August 28, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
“In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time.” That is a hymn lyric that many Christians know. But the notion of the cross towering over various temporal “wrecks” gained new poignancy when we saw on the news—and for those of us who went to Lower Manhattan in the months after 9-11 we saw it also in person—that iron-girder cross towering over Ground Zero. That cross became one of the most frequently photographed parts of the that grim and terrible place. It is now on permanent display as part of the 9-11 Memorial and Museum in lower Manhattan.
For many people in this world, that’s the function of a cross: to mark a bad and tragic thing. You see fields of crosses at Arlington National Cemetery and in the vast graveyards near Normandy, France, That’s what we do: we place the cross at locations of death. We do not generally, however, sink crosses into places of life, liveliness, or anything else that has to do with our everyday business.
Even in lower Manhattan prior to September 11, 2001, no one would have thought to place a cross anywhere in the plaza of the World Trade Center. Not only would such a religious symbol have been shunned as a violation of church and state, seeing the symbol of the cross smack in the midst of this country’s greatest symbol of economic power would have made no sense to most people. What would a cross have had to do with all that bond trading and all the other high-octane business that people once conducted in the Twin Towers? Indeed, the editor of Time magazine—in the special edition of the magazine that came out after the terrorist attacks destroyed the World Trade Center—wrote “If you want to humble a nation, you attack its cathedrals.” The Twin Towers were cathedrals of commerce. But they needed no cross when they were standing upright.
Yet in Matthew 16 Jesus presents the cross as something to which we cling every day. When preaching on this portion of Matthew 16 from the Year A Common Lectionary, we need to remember as preachers that despite our Christian familiarity (perhaps over-familiarity) with the idea of “taking up a cross” and following Jesus, this image is actually quite counter-cultural, cutting against the grain of expectations in terms of what people usually associate the symbol of the cross with.
But perhaps we need to be aware of how at odds this familiar image is even with what many faithful church members think as well. Has the cross become more of a political statement for some, flaring into people’s consciousness mostly when controversies erupt about the placement of a cross in public places or public school classrooms? Do we in the church understand the daily reality of the cross in our own lives or do we tend to “reserve” the cross for special occasions, political fights, or cemeteries?
This lection of Matthew 16:21-28 follows immediately on Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. Jesus told the disciples in verse 20 to keep that secret for now but what he did not want to keep secret was his own understanding of what being the Christ involved. And the chief thing Christ-ship involved was suffering and death. That is why, as verse 21 tells us, Jesus talked about these grim topics “from that time on.” But, of course, it didn’t sit well with the politically minded disciples, starting with the one who had just made the good confession—and whom Jesus had just blessed mightily for having done so—namely, Peter himself.
Peter still holds the world record for the fastest change in spiritual status. Within the span of only a few minutes, Peter went from “Rocky the Blessed” to “Satan the Scandal”! The change-of-status happens when Peter/Rocky, takes it on himself to give Jesus a little lesson in theology. So he pulls Jesus aside away from the other disciples the way the president might consult with his chief-of-staff on matters that don’t concern the “little people” around him. Peter assumes the posture of a superior instructing an inferior.
With his arm draped around Jesus’ shoulder, Peter quietly but sternly upbraids Jesus, “God forbid this should ever happen to you, Lord!” That’s when Jesus calls Peter a Satan, but not just that: he calls Peter a skandalon, a scandal, which in Greek refers to a rock over which a person stumbles. Simon is still getting depicted in rock-like terms, but this time he’s not a foundation stone but a trip-hazard! Then, just to be sure Peter, and now all of us, get the point as to what makes the difference between being a useful building block or a dangerous stumbling block, Jesus launches into his famous words about bearing the cross.
The cross, and our ability to let our everyday life be shaped by that cross, is what creates the difference. But that means that the thing that even hell itself cannot touch is not something powerful the way the world reckons such things but something weak. It’s weakness that hell cannot attack. It’s vulnerability and the gospel way of suffering servanthood and gentle love that the devil and his hosts cannot exploit.
Jesus indicates that just viewing life the way he viewed it will itself lead to a degree of suffering. If the cross, and faithfulness to the Jesus who died on that cross, is going to shape our everyday lives, then conflict with the prevailing culture should be expected. There may be certain promotions we shouldn’t get or take as Christians, certain business opportunities we should decline, certain things we won’t go along with, say, or do.
A person can gain the whole world, Jesus warns, but still lose his soul. And if in the end, when Christ returns in glory, a person does horrifyingly discover that his soul has been forfeited, then not all the riches of this earth will be enough to buy that soul back. Some things come to us only as a gift of grace. Life with God is just such a gift, and it was purchased for us by Jesus on a cross.
Every day and in every place, that cross towers over us, and we should not want it to be any other way.
In verse 21, Matthew tells us that Jesus explained to the disciples how all of that must happen to him. It’s the tiny Greek verb dei that is used there, and throughout the New Testament this notion of absolute necessity is routinely linked with the sufferings and death of Jesus. This simply had to happen. That word dei may be tiny, but it packs a great theological punch. But in Matthew 16, Peter apparently missed hearing that little word “must” because he seems to have concluded that this suffering and death stuff was just one possibility of what the future held.
But since it was only one possibility among many, Peter figured it was best to avoid it. In preaching on Matthew 16 today and in a time when choice is valued by many people above all else and when being overly directive is often offensive to people, we in the pulpit need not shrink from the power of this particular dei where Jesus is concerned nor fail to make the connection that because that had to happen to Jesus, we now have to take up our cross, our symbol of living death, and follow him. This is not just one option for how to live like a Christian (as though choosing the happy-clappy and easy way of the health-and-wealth televangelists were an equally valid option) but it is the way. It has to be this way.
Do we understand this?
Some years ago author and New York Times columnist David Brooks detailed the sprawl of what he called “Sprinkler Cities.” These are giant suburban metropolises that have sprung up from virtually nowhere in the last few decades. In order to make such Sprinkler Cities attractive to would-be new residents, city planners are very careful to build all the basics. Chief among the absolute necessities to which people insist on having access are, of course, shopping outlets. And so among the first things to spring up from nowhere on once-desolate patches of prairie are giant slabs of asphalt on which are built things like Home Depot, Petco, WalMart, Bed Bath & Beyond, Barnes&Noble, Linens-n-Things, as well as area-code-sized Old Navy stores. Some of these malls, Brooks says, are so big they could almost qualify for membership in the United Nations. Ringing these behemoths of commerce are other vital landmarks of the newly formed Sprinkler City, including theme chain restaurants of the Macaroni Grill/Olive Garden/Outback/Cantina Charlie’s/Cheesecake Factory/TGI Fridays variety.
If you travel through these new suburban meccas, you’ll see all the logos, signs, and brand names you would expect to see, but you’ll see no cross, and actually precious few churches. It’s hard to know what the cross of Jesus would have to do with a Sprinkler City. The cross is not a symbol of strength. Instead it’s a somber symbol of weakness, of death, of tragedy.
Author: Doug Bratt
“Does Jesus Care?” is a hymn grieving family members sometimes ask soloists to sing at funerals. They ask, “Does Jesus care when my heart is pained/ too deeply for mirth or song,/ as the burdens press, and the cares distress,/ and the way grows weary and long?”
While the lyrics may seem a bit outdated and syrupy, the issue at the hymn’s heart remains contemporary. After all, God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally wonder if anyone cares about our pain, fear, or grief. Christians may especially wonder if God cares about the difficult things we’re enduring.
It’s a question Exodus 3’s Hebrew parents must have also asked. After all, Egypt’s Pharaoh contrived a plan to slaughter all Hebrew baby boys. So while his own daughter had rescued and adopted one of those babies, countless other Hebrew parents suffered the murder of their baby sons.
The adult Moses escaped death only to have to flee Egypt in order to escape punishment for his own act of murder. In exile his life improved as he married and then went to work for his father-in-law. Things, however, don’t get any better for his Hebrew countrymen in Egypt. After all, we read that they “groaned in their slavery and cried out …” (2:23).
If Exodus 3’s preachers and teachers listen closely enough, we still hear echoes of such cries ringing out across our world. We hear them coming from deep in the hunger-swollen bellies of sub-Saharan babies. But does God hear those cries? Does Jesus care about those cries?
If you and I listen closely enough we hear echoes of those cries in our own neighborhoods and communities. We hear the cries of children whose parents are too busy working or just growing up themselves to be good parents. But does God hear those cries? Does Jesus care about those cries?
If we listen closely enough, we still hear the cries of God’s oppressed people. We hear the cries of Christians whose country’s leaders are assaulting, interrogating and threatening them for their faith. But does God hear those cries? Or do such cries simply disappear into space?
God initially seems largely unresponsive to the enslaved Hebrews’ cries. So Israel and Exodus 3’s readers may wonder if God will finally get to work on behalf of God’s oppressed people. Exodus 2:24’s answer? “God heard their groaning … So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”
Yet we may still wonder if God will somehow respond to the 21st century’s cries. After all, God’s people hear and care about the cries of Africa’s starving children and the Middle East’s oppressed Christians. But God’s people don’t always have a lot of power to do much about them.
Exodus’ answer to the question whether God will do anything about God’s concern is far quicker than it is predictable. God turns, after all, to Moses, the adopted Egyptian royalty who’s just minding his own business in exile. To Moses, who’s busy building a new life, family and future, far away from his countrymen’s misery.
Sometimes God comes to God’s adopted sons and daughters too when and where they feel far away. Some have found themselves on the run, basically hiding from God and people in some kind of place precisely because it seems so isolated. Yet in those lonely places God often finds, catches and somehow calls out to God’s people.
In fact the Moses whom God catches seems so isolated that we probably learn what’s going on even before he does. While he’s in exile, Exodus 3’s readers know what’s happening in Egypt and with God. While Moses sees just a bush that burns but doesn’t burn up, we learn that God’s messenger is in that flaming bush. While Moses knows he’s on a mountain, Exodus 3’s readers learn that it’s no ordinary mountain.
On that holy mountain God calls to Moses by the name that reminds him of how God rescued him out of the Nile’s murderous waters. Moses finally learns that it’s the God of his ancestors who’s somehow calling him from that mysterious bush. He learns that the same God who made promises to his fellow Hebrews has now come down to talk to him.
Is it any wonder, then, that Moses becomes terrified? After all, he learns that he’s seeing the God whom to see is to die. What’s more, Moses isn’t looking for God; he’s probably just looking for a place to graze his sheep. Moses isn’t looking for a job; he’s already got one.
So this is all God’s gracious idea. God hears the oppressed Hebrews’ cries. God cares very deeply about God’s children’s misery. God is ready to get moving against mighty Pharaoh.
And while God could single-handedly free the Israelites from the Pharaoh’s iron grip, God chooses to enlist Moses’ help.
God, however, never just delivers God’s people from something. God always also delivers us to something. So God promises to deliver Israel from Egyptian slavery to the spacious and fertile land God had promised her ancestor Abraham. In a similar way God still delivers God’s people from slavery to sin, Satan and death to the freedom to joyfully obey the Lord.
God’s plan for Israel’s liberation probably sounds pretty good to Moses – until God fills in the details. After all, God tells him, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” “Are you kidding, God!” it’s as if Moses squawks. “You want me to stand in front of Pharaoh?.” As one biblical scholar notes, Moses’ “Here am I” turns into a “Who am I?” His readiness turns into resistance.
Yet Moses isn’t just a messenger. He’s also the one with whom God promises to stand before the rebellious Pharaoh (and, as it turns out, rebellious Israel). The divine “I” will go with the human “I” to accomplish God’s plan. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
Yet not even God’s promise to go with Moses is enough to convince him. As Terrence Fretheim (Exodus, John Knox Press, 1991) notes, Moses’ “Who am I?” turns into a “Who are you?” If he’s to take this risky job, Moses needs to know just who the God is who promises to accompany him on it. God’s answer to that question is one of the most mysterious in the whole Bible. The New International Version of the Bible translates it as “I AM WHO I AM.” I personally like the paraphrase, “I will be who I am, and I am who I will be.”
Yet no matter how we translate God’s answer to Moses’ question about God’s identity, it’s an answer that reflects God’s faithfulness to both himself and God’s character. God insists that Moses and Israel can count on God to always be who God is, that is, among other things, faithful.
That’s, in fact, why God both hears Israel’s groaning and is concerned about Israel. God is what God is: faithful. That’s why God will rescue Israel from her Egyptian slavery. God is what God is: faithful. That’s why God will plant freed Israel in the land God promised her ancestor Abraham. God is what God is: faithful. God cares.
In response to the question if Jesus cares, I sometimes saw mourners mouth the answer with the soloist, “Oh, yes, he cares, I know he cares,/ his heart is touched with my grief;/ when the days are weary, the long nights dreary,/ I know my Savior cares.”
Yet how do God’s adopted sons and daughters know that God cares about the cries of hungry, sad, fearful and oppressed people? How do we know that God cares about the cries of 9/11’s mourners? God, after all, sometimes waits a long time to answer our cries. Sometimes God, in fact, seems to answer our cries with a “no.”
So how do God’s people know that God cares so deeply about us? The answer is: Jesus Christ whom God faithfully sent to live, die and rise again from the dead. God sent him to free God’s adopted sons and daughters from all things that enslave us, including sin, Satan and death. So Jesus Christ is God’s answer to all of our cries.
God, in fact, cares not just about those who suffer but even about those who inflict their suffering. After all, Jesus Christ came to reconcile all things to himself. So he’s God’s sign that God hears not just the cries of the oppressed but also the cries of needy oppressors.
God hears the cries of oppression, grief, fear or doubt. Because God is faithful. God’s people can walk into whatever this new week, new month, new school year has in store for us. Because God is faithful. We can look forward to a home in God’s presence in the new creation. Because God is faithful.
In his book, The Bible Jesus Read (Zondervan, 1999), Philip Yancey writes, “I know of only one way to answer the question ‘Does God care?’ And for me it has proved decisive: Jesus is the answer. Jesus never attempted a philosophical answer to the problem of pain, yet he did give an existential answer. Although I cannot learn from him why a particular bad thing occurs, I can learn how God feels about it. Jesus gives God a face, and that face is streaked with tears.
Whenever I read straight through the Bible, a huge difference between the Old and New Testaments comes to light. In the Old Testament I can find many expressions of doubt and disappointment … In striking contrast, the New Testament Epistles contain little of this type of anguish. The problem of pain has surely not gone away … Nevertheless, nowhere do I find the piercing question, “Does God care?”
“The reason for the change, I believe, is that Jesus answered that question for the witnesses who wrote the Epistles. In Jesus, God presents a face. Anyone who wonders how God feels about the suffering on this groaning planet need only look at that face.
“James, Peter, and John had followed Jesus long enough for his facial expressions to be permanently etched on their minds. By watching Jesus respond to a hemorrhaging woman, a grieving centurion, a widow’s dead son, an epileptic boy, an old blind man, they learned how God felt about suffering. By no means did Jesus solve the “problem of pain” he healed only a few in one small corner of the globe – but he did provide an answer to the question, Does God care?…
“When Jesus Christ faced pain, he responded much as anyone else does. He did not pray in the garden, ‘Oh, Lord, I am so grateful that you have chosen me to suffer on your behalf – I rejoice in the privilege!’ No, he experienced sorrow, fear, abandonment, and something approaching desperation: ‘… if it is possible, may this cup he taken from me …
‘We may not get the answer to the problem of pain that we want from Jesus. We get instead the mysterious confirmation that God suffers with us. We are not alone. Jesus bodily reconstructs trust in God. Because of Jesus, I can trust that God truly understands my condition. I can trust that I matter to God, and that God cares, regardless of how things look at the time. When I begin to doubt, I turn again to the face of Jesus, and there I see the compassionate love of a God well acquainted with grief.’
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 105 is clearly an historical Psalm. It traces the five stages of Israel’s early history, from the promise of the land to Abraham to the possession of the land under Joshua. Indeed, the entire Psalm, like that history, is driven by that covenantal promise made to Abraham and rehearsed here in verses 8-11 (where “covenant” is mentioned 3 times).
Our reading for today is the third episode in that epic story. Like the epic TV shows that attract millions of viewers (from the good old days of “Dallas” and “Thornbirds” to the bad new days of “Empire” and “Game of Thrones”), the biblical story summarized here is full of drama and intrigue, violence and bloodshed, hard things and hard people. People love such sweeping TV dramas because they are full of the stuff of life, as is the Bible. Sadly, some sensitive Christians want to edit the hard stuff out of the Bible, because they think seekers will be offended. The RCL does that with our reading for today, leaving out verses 28-36, which I think robs this episode in the story of a good deal of its power and grace. More on that later.
Unlike the epic dramas on TV, this biblical story does not focus on the nefarious characters who drive the twisted plot. Psalm 105 is all about God. (For another way of telling the same story, see Psalm 106 which focuses on the role of Israel in that story. Like those TV dramas, Psalm 106 zeroes in on the sins of the Israelites, particularly the way they forgot their God.) Psalm 105 shows us how God never forgot his children; indeed, verse 8 says, “He remembers his covenant forever… [it is] an everlasting covenant.” Psalm 105 is all about the “wonderful acts, the wonders, miracles and judgments” of the Lord as he remembered his promises to his children. The Psalm was clearly written to call God’s forgetful people to remember what he has done for them and respond with grateful worship. Thus, the last word is the point of the whole poem. “Praise the Lord.”
Our reading for today focuses on Israel’s time in and deliverance from Egypt, though the RCL cuts off the story before we get to the deliverance. Moses and Aaron are introduced, and then our reading ends before we get to the hard stuff Yahweh did to set his people free from bondage. As I said above, this omission is probably intended to spare seekers and children and other sensitive souls the nasty parts of the story and the difficult questions they raise about the character of our God. In the process, we miss the nitty gritty of redemption. More on that later.
Verses 23-26 summarize 430 years of gnarly history. After a warm reception into Egypt through the mediation of the miraculously elevated Joseph (verses 16-22), Israel fell upon hard times. After being treated with generous hospitality as ancient Near Eastern civilizations required, Israel became the subject of persecution. What had changed? Well, the Pharaohs who knew the Joseph story died off. And Israel succeeded too well, as resident aliens often do. “The Lord made his people very fruitful (note that the Lord is the prime mover in the story); he made them too numerous for their foes.” Egypt was threatened by this horde of Hebrews working away in its bosom. What was God thinking when he made Israel so fruitful? More than we could have imagined if we had been there.
The same thing is true of the next part of the story. In verse 25, we read that the Lord “turned their hearts to hate his people, to conspire against his servants.” Those few words are a summary of a long and complicated subplot in the story, that troublesome business about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. And they are the tip of a doctrinal iceberg that has sunk many a Titanic theologian. Verse 25 gives an historical instance of the paradox of the relationship between the sovereignty of God and the sinful actions of humans. The Psalmist claims that Yahweh is the one who moved the Egyptians to turn against his own children. Even sin and evil are under the control of our sovereign God. What was God thinking when he made Pharaoh’s heart hard? More than we can imagine from the limited perspective of this Psalm. See the rest of the story later.
The God who made Israel fruitful and Egypt hostile also sent deliverance for Israel in the person of Moses (and his mouthpiece, Aaron). The story of Moses is a miracle story from beginning to end, a story of God doing miracles to and through him. Indeed, that is precisely the point Psalm 105 makes about Moses and Aaron. “They performed his (Yahweh’s) miraculous signs among them (the Egyptians), his wonders in the land of Ham.” Once again, note the sovereignty of God at work here in fulfillment of God’s covenant promise. If it takes miracles to keep that promise and get his people safely to the Promised Land, then there will be miracles. Remember that, O Israel, O Christians. No matter how hopeless you situation might seem, God can do miracles. Even if you have forgotten Yahweh and find yourself in a terrible place, God in his faithfulness is able to deliver you.
When we read about miraculous signs and wonders in verse 26, we might think of the Nile turned to blood or Aaron’s staff become a snake, but those were mere parlor tricks compared to the miracles the Psalmist had in mind. Verses 28-36 talk about other, more serious miracles, miracles as shocking as anything you’ll see on cable TV. As I’ve said several times, the RCL skips over those hard things and resumes the story in a couple of weeks with verses 37-45.
I think we must take account of those Ten Plagues (of which 8 are listed here) if we are to preach redemptively on this Psalm. If we leave them out, we miss a good deal of the drama of the redemptive work of God in Christ. Indeed, we will not properly remember the faithfulness of God and return our thanks to him with appropriate fervor, unless we understand why God was so hard on Egypt and, in another day, on Jesus.
It all has to do with the incredible hardness of evil. We see that hardness demonstrated in Egypt’s treatment of Israel, as summarized in Psalm 105:25. They turned their honored guests into humiliated slaves. Exodus 1:14 says, “They made their lives bitter with hard labor in bricks and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.”
Then, when Moses came marching out of the desert to demand Israel’s release, the Egyptians cracked down even harder. In Exodus 5:9 Pharaoh says, “Make the work harder for them,” by taking away the straw that binds the brick together. And that was after Pharaoh ordered the murder of all the baby boys born to Israel. God made them fruitful and Pharaoh killed them. Egypt was hard on God’s people.
Further, we see the hardness of evil in the flinty stubbornness of Pharaoh’s heart. When Moses asked Pharaoh to release Israel, he was direct, but polite. But, says the story, Pharaoh hardened his heart. God responded with the ten plagues to change Pharaoh’s heart, to soften it, to break it, so that he would let Israel go. But each time Pharaoh hardened his heart even more. Nine times the story says that, and nine times it says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. When God hammered on Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh hardened his heart even more. So God hammered harder and Pharaoh hardened more. Around and around it went, until finally God broke Pharaoh’s heart with the tenth plague. Pharaoh started it; God responded by letting Pharaoh’s sin recoil on him. He reaped what he had sown. The battle with evil was so painful and gruesome because of the hardness of Pharaoh’s evil heart.
There was one more reason God was so hard on the Egyptians. We don’t read anything about it here in Psalm 105, but in the original telling of the story God spells it out in Exodus 12:12. “I will bring judgment on all the gods of the Egyptians. I am the Lord, Yahweh.” That’s really what was going on in the whole struggle between Israel and Egypt. Who is the Lord? Who is God? When Moses approached Pharaoh at the beginning of it all, he said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says, ‘Let my people go….’” Here’s how Pharaoh responded. “Who is the Lord (Yahweh) that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh and I will not let Israel go.”
So the God of Israel taught Pharaoh (and all his hosts) who he was by going to war with the gods of Egypt. That’s what the 10 plagues were—Yahweh, the God of Israel, defeating the various gods of the Egyptians. They saw the Nile River as the god who gave Egypt life, so God with exquisite irony turned their life to blood. They saw frogs as the god of fertility, the god Heqt, so God filled the land with frogs so that they couldn’t stand it anymore. The death of all the livestock was a direct blow against the bull god, Apis, and other animal gods. The thick darkness was a conquest of Ra, the sun god.
In the tenth plague God attacked the main god of Egypt, the god who had been occupying the throne of human life since that moment in the garden when the serpent said, “You will be like god.” I speak, of course, of the god named me, the god of self, which in Egypt assumed monstrous proportions in the figure of Pharaoh. The great issue in the struggle with Egypt, the great issue of history and of every human life is this: who is God, who is the Lord, who controls human destiny? Is it the creature or the Creator? The one true God says, “I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord.”
To read Psalm 105 and understand properly the story it retells and to trust God’s ways in the world, we must remember those three things about the hardness of evil. Evil is hard on God’s children. Evil hardens itself against God. Evil battles hard to gain control over all that God loves. So God gets hard, really hard, and attacks evil in its heart. The first born son of the god named Pharaoh will die, as will the first born all through the hard nation of Egypt.
Why the death of the first born? Because Egypt was so hard on God’s first born. That’s exactly what God called Israel when he sent Moses in the first place. Listen to Exodus 4:22, 23. “Say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says, “Israel is my first born son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go so he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your first born son.” It took the death of the first born of Egypt to set God’s first born son free. Only the shedding of blood will finally break the hard grip of evil and set God’s people free. God did what God had to do in the face of the steely stubbornness of evil.
Psalm 105:28-36 reminds us of those infamous “texts of terror” that horrify modern day believers who live every day in a terror filled world. Even if you grant the points I’ve made above, you might still want to skip over such awful stuff. Why preach on this text of terror? The answer must be that God didn’t skip over that awful stuff. God sent Moses into the middle of human misery and by God’s powerful grace Moses was the Mediator who set God’s people free.
Moses is clearly a type of Christ. Throughout his ministry Jesus did miraculous signs and wonders to show that God is Lord over all the powers that ruin human life. Who is in charge of human life? God is, and Jesus came with that very message. “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” That kingdom came in all its power and glory and hardness when the Christ suffered and died at the hands of wicked men.
Redemption required a hard, hard thing. At the beginning of Jesus’ redemptive work, God publicly declared, “This is my Son, whom I love.” At the end of that redemptive work, as the Lamb of God shed his blood on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.”
Psalm 105 calls us to remember all the miracles God has done to redeem us, including the ones that cause us horror. Indeed, Jesus repeated this call at his last supper. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of me.”
What would you do to save the life of someone you love? Channel surfing the other night, I found a very violent movie, titled Taken, starring the looming Liam Neeson. The movie is very sweet at the beginning as Neeson dotes on his only child, a lovely teenage daughter. He is a hard man, a former spy who did dark work for the government, but he is incredibly tender toward his daughter.
But then she is kidnapped in Paris at the very moment she is talking with Neeson on the phone. Once the kidnapper has taken the daughter, he picks up the phone. Neeson hears him breathing and says, “Let her go and I’ll let bygones be bygones.” The kidnapper laughs at him. So Neeson says, “I am a very dangerous man with a special set of skills. Let her go or I will find you and I will kill you. I will get my daughter back.” The kidnapper says, “Good luck.”
Well, Neeson goes to Paris, tracks down the kidnappers, discovers that they are selling his daughter into the sex trade, and he does exactly what he said he would do. In horrifying, graphic, violent ways, he kills evil to set his daughter free. It’s a darker tale than most of our listeners will be comfortable with, but it raises the question God faced. What would you do if evil held your child in its hard grip?
Author: Scott Hoezee
Some years back some more of Richard Nixon’s infamous White House tapes were released, this time revealing no less than the evangelist Billy Graham being complicit with some virulently anti-Semitic rhetoric. Not only were Rev. Graham’s remarks at variance with his public approach to Jewish-Christian dialogue but they were more significantly so very, very un-Christian. To his credit, Rev. Graham apologized back then.
But in response to this incident, an Op-Ed appeared in the New York Times in which Rev. Graham found a rather unlikely defender in the person of former Nixon legal counsel, Leonard Garment. Mr. Garment claimed that the real tragedy of this incident lay less with Rev. Graham’s public shame and more with the way this eroded the boundary between private life and public life. Garment asserted that despite the revelation of Rev. Graham’s private anti-Semitism, the evangelist’s positive public actions toward Jews should be largely unaffected. In a free-speech society, the private realm must be protected. So we should limit our assessment of public people to what they do in public and not pry into what should remain properly private. The problem with this incident is that finding out about Rev. Graham’s private words may cause some to regard his public actions as a facade, as fake. But that is a wrong conclusion to draw, Garment wrote. A person should be able to say whatever he wants in private even if he acts another way in public. Both realms can be genuine.
Mr. Garment may or may not be making a valid point for the functioning of a free society. However, from a Christian vantage point, his attempt to wall off private words from how people behave in public is wrong-headed. There is a word for ranting against Jewish people in private while embracing them as your friends in public, and the word is not “anti-Semitism” but rather “hypocrisy.” Christians regard hypocrisy as a grave sin. But if you disconnect private thoughts from public deeds, then you cut the nerve of hypocrisy, you undermine the very possibility for such a thing as hypocrisy to exist.
The verses from this lection in Romans 12 are ultimately about avoiding hypocrisy. In verse 9 the apostle Paul kicks things off by asserting, “Love must be sincere” and the sense of sincerity Paul has in mind is the opposite of hypocrisy.
Commentators have long been vexed by these thirteen verses because on the surface, this looks like a hodge-podge of advice thrown together willy-nilly with no over-arching theme. In verses 9-16 Paul doesn’t even use any verbs. Literally translated it sounds like, “Love, sincere; brotherly love, to each other; in hope, joy; in affliction, patience.” It’s almost as though Paul is ticking off a laundry list of virtues, piling them up quickly so that he doesn’t forget to include them before he runs out of ink in writing this letter.
But other commentators have come to view this section as unified with that opening phrase, “Love must be sincere” setting the theme. In Greek, the word Paul uses means a love free of hypocrisy. A hypocrite was literally an actor. In ancient Greek theaters, actors usually wore masks as part of their on-stage costume. And so hypocrisy eventually became associated with play-acting, with having a false front, with hiding your true feelings behind a mask. A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be something he isn’t.
It’s a deadly sin for Christians partly because new life in Jesus starts on the inside. But if Christ does not live in your innermost thoughts, if the most you can do is fake a Christian attitude toward other people, then something is fundamentally amiss. It makes duplicity your lifestyle. You spend your days keeping people from seeing what’s really going on in your heart. But how can you claim to live in the light of Christ if you spend most of your time keeping others in the dark?
So Paul begins by telling us we need agape, we need God-like, Christ-like love at the private center of our existence so that if we then show this love out in public, it will be a natural extension of what is lovely inside us and not a hypocritical cover for something unlovely inside us. In fact, love needs to be in control even when we are confronted with people who are genuinely nasty. What’s more, if it is a non-hypocritical, sincere love, then treating scoundrels well is not simply “going along to get along” even though we secretly wish they’d fall flat on their faces and get what they have coming to them.
That’s why verses 17-21 are also key. Because in the course of life, we sooner or later encounter truly difficult people–individuals who wound us, wrong us, betray us, and so make us want to strike back. Justice, we think, demands that they both know what they’ve done to us and get punished for it in some way, too. We have the right to strike back, we think. We have the right to take some satisfaction in seeing the guilty get their just deserts. But Paul, taking a cue from the revolutionary ethics of Jesus, says no to all that. Paul says that a sincere love has to set the tone even when our hankering for a greater justice makes us want to respond in kind to evildoers. And if you’re tempted to think, “Easy for him to say!” keep in mind that Paul was writing this letter to people living in Rome. For those Christians, talk of persecutors, evil people, and nasty neighbors was not an abstract subject!
Nevertheless, Paul commands love, and not tit-for-tat justice, be the thing that sets believers apart from the rest of the world. Why? Because that’s how we embody the gospel of our God in Christ. The last verse tells us not to overcome evil with evil but to overcome evil with good. That’s not simply high-sounding advice, it serves equally well as a summary description of exactly what Jesus did in his ministry and, ultimately, in his death. Jesus met the evil of this world head on but he countered it with love and grace, not balled-up fists and merciless judgment. Living in love and harmony with this world’s difficult and evil people is simply part of what it means to be caught up in the rhythms of the gospel.
That’s who we are as Christian people. That’s how we became Christian people. So Paul is saying that it’s wrong to get the greatest thing in the universe by grace and then turn right around and take revenge on others. Paul says this most plainly in verse 19, though there is a little verbal time bomb ticking away in that sentence that we mostly miss noticing. Because in verse 19 Paul says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.” But the word translated in the NIV as “friends” is the Greek word agapetoi.
Paul didn’t use the word “brothers,” as he does in many other places. He didn’t use the more generic Greek word for “friend,” as he surely could have. Instead he used a term based on the word agape. Agape is that special, divine love that we get by grace alone. So in verse 19 Paul is throwing in a very loaded word when he says, “Do not take revenge, my dear agape-people!” As phrases go, this one was a poignant knock between the eyes. People who have been graced with God’s agape can’t turn around and live vengeful lives.
Bad things happen. That is an unhappy facet to life in this world that seems unlikely to change. The gospel calls us to absorb such evil, to show Christ to the world not just when doing that is relatively easy but to display the grace of Jesus precisely when some in our world would surely agree that we’d have every right to slap back if we wanted. Justice demands it, society says. The gospel demands something else. You cannot walk around as a living example of God’s graciously unfair way of doing things only to then behave like someone so fixated on fairness that you can never let even the slightest slight slip. As some have noted, that old adage about “an eye for an eye” sooner or later leaves everyone blind.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had for many years a key political operative in his corner named Louis Howe. Howe was a chain smoker and hard drinker who also had the physical appearance of a gnome—he used to give Eleanor Roosevelt the creeps. But he was hard-driving and shrewd, and FDR needed this as his own tendencies to go along to get along may not have served him well in the hardball arena of politics. One of Howe’s characteristics is that he never forgave anyone who had ever slighted FDR even a little. At a party one evening, Howe was in the presence of Eleanor when he was sharp and dismissive of a man who came up to greet the First Lady. Eleanor asked Howe why he had done this, and he then reminded her of something unkind that man had said to FDR a quarter century earlier. “Goodness” Eleanor exclaimed, “I forgot all about that.” Howe replied, “I NEVER forget!”
But when we live our lives in such a tit-for-tat, vengeful, unforgiving way, there is little room left for sincere love. What remains is a pile of bile where our soul should be.