September 18, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sometimes the good sermon is the one that gets under people’s skins and bothers them. Sometimes we preachers even want this, which is why it can be disappointing in its own way some weeks to have people at the church door say “I really enjoyed that sermon, pastor!” You want to reply “I was hoping it would bother you!”
In Matthew 20, Jesus is trying to bug us a little. It is one of those times in the Bible when if Jesus can get us a little upset, it creates a teachable moment. This story is calculated to offend.
Like most parables, the basic story is very simple and very mundane. A vintner is desperate to get his crop of grapes harvested. Maybe the weather is threatening to turn bad the next day, or maybe the grapes are so bursting with juice that if they aren’t picked today, they will be rotten very quickly. Whatever the situation, the work needs to be done in a day. So at the crack of dawn he finds some eager folks lined up. So he hires them, promising a denarius for their trouble.
These people work literally from sun-up to sundown, a solid twelve hours of labor including right through the heat of the day. Apparently, however, despite the diligent work of these folks, the picking is not proceeding fast enough to satisfy the farmer. So all day long at 9am, noon, 3pm, and even as late as 5pm (a scant hour before quitting time) the farmer keeps hiring more folks, handing them empty bushel baskets and telling them to fill ’em up with grapes.
Jesus purposely lingers a bit over those last folks hired. These were not the eager beavers who had been standing at the farmer’s front gate at dawn. For whatever the reason they had slept in. Maybe these were the ne’er-do-wells of the community–the kind of people who were unemployed but seemed to lack the gumption to do a whole lot about it. All day they had sat around on the fringes of the town square, sipping cheap beer maybe and just watching passively as over and over the farmer came looking for new workers. But they had not leapt to their feet each time he came to the square calling for more pickers.
Finally it got to the point where there were no other folks left in the square and so long about the time these lollygaggers were getting ready to head on home to sit on the sofa and channel surf the evening away while munching on the frozen pizza they had bought with their unemployment checks at the A&P, the farmer comes back one last time.
“Why have you guys been lazing around this town square all day doing nothing?” the farmer asks.
“We dunno,” they ask, “guess it’s cuz no one hired us.”
Well, there was a reason for that, too, of course, but when the farmer tells them to get to work at last, they readily agree. Shucks, for an hour they could put up with most anything. “A little hard work never hurt anybody” the old adage says, and a little hard work was precisely what these fellows would be doing.
Jesus is setting us up.
We are already looking at these blokes through squinty eyes. Examples of the Protestant work ethic they aren’t! But then Jesus pulls a narrative fast one: he makes sure that these one-hour pickers get paid first. Had they been paid last after the crack-of-dawn folks had already left with their hard-earned denarius tucked into their wallets, there would not have been much punch to this parable. But instead Jesus’ fictional vintner makes a point of ensuring that the people who worked the longest witnessed the fact that these lazy bums got paid one whole denarius each as well.
Actually, however, that was not the moment that brought about the anger. Being fair-minded men with a firm sense of right and wrong and of what they had coming to them, they assumed that maybe as it turned out the going rate for this vineyard was one denarius per hour. And oh what a happy evening it would be in their households if they could come home with twelve denarii in their pocket! How wonderful it would be to swing by the store on the way home and at long last be able to afford a special candy bar for each of the kids, maybe even some flowers for the dinner table and one of those better brands of wine to go with dinner for once.
Except that of course it didn’t happen that way at all. Everyone got the same pay. Most people have a certain look that involuntarily sweeps across the face the moment they feel cheated. It is a kind of pursed lips, sideways glance, head-shaking expression utterly transparent to the anger that is rising in the throat. That’s how I picture these 12-hour workers the moment the master’s payroll man plopped a single denarius into their sweaty palms. They stared at the coin in disbelief and then looked askance. One of them finally whispers, “Can you even believe this!?”
The master overhears and so reminds them that he had cheated no one. This was the contract they agreed to at dawn that day. “And as for the rest,” he goes on, “what’s that to you? You’re not out anything. I can do what I want with my own money. So don’t cut your eyes at me and scorn my generosity!”
And that’s grace, Jesus says. It turns everything on its head.
But we don’t like it. And that is the rub of this parable and it creates a great preaching opportunity.
Without meaning to do it, we peg a lot of our spiritual worth, our spiritual self-assessment, to how much work we do for the church. In the heat of the day, in the dark of the night, on Tuesday mornings when we don’t feel like driving to church yet again, and on Sunday evenings when most other folks don’t even show up for worship, we’re here. And before we realize it, we slowly begin to assume that maybe we need less grace than some other folks. We’re getting to heaven on the installment plan as much as by grace. Maybe God does grade on the curve after all, and if so, by jimminy, we are determined to be well out ahead of that curve.
But as a matter of fact, if we have work to do and the talents to do it, this needs to become not a point of comparison with anyone else but a lifelong exercise in gracious gratitude to the God who enables our work in the first place. Grace called us to work in the kingdom, grace lets us perform ministry, grace compensates for our shortcomings in that work, and grace, not our own hard-won merits, is what crowns the work at the end of the day.
But, of course, there is a last point to be made and no one ever made it more poignantly than Barbara Brown Taylor in her memorable sermon on this passage. Taylor asked the key question: When we read this parable, why do we tend so immediately to identify with the folks hired at the crack of dawn?
Why do we so readily assume that when God’s kingdom fully comes, we will be the ones tempted to feel upset in that we will also be shown to have been the hardest workers of them all?
Who told you or me that we’ve been working for 12 hours? How do we know that just maybe our work totals the measly one hour after all?
Barbara Brown Taylor imagines that in the parable, when the farmer improbably hands the one-hour pickers a whole day’s wage, there must have been hoots of laughter and some “Ain’t we the lucky ones!” good-natured back-slapping going on.
But on that great and final day when Christ shall come again and bring us to himself, we should pray not only that we will indeed discover that the grace of Jesus is more than enough to get us into the kingdom. We should also pray that when we discover that eternally joyful fact, the great laughter and joyful back-slapping will be our very own.
This parable is so memorable that we are tempted to forget it has a wider context in Matthew’s gospel. It comes as part of a larger package of stories and incidents that drive home the idea of “the first shall be last.” First Jesus took little children to himself in Matthew 19:13-15 to point out that their lowly, humble status somehow has something to do with receiving the kingdom the right way. Then the Rich Young Man shows up as a foil to a child-like nature. Jesus sadly has to undercut this young man’s ideas on self-help salvation to make the point that salvation is all about God and so all about grace. Now this parable in Matthew 20:1-16 drives home that same point and is followed by yet another prediction by Jesus that it would finally take nothing short of his own death to make just that free and saving grace available. But the whole section climaxes in Matthew 20:20-28 when the disciples reveal how clueless they still are on this fundamental dynamic of the gospel as the mother of James and John tries to reserve seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom for her two boys, leading the other disciples to get ticked off, thus leading Jesus—one more time—to try to get through their thick skulls that the world’s way of reckoning value must not be their way. But was anyone really listening?
In her sermon on Matthew 20, Barbara Brown Taylor says that this parable is a little like the cod liver oil that mothers used to give their kids to cure what ailed them: you know it’s good for you, you trust the one who is giving it to you, but that doesn’t make it very easy to swallow even so! Most of us are born into this world with a huge sense of infantile entitlement followed by, at a very early age already, a seemingly intuitive sense of fairness and unfairness.
It’s like Charlie Brown’s little sister, Sally, in the classic “Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” You may recall that at one point Sally is writing a letter to Santa Claus and in the process generates an enormous list of toys she wants. Then at the conclusion of her North Pole-bound missive she writes, “But if that is too much to carry, just send cash.” When Charlie Brown sees this and despairs over his own sister’s greed, Sally indignantly responds, “All I want is my fair share. All I want is what I have coming to me.” You can see the short clip of Sally here.
Apparently that’s all that most of us want, including long after we become much older than Sally Brown. We want our fair share. We’ve got rights and the number one right we have in life is the right to have our rights met. So we chafe, we champ at the bit, we stomp our feet and wag our heads when we spy apparent unfairness in life. We go to a high school reunion and see former classmates who never went on to college. We’ve got four, maybe eight years more education than they have and so get driven clean up a wall when we discover they made millions in a car wash business even as we slave away teaching humanities at a Christian college, barely making ends meet at times. Driving home after the reunion, we mutter to our spouse, “Life’s not fair.”
When we are children, we count how many M&Ms Bobby got from grandma to make sure it’s the same amount as we got. When we are grownups we do the same thing, albeit counting up other kinds of things than pieces of candy. We are very sure that in life, hard work should be rewarded, education should pay off, yahoos and bumpkins should not be better off than thoughtful people.
Author: Doug Bratt
Human memory can be remarkably pliable. It isn’t just illness or advancing age that can bend and twist it. Trauma too can do remarkable things to memory.
Exodus 15 describes how God responds to God’s Israelite children’s grumbling about their lack of something to drink. At Marah and Elim God gives them refreshing water to drink. We also imagine Israel spends a lot of time languishing in Elim’s palm trees’ relatively cool shade.
As the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday opens, however, Israel has left her oasis. She’s back in the barren wilderness. Her lunchboxes and water bottles are probably about as empty as the land across which she trudges.
Battered by hunger and baked by the hot desert sun, the Israelites’ memories begin to play tricks on them. As Scott Hoezee notes in his exploration of our text in The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings (Eerdmans, 2001), in their minds, Egypt’s “house of bondage and land of death” turns into some kind of Sandals Resort. The Nile River, which was full of their dead babies, has become cool and sparkling. While Egypt was the place where the Israelites were so exhausted they hardly had the energy to eat, now it’s the land of never-ending all-you-can-eat buffets.
Yet are those who preach and teach Exodus 16, as well as those who hear us really so different than the Israelites? How often don’t God’s people murmur something like, “If only we were back in the good old days when teachers prayed in school and everyone knew right from wrong? If only we were back where we sang out of hymnals accompanied only by the organ.”
Hungry Israel isn’t shy about expressing her preferences to Moses and Aaron. She insists she wishes she’d just stayed back in Egypt. As Terrence Fretheim (Exodus: John Knox Press) notes, Israel believes that if she were going to die anyway, she may as well do so with full bellies in slavery as with grumbling ones in freedom.
Yet Brevard Child (The Book of Exodus: Westminster) points out that Exodus’ narrator doesn’t present Israel as begging Moses for bread because she’s starving to death. The Israelites claim to long for Egypt’s “pots of meat” and “all the food” they wanted (3). She, in other words, begs God to swap her freedom for slavery.
For neither the first nor the last time, Israel’s unhappiness with her circumstances fuels her unhappiness with the leaders whom God used to lead her out of slavery. She accuses Moses and Aaron of not just leading them out of Egypt’s bounty, but also of orchestrating their death.
In fact, the Israelites charge their leaders with dragging them out of Egypt in order to starve them to death. This isn’t a charge of negligent homicide, to use 21st century North American legal terminology. It’s a charge of 1st degree murder.
Yet although verse 2 reports, “the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron,” in verse 8 Moses insists they’re actually complaining against God. It wasn’t, after all, Moses and Aaron’s idea to lead Israel out of her Egyptian slavery. Moses, in fact, was quite content to stay away from that mess and in Midian’s relative peace and prosperity. What’s more, Moses was simply doing God’s liberating work … that the Israelites’ complaints about their slavery had fueled in the first place.
Yet while Israel directs her bitter complaints to Moses and Aaron, it’s God who takes the initiative to respond. Later God will respond swiftly and harshly to similar grousing. Here, however, the Lord doesn’t speak harshly to Moses. God doesn’t even offer a hint of judgment. Instead God quickly and graciously reacts to Israel’s’ “grumbling.”
Not, however, before we read what Hoezee calls “one of the most stunning and theologically loaded verses in the Bible: Exodus 16:10.” The Israelites are both terrified and famished. They see that the road ahead of them runs through acute danger.
So the Israelites want to make a 180-degree turn. They want God to rewind the video recording of salvation history and return them to their “home” in Egypt. So if God had answered, “yes” to her grumbling and prayers, Israel would have ended up back in Egypt.
God, however, doesn’t give Israel what she prays for. After all, God doesn’t always give God’s people what ask for. Instead the Lord graciously gives Israel what she needs. God, after all, always gives God’s adopted sons and daughters what we need. So God doesn’t send Israel a return trip to at least slavery and probably sure death in Egypt. Instead God sends Israel himself.
Like its modern preachers, teachers and readers, Exodus 16’s Israel’s right where God wants her to be. She’s in a place where she must totally depend on God for her well-being and survival. So it’s almost as if the Lord hugs the Israelites whose hearts and faces look toward Egypt and gently turns them toward the land of promise.
But when God faces them toward the misery that lies between that gift and them, what do the Israelites see? Not just deprivation and emptiness, but also “the glory of the Lord!” When the Israelites look ahead at hard times, they see God himself.
Of course, they can’t yet see the Promised Land. Life will also continue to have its heartaches and hardships. What’s more, Israel’s faithlessness will extend her trip through the desert to the Promised Land by a whole generation. Yet in verse 10 God shows the liberated Israelites that they won’t have to endure any of that suffering alone.
God’s generous gift of manna serves not only to sustain the Israelites, but also to confirm God’s presence. God meets the Israelites’ need for food by richly providing them with what verse 4 calls “bread from heaven.” “What is it?” the Israelites ask in verse 15 as they perhaps crinkle up their noses. “It is the bread the Lord the Lord has given you to eat,” Moses answers.
As Hoezee also notes, later God will teach God’s adopted sons and daughters that this bread points to the bread that is God’s Word that nourishes and sustains God’s people’s whole life. Here, however, it’s a unique sign of God’s glory that awaits them — out in the desert of all places!
Yet it’s not just “bread from heaven” (with its hints of divine intervention) that God promises Israel. In verse 12 God also promises ungrateful Israel the gift of “meat” that comes in the wrapping of “quail” that come “and cover the camp (13).
The manna and quail is a reminder, says Fretheim, that Israel will find God’s gifts to her not only in the extraordinary, but also the ordinary. God’s provision is, after all, never just in what’s unusual. It’s also in what flies around God’s adopted sons and daughters and even sometimes lands right in the middle of their campsites.
Fretheim sees this as particularly instructive for Israel. But perhaps there’s something for Exodus 21st century readers to learn as well. When we limit God’s involvement with us to what’s miraculous, we look for God’s care in only what we think of as extraordinary. Then we ignore God’s provision in the gifts of each new day, the food we grow or buy, and the health we enjoy. We no longer see God as caring so deeply about us that God provides even the most mundane things that sustain us. As a result, Fretheim grieves, when we can no longer recognize the miraculous, we assume God is simply uninterested at best, and completely absent at worst.
As Hoezee notes, not a few Christians wish that the life of a Christian were like some kind of Disneyworld kingdom. We wish that God’s kingdom were a place where the streets were always clean, the trash was always swept away and night brought only twinkling lights.
But the Christian life generally just isn’t that way. Even those who know and receive God’s grace with our faith must sometimes walk through the desert of things like mental illness and economic hardship. Like the Israelites who walked through the Red Sea, we die and rise again with Jesus in the waters of baptism. Yet we often find various deserts even on the other side of those baptismal waters.
The good news is that such desert experiences don’t nullify God’s gracious presence. Our text reminds God’s adopted sons and daughters that when we can peer into various wildernesses, we can see the Lord’s glory and gracious presence. When God’s people look with the eyes of faith, we find evidence of God’s presence even in those various deserts.
Of course, the manna God provides God’s “hangry” adopted Israelite sons and daughter is far from the Promised Land’s milk and honey. But it’s enough to remind the Israelites that they’re not alone, that the covenant is still in affect and that a better day will graciously come.
In a society that attaches material explanations to virtually all mundane things, it’s among Exodus 16’s preachers and teachers greatest challenges to help our hearers recognize God’s provision for our daily needs. It’s among our most important jobs to remind each other than it isn’t just miracles that display the depths of God’s love. It’s also things like Cheerios for breakfast, safe round trips to the gym and loyal family members and friends that are gifts from God’s loving and gracious hand.
In a real sense, western citizens of the 21st century no longer ask, with the Israelites, “What is it?” about our daily bread. Yet when we claim, “It’s (just) lunch,” we also reveal our own ignorance about that bread. It is, after all, nothing less than “the bread the Lord has given you to eat” (15).
Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is a remarkable work of art. Among its many themes is a reflection on the malleability of memory. Its Charlotte and her daughter Handful are slaves. While Charlotte repeatedly tries to escape her captivity, she dies before she can reach freedom.
On the 6th anniversary of the death of Charlotte, whom her daughter calls “Mauma,” the other slaves reminisce about her. Those reflections cause Handful to observe: “Now that she was gone, they loved her a lot better.”
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Author: Stan Mast
We are now deeply into Ordinary Time on the liturgical calendar. During Ordinary Time we don’t celebrate any of the extraordinary Feasts of the Christian year; we simply walk along with the Incarnate God, the Crucified Jesus, the Risen and Ruling Christ by the power of the Spirit. Our reading for today speaks to one of the great crises of faith that nearly all Jesus followers will face at one time or another on our pilgrimage to the Promised Land—loss, the loss of something we held dear, whether person or position or property or, worst of all, the presence of God.
It is very likely that Psalm 105 was addressed to Israel as they struggled to make sense of the Exile, in which they lost everything, most notably the Land that had been promised to them from as far back as Abraham. That loss, of course, caused a great crisis of faith. Where is God in all this loss? How could this happen? What about the covenant promises God made so long ago? Has Yahweh forgotten us forever?
Psalm 105 addresses this crisis of faith by reminding Israel about how God had remembered his covenant promises. The Psalm does that not simply by abstract of statements about God’s faithfulness (verses 8-11), but more helpfully by retelling the story of how Israel had come into the land in the first place (verses 12-44). Covering centuries of history in just a few verses, this historical Psalm recites the five stages of covenant history from the Promise of the Land to the Possession of the Land.
We’ve already studied the Egyptian bondage and the plagues on Egypt in Psalm 105 (see the Sermon Starter Archive for August 13 and September 3 on this “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website). Now here the Psalmist focuses on the actual leaving from Egypt, the wilderness wandering, and the possession of the land of Promise. The purpose of this history lesson is to help Israel “remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,” so that they will praise him now and trust him for the future.
If Israel and we are to keep our faith intact when we deal with the great losses of life, we’ll have to focus on the main point Psalm 105 makes about our lives and our history, namely, that God is the main actor. God is sovereign. The Psalmist drives that point home by making God the subject of all the verbs in this recital of covenant history. Note the predominance of the pronoun “he.” Israel’s story is God’s story, the story of what Yahweh has done for his people in fulfillment of “his holy promise given to his servant Abraham (verse 42).”
This is the great claim of biblical religion, whether Jewish or Christian. Our God acts in history, whether in the way Psalm 105 recites for Israel or in the way the Gospels recite for Christians. Of course, humans have a role in their own story. Psalm 106 (the “non-identical twin of Psalm 105”) teaches that in a purely negative way. Israel has landed in Exile because it forgot the God who never forgets them.
But Israel cannot get itself out of Exile, back into the Land, or back into God’s good graces. The wording of Psalm 105 absolutely subverts every human claim to sovereignty, power, and privilege. We cannot save ourselves. Only the God who brought Israel into the Promised Land by the Exodus can bring Israel back into the Land from the Exile. And only that God can save us through the work of Christ in history. That emphasis on God’s sovereign grace in historical acts is the only thing that can help us survive the great losses of life.
But, as I said a moment ago, Psalm 105 helps us with our losses not only with high doctrinal statements about divine sovereignty, but also with the story of what God did for Israel. The most brilliant scholar may struggle with the concept of sovereignty, but even a sad little child can understand the story of how God “brought out Israel… spread out a cloud as a covering and a fire to give light at night… brought them quail… [and] the bread of heaven… opened a rock, and water gushed out… [and] gave them the lands of the nations….”
Notice how this Psalm comforts a grieving people who have lost so much. It emphasizes how completely God provides for the needs of his people. When Israel came out of Egypt, they would have had nothing to take with them, because they had been a slave people. But God provided for them richly, by moving the Egyptians to give them their treasures. So God “brought out Israel, laden with silver and gold.”
And, notwithstanding Pharaoh’s abortive last ditch attempt to get his free help back, Egypt was so thoroughly disheartened by the Ten Plagues that they “were glad when [Israel] left, because the dread of Israel had fallen on them.” In other words, God didn’t just save them a little bit, by the skin of their teeth, so to speak. He delivered them completely, so that their lives were full and free (think John 10:10). In an unimaginable way, God had utterly transformed the lives of his people by his sovereign grace.
But then came the wilderness, that vast and howling expanse of nothingness that made Israel long for the good old days of slavery. Even there, however, God provided for their every need: protection by the cloud that covered them like Harry Potter’s invisibility cape, guidance through the darkness by that pillar of fire, sustenance in the barrenness of the desert by the gift of quail and manna and water, and success in the wars of conquest that gave them a fully developed new home where “they fell heir to what others had toiled for….” To a people who had nothing, God provided everything. As Paul would put it many years later, “my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever (Phil. 4:19 and 20).”
That’s the message of Psalm 105 to people who wonder where God is in their time of terrible loss—not an attempt at theodicy, but a simple retelling of what God has done for his people in the past. It is a firm reminder that he did all those miraculous signs and wonder because “he remembered his holy promise” (verse 42) and he always does (verse 8). So remember him, and praise him, and trust him, even when it seems that all is lost.
Oh yes, and obey him. That’s the surprise ending to Psalm 105. All of God’s saving actions on behalf of Israel were aimed at their obedience—“that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws (verse 45).” It is not enough to remember and rejoice in what God has done. We must also do something in response. No, this is not some tit for tat, quid pro quo deal making. It is the plan of God for saving not only Israel, but also through Israel the whole world.
God told Abraham this very thing from the very beginning when he entered covenant with that pagan, wandering Aramaean. Not only will I make you a great nation, but also “all the nations on earth will be blessed through you (Gen. 12:3).” Of course, the ultimate fulfillment of that promise would be through the ministry of Abraham’s greatest Seed, Jesus Christ. But in a penultimate way, Israel was chose to be a witness to the nations, a testimony to the greatness of the one God, a light in the darkness of a fallen world, a beach-head for the kingdom of God in a rebellious world. (Cf. Exodus 19:5 and 6, Isaiah 42:6,7, 49:6, 52:10 for samples of Israel’s “Great Commission.”)
Israel would be all of that by demonstrating how life could and should be lived by the grace of God. Rather than overwhelm the world with his glory and power, God started small in his campaign to overcome sin and save the world—with one man, one family, one little nation. He created a “colony of obedience, an enclave of those who represented and displayed his reign.” (James Luther Mays) In the words of Jesus, they were a “city set on a hill, a light set on a bushel,” so that “men may see your good works and glory your Father who is in heaven.”
Of course, Israel failed in that mission, as do we. That’s why God finally sent Abraham’s Seed, the quintessential Israelite, whose work was to obey the will of his Father in heaven, and thus do what we did not and cannot do. Psalm 105 reminds us to remember how God’s sovereign grace has redeemed us, rejoice in God’s miraculous acts in history, and respond with lives of consistent obedience.
That last point is necessary to make, even when we’re grieving losses, perhaps especially then. Yes, God will remember his promises and supply all of our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. But we must remember that we have a purpose here on earth. It’s not all about us. It’s about God’s glorious purpose of saving a lost world. And the way we live, even in our sorrow, is a key part of that plan.
Here’s how Paul put it in Titus 2:11-14. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passion, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify himself a people who are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
All of the talk about Exodus in Psalm 105 reminded me of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad. It re-tells the story of the historical Underground Railroad that enabled many slaves to escape their captors in the Nineteenth Century. The interesting twist in the novel is the author’s imagining that there was an actual railroad that ran underground from south to north.
The slaves who ride that railroad are let off at various places along their way to eventual freedom. At each stop, life seems to be a little better as they move north, but then the fugitive slaves discover that the cruelty of slavery has simply morphed into something more subtle than, but just as horrible as they had encountered further south. Even when they reach a tranquil and prosperous enclave of former slaves who have built their own little town, they discover that hatred and bigotry can still devastate their lives. A white mob destroys the community and the slaves lose everything.
The Underground Railroad is a heart-breaking book, and it provides a stark contrast to the complete salvation God provided for Israel through the Exodus and for us through the cross. Its story of stubborn and systemic injustice should encourage us to promote the Kingdom of God by being a beacon of grace and truth and obedient love toward all who are enslaved.
Author: Scott Hoezee
They say a death sentence has a way of focusing the mind, and certainly the Apostle Paul could attest to this. He is in prison as he writes to the Philippians and even though he just went out of his way to assure the Philippians both that he was doing fine and that even the Gospel was getting a boost out of the whole ordeal, even so it becomes clear that the thought he might die soon is ever on his mind. Paul says it is fine by him if he does get executed. He will get to go be with Jesus. Remember that unlike the other apostles—most of whom had been disciples first—Paul had not had the chance to be physically with Jesus. He had met him on the Damascus Road and has perhaps had some vivid visions granted to him. But actually being in Christ’s presence? That had not really happened for Paul and so he is eager for that to happen.
Even so, he would love to visit Philippi again too. If he gets sprung from prison one of these days, he will come back to a congregation he clearly loves. In fact, in recent days it seems that Paul has concluded that for the time being at least, getting another chance to visit the Philippians seemed more likely than his dying anytime soon and so he goes with that happy thought.
And so given that, Paul returns to apostolic exhorting and urges unity among the Philippians. He urges that they lead lives worthy of the Gospel and of the Savior who called them together in the first place. Make no mistake: Philippians is probably the warmest, friendliest letter we have from Paul in the New Testament. But that does not mean Paul is unaware of some cracks in their unity, some people who are at odds (two of whom will be called out by name before this letter is finished). Even the lyric words in chapter 2 and the quoting of that great hymn about Jesus Christ are in service of getting the Philippians a bit more back into line.
What’s more, the Philippians have enemies, opponents, people trying to shake the foundation of their faith. Reading between the lines here, it looks like they are causing a degree of suffering among the Christians in Philippi too. So Paul urges them to stand firm and to see even this suffering as its own kind of gift. “This gives you a chance to identify with Jesus in his sufferings” Paul enthuses. “That is its own kind of gift, folks!” For the Philippians as for most people all through history and up to this present day, suffering for the Gospel is probably the gift no one really wants but there it is, Paul says: Jesus suffered, he said his followers would suffer, and so not only do we get closer to Jesus when we suffer, we witness to him when we bear up under our suffering the same way he did.
Suffering, opposition, and hard times are not excuses for misbehaving, Paul says. Don’t go after each other, don’t let the pressure make you crack and conclude you no longer need to act in Christ-like ways. Now more than ever is the time for precisely such a staunch witness of love and unity.
Paul says something else, though, in verse 28: he urges the Philippians to stand firm in the face of opposition because it will serve as a sign that the opposition has already lost the fight. Stalwart confidence among Christians facing opposition is like semaphore. It sends out all the necessary signals that we are utterly sure that our Jesus has already won the cosmic victory and that, in turn, signals that those who oppose Jesus are already neck-deep in defeat.
Here is a message the church has needed—but often not much heeded—all along the centuries and right on down to this current age, too. Especially Christians in the Western world—and most particularly I would contend Christians in the United States—have come to believe that not only should they not have to suffer on account of their faith, they should, as a matter of fact, be accorded extra protections and comforts. No taxes on church properties or the offerings received, tax deductions for those giving the offerings, no need ever to have to make hard decisions in the public square in terms of how live faithfully in a pluralistic society. If the nation could just get back to being the Christian Nation it was founded to be, our lives would get a whole lot easier.
But since that does not always seem to be happening in every sector of society, the reaction of Christians is very often anything but stalwart confidence and unshakeable faith in Christ. No, the reactions are angry, bitter demonstrations and marches, ugly slogans painted onto signs, shouting matches between pastors and others on split-screen cable TV news shows.
So much for letting our confidence stand as a sign to our opponents that they have already lost! “They will know we are Christians by the level of our vitriol” seems to be the way many go these days. Not everyone, of course, and maybe not even most people. But some Christian leaders with the biggest megaphones—and not a few of their loyal followers—have taken a changing society as license to yell louder and whine more about how white Christians are discriminated against so much these days.
If only Paul could sit in his Roman jail cell and hear these kinds of reports about us. Think of what might pour forth from his epistolary pen if he had the same chance to call us to our Christ-like senses as he did with the Philippians. Oh yes, and do take note: Paul wrote these admonitions about confidence in Christ from a Roman prison cell. You think you have enemies in society? Ha! Paul would laugh us to derision. Paul had real enemies and they really would take Paul’s very life on account of his faithfulness to Jesus one day soon.
Even so Paul wrote what he did, to the Philippians and by the Spirit to all of us in the church today, too. Are we listening?
Paul is a good example of someone who could look for the good even in the midst of a whole lot of bad stuff. But Paul is not the only example, and perhaps not the premiere example, either. For that we look to Jesus. In the past I have used the analogy of music to make this point. If you know as relatively little about music as I do, then you could probably listen to five different recordings of a Mozart symphony and not detect a whole lot of difference among those versions. But if you were a music major who studied this for four years at a university, you’d be able to detect many nuances of difference between one rendition of the Jupiter symphony and another. But if Mozart himself could listen, he as the composer would be by far the most likely to pick up on every dropped note, each altered phrase, each variation between one performance and another.
Similarly with life in this world: if you know just a little about God’s design for life, then as you observe the world around you, you’d now and again detect the moral equivalent of someone singing off-key or dropping a note. If you were a trained theological ethicist, you’d likely be able to detect far more discordant moral notes. But suppose you are the Son of God, the composer of the entire symphony of creation. Wouldn’t you then be in the prime position to hear every wrong note? Jesus was in that position and yet despite that, his ministry was not characterized by negativity, by incessant tirades against the clueless sinners around him, or by nit-picking critiques of his disciples or anyone else.
Instead Jesus, like Paul, seemed able to look for goodness, for signs of hope, and this enabled him to eat with sinners and tax collectors and yet not be some boorish dinner guest whose conversation was laced with nothing but moral lectures and rebukes. He was able to rub shoulders with people in the marketplace and converse with a Samaritan woman at a well and although he knew better than anyone the problems in these people’s lives, he found a level of common ground, of common good on which to build something positive.
As that well-known hymn reminds us, “For not with swords’ loud clashing or roll of stirring drums–with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”