Proper 17B

August 23, 2021

The Proper 17B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 from the Lectionary Gospel; Song of Solomon 2:8-13 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 15 from the Lectionary Psalms; and James 1:17-27 from the Lectionary Epistle.

Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 118 (Lord’s Day 45)

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

    Author: Chelsey Harmon

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Song of Solomon 2:8-13

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 15

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Well, I guess you had best count me out.  At least in terms of dwelling in God’s “sacred tent.”  Because if the list of entry requirements in Psalm 15 are accurate, rare would be the day I could check every box.  I might be able to check certain boxes on certain days and different ones on other days but I am pretty sure that grading oneself on the curve here is not the point.  Nor is this horseshoes or Tiddlywinks or hand grenades: close is definitely not going to be good enough.

    We could admit, however, that we surely would like to aspire to being a Psalm 15 person.  And we most assuredly would enjoy life more if our friends and family were all Psalm 15 folks.

    Consider:

    In speech: only truth, no slander, no lies, no curses.

    In conduct: does no harm to anyone, keeps promises even when it hurts, is steadfast and faithful, lends freely without thought of cost, refuses bribes.

    In outlook: despises truly vile people, honors God, and is on the lookout always for the right thing to do.

    This is definitely more than just a nice person.  This is a person whose character is greater than that which can be conceived.  But one wonders how ancient Israel received these words.  Because if the Old Testament is nothing else, it is honest about the foibles and failings of most every character who ever appears.  Even Noah’s story ends on a sour note.  But Abraham also got himself into jams because he lied about Sarah now and then.  Moses was known to lose his cool once in a while.  Saul was just kind of a hot mess on most levels but even David, the man after God’s own heart, violated just about every part of Psalm 15 at some point.  Solomon did not fare much better and it was all downhill for Israel’s leaders after that.

    Psalm 15 is said to be “of David” and no one knows for sure what that means.  Maybe David wrote every Psalm attributed to him in this way or maybe “of David” means in David’s style or in honor of David or something else.  But if David did compose this particular poem, it’s hard to believe when it was finished that he thought to himself, “My goodness, this is a mirror image of me!”  It wasn’t and isn’t.

    Over the years of teaching at a seminary, I have read my fair share of sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Probably because that parable ends with the line “Go and do likewise,” students tend to turn that story into a moralistic bromide that shames people for not being a Good Samaritan but then also orders them to go forth and aspire to be one.  But that is probably a bit wide of the mark (although there is an element of truth there).

    What students and preachers often fail to appreciate is something that most of the Early Church Fathers saw right away in that parable.  Most of the Church’s earliest preachers and theologians looked at this parable and said immediately, “Who is the Good Samaritan?  Only Jesus, of course.”  So if you are not Jesus, you are never going to embody perfectly or consistently the Good Samaritan.  Only Jesus can pull that off.  The rest of us can and must aspire to a greater Christ-likeness but if that happens at all, it is all by grace and only through the power and inward working of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Being a Good Samaritan for us is never an achievement.  It is at most a gift.

    So also with Psalm 15.  Who is this psalm talking about?  Jesus, of course.  And only Jesus.  Again, the Old Testament Israelites could not have made this conclusion but one has to believe that whoever wrote Psalm 15 knew full well that he was talking about someone he’d never met.  And quite probably there was a deep down sense that whomever Psalm 15 was describing, it would one day be embodied only by the final Messiah and never by any of the Messianic forebearers we meet in the run-up to the Messiah’s advent into our world.

    On our own, we none of us can live in God’s sacred tent if Psalm 15 is a list of prerequisites.  Probably the “sacred tent” in question was a reference to the Tabernacle or maybe even to the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle and later the Temple: the Holy of Holies, the place where God was imagined to be seated on the Mercy Seat of the Ark.  One would need to be God to be able to dwell in that holy place with God, and that is once more precisely where Jesus comes in.

    But now we know Jesus has opened the way for us to dwell there after all.  The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament makes it eminently clear that all the things the ancient Israelites failed to live up to—and just so were banished eventually from the presence of God—Jesus did on our behalf and so Jesus is now able to take us with him into that sacred place.

    Thus when preaching on Psalm 15, we don’t want to turn it into a moral checklist or a To Do list as though this is how one curries favor with God.  Nor do we want to leave the impression that any of us could become all this on our own by way of personal achievement.  No, the focus must stay on the grace of God unto salvation that alone can begin to transform us into the likeness of Christ Jesus and, just so, into being a Psalm 15 kind of person.

    It is right to aspire to be and to do all that this psalm describes.  We just should never lose sight of Who alone it is that can make us into a person who—as the final line of the psalm says—can never be shaken.  But the only foundation we know of to build on that will never be shaken is Christ alone.  That is the right place to begin and it most assuredly is the right place to finish.

    Illustration Idea

    Most of us know that when it comes to loans from banks or mortgage companies, the more money involved, the more serious everything gets.  The number of pages you have to sign increase exponentially as loan amounts increase until finally you are looking at a stack of forms a couple inches thick for a hefty mortgage loan.  Another key feature to all this is having collateral, showing evidence that you are “good” and can qualify for the loan.

    Years ago on the TV sitcom “Happy Days” the character of Fonzie tries to get a loan to start up his own business and so a banker visits him in the Cunningham living room.  At one point the banker asks him what his collateral is to support getting a loan and when Fonzie says he doesn’t know what that means, the banker gives him a long list of property, bank accounts, and so on that could serve as collateral.  “If I had all of that to begin with,” Fonzie retorts, “I wouldn’t need a loan!”

    Maybe this is a bit of a stretch but something in that reminds me of Psalm 15.  We get a long list of moral capital that we are supposed to embody.  But suppose you were a kind of seeker wondering how you could be saved and someone gave you the list from Psalm 15.  Surely an honest response would be, “If I could become all of that to begin with, I would not need to be saved!”

    And that’s true.  That is why our only hope of being a Psalm 15 person is to become one with Christ and let his benefits accrue to us even as the grace of his sanctifying Holy Spirit transforms us ever more into the image of Jesus himself.

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    James 1:17-27

    Author: Doug Bratt