August 03, 2020
The Proper 14A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 14:22-33 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 85:8-13 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 10:5-15 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 128 (Lord’s Day 52)
Author: Scott Hoezee
If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.
That was the title some years back of a popular book written by John Ortberg. And the title reflects what is doubtless the most common “take” on this story. Over and again this well-known story comes to mean something like the following: Peter had the right idea getting out of the boat and quite literally “stepping out on faith.” Indeed, in all of our lives, we can see Jesus standing out on the stormy waters of this world, bidding us to “Come” unto him. Like Peter, we must heed this invitation, find the courage of faith needed to swing our legs out over the boat’s side, and then step out onto the waters. If we do, then we will walk to and with Jesus, trusting him alone to help us do great things for God!
But beware of doubts, be wary of fears! Don’t pay any attention to the winds that howl or the waves that lap against your shins. Keep your eyes fixed on the Master. For if you do, then in his loving and confident gaze, you will find the strength and courage you need to stay upright. Peter failed to have enough faith, but you can do better! So if you are facing some big decision, if you sense God calling you to the mission field, or if you’re wondering how you can witness to your co-workers, then you need to have the guts to get out of the boat, to take risks, to put your full faith in Jesus alone, and then to walk upon the waters!
Dearly beloved, here endeth the lesson.
Or maybe not . . .
Interpreted this way, Matthew 14 becomes a kind of model for Christian behavior, a classic piece of moralism. Peter’s initial faith is to be emulated, his subsequent failure of doubt is to be avoided. “Do this . . . Don’t do this . . .”
But understood this way, the bottom line is that if you do it right, then you, too, can walk on water. Jesus even wants you to walk on water, he wants you to be just this bold in the faith. The alternatives are fear and doubt, and we all know that those things ought to have no place in a true believer’s heart.
“Walking on water” is about courage, faith, and boldness. Indeed, this phrase has come to mean something like this in even non-Christian settings. If you do an Internet search on the phrase “walk on water,” you will find a number of consulting firms and motivational speakers who use the image of walking on water as the goal to which businesses and individual workers should aspire. In this sense, “Walk on water” is on a par with other adages like “The early bird gets the worm,” “Grab the tiger by its tail,” “Think outside the box” (or the boat in this case), or “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
And at the end of any sermon with this focus, I’d wager (if I were a betting kind of guy) that 90% of the people listening to the sermon will feel worse about themselves, their faith, their commitment to Christ. Oh, they will perhaps feel motivated to give this whole ‘walking on water’ thing a whirl but they sense even before driving out of the church’s parking lot that they will probably bow out before they actually make the attempt (or if they do attempt it, they will sink immediately).
Too much preaching these days just makes people feel worse. (Or preaching makes people feel motivated but the whole focus centers on human effort and achievement.) Either way or both ways, the sermon does not radiate with the grace that constitutes the Good News we are called to proclaim.
So is that moralistic, “Try harder!” way of getting at this story the only—or even the best—way to interpret Matthew 14:22-33?
Before getting to some new angles on this familiar story, we should be clear about a couple of things up front. First, it surely is right that Christian faith should be characterized by courage, zeal, and a firm resolve to stay true to the Lord in all situations. Whether or not this particular story teaches that is something we will ponder, but let’s be clear up front that gaining the ability to trust Jesus fully is certainly something to which we all quite properly aspire.
But that broader theological point aside, what is going on specifically in Matthew 14? Well, like the other gospel stories having to do with boats and storms and disciples, I suspect that this incident is a kind of acted-out parable of and for the church. Probably the boat is a metaphorical symbol of the church in which disciples travel with Jesus across the storm-tossed seas of an unbelieving world. But if so, then what about the role Peter plays? How do his actions and words relate to the rest of us as we, too, reside in the ecclesiastical ship of faith?
The answer to that emerges from the story itself. This lection comes immediately after Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. That was basically a Lord’s Supper kind of story, showing Jesus as the true bread of life. Although the food and drink the church offers to the world looks rather modest, if not meager, in the hands of Jesus this becomes utterly satisfying and even abundant fare. As it turns out, we in the church have more than enough to offer to the world if only we believe the power of Jesus’ word to us.
No sooner is that Eucharist-type meal complete and Jesus sends the disciples out into a boat. He doesn’t go with them at first, but the implication is that he would indeed catch up with them soon enough. Meanwhile he wants to pray. He has just found out that his cousin, friend, and gospel co-worker, John the Baptist, has been killed by Herod. After hearing this sad news, Jesus wanted to be alone right away, and so took that boat to a lonely place where presumably he could weep, mourn, and pray to his Father in private. The crowds followed him, however, and so Jesus delays his time of grieving long enough to do some more teaching and healing, followed by his feeding those same crowds.
His ministry got in the way of his personal feelings for a little while, but the delay hardly made everything all better and so Jesus is still hankering for some quiet time. So he sends the disciples on ahead so that he could pray. We don’t know how much time Jesus managed to have to himself even on this second attempt at some private devotions, but before too much longer one of those unpredictable Sea of Galilee squalls had blown in. In this particular story we are not told that the boat was in danger of sinking necessarily, but then again, getting buffeted by wind and water in the middle of a very dark night is surely a frightening, if not a very dangerous, situation to be in.
So Jesus comes to them and, once he assures them he is no ghost, seems poised to get into the boat to reassure them further. But before he gets there, Peter intervenes. “Lord, if it is you, then command me to come to you on the water.” “Come on, then!” Jesus replies, and so Peter does. We don’t know precisely how far Peter got before he started to sink. A gust of wind knocked him off balance, a larger-than-usual swell made straight for Peter, and suddenly the logic of the situation was just too much for Peter to discount and so he yielded to the inevitable tug of gravity. Jesus saves him, of course, chiding him for his doubt (but loving Peter as always even so). Then they both climb into the boat, the storm stops even more quickly than it had started, and the disciples who had remained in the boat all along end up doing the utterly proper act of worshiping Jesus as God’s Son.
We have now seen back-to-back incidents in which Jesus’ Lordship over all creation has been abundantly displayed. Jesus is Lord of creation and so can manipulate the sustaining things of life like bread and fish to feed people even in a place of desolation and death. And now we see Jesus as Lord of creation in having control over the water, winds, and waves. Jesus can subside the elements of nature in this fallen world that threaten our lives as well as provide the things that nourish those same lives. Taken together, those with eyes to see recognize in Jesus the almighty presence of one of Matthew’s main theological themes (begun in Matthew 1 and rounded out again in the final verses of Matthew 28): namely, the theme of Emmanuel, of “God with us.”
And that is Good News. Jesus remains with us. He remains with us and is the Lord of all Creation as well. Whether or not Peter succeeded in imitating his Master’s neat trick neither adds nor subtracts from the core revelation that whether we stay in the boat with the 11 disciples or hop out of the boat with the 1 disciple, Jesus is with us. He’s with those of us who stay in the boat and will calm the storm that threatens. He’s with those who try some grandstand move and fail, forgiving the failure and, again, calming the storm that tempted Peter to do something miraculous. Jesus’ presence and power are the key to this story, not whether we are bold and courageous and impressive.
To take the focus off Jesus so as to put it onto our own moral pluck and courage seems, therefore, (forgive me) to miss the boat. But the truth is, a lot of people are missing the boat in the church these days. As my colleague Kristin Kobes DuMez has highlighted in her new book Jesus and John Wayne, American evangelicals have been deeply affected by a strain of “muscular Christianity” that is messing up the Gospel message in many ways. Lately this desire for Christian men in particular to step it up with muscular Gospel swagger has been coming out in church’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Masks are being declared as a sign of weak faith. Churches following government restrictions on holding worship services are likewise weak and not near bold enough.
In a sense the response in some places to the pandemic is “Step out of the boat, walk on water, and be a real man for Jesus!” But again, that is not the point of this story even as such postures of swagger and bravado and male-centered braggadocio do not fit the true Gospel nor the example of the Jesus who alone is our hope. The eleven disciples who prudently stayed in the boat and faithfully kept pulling on the oars were no more or less faithful than impetuous Peter was. Sometimes the right and faithful thing to do is the quiet and non-flashy thing, acts of quiet humility and sacrifice and service. Taking care of our neighbors, wearing our masks, listening to medical experts. It is not weak to stay in the boat—remember, inside the boat is where Jesus also is when this story ends.
When he comes to them on the water, Jesus quickly calms them in a verbal triple-play that packs quite a theological wallop: “Take courage! I am! Fear not!” As commentator Dale Bruner notes, this is something that could well become the inscription over the doorway to every church in the world. Because Jesus’ call for courage and his command not to be afraid are both rooted in the second thing he said: “I Am!”
For the sake of good English sense, most versions of the Bible do something similar to what the NIV does in verse 27, and that translate Jesus’ words into something like “It is I” or “I am here” or, “It’s me!” But the Greek says only ego eimi: “I am.” Here, and elsewhere in the gospels, this simple designation powerfully connects Jesus to the Yahweh of Israel. When Moses asks God in the burning bush for his name, God says that his name is “I Am.” Yahweh is the great “I Am,” and Jesus more than once connects himself to this very same God. Jesus is God, and that’s why his presence gives us cause to take courage and, in turn, to not be afraid.
As Barbara Brown Taylor said in a sermon, if there is a miracle worth savoring in this story, then it’s maybe not that Jesus could walk on water (after all, if Jesus is God, then his ability to walk on water is no more surprising than your or my ability to walk up a flight of steps.) And the miracle is not that Peter managed that same trick for a moment or two. No, the miracle is that when it was all said and done–while a soggy and chagrined Peter sputtered seawater out of his lungs and as the boat continued to bob around in the dead of that rather dark night–somehow in the midst of those humble surroundings way out there in the middle of nowhere, the disciples realized that no one less than God’s own Son was sitting right in front of them. So they worshiped him. They believed.
If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat. True enough. And here and there, now and again, the church maybe needs visionary and courageous folks who step out on faith to do some new and bold thing. But maybe there are far more times when life in the “boat” that just is the church involves no more than faithfully pulling on your oar against the winds that howl, believing that Jesus is near, and so pressing on. You press on in faith not because you’ve tested Jesus and found that he lived up to all the hype and not because Jesus has enabled you yourself to do something quite grand and eye-catching. No, you press on because you believe Jesus when, through the Spirit, you hear him say, “Chin up! It is I! Don’t be afraid!” So keep pulling on that oar!
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Author: Stan Mast
We can approach this text from two very different angles. The first comes from renowned Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. He suggests that this story might have taken its final form during the reign of Solomon, a time of royal splendor in Israel, when everything was going well for God’s people. There was peace internationally, prosperity internally (at least for Solomon), and a renaissance intellectually (as wisdom literature thrived). Things had never been better. In that setting, says Brueggemann, people were asking this question. “Is God relevant to a social situation in which human control seems established and sufficient?” That perspective makes this story very relevant to the situation in 21st century North America, until the last 5 months.
The second perspective has been thrust upon the world since February, 2020, when human control seems to have been lost entirely. The coronavirus brought a global health crisis, which in turn created a global financial crisis. Then, to add to the chaos, police brutality against black people in a number of places brought protests everywhere and riots in many places. The very fabric of society threatened to shred into a million ragged pieces. More than one person has asked, “Where is God in this chaos and pain?” In 2020, the question many people bring to this text in Genesis 37 is the exact opposite of the one Brueggemann asked. “Is God relevant to a social situation in which human control has been disestablished and proven to be totally insufficient?”
The story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 addresses that question from any situation in society. “Where is God?” The story goes from chaos to control, from conflict to resolution, from defeat to triumph. Through it all, God seems to be conspicuously absent, until Joseph reveals the deep theology running through that story and our history.
To comprehend the theology hidden in the story we must see the story in its larger context. This long narrative makes up the tenth and last section of Genesis. Since the primordial stories of creation, fall, flood, and Babel, we have been following the early history of the patriarchs- pagan Abram called to become the Father of many people, the miracle child Isaac destined to be the chosen one, devious Jacob whom God will finally bless with the 12 sons who will become Israel. In the chapters just prior to this story, Rachel has died, the 12 sons have been identified, and the line of Esau has been outlined. Now begins a whole new chapter in that sweeping saga.
It is important to read this story, not as a moralistic tale about family dysfunction, but as an historical explanation of how the family of Jacob in Canaan became the nation of Israel in Egypt. Here’s how the blessed family became the blessed people who would bless the world, as God promised Abraham in Genesis 12. Our story today is the beginning of the larger narrative about how God’s chosen people moved from the Promised Land to the house of bondage, which would, in turn, be followed by the Exodus and Conquest of the Promised Land. Let’s not get lost in the fascinating details of interesting characters and tangled interactions, lest we miss the overarching message of God’s hidden actions to save his people and the world.
“This is the account of Jacob,” says verse 2, but then the focus of the story is all on Joseph. Clearly, the author means that what follows is really about the house of Jacob, the covenant line of the man now called Israel, the people who will become Israel. Joseph is the key figure in that development.
It was an unlikely development because Joseph was a tag along child, the last in the bunch (until his little brother Benjamin was born). As the baby of the family, he became the favorite child of his father, Jacob. Sadly, Jacob did not hide his preference, clothing his little one in a royal robe. Joseph did not wear the crown well, prancing about proudly, choosing to tattle on his older brothers, and smugly reporting his dreams of superiority to his brothers and father. As a result, they roundly hated him, jealous of his privileged place, arrogant attitude, and hostile behavior. In their eyes, he was a little brat whom they wished would vanish.
The RCL’s omission of the verses that detail Joseph’s dreams is inexplicable and unfortunate, given how crucial those dreams are in this opening story and in the larger story. Brueggemann claims that “The Dream” contained in these two dreams drives the whole saga of Joseph. Without that dream, it makes no sense that his brothers would call him “that dreamer” just prior to selling him to passing traders. More important, it is clear that the dream/prophesy of Joseph’s ultimate rise to superiority is exactly what the whole story is about. Joseph is the way God fulfills his dream for his chosen people.
But that dream became a nightmare for Joseph, and for his brothers, and for their father. Filled with hatred for “that dreamer,” his brothers take advantage of Jacob’s clueless order that Joseph go to visit them far away from his protecting influence. They were tending flocks 60 or 70 miles away from home, so when Joseph wanders into their murderous grasp, they seize the opportunity to rid themselves of the little pain in the neck.
The account of their plot is filled with confusion, as most mob scenes are. They begin with murder, move to imprisonment, and end with selling him to a caravan of traders, who are given various names. Older brothers try to intervene to save his neck, but in the end, he is gone. That’s when someone realizes that they have to explain his absence to their father. They concoct a likely tale about lions or tigers or bears (oh my!), proving his slaughter with his royal robe dipped in goat’s blood. That’s when Jacob’s nightmare begins. As far he is concerned, it will never end. So, this chapter concludes with everyone suffering over the loss of Joseph, with varying degrees of guilt and sorrow and despair.
There is one note of hope. The very last verse of Genesis 37, not part of our reading, tells us that Joseph has been sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. What that will mean, the reader does not know. But it does mean that the end has not come yet for Joseph. And that means that The Dream is not dead.
God is not mentioned in this story. God is apparently absent and inactive, unless we take the dreams as a revelation from God. In contemporary psychology, dreams are the way our subconscious works out its conflicts; we produce our own dreams. In the biblical world, dreams are often the way God reveals his plans. God gives us God’s dream for our lives. In his dream for Joseph, God intimates that “the ways of God are at work, regardless of human attitudes and actions.” Brueggemann continues, “in the contingencies of history, the purposes of God are at work in hidden and unnatural ways. But the ways of God are nonetheless reliable and will come to fruition.” So perhaps there is hope for Joseph and his family, and for Solomon and his family, and for the human family in this time of chaos and pain.
In this racially fraught time, the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King continue to lift hearts. “I Have a Dream,” he proclaimed back in the l960’s. The fact that 60 years later we are still battling over racial equality is a discouraging thing. Where is God in all this?
The story of Joseph reminds us that God has a dream that will come to pass. It will depend on another child of Israel, the Chosen One who will suffer and die to unite all things in heaven and earth (Ephesians 1). The ultimate fulfillment of that dream for humanity is shown to St. John in a vision (Rev. 7). “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nations, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” When John asked one of the Elders who these white robed people are, he is told (in words that echo Genesis 37), “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” That is God’s dream for a conflicted and sinful humanity. Thanks be to God.
Author: Scott Hoezee
To be honest, Psalm 85 is a little all over the place. The first four verses reflect a time when God forgave Israel for some transgressions and restored them. But then the next set of verses seems to indicate Israel went backwards, sinned again, and so found itself under the wrath of God again. And then we get to the last sections that are the actual Lectionary selection for this Year A Sunday after Pentecost that may or may not flow smoothly from verse 7. The psalmist pledges to listen to God and seems more upbeat again about the promises of God and about God’s glory dwelling in the land.
Then we get to the very last verses which are the most well-known parts of this poem with its lyric language about love and faithfulness meeting up and righteousness and justice sharing a kiss. But honestly, these verses seem to come from out of nowhere. Where does the psalmist see this happening? Where is faithfulness springing up from the earth or where is righteousness both looking down from heaven and also going before God as a preparation for God’s very steps? Is this related to needing to be delivered from God’s wrath? Is it a hoped-for future?
Truth is, this psalm feels like a loosely stitched together pastiche of sentiments. A lyric thanksgiving for deliverance is followed by a plea for restoration followed by some pledge of faithfulness followed by an almost eschatological vision of an earth filled with shalom. So were one to preach on this whole psalm or even just the last portion as assigned by the Lectionary, how should the preacher proceed? The whole thing reminds me of the anecdote that claims that Winston Churchill once sent a pudding back to the kitchen complaining that the pudding lacked a theme.
Or might there be a way to view this psalm that brings it closer to home after all? What if we thought of this psalm’s mish-mash of thanksgiving, repentance, pledges of faithfulness, and wistful hopes to see a renewed creation as a reflection of just how many of our lives go sometimes? Sometimes we all feel like what is now referred to as “a hot mess.” We ricochet from being so grateful to God for his forgiving grace back into some failure that necessitates our receiving more grace. This in turn is sometimes followed by a fierce determination to clean up our acts and maybe this in turn leads us to long for a day when we won’t have to keep repeating this same old sad cycle because God will be all in all. Love, faithfulness, righteousness, justice: they will all dance around one another in the sheer delight that just is God’s shalom when we ourselves but also the whole of creation will at long last be what God intended for the whole shebang in the beginning.
But we can take our cues as to what to long for from the vocabulary in especially verses 10 and 11. Clustered here are some of the most theologically rich words in the Hebrew language. The “love and faithfulness” that meet are chesed and emet, the latter being that #1 trait of God’s for which Israel gave praise again and again. It’s not just “love” but God’s overflowing lovingkindness, all that is within God that makes God inclined to be forgiving and gracious. And the second word is the word from which we also derive “Amen” and its other meanings include “truth” or that which is flat out right in the world. In the New Testament these would be “grace and truth” and how can one hear those words without thinking of John 1’s description of that which the Word of God made flesh abounded in: he was full of grace and truth.
Next up is righteousness and peace and here again are the loaded Hebrew words zedek and shalom. The righteousness here is the very core of who God is, it is every straight moral line in the universe, the standard against which crookedness is determined. And of course shalom is so rich a Hebrew word it is now a part of many languages in its untranslated form. It’s “peace” all right but not peace in the sense of an absence of conflict or the opposite of war. No, it’s shalom in the sense of everything in the world contributing to the wholeness and the flourishing of everything and everyone else in the world. It’s a creation in which every last thing that exists is webbed together to everything else in one vast network of flourishing and delight.
This is the world we long for: a world where grace leads the way, where truth is what most makes people enthusiastic, where everything that was ever meant to be right is all that there is and is linked together to everything and to everyone else in a world that adds up to just one constant reality: Shalom.
We all have our ups and downs. Psalm 85 maybe really does reflect our too-typical experiences in a world that is not yet perfect and nor are any of us. Not by a long shot. But God’s Word assures us we are on course for that better, lyric world sketched in the final verses of this poem. And as Christians we know this more certainly because the things longed for in this psalm’s final vision really did all come together in the person of Jesus the Christ. He is the one full of grace and truth, he is the one in whom righteousness and shalom co-exist in perfect harmony. And he is the one who died and rose again so that faithfulness really did spring forth from the earth on Easter morning and the righteousness of God’s One and Only is now paving the way for his every footstep as he leads us all to the better day that just is the Kingdom of God.
The seeming pastiche of ideas that Psalm 85 seems to contain—the perhaps spiritual ups and downs reflected in the experience of this psalmist—reminds me of a couple things. First, it reminds me of what the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has identified as the “Vertical Habits” that are at the core of Christian worship. When it comes right down to it, worship consists of really just a few basic elements including simple, almost child-like language that says “Thank You” and “I’m Sorry” and “I Promise.”
But something of the spiritual ups and downs reflected here also reminds me of writer Anne Lamott who once said that once you strip away all the specifics, her prayers to God come down to basically just two prayers: “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Author: Doug Bratt
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson ought to make perhaps especially its proclaimers’ ears perk up. Particularly its end, after all, emphasizes the extreme importance of the work of proclamation.
In Romans 9 Paul insists that salvation doesn’t depend on people’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. However, that raises the question of whether people have any responsibility at all when it comes to their salvation.
Christians profess that God gives those God chose for eternal life both the gift of faith in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We also profess that God keeps us eternally close to God. So is there any place for human activity when it comes to our salvation?
Some Reformed Christians, for example, have veered dangerously close to such a claim. They’ve rightly stressed God’s central role in salvation. Yet some sometimes act as though they’ve forgotten that God also gives people some responsibility.
Romans 10:5-15 is perhaps most centrally about the importance of human hearing of the gospel through which the faithful reception of God’s grace comes. “How,” asks the apostle rhetorically in verse 14, “can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?”
This helps explain why he’s so serious about preaching the gospel to the whole world. He insists that God uses such proclamation to produce faith. The apostle also implies that where no one proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ, faith doesn’t blossom.
Of course, this almost immediately raises some basic questions. Does Paul really mean that we must audibly hear someone proclaim the gospel in order to respond to God’s grace with our faith? Or is verse 14 a kind of wisdom saying that asserts that faith usually arises through the audible proclamation of the gospel?
It at least suggests that God generally produces faith in response to the audible proclamation of God’s gospel. After all, as biblical scholars note, when Paul talks about “hearing” here, he’s speaking of hearing audible speech.
The apostle asserts, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (13). To call on the Lord is to call out for help to God on the basis of who God is and what God has done to save us. Quite simply, it’s to receive God’s grace with faith in Jesus Christ.
But how, adds Paul in verse 14, can people call out to God for help if, as one paraphrase puts it, “they don’t know who to trust?” How can anyone faithfully call on the name of the Lord if they don’t know who that Lord is?
Romans 10’s proclaimers might make this flawed analogy: suppose you were in a car accident and needed help. You might dial a random number and ask whoever answers it to help you. But how could you know if that person is willing and able to help you?
Wouldn’t it be better if you knew something about the person whom you were calling? Wouldn’t it be better if, for instance, you called a local friend or relative who you know would be both willing and able to help you? Or better still if you called emergency personnel who are trained to help in such situations? In a similar way, if people are to find help when they call out, it will be best if they know it’s our living God who, in Christ, is able to help them.
Yet how can people know that the living God is willing and able to help them if no one tells them about the Lord? Think back to the accident analogy. How could I call the police or an ambulance if I didn’t even know they existed?
These and similar questions are at least arguably as important today as they’ve ever been. We live and work, after all, in a time of deep uncertainty and, in many corners, despair. People wonder if this global pandemic will ever end. Will our countries ever experience the kind of racial justice and equality for which God and God’s people long?
On top of that, so many voices claim to be authorities to which we should listen to learn about our salvation from these and other problems. I hear, for example, countless voices proclaim that “only science can save us” from COVID-19. Christians profess that while God often uses science to richly bless us, salvation of all sorts comes from God alone. Yet how would anyone know that if someone hadn’t told him or her? In fact, how would any of us know about the gospel if someone hadn’t told us about it?
People of Dutch heritage like myself sometimes think of the Netherlands as, at one time. at least, very Christian. Some of the 19th and 20th centuries’ best Reformed Christian thinkers came, after all, from the Netherlands. We tend to forget that our pagan Frisian ancestors killed the missionary Boniface when he tried to tell them the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Yet, as Paul continues in Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, how can anyone tell such people the good news of the gospel so that they can respond in faith unless someone sends people to tell that good news? “How can they preach,” he asks in verse 15, “unless they are sent?”
Paul insists that God has sent him to announce to the world what God has done. He believes that God will graciously open the door to a faithful response to that work through that proclamation. The apostle, in fact, believes that he would be failing to do his work for God if he didn’t tell them what God has done for them in Christ.
However, Paul also understands that he can’t do that work alone. He needs people to both send and support him. So one of the reasons the apostle writes the letter to the Roman Christians is to solicit their support for his mission work.
As richly as God gifts missionaries, they can’t preach the gospel alone. Many kingdom workers need the Church to send them out to do their work. Yet all of those who preach and teach the good news also need tangible support. Those who proclaim the gospel need people to support them with prayers, encouragement and finances.
After all, Christ sends missionaries. Missionaries preach. People hear those missionaries. Those hearers call out in faith to the living God. God graciously saves those who call out to the Lord.
Yet, as one biblical scholar notes, perhaps we hear Paul’s case for mission work even more pointedly when we consider what he says negatively. Unless the church commissions people for mission work, there will be no missionaries.
And unless there are missionaries, not everyone will hear Christ’s message and voice. And unless people hear that gospel, they won’t believe the truths of his death and resurrection.
And unless people hear those truths about Jesus Christ, they won’t faithfully call out for help to the Lord. And, Paul concludes, unless they somehow call out to the Lord, people won’t be saved.
Of course, as Paul grieves in what follows this Sunday’s Lesson, not everyone who hears the good news faithfully receives it. While Christ and his church can and must send missionaries, not all of their hearers will believe. So Romans 10’s proclaimers and hearers try to remember that while God holds God’s adopted children accountable for both sharing the gospel and supporting missionaries who also share the good news, only God can turn hearers into believers.
How, then, might those who proclaim Romans 10 invite our hearers to respond to this morning’s text? We might share a word for older people and a word for younger ones. Preachers and teachers, parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, friends and neighbors need to live out our concern for the salvation of others.
Jesus’ followers faithfully pray for those who haven’t yet received God’s grace with their faith. We’re careful in our language about those who don’t yet believe. Christians reflect a deep love for non-Christians in our words and actions.
And we find ways to communicate that concern to children. God’s mature adopted sons and daughters deliberately teach them to share our commitment to those who don’t yet believe. Christians communicate to children the value of supporting those who bring the gospel to people who are spiritually lost.
But Romans 10’s proclaimers might also challenge children and young adults to explore to what is God calling them. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson invites them to consider giving their lives in some kind of mission.
Millions of people across the world are just waiting for someone like our young adults to preach the gospel to them. So which of those people who hear our proclamation of Romans 10 is God challenging to do the beautiful work of bringing them that life-saving gospel?
Makmun was a successful lawyer in Jakarta, Indonesia. While on a business trip to his hometown, he stopped to visit a friend who was also a lawyer. Since he arrived at his friend’s office a bit early, he had to wait for a few minutes. As he waited, Makmun, as many of us who wait in an office do, he paged through reading materials someone had left there.
Among them he found a small book entitled, Yesus Juruselamatmu, which means “Jesus Your Savior.” It included passages from the gospels that recount Jesus’ life and teachings.
Initially the Christians who had the audacity to distribute a book with such a provocative title irritated Makmun. He was, in fact, still fussing about it when his friend walked out into the waiting room to meet him. Because he was embarrassed to have his friend see him reading such a book, Makmun slipped it into his pocket.
Makmun, in fact, forgot about the book until he boarded a plane to return to his home. As he sat down in his seat, the book caught on his armrest and pinched his side. So he took the book out of his pocket just to make himself more comfortable. During his flight to Jakarta, however, Makmun read some pages in the book. Yet they so irritated him again that he quickly closed the book and stuffed it back into his pocket.
However, those pages wouldn’t let go of him. Makmun found that even once he returned home, he couldn’t sleep because he kept thinking about the book. When his wife asked him what was wrong, he reported that the book was bothering him. So she took it from him, and promptly read it from beginning to end. “It’s a good book,” Makmun’s wife told him before falling asleep. So Makmun picked up the book and finished reading it.
Not long afterwards, both Makmun and his wife received God’s grace with their faith. So the Holy Spirit, through the proclamation of a little book (and, as it turns out, Makmun’s friend), transformed them into enthusiastic Christians and active church members.