September 24, 2018
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
The challenge of this lectionary text is that it reads like a hodgepodge of Jesus’ sayings, something like the book of Proverbs with its often unconnected string of wisdom sayings. Because of its lack of apparent cohesion, it would be difficult to build a coherent sermon by moving though the entire text. So, the text throws out a difficult, but not impossible challenge to the willing preacher.
Another approach is to notice the two main sections of the text that, separated or together, can be used as the basis for the sermon:
Verses 38- 41 on how Jesus welcomes others to join in his healing, reconciling work even though they are not “official” disciples.
Verses 42-50 on vigilance against the power of sin and temptation in one’s life.
In verses 38-41 John, one of the disciples who seem to have been in Jesus’ inner circle (Peter, James, and John), asks Jesus to denounce a certain exorcist who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Though Mark does not explicitly mention this, their concern seems especially strange since, just a few verses before (28 -29), the disciples were not able to exorcise a demon themselves. On top of that, we can detect the disciple’s jealousy in their just having argued together about who is the greatest. (vs. 34)
One might expect Jesus to choose his disciple’s small-mindedness to denounce them. Instead, Jesus tells John and the other the disciples that they should not be concerned since “no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” The anonymous exorcist is not going to turn against Jesus right after using Jesus’ name to do the same thing Jesus has often done.
Then Jesus follows up with a pithy saying that serves as a healthy reminder for the church today. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Instead of being concerned that someone outside their immediate group exorcises in Jesus name, they should welcome it. After all, Jesus says, if they are not against us, they must be on our side. Jesus is not concerned to set up his own exclusive exorcism ministry, but to start a movement that fights the devil’s work in the world.
In our day, churches often follow the corporate world in its emphasis on product branding. They find a good attractive name (like Adventure Church, New Life Church, or Encounter Church), design logos, build campuses, and feature a strong, articulate leader and that becomes a recognizable brand. Then they seek to give people good, positive experiences so that their brand becomes attractive to the community.
What this does, of course, is to set up a kind of competition among churches as to which can establish the best brand, attract the largest number of people, and make a name for themselves.
Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in the whole branding project. He would rather that his disciples not seek to set up their own brand so much as to gratefully recognize others who are doing the good work of a disciple. We can further Jesus open handed approach when we give positive recognition to other churches and ministries, pray for them, and support them.
Another interesting way to approach this part of the text might be to note another text in which Jesus seems to say the opposite, Matthew 12: 30. Again it’s in a context of Jesus’ casting out demons. In this case, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub. Here, Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
On the one hand, “whoever is not against me is for me” and on the other, “whoever is not with me is against me.” In the first case Jesus is expressing the inclusivity of the Kingdom; it includes all those who are seeking to do Jesus’ work. In the second case Jesus is expressing its exclusivity; it excludes those who actively undermine the Kingdom. It has a single center, those who acknowledge Jesus Christ and the ethics of the Kingdom, and it has a boundary, those who reject Jesus and the ethics of his Kingdom.
The second section of the text, verses 42-50, is a collection of sayings that revolve around sin and temptation. It begins with Jesus warning against being a stumbling block for any of his “little ones who believe in me.” Who are these “little ones” in the context of this chapter? In the two previous sections of this chapter, Jesus has urged the disciples to welcome children in his name, and then referred to an unnamed exorcist who was casting out demons in his name.
In the history of the exegesis of this text, “little ones” has been defined children, new believers, those who are weak in faith as opposed to those who are secure in their Christian freedom (see I Cor. 8: 7-13), and the helpless poor in general. Taken together, the “little ones” might be a catch-all term for all those believers who are weak, naive, unsophisticated, or rejected. Jesus solemnly warns the disciples, and the church, to be very careful about being a stumbling block for others.
Preaching on this text, it’s important to think seriously about who the weak are in your congregation, and what the stumbling blocks might be. It might be those who are relatively uneducated who feel undervalued next to to the intellectual elite, or the poor who are struggling with their daily existence next to the wealthy suburbanites, or those struggling with sexual identity.
Whoever they might be in your context, Jesus says that these little ones (Greek, microns) demand special consideration, love, and care. They are precious to Jesus. And, let’s face it, we preachers will get a lot more kudos by paying attention to the rich, the sophisticated, the “movers and shakers” of our congregations rather than the little ones.
Jesus applies some of his strongest language to this issue. Those who cause the little ones to stumble will find it better to have a huge millstone attached to their neck and be thrown into the sea (the equivalent of the mafia’s “cement shoe”).
Jesus continues by moving beyond being a stumbling block for the little ones by talking about the amputation of the sinning members of the body. Here he addresses sin more generally. Like a disease, sin is terribly insidious. If we have a cancer growing in our bodies, we know it has to come out or it will grow and destroy the whole body. Sin functions in the same way, and the only way to fight it is with radical surgery.
This is, of course, an analogy, but its vivid and violent tone adds to the weight of Jesus words. Repentance from sin is a terribly serious and often painful business, but one’s very life depends on it. Never play around with sin. Better to be maimed in this life than to be suffer loss for eternity.
Then Jesus tops it off with his own vivid description of Hell. The Hebrew word here is Gehenna, a constantly burning garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. This was not Jesus’ invention, but a common analogy for Hell among the Jews of his day. We need not necessarily read this as a physical description of Hell, but the idea of a place for smoldering garbage certainly gives weight to its terror.
It’s considered unfashionable and, perhaps counter-productive, to scare people with Hell these days. It’s far more attractive to speak of the blessings of the Christian life and the rewards of heaven. But, however we may define hell, whether as a place of physical torment, or as a place where God’s love is totally absent, people need to know that the choices we make have fearsome consequences in this life and the next.
We live our lives at the intersection of heaven or hell, both in this world and the next. In this world, who can deny the hell of earth that has been caused by hell-bent people and their destructive tyrannies. In the next world, what more tragic end can be conceived than to be separated from the beauties and blessings of a new heavens and new earth.
The text ends with a strange saying that exegetes have long struggled over, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” This seems to refer to the Jewish practice of adding salt to a sacrifice at the altar. To be salted with fire then might be the equivalent of Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship.”
Salt is a preservative, especially for food, and therefore necessary for life in that time and place. Jesus calls his disciples to be the salt of the earth, to acting as preservatives in society, holding back corruption and decay until the Lord returns. This powerful analogy reminds us that the church is not just a place of refuge from the hell-bent ways of the world, but as a preservative rubbed into the body politic that might fight against its most hellish tendencies.
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.
Preaching the Text
1). This text is tough going; it’s packed with rough language that will not likely yield a “nice” sermon without a lot of sugar coating. I think that a good rule of thumb for preachers is to go for the difficult stuff, the words that even make us feel nervous. These are exactly the things about which your congregation has deep questions and is looking for guidance.
If that’s true, then you cannot preach this text without talking about sin and hell, about amputation and millstones. We avoid this side of Jesus’ words to our peril. Our everyday actions have eternal consequences; our sin is destructive as hell. The congregation should come away from this sermon intent on running away from it in all its forms.
2). As mentioned above, a truly prophetic sermon on this text will look hard for the kinds of people who are the “little ones” in our midst, and what are the sins we need to amputate. One sin that functions as a hellish pitfall for many today is the ubiquitous presence of easily accessible pornography. Like many sins, this is not one that we can deal with apart from painful amputation. It’s a kind of addictive drug that easily becomes pernicious and destructive. We may need lots of help with our addictions, but in the end it will come down to a painful amputation.
3). What is your understanding of Hell? It’s a tough question, and you can be sure your congregation struggles with it as well. The essential theological problem is how to reconcile the existence of hell as eternal punishment with love of God and the redemption of Christ. This is exacerbated by the gnawing reality that so many in the past, and even today, have no opportunity to hear the gospel. Do they deserve hell? This leads some to posit a purgatory-like existence after death that offers an opportunity for them to come to faith in Christ.
This text provides an opportunity to at least help your congregation grapple with the some of the basic issues involved in the doctrine of hell.
Over the centuries, theologians have conceived of the reality of hell in a number of ways:
- Eternal physical and spiritual punishment. In this understanding God is glorified and sinners get what they deserve for their disobedience and their rejection of salvation in Christ.
- Eternal regret or separation. A variation on the punishment of hell is a conception of hell as eternal regret. Instead of seeing hell as eternal physical punishment, the damned are left outside the city of light and love to suffer eternal regret for their sin and lack of faith in Christ.
- Getting what you finally want. In this conception, people choose the separation of hell rather or than to be reconciled to God and live in God’s love. This view was dramatized in C. S. Lewis’ famous book, “The Great Divorce.”
- Annihilation. In this view the wicked simply cease to exist at all. This view is upheld by a number of conservative and evangelical theologians, especially those who deny the immortality of the soul.
- Universal salvation. In this view, it is impossible for God’s love to truly triumph over sin when many are left outside that love. The more emphasis that is given to God’s sovereignty over human freedom, the more this approach may seem inevitable.
In the end, the doctrine of hell brings us face to face with the mystery of evil. So much devastating and heinous evil has been perpetrated in the world, and people seem to get away with it. How can God’s kingdom of love and justice finally triumph over evil apart from the punishment and banishment of hell? Yet, with the Apostles Creed we confess that Christ descended to hell. Can this mean that Christ’s love and redemption extends even there?
So many questions and conundrums swirl around the doctrine of hell. If you are willing to take it on, it might be a good study for the preacher and an opportunity for the congregation to see beyond the traditional images of hell to the complex issues involved in this doctrine.
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.
Esther 7:1-6, 9-20; 9:20-22
Author: Stan Mast
Our text from Esther today speaks to the human tendency to forget important events, even events that changed our lives and altered the course of history. That’s why history echoes with cries not to forget. “Remember the Maine!” But who does? “Remember Pearl Harbor!” But do Millenials do that? We have Memorial Day to help us remember those who gave their lives in war for our freedom. But it has become little more than an extra day of vacation for many. Our Lord knew this tendency to forget even the most important event in history, so he gave us the Lord’s Supper with the command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Long before that central event in all of history, Mordecai instituted the Feast of Purim to make sure the Jews would never forget the day he and Esther (and God) changed the history of the Jewish people. More accurately, that Feast was designed to help the Jews remember the two days that insured that there would be an ongoing history of the Jewish people. This whole book of Esther is designed to remind God’s people in perpetuity of the origins of the Feast of Purim.
And it worked. This book is a favorite among Jewish people around the world. In her book entitled Girl Meets God, a delightful account of her conversion from Orthodox Judaism to evangelical Christianity, Lauren Winner describes the way Jewish people read the book of Esther. “When the book is read in synagogue during the Feast of Purim, you boo and stomp and sound noise makers when you get to the name of Haman; you…scream to fulfill the command to wipe out his name and the name of Xerxes, the king who eventually stops Haman’s plot against the Jews and sends him to the gallows he built to hang Mordecai.”
That’s all well and good if you’re Jewish and you are celebrating the wonderful turning of the tables that preserved your race from a holocaust. But what does this book and the reading for today have to say to Christians? I mean, contrary to the rest of sacred history, God does not even appear, does not speak or act, in the book of Esther, at least not overtly. Why should we pay any attention to this godless book or preach on this snippet of the story?
Here’s why. Aren’t our lives a lot like the book of Esther? How often do we see God in our lives? Or hear God? Or have our prayers answered spectacularly? I think that is the larger, non-Jewish reason Esther is in the Bible. It shows us that God really is present behind the veil of history, working silently and invisibly in the events of life, even in those tragic events where God seems most absent, and especially in those strange coincidences that turn life upside down.
In fact, there is a sense in which this old Jewish book is a foreshadowing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How so? Well, think about the cross, where God did not act to save Jesus, and by doing so saved us. In Jesus, God saves not by being conspicuously present, but by being conspicuously absent; not by powerful intervention, but by powerless non-intervention. His enemies said, “Let him come down now from the cross, if he is the Christ.” But he didn’t, precisely because he was. They said, “Let God save him if he is the Son of God.” But God didn’t, precisely because the death of God’s Son is how God saved us.
But I am getting way ahead of the text for today. The words of Esther 7 are the Aha in the story of Esther. When I speak of Aha, I’m referring to the five parts of any good story—the Oops, the Ugh, the Aha, the Whee, and the Yeah. Those interjections come from Eugene Lowry in his classic books on narrative preaching.
Good stories begin with an Oops, in which something very unusual upsets the equilibrium of the reader, like a Jewish girl wining the Queen of Persian beauty contest. Then the story develops an Ugh, as the plot gets thicker and uglier and more filled with conflict, like the Jewish girl’s uncle irritating the second most powerful ruler in the Persian kingdom, who then decides to kill all the Jews. Things get Ughier, as Esther has to decide whether she will intervene to save her people. Her decision to go to the King puts us on the edge of the Aha. We don’t know how this is going to work out for her and the Jews. It might go wrong and get her killed or it might go well and everything will turn out OK for God’s people. We don’t know—Ugh!
Our text in Esther 7 is the Aha, the great Reversal of Fortune, in which the downward direction of the story suddenly turns and heads upward, as Mordecai is honored and Haman is hanged. Then the upward movement accelerates into the Whee, as the Jews are allowed to defend them against their ancient enemy and win stunning victories. Finally, the story reaches its Yeah, the final resolution, as everything settles into place for the Jews, and they celebrate their surprising victory by instituting the Feast of Purim.
Esther has decided to deny herself, take up her cross and follow Mordecai’s command to beg Xerxes for mercy. Dressed in her royal best, she approaches the potentate, who graciously receives her. Surprisingly, Xerxes offers anything she wants up to half his kingdom. Instead of asking, she suggests a party, not just for the two of them, but for Haman, too. After the boys have drunk a great deal of wine, Xerxes repeats his fantastic offer. But wise Esther senses that the moment is not right yet, so she invites them to a second banquet tomorrow.
Haman dances home on the clouds. But when he sees his enemy Mordecai sitting in his usual place at the king’s gate, he is filled with rage. Once again, Mordecai will not bow to this most favored of the King’s officials. When Haman gets home, he boasts of his great good fortune but complains about the one thorn in his side, this cursed Jew. His wife and advisors suggest that he build a seven story tall gallows and hang Mordecai on it in the morning. Mordecai claps his hands like a delighted child, orders the gallows built over night, and goes to bed a happy boy.
When morning dawns, Haman sets off to the palace where he is the guest of honor at Esther’s banquet. As they were drinking wine, the King repeats his offer again. This time, Esther reveals her request very shrewdly, in verse 3. Xerxes takes the bait and Haman is hooked. This part of the story ends with Haman dead. The man who was at the top of the world found himself hanging from the top of a seven story gallows. Mordecai is given all of Haman’s property and, even more important, the king’s own signet ring, signifying that Mordecai now occupies the position Haman once had. The man at the bottom ends up on the top. All because of Esther’s courage and wisdom. What a remarkable reversal of fortune!
Except that “fortune” is not the right word. It suggests luck, coincidence, accidents, but that was not the case here. All of these unlikely turns were the secret work of God’s hidden hand. How do we know that? We know it from the mouths of Haman’s wife and friends back in Esther 6:13. “Since Mordecai… is of Jewish origin, you cannot stand against him—you will surely come to ruin.” Apparently even at the heart of the greatest secular kingdom of that time, some people knew that if the God of the Jews is for you, the other side doesn’t stand a chance.
That verse is one of the little covenant threads sticking out of the fabric of this cracking good secular story, reminding us that God is still faithful to his covenant, no matter how things appear. Working behind the veil in ways that look like pure coincidence, God has brought this whole matter to a most unlikely end, the total reversal of the condition of his covenant people. He used the wisdom and courage of Esther to complete his work, but God was the great author of the story.
Coming at the end of God’s progressive revelation in the Old Testament and followed by 400 years of divine silence that end with the Word becoming flesh, the book of Esther shows us a view of God we don’t find in the other historical books of the Bible. Here, instead of answering the cries of his people by intervening dramatically on their behalf, as he had done in Exodus and the return from Exile, God accomplishes his purposes invisibly. He answers their prayers for deliverance not by dramatically changing their reality, but by entering their reality himself, by going down into the disaster of their history with them, and then and only then, raising them to life with him. Sounds a lot like what God did in Jesus Christ, doesn’t it?
But what the Jews did to the family and allies of Haman doesn’t sound at all like the Christian gospel. It sounds like mass butchery, a mini-holocaust, even genocide. That’s exactly what it was, and that will take a little explaining. The key to the whole thing is another of those little threads of covenant history sticking up in Esther 3:1, where Haman is identified as an Agagite. That means nothing to us, but to the ancient Jews, it was a painful reminder of an awful chapter of Israel’s history.
Israel was marching to the Promised Land. They were the army of the Kingdom of God on earth, the advance troops of the Kingdom that would one day restore Shalom to God’s broken world. One nation repeatedly stood in their way, obstinately frustrating the progress of the Kingdom. They were the Amalekites, otherwise known as the Agagites. Because of their persistent refusal to make way for the kingdom of God, God finally ordered Israel under King Saul to completely eradicate them. But Israel stopped short of that terrible task, sparring some and taking all the plunder.
So the Agagites lived on in history. Here in Esther we find the quintessential Amalekite once again threatening the Kingdom of God. But a descendant of King Saul, the Jew named Mordecai, will finish what Saul had left undone. Thus, Mordecai orders the slaughter of tens of thousands of people who would have slaughtered God’s people as well as the ceremonial hanging of not only Haman, but also his 10 sons. The line of Agag was completely cut off. That threat to the Kingdom was ended.
No wonder the Jews were commanded to celebrate this great event every year on the 14th and 15th days of the last month of the year, the very days when Haman had planned to exterminate the Jews. In an act of supreme irony, or gallows humor, Mordecai called that celebration, “The Feast of Purim.” Purim means “lot,” and that’s a direct reference to Haman’s casting of lots in connection with his planned holocaust. He thought that by casting the Purim he could align his plan with the great overall Plan and thus guarantee his success. But he discovered that life is ruled not by Purim, but by the providence of God.
That bloody ending of Esther will turn off many of our listeners; indeed, many preachers will struggle with all the blood. But it reminds us of an important gospel truth. Evil is real and destructive. Sin is stubborn and deadly. So, the history of redemption from sin and evil is a hard, often bloody business. God loves the world, but in his love for the world, God must conquer the sin and evil that have ruined his world. Sometimes, indeed, at crucial times, that will mean the shedding of blood. It did in Israel. It did on the cross. God works in the most unusual, shocking ways to bring the kingdom of Shalom to the world loves.
Though we Christians don’t celebrate Purim, we do celebrate another Feast designed to help us remember the day God reversed our fortunes through the body and blood of his Son. As Mordecai said to the Jews, we must always remember the days “when we got relief from our enemies, when our sorrow was turned to joy and our mourning to celebration.” Let us feast with joy and give presents of food to each other and gifts to the poor (Esther 9:22).
Many countries have days of celebration focused on their national salvation through a bloody revolution that reversed the course of history. In the United States, we have the Fourth of July, which is very much like the Feast of Purim. Our celebration of the Fourth often doesn’t mention God either, but until recently most Americans knew that God’s hand was active in the events of that glorious revolution, even though it meant bloodshed.
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
Psalm 124 is again one of that special collection of Psalms called “Songs of Ascent.” These Psalms were associated especially with the liturgical life of Israel during the pilgrim feasts in which the people traveled to Jerusalem and its Temple. It’s clear that this Psalm has a liturgical setting. It begins, “Let Israel now say,” and ends with a confession of complete dependence on Jahweh.
Another indication of the Psalm’s liturgical usage is that it is not a list of actual historical incidents in which Israel triumphed over its enemies. It uses evocative poetic imagery to describe times of intense danger and the miracle of God’s deliverance. That poetic language makes it a useful liturgical element for a wide variety of times and places.
The NRSV translates verse 2: “when our enemies attacked us.” The actual Hebrew word is not the one for enemies, but Adam, mankind, people. This also implies that the message of the Psalm does not just point to Israel’s historical battles with its enemies. In his commentary on the Psalms, James L. Mays writes,
The word adam is used here as in Psalm 10:19; it is a collective noun for Israel’s enemy, the nations in their humanness. The enemies are “man” in contrast to the Lord. The danger was of the quality and kind that posed the basic choice of existence in history, the choice between trusting God or man as the decisive power. “If it had not been the Lord who was for us…!” That is what pilgrims must and may say as the truth about themselves.
This Psalm, therefore can be said by all God’s people, no matter what their circumstances. We all face times of intense hostility from others, moments in which we feel swept away by a flood of pain, grief, or betrayal. It is the stuff of life in the world.
Pastors should be aware that some people get stuck in such confessions of the Lord’s deliverance because they vividly and painfully recall moments of seeming abandonment, times in which prayers for deliverance seem unanswered, experiences in which the flood did overwhelm. How can we sing this Psalm in the dark? How can we confess God’s deliverance when we or those we loved were “swallowed alive?”
It’s important for the preacher to keep these people in mind, and not just riff on the wonders of God’s deliverance. One thing we might point out is that this in the genre of the wisdom literature of Israel. For example, in Proverbs we read, “Train children in the way they should go, and when they are old they will not depart from it.” (22:6) That is not meant as a promise to all faithful parents of their children’s future. Like all wisdom sayings, it reflects a general truth that we see in the world.
So too, the deliverance for which this Psalm gives thanks, does not preclude moments in which disaster did come, enemies did triumph, and the flood of misfortune did overwhelm. A quick look at Israel’s history will reveal that truth.
The Psalm declares that our only true and lasting help comes from the Lord. We cannot rely on human devices, or governments to deliver us. We cannot be assured that no disaster will befall us. Yet, God’s people can faithfully confess that “Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as a prey to their teeth.” It looks at our lives through the eyes of faith and the promise of God’s covenant faithfulness. No matter what, God is our help and salvation, not any human person or institution.
Ultimately, Christians read this Psalm, like all the rest, in the light of Christ. He is our help and shield, and in his cosmic victory over sin and death on the cross and in his resurrection no human power can overwhelm us. As Keith Getty writes in his widely acclaimed hymn “In Christ Alone,”
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand
‘Til He returns or calls me home
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.
“Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” The confession that God is the creator of all things in heaven and earth, offers us hope because God’s wisdom encompasses time and eternity, God’s power dwarfs all human power. He is our source and maker and is therefore above all earthly powers. God alone is worthy of our trust and confidence.
Preaching the Text
1). Psalm 124: 8 was a favorite text of John Calvin. In both his Strasbourg and Genevan liturgies for the Lord Day, the service began with the words, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Calvin believed that this wonderful sentence expressed the deepest truth about the congregation gathered for worship. It is similar to the words of Peter in John 6: 68, “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
It is also significant that this phrase should be said at the beginning of worship. It expresses Calvin’s profound understanding of worship. We often think of our worship as something we do for God. Worshipping God is impossible in our own human strength and understanding. Even our worship is utterly dependent on God’s help through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We do not come into God’s presence in our own strength or because of our own merit, but because of his saving grace and only with his sustaining help. We are gathered not as the righteous, but as the sinners redeemed in Christ. Yet despite our unworthiness, we appear in God’s courts with confidence. He has no need of our worship, but he delights in it. The almighty Creator of the universe is present wherever his people gather in his name—and thus we can say, not only in acknowledgment of our need but also in joyful assurance, “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”
This prayer from Calvin could well be used before every worship service:
Grant, Almighty God, that we may learn, whether in want or in abundance, to submit ourselves to you, that it may be our only and perfect source of happiness to depend on you and to rest in your salvation, the experience of which you have already given us, until we shall reach that eternal rest, where we shall enjoy it in all its fullness, when made partakers of that glory which has been procured for us by the blood of your only begotten Son. Amen.
2). It might also be helpful to remind your congregation that this Psalm, like many others, was meant to be used in the liturgy of Israel’s worship. Liturgy sometimes has the connotation of turgid ritualism, repeated words that can become prosaic and formal rather than alive and vital. One of the gifts of liturgy is that it gives us words to worship God. If we rely on our own words and ideas, they will often be more banal than beautiful. The well-crafted prayers and hymns of the Christian church have the power to evoke our deepest emotions and give wings to our mundane thoughts and prayers.
3). One way of using this Psalm liturgically is to divide it up into a litany between leader and people.
Leader: If the Lord had not been on our side—
let Israel say—
People: if the Lord had not been on our side
when people attacked us,
they would have swallowed us alive
when their anger flared against us;
the flood would have engulfed us,
the torrent would have swept over us,
the raging waters
would have swept us away.
Leader: Praise be to the Lord,
who has not let us be torn by their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird
from the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
and we have escaped.
People: Our help is in the name of the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
Author: Doug Bratt
Difficult people, things and circumstances exist over which even the most skilled and powerful people have virtually no control. But God graciously gives God’s adopted sons and daughters at least some control over how we respond to those difficulties.
James 5:13-20 at least implies that the apostle understood that as well as anyone. After all, while this week’s Lectionary Epistle describes a number of difficult circumstances, its author doesn’t counsel how his readers to control those circumstances. He does, however, teach them how to respond to them.
Just preceding this week’s Lectionary Epistle, James speaks of a circumstance about which 21st century Christians don’t always think as difficult. “Be patient, then, brothers [and sisters], until the Lord’s coming (italics added),” he writes in chapter 5:7. This suggests that what his readers thought of as a delay in Jesus’ return was a problem for them, that it was a cause of their impatience.
Most early Christians, after all, seemed to believe that Jesus would return sometime in their lifetime. Yet since Christians had already died and Jesus had not yet returned, some of James’ readers seem to have become impatient. The apostle even implies that some of them have taken out their frustrations on each other by grumbling “against each other” (5:9). In this week’s Lectionary Epistle James invites them to the better way of patience, persistence and perseverance.
In this text James takes up the cases of other difficult circumstances. He speaks of being some of his readers being “in trouble” (13) and “sick” (14), as well as others’ wandering “from the truth” (19). Interestingly, the apostle even lumps in what we think of as a happier circumstance (being “happy” – 13) with those trying ones.
Those who proclaim James 5 might ask themselves why he groups those three difficult circumstances in with the one happier one. Might it be that the apostle is reminding his readers of the need to properly respond to a wide array of circumstances? It isn’t, after all, just difficult circumstances that sometimes tempt us toward inappropriate responses. It’s also happier ones.
James 5’s teachers and preachers might explore our natural reactions to those difficult circumstances. We might ask our hearers about their instinctive responses to difficulties. As we do we may hear that they include things like lashing out at each other or God, taking an illness to a doctor and even handing over spiritual wanderers to the evil one.
Those who proclaim James 5 might consider noting a couple of things about the unnatural but appropriate responses to difficult people and things the apostle suggests. First, they’re positively focused. The apostle seems to understand that the most natural response to difficult circumstances is to grumble or lose patience, especially with God. So he invites those who are dealing with trouble, sickness and spiritual wandering to respond in relatively positive ways.
James, secondly, invites God’s people to respond to difficult circumstances by turning especially to both God and the Church. He may realize that their suffering for a variety of reasons sometimes drives people away from God and God’s Church. The apostle invites those who are in trouble to, instead, turn and pray to the Lord about it. The apostle also summons those who are happy to respond with praise to God. What’s more, he invites people who are sick to respond by summoning the church’s elders to pray over and anoint them with oil in God’s name. On top of all that, James summons those who have wandered from the gospel’s truths to let someone bring them back to both God and God’s Church.
That suggests that suffering gives the church community the opportunity to respond to trouble as a caring community. It offers members chances to respond in Christ-like ways to the kinds of misery that so often plagues both their neighbors and themselves. James invites God’s adopted sons and daughters to rather than turning away from their siblings’ suffering, turning to squarely face it with things like mutual confession, prayer and the laying on of hands.
The apostle, thirdly, emphasizes the role prayer plays in responding to and with those who are dealing with difficulties. It’s not just that those who are in trouble should pray or have someone pray over them. It’s also that singing songs of praise (13) is a form of prayer as well. Prayer even seems to play an implied role in restoring those who have turned their backs on God to a faithful relationship with the Lord.
Prayer is, after all, as James says in one way or another five times in just seven short verses, “powerful and effective” (16b). Prayer makes a difference because it’s both God to whom God’s children address it and God who answers it for God’s glory and God’s people’s good. “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well,” the apostle insists in verse 15a. He even adds, “Pray for each other so that you may be healed” (16a). The apostle then goes on to remind his readers of the effectiveness of Elijah’s prayers, first for God to stop the rains, then for God to resume them.
Of course, any proclamation and discussion of prayer’s power and effectiveness doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Even the godliest people have heard God say “no!” to their prayers. Of course, we might argue that even those “no’s” are often effective in shaping us into more Christ-likeness. Yet loving preachers and teachers will admit that’s not the kind of power and effectiveness to which we long to link prayer. God’s “no’s” are sometimes one of the difficult circumstances to which God’s people must respond.
James’ perhaps rather unusual ending has long fascinated biblical scholars. The apostle doesn’t end, after all, as Paul often ended his letters, with some kind of doxology or even farewell. He ends it, instead, with a command and an invitation.
Yet while there’s no grace-filled benediction at James’ end as there is in so many other New Testament letters, the apostle does end his letter with a lovely statement of grace. “Remember this,” he says in verse 20. “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
The apostle has spent much of his letter calling his readers to a more faithfully obedient response to God’s amazing grace. He has condemned things like speaking more than listening, showing favoritism to rich people, misusing our tongues and sowing dissension. His letter may leave some of its readers walking away discouraged. So it seems appropriate that James ends all of this teaching with a reminder that at the end of a life of obedience is the true Life to which God graciously summons all of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
This promise ends James’ letter on a hopeful note. It offers encouragement to keep its readers going in the potentially life-saving work of helping people to faithfully turn their faces away from sin and death and back toward God. It reminds God’s beloved children that because God loves spiritual wanderers, God’s people do too. The work of helping to restore them may seem long and discouraging. Yet the stakes, James insists, are incalculably high.
As my colleague Stan Mast notes in an earlier Sermon Starter on this passage, this seemingly unusual end actually reflects James’ entire letter’s passion. Throughout this epistle, after all, the apostle has called the church back from the precipice of refusing to live by God’s will. He wants to keep people from wandering (and staying) away from the Lord. So James ends as he has, in many ways, begun and emphasized throughout his letter: “Bring them back … Turn a sinner from his ways.”
In his sermon, “A Labor Not in Vain,” Fred Craddock, retired professor of preaching at Emory University, tells about what happened when he pastoring a small Christian church in east Tennessee. As he was visiting hospitalized church members, he passed the room of a patient.
From it a woman called to Craddock, ‘Uh, sir, are you a minister?’ ‘Yes, Ma’am.’ ‘Would you come in here by the bed and pray over me?’ ‘Yes, Ma’am, I’ll be happy to. What would you like me to pray for?’ Craddock asked as he entered her room.
She looked at him as if he’d lost his way and said rather abruptly, ‘That I’ll be healed of course!’ And so Craddock went over by the bed, took her hand and began to pray that God heal her.
When he had finished praying, the woman began to stretch a little in her bed. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I feel kind of strange. In fact, I feel pretty good!’ she said, throwing off the covers. She got out of bed, jumped up and down a little, and started shouting. ‘I’m healed! I’m healed! Thank you, pastor, thank you!’
Craddock reports that when he got back to his car, he bowed his head and prayed, “Dear God, don’t ever do that to me again.”