August 21, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Matthew 16:13a is not important, right?
We can just skip to verse 13b, yes?
We can just start with the question “Who do people say that I am?” That’s the core if it all here, right?
We cannot skip the geographical marker in this incident. If we do, we miss the key piece of information that ends up informing what happens in this important exchange between Jesus and his disciples. Because where are they as this pericope opens?
Once upon a time it was known as the region of Naphtali. It was an Israelite place. A God place. A Promised Land place. But even as the Soviet communists could not stand to have a town named “Saint Petersburg” (and so changed it to “Leningrad”), so the Romans changed names when it suited them better.
The translation we have in Matthew 16:13-20 says it was “Caesarea Philippi,” but literally in the Greek it is “Caesarea of Philip.” That distinguished it from the older city of Caesarea, which was south and west of there a ways along the Mediterranean Sea. But it also pointed to the more immediate history of the place. Around 20 B.C. Augustus had given the town and its surrounding region to King Herod. Herod built up the city, including a temple of white marble that honored the cult of the Caesar. After Herod died in 4 B.C., the region passed to King Philip, who further built up the place and renamed it “Philip’s Caesarville” so as to flatter and honor his patron, Caesar Augustus.
In other words . . . this was a place that oozed the unctuous nature of politics as usual. It was a place that worshiped Augustus, a place filled with political patronage and a reveling in all things worldly. The very name of the town pointed to the “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” give-and-take of the kingdoms of this world. Translated to a twenty-first century context, this would be a place that would be crawling with high-paid lobbyists in $1,000 suits earning $700 an hour to shill for AARP or the National Rifle Association or any number of high-octane single-interest groups that work the system for influence and manipulation.
So it was no coincidence that it was here that Jesus asked his famous question, “Who do people say that I am?”
Don’t skip verse 13a.
You see, to ask that particular question there, in the shadow of power politics and all that goes along with it, transforms the query from an idle question of curiosity into a loaded question bristling with implications. It would have been one thing for Jesus to ask this in some quiet village in Galilee, but it’s quite another matter to ask it in Caesarville. Even today, a question that sounds perfectly natural to ask in Pella, Iowa, would sound very different if it were asked in the well of the Senate.
Jesus’ famous question is fraught with background. So to ask it there in Caesarville only heightened the drama of it. When Peter gives his clarion confession that Jesus is the Christ, there was more than a touch of revolutionary zeal in what he said. Given where they were, that confession was like going to Washington D.C., standing outside the White House, and hoisting up a placard that declared, “Impeach the President!” There in King Philip’s city dedicated to Augustus, Peter’s saying that Jesus is the Christ was a shot across the Roman political bow.
For his part, Jesus knew deep in his heart that political pomp and circumstance, earthly splendor and glory were neither his destiny nor his goal. His warning to the disciples in verse 30 to keep his identity a secret did not stem from some fear that they’d be arrested for sedition. Jesus simply did not want to get swept up in a political campaign in which he did not want to be a candidate for secular office.
Still, it was good for Jesus to know that at least his disciples could get this right. And Peter’s having gotten it right resulted in one whale of a set of promises. True, and as is noted in the “Textual Points” in this set of Lectionary sermon starters, we probably err if we make this all about Peter. Jesus is establishing his entire Church as the place of forgiveness.
But what this incident makes clear is that whatever power the Church has to forgive sins or point out sins, it all stems from one thing alone: knowing who Jesus really is. If Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as Peter said, then no matter how modest the church may look in any given time or place, no matter how imperfect the church always is, what we have at the core of it all is a power that outstrips the political powers that be in this world. We have a protecting force but also a gracious forgiving force that no one in the universe will ever be able to stop.
I wonder if we in the church—including those of us who preach each Sunday—appreciate how much flows out of that most basic Christian affirmation that “Jesus is Lord!” One of the simplest prayers of the church has for a long time been known as “The Jesus Prayer.” It goes like this:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
If Jesus is who he said he was and who Peter affirmed him to be, then that short prayer packs more power than the most eloquent sermon, the most lyric psalm, or the best hymn ever written. That is itself a point worth savoring!
Of course, there is then also that other half of this passage. We cannot ignore the immediate sequel to Peter’s grand confession when Peter takes it upon himself to teach his Master a little theology. I mean, if you’re going to take over the world, talk of death and sacrifice was a sure-fire ticket to the bottom. Nobody gets elected to office under the campaign slogan “Dead Man Walking” or “This Year, Vote for a Loser.”
We might be tempted to deal a bit harshly with Peter for his lack of understanding following Jesus’ cross-shaped words that provided a gospel sneak preview of coming events. But honestly, the Church today is often no better. We still want to utilize Jesus as a pawn in power politics, still want the church to receive some privileges and perks that are not accorded to other religious faiths, still think that we can legislate and strong-arm people into behaving better. To a lot of Christian people, America feels more and more like some kind of Caesarea Philippi, too, and we’re pretty sure we know how to deal with that kind of secular influence: through power!
We, too, need to hear Jesus say—especially in the Caesarvilles of life—that what is most important for the sake of the Gospel is that we do our Spirit-led best to keep in mind “the things of God” and not the things of business-as-usual politics.
As noted by Frederick Dale Bruner, in verse 18 the first-person singular subject of the sentence is key. Jesus says Peter is a rock but then says, “And on this rock I will build my church.” Our confession of Jesus as God’s Christ and our proclamation of Him invite people into the church and the kingdom, but it is finally ever and only Jesus who builds up the Church, not the rest of us who are his servants. There is no denying the gospel centrality of this passage: it serves as a kind of hinge point. As John Calvin wrote in his commentary, Peter’s “confession is short but it embraces all that is contained in our salvation.” How vital, therefore, it may be to understand this correctly!
Since Jesus asked this famous question in the shadow of the elite powers-that-be in his day, here is a possible illustration to display how the gospel can look/appear/sound in a similarly high-end setting:
Frederick Buechner grew up among the elite of the very sophisticated East Coast. He rubbed elbows with very urbane people, many of whom fancied themselves too mature as modern-day folk to engage in anything resembling traditional pious talk about God or spirituality. Indeed, when as a young man Buechner mentioned at a high class dinner party that he was going to seminary to become a pastor, his hostess for the evening fixed Buechner in an incredulous gaze before asking, “A pastor? Really. Tell me, was this your own idea or were you ill-advised?” Many years later, Buechner taught a semester at Wheaton College. At lunch one day, sitting with some students, he overheard one student very casually ask another, “What has God been doing in your life lately?” Buechner observed that if a question like that were asked in New York City, the ground would open up, buildings would crumble, and grown men would faint dead away.
Many times how a question sounds depends on where you are!
Author: Doug Bratt
Exodus 1 and 2 are full of both oppression and kindness, of resilience and intrigue. Yet their central figure seems to stay largely behind the scenes, much like the director of a play. However, that apparent absence makes this story a kind of metaphor for much of our own daily lives.
Exodus 1 basically picks up where the end of the book of Genesis leaves off. Yet while Genesis largely ends with the report that Joseph and Jacob’s family “stayed in Egypt,” the book of Exodus quickly implies that it’s in real danger.
Jacob’s family is, after all, outside of the land God had promised to their ancestor Abraham. While the patriarch’s descendants had lived in that land of promise for a while, they’ve had to flee it to escape famine. So at least one part of God’s covenant with Abraham seems inactive if not endangered.
Yet Abraham and Joseph’s descendants flourish, even outside of the land of promise. As a result, Egypt’s Pharaoh worries that they’ve become so numerous that they’ll become a kind of fifth column. So he views Egypt’s once-honored guests as her enemies.
Like Joseph’s descendants, Christians too have become in some ways “resident aliens” in our own countries. In fact, it seems as if some of our contemporaries view us as a threat to our country, much like the Pharaoh viewed the Israelites. It sometimes makes me wonder how they’d view us if we even more consistently followed Jesus.
The Pharaoh responds to the perceived Israelite threat not like the god whom his countrymen viewed him as, but like a thug. After all, Egypt’s despot uses their trumped-up threat to justify their brutal repression. It’s what tyrants have been trying to do ever since.
The unnamed Pharaoh imposes death on Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s descendants. He turns Egypt’s former honored guests into its slaves who build its cities in which he can store his immense wealth. And while the text doesn’t explicitly say so, history at least suggests that his ruthlessness caused many Israelite deaths.
Yet even in the face of Egypt’s death-dealing ways, Israel lives. The more the Pharaoh tries to limit their population growth, the more Joseph’s descendants grow in number. Even as they slave away on the Egypt’s building projects, they somehow thrive.
One of Exodus’s central questions is whom those oppressed Hebrews will serve. Obviously Egypt’s Pharaoh expects Israel to serve him. Verses 13-14 of our text alone, after all, use some form of the word “serve” five times to describe Israel’s relationship to him.
Yet while Israelite slavery is what verse 14 calls “bitter,” the Pharaoh tries to make it even bitterer. He hatches a second plan to decimate the Hebrew population even further. The Pharaoh orders the (obviously busy) midwives to stop the Hebrew population explosion at its very source by killing all of its baby boys as soon as they’re born.
Yet he doesn’t order the annihilation of Hebrew baby girls. He seems to think of them as nothing but bit players who pose no threat to Egypt. What, after all, could mere girls and slave women do?
Women, however, turn out to pose our text’s greatest threat to Egypt’s Pharaoh’s policies. It’s, in fact, two Hebrew midwives who foil his final solution to his “Jewish question.” They “fear” the living God more than they fear the Pharaoh-god. So when the time comes to help Hebrew women give birth, these midwives boldly preserve rather than take life.
And when the Pharaoh confronts them, Shiphrah and Puah even concoct an excuse for letting the Hebrew baby boys live. They exploit his racism by insisting that “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive” (1:19).
As a result, the gullible but sadistic Pharaoh throws off the cloak of secrecy that has been covering his genocide. He no longer trusts his own slave masters and Hebrew midwives to do his murderous work. The Pharaoh orders all Egyptians to throw all newborn Hebrew baby boys into the Nile. In fact, Exodus leaves it a bit unclear as to whether he limits this order to Hebrew boys. The paranoid Pharaoh may, in fact, be so enraged that he orders the murder of all newborn boys.
However, the brutal tyrant shows that he remains a slow learner. He continues to let baby girls survive. After all, what trouble can girls and slave women cause? Once again, however, it’s a woman who throws a monkey wrench into the Pharaoh’s genocide machine.
Exodus 2:1 reports than an unnamed Hebrew mother gives birth to a son. However, while the Pharaoh expects her to throw him into the Nile, she disobeys him. She keeps her son close by until she can no longer safely hide him.
Even then, however, the Hebrew mother only half obeys the Pharaoh. She eventually gives up her baby son, but only in a desperate attempt to save him. After all, even as she surrenders him, she does what she can to protect him. The baby’s mom tenderly lowers her newborn into the same Nile that has drowned so many other Hebrew newborn boys. She also strategically places her daughter nearby so that she can monitor her baby brother.
Yet any law-abiding Egyptians who see that baby hiding in his waterproof basket in the Nile may assume he’s a Hebrew. It will be easy enough for them to obey their Pharaoh by just tipping the baby’s basket over. So Exodus’ first audience may gasp when it learns just who discovers the Hebrew baby floating in the Nile. It’s, after all, the brutal Pharaoh’s own daughter.
Yet while she comes for just a bath, she leaves, in a sense, with a baby. Of course, the Pharaoh’s daughter doesn’t literally return to her dad’s palace with a Hebrew baby boy. She, after all, (unwittingly) gives him back to his mother. The daughter of the Pharaoh even pays the baby’s mom to feed him. So the baby whom his mother gave up in a desperate attempt to save him is rescued and returned to his mother with royal protection.
Eventually the Pharaoh’s daughter adopts the Hebrew baby and names him Moses, which sounds a lot like the Hebrew for “drawing something out.” It’s an ironic name because she was supposed to drown him in, not draw him out of the Nile. What’s more, her dad will eventually drown because no one draws him out of his Red Sea’s watery grave.
Certainly the Egyptian Pharaoh looms large in the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Slave masters, Hebrew midwives, Moses’ parents and the Pharaoh’s daughter also play prominent roles in it. God, however, seems to basically stay in our text’s background.
Egypt’s Pharaoh summons leaders, makes laws and gets things done. Yet God seems to do nothing more than ensure that Shiphrah and Puah get their own families. The Pharaoh creates terror. The Lord seems to create no comfort to help Joseph’s descendants deal with their holocaust.
In fact, only one of the first 32 verses of the book that is arguably most central to the whole Old Testament specifically reports that God actually does something. So Pharaoh gets all of this text’s press. God barely even rates a by-line. So where is God?
It’s a question God’s adopted sons and daughters still sometimes ask. We wonder where God is when we go to the intensive care unit, funeral home, family court or unemployment office. Sometimes we’re honest enough to ask God where God is when we feel skeptical, afraid, sad or lonely.
As Americans remember 9/11, its survivors and mourners may wonder where God was on that awful day. You and I wonder where God is as countless Syrians die and North and South Koreans menace each other across the 38th parallel. Let’s face it: it requires faith to see God’s activity at all. Yet even with faith it’s sometimes hard to see God’s activity in a world that we’ve come to view in largely materialist ways.
God is on vivid display in Exodus’ fiery bush and cloud. However, God seems largely hidden in the picture that is Exodus 1 and 2. So where is God? God’s in Exodus 2:9’s reports that “the Israelites have become too numerous for” the Egyptians.
Faith recognizes that it’s God who turned infertile geriatrics like Abram and Sarah into a nation called Israel. So where is God in our text? Faith professes that God is somehow at work through the intimacy of married couples and the births of children they produce.
Where is God? God’s in the bloodstained hands of two midwives as they bring yet another life into God’s covenant people. Where is God? God’s in the hearts of two women who refuse to carry out the Pharaoh’s “final solution.”
God is in the determination of two ordinary Levites to protect their son from the Pharaoh’s genocide. God’s even in the otherwise deadly waters of the Nile protecting a Hebrew baby until Egyptian royalty can rescue him. Where is God? God even seems to be in the heart of the Pharaoh’s daughter who feels sorry for a stranded Hebrew baby boy.
And where is God on perhaps most vivid display in our world? In Jesus Christ. Yet there too God seems no less disguised than in Exodus 1 and 2. After all, Jesus is born in a barn to an unmarried couple, spends much of his life as an itinerant preacher and ends up executed on a cross like a common criminal.
In fact, it seems as if our text as well as Jesus’ life and death are more typical of the way God usually works than Exodus’ later glossy miracles. After all, it generally requires both practice and some imagination to see God at work, whether in our lives or in our world.
So those who preach Exodus 1 and 2 encourage prayers for the spectacles of faith to recognize that work. However, we also pray for the readiness to be quietly used by God in our world. Where, after all, is God? God often graciously chooses to work through ordinary people like you and me.
The Highlights magazine for children invited its readers to find the animals hidden in a picture. So while I was waiting in my pediatrician’s doctor office I’d often stare at what appeared to be just a forest, only to discover the outline of a zebra hidden in the leaves of an oak tree. I find I can no longer as easily find those hidden animals. Perhaps that’s because children sometimes recognize far better than adults that there’s more to be seen than meets the eye.
Christians believe something similar. We see the violence, neglect, greed and injustice that so often fill the pictures of our world. So we sometimes have to look very carefully for the hidden pictures of God at work. After all, God’s people trust that God not only can be active in life’s most ordinary circumstances, but that God also always is.
Author: Stan Mast
“Whose side are you one?” That’s the challenging question that rings out over playground skirmishes, gangland rumbles, complicated family disputes, and international standoffs. It’s the question asked by Joshua as Israel was just beginning its conquest of the Promised Land. “Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’” The stranger answered in a way that ought to stop all of us short. “Neither, but as the commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” And Joshua fell face down on the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” (Joshua 5:13-15)
In spite of that humbling word, God’s people have claimed in countless conflicts that “the Lord is on our side.” The American Civil War was the most famous and bloodiest example of that. As President Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. The prayers of both cannot be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purpose.”
In the eternal fog of war, Psalm 124 presents us with a comforting and controversial claim. God is on our side. Or at least he could be. If he is not, we are in a world of hurt. If he is, we will be delivered from our enemies. At least that was the experience of ancient Israel many times. Even the fair minded Abraham Lincoln attributed the victory of the Union to the providence of God. “If the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us,” we would have been defeated. But clearly the Lord was on our side, because we won.
As I said, this is a controversial, even dangerous claim to make. It can baptize the worst forms of violence as holy war. It can give combatants a warped perspective on the justness of their cause. It can give false confidence to whole armies, leading to their defeat. So we must be careful how we preach on Psalm 124.
Many preachers may simply avoid the controversy, judging this apparently jingoistic saber rattling as unworthy of attention in a service of worship. But, that’s exactly what Psalm 124 intends to be—a part of worship. That’s what the liturgical call in verse 1 is about. “Let Israel say” is a responsorial invitation to participate in the worship of the God who has shown himself to be on our side. After God gives a great victory, we are supposed to praise God.
Psalm 124 is not a call to war; it is a call to worship the loving God who has delivered us from deadly enemies. We may wish that there weren’t enemies who threaten our very existence, but there are. We may pray that God will help us to avoid violence and bloodshed, and we should. But when God gives us the victory, we should praise him. Psalm 124 serves a very important purpose in the life of God’s people—limited perhaps, but crucial.
But what about the claim that God is on our side? That’s the nub of the problem with Psalm 124. James Luther Mays finds a way to avoid the problem by translating verse 1, “If it had not been the Lord who was for us….” He puts the focus on the Lord, rather than on us, and our side. If we had relied on another god, or no god but ourselves, we would have been defeated. This slight shift in focus avoids the chest thumping that comes from claiming that God is on our side. Instead, it gives glory to the Lord. That seems more humble, though it still asserts that the Lord was for us. It just doesn’t highlight the issues of “sides.” Whose side is God on?
Another way of dealing with this “sides” issue is to emphasize the fact that Psalm 124 is looking backward, not forward. It isn’t about entering into battle with the firm conviction that God is on our side, and therefore we cannot be defeated. It is about looking backward at a battle in which God came to our aid. We know that God was on our side because, if he hadn’t been, we would have been slaughtered.
The grammar and imagery of the first 5 verses helps us come to terms with the “side” issue. There are two “if’s” and three “then’s” in those verses, though you don’t find the “then’s” in the NIV translation, only in the NRSV. “If the Lord had not been on our side… if the Lord had not been on our side….” The repetition suggests a shudder of horror at the thought. Given what we were facing, we would have been absolutely defeated.
Here’s where the three “then’s” and the vivid imagery help us understand Israel’s certainty that Yahweh was indeed on their side. “If Yahweh had not been on our side when men attacked us, when their anger flared against us, then they would have swallowed us alive; then the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, then the raging waters would have swept us away.”
My immediate response to these images was a mental picture of a gullywasher. That’s what folks call a flash flood after a thunderstorm in the desert Southwest, where the climate is as arid as much the desert of Palestine. A formerly bone dry gulch or gully or wadi (in Israel) is suddenly a raging flood that sweeps away anyone in its path.
However, upon further investigation, it seems that the imagery following the “then’s” harks back to the mythology of the ancient Near East. The most terrible thing Israel could face was the chaos of the primeval waters, the very symbol of destructive evil. Israel was up against a force of evil so darkly primitive and brutally powerful that they could not possibly defeat it. But they did and that’s how they knew Yahweh was on their side. This claim is not a bloodcurdling war cry. It is the grateful whisper of the miraculously delivered.
Well, maybe not whisper. Verse 6 sounds pretty loud. “Praise be (baruk, blessed be, in the Hebrew) to the Lord….” Then the Psalmist changes the imagery again to convey the power of the enemy and the helplessness of God’s people. We would have been “torn by their teeth” like roast sparrows or squab. We were trapped like frail birds in a snare. Perhaps that is a reference to the Babylonian captivity (according to some scholars, thus locating Psalm 124 in the post-Exilic period). Whether that be true or not, it is definitively the case that the formerly trapped little bird called Israel has “escaped… out of the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped.” Who broke the snare? The Lord who was clearly on our side, or else we would still be trapped like little birds.
I find it very interesting that Psalm 124 uses such stunning imagery to describe the power and danger of evil. Isn’t that often the case? It is easier to make evil seem real and alive than it is to make grace shine with splendor. We can wax eloquent about the trouble in the world. When we have to show that grace is better, however, we revert to pale bromides. Maybe that’s why Psalm 124, along with so many other Psalms, paints such a dark picture of evil—to make grace shine all the brighter. When we see how hopeless our plight is, then and only then will we embrace the Good News that the Maker of the Universe is actually “for us,” “on our side.”
That’s how we must read Psalm 124—not as a proud war cry to support our particular political cause, but as a humble confession of our utter dependence on the God who is unalterably “for us sinners.” Psalm 124 is not about America or Canada or Russia (as it was about Israel). It is not about Republicans or Democrats, rich or poor, black or white, male or female or transgender. It is about sinners trapped by the destructive powers of sin and evil. It is about every human being who needs the help of God. “Our help is in the name of Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
With those last words, the Psalm moves from what could be taken as partisan posturing to universal affirmation. Brueggemann calls verse 8 a “serene verdict.” After all the trouble of life, here is the one absolute truth. Our help comes not from adam (the Hebrew word translated “men” in verse 2), not from any coalition of human force, but from Yahweh, the God who has reached down into human history and taken sinners by the hand in covenantal faithfulness. Yahweh is more powerful than any enemy of human life, for he is the Maker of all that is. Yahweh is the One True God who brought order and light and life to the dark waters of primeval chaos (Genesis 1:2). Because God’s power is absolute and his resolve unconditional, our deliverance is beyond doubt, if we are on God’s side.
But are we on God’s side? That was the question raised by Abraham Lincoln. In the heat of the Civil War, one of President Lincoln’s advisors said he was grateful that God was on the side of the Union. Lincoln replied, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
The great question raised by Psalm 124 is whether we, its readers, are on God’s side. This Psalm means nothing for us if we don’t know that. Romans 8:31 says a powerful thing. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” But how do we know that God isn’t against us? After all, the Bible tells the story of the great human rebellion against God, which made us all enemies of God (Romans 5:10) who follow our own sinful desires and the ruler of the kingdom of the air (Ephesians 2:2). We have all taken sides against the Maker of heaven and earth.
How do we change sides? Morality won’t do it. Religion won’t do it. Being nice and going to church won’t end the war. Pursuing justice and worshiping God won’t make peace with God. Only one thing will get us on God’s side. Surrender. Laying down our arms and falling into God’s loving arms. That involves changing our minds about God. He is not the enemy. He is our Maker and Father. And surrender involves accepting his terms of surrender, which means simply embracing the One who entered the battlefield on our side and died as a blasphemous traitor, accused of being on the side of neither God nor good.
We know this because Romans 8 begins with these words. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And it ends with the assurance that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.” At the end of life, all those so loved will say, “If the Lord had not been on our side, we would have been overwhelmed by ‘the flood of mortal ills prevailing.’” But “our help [was] in the name of the Lord Jesus, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Perhaps nothing illustrates better the danger and perversity of claiming that God is on our side in a political and military sense than Mark Twain’s satirical piece, “The War Prayer.” Here’s a part of it.
It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast there burned the holy fire of patriotism….
Sunday morning came. All the young men were about to march off to war the next day. The preacher stood to pray. The burden of his prayer was that God would watch over our noble young men, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset, and help them crush the foe.
As he prayed an aged stranger entered the church and slowly made his way to the front where he mounted the pulpit and stood next to the praying preacher. When the preacher had finished, the stranger said, “I have come from the Throne, bearing a message from Almighty God. He has heard your prayer and he will grant it after I, his messenger, shall have explained to you its import—that is to say, its full import.”
“Is it one prayer? No, it is two—one uttered, and the other not. You have heard your servant’s prayer. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it. You heard the words, ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God.’ When you have prayed for victory, you have prayed for many unmentioned results that follow victory. Here is your unspoken prayer.”
“O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells… help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing with pain… help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief… help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst….”
On and on rages Twain’s “War Prayer,” showing us the horror of human’s taking sides and claiming that God is on our side. This sort of abuse should caution us as we preach on the comfort of Psalm 124.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sober judgment. That lies pretty near the core of these quite well-known verses in Romans 12. We need to be transformed, Paul writes. Our minds need a refresh. If we get this renewal by the grace of God’s Holy Spirit, then we won’t act as the world acts. In this particular context Paul seems to have in mind not “worldly” things like immoral sexual practices or riotous living and drunkenness or any number of other tawdry behaviors. No, here the turn from worldliness involves principally a new way to regard our very selves, our talents, what we’re good at, and then how we regard those around us, too.
Paul basically says, “Look, everybody is good at something. We’re not all good cooks but some of us really are great in the kitchen. We’re not all preachers of the Gospel but some are gifted communicators. We’re not all good at music but there are many talented musicians around. Be grateful for what you have and use your gift to the utmost but keep it all in perspective. Don’t strut around in pride on the assumption that preaching a good sermon is somehow more important than cooking a perfect lamb chop and serving it up in gracious hospitality. Don’t think that singing well in the choir is better than those who serve hot meals at the local homeless shelter. Look at everyone around you at eye level. Be humble. Play your part in the Body of Christ but recognize that if it were not for everyone else also playing their parts, nothing would ever get done. The Body could not walk, talk, serve, function at all.”
Curiously, though, Paul does not say we may not regard ourselves highly, just not MORE highly than we ought. If God has made you good at something, wonderful! Celebrate it! Be grateful! Admit that what you do is important and good. But . . . leave it at that. Don’t ratchet up your ego to the point that you are forever looking down on other people who do what you may be tempted to deem as lesser things.
It’s pretty simple advice but I am guessing most of us who preach and most of the people to whom we preach know full well that living this way is far from simple. Pride remains a stubbornly basic (and deadly) sin. But this is why, as writers like Robert C. Roberts have long noted, humility is perhaps THEE core Christian virtue. Maybe it is love that is the absolute core of all but humility nestles in right next to it. But as Roberts also notes, as with most virtues, including gratitude, being humble is all about construing situations the correct way. How do we look at situations in life? How do we construe ourselves?
Think of it this way, Neal Plantinga has suggested: you are in line at the supermarket. The person in front of you checking out has a fair amount of groceries, which is fine. But then she pays for these groceries in bits and pieces, hauling out of her purse not one, not two, but eventually five different checkbooks, writing out checks in varying amounts. This goes on and on, it seems. It’s taking forever. And your first instinct is to construe this situation as another example of someone’s being rude and inconsiderate to the people behind her in the checkout aisle—people who obviously have better things to do.
But then suppose that after you finally check out yourself, you go out to the parking lot and notice this woman taking her grocery-laden cart to a van full of senior citizens. She hands each person in the van a checkbook and then a bag of groceries. And then you realize she was serving these good folks, shopping for them when they were a bit too frail to do it themselves.
Now retrospectively you construe that situation in the checkout aisle differently. Your impatience had not been warranted. And then suppose you learn something from this experience such that the next time you are in a line that takes a long while for whatever the reason, you choose to construe the possible reasons more charitably. Yes, she is paying in three different ways but maybe that is because food stamps only cover certain items whereas WIC support covers others and some just have to be paid for with cash. She’s doing the best she can on a limited income to bring home food for her kids. In this charitable construal, then, you will be far less likely to grow impatient.
How we size up life has a great deal to do with how we react and act. This, in turn, becomes the avenue by which we try to let virtues like humility, patience, gratitude, and all the rest shine through. The renewal of our minds to which Paul refers is about many things but SEEING things aright is near the top of the list. Let the Spirit open your eyes to other possibilities, other ways of sizing a situation up and witness if this better way of seeing helps you be more Christ-like.
For the context of Romans 12, this is how we see other people, their talents, their contributions to society or to the life of the church. We construe each person and his or her talent as utterly necessary, as wonderful, as a partner with whatever you are good at that advances God’s kingdom bit by bit. We don’t downgrade someone else or her ability. Nor need we envy someone else’s ability over against whatever we contribute to life. Instead and in humility we are grateful—grateful for what God has given to us, grateful for what God has given to others. And in aggregate we construe that this is how God wants it to be, this is how the Holy Spirit gets things done and if we are one of the people—but not the only person and not the most important person—through whom that Spirit works, wonderful!
Ours is a competitive, cynical age, though. When Paul says we will not be conformed to the patterns of this world, in this current cultural moment that means resisting a sense of competition, of one-upmanship, of designer envy foisted on us by advertisers. It means we stop looking at other people’s Facebook posts and wondering why their life seems so much more wonderful than ours, why so many other people are on vacation in exotic places and I am stuck at home, why so many other people seem more successful than I am, etc. etc. Don’t conform to those competitive patterns, Paul urges. Be changed. Be renewed. Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought.
We sometimes worry that humility = humiliation. To be humble means to beat yourself down, deny that you are good at ANYthing, to be self-effacing to the point of obsequiousness. But that need not be. Humility is just about seeing life as a level playing field. You need not pretend you are the worst of all people to be humble. As Robert C. Roberts once put it, “’Humility’ comes from humus, Latin for ‘earth.’ This origin of the word suggests that being humble is being ‘down to earth,’ not ‘up in the clouds’ where one doesn’t belong. It need not mean groveling in the dirt while others stand erect and dignified; it might mean being solidly a member of the human family by not trying to opt out of it upwardly” (Robert C. Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotion, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982, p. 62).