August 15, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
When the truth humiliates you, you are humiliated indeed. Worse, when a truth so obvious that it can be stated in a sentence or two humiliates you, then your shame is profound. It’s one thing if a philosopher builds an elaborate argument to disprove some point you had made but it’s another thing if a simple and swift observation of the facts does you in. Sometimes it is the proverbial getting hoist with your own petard, trapped by your own words. It reminds me of a moment in an episode of the TV show M*A*S*H in which the perpetually squirrely but somewhat dim-witted Major Burns claims that he was not the person who had been anonymously squealing on his comrades. Through a series of verbal give-and-takes suddenly Burns gets backed into a corner, prompting Col. Potter to ask,
“So why’d you do it?”
“I thought it was my patriotic duty .”
“I thought you said you didn’t do it,” Col. Potter rejoins.
“I thought I did, too” is Burns’ sheepish final comment.
In Luke 13, Jesus is said to have humiliated his opponents. I don’t think humiliation was his main goal, however, so much as his thinking-out-loud incredulity over the fact that some people can be so incredibly obtuse and, in their obtuseness, be also so downright cruel.
Jesus routinely did things on the Sabbath that got the religious authorities hopping mad at him. And in every case Jesus took the opportunity to remind them that despite their pious intentions, they had rather significantly misunderstood the very purpose behind the Sabbath.
The Sabbath was meant to be a day of delight, rest, enjoyment. In the Hebrew Scriptures the Ten Commandments are given twice with virtually no difference between the words in Exodus 20 and the words in Deuteronomy 5. Only the commandment on the Sabbath day shows a significant variation. Whereas Exodus 20 grounds the practice in creation (“. . . for in six days the Lord God created the heavens and the earth . . .”) in Deuteronomy 5 it is grounded in redemption (“. . . remember that you were slaves in Egypt but that the Lord your God led you out of that land . . .”). Sabbath has something to do with both creation and redemption.
On the creation side is that fact that after six days of creating according to the Genesis 1 account, the Lord God rested on the seventh day, not because he was exhausted and in need of an afternoon nap. No, what God did on the seventh day was the same thing Adam and Eve were to do on what constituted their first full day of existence: viz., revel in and delight over the creation. On the redemption side, the Sabbath day is a reminder that God has liberated us from all that is evil and injurious to human flourishing. We take joy in remembering that God is redeeming the creation, salvaging all that evil has sullied so as to return it the glory God intended in the beginning.
The fourth commandment lists just one Sabbath caveat: no work. But over time the devout in Israel took that one injunction and ran with it. Somewhere around 613 other rules and regulations were larded on top of the fourth commandment all in an effort carefully to define work and to help people avoid even a hint of performing work on the Sabbath. What was supposed to be a day of joy in both creation and redemption became a frightening day in which people worried the whole day long they might screw up and perform a deed of work after all.
Among other things Jesus made a point in his ministry to say “No, no, no” to all that. As the Lord of creation and the Savior aiming to redeem that creation, he was in the perfect position to tell us what Sabbath was supposed to have been all along. But mostly he just illustrated the point through his own deeds, in this case healing someone. It was an act of redemption, liberating her from all that had ailed her, and it therefore tied in with the integrity of the original creation, too, in that it restored her to the kind of health and vitality God desires for all his creatures.
Creation. Redemption. Jesus had both Sabbath themes up and running at the same time.
However, things had fallen far from any kind of a Sabbath vision such as the one Jesus possessed. It had gotten so bad that and ox or donkey had a better shot at being treated well than did a human being. Since no one wanted to see an expensive piece of livestock die of dehydration on a Sabbath, someone had long ago put in a proviso to the Sabbath day regulations that untying an animal for the purpose of getting it to a watering trough was not an act of work. But since no one had thought to add a proviso or a caveat about helping a human being on the Sabbath, what Jesus did that day to this hapless woman did not meet with approval.
Without even realizing it, the authorities had granted a higher status to a donkey than to the average human being!! This was a truth hidden in plain sight but sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to spy that obvious truth.
Enter the eyes of Jesus.
It is a sad thing when religion—however piously intended—becomes a tool to prop up the views of a few no matter who gets hurt by such efforts. The Sabbath day was all along intended to be a day of joy and creation revelry. When such a basic fact gets forgotten—and then when this gets pointed out—those of us who get caught up in it all cannot help but feel humiliated. But that is not part of what God desires for us on the Sabbath, either!
The kicker in this story is Luke’s revelation to us that what ailed this crippled woman was not your run-of-the-mill spinal disorder. This was no slipped disc or arthritic growth along the spinal canal. This condition was caused by an evil spirit sent by Satan himself. True, even had her condition been the result of a fall from a ladder two decades earlier it still would have been fitting for Jesus to heal her, Sabbath day or no. But that her situation was attributable to the forces of evil makes Jesus exorcism of the demon and the consequent healing of her physical frame all the more praiseworthy and all the more fitting a deed for a Sabbath day.
The last line of this text says that although the authorities walked away muttering into their beards over their slam-dunk humiliation the people “were delighted.”
Ahh, now that is what the Sabbath should be all about: DELIGHT!
Time magazine named Albert Einstein its “Person of the Century” at the end of the year 1999. Curiously the name of the magazine points you to the subject about which Einstein had his greatest insight: time. Before Einstein people assumed that whatever time is, it is constant. “Time marches on,” the old saying goes, and before Einstein we assumed that time marches ever and always at the same pace. It does not matter who you are or where you are or what you are doing, you cannot affect time. If your battery is running out, then your watch may run slow but the actual time that passes around you can never slow down or speed up.
But Einstein realized that time is a truly existing dimension. Time is as real as the wood of this pulpit. And it is not constant. Time is affected by motion and position. It is relative. Einstein’s classic illustration has to do with a train. Picture yourself riding on a train. Picture another person sitting on a bench alongside the train tracks watching the train go by. Now imagine that two bolts of lightning strike the train tracks, one just behind the moving train and one just ahead of the train. To the person sitting on the bench it is clear that these two bolts of lightning struck the tracks at the exact same instant. They were simultaneous. But the person riding 60 MPH on the train would not perceive it that way.
If you were riding on the train, you would see the bolt of lightning ahead of the train before the one behind the train. At one time it was thought that this could be explained the same way you can deal with sound waves. If you are in your car waiting for a train to pass, you hear the crossing bell go ding-ding-ding-ding, always the same tone. But people on the train don’t hear it that way. As you move toward the bell and then away from it, the pitch changes. So perhaps the same thing happens with the lightning–you just get to the light waves of the one bolt quicker since you’re moving toward it (and away from the other one).
But it doesn’t work that way. The phenomenal insight of Einstein was that you cannot explain this difference in perception by fiddling with the speed of the light because the speed of light is constant. Light always goes the same speed–you cannot get light to come at you faster. So Einstein realized that what accounts for the person on the train seeing the lightning bolts differently than the person on the bench is that time is different for the person on the train. Time is relative. It can be affected by motion. Scientists have even discovered that if you take two very sensitive nuclear clocks, synchronize the time on both, and then place one at the top of a skyscraper and one at the bottom and let them tick away for a few days, it turns out the clock on the bottom runs slower because it is closer to the earth’s center of gravity than the one at the top!
Well, it took an Einstein to figure that all out but there is a sense in which the importance and impact of time is something Jews and Christians have known all along. The Bible itself lets us know that time can affect us but also that we can affect the time around us. That’s why there is such a thing as Sabbath. God took care to weave Sabbath rest right into the richly embroidered tapestry of his creation. As such, Sabbath is not just a human technique for stress reduction, it is a way to take hold of time and make it serve the cosmic purpose of glorifying God by paying attention to the rhythms God himself instituted.
Author: Doug Bratt
God doesn’t try to keep God’s truth to himself. God doesn’t make God’s adopted sons and daughters try to guess what God is thinking. God likes to speak. However, many of God’s experiences with speaking directly to people haven’t turned out very well.
The people at Sinai, for example, just couldn’t handle it. So when God spoke to Israel from Sinai a second time, God used Moses as God’s mouthpiece. Ever since, when God speaks, God generally speaks through very ordinary people.
Yet were I God, though I like teenagers a lot, I probably wouldn’t choose to speak through them. After all, when they talk, if they talk at all, it’s often about boys, girls, shopping, video games or cars. Teenagers like to say profound things like, “Dude.” Or “She’s hot” or “He’s cool.” Or “When do I have to be home?” Or “What’s for supper?”
The book of Jeremiah’s first spoken words, after its prequel, come not from a grizzled saint or a pimply teenager, but from God. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God tells Jeremiah in verse 5, “Before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.”
So God insists God didn’t just somehow form Jeremiah in his mother’s womb. Before there even was a Jeremiah, God also set him apart to be a prophet. While God told Jeremiah that God was calling him in about 637 BC, God insists that God actually “called” him long, long before then.
As a result, as one scholar notes, while we often call his prophecy the “Book of Jeremiah,” that may be a kind of misnomer. It isn’t, after all, a record of God’s prophet’s ideas. God begins this conversation. God’s words are also at the heart of this book. So we could call Jeremiah the “Book of God.”
Yet God doesn’t just give Jeremiah the gift of God’s words. God also gives him the job of speaking on God’s behalf to God’s people. That’s one reason why we, as one scholar notes, study the Scriptures so carefully. God’s people expect God to somehow speak to us through them, by the Holy Spirit. So you and I read the Bible lovingly and carefully because every verse of it is what Will Willimon calls “a potential summons from God.” We don’t just ask, “What do the Bible’s words mean?” but “What is God calling us to do through these words.”
Willimon compares our text to Genesis 1. He notes that, after all, where there was once nothing but darkness and chaos, God’s word somehow created something. In a similar way, where there is nothing but a young man, God creates a prophet. God, after all, loves to create light out of darkness, a world out of chaos and prophets out of people.
Yet when God’s prophet Jeremiah finally speaks, it’s a word of protest. In fact, when prophets speak, our first words are often protests. Yet while we may think they generally protest things like war and poverty, prophets’ protests are often first directed toward God.
“Ah, Sovereign,” Jeremiah responds to God’s call, “I do not know how to speak.” In fact, in verse 6 this one to whom God speaks refers to himself as a “child.” Yet the Hebrew word for it, naar, can refer to someone of any age between infancy and late adolescence. So Jeremiah could be anything from a kindergartner to a high school senior when God calls him to speak for the Lord.
So God could certainly find someone more naturally “qualified” to speak for the Lord. How could God expect a kindergartner, 7th grader or high school senior to speak eloquently on God’s behalf? For that matter, how could God call Moses to speak for God to the world’s most powerful ruler? He, after all, wasn’t good at public speaking.
But when you think about it, how could God call any of us to speak for the Lord? Some of the people whom we teach and to whom we preach haven’t even graduated from middle school yet. Even few adults consider themselves particularly good public speakers. And even if we’re able to speak in public, few of us would claim to enjoy it.
Yet even if we enjoy speaking well in public, how many of us know our Bibles well enough to speak authoritatively from and on it? You and I don’t understand everything about the God on whose behalf we speak. On top of that, our contemporaries treasure tolerance more than an authoritative word from anyone. “Ah, Sovereign Lord,” it all makes us want to say. “We aren’t very good at public speaking. Plus people will probably criticize us for speaking out. So please send someone else!”
Yet in the apostle Paul’s words, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong … so that no one may boast before him.” God almost always calls people who seem too young, too shy, too old, too immoral to speak for the Lord. Consider Samuel and David who were only boys when God called them. And consider the lowest of the low, Jesus of Nazareth on a cross.
Joe came home from Vietnam with just one leg and message: God had told him that the war was wrong. He added that God also told him that his church and town needed to change their minds about racial segregation. Since his church didn’t give him a chance to preach those messages, Joe communicated them in casual conversations. However, some of his fellow citizens assumed that they didn’t have to listen to Joe because the war gave him what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Our text reminds us that our calling to speak for God isn’t based on our suitability, mental or physical health, virtues or talents. It’s all about a God who’s willing to take a risk on us. It’s all about a God who not only calls us to speak and act, but also gives us everything we need to do so.
So in verse 7 God tells Jeremiah, “Say whatever I command you.” And in verse 8 God adds, “I am with you and will rescue you.” In other words, Jeremiah won’t have to work alone. God always stands by and equips those whom God calls to work for the Lord. What’s more, God doesn’t send Jeremiah to say what the prophet thinks about things. Only false prophets speak their own minds. God calls Jeremiah to say the words that God puts in the teenager’s mouth.
Yet that call can be very sobering. It may, after all, challenge us to speak about what’s happening in our world in very different terms than you and I usually assume. We, after all, generally think of world events in strictly political, military or economic terms.
But listen again to God’s call to Jeremiah in verse 10: “Today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and plant.” This radical message, of course, changes the whole history of the world. It suggests neither any kings nor any prophets can finally change what God announces.
Jeremiah’s message also means that God’s reign isn’t limited to Israel. God has authority over all the nations. So even countries that are hostile to the Lord are accountable to God for their actions. God will somehow move their history as God chooses. It’s God, after all, who finally uproots and tears down, who destroys and overthrows, who builds and plants. So no historical structure, national policy or defensive alliance can defend itself against God’s judgment.
What’s more, God also creates possibilities even when everything seems hopeless. God alone, God tells Jeremiah to tell the nations, has the power to somehow bring both endings and new beginnings in history. Postmodernity claims that human groups build and create reality by the language we use. Perhaps, then, in one sense, God is the ultimate post-modern, as Paul Raabe writes. God’s words, after all, genuinely create and build reality.
Thankfully, then, destruction isn’t God’s last word for Israel, you or me. In John 2:19 Jesus also uses the word “destroy” to refer to Jerusalem’s temple. However, we realize that Jesus is also referring to himself. He’s insisting that when people tear him down by crucifying him, God will “raise” him, build him again in three days.
In Lord’s Day 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed Christians profess that God has anointed God’s people to be “prophets.” God chose us, we profess there, to “confess his name.” God has singled us out to speak and act on God’s behalf.
How, then, is this story of God’s call to Jeremiah to be a prophet of both destruction and hope the story of those who start school again very soon? How does this story remind adults of our own call at home or work? What might God be calling you and me to speak out about in our neighborhoods, for or against?
A Texas high school track team had to postpone one of its meets to the following Saturday. That, however, was when one of its runners had planned to leave on a mission trip. When she told her coach about the conflict, he said, “Your teammates are counting on you. You can’t let them down.” When she went back to him the next day, he said, “You’re either here for the meet or you turn in your uniform.” So the athlete returned a third time, tearfully handed her coach her uniform and walked away.
Many of the other runners’ Christian parents supported the coach. So the former member of the track team stunned them when she told them, “This is about God.” But I wonder why they were so shocked.
One of their teenagers was choosing God and church over her track team. That’s the way her parents and church had raised her – to put God first in her life. Of course, she wasn’t standing up for racial justice or against a war. But, then, all prophets have to start somewhere.
Author: Stan Mast
In the dog days of August, in the heart of Ordinary Time, Psalm 103 is an immensely helpful self-initiated reminder not to forget all that God does for us, which is, simply, everything. That’s probably why my teachers back at Denver Christian Elementary School made me memorize these very verses at the ripe old age of ten. They are, in the words of one scholar, “stunningly comprehensive.” Psalm 103 is the definitive answer to the question, “Why should I praise the Lord?”
The actual wording of our abbreviated reading from the Psalm answers that question clearly, but there are some more technical issues that help to make the point. For one thing, Psalm 103 is part of a mini-Psalter within the Psalter, Psalm 101-110: Psalms 101 and 110 bracket the collection with Psalms about the King; Psalm 102 and 109 are individual prayers; Psalm 103 and 108 praise God for his great love; Psalm 104 and 107 praise God for his deeds in creation; and Psalms 105 and 106 cover the history of Israel from opposite perspectives. In other words, Psalm 103 seems to be carefully placed in a “collection [that] bears a distinctive redemption history stamp and evokes recollection of all the salient features of the Old Testament message.” (NIV textual notes to Psalm 101) In other words, there is a sense in which this Psalm is at the pinnacle of not only the Psalter, but also the entire Old Testament.
Further evidence of its comprehensive character is found in what one scholar calls “the ever widening circles” of those who are called to praise the Lord: the self (vs. 1 and 2), other individuals (vs. 3-5, though I think the Psalmist is addressing himself here), Israel (vs. 7), those who “fear the Lord,” (vs. 11-13), mortals (vs. 14-16), angels and heavenly hosts (vs. 20-21), and the whole creation (vs.22).
Again, note how the Psalmist uses the word “all” 5 times in the first 6 verses and 4 times in the last 4. And he evokes vast distances with his “earth and heaven” and “east to west” imagery, showing the magnitude of divine graciousness. And finally, its 22 verses correspond to the 22 characters of the Hebrew alphabet, though it is not an acrostic. It’s as though the Psalmist is saying, “This is the definitive word, everything from A to Z, about praising the Lord.” This very personal Psalm is cosmic in its scope.
But it is very personal. It opens with a three-fold address to the self. “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul….” That is remarkable. This “stunningly comprehensive” Psalm is addressed not to the Lord, but to the Psalmist himself (and then to the angels at the end). Here is the self calling the self to praise the Lord, because we so often forget to do that in our self-absorption.
Indeed, the whole Psalm is about “not forgetting,” about remembering and being reminded and recollecting. Another Psalm in this mini-Psalter (106) identifies forgetting as the quintessential sin of Israel, the root cause of their frequent wandering and grumbling and rebellion. Isn’t that the truth about us as well? We know God, his works and his ways and his will. It’s not usually ignorance that lies behind our sin. It is simple forgetting. So in this great Psalm the self calls on the self to “forget not all his benefits.”
Those benefits are many, and magnificent. Indeed, the language David uses to describe “all his benefits” is lush, lavish, almost hyperbolic. He forgives “all your sins.” Does that include even future sins, and un-repented sins, and high-handed, intentional sins, and the sin against the Holy Spirit? He “heals all your diseases.” But, wait, how about those chronic ailments or those fatal diseases? He “satisfies your desires with good things—“all my desires, even the sinful ones, without limit or reservation? How can we responsibly preach such lavish praise?
A couple of observations might be helpful. First, there is a progression in the verbs in verses 3-6: forgives, heals, redeems, crowns, satisfies, renews, and works. Perhaps the Psalmist is thinking of God’s blessings as moving from sin to health, from frailty to majestic flight (“like the eagle’s”). He praises God for the great redemptive process that lifts us from being a sin-sick soul to being a vibrant soaring child of God. Thus, maybe we shouldn’t press the details of these verses. Rather, we should praise God for the great work of God that raises sinners from death to eternal life.
Second, as we do that, we should note two great themes in this listing of blessings. One is forgiveness and the other is the pairing of love and compassion. All of God’s blessings begin with the forgiveness of sin. That is the heart of the new covenant God has made with his sinful people. We have not kept our end of the partnership. We have not walked with the Lord blamelessly (Genesis 17:1). So God could have broken off the covenant he made with Abraham and all his descendants.
Instead, God promised a new covenant in which sins would be remembered no more (Jeremiah 31:33,34). Hebrews 8:10-12 says that the new covenant has been established in the blood of Christ. Through him all the blessings of God can and do come to God’s children. Without forgiveness, we remain weak and sick unto death. The forgiveness of sins heals our sin-sick souls. And we are on the way to eternal youth as God “crowns us with love and compassion.”
That’s the second theme that deserves special attention in our treatment of verses 3-6—“love and compassion.” In the Hebrew those are pregnant words, particularly the second one. “Love” is chesed, that ubiquitous covenant word, describing God’s steadfast determination to bless his sinful people. And “compassion” is racham/rechem, a word that referred originally to the womb. It is a reminder that Yahweh loves his children as a mother loves the child in her womb.
Both words occur over and over in Psalm 103, perhaps as a way of emphasizing that God’s love is strong like a father’s love and tender like a mother’s. A father might get angry at a disobedient child, but a mother’s caring prevails over anger. It is that combination of tough and tender love that ensures the final blessing of God’s children through all their sins and sicknesses. Finally, God redeems them from the pit of death and sets them free on eagle’s wings.
But there is one more verb in the Psalmist’s opening litany of praise to Yahweh. God does all those things for the individual, but his blessing doesn’t stop there. He also “works righteousness and justice for the oppressed.” Here the Psalmist steps over into the history of Israel, the nation that was oppressed by Egypt. That’s the reference when the Psalmist says that Yahweh “made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel” by delivering them. In his righteousness and justice, he established his kingdom on earth. Further, “his righteousness [is] with their children’s children (verse 17).” In other words, we should praise the Lord for the way his righteousness and justice continue to preserve and promote his kingdom, his gathered people, the Body of Christ through the generations.
Our reading for today ends with verse 8, which harks back to that old story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. In particular, verse 8 is a reminder of God’s grace in response to Israel’s most infamous sin. After God had lead Israel out of Egypt through the Red Sea to the foot of Mt. Sinai, Israel committed an unthinkable sin. As Moses was up on the mountain receiving God’s rules for redeemed living, the redeemed of the Lord invented and bowed down to the Golden Calf. Yahweh was so furious at that egregious sin that he threatened to wipe out the entire nation and start over with Moses.
But Moses pleaded with God, and God relented. He promised to be with Moses as he led Israel to the border of the Promised Land. When a hesitant and cheeky Moses asked to see all of God’s glory as a proof and guarantee of that promise, God instead hid Moses in the cleft of a rock, covered him with his hand, and allowed Moses to see his “back.” As he passed by, God spoke the words that would become a central part of Israel’s creed. “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.” (Exodus 34:6, 7)
That’s how our reading ends for today. That’s too bad, because what follows is a profoundly eloquent exploration of that great creed of Exodus 34. What does the forgiveness of sins amount to? How do Yahweh’s chesed and racham play out or cash out when it comes to our sins? I use the term “cash out” on purpose because the word “repay” in verse 10 is a variant on the word “benefits” in verse 2. In Hebrew that word usually has the sense of what we receive for what we do, almost like payments for services rendered, or like benefits given in addition to a salary (e,g., health insurance benefits).
That suggests the idea of merit or deserving, but the use of that same word in verse 10 directly contradicts any notions of earning the benefits we receive from God’s hand. In fact, he does not give us what we deserve, because what we sinners deserve is wrath. But he “does not treat as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” His justly deserved anger, while slow to come is quick to leave. “He does not harbor it forever….”
At the heart of God’s forgiveness is his chesed and racham: “so great is his love for those who fear him… so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him….” That combination of steadfast love and deep compassion precedes our faith and love; it initiated and maintains the covenant; it freely forgives sins; it will carry us through to the end. It is the source and the ground and the conclusion of the entire life and history of God’s people. We depend completely on it. It is the “Amazing Grace” that saved a wretch like me.
But, as Psalm 103 clearly says, God displays his love and compassion to those “who fear him” (verse 11, 13, 17). That does not refer to being terrified at Yahweh’s anger. It refers, says verse 18, to ”those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.” Does that suggest that we must earn our forgiveness by being good? Of course not! That would be the very opposite of the message of the Psalm.
As verse 18 clearly says, that phrase is a reference to the covenant. When we break covenant by sinning, we must remember to obey his precepts, the first and most important of which is, according to the preaching of Jesus, “Repent and believe the Good News.” (Mark 1:15) Then as repentant and trusting children, we must still fear the Lord. That means that God’s children must seek to make God in Christ the decisive center of our lives. We “are not forgiven because [we] fear the Lord; [we] fear the Lord because [we] are forgiven.‘‘ (Mays)
One more very important word about this Psalm, a word that connects it firmly to God’s saving work in Christ. “The chesed of Yahweh is not a hazy benevolence.” (Patrick Henry Reardon) It has a definite history that centered on specific acts of salvation, beginning with God making covenant with Abraham and coming to a shocking climax in Christ’s death. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” (I Peter 3:18) “By this we know love, because [Christ] laid down his life for us.” (I John 3:16)
Let us preach the rich benefits that come to us from the love and compassion of God, but let us not forget that they come at the price of Christ’s blood. And they are received by those who extend the open, empty hand of faith to receive the riches of Christ.
In Charles Dickens’ second novel, Oliver Twist, there is a famous scene that provides a dark and negative backdrop for this Psalm about the bounty of God. Oliver Twist, a slender, pale lad, famished because of hard child labor and meager meals, approaches Mr. Bumble, holds out his empty bowl, and says, “Please, sir, may I have some more.” Mr. Bumble cannot believe Oliver’s temerity and reports it to the overseers of the orphanage, whereupon they explode with rage. “He asked for more?” Psalm 103 pictures a God who fills our empty bowls to overflowing if we but have faith. John Calvin described faith as the mouth of the soul, open wide to receive all of God’s benefits in Christ.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Reading this passage creates the sensation of watching a tennis match. In tennis if a good volley is going back and forth, then those in the stands are constantly swiveling their heads. They look right, then left. Right, then left again. Right, Left, Right, Left. Now Serena hits, then Venus. Serena, Venus, and so on.
The end of Hebrews 12 is rather like that. The author keeps toggling back and forth between words of grave fright and warning and then words of great comfort and assurance. Turn right: God is majestic and terrifying. Turn left: our great High Priest Jesus is wonderful and tender. Turn right: God is going to shake the earth and the heavens. Turn left: We dwell in a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Turn right: God is a consuming fire! Turn left: Jesus is our loving Savior.
Back and forth and back and forth it goes. The author wants to let us know several things simultaneously and so ends up making a list of propositions that we very simply have to hold in creative tension. On the one hand we do not need to feel the sheer terror the Israelites felt at Mount Sinai. Back then it was all booming thunder, dread, gloom, darkness. God’s holiness flashed like lightning and his presence had so inhabited the entire mountainside that even an errant cow who touched the edge of the mountain’s face would drop dead. Even God’s best friend and blessed servant Moses was quaking in his sandals.
But that’s not the mountain we are coming to, the author assures us. No, we are coming to Mount Zion, Jerusalem, the heavenly city of God. As a wonderful choir anthem has it, “We’re marching to Zion,…that beautiful city of God.” This is a place of salvation and safety. Our names are already written there. Our salvation is already accomplished by the sprinkling of Jesus’ blood. No need to fear. No need to tremble. No doom and gloom smokiness here. All is well. All is light. We have already been made perfect in Christ.
But no sooner is this said and the tennis ball gets hit back to the other side of the net. The author will not let us forget for even a moment that the God we serve is nevertheless holy and majestic and awesome and, all things being equal, worthy of a goodly dose of reverential fear. He is still going to shake things up in heaven and on earth. There is still a lot of serious business to attend to here. Don’t mess with this God. Don’t get so cozy with him as to forget that existential divide between mere creatures and the Creator of all. This God will still terrify those who oppose him.
Serious stuff. But then the ball gets batted back the other direction. But remember, the author says, we are in a kingdom that is already well established and safe and it cannot be shaken. Remember that with you all is well. Don’t forget grace. Don’t forget Jesus.
And yet . . . a goodly amount of reverence and awe should attend even those of us who know we are safe in the arms of Jesus because—last word of the sermon here—don’t forget that our God is a consuming fire!!
Seldom in the Bible do you find such a glaring instance of both/and thinking, of “On the one hand . . .” followed by “On the other hand . . .” These things need to be held in creative tension because if you cannot pull that off, then you face one of two not-so-good scenarios: you either live with an irreconcilable contradiction (and so swing wildly in life between hope and despair) or you embrace only one side or the other but never both at the same time.
The first scenario leads to a life of peaks and valleys but the valleys can be pretty tough and we may arrive in those low places precisely in those difficult moments when we most need the assurance of God. We mostly believe God loves us and has saved us but . . . then come those moments when we just are not sure, when we are deeply afraid of our salvation being a mirage or fantasy. That’s just no way for a Christian to live.
Then again the second scenario is even worse: you live with constant and abiding uncertainty. You don’t let your children sing “Jesus loves me, this I know” because—you teach your children—you really cannot know that for sure when you serve such a holy and angry God. You refrain from ever taking the Lord’s Supper because you can never be sure you are actually worthy enough. And so you are a Christian and you are pious and serious and deeply moral but you exude just a dead joylessness that few would want to join your cause.
Or . . . you go the other way and turn God into a giant teddy bear of a deity who is your pal and chum. You sashay into the sanctuary every Sunday morning sipping a latte you got at the coffee kiosk in the church lobby and you settle into your seat without a care in the world. You get through the whole service without giving holiness or the awesomely fearsome majesty of God much of a thought because the music is all upbeat, the sermon is all about DIY Christianity bristling with tips and good advice on child-rearing and business success, and the old fusty Confession of Sin stuff got gutted out of the service years ago as too much of a downer.
Hebrews 12 puts us preachers—and all of us—squarely on the balance beam of the faith. You can fall left or right but to stay on the beam you have to know BOTH how gracious and tender Jesus is AND how radically holy and awesome he is. This is not a God to be trifled with. Salvation from this God is not something to take lightly. It may all be grace and all be free and all be wonderful and true and secure in a kingdom that cannot be shaken and yet . . . our God is a consuming fire. Worship him with gladness but also holy fear. Sing to him with joy but also a dose of humble wonder that you can talk to this God at all.
It’s not easy to structure worship services that get both right or to preach sermons that keep both in creative tension. But even as God is one and yet three and Jesus is one person with two natures, so in all of our Christian living we embrace the paradox and engage this God with a reverence borne of holy fear and a joy borne of child-like trust.
It’s a bit hackneyed now as lots of us use this illustration often but . . . surely the end of Hebrews 12 summons to mind C.S. Lewis and his classic description of Aslan the Lion in the first Narnia book. The children are first told about Aslan by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, prompting Lucy to say “I think I should be quite frightened to meet a lion. Tell me, is he a safe lion?” “Safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “Course he’s not safe. But he’s good. He’s the King!”
And of course Lewis keeps this tension alive throughout the Chronicles of Narnia. Those who meet Aslan, who hear his earth-splitting roar of majesty, are properly afraid, wary. This thing could rip you to shreds at a moment’s notice. It would be like swatting a fly to him. And yet when Lucy and so many others look deeply into Aslan’s eyes, they see something that stirs in them a fathomless desire for nothing else but him. They see a kindness and a tenderness that is as fiercely determined to exude love as the Lion himself just is fierce.
It’s Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration: for a few brief moments the disciples could not bear to look at his radiance or bear the thunderous voice of the Father from heaven. But then the cloud lifts, the light fades, and Jesus touches them tenderly on the shoulders and tells them to stand up. They do, they look again at the ordinary Jesus they’d been seeing daily for a long while already and yet nothing had finally changed from the moment he was glowing with radiant holiness, either. It was the same Jesus, the same majesty, the same holiness. Both were there, together, all the time.