August 29, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Some while ago on TV I saw a news profile of megachurch pastor Joel Osteen. Peppered throughout the interview with this pastor were brief video clips showing him preaching to his vast congregation that numbers into the tens of thousands. The people of the congregation stretch out before this pastor like a vast sea of humanity with the people seated the farthest from the pulpit mere specks in the distance—a good pair of binoculars would not allow the pastor to pick out the features of anyone’s face so far from him. The ministry this man built started from far more humble beginnings. But in America, there is no better sign of his “success” than the size of the crowd that gathers to hear him preach each Sunday. “Nothing succeeds in America like success” they say.
Large congregations may or may not be a true indicator of faithfulness to the gospel: sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. But if the gospels make one thing clear, it is that Jesus never regarded a large following as necessarily a good sign. In fact, he seemed intent on a regular basis to thin out the crowds that followed him. To Jesus’ mind, a large following probably meant that a lot of those folks did not know what they were doing in hitching their wagons to his particular star.
The closing verses of Luke 14 are a classic example. Notice how Luke structures the narrative. We are told in verse 25 that “large crowds were traveling with Jesus” only to have Jesus immediately turn to that same throng of people to say some things that seemed calculated to turn people off. Luke does not directly tell us that Jesus said what he did because the crowds were so large, but that is clearly the implication.
What’s more, it is clear that Jesus says something so radical, he must have known it would be both puzzling and also finally a turn-off to many people. The call to hate father, mother, spouse, and children is a tad on the harsh side and surely did not fail to make at least a few folks—and perhaps more than a few folks—turn away.
That was curious enough. But Jesus then goes on to tell two quasi parables (they are really more like analogies) that talk about counting the cost and doing prudent calculations in advance of undertaking major projects. The upshot of these two analogies is easy enough to discern. But the way Jesus told them seems to be a left-handed rebuke to the crowd. It’s almost as though Jesus is chiding the many people who were following him for not having a clue as to what they were doing in that they were the ones who had in fact not counted the cost ahead of time. They were the people who had to abandon a building project before it was finished because they ran out of money. They were the people who had gone to war against a superior opponent due to lack of prudent advance work as to the strength of the enemy.
Twice Jesus says that you have to give up everything and take up a cross if you are going to follow him. The implication is that these people had not done that but had found it altogether too easy to fall into line behind Jesus.
For those of us who preach, this passage has a lot of relevance. After all, how many of us in the church today are not there in large part because we were raised in the church? Yes, at some point most of us made some kind of conscious decision to be a follower of Jesus: we willingly went through confirmation, we initiated our own profession of faith, we underwent the sacrament of baptism, etc. But do those formal, “typical” ways of growing up into church membership rise to the level of thoughtful seriousness and astute calculations that Jesus talks about in Luke 14?
In short, do we find it altogether too easy to fall into line behind Jesus? Especially in America, is it relatively painless to join the vast throngs that crowd into the more popular churches in the land? Many churches have in recent years and decades done all in their power to make it convenient to be a member of the church: they have established excellent parking lot flow patterns, they have greeters and Information Booths and excellent latte and family-friendly programming for every conceivable need for every possible age group along with sermons guaranteed to provide advice for things like “Five Ways to Grow Your Business” and “Seven Ways to a Healthy Marriage” and “Four Ways to Raise Successful Children.” (Good Advice has eclipsed—or supplanted—Good News in many pulpits.)
With programming like this, it seems unlikely that once people enter into these churches that they will hear pastors saying things that appear calculated to make them walk right back out the door. Indeed, a well-known pastor of a large church in Minneapolis once had over 1,000 members leave his church after he shared some political thoughts that the pastor knew up front would not sit well with his congregation but that he believed were true to the gospel message he was charged to preach truthfully. The spectacle of a pastor willingly sacrificing some members was so rare, it made headlines all around the nation, including on the front page of the New York Times.
The relative rarity of that kind of thing makes news. And that kind of makes you wonder . . .
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
Are we really supposed to “hate” anyone?
Theologian and philosopher Henry Stob once noted that the Bible is an endlessly surprising, if not at times also a rather odd, book. How curious, for instance, to celebrate (as Christians often do) the fact that Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to bless those who persecute us and yet this same Jesus was also known upon occasion to advise hating our parents and spouse and children!! As they sometimes sing on the children’s television show “Sesame Street,” “One of these things is not like the other.”
What can account for Jesus’ call for us to hate our families? To understand this, we need to see this saying in a wider biblical context from both the Old and New Testaments. As F.F. Bruce pointed out in his book The Hard Sayings of Jesus, there is throughout the Bible a tendency to use the word “hate” when what is really meant is a secondary form of love. So when in Deuteronomy 21:15 there are regulations for a man with two wives (one of who is loved and one of whom is hated) the meaning is not that there is literal, visceral hatred per se of the second wife but more that the second wife is less preferred than the first. Similarly when God says things like “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated,” the meaning is not that God literally hates Esau or his kin in the colloquial use of that word but rather that Jacob was preferred over Esau and that Esau, therefore, received love but a love that was perhaps a bit less in intensity or scope.
Bruce also points out that this idea of “hate” meaning a lesser form of love is backed up by the parallel to Luke 14 in Matthew 10:37 when Matthew makes it explicit that what Jesus is getting at here are those who love father or mother more than they love their Savior and Lord.
All of this is also backed up by the fact that Jesus in Luke 14 quickly goes on to mention cross-bearing in verse 27. We all know how misinterpreted this verse has been in the history of the church. How many people have not literally dragged crosses behind them on Good Friday or other times as a way to show solidarity with Jesus and also as a way to fulfill what they believe this verse and its parallels in the gospels mean.
But in reality Jesus had in mind something far more broad-reaching and, just so, far more radical. In Jesus’ day, to be under the sign of the cross was to be under the sign of death. It was to live in such a way as to make clear that you have put to death the things of this world—its addiction to power, its adoration of only the beautiful and successful, its cut-throat ways of climbing to the top of any and every heap, its love of violence and intimidation and war. To live under a cross-bar was to engage in a form of living death, of sacrificial living for the sake of others and of the kingdom of God.
It’s this kingdom awareness that can also explain why Jesus suggests we love family and friends less than we love him. If this world is all that there is and if we have no higher calling and no grander a destination than this life, then taking care of our families or being the best husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, siblings, and spouses that we can could properly be seen as the highest goal of them all. And even with a kingdom perspective, those things carry a high value. But they do not carry the ultimate value that we get from the kingdom of God and the higher calling we now have as citizens of God’s new and still-coming order.
The incarnation, life, and death of Jesus prove one thing for sure: even God knows that salvation and a cosmic turn-around for the better will never bubble up from within this world. We cannot locate anything in this fallen world—even such good things as nuptial love or the love of a mother for a child—and then magnify and multiply that thing a thousand times as a way to bring salvation. For the world to be saved, it requires an infusion of something divine from the outside. Jesus was just that divine infusion into this world. His love, grace, mercy, and humility—through which the power of God was paradoxically channeled—is what saves us and the entire cosmos.
So yes, let us love our children. Yes, let us be loving spouses. Yes, let us be loving and respectful children, honoring our fathers and mothers in this land the Lord our God has given to us. Yes, yes to all that. But let’s never mistake family values for the way the kingdom of God comes. Let’s never mistake healthy marriages for what the kingdom alone will bring to all our relationships, starting with our relationship to God and then going from there. Let us never forget that salvation comes via a cross and that all who want to experience the joy of that salvation walk under that symbol of death as a lifelong reminder of what matters and what does not and of the Only One who ever was so filled with truth and grace that he caused a light to shine in our darkness—a light that will never go out.
This week’s textual point was detailed elsewhere in this set of sermon starters and ties in with how we are to understand the nuance of meaning applied to the Greek verb miseo in Luke 14:26. The upshot as detailed above is that we err if we believe that Jesus was calling for literal hatred in the sense of being love’s opposite or in the sense of this being a form of loathing and anger. Rather, in the Bible “hate” is often used metaphorically as a lesser form of love with the “hated” party being not so much actively despised, rejected, or dismissed as in a secondary rank within a person’s heart.
Across the year 2008 the late Rev. Ed Dobson decided he was going to “live like Jesus.” Among the things Rev. Dobson did that year was read through all four gospels over and over and over again on a regular basis. He also did his best to live out Jesus’ words and principles in as literal and careful a way as he could as he tried to let the gospel shape his life in ways more intentional than is probably true for even the more devout among us.
He knew going in that this could create problems for him but even after counting the cost, he wanted to do this. But 2008 was also an election year in the United States—indeed, it was one of the most hotly contested elections in a long while. And through much prayer and discernment, Dobson felt led as a follower of Jesus to vote—on that particular occasion at least—for the Democrat candidate, Barack Obama. As news of this choice spread, the man who tried for a year to live like Jesus received some Jesus-level persecution and criticism from his right-leaning Christian friends, colleagues, and former parishioners.
Whether one regards Dobson’s political choice as correct or incorrect, he surely did suffer to a degree for that choice. But what is striking about that experience is that it is somewhat unusual. Many Christian people today are very sure they have it all figured out when it comes to voting, lifestyle, childrearing, and the like and so long as everyone sticks to the same playbook, following Jesus comes with very little by way of cost or hardship. Most of us don’t have to make hard choices like leaving friends and family behind if that’s what is required to follow Jesus as best we can. We don’t so much “count the cost” as just accept the asking price, which seems pretty low most of the time.
And that itself may be something worth pondering.
Author: Doug Bratt
Almost all students work with at least a little clay while they’re in school. Relatively few of us, however, resemble the sophisticated potters of Jeremiah’s day. Some scholars, after all, compare their clay to today’s steel.
Potters who were Jeremiah’s contemporaries made things like bricks, lamps and toys, as well as cooking pots and even jewelry. Because they used pottery for so many different things, pottery making was one of the earliest, and most widespread and familiar of ancient Israel’s crafts. In fact, Israelites apparently even mass-produced some both useful and attractive pottery. So when Jeremiah talks about a potter and his pottery in the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, he uses imagery that’s very familiar to his contemporaries.
His teaching reflects the freedom a potter has to reshape pottery while it’s still on the wheel. If his pottery doesn’t turn out the way he’s planned, he’s free to shape it into something that seems better to him. Once the potter finishes doing that, she allows her pottery to dry. She then puts her pottery on the wheel a second time so that she can do more delicate shaping.
Only then do potters fire their pottery in a kiln. After all, that firing changes the clay’s chemical composition and, as a result, its physical characteristics. Clay that potters fire in a kiln essentially turns to stone.
In our text, Jeremiah says God has the freedom to deal with the nations in the way that any potter has does her wet clay. If God is unhappy with the shape of the pottery that is a nation, God is free to simply start over. Pottery is irreversible, after all, only once a potter has fired it in a kiln.
Jeremiah’s teaching the world’s nations that their fates aren’t predetermined. That is to say, just as a potter can reshape clay that’s still on the wheel, God can change the future of the nations of the world. That may sound ominous to citizens who are basically pleased with their countries. The thought that, for instance, God might choose to somehow change or even destroy those countries may bother us.
In Israel’s desperate situation in Jeremiah’s time, however, this news of God’s sovereignty was comforting. Much bigger superpowers, after all, seemed to hold her future in their hands.
Jeremiah’s Israel is so politically and militarily helpless that she seems on her way to complete oblivion.
In our text, however, God reminds her that God can reshape that future just as easily as a potter can reshape her wet clay. God, after all, holds the future of Jeremiah’s Israel, as well as all of the world’s nations in God’s loving hands.
Many Christians find great comfort in the fact that God holds everything in creation in God’s hands, through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. We believe God rules in such a way that even the world’s mightiest nations must somehow conform to God’s sovereign purposes. When those nations refuse to submit to God’s lordship, God has the power to topple them like a house of cards.
However, we also profess that God also reigns over individual and communal lives. That means, in part, that God shapes lives so that everything must somehow ultimately work for God’s glory and our good. Of course, God has given us those whose wills the Holy Spirit has liberated some freedom. Yet when forced to choose between human free will and divine sovereignty, at least some Christians lean towards God’s sovereignty.
That’s why the second part of our text may startle us. There, after all, Jeremiah shifts his emphasis away from the potter’s absolute power over her clay to the clay’s “power” to “shape” how the potter will act. Basically, he points out that the quality of the pot determines whether the potter continues to refine it. If the pot’s shape pleases her, she continues the process of molding it. If, however, it displeases her, she’s free to start all over with the clay.
Yet the analogy between God the Potter and people the pots breaks down in the second part of our text. While, after all, Jeremiah calls the pot to ensure that it’s worth keeping, no piece of clay can actually do that. The prophet also calls Israel the pot to please God the Potter by choosing obedience and life over disobedience and death. Obviously, however, no inanimate object has that power.
Yet the second part of our text emphasizes God the Potter’s care for the pots that God’s created in God’s image. God the sovereign potter is willing, after all, for Jesus’ sake, to graciously respond to God’s children’s repentance by reshaping their future.
Yet most of the Israelites to whom Jeremiah prophesied believed various gods controlled their future. They believed that what happened in the world of those gods determined what occurred in the world of people. In that supernatural world, the gods fought for control.
You could tell which god was most powerful by which country won a war or battle. If, for instance, Babylon was the world’s superpower, people assumed its god, Marduk, was in control. So when Israel flourished, the Israelites (and their neighbors) assumed their God was in control. When, however, they suffered, they assumed had God lost some big divine battle with other nations’ gods.
21st century preachers and teacher may not know people who have such a cosmology. However, many in our society do blame nearly everyone else for the problems we have. We’re good at blaming our problems on our parents and genes. You and I easily assume that what our schools or society have done to us nearly control our future.
It’s certainly true that people and things have power to do us some harm. Yet God has also given us power to resist some of their evil in ways that make for righteousness. So God has lovingly given us some responsibility for the both the world in which we live and our future. After all, while God remains in control, God also graciously allows the clay that is God’s people to, in some ways, strongly influence the Potter.
Those who believe that God has already determined what, for instance, socks you’ll wear tomorrow find this text hard to swallow. If, on the other hand, you believe that God uses the choices we make to sovereignly carry out God’s will, then this text makes some sense. In it Jeremiah, after all, insists that God gives Israel the power to shape her future by walking in God’s ways. However, he also warns that if Israel continues to neglect her moral responsibilities, God will ensure “disaster,” her destruction.
Our text basically ends with Jeremiah pleading with the Israelites to repent. However, we know that Judah fell to the Babylonians late in the 6th century B.C. Those marauders sacked Jerusalem, destroyed its temple, scattered Israel’s priests and even carried most of Judah’s citizens away to Babylon. This affectively ended Judah’s political independence.
After all, while God graciously gave her some power to shape her own future by being obedient, Israel refused. She in many ways, after all, with a few notable exceptions, turned even further away from God. Israel was “marred in” God’s hands.
So Christians believe God the Potter, in one sense, “formed” another “pot.” God sent God’s only beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to do what Israel refused to do: walk in God’s ways. God also now empowers the New Israel, the church of Jesus Christ, to faithfully obey God. And yet God didn’t really start over. The apostle Paul, after all, insists that God still has plans for the people of Israel. It certainly seems as if God still has a place in God’s purposes for Jewish people.
So it’s not easy to fully parse out just what Jeremiah’s teaching means. It does not mean, for instance, that life is a kind of cosmic game of “Let’s Make a Deal:” if we do this, God will automatically do that. Perhaps, then, it’s most helpful for us to focus on what Jeremiah teaches us about our loving God.
He reminds us that we worship a God who, while sovereign, still lovingly gives us some responsibility within that sovereignty. God has plans for our world and each of its creatures. However, God also graciously uses our plans and actions to carry out those good and loving purposes. God, of course, holds our future in our hands. However, through God’s prophet, God also insists that our future calls for bold and decisive action on our part. God calls us to radical and faithful discipleship, perhaps starting by deliberately turning away from even just one nagging sin that continues to cling to us.
My first (and last) foray into the world of pottery making came back in the fourth grade. It was not, however, a very sophisticated incursion. In the late 60’s, after all, Grand Rapids, Michigan’s Oakdale Christian School didn’t have a potter’s wheel. We fashioned our art (and I use both terms very loosely) with our own uncoordinated hands.
I lovingly and carefully constructed a little jar out of clay. Our art teacher then put it into the kiln to harden it. Yet while what my teacher put in may have resembled a pot, what she took out little resembled a pot.
I had designed it (and again I use the verb loosely) to store change, keys or paper clips. My pot, however, turned out to be structurally challenged. Both its base and top ended up hopelessly crooked. So the dropping of even the smallest coin or lightest paper clip into tipped it over like a drunken sailor.
Yet when I think of that crooked little pot, I remember that God’s purposes for us never change. My mother, after all, lovingly kept that misshapen little pot. It hasn’t yet repented of its crookedness. Yet she still kept it.
I see that as a kind of parable of God’s love for crooked pots like us. We naturally resist God’s shaping. Yet God doesn’t drop us into the trash, as we deserve. God, instead, lovingly keeps us, sending Jesus to live, die and rise again for, as well as equip for service crooked pots like you and me.
Author: Stan Mast
In the liturgical calendar, we’re still in Ordinary Time, but this time is anything but ordinary for the students in our congregations. It’s back to school time. After a summer of letting the brain relax, it is time to fire up those synapses again and learn, learn, learn. That makes Psalm 1 the perfect Psalm for this time of year. As I’ll explain in more depth later, Psalm 1 is all about instruction; that’s the wider meaning of “the law of the Lord.”
When students begin college, there is a time of orientation, a time to get them ready for everything that will follow in their higher education. That’s what Psalm 1 does for us. It orients us to the instruction that will follow in the rest of the Psalter. Now, of course, there is more than instruction in the Psalter; there is worship, consisting of prayer and praise, lamentation and imprecation, thanksgiving and confession, and much more. But Psalm 1 reminds us that all of the words in the Psalter are ultimately designed to produce obedience. Worship in all of its parts must lead to a certain kind of life, a righteous life.
Psalm 1 makes that crystal clear by simplifying (some of your college students will say oversimplifying) all the complexities of modern life down to two stark alternatives. According to Psalm 1 (and the Psalms that follow), there are only two kinds of people in this world—the righteous and the wicked. There are only two ways of living—according to the law of the Lord or according to the counsel of the wicked. And there are only two results of the way we live—we can be blessed (the first word in the Psalm) or we can perish (the last word). There is no middle ground, no partly righteous or a little bit wicked, no greys, no shades, no maybes. It’s all very simple. That’s what we have to keep in mind if we are to learn from the rest of the Psalter.
Of course, that’s not how we experience life. We meet many kinds of people who exhibit multiple lifestyles. People are faced with innumerable choices, and there must be a billion definitions of happiness. We will have a hard time convincing our congregations that Psalm 1 is true, because it totally re-orients our perspective on life in this world. Indeed, that is its purpose. So we must preach Psalm 1 as though our lives (and theirs) depend on it.
Hearing and living by this Psalm will depend on our ability to tune out the counsel of the wicked. “Blessed is the person,” begins the Psalm, “who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers.” The multiplicity of verbs and nouns in that sentence suggest that the wicked can be found everywhere. They have all kinds of advice for us. They model how we should live. And they mock anyone who thinks there really is a God who has spoken an authoritative Word to the human race.
There is really no way to get away from the wicked, nor should we. In fact, if we are to make any impact for Christ, we must stay connected with the world as it is. Jesus was a friend of sinners; his followers must be as well, if we are to make disciples of all nations. So, Psalm 1 is not a call to retreat into some sort of religious ghetto surrounded by high walls that keep us physically and socially separate from the world. Rather, says the Psalmist, we must be sure that we don’t order our lives (“walk”) by the advice of the wicked, that we don’t commit ourselves (“stand in”) to the lifestyles of sinners, that we don’t identify ourselves (“sit”) with those who mock the reality of God and his word.
How on earth can we avoid doing what verse 1 warns us about? By doing what verse 2 calls us to do. This is the positive that makes the negative possible. To avoid walking and standing and sitting with the wicked, we must be planted in “the law of the Lord.” Verse 2 tells us what that means. We must delight in that law and meditate on it day and night. That’s what enables the righteous to make the right choices, to live the right way, to arrive at the right end.
This message will be a hard sell to many contemporary Christians, not only because of the ubiquity of wicked counsel as noted above, but also because of popular but mistaken notions about the place of God’s law in the Christian life. “We are not under law, but under grace.” All Christian know and treasure that Pauline summary of the Good News.
So we’ll have to carefully explain that “the law of the Lord” here doesn’t just mean the Ten Commandments. Psalm 1 is talking about the entire Torah, which essentially means all of the instruction God has ever given his people. Torah is the revelation of the way and will of Yahweh. It is not the way to be saved, but the way the saved must live if they are to be happy. As James Luther Mays put it, “Torah is a delight, not because it is an instrument of self-righteousness, material for a program of self-justification, but because Yahweh reaches, touches and shapes us through it.” Torah is “a means of grace” by which God show us how “live and die in the joy of the comfort” that comes from belonging to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Question #2)
We may still have a hard time convincing today’s believers that delighting in and meditating on the Word of God is the key to happiness. Isn’t Jesus the key to happiness? Aren’t we supposed to dwell in him? Isn’t the presence and power of the Spirit of Christ the secret of growth and fruitfulness in the Christian life? Yes, of course, all that is the Gospel truth. However, we don’t have to separate Torah from Jesus. Indeed, didn’t Jesus say, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life?” Read those words from John 14:6 in the light of Psalm 1, and you’ll see that Jesus was Torah in the flesh. He lived by Torah; he fulfilled Torah; he died as Torah demanded; he enables us to live by Torah. As Paul said, Christ is the mystery of God “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
If we separate Jesus from Torah, we may end up with a fuzzy mysticism that doesn’t care much about righteousness and justice. If we separate Torah from Jesus, we could live by a rigid legalism that doesn’t know the joy and delight of walking with Jesus himself. Maybe an old gospel song says it best. “When we walk with the Lord in the light of his Word, what a glory he sheds on our way. When we do his good will, he abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
That’s what Psalm 1 is about—how to be happy, not merely as a subjective state of mind, but as an objective condition in union with Christ. “Happy is the person who” makes the right choices. Psalm 1 says, here’s the world in all its complexity, with all of its conflicting advice, all of its diverse ways of living, all of its complicated ideas about life and death. But in reality we have to choose between two simple options. Will we listen to Word of God or will we listen to the voice of Man?
The starkness of this choice made me think about Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” It opens with this line, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” and ends with these immortal words:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
That is exactly what Psalm 1 says. Which road you choose, which way of life you pursue, which voice you obey “makes all the difference,” both in this life and “ages and ages hence.” Choose the wrong road and you will be like chaff that the wind blows away, light and loose and lifeless. And in the end, you won’t be able to stand in the judgment. The text doesn’t require us to talk here about God’s wrath on the wicked, though that is a theme in other places. Rather, the Psalm emphasizes that our choices have their own consequences. The “way of the wicked will perish” because they wander away, walking down a long and crowded road, only to discover that it is a dead end with a steep cliff at the very end. How we live is decisive for our destiny.
That doesn’t mean we can save ourselves by our own efforts. Psalm 1 makes it very clear that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.” That doesn’t mean that he merely watches us from a distance. The Hebrew word translated “watches over” in the NIV is really the word for “know” in the most pregnant sense. It refers to a personal relationship and loving concern. We can make ourselves perish, but only God can make us flourish. The verb “planted” in verse 3 is actually the verb “transplanted.” We don’t plant ourselves by streams of water; we are transplanted by the Gardner. Blessedness, happiness, fruitfulness, prosperity are not achievements; they are gifts which we receive by trusting and obeying.
Psalm 1 introduces the rest of the Psalter by showing us two ways that lead to two very different destinations. In all our prayer and praise, laments and curses, thanksgiving and confession, and all the other stuff of human life, remember that simple Gospel message. In a world that says there are many roads that all lead to the same place, Psalm 1 is bracing stuff. It will be intimidating to preach it straight, but the students in our congregations need a re-orientation as they begin to learn again.
I once preached a sermon on Psalm 1 entitled, “Growling Over the Book,” because that is a literal translation of the verb in verse 2, “on his law he meditates day and night.” In the Hebrew the word “meditates” is an example of onomatopoeia; in other words, the word sounds like what it describes. The word is hagah. One older commentator said it refers to “a dull deep sound as if vibrating within.” A more modern commentator talks about his old dog gnawing on a bone.
He writes, “Years ago I owned a dog who had a fondness for large bones. Fortunately for him we lived in the forested foothills of Montana. In his forest rambles he often came across a carcass of a white-tailed deer that had been brought down by coyotes. Later he would show up on our stone, lakeside patio carrying or dragging his trophy, usually a shank or a rib; he was a small dog and the bone was often nearly as large as he was. Anyone who has owned a dog knows the routine: he would prance and gambol playfully before us with his prize, wagging his tail, proud of his find, courting our approval. And of course we approve, lavishing praise on him…. But after a while, sated with our applause, he would drag the bone off twenty yards of so to a more private place, usually the shade of a large moss covered boulder, and go to work on the bone. The social aspects of the bone were behind him now; now the pleasure was solitary. He gnawed the bone, turned it over and around, licked it, worried it. Sometimes we would hear a low rumble or growl, what in a cat would be a purr.” (Eugene Petersen, Eat This Book)
It was a hagah, a growl of concentration, of pleasure, as he slowly but surely devoured the bone. The writer of Psalm 1 says that growling over God’s Torah is the secret of a deeply rooted, heavily fruited, always prosperous, thoroughly righteous life.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Garry Wills’s book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, is a fascinating study of one of the world’s more famous speeches. Wills claims that in the Gettysburg Address Abraham Lincoln, in the span of a scant 272 words which took him all of three minutes to deliver, forever altered our understanding of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln was not even the main speaker that day. That honor was given to a then-famous orator named Edward Everett, who spoke just prior to the President. Everett’s soaring rhetoric about the Civil War lasted a whopping two hours. But few now recall his many words, elegant though they were. Lincoln had been asked to make just a few brief dedicatory remarks for the new cemetery at Gettysburg, and that’s what he did. So short was the President’s speech that some in the crowd were disconcerted, wondering, “Is that it?!” Indeed, it was. But it changed history.
The Gettysburg Address changed history but it did so subtly. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here . . .” Mr. Lincoln intoned. But he was wrong. The world has little noted what the Honorable Mr. Everett had to say, but Lincoln’s handful of words are the stuff of oratorical legend. Again, however, it was the subtlety of what he said that altered the nation’s collective thought. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” But Mr. Lincoln, unlike those founding Fathers, was now including the Negro people in the definition of “all men.”
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Through a linguistic sleight-of-hand Lincoln turned the tables on his audience and on the nation: he shifted from dedicating a cemetery to making the American people dedicate themselves to a new birth of freedom–a new birth which was nothing less than the end of slavery.
Sometimes you do not need many words to create a huge effect. Sometimes you do not need “in your face” rhetoric to get someone’s attention and so alter his or her viewpoint from the inside out.
Exactly this looks to have been Paul’s tactic in his letter to Philemon. It is really more of a memo than a full letter. Indeed, most scholars have concluded that this note or memo to Philemon was brought by courier in the same “envelope” that brought the larger Epistle to the Colossians to the church at Colossae (a portion of which met in Philemon’s own house). The evidence for that comes in Colossians 4:9 where Paul mentions that among those accompanying the letter to the Colossians was a certain Onesimus. Thus it appears that after completing the public epistle to the Colossians, Paul took a separate piece of paper and penned also this private note to his friend Philemon.
It is far and away Paul’s shortest New Testament composition. At just 334 Greek words it takes only a few minutes to read. Yet like Lincoln’s equally short Gettysburg Address, so Philemon packs a punch–a punch delivered with the velvet glove of subtlety and maybe even a little irony. Because through this letter it appears that the same apostle Paul who nowhere directly challenged the social institution of slavery nevertheless undermines slavery in a way which would, in Christian circles at least, lead to slavery’s abolition.
It begins with how Paul identifies himself. This is the only instance when Paul calls himself a “prisoner” right up front. He will repeat the word “prisoner” two more times in verses 9 and 23 and will also twice take care to mention that he is “in chains” in verses 10 and 13. Paul makes more references to his imprisonment in these 334 words than he did in the entire letter to the Philippians. Why? After all, Philemon is well aware of Paul’s current location and status. Indeed, Philemon has been praying earnestly for God to spring Paul from prison. So why does Paul take such careful pains to remind Philemon of something he already knows quite well?
Perhaps because it sets up the entire argument of Paul’s letter! Philemon needs to see the disparity between his earnestly praying to God for Paul’s release and his fierce determination effectively to imprison Onesimus. Prior to this letter it appears that Philemon was indeed going to imprison Onesimus by forcing him to remain in slavery. But in verse 6 Paul says that he hopes Philemon will come to a “full understanding” of the faith and of the good things we have in Christ. It soon becomes apparent that what that “full understanding” would involve for Philemon was a new view of all fellow Christians, starting with slaves like Onesimus.
Paul wants the gospel to take hold in Philemon’s life and to sink down roots. So in verses 8 and 9 Paul does not command Philemon to treat Onesimus like a brother instead of a slave but rather Paul cajoles–Paul sidles up alongside of Philemon to help him see the sweet gospel reasonableness of adopting a new viewpoint. In the Greek Paul uses the word parakaleo, which literally means to come up next to a person so as to encourage something. Not only is this a gentle way for Paul to put things, it rather ironically is also the same posture which Paul ultimately wants Philemon to take over against his former slave. There is to be no more top-down, master-slave authoritarianism. Instead Philemon is to view Onesimus as a brother, as an equal, as one who stands alongside Philemon on the same level.
Paul then continues, laying it on pretty thick. He calls Onesimus “my very heart.” Then note the quick shift in rhetoric in verse 16: first Paul suggests that Philemon receive Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother. But before that same verse is finished Paul switches from the suggestion that Onesimus be seen as a brother to the absolute statement that when Onesimus returns to Philemon, he will be a brother in the Lord! This is then rather quickly re-enforced when Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus is to be welcomed the exact same way Philemon would welcome Paul himself. Further, if Onesimus has incurred any debt that needs re-paying, Paul offers to do it himself (although Paul quickly adds that, by the way, Philemon is himself already in debt to Paul in that Paul was instrumental in Philemon’s conversion. After that zinger you have the sneaking suspicion that even if there was some money involved in all of this, Philemon would never dare mention it!)
And just in case Philemon thinks he maybe could get away with not following through on Paul’s advice, Paul rounds things out in verse 22 by saying, “Oh yes, and one more thing: I will visit you soon so get a room ready.” It was Paul’s none-too-subtle way of saying, “If you ignore my advice, I will find out soon enough.”
The way of the gospel is the way of love but that love has to grow out of the gospel’s core of God’s own grace, mercy, kindness, and love toward us. A disciple needs to understand the reach of God’s love to all people (both the lovely and the not-so-lovely) before recognizing that so also his or her own love needs to be just that expansive, just that inclusive, just that big. It is no coincidence that in verses 4-7 Paul twice throws out the word “love.” Philemon has distinguished himself as being quite loving. Indeed, Paul says that Philemon has the reputation for loving “all the saints.” It’s just that now Paul is going to include Onesimus as being in that group of “all the saints,” thus obligating Philemon to love also him as the brother in Christ he is.
So in this ancient scrap of a memo called Philemon, Paul comes to us and pleads–for where love is concerned that is all anyone can do–he pleads that we work on coming to a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.
And that is actually a good thing for all of us to do anytime, any day.
Paul’s little tagline in this memo to Philemon—“Prepare a room for me for I will visit you soon”—reminds me of the old TV show Colombo starring Peter Falk as the Los Angeles Police homicide detective Lt. Colombo. Colombo always seemed clueless and a bit out of touch but, of course, he was actually highly savvy and keenly observant and always solved the murder mystery at hand. Among his characteristic mannerisms was always being so apologetic when he started to interview or talk to someone. “Gee, I’m really sorry to bother you, um, but . . .” But then, as soon as he seemed to have finished talking to someone and started to walk away, he’d then slowly turn back to the person and say “Oh, and just one more thing . . .” and then he’d ask the question that became the kicker in the whole investigation.
Lawyers in courtrooms sometimes do this too. When they say to a witness on the stand “Oh, just one last question . . .” that is usually prelude to the most important piece of damning evidence in the whole trial.
As Paul gets ready to sign off on his memo to Philemon, he seems to be finished but then says, “Oh, and just one more thing . . .” and tells Philemon he’d be there in person very soon to see how things were going with Onesimus! It is something of this short memo’s kicker!