truth. There is grace available to continually cleanse our lives. There is a gospel to proclaim as we invite others into this new world.
Baptism brings all this to us. But like Mac in Tender Mercies, we live out our baptism in Christ while still remaining in this world, too. In this world there are still any number of competing theories and philosophies that attempt to explain what’s what. There is virtually no end to ideas as to where the world came from or where it’s going. Amazon.com is clotted with books that purport to tell you the “real” nature of God. Many today suggest that all roads lead to heaven, that each religion is partly right, that your ideas are as valid as mine.
We live in a world that is highly adept at distracting us from the centrality of Christ. The reality of the nightly news, the press of our busy schedules, the glitz of the entertainment industry, the passion that politics can stir up in us—so much of that seems more real, more substantial, more compelling than anything that the waters of baptism ever made possible for us. On the average day it’s probably the case that Siri tells you what to do more often than you ever sense the Holy Spirit leading you along in Christ.
In Colossians 2 the Apostle Paul comes to us by the Holy Spirit to remind us of one idea to which we need to return again and again: remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember that linchpin part of the Christian faith that claims that all appearances to the contrary, even in this rough and tumble world, it is baptism that makes all the difference. It is baptism that fills each of us with the fullness of Christ. Indeed, look again at the remarkable chain of thought in verses 9 & 10: Paul says that in Christ all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form. But then, without missing a beat, Paul goes on to say that because we are now “in Christ” we ourselves have been given the fullness of Jesus, which by extension means we share in the fullness of God himself!
It boggles the mind and addles the senses, but the fact is that even those of us who were baptized as infants were given, already way back then, a share in the fullness of the universe’s sovereign Creator and Redeemer God. Paradoxically, however, our baptismal filling up of God’s power does not puff us up in self-important pride. As it turns out, the more of God we have in us, the more humble we are, the more intrigued we are by the idea of serving one another in self-effacing love. Verse 18 says that it is only when we get distracted from the vital reality of dwelling in Christ that we get puffed up with other silly and distracting ideas. Baptism fills us up but it does not puff us up; baptism brings us into Christ but only so that we may serve others in the hope of bringing them into that glorious new cosmic situation that we now call home.