August 06, 2018
The Proper 14B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 6:35, 41-51 from the Lectionary Gospel; 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 130 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Ephesians 4:25-5:2 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 76 (Lord’s Day 28)
John 6:35, 41-51
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert yet they died.”
That’s what Jesus said and it’s a pretty easy verse to cruise past and not much ponder. I mean, of course those people died—in fact, they had died about 1,000 years ago!! And since no one even a millennium earlier had ever said manna would keep you alive forever if you kept eating the stuff, noting the fact that those ancestors ate and died seems about as profound a thing to say as “Your great-great-grandfather ate his fruits and vegetables his whole life and then he died.” Well, I didn’t really expect fruit and veggies to mean Grandpa would still be with us at the age of 187 so . . . what’s the point?
Did Jesus here in John 6 mean “death” more metaphorically, in a spiritual sense perhaps? Well, here’s hoping he did not mean that the Israelites died to eternal perdition on account of their having been born prior to the advent of the Messiah. Although Jesus does go on to use death in this spiritual sense—claiming that if we eat Jesus’ flesh we will never die—he cannot have meant it in that sense when applied to ancient Israel.
There appears to be more than a little fluidity in terminology here. Perhaps one way to get through this apparently confusing tangle is to recognize that over time, “manna” became a symbol for far more than the flaky, bread-like stuff the Israelites received in the desert. Manna became a symbol for the presence of God and the Word of God and the gifts of God generally—for all things that contribute to our salvation, in short. And even as a physical substance, the original manna was a true source of wonder and delight, a key sign that God was with his people, sustaining life in a place that was otherwise shot through with death.
But now in John 6 Jesus seems to be saying that for all its wonder—and despite all the metaphorical significance that accrued to manna over time—it pales in comparison to the true spiritual sustenance God is ultimately providing for his people through the Christ of God, whose sacrificed flesh will well up inside God’s people as a source of Eternal Life that not even physical death can snuff out.
Jesus will say something very similar to Martha on the occasion of Lazarus’ death a bit later in this gospel in John 11. So perhaps the reason Jesus brings up manna in this context is along the lines of “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” The original manna was great. It was a true life saver. It signaled the presence of God among his people in a place of death. But it was, in the end, a temporary fix. It was part of the story of salvation, not the whole story and not the climax of that story. If anything, it could only point toward the greater Bread from heaven that was yet to come.
The original manna didn’t cost the Israelites anything and, presumably, was an easy thing for an Almighty God to provide as well. Receiving the ultimate Manna will finally be a cost-free gift for also us. But the power of that Manna will be revealed in the fact that it ended up costing God a very great deal indeed. God so loved the world (as Jesus told Nicodemus three chapters earlier in John) that he sent his only Son. He sent him to die.
As bread goes, that’s pretty costly fare. Small wonder that in the hands of God, it provides sustenance for nothing short of life eternal.
As noted in last week’s sermon starter—which was actually just a whole sample sermon—the Year B Lectionary keeps treading water here in John 6 for five whole Sundays. Few preachers have enough illustrations on “Bread” to keep things going that long!! So maybe this lection and this mention of manna can give us preachers a fresh angle to compare—as I just did above—the old with the new, the sneak preview in the Pentateuch with the main attraction as it arrived in Jesus. Maybe it’s a chance to remind everyone of the Grand Story of which we are all privileged to be a part.
In an age of soundbites in which people often seem to have no sense for the big picture or for history or for anything like a meta-narrative that can bind life together, perhaps the reminder we get in this part of John 6 of a very sovereign God who is patiently working out a plan across the whole span of history can be a properly bracing thing to point the congregation toward.
It reminds me of Terrence Malick’s (usually misunderstood) film, The Tree of Life. Much of the film centers on an ordinary family living in a small Texas town in the 1950s.
But Malick deftly locates the trials and tribulations of this one family inside a cosmic (and God-driven) drama that went back to the Big Bang and whose forward trajectory was nothing short of glorious, ending in a New Creation. The film intersperses the mundane scenes on earth with the majestic images of God’s unfolding cosmos of grandeur.
That’s the location of all our living before the face of God. That’s why God’s been feeding his people in various ways for so long now. And that is why it is more than a blessing of divine grace to be in touch with the Manna come down from heaven that will sustain us both this day and even forevermore!
When in verse 35 Jesus says that he is ho artos tes zoes, “the bread of life,” he’s saying more than that he’s just bread that’s alive. He’s also claiming that he’s the bread that gives life. Raymond Brown notes that verse 41 is the first example of John referring to the people of Galilee as “the Jews,” a term he typically uses to describe those who are hostile to Jesus in Jerusalem.
While the Lord of the Rings is not strictly speaking a Christian allegory (Tolkien was always careful to point that out), it certainly has theological images and allusions. Perhaps preachers can help those who listen hear how Lembas summons up echoes of Jesus as the “bread of life.”
Lembas is bread used for long journeys by elves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It has amazing powers to both sustain travelers and even bring healing to the wounded or sick. One piece of Lembas was enough to last a traveler a full day. Its delicious honey-flavor evokes images of the manna God provided Israel in the wilderness.
However, a quote from The Return of the King suggests Lembas has even more striking powers: “The Lembas had a virtue without which they would have long ago lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats. And yet this waybread of elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind” (italics added).
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Author: Stan Mast
In the long story of God’s covenant relationship with his beloved but rebellious child Israel, the story of David and his beloved but rebellious child, Absalom, occupies 6 long and painful chapters. It is one of the most gripping and heart wrenching stories in all of literature. Indeed, it has been the inspiration for some great extra-biblical literature, such as Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner.
Like all great literature, this story is rich with meaning. Thus, it is amenable to multiple interpretations and applications. Indeed, your major challenge as a preacher is to decide which layer of meaning to press in your sermon. Your response to that challenge will be largely determined by how far back you go in the story. If you focus only on the immediate context of II Samuel 18 (that is, chapters 13-18), you will end up with a sermon full of the pathos of human dysfunction. If you go back further to the sins of David with Bathsheba and Uriah (chapters 11 and 12), your sermon will be about God’s punishment of David. And that will lead you to talk about how God’s plan interacts with David’s behavior. Or, finally, if you go all the way back to God’s election of David to be the King whose dynasty would always rule God’s people, you will end up focusing on God’s larger plan to bless the world through Abraham and his seed. That will lead eventually to that greater Son of David, Jesus Christ.
Let’s begin with the part of the larger story found in the lectionary reading for today, which hop scotches through II Samuel 18, touching only on the verses relevant to the final cry of David in verse 33. Though there are a host of fascinating characters in this chapter, the clear focus is on David (mentioned 34 times) and Absalom (26 times). This is all about the tortured relationship between a flawed father and his arrogant son. Notice that there is no mention of God, until everything is over and done. Then both of the messengers give credit for the victory to Yahweh God in verses 28 and 31. Until then, it’s as though God is not involved in the action. And the story is so good, so juicy, so filled with deeply human details, that it is tempting to preach on that deeply human level.
So, you could focus on what a scalawag Absalom was, reminding your listeners about his murder of Amnon, his half brother who raped Absalom’s sister, Tamar; about his flight to safe haven in Geshur from which David finally brought him back upon the urging of General Joab; about his arrogant self-promotion and his eventual coup at the palace; about his scandalous public rape of David’s concubines; about his merciless pursuit of his desperate old father over the Jordan; about his ironic and brutal death at the hands of General Joab. There’s plenty of fodder there for a sermon about the shiny promises and the ugly wages of sin.
There is even more detail about David that would make a heart rending sermon on regretful fatherhood. Here is the man after God’s own heart, loving his rebellious son, even as God loved rebellious David. Here is an indulgent father who neglected to discipline his murderous son and ended up almost getting murdered himself. Here is a sinful man regretting that his own son has repeated the father’s sins in that vicious cycle of generational sin that has ruined many a family. Here is a father whose love for his son was greater than his sense of duty to his country. Here is the quintessential picture of a father’s excessive grief over the death of a son whose sins could not destroy his father’s love. This story is a perfect text from which to preach on the tragedy of family dysfunction. You can touch your people’s hearts deeply by focusing on these details of the story.
But if you stop there, you will have abused the text, because it is not first of all about David and Absalom. This story is about David and God. It is important to spend time in the sordid details of the story, because that will help people get the main message in those details. Here’s the message. In the details of our lives, the Word of the Lord is being carried out. The Word of the Lord to David back in II Samuel 12 is the dominant factor in this story of family dysfunction, palace intrigue and violent warfare.
Yes, of course, the rebellion of Absalom, the sin of David, the hard action of Joab, the breathless news of the messengers, and the keening grief of David are all factors in the story, too. But the hand and mind and will of the invisible God moves all things. This is a hard thing to preach.
I think that Patricia Dutcher-Walls does a good job of balancing the human and the divine in the story. “While the human characters in the David story do indeed make their own choices and initiate actions and reactions that make sense within their own perspectives, throughout all that occurs the intentions of God are inexorably working themselves out. The story seems to be making the theological point that God is not heavy handed in intervening in human affairs, yet is still sovereign over human life. Human choice and God’s will are intertwined in enigmatic ways, yet, if David’s story reflects truth, then God’s providence is the context of our lives.”
This is not just a story about human passion that would make a great soap opera. It is the story about God’s passion to take a people for himself and make them the beach head of his kingdom on earth, the advance troops of a mighty army whose mission is to save the world from sin and evil. In other words, this juicy story is part of redemptive history, just one chapter filled with larger than life characters who are part of God’s movement to redeem his fallen creation. Or, as the second messenger put it in verse 31, “Yahweh has delivered you this day from all who rose up against you.” A sermon about how God is involved in our daily lives, working out his saving plan even when terrible things happen to us, will hit a tender, even painful spot in many lives.
But you will hit an even sweeter spot if you focus on two words spoken by the second messenger. Indeed, David anticipates those same words as he sees the runners approaching the gates of the city. Three times he says, “He must have good news.” The first runner gasps, “All is well!” and the second shouts, “My lord the King, hear the good news!” Those men, of course, were referring to the good news of victory over Absalom and his army. But you can use those words to announce the Good News of God’s victory in Jesus Christ.
Yes, we need to be careful about forcing Jesus into texts where there is no real connection to him. But think of how this text parallels the gospel. David shows us a father’s love that overlooks even the most heinous sin. Nothing can sever the bonds of love. To the bitter end, the rebel, the adulterer, the murderer remains, “My son, my son.” That is a perfect picture of God’s love for his rebellious children. Nothing in all creation, even sin, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What’s more, the final words of David anticipate the sacrifice of Christ in a way that sends chills down my spine. “If only I had died instead of you,” cries David. The greater Son of David did precisely that. Buechner says it in his inimitable way. “If David could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”
So, preach this text as a picture of what God has done for us in the death of his Son. To do that effectively and empathetically, you’ll need to tell it graphically with all due attention to the sin of the characters. And you’ll need to explore the mystery of how God is involved in all of the mess of life. But you haven’t finished your sermon, and you haven’t really helped people, until you show how the cry of David for Absalom is the cry of God for us. But God was able to do what David couldn’t. He actually did die, so that we rebels might live. Our lives are messed up, but the good news is that Yahweh in the flesh has delivered us from all who would ruin us.
In the recent avalanche of school shootings, we are confronted again and again with frantic parents, devastated children, posturing politicians, and, occasionally, real heroes. When the high school in Santa Fe, Texas was attacked in May, a teacher named Steven Rose told his students to hide under their desks while he waited behind the door to the classroom, ready to jump on the shooter if he came through the door. In Davidic, even Christ-like language, albeit with a Texas drawl, he said to them, “It’s my life before ya’lls.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
One of the strangest books I’ve ever read is The Trial/Das Urteil by the German author Franz Kafka. The book’s opening line starkly says, “Someone must have slandered Josef K. because even though he had done nothing bad, one morning he was suddenly arrested.” The police show up at his apartment before breakfast one day to inform Josef K. that he is under indictment for something very serious. They don’t say what, nor do they throw him into jail. He is instead under a kind of house arrest, albeit with the assurance that his trial will one day come. But no one tells Josef K. what the charge against him is. It’s serious, it’s bad, but it is also completely murky. And through ten long chapters neither Josef K. nor we as readers ever find out what his crime was or when (if ever) it would go to trial.
Josef K. tries to carry on with his life and with his job at a bank but everywhere he goes, including the most unlikely of places, he runs into judges, juries, lawyers. He never goes to a formal courthouse but instead suddenly stumbles into courtrooms smack in the middle of apartment buildings and stores. Judges greet him from out of the blue and once again assure him that he is guilty of something huge but they don’t say what. He goes to a lawyer who says that the best strategy would be just to admit his crime and be done with it. But Josef K. says he has no crime to admit. On and on it goes until you have the sense that Josef K’s “trial” is not an event that will take place in a courtroom one day. Instead his whole life is the trial!
Finally one night two black-clad police officers knock on Josef K’s door, escort him down an alley, and execute him for his crime. They stab him through his heart, and as he gasps his final breath, he sees the cops staring at him and saying in the book’s closing line, “‘Like a dog!’ as though the shame of it all should outlive him.”
The Trial makes almost no sense on the surface. But Tim Keller once preached on Psalm 130 (and I owe Keller a debt of gratitude for a lot of what is in this sermon starter) and he quoted a line from Kafka’s personal diary: a line that unlocks what Josef K. represented. In his diary one day Franz Kafka wrote that the problem with modern people is that we feel like sinners yet independent of guilt.
We sense that something is amiss in our lives, something is wrong. But even while we feel this way, society also tells us to get rid of guilt by getting rid of the idea that there are any objective rules that we should follow in the first place. Guilt comes when you break a rule and you know it. So get rid of the rules and you get rid of guilt. What’s right and what’s wrong is up to the individual to decide.
Years ago on the TV news show 60 Minutes the program’s resident curmudgeon, Andy Rooney, provided a classic example of this. Rooney’s commentary was on a controversy about a Ten Commandments monument in Alabama. At one point Rooney went down the list of the Ten Commandments but in several cases he very flippantly said, “I don’t think God would say something like that so let’s get rid of that commandment.” And there you have it: we are free to decide what’s right and wrong. We don’t receive truth from the outside but make up our own rules as we go along. So there is nothing to feel guilty about in life. Just follow the motto of “To your own self be true!”
But people still don’t feel very happy. We’ve relativized the rules, normalized guilt, but still something is wrong. Despair, shame, restlessness, dissatisfaction are rampant. Since Prozac and its cousins have gone on the market, they have sold at an incredible rate. Mostly these drugs are a wonderful way to treat clinical depression but there is evidence that these have also become what some have called “designer drugs” that are prescribed to people who are not depressed but who still want to feel better about themselves. Millions of people want this precisely because, as it is, they do not feel satisfied with who they are.
Any number of people in society can identify with the person who wrote Psalm 130. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!” We feel like we are sinking, like we’re going down, like we have sunk down to a level that feels decidedly out-of-joint and wrong. We are weighed down by shame, by guilt, by feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. We feel like sinners but independent of guilt. Like Josef K. we feel like we’ve done something wrong, but nobody can tell us what. But if we don’t know what’s wrong, we will also never find out how to fix it!
The Bible says and Psalm 130 says that trying to muster our own inner resources to climb up out of the pit will never work. We’re looking in the wrong place for a solution. Psalm 130 says that what we need above all is to know that God forgives us. But you are not going to look for forgiveness (or even want it) until and unless you admit that you need forgiveness. But you won’t admit that need unless you admit first that you are guilty. You need to see yourself measured against some objective standards and rules, confess that you are not in alignment with those standards, and then seek to be forgiven.
Psalm 130 tells us all this. This Hebrew poem has long occupied a central place in the Christian tradition. It became known for a long time by its shorthand Latin title of De Profundis, “out of the depths.” As commentator James Mays notes, few psalms so swiftly summarize the whole human predicament and our utter dependence on God’s grace. Mays also notes that the key to this psalm is how it corrects a common misperception about God.
When you have done something wrong, what is it that keeps you from admitting your guilt? Isn’t it typically a fear of punishment? Yes, someone broke the living room window by tossing a baseball the wrong direction. Your dad may be mighty upset about this, but so long as he doesn’t know that you did it, you won’t get into trouble, won’t get grounded, won’t have to pay for the new window. Similarly, a lot of people resist the notion that they may be guilty of sinning precisely because they don’t want to get into trouble with God because they are convinced that the number one item on God’s agenda is sending people to hell. They picture God as pacing back and forth in heaven with fire in his eyes and a huge rolled-up newspaper in his hand eagerly waiting for the next chance to swat someone.
Psalm 130 says the opposite. God is not eager to punish but he is eager to forgive. Verse 4 gives us the Bible’s single best reason to fear God and it’s not because he is stronger than you and so watch out or else you’ll get squashed. No, the number one reason to fear God (in the sense of honoring and being humbled before God) is because with God there is forgiveness! Giving in to our guilt, admitting that we’ve done it wrong in life, is prelude to grace flooding into us and so getting us out of that pit into which we’ve sunk.
Here is a great irony and paradox: people label guilt as “a downer.” Even some churches have tried to vet worship services of all talk of sin and guilt because it turns people off, it’s a drag, a downer. Do you notice that language: Drag. Downer. That’s the language of De Profundis, getting dragged down into the pit from which the modern world cries. But the paradox, the surprise, is that as it turns out, acknowledging guilt is the opposite of a downer: it’s an upper because recognizing the need for forgiveness is what brings us up out of the pit! Because God does not delight in keeping a record of our sins, because our Redeemer through Christ Jesus the Lord is eager to forgive, giving in to our need for forgiveness is not a drag but a lift.
So much of this depends on how we see God. The English translation of Psalm 130 obscures this, but there is a clever play on words here. In verse 3 we are told that God does not keep a record of sins, but what that literally says in Hebrew is that God does not keep his eye on our sins. There is such a thing as sin. That’s the whole point of this psalm. So there is also a record of sins. But verse 3 says that God does not watch that diary of our sins. Speaking of watching, the word for “watchmen” in verse 6 is the same root word as in verse 3. When we watch for God the way watchmen strain to see the eastern horizon pink up with the dawn, what we will see as a result of our watchfulness is a gracious God. So verse 3 says that God does not fix his eye on our sins. As a result, verse 6 says that when we fix our eyes on God, what we see is forgiveness.
So to get out of the pit, we need to know that there is such a thing as sin. We need to acknowledge our own guilt as sinners. But we need to do both with the up-front assurance that all this talk of sin and guilt will not spell our doom but will open us up to the grace that God is so eagerly waiting to dispense.
Now, sin is still real. It still needs to be dealt with. But it is God’s grace that will do that. As Tim Keller points out, the world misses this part. Instead of seeking God, they seek out other people who have the same problems they do. This person feels like he’s sinking into a pit, so does that person and then still other persons, and so they form a support group to talk about it. But sometimes what happens is that all these sinking people get together, grab onto one another, and so just sink faster because they’re still looking in the wrong direction. We can’t pull ourselves out of the pit of guilt and shame into which sin has led us nor can we pull each other out. We need Someone else, a Redeemer, to do the heavy lifting for us.
The Good News of the Gospel is that exactly that Redeemer exists. Thanks be to God!
While I was a seminary intern, I experienced for the first time what it is like as a pastor to walk with someone through cancer, the rigors of chemotherapy, and the final succumbing to the disease. Especially as the end drew near, what worried this dear Christian man more than anything was what was going to happen on judgment day. He had in his mind an image with which perhaps many of us grew up: the image of some giant movie screen on which God would play the film of our lives including all those greasy moments of secret sin. And my dying friend fretted terribly about this, and maybe some of us do, too. How could we endure the shame of having the whole human race see us literally with our pants down or with our mouths full of swear words or with our hearts filled with dark thoughts of envy, anger, pride, and lust? Worse, how could God ever welcome us into his kingdom given all the sins that would be projected onto that movie screen of judgment?
If you, O Lord God, kept a record of sins; if you, O God, fixed your eyes ever and only on what we’ve done wrong, who could stand? The answer is no one. So instead of that grim movie screen of judgment, God long ago fixed his eyes on the cross of his Son and our Savior, Jesus. When we admit our need for the forgiving grace that streams from the cross like a mighty river of mercy, we discover that with God there is forgiveness, and that is the end of the story.
Author: Doug Bratt
“Imitation” may be, as Charles Colton once famously wrote, “the sincerest of flattery.” However, some attempts at imitation may also be the sincerest of sheer folly. A son may, after all, flatter his mother by trying to successfully cook like she does. Who can, however, as Paul’s calls us in Ephesians 5:2, imitate God?
Even God’s adopted sons and daughter are, after all, natural imitators of the evil one. We see evidence of that impersonation nearly everywhere. Even God’s adopted sons and daughters see it in our own reluctance to love God above all and our neighbors as much as ourselves. Some members of our families are blind to Jesus as Lord and Savior. What’s more, many of our spiritually nearsighted neighbors and co-workers serve a myriad of gods.
The danger of such blindness, what Paul calls “darkened … understanding” (4:18) lies in the steep downward path on which it plunges us. Being spiritually blind is a bit like trying to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon while blindfolded. You may, after all, eventually get there. But you’ll probably get badly injured on the way.
Paul insists that what begins with spiritual blindness quickly degenerates into what he calls the “hardening of” peoples’ “hearts.” That soon spirals downward into alienation “from the life of God.”
Finally, spiritual blindness plunges its victims into what verse 19 calls “sensuality so as it indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases this in The Message, spiritually blind people “let themselves go in sexual obsession, addicted to every kind of perversion.” In other words, once people lose our spiritual sensitivity, we naturally also lose all self-control. So were it not for God’s restraining grace, life apart from the Lord would be utter anarchy and chaos.
How, then, can Paul call people like you and me who are by nature spiritually nearsighted imitators of the evil one to be “imitators of God”? Joel Kok, to whose work in The Lectionary Commentary, The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles, (Eerdmans, 2001, p. 329ff.) I’m indebted for many of these ideas, writes that apart from what Paul writes earlier in his letter to the Ephesians, such a command would be either “ludicrous or cruel.” Because we can’t imitate God on our own, a call to do so would completely discourage us.
However, when we remember what Paul has written earlier about re-creation and conversion, his call to imitate God makes sense. In Christ, after all, as Paul notes in verse 32, God has forgiven God’s adopted sons and daughters.
So our imitation of God is a bit like writing a thank you note to someone who has given us a generous birthday or wedding gift. After all, God’s people want to thank the God who has done so much for us by loving God and each other “just as Christ loved us” (5:2).
God has, however, to stretch the imperfect analogy, both bought and given us the thank you cards. God has, after all, equipped God’s children for loving living. God is, quite simply, busy converting you and me from our old, unloving ways to new, loving ways.
In verses 22ff. Paul compares this conversion to a change of clothes. You and I generally change out of the clothing in which we, for example, work out before we come to church. What’s appropriate attire at the gym is, after all, often not appropriate in church.
In a similar way, Paul says the “clothing” that is things like lingering anger and vulgar language isn’t appropriate for those God has saved in Christ. So the apostle calls believers to take off the old, smelly “clothing” that is our old way of living and put on the clean clothing that is our “new self.”
Yet even faithful Christians are naturally like people who so much like our reeking clothes in which we work out that we don’t want to put on clean clothing. Spiritually speaking we’re naturally “sartorially challenged.”
So God’s people need someone to help us recognize how “dirty” the clothing that is our old behavior is. In fact, you and I are also like babies who need help just to change out of our soiled clothing.
Thankfully, then, Paul insists that God helps God’s children to both recognize how “stained” our old way of life is and put on a “clean” way of living. He uses the imagery of recreation to describe that transformation.
In the very beginning, after all, God created people in God’s image, to be much like God. We, however, have almost hopelessly blurred that image so that we naturally resemble God very little. You and I are naturally like people whom some sort of injury has virtually obliterated any resemblance to our parents.
God, however, is like a surgeon who does plastic surgery so that we once again in some ways resemble our heavenly Father. God equips those whom God has made “like God” to be, in some ways, like God. God empowers those whom God has made in fundamental ways to be a bit like God to, for example, “speak truthfully” and “not let the sun go down while” we’re “still angry.”
After all, as Paul writes in verse 39, we’ve been “sealed” by the Holy Spirit of God. While this primarily means that God made us God’s children by putting the Holy Spirit in us, it also means that God equips us to imitate God.
Yet how can we know what to imitate? We sometimes say that you can learn a lot about a person’s character from what she does when no one is looking. Paul would say that we can learn a lot about God’s character by studying Jesus Christ. In fact, as Kok notes, chrestos, the Greek word for kindness about which Paul talks in verse 32 sounds a lot like “Christ.”
So God’s adopted sons and daughters learn a lot about God’s kindness by watching the gospels’ Jesus deal kindly with those others mistreated. You and I also learn to watch Jesus who repeatedly showed the virtue of “compassion” that Paul mentions in verse 32. After all, according to Luke 7:13, for instance, Jesus’ “heart went out to” a widow who was on her way to bury her only son.
On top of all that, God’s adopted children see the supreme example of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. After all, while you and I naturally find it impossible to forgive people for even the most minor slights, Jesus forgave even the people who so unjustly crucified him. Of course, we can’t actually watch Jesus be kind, compassionate and forgiving. So in order to imitate Jesus, we study, pray about and meditate on his actions the Bible describes.
Of course, even then even God’s holiest people still can’t perfectly imitate God. You and I can’t live up to Jesus’ call to, for instance, be as perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Even Paul who sometimes called his readers to imitate him admitted that he didn’t perfectly live up to his calls to imitate God. In Philippians 3:12, after all, he writes, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect…”
Thankfully, then, God, of course, saves us by God’s grace, not by our imitation of God. But those who, with Isaac Watts, survey the “wondrous cross” want to give back to God “my soul, my life, my all.”
So, with the help of the Holy Spirit, God’s adopted sons and daughters constantly look for ways to deliberately do things like sharing with those in need. We try to build each other up by what we say. Christians pray to God to let the Spirit create in us kindness, compassion and forgiveness.
God doesn’t, after all, just give us Christ’s example of imitating God. God doesn’t even just give us God’s Holy Spirit who equips us to increasingly imitate God. God also gives us the sacraments by which God strengthens our faithful imitation of God.
The Lord’s Supper is what one prominent Reformed theologian called “spiritual food and drink for the time between” Christ’s first and second comings. Those who would imitate God, then, regularly feast on the sacraments’ offerings.
In his essay, “Christianity and Literature” in the book, Christian Reflections, C.S. Lewis argues that much of the New Testament assumes that major human relations (Christ to God, us to Christ) are imitative. Reflecting on that essay, Cornelius Plantinga notes, “Whereas modern criticism views imitation in literature, for example, as bad and unhappy (creativity, originality, spontaneity all put imitation in the shade), it is the normal way in the New Testament of presenting the art of life itself.
“Only God, maybe only God the Father, is truly original. All else is derivative and reflective. Saints are not moral or spiritual geniuses. They are imitators. [Lewis writes] ‘Our whole destiny seems to lie . . . in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed; in becoming clear mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours’.”