September 10, 2018
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
This is one of those texts that a preacher ought to approach with fear and trembling. It’s like standing at the foot of a mountain one is about to climb, or setting out on a journey fraught with danger and difficulty.
We have come here to the center of Mark’s gospel. From now on Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem and over theme looms the horror of the cross. Whatever else the disciples and the excited crowds may have thought of Jesus– the healer, the teacher, the powerful enemy of evil spirits– everything changes here. Now the wraps are off, now the truth comes out.
One of the great dangers of listening to this text and preaching on it is to assume the position of one who is in the know. Here we are, looking back at this crucial encounter and all the misunderstanding on the part of the disciples, but we know better. We know that Jesus must die and rise again. We know that this is what it means to be the Messiah.
So we look with pity and a little impatience at those ignorant disciples. We are quick to point out that they are deluded by a false understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. They have failed to grasp God’s plan for redemption. That perspective of historical superiority will only serve to distance us from the fundamental message of the text. It will be for someone else, not for us.
A better way to approach the text is to assume that we are in exactly the position of the disciples. We too are scandalized by a crucified Messiah. We too look upon discipleship as a fulfilling and pleasing life-style. We too expect success and approval rather than defeat and ignominy. We too want to raise the approval of our faith in the eyes of the world, and enable the church of Jesus Christ to be a seen as a positive and admired institution. Only then will we be able to listen to this text preach it for today.
Many commentators point out the irony that this momentous event takes place in Caesarea Phiippi. This was a capital built by Phillip to honor the emperor who had given him this area to rule. It was famous for a temple to the pagan God Pan, the worship of Baal, the cult of emperor worship. In other words, it was a city built to celebrate worldly power.
Here in this Washington D.C. of Palestine, Jesus accepts the Hebrew designation of Messiah, the chosen and anointed one who fulfills the promise to David that God will establish David’s throne forever. Here Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, the exalted figure from Daniel 7 who will come on the clouds of heaven to be given dominion over all.
But to all these symbols of greatness, power, and domination Jesus attaches the totally incongruous picture of rejection, suffering, and a cross. This is a tectonic shift in in the deep crust of earthy reality that releases an earthquake that totally changes the landscape.
The disciples have been around him for some time now. They have listened to his words, seen his miracles, watched him pray, and witnessed his authority. And now Jesus asks, “Who do people think I am?” It elicits a string of answers– John, Elijah, a great prophet. All of these designations associate Jesus with the tradition of prophets whom God has appointed as spokespersons for his message to Israel.
“But what do you think?” Jesus then asks. I imagine that there might have been a few moments of embarrassed silence, as the disciples are afraid to make their personal speculations public. But Peter, of course, pipes up. He tells Jesus that they have dared to think that he is the long-promised Messiah, the anointed one who will fulfill God’s promises to Israel and deliver her from her troubles.
He is the Messiah, of course, but now Jesus has to deliver them from any “messiah complex” they might have. He then tells them in stark, horrific detail what it means for him to be the Messiah. He will undergo suffering, rejection, and death, before he is finally vindicated by resurrection after three days.
Peter is appalled, presumably along with the rest of the disciples. Nothing has prepared them for this. Peter, not wanting to embarrass Jesus in front of the others, protectively takes him aside to rather forcibly straighten him out. He rebukes Jesus. “What a stupid thing to say, Jesus. Everyone knows that that kind of thing doesn’t happen to the Messiah. It’s ridiculous. You’re going to ruin morale here.”
But if Peter is appalled, Jesus is even more so. He’s hopping mad. What Peter wanted to be a private dressing down of Jesus becomes a public put-down for Peter. He turns to the rest of the disciples, voice trembling, points to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan.” And then, a little less harshly, “You are setting your mind not on God, but on human ideas and expectations.”
It is crucial to understand that we what we have here is not just that Jesus is correcting some mistaken ideas the disciples have about Messiahship. He is not making a theological point. In hearing Peter’s rebuke, he has heard the voice of Satan once more, the voice that haunted him alone in the wilderness months before.
The cross was, for Jesus, not just a divinely assigned destiny, it was a choice. Jesus, fully human as any one of us, had to choose, moment my moment, day after day, right up to the very night before his crucifixion, to accept the terrible calling he had from the Father. It was never assumed, never automatic, never easy. He was daily tempted to be another kind of Messiah, valorized, powerful, admired, victorious. And now here, from his very own disciples, he hears those tempting words.
Jesus immediately realizes that this has tremendous implications not just for him, but for them. He draws a line in the sand. “Do you still want to follow me? If so it means that you must take up your cross and follow me.”
It’s easy to miss the full scandal of this statement. Here, for the first time, Jesus uses the word cross. “Take up your cross and follow me.” He compares being his disciples to a terrible picture, probably familiar to them, of a condemned man carrying the beam of a cross on his shoulders to the place of execution. That’s what disciples have to be prepared for.
That phrase, “take up your cross,” is subject to lots of misunderstanding. In my opinion, it does not refer to the ordinary sufferings associated with human life in the world– sickness, pain, grief, and loss. It means suffering for the sake of Jesus. It means taking on the ignominy and rejection of the crucified messiah. It may sometimes mean being killed as he was.
The church rightly prays for persecuted Christians around the world and seeks to help and support them. The problem is that it may give the impression that this is not the way things ought to be. Jesus is saying that it’s exactly what we might expect if we follow him.
Some Christians today want to make sure that their religious liberty is respected, their “rights” guaranteed. Indeed, religious tolerance is a good thing. But that is not what we ought to expect from the world, and that language can turn into an expectation that Christians ought to be admired and respected. Jesus said that what we can expect mockery, rejection, and persecution. Of course, we are not to seek it out, but we are to expect it.
Jesus puts it in several ways to emphasize the seriousness of his call. He talks of denying oneself. Self-denial, it seems to me, is not a distinguishing feature of North American Christianity these days. In some ways, the church distinguishes itself as exactly the opposite, the place to find self-fulfillment. This is the corrosive acid the of the world-wide phenomenon of the “Prosperity Gospel,” as well as the more acceptable idea of finding self-actualization.
No, says Jesus. Following me means self-denial, not self-fulfillment. It means self-sacrificing love, not self-actualizing power. It means giving up our lives in order to find our true self in the Kingdom of God. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his “Call of Discipleship,” Jesus “bids is to come and die.”
There is no way for the preacher to sugar-coat those words, and they are precisely the words the church in North America needs to hear. Self-denial leads to self-fulfillment. Self-giving love leads to deep self-satisfaction. “[U]nless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” John 12: 24-25)
But Jesus then sharpens the point. “If you are ashamed of me before the world, I will be ashamed of you when I come again.” It’s personal. Who is willing to take my side when the world rejects me? Who is willing to stand by me while the world heaps mockery and scorn on me.”
It happens, doesn’t it. The name of Jesus is scorned, and we are made to feel like religious bigots or ignorant fools because we follow Jesus. How easy to keep silent, to act like Peter in the courtyard of the High Priest, “I never knew the man.”
But behind these warnings stands a wonderful promise. “Those who lose their lives for my sake, and for the gospel, will save it.” Ultimately, following Jesus is not a losing proposition, it’s the key to eternal life. And this is not just true in some far off future, but right now. The joy of following Jesus on the path of the cross eclipses any joy that we can try to dig out of life through the pursuit of wealth, power, or pleasure. Self-giving love is the only path to true and lasting happiness.
Preaching the Text:
How does a preacher tackle a text like this, so filled with deep truth, crucial insight, and gospel significance?
The most difficult, but, I think, rewarding way is to approach it as a narrative, and retell the story while commenting on its significance along the way. This is, more or less, the way I have approached it above. It’s difficult because, first of all, it takes time, and if you are intent on a 15 or 20-minute sermon, it probably won’t work. It’s also difficult because it takes a great deal of imagination to retell a familiar narrative in a way that engages the listeners. But, if you are willing, I believe this will be most rewarding to you and your congregation.
When using the narrative as a base for the sermon, I find it helpful to sometimes paraphrase the what’s is being said as I have above. It serves the purpose of awaking the congregation by leaving behind the familiar biblical prose for words that have more punch. Of course, it’s important that the paraphrase really seeks to capture the biblical text.
Another way is to focus on a section of the text. It may be the first dramatic section in which Peter both speak the truth, and then denies it. Or it may be the second section where Jesus draws out the meaning of his suffering and death for his disciples, those who will follow him. In either case, it will require you to at least briefly deal with the other section as well because one cannot stand on its own without the other.
The one thing you should not do is to approach it as a topical sermon: “The Joys of Self-giving Love,” or some theological teaching like, “The True Biblical Image of the Messiah.” This text is a narrative, and without keeping that aspect at the forefront, it loses its power and punch.
If you have not referred to it recently, the book and film Of Gods and Men may be tremendously helpful as an illustration. It’s the story of the Christian monks at Tibhirine, Algeria. They have lived as practicing Christians among Muslims for many years, and now, with the rise of fundamentalist and jihadist groups, their very lives are threatened. They have to choose whether to stay or leave. They eventually choose to stay, and are murdered, and martyred, by the jihadists.
Note: 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: Stan Mast
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus Socrates tells an ancient Egyptian legend about a king named Thamus and a god named Theuth. Theuth, it seems, was an inventor of great tools and new technologies. One day he showed King Thamus a vast array of his inventions, climaxing with his most recent innovation: writing. The inventor proudly told Thamus, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord and king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians.” The king, however, felt it would have the opposite effect.
“Those who acquire this skill of writing,” King Thamus said, “will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality; they will be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom, they will be a burden to society.”
It could be alleged that just such a conceit of wisdom is very much present today, and it is indeed a burden to society. The ability to Google anything—or look up facts quickly on Wikipedia—is not the same thing as having a well-rounded education, much less knowing how to use knowledge in wise ways.
Wisdom is the knack for getting along well in life’s many and varied situations. The Book of Proverbs runs the gamut of life situations because wisdom itself surveys the whole of life in order to figure out patterns of wholeness, to see what works and what doesn’t. The wise one observes these patterns and then fits him- or herself into the larger picture of reality. As Proverbs 1:7 claims, the foundational reason why wisdom can be fruitfully pursued is “the fear of the Lord.” Only our core belief in the reliability of God’s orderly universe can encourage us to make coherent sense out of life. If the “jigsaw” pieces of life in a fragmented world did not all come from a single picture in the first place, then there would be no sense in trying to put those pieces back together.
Hence the wise learn to pay close attention to life. The wise pay close attention to what works and what flops in life as a key avenue for gaining wisdom. As the balance of Proverbs 1 makes clear, however, a main artery through which wisdom comes to a person is receiving instruction from older and wiser people. Throughout especially the early chapters of the Book of Proverbs we read a lot of parental lectures. A certain “son” is being addressed by his father and is being cajoled over and over again to accept the advice his parents are doling out. The first nine chapters are loaded with warnings, reproaches, admonitions, and commands. But what underlies it all is the vital need for the son to be willing to take what his father is dishing out. When wisdom calls, we have to listen.
In verses 20-33 Wisdom herself speaks in a striking personification of divine reality. But what Wisdom has to say is not always pleasant. In fact, those verses contain the Old Testament’s single biggest concentration of the word “rebuke”! People who think they can re-invent reality every ten minutes do not take kindly to rebukes.
Fools, it is said, are often in error but never in doubt.
A rebuke is designed to create a guilty conscience in a person in the hopes of helping that person come to a better understanding of why what he did was wrong and how things could go better the next time. “What you did was wrong! You said something that was very hurtful! You should not have done it that way.” Those are examples of rebukes, and yet today your uttering one such sentence out in society would be labeled insensitive, intolerant, judgmental, and parochial.
Such a negative attitude toward your attempt to educate people morally in the art of living wisely will be all-the-more ballyhooed if the primary authority to which you appeal is something traditional and old, much less something ancient (like the Bible). Some of the same impulses that make Americans prefer cohortative forms of speech over imperative forms likewise lead people to resist the notion that the past may well have much to teach us in this present moment as well as on into the future.
At least part of the reason for this disconnect from the past can be detected in that opening illustration about King Thamus. Unlike the inventor who thought that the new tool of writing would make people smarter and wiser, the king was sure it would make them dumber, lazier, less educated. If you can look it up in a book, you don’t need to carry it around in your head. Have you ever heard a young person who is poor at spelling tell you not to worry because before he hands his essay in to his teacher he’ll run it through his computer’s spell checker? The computer can spell, so the student doesn’t have to. As King Thamus said, new technology can give people the appearance of wisdom without its reality–or in this case the appearance of being a good speller without its lexical reality!
As Neil Postman so well pointed out, new technologies have always had the tendency of conferring on the masters of that technology the appearance of an intelligence and wisdom they may not actually possess. That is especially true in this so-called “Information Age.” Those who control the technologies which manage our information, particularly computers, are assumed to be wise. So Bill Gates invents a better computer program which sells spectacularly well, and suddenly people assume he is wise enough to write a book which he entitled The Road Ahead. Because his programs make reams of information available to us via the Internet and World Wide Web, it is assumed he himself must be some font of information and advice worth listening to.
The same happens with any successful person in our media-driven age. Why do actors and actresses so regularly get asked to testify before Congress? They spend their lives reading lines written by other people but because they do that so well before the camera, we assume they will be wise when they are unscripted, too. Rich people (no matter how it was they made their millions) suddenly think they can make pronouncements on all sorts of aspects of life—some even think their money means they are qualified to be President of the United States.
The conceit of wisdom is everywhere today. Real wisdom is rare. The conceit of wisdom without the reality of wisdom is perhaps nowhere better detected than in our society’s abhorrence of moral rebukes. But the truly wise, though no more enjoying getting rebuked than anyone else, accept reproof and redirection and are, in the long run, glad for it. It adds to their wisdom. But a society characterized by the modern, decidedly unbiblical proverb “Different strokes for different folks” has no patience for rebuke.
But such are the confusions of our society, ostensibly awash in a glut of knowledge and information. People good at accessing information on the Internet confuse being able to look something up with being smart to begin with (worse, they confuse the speed with which they can look it up with having the kind of intelligence which is able quickly to cut to the heart of the matter in wise discernment). As Neil Postman also points out, today we love to quantify everything, assign stuff a number which, since it’s scientific and all, supposedly can tell you a lot about a person. So we float on a sea of numbers: SAT scores, I.Q. ratios, sensitivity scales, GPAs, GRE scores, and personality inventory results. But, as Postman says, that kind of talk would have sounded like gibberish to most of the wisest people who lived before the nineteenth century. Those numbers reveal very little about a person’s wisdom.
Ultimately, there is in and through all of this a disdain for the past. People increasingly have the tendency to believe that unless someone is cyber-savvy and computer literate, they are out of touch, outdated, out of the loop. In some corners of society today people would not bat an eye if you told them you and your wife had an “open marriage” wherein each spouse is free to have sex with other people. But tell someone you don’t have email and they’ll look at you like you had a cow’s horn growing out of your head.
The conceit of wisdom is everywhere. But as people who claim Jesus, the Wisdom of God incarnate, as Lord, we cannot let ourselves settle for wisdom’s facade–we need its reality and its substantive inner depths.
The proper fear of our Lord demands nothing less.
[Here is an idea you could do in a sermon with a kind of call-and-response from the congregation.]
Suppose that about 3,000 or so years ago you had been a student at some Ancient Near Eastern school of wisdom. It is believed that just such schools existed, particularly in Egypt and possibly also in Israel. The teachers in these schools were renowned sages: wise guys whose speech dripped with proverbs, adages, axioms, aphorisms, maxims, and bywords. The students were young men whose job it was to learn at the feet of these older and wiser teachers. But if you were a student in such a school, what do you suppose the final exam would look like? No one is certain, of course, but a number of scholars have found evidence that exams in such schools involved the teacher throwing out the first half of a proverb with the student then being required to complete the wise saying.
Even today probably most of you could do pretty well on such a test. For instance, let me toss out for you the first part of some proverbs and then you respond by finishing the line—just say it out loud.
“Spare the rod . . . spoil the child.”
“When the going gets tough . . . the tough get going.”
“What goes up . . . must come down.”
“A fool and his money . . . are soon parted.”
“If you give him an inch . . . he’ll take half a mile.”
“The grass is always greener . . . on the other side of the fence.”
“With friends like that . . . who needs enemies.”
“People who live in glass houses . . . should not throw stones.”
Those of us who have been around in life know these saying well. Proverbs, someone once said, are easy to say but hard to forget. At least that is the case for reasonably healthy individuals. Indeed, that last proverb I just mentioned about people who live in glass houses is very often used by psychiatrists when they are evaluating the cognitive status of a mentally ill person. Sometimes the patient is asked to complete the proverb and other times the entire proverb is given out by the doctor, who in turn asks the patient if he or she can explain what that saying means. Curiously enough, very confused or disturbed people cannot complete the proverb or come anywhere close to explaining its meaning.
Even today, then, we live off the font of proverbs and proverbial wisdom perhaps more than we know!
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging Into the Text:
Like Psalm 23, 103, and 145, Psalm 19 holds a special place in the hearts of believers as one of the most beloved of the Psalms. It’s a poetic and theological tour de force. While its very depth and scope make it a formidable text for preaching, the preacher should not turn away from a challenge that will be meaningful for both preacher and congregation.
Psalm 19 slips away from easy classification. Essentially it’s a profound poetic meditation on the meaning of human life in God’s creation. It is divided into three distinct sections: a meditation on creation, on the Torah, and on the sinful reality of human life.
It begins with creation, which is an important theological statement in itself. Judeo/Christian theology always begins, like the Bible does, with creation. Whenever theology, whether it’s soteriology, or Christology, or eschatology, loses its grounding in creation, it goes astray. Apart from a grounding in creation, Salvation becomes other-worldly, Christ’s real human nature as the second Adam gets swallowed up in his divine Sonship, and the telos of a new heavens and new earth is truncated. Theology begins and ends with a doctrine of creation.
The Psalmist’s first thoughts on creation declare that it is, in itself, a revelation of the glory of God. Seemingly mute creation sings the praise of its creator. This is a foundational matter of Israel’s faith which Paul also picks up in the new covenant. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1: 20)
One of the issues the preacher might address here is that the Psalm’s assertion of creation’s hymn of praise to God has suffered in the modern scientific era in which we live. Not a few people today might read these opening verses as naive religious hokum. Looking at the vastness of the universe, and its billions of years-long process of its development, they do not hear a hymn to God’s glory, but the drone of completely natural processes.
Our congregations need to know that the scientific discoveries related to the creation of the universe do not silence creation’s hymn of praise, but amplifies it. And we need not deny the mind-bendingly long and intricate process of creation in order to hear the music of the spheres.
The difference between the Biblical view that the creation sings of its Creator and the secular denial of God as creator is not that one side looks at it through the naive lens of the Bible, and the other through scientific truth. Francis Collins, eminent scientist and former director of the Genome Project, and many other Christian scientists and theologians are quite comfortable with the evidence from science and yet are no less confident that God is the Creator. The assertion that the universe came into being merely through accidental natural processes is no less questionable than than the assertion that it all came from the loving hand of the Creator.
It should also be noted that the Psalm is a poem, a hymn. The picture of the sun as a bridegroom or a strong runner bounding from one end of the heavens to another is not meant to reflect scientific truth. It’s poetic truth, working through metaphor, to express the glory of God in creation. We all know that the sun doesn’t rise in the east and set in the west, revolving around the earth, but we still talk about in every day in those naive terms in our everyday speech.
In the Psalm’s second section, the poet turns to God’s revelation in the Torah. The Belgic Confession (Article 2) teaches that God reveals himself in two books, the book of creation and the books of Scripture. We need both.
As Christians, we do not understand the Torah merely as God’s law, or even as the Pentateuch. Torah is the revelation of God in Scripture, which finds its ultimate center in Jesus Christ. Still, an important and indispensable aspect of this special revelation is the law, and that’s the focus of this Psalm and others, such as Psalm 119.
It’s a healthy thing for congregations to hear these words praising God’s law. We sometimes misunderstand passages in the New Testament which associate the law with death and the Spirit with life (I Cor. 3: 6) to mean that the law no longer applies or is useful. The Law of God is no less a gift today than to the ancient Israelites. Christians can join the psalmist in extolling the sweetness, beauty, and desirability of God’s law.
The Psalmist emphasizes here that the law of the Lord offers the gift of living our human lives wisely. Wisdom is knowing how to live in God’s creation. Like the expert woodworker learns to respect the grain of the wood in his or her hands, the law gives us the ability to respect and live by the grain of the God’s creation. So, we too can say with the Psalmist in Psalm 119:97, “Oh how I love your law; it is my meditation night and day.”
At verse 11 the focus of the Psalm turns abruptly to the realities of human life in a sinful and fallen world. Not only are the words of the law sweet as honey, but “by them is your servant warned.” The law of the Lord doesn’t merely enlighten us, it also confronts human sin and warn us of its dangers.
In looking at human life in its fallen state, the Psalmist identifies two kinds of fault. He calls one of them “hidden faults.” These are the kinds of sin that we often don’t even recognize, but are endemic to our lives– sins of omission, born of our distracted busyness, and the alienating words we say or the thoughtless actions we do that occur almost unconsciously. In other words, sin is so much woven into our lives, we often don’t even know we are in its control.
The Psalmist calls the other kind of sin “insolent,” or willful. These are the sins we know well, sins that can dominate us, and are thus so hard to eradicate. Against both of these, we are helpless in our fallenness. The only hope we have is that God will deliver is from them. “Keep back your servant,” the Psalmist pleads, “do not let” me fall into the clutches of these sins. For Christians, the fact that Jesus Christ has assumed our fallen human state with its bend toward sin echoes and explains the Psalmist’s plea.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4: 15-16)
Jesus our Savior offers us a merciful understanding of the battle we face, and the grace to overcome sin.
The closing verse of this Psalm, beloved and memorized by so many, encapsulates the Psalm’s orientation toward God. He asks that the “words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable” to God the creator and redeemer. It’s no wonder that thousands of preachers have adopted it as their prayer for preaching God’s Word.
The Hebrew words translated “be acceptable” are a technical term for a qualified offering in the temple. In essence the Psalmist sees his whole life as an offering to our creator and redeemer on the altar of burning faith and love to God. Or, as Paul puts it in Romans 12, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1)
Preaching the Text
1). As mentioned above, one important aspect of the Psalm the preacher might address is the apparent tension between the modern scientific understanding of the formation of the universe next to the Bible’s insistence on God as creator.
The fact that the creation “declares” the glory of God while the Torah reveals God’s holy will and wisdom tells us that God reveals himself in both creation and Scripture. That also means that God’s revelation in creation and Scripture cannot ultimately disagree since they both come from God.
(See Article 2 of the Belgic Confession on the two books of God’s revelation.)
This two books analogy is a solid starting point for helping congregations to understand the issues involved here. To the extent that the scientific study of the creation reveals its underlying structure and the history of its development, it cannot fundamentally disagree with the Scriptures. If it does, we need to test the science as well as our theological and exegetical approaches Scripture. We hold two books in our hands, and it is our task to read them both carefully and openly.
The Biologos Foundation, founded by Francis Collins, eminent Christian scientist and former director of the Genome Project, offers a treasure trove of print and media resources for preachers who want to address these issues. Biologos has also produced an imaginative presentation of creation and redemption called “The Big Story,” using the latest scientific discoveries about the origin of the universe alongside the truths of the biblical story. This may be helpful as an example of a way to integrate science and faith.
2). It may also be helpful to address the place of God’s law for Christians. How can we love God’s law and discover its sweetness when it is so often misunderstood as the enemy of the gospel. John Calvin helpfully outlined three uses of the law for Christians.
Curb – Through fear of punishment, the Law keeps the sinful nature of both Christians and non-Christians under check. (vs. 11)
Mirror – The Law serves as a perfect reflection of what God created the human heart and life to be. (vs. 7)
Guide – For Christians, under the power of the Holy Spirit, the Law serves to guide in living a life that is pleasing to God. (vs. 8)
Author: Doug Bratt
Even some casual sports fans are at least somewhat aware of the controversy that continues to surround the use of what are called performance-enhancing drugs. People have accused numerous athletes of taking drugs like steroids to improve their performance.
Studies suggest that the use of anabolic steroids, for instance, increase lean muscle mass and strength. So some athletes have taken them to help them hit a ball harder, jump higher or run faster.
I suspect, however, that no one has ever been convicted of taking steroids to strengthen the muscle that is their tongue. Our tongues don’t generally, after all, need much help; they’re quite powerful all by themselves.
Perhaps that’s why the book of Proverbs, for example, pays so much attention to the tongue. Chapter 10:19’s wise writer, for instance, insists the one “who holds his tongue is wise.” And in chapter 12:18 he adds, “The tongue of the wise brings healing.”
In James 2 the apostle insists that God will somehow take into account our “works” at the final judgment. After all, while God saves us by grace that we can only receive with our faith, God calls such faith that’s not linked to our actions “dead.” Certainly speaking with our tongues is one of those “actions.” So we might say that faith that’s not affirmed by the positive use of our tongues is at least comatose, if not dead.
Yet James 3:1-12 might not be the best passage to read so close to the beginning of many of our school and church’s teaching activities. Already by now, after all, some teachers as well as students and their parents may be quick to agree, “not many … should presume to be teachers” (1). Some of us are already more than prepared to judge various teachers “strictly” (1).
Teachers are often caught in the middle of a kind of sometimes-painful game of dodge ball between administrators, students and parents. So on this Sunday near the beginning of another school year, it’s very appropriate to encourage our teachers. After all, we may wonder why anyone would even want to be a teacher.
Things seem to have been a little different in James’ day. Scholars suggest that at that time the position of “teacher” was an honorable and coveted one. We might even compare the work of teaching in James’ day to that of a modern doctor or social worker. The apostle, in fact, at least implies that many early Christians were eager for such a prestigious job, perhaps as much for the status it conferred as anything else.
To prospective preachers and teachers, however, James says, “Don’t rush to get into such celebrated work.” Virtually any prominent position, after all, especially teaching, requires people to use their tongues to speak a lot. And while it may be difficult, as James suggests in verse 2, to control any part of us, our tongues are perhaps especially notoriously hard to control.
We’ve been able to control all sorts of things. Some of our backyards and homes testify to people’s abilities to tame animals like dogs and cats. A few bold people have even tried to tame notoriously wild animals like tigers and wolverines. James reminds us that trying to tame our tongues, however, is like more like trying to tame a great white shark or crocodile than a hamster. Those who try are probably more likely to be hurt or even killed than succeed.
The tongue is, after all, not only naturally wild, but also powerful. James compares it to a spark that sets off huge forest fires. Our tongues can figuratively cause the kind of firestorms that continue to ravage the North American west. One lightning strike has been known, in fact, to cause as many as twenty separate forest and brush fires.
When I was in high school, someone’s tongue didn’t start 20 fires. But it did wreak havoc. I was so desperate for friends that at a football game I wandered close to a group of guys with whom I’d gone to middle school. An insecure classmate whom I’ll call Ray, however, incinerated my fragile psyche with one stroke of his powerful tongue. He took one look at my pants that were too short for my growing frame and sneered, “I guess Bratt’s getting ready for flooding.”
In fact, says James, tongues like Ray’s (and my own!) are so powerful that they’re like a little rudder than can steer a massive ship and a small bit that can direct a mighty horse. While they’re both comparatively tiny, they can steer far bigger things. In a similar way, writes James, while our tongues are among our smallest muscles, they can direct our whole lives.
While we’re not entirely sure what he means by that, he at least seems to mean that our tongues have power over every part of us. Might we think of it this way? If I were to brag that I could, for instance, run a marathon, I might think I have to try to back my boast up by actually running one. So my whole life would change as I spent extra time training and altering my eating habits.
Or consider how the encouraging use of our tongues can build a friendship. Or how a word of forgiveness can re-direct nearly our whole lives through reconciliation with people who have hurt us. Or how the gentle use of our tongues might bolster sagging and broken spirits.
Whenever I read James 3, I think of Marv who could talk to nearly anyone. When I asked him how he did it, he answered that he always read the comics, business section and sports page of a newspaper. Marv said he figured that if he could say something about one of those things, he could start a conversation with almost anyone. Those casual conversations, in turn, have helped draw a variety of people into a number of remarkable friendships.
By contrast, think of how our tongues can also push people away. How an irritated word, for instance, can ruin a friendship. Or how a critical word can break down vulnerable people. Or how a word of gossip can destroy a reputation.
In fact, adds James in a way we don’t fully understand, our tongues can even set our lives on fire. The apostle seems to mean that our tongues have immense power to cause disaster. They can incinerate friendships and families. Our tongues can infuriate our bosses or teachers. They may even have the power, if we give it to them, to drag us perilously close to hell.
Peter Matthiessen’s remarkable book Shadow Country’s main character, E.J. Watson, is one of fiction’s most evil, yet tragic figures. Readers certainly sense that he’s extraordinarily mean-tempered. Yet we also get the impression that he feels he must back up his verbal threats with violent, even murderous actions.
So who can tame the restless beast that is our wild and powerful tongue? James says, “no man can tame the tongue” (8). The theologian Augustine says that by saying that the apostle implies that only God can tame the wild and mighty animal that is our tongue.
You and I naturally want to serve the evil one. In fact, even after God redeems us, we sometimes still want to serve both the evil one and the Lord. So Christians have to fight the temptation to, for example, use our tongues to both gossip about other people and praise the Lord. While fig trees don’t grow olives, our tongues sometimes grow the fruit that is both lies to our neighbors and prayers to the Lord.
Those who preach and teach James 3 will want to look for ways to encourage. God’s adopted sons and daughters in the ways of its godliness. We may want to point to, for example, our need to confess to the Lord and each other that we don’t always use our tongues only to praise God and bless each other. You and I also deliberately open our hearts to the Spirit’s work to transform us into those who consistently put our tongues to good use.
Jesus’ followers consciously, too, use our tongues to criticize each other far less and build each other up far more. Yet perhaps more than anything, we faithfully pray for those who whom God has called to use their tongues a lot. After all, preachers and teachers desperately need such prayers perhaps more than almost anyone.
Some of our arguably greatest “teachers” that have been political leaders have had razor-sharp tongues that they have used with ruthless skill. American President Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of them.
In his book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro notes that LBJ was a mean man who abused reporters and ordered his wife around. He tongue-lashed reporters who had not reported his successes with enough enthusiasm to suit him. Johnson verbally shredded them whenever they hinted at criticism of him.
Caro says, the president “even ridiculed them for no reason at all, displaying as he did so that keen insight into other men’s feelings that enabled him to wound them so deeply. He once ridiculed Dave Cheavens of the Associated Press, a sensitive, sweet-tempered guy who was fat and short. Once, when Johnson was moving across a plowed field, Cheavens was falling behind. Johnson to Cheavens: ‘C’mon Cheavens. Won’t those little fat legs of yours carry you any faster than that’?”
Ironically, of course, Johnson also used his mighty tongue to sweet talk enough American congressmen into helping him pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The bill made it illegal to impose restrictions on federal, state and local elections that were designed to deny people who are black the right to vote. Were it not for Johnson’s deft and persuasive use of his tongue, American race relations might arguably be even worse than they are today.