August 27, 2018
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 45 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)
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging Into the Text:
Once again the RCL takes a longer, complicated text and tries to make it briefer and simpler with some judicious chopping and trimming. Sometimes this move toward simplicity actually makes the preacher’s task more difficult, even as it raises the suspicions of the more knowledgeable members of the congregation. That may be the case here, and preachers should consider whether reading the entire passage might benefit both them and the congregation. I will be treating it as a unified reading.
The practice of washing your hands before eating doesn’t strike us as odd or overly scrupulous today. Your Mom told you that, and nearly every public bathroom has a sign reminding at least the employees to do so. It’s a matter of good hygiene to get rid of the germs.
The first thing our listeners need to know is that this has nothing whatsoever to do with germs and good hygiene. It’s about religious hygiene. It’s a symbolic religious practice. The Law of Moses devoted a great deal of attention to the matter of ritual purity. Lots of things, from normal bodily fluids to sex, from touching a dead body to mixing milk and meat could make one ritually unclean and therefore barred from temple worship.
It’s important to note that the state of uncleanness was not the same as sinfulness. One could be ritually unclean just in the normal course of life, and the prescription for it was not repentance, but ritual cleansing. This confrontation of Jesus with the Pharisees from Jerusalem is not really about the whole issue of ritual purity, it’s about how the Pharisees used these laws to construct a system of ritual piety.
Here, Mark steps back from telling the story to do some explaining to the folks in Rome for whom the gospel was written. They knew little or nothing about Jewish interpretations of the Mosaic law. Mark’s explanation is essentially accurate, though a bit exaggerated. “All the Jews” almost certainly did not wash before eating, but the Pharisees did.
Mark also correctly points out that this was the “tradition of the elders,” and was not actually stipulated in the Law of Moses. The Mosaic law had nothing to say about ordinary people washing their hands before eating bread. The law did specify that priests needed to wash before performing sacrifices at the altar. Again, the laws of ritual purity had to do with teaching the people about the holiness of God.
But for the scribes and Pharisees, that was not enough. There was a whole long tradition among Jewish Rabbis that amplified the commandment to include everyone. If it’s good for priests, why wouldn’t it be good for ordinary people. Isn’t every piece of bread a holy offering to God? Isn’t it a good thing to bring priestly practice into everyday life? So they ask, “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before eating their bread?”
Jesus quotation from Isaiah in reply goes right the heart of the matter. People’s words or even their actions may appear to honor God, but their hearts may be steeped in pride and sin. That’s the essence of hypocrisy. And, Isaiah adds, apropos to Jesus’ situation, the laws they promote in order to demonstrate their holiness aren’t even from God. Jesus then delivers the punch line, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
Here we come to the first lectionary shortcut. It makes some sense in that it seems to introduce another topic into the conversation, but what it really sharpens Jesus point by giving another example of the same sort of manipulation of the law through human traditions.
The word corban means the declaration that something is dedicated as an offering to God. Through some crafty juxtaposition of this law with others, the scribes ((the experts in Mosaic law who made rulings on religious practice) had figured out a way to circumvent other obligations of God’s law, like honoring your parents.
So, if a Jew was afraid of losing too much by having to care for parents in old age, he could declare some assets as Corban, dedicated to God, even though he has no intention of offering the assets to God either.
In today’s world, a person might declare that their entire life savings is dedicated to some mission endeavor in order to avoid having to pay for a destitute parent’s nursing care, then afterward use it for themselves. It was pious thievery rather than real religious zeal. Jesus says they are actually nullifying the law rather than honoring it. And, he adds, “you do many things like that.”
Essentially, Jesus is attacking forms of outward piety and good works that are actually self-serving and have nothing to do with honoring God. Generous public gifts may also serve as timely and money-saving tax write-offs. Politicians who make a point of their love for Jesus may also find that it helps them in the polls. A priest of minister may use their dedication to God, and the ecclesiastical authority of their office to groom young men and women for sexual exploitation. One can be scrupulous about bowing in prayer before meals in a public place as a good Christian practice, or to make a show of one’s piety. As Jesus said it’s a matter of where the heart is.
Moving back into the RCL text, Jesus now speaks to the crowd that has gathered. “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” It’s important to note that even though Jesus says that nothing outside can defile, he is talking about food. There are lots of things from “outside” us that can defile us. Pornography, reading or watching deeply violent material, or political or social ideology may come from outside, but they tend to stick and will eventually corrupt the heart.
Verses 17- 19 are omitted in the RCL text, but it may be an important section for congregations to hear. As is often the case, Jesus’ words confound the disciples, and we are just as likely to misunderstand. It’s no wonder that this was a new concept for them. They had been brought up to observe the minutiae of the law, but had not been taught its true purpose.
In the biblical worldview, the heart is the control center of the mind and will. It’s the heart that breeds human perversity, not outward things like food and drink. Jesus is making a strong distinction between the religion of the heart and a purely outward religion of the legal code. It’s not that Jesus was rejecting the law, but that he was noting its limits. It cannot change the orientation of the heart.
In verse 19 Mark makes another interpretive comment on the story, one is challenged by some commentators. Clearly, Mark wants to relate this saying of Jesus to the later Christian struggle over the abrogation of kosher food laws that was perhaps still going on in Rome. But it’s not clear how Mark, the author, takes the leap from this story to Jesus “declaring all foods clean.” Though one can see how Jesus’ words are related to the issue, Jesus nowhere explicitly abrogates the laws concerning clean and unclean food. Nor do Peter and Paul, who were at the center of the controversy in the early church, anywhere refer to Jesu own words.
Preaching the Text
- As noted above, it may be more helpful to have the entire text read than the edited version of the RCL. Beside the reasons mentioned above, it also provides an opportunity for some helpful teaching. Many people in our congregations do not have a very nuanced view of the gospels. They may see them merely as mini-biographies of Christ. They may also wonder why we need four of them.
Mark’s interpretive comments in this text force the reader to look at the gospel text both for the message itself, and the purpose of the author in framing it as he does. Each gospel is written for a different purpose for a different audience. It’s interesting to see how the gospel of Matthew, which generally follows Mark quite closely, does not include Mark’s interpretive comments. Matthew’s audience, made up largely of Jews, is quite different.
- I grew up in a church culture that was very dedicated to keeping the Sabbath Day holy. It was one of the chief markers of Christian piety and of one’s dedication to Christ. But exactly what does that entail? Was it just refraining from work? What kinds of work? Was mowing the lawn work, or was it just one’s regular job? Should kids play on Sunday? If so, what kinds of games are appropriate? If you’re at the lake, is it OK to go swimming, or just to put your feet in the water?
These kinds of questions were taken quite seriously. It was thought that the more strict one’s approach to Sabbath observance, the more dedicated one was to the Lord. The possibilities for hypocrisy in such a church culture are manifold. We were a living reenactment of the Pharisees in their quest to enforce holiness through the outward observance of the law.
Most any church culture will develop certain outward actions as special marks of inner piety. It may be helpful to identify some of them in your congregation, or in your own life. In some places, it may be recycling or reducing energy consumption. in other places, it may be about making certain political commitments or stands on public morality that become the badge of true adherence. They may be good things, but they are not a very good barometer of where your heart is.
- Paul Schrader’s recent film “First Reformed” goes deeper. in part it’s a study in hypocrisy. Rev. Toller is set up by the local megachurch as pastor of the historic church in town, but is really just the curator of a museum. Abundant Life church seems to be a thriving congregation, but it’s largely funded by the wealthy owner of a factory that spews our pollution. Everything is fine as long as the real issues are not addressed. Rev. Toller begins to see more and more the hypocrisy that lurks under the surface of his public piety. The strength of the film is that it’s not a cheap shot at ecclesiastical hypocrisy, but a sympathetic, insiders view of the danger that always lurks when Christians confuse the outward aspects of faith with true inward transformation.
CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018, but will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters in December.
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Author: Stan Mast
This is first and only time the Song of Songs appears in the Revised Common Lectionary, and it is an odd time. I mean that the reading clearly refers to the first days of spring, while we are in the last days of summer. What can we do with this oddly timed and controversial reading?
Older readers (the early church Fathers and the Medieval mystics) knew exactly what to do with it. Preach it, brother! Origen, for example, wrote a ten-volume commentary on the Song for the preachers of his day. Bernard of Clairvaux preached 86 sermons on it, and never got past chapter 2.
But many preachers today echo a Lutheran seminary professor who opened her comments on our reading with the question, “What is this doing in the Bible?” Even if we accept that it has a legitimate place in the canon of Scripture, we are faced with the perennial debate about its meaning. In the New Testament we hear Philip ask the Ethiopian eunuch, “Do you understand what you are reading?” That is the fundamental question for us as we contemplate preaching on the Songs of Songs, this self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Songs” (the literal meaning of “Song of Songs”). What on earth is it about?
Everyone will agree that it is, as one writer delicately put it, “an invitation to intimacy.” But by whom and to whom? For the first 1600 years of the Christian era most everyone was sure that this was all about the intimacy between Christ and his bride, the church, or between Christ and the individual believer. That interpretation was based on a traditional Jewish reading that heard the Song as an intimate dialogue between Yahweh and Israel. In other words, the right way to read this extended poem is allegorically.
In the last several hundred years, since the rise of modern biblical scholarship, teachers and preachers have eschewed that “fanciful reading” and taken the Song much more literally. It is simply a love song about the sensual, even sexual love between a man and a woman. It is about the delights and tensions of romantic and physical love. Its presence in the canon shows that the Bible not only allows but even celebrates the love between a man and a woman. Obviously, this interpretation is a direct challenge to earlier times in the history of the Christian church, when sex was at best tolerated and at worst squelched.
So which interpretation is the right one? The more modern reading seems more natural, more human, and more textual, while the traditional take is more spiritual and more Christ-centered. Who’s to say which is right? And if we can’t say for sure, if, as one medieval scholar put it, the Song is “a lock to which the key is lost,” why should we bother to preach on this reading for this first Sunday of September? Why not just go with the Gospel reading with its clear denunciation of rule-making religion? That will preach!
Well, I invite you to linger here a bit longer for two reasons. First, the Song gives us a much- needed opportunity to reflect on human love and sex in a healthy, unblushing, biblical way. In a world that worships sex or that still treats sex as something dirty (witness the headline on MSN the other day, “Why women find sex more disgusting than men do”), the Song of Songs is a needed corrective. It seems to say that physical love of the most passionate kind is a beautiful gift from God. Thus, this Song shows that the Bible is not anti-sex; rather sex is to celebrated with gratitude to the God who made us male and female. That is a message both Christians and non-Christians need to hear. Indeed, such a reading of the Song can function as kind of pre-evangelism for a world that dismisses Christianity because it is allegedly anti-sex.
That leads me directly to the second reason to stick with this passage today. If we take the more “spiritual” approach to the text, it offers us an unusual and fresh way to call believers to closer, more intimate fellowship with Christ. I am not suggesting an allegorical approach to the text. I don’t think that “Solomon” was thinking about Christ when he wrote this Song, so that everything in the Song “stands for” something in the Christian Gospel. But I do think that this poem about human love can be seen as a parable about the relationship between Christ and his followers. At the very least, there are parallels between this love poem and our walk with Christ that can make the call to discipleship more powerful. That is, even though Solomon didn’t intend to speak of Christ, what he says is a clear illustration of and has a powerful application to the love affair between Christ and us. I think that Song of Songs 2:8-13 can be read that way very naturally.
Let’s start with an examination of the text. It is part of an extended dialogue between two lovers, the male lover and the female beloved. She speaks in the opening verses here. Indeed, it is fascinating that the female voice is the predominant one in the Song. She is not the bashful reticent little woman; she is as interested in this affair as he is. She is in love with her lover and eager to hear his voice, see his face, and feel his touch.
So, she begins with urgency. “Listen! My lover! Look! He comes….” To whom is she speaking? Herself? Her friends, the “daughters of Jerusalem?” Her family with whom she is living (“our wall” in verse 9)? The readers of the Song, us? She is eager to hear her lover’s voice, but before she hears him, she sees him. Verses 8 and 9 describe the approach of the Lover in terms designed to highlight his grace and beauty, agility and strength. He comes like a gazelle or a stag, bounding over the mountains and hills. The coming of her lover excites the young woman.
Now he has arrived; he “stands behind our walls, gazing through the lattice.” Don’t think of a stalker here; think of a mutual meeting of the eyes (“our eyes met across a crowded room”). She is looking too. “Look! There he stands, gazing….” You can almost feel the tension, dare we say sexual tension in the encounter. Their eyes drink in the other.
Then he speaks. Or more accurately, she reports his speech. “My lover spoke and said to me, ‘Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.’” With passionate insistence the lover repeats the invitation at the end of our reading. Get up, leave your home, take a risk, and come with me. Many a young man and woman can relate to such romantic moments in their courtship; even we older folks have fond memories of such anticipation and frisson. This is the stuff of romance.
That is especially true in the spring, the time when “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love (Tennyson).” That is clearly what the Lover here is talking about. Winter is over, that time of inclement weather when we’re shut up in our homes. It’s spring and all nature is aglow with life and blossoms and fruit. So, let’s join them. There may be sexual overtones in this talk about flowers and fruit and doves cooing (“love birds?”). At the very least, the Lover is saying, “This is the time for romance, the time to move on in our relationship to a new level of intimacy.” He is urgent, for he repeats his invitation. “Arise, come, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.”
A sermon on this human dimension of the text will engage the attention of the lovers in your church. It gives the preacher the opportunity to say, “What you are feeling is natural, normal, beautiful!” That’s a good message to send. The Bible is affirming of human love and all the good that goes with it.
Of course, there is also danger in sexual passion, if love overflows the God-given boundary of marriage. The Song of Songs isn’t very specific about that restriction of romance. At most, we have a few references to the Beloved as a bride. And there are hints that this relationship is exclusive. “My lover is mine and I am his (2:16).” But the wider context of Scripture is very clear that sexual fulfillment belongs in the context of a faithful covenantal marriage relationship. So, you’ll have to walk a fine line here between affirming the legitimacy of the desires expressed in the Song and the importance of expressing them in the appropriate place.
And that brings me to the second way of preaching on this text. It gives us an opportunity to invite our listeners to a closer intimacy with Christ. Oh, that we Christians were as passionate about our relationship with Jesus! This angle on the text isn’t really such a stretch. The Old Testament clearly refers to the relationship between Yahweh and Israel as a marriage. And the New Testament picks up on that covenantal theme when it calls the church the Bride of Christ. That’s a textual, theological truth. The practical question is, do we truly love Jesus with the kind of eagerness, anticipation, and passion expressed in our text? Probably not, at least not very often. I think it is legitimate to use this text as an invitation to greater intimacy with “the Lover of our soul.”
Here’s how I would do that. The admonitions of the Beloved in verses 8 and 9 to “listen and look” echo the repeated admonitions of Jesus to be alert to his coming. For example, in the eschatological Mark 13 Jesus tells us about the signs that will signal the end of the age. Verse 26 says, “At this time men will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” Verse 29 adds these words that vibrate with the excitement of the Beloved in our Song: “when you see these things happening, you know that it [he] is near, right at the door.” Our text gives us opportunity to call the church to a renewed expectation of Christ’s coming.
Our snippet from the Song reminds us that he is already here, “standing behind our wall, gazing through the lattice.” We cannot see him, but we can hear his invitation given throughout the Bible. “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, and come with me.” Discipleship is not merely a long obedience in the same direction, aided by the practice of spiritual disciplines. It is also a love relationship in which we should personally draw nearer to our Lover. What was Jesus’ first question to a recently fallen Peter? “Do you love me more than these?” As the old spiritual sings, “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me….”
Finally, our passage stresses that this is the time to make a move, because it is spring. No, not on the secular calendar, but on our spiritual calendar. A traditional Easter hymn proclaims, “Tis the spring of souls today, Christ has burst death’s prison, and from three days’ sleep in death like the sun has risen. All the winter of our sins, long and dark is flying; welcome now the light of Christ, give him praise undying.” Because of his resurrection, it is always spring for us. It is always time for new life, for fresh flowering, and for renewed fruitfulness. The beautiful nature poetry of verses 11-13 can be translated into a spiritual invitation to draw closer to the Lover of our souls and experience renewal.
Don’t deny the purely human message here. In fact, the more we can draw people into the joy and excitement and beauty of romantic and physical love, the more we can press upon them the urgency of growing in our love for Jesus. If sex is grand, how much grander is union with the One who invented it all to begin with!?
As a baby boomer, I can’t read these words of Scripture without hearing a song from my youth entitled “Time of the Season” by the Zombies. Other generations will recall their own ballads that celebrate the wonders of romantic and physical love, but playing this song over your sound system will capture the attention of all ages.
It’s the time of the season
When love runs high.
And this time, give it to me slowly
And let me try with pleasured hands
To take you to the sun to (promised lands)
To show you every one.
It’s the time of the season for loving.
And, it’s the time of the season for loving Christ more.
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
In reading this Psalm something about the phrase “palaces adorned with ivory” struck a chord in my memory. After some reflection I realized it was a hymn from my childhood entitled “Ivory Palaces.” It could be found in many hymnals from the first half of the 20th century, and was made famous as a favorite of Cliff Barrows, the music director of the Billy Graham crusades. The refrain tells the story:
Out of the Ivory palaces, into a world of woe,
Only his great eternal love made my Savior go.
It’s not a great hymn, and the tune is as smaltzy as they come. From the lyrics alone, I doubt that many people recognized its connection with Psalm 45. The hymn picks up a few phrases from the Psalm and then leans heavily toward the Christological interpretation. . (A much better hymn-text for Psalm 45 is the more recent “For the Honor of our King” by Martin Leckebusch.)
In some prayer books, particularly in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, each Psalm is ended with a prayer that centers on Christ. The prayer for Psalm 45 in Daily Prayer from the Church of England web site is:
Lord our God,
bring your bride, your holy Church,
with joy to the marriage feast of heaven,
and unite us with your anointed Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Psalm 45 confronts us with one of the most important issues in interpreting and preaching the Psalms in general. Is this Psalm merely about some ancient royal wedding, or does it convey spiritual truth about the relationship of Christ to his church, or both?
Some modern exegetes tend to interpret the Psalms with a strict focus on things like their authorship, historical setting, and authorial intent. Thus many modern interpreters of Psalm 45 delve into the background of royal weddings in Israel or in the Ancient Near East generally. Whatever message it conveys is then limited to this original historical context.
But this approach ignores the deep patterns of interpretation found in the Bible itself. The image of Israel as bride to God the King is apparent in Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1-3 to name a few. At least one Targum on Psalm 45 renders verse 2, “Thy beauty, O King Messiah.”
More recently, many scholars have come to recognize the validity of at least a limited Christological exegesis of the Psalms in the New Testament and the Early Church. It’s not that we have to choose between an exegetical stance grounded in original intent and historical context or Christological exegesis. We need both. We study the Psalm as an ancient text in its historical context and we see it as part of Holy Scripture now centered in Christ.
The Psalms are, after all, the most frequently quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament, where they are usually interpreted as prophesies about Christ. Psalms 2, 16 and 110, for example, are quoted in the apostolic preaching in Acts as affirmations of Christ’s resurrection and his kingly reign as ascended Lord.
The New Testament authors, and the early church Fathers following them, read the Old Testament through the lens of the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel. Since Christ is the final and complete revelation of God, they interpreted some of the key themes of the Psalms, particularly kingship, as ultimately pointing to Christ, the true and eternal King.
The only actual quotation from Psalm 45 in the New Testament is in Hebrews 1, where the author, quoting verses 6 and 7, is intent on showing that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God.
But about the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever;
a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
by anointing you with the oil of joy.” (Hebrews 1: 8,9)
In the Ancient Near East, the king was often pictured as one who embodied the best of human qualities. So, in verses 3-8 the Psalmist exalts both the moral and physical beauty of the king. He is not only clothed with rich attire and anointed with the finest fragrant oils, the king is also a person of moral integrity, ruling with justice, humility, and truth. The king should embody all the best qualities that God intended not just for monarchs, but for all humanity.
The Bible presents David as the quintessential king. He is strong, brave, handsome, daring, and wise. Yet, as the glaring sins and the familial dysfunction surrounding him demonstrate, he is far from an ideal human being. He is the best we humans can do to embody the kingly ideal, but he falls short. Jesus is called the “Son of David,” not just because of his family lineage, but because he, the Son, has come to fully embody what David could not.
But the Psalm is not just a celebration of the physical and moral qualities of the king, it’s a royal wedding song. The king has chosen a beautiful bride, who now must leave her family to live in the ivory palace of the king. She is his delight, and he has adorned her with the finest of clothes for their wedding day.
As mentioned earlier, the image of Israel as God’s bride is deeply embedded in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament this image is transformed into the church as the bride of Christ. This is especially evident in Ephesians 5:31-32 and Revelation 19:6-9.
Paul’s teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5 is a good example. He begins by addressing the behavior of husbands toward their wives, then quickly moves on to quote the familiar lines from Genesis 2, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” But, in. a surprising move he immediately adds, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (Eph. 5:31-32)
So the human institution of marriage, and even its most intimate act, points to the relationship of Christ to his bride, the church. It may not be a sacrament according to most Protestants, but marriage certainly conveys a deep sacramental truth about our relationship to Christ. As the bride and groom bind themselves to each other in a covenant of love and faithfulness, Christ binds us to himself. We are his bride.
In the older vows, the bride promised to “love, honor, and obey” her husband. The promise of obedience often left out now, recognizing a more equal relationship as human beings. But Psalm 45 points to that the full ethical commitment in becoming the bride of the king.
Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention:
Forget your people and your father’s house.
Let the king be enthralled by your beauty;
honor him, for he is your lord. vss. 10,11)
This image of Christ as bridegroom emerges once more at the close of the Bible. it’s still the story of God’s great romance with his people and with his creation. John sees the staggering vision of where everything is headed. He calls it the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” “And I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev. 21: 4)
All our lives, our loves, our relationships, our marriages, must now be seen in the light of God’s great romance with his creation, and the redemption of his human image-bearers. We are the bride of Christ who has clothed us with the garments of righteousness. He has betrothed us to himself with his own blood, and sealed it in the cleansing waters of baptism. So, let us be his beloved people, faithful to his covenant, obedient to his commands, putting on the wedding garments of his bride.
But Psalm 45 isn’t just about the faithful obedience of the royal bride, but her beauty, her loveliness. “Let the king be enthralled by your beauty.” (vs. 11) Lady Julian of Norwich, the great 13th century Christian mystic was given a series of revelations that are collected in, “Revelations of Divine Love,” which remains a classic of Christian devotional literature today. At one point she felt she was taken up into the heart of God. Reflecting on her experience, she concluded quite simply, “We are his lovers.”
It’s not just that God loves us as unworthy sinners, and redeems us in Christ. But here God’s love is depicted as a love that actually desires us, chooses us, delights in us, and, do we dare say it this way, is in love with us. Ultimately the story of the Bible is a romance. We are not only saved, we are wooed. We are not only redeemed, we are desired.
The last stanza of Martin Leckebusch’s hymn on Psalm 45 beautifully expresses the ultimate meaning of the royal wedding depicted there.
See the splendor of Christ’s bride
led in honor to his side–
chosen, loved, and beautified
by her royal Savior.
Preaching the Text
1.One helpful approach to preaching on Psalm 45 is to couple it with one Ephesians 5: 21-32 or Revelation 19: 6-9. The image of the church as the bride of Christ is not developed very often in preaching, but it opens a deep vein of theological and ethical truth congregations need to hear.
Invite the congregation to look more deeply at the symbolic features that undergird typical wedding practices. The bride will march down the aisle in a beautiful gown. Say the word bride to any girl, and the first free association is the bridal gown. She walks down the aisle to the loving gaze of her groom who us also dressed with special clothes for the occasion.
Why all this pomp and folderol? Not just to satisfy the dictates of Brides magazine. It’s because at this moment, the bride and groom are not just Tammy and Tom, but Adam and Eve, Man and Woman.. They are the ideal of what a man and woman are meant to be.
But, even more deeply, Paul tells us that they are Christ and his Church. The vows to love each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part” is an echo of our faithful love to Christ who gave himself up for his Bride.
2.There are other possible New Testament pairings for this Psalm. In Colossians 3 Paul writes of the Christian life as putting on new clothes. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12-14)
We, each one of us and together, are Christ’s bride. We are called to put on the clothes that befit our status by living our lives in the joyful love, pure devotion, and exclusive faithfulness of the bride on her wedding day.
3.This Psalm also provides an exegetical teaching moment for the congregation. Why not take this opportunity to at least introduce your congregation to the ways in which this Psalm, and many others, as well as the whole Old Testament, can be read by the church with a Christological focus. It’s important for them to see that Christ is not just the Messiah promised in the Old Testament prophesy, but that he is deeply embedded in all of its history, its poetry, its worship, and its wisdom. The whole Bible is centered in Christ, and he becomes the interpretive key to its deepest meaning.
CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018, but will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters in December.
Author: Doug Bratt
Those who dare to preach and teach James must be theologically disciplined. Its interpretation is, after all, perhaps more than that of any other epistle, if not any New Testament book, especially vulnerable to moralizing. Even a quick scan of contemporary sermons and writings reveals not just a love for the book, but also a stubborn temptation toward shrinking James into a shopping list of do’s and don’ts.
That’s why those preach and teach James 1 might firmly ground their presentations in verse 17’s: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” After all, that foundation helps preachers and teachers as well as our hearers see the obedience to which James 1 calls its readers as, among other things, one of God’s good gifts to God’s adopted sons and daughters.
In his August 24, 2015 Center for Excellence in Preaching Sermon Starter on James 1, Stan Mast notes that John Calvin spoke of God’s “double grace.” “Christ was given to us by God’s generosity,” the Reformer wrote, “to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely that by being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a judge a gracious Father, and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s Spirit, we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life” (italics added). The epistolary lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday speaks to that “second” grace.
Of course, James leads into that claim of every good gift as coming from God by at least alluding to the suffering his letter’s readers are enduring. In chapter 1 he speaks extensively of “trials.” For example, in verse 2 he invites his readers to “Consider it all joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds.”
Yet James also asserts that none of the temptations that arise from those trials come from God. Just as God cannot be tempted, he insists, so God can’t tempt anyone. Temptation is, not after all, one of God’s “good and perfect” gifts (17). It is instead, at least James asserts here, the product of unchecked “evil desire” (15).
As we study James 1, preachers and teachers want to note and share the love the apostle feels for those who read it. James, after all, addresses his readers in all times and places as his “dear brothers [and sisters!]” (19). That suggests that has has some kind of relationship with his first readers as well as, by God’s grace and extension, with all who hear what he writes. James will later use strong, almost harsh language with those to whom he writes. Yet perhaps that arises from how much he both treasures them and longs for them to follow Jesus with not just their hearts, but also their obedience.
James begins the lesson the lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday by asserting that God’s gifts to God’s adopted sons and daughters include God’s choice to save us. God chose, says James, “to give us birth through the words of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (18).
It’s a claim that’s chock full of theological riches that resonate with other Scriptural images. The “birth” to which James refers echoes Jesus’ call to Nicodemus to be born again (John 3:3-7). Talk about “firstfruits” reminds us of God’s invitation to God’s Israelite people to bring their first harvest, their best produce to the Lord. James uses those images to remind his readers that God graciously chose to give them new birth, to give them entry into God’s kingdom so that they might be a kind “first and best fruit” of God’s redeeming and sanctifying work.
Yet, of course, that’s not the only good gift God graciously shares with God’s people. God, after all, doesn’t just choose to justify us. God also graciously sanctifies God’s children so that we may become, by the power of the Holy Spirit, more and more like Jesus.
The first three gifts of obedience which God gives God’s people involve our tongues. Hurry to listen, James insists, and slow down your speaking and becoming angry. Or as The Message so beautifully and memorably paraphrases verse 19: “Post this at all intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.”
James 1’s preachers and teachers might ask just why the apostle begins his description of God’s good gift of holiness and righteousness with the tongue. Why not begin, for example, with the heart, eyes, hands or feet? Might the apostle begin with the tongue because he’s seen how immoral and destructive uncontrolled tongues can be? The scars we inflict on each other with our hands and feet are visible and identifiable. The scars we cause each other with our tongues are far less noticeable and so, perhaps, far more insidious.
What’s more, as Mast notes, when we spend all of our time talking and getting angry, we may have neither the time nor the ability to hear God’s Word of truth that gives life. That’s important to remember for those who live in noisy places. So many voices, sounds and noises compete for our attention, affection and loyalty. If we’re constantly joining our own voices to that cacophony, James at least suggests, we’ll be unable to hear the full beauty of God’s truthful word.
In fact, the apostle views the control of our tongue as both so central to our life of faith and such a good gift that he returns to it in verse 26. We plan to think more about the tongue when we consider James 3 in a few weeks. But for now it’s perhaps enough to note that the apostle insists that our failure to speak carefully and judiciously belies our claims to follow Jesus. We may even be so busy talking that we fail to hear God’s gracious call to care for homeless and loveless people, as well as do justice in an often-unjust world.
But, of course, as the apostle adds in verses 22 and following, it’s not enough to just listen to God speaking. That, he points out, easily leads to the self-deception that is the assumption that God cares just about our listening instead of also our obeying. God, insists James, didn’t graciously give us new birth so that we could act like spiritual newborns the rest of our life. God has brought us into God’s kingdom so that we might gratefully respond by growing in our obedience to the heart of the law that is loving God above all with everything that we are, as well as loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves (which is a whole lot!).
In fact, the apostle goes on to point out in a vivid and provocative way that those who do nothing but listen to God’s Word are like people who forget what they look like right after seeing their image in a mirror. It’s, of course, an absolutely ludicrous idea, unless something is seriously medically or emotionally wrong with a person.
Hearing but not obeying God’s word is a bit like, says my colleague Scott Hoezee in his April 24, 2015 “Understanding Temptation,” in Groundwork, getting some chocolate frosting on your face while having desert. You see it when you look in a mirror, but then turn and walk around all day as if you never saw the embarrassing smudge. You never bother to wipe the chocolate off your face because you forgot it was even there.
Of course, not just hearing but also obeying what we hear is also one of God’s good gifts. So James’ vivid “children’s message” about forgetting what we look like says something about the ludicrousness of our natural state. Without God’s redeeming work, we’re ridiculous because we naturally refuse to obey God’s word that we hear.
Yet this assertion too is subject to the distortion that is moralizing. So those who preach and teach James 1 may want to end their presentation on it with a reminder that among God’s best gifts to God’s children is the both desire and power to look after widows and orphans in their distress, as well as to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world.
In the book Lee Sparks and Kathryn Hayes Sparks edited entitled, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching, they quote Fred Craddock as saying, “The Bible takes listening very seriously. The Bible term for ‘listening’ is translated most often as ‘obey’ [as if listening leads seamlessly to obedience, or maybe even constitutes the first stage of it]. The Bible doesn’t know the difference between ‘listen’ and ‘obey.’
“Listening is fundamental, but it is so hard to do. We have marvelous mechanisms for not listening. The Bible recognizes this. Recall that marvelous passage about the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4b-5, ‘Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord opened my ear and I was not rebellious.’ The wording literally is ‘God dug out my ear.’ You don’t just listen—it takes an act of God to really listen.”