October 01, 2018
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
Once again, this text is complex; it deals with two quite different issues. The first pertains to the issue of marriage and divorce, the second on the childlike way in which disciples “receive the kingdom.” At first it may seem that they are connected because marriage and children typically go together, but the second section is not really about children in the context of family life as about the nature of discipleship.
I imagine that, if given a choice, most preachers would choose the second part of the text. The picture of Jesus with little children in his arms us much more attractive than dealing with the thorny issue of divorce. Choosing which section of the text to focus on will involve considering the real needs of your congregation, not what seems most comfortable for the preacher. Another consideration might be that that the reception of children was a theme in lectionary text just a few weeks ago, although with a somewhat different point.
Again, the Pharisees confront Jesus with a trick question. The purpose is likely that they can catch Jesus on the horns of a rabbinic dilemma regarding divorce. This is especially clear in the parallel passage in Matthew in which the Pharisees’ question is slightly different: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?
The law of Moses allowed for divorce if a husband found something “objectionable” in his wife. (Deut. 24: 1-4) The school of Hillel interpreted this to mean that a man could divorce his wife for practically any reason, while the school of Shammai held to a stricter interpretation, that adultery was the only ground for divorce. In Matthew’s account, then, the Pharisees apparently want to see which tack Jesus would take.
But the question in Mark is much broader, “is it lawful to divorce?” Although Jesus does deal with the particular issue of reasons for divorce his private talk with the disciples. So, as Mark sets it up, the first big question is the legitimacy of divorce in any circumstance.
As he often does, Jesus asks them to give their answer before he gives his own. “What does Moses say?” they reply that Moses allowed for a certificate of divorce. Note again that the grounds for the divorce are not in question at this point. Jesus now does something that is familiar to anyone who has read the Sermon on the Mount. He looks behind the legal requirement to the deeper issues involved.
For Jesus the real question is not whether divorce is allowable, but what is marriage? Yes, the law of Moses allows for divorce, but this is only because of “your hardness of heart.” In other words, it was a concession to human weakness. Better to look at God’s purpose for marriage in the beginning, and Jesus then quotes the immortal words from Genesis, ‘God made them male and female.’ “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Jesus then uses these words to define the essential nature of marriage. “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus is clear: the marriage covenant is inviolable; it is a life-long commitment.
Before going into the issue of divorce, and when it might be allowable, it is important to make this point very clear. God’s will and purpose for marriage is that it be a life-long, unbreakable, commitment, a sacred covenant. Marriage is not an experiment to see how it might work out; it is a holy bond intended for human flourishing. The words of the marriage ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer make this clear.
The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.
Of course, in most congregations there will be people who have been divorced, and children who have been traumatized by it. We should certainly bear in mind how they will feel when reminded of this life-long commitment. But this must not prevent us from gently but firmly proclaiming God’s beautiful and crucially important will for marriage. Even though we may sometimes fail to uphold it, we must never downplay the beauty of God’s purpose in marriage, and the tragedy of its violation in divorce.
Later, Jesus and his disciples are alone in a house, and the disciples continue to question Jesus about marriage and divorce. In a compact and clear statement, Jesus now addresses the question of the grounds for divorce. Remember that the law of Moses, and even its most conservative interpretation, allowed for divorce because of adultery.
While the Pharisees, quoting Moses, had only addressed the prerogative of men in divorce, Jesus now addresses divorce from the perspective of both men and women. “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her….” Here, Jesus peels back the curtain behind the Jewish practice of divorce. Men who divorce their wives in order to marry another woman are simply committing serial adultery under the cover of the law.
Then Jesus levels the field by addressing women as well. “[A]nd if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Jesus point in both cases is that we must begin with God’s will on the inviolability of marriage. All divorce is wrong in God’s eyes because marriage is meant to be a life-long union.
This can be understood in two ways. One is that any divorce and remarriage is adultery. Does that mean that divorce without remarriage is acceptable? That is hard to believe given Jesus initial claim that all divorce is contrary to God’s original design for marriage. The discussion also assumes that remarriage is inevitable in that culture.
The second understanding is that Jesus is simply upholding God’s original design for the inviolability of marriage by saying that all divorce and remarriage is adultery. He is not discussing whether there are legitimate reasons for divorce, but rather, he us upholding God’s intention for marriage. I think that Jesus intends this second understanding, since it fits with his original statement.
Taken as a whole, then, Jesus is simply making the point that any discussion of grounds for divorce fails to take into account that divorce is simply wrong in God’s eyes. But what do we do with that when there are, undoubtedly, people in your congregation who are divorced for whatever reason?
The point seems to be that divorce betrays our human “hardness of heart,” our sinfulness and weakness. The message here in Mark is not to parse out various proper grounds for divorce, or portray divorce as a “good” thing, a positive development. It’s simply wrong, it’s destructive, it hurts people, and it violates God’s will.
But divorce happens in fallen human life, and in churches, for all sorts of reasons from spousal abuse to adultery. And whatever the reason, it calls for repentance and a renewed commitment to God’s will in marriage. “What God has joined together, let no one separate.”
People should not come away from this sermon calculating whether their divorce, or someone else’s was properly grounded, but with the realization that divorce is always a violation of God’s good and perfect will. At the same time, divorced people should come away from this sermon with a deep sense of God’s grace and forgiveness, and all listeners with a renewed commitment to the covenant of marriage.
This is the second time Mark comments on how Jesus uses children as an example of Kingdom life within a few verses (9: 36-37). In the earlier passage the disciples have been arguing about who is the greatest, and Jesus uses a child an an example of humble discipleship. In the Kingdom of God greatness is measured by service, and the acceptance of a child is a telling example of that servant mentality.
In today’s text, Jesus action is more personal and poignant, and his point is somewhat different. People were bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing, and the disciples seemed to think that it was wasting Jesus’ time. Jesus is indignant at the disciple’s attitude. “Let the children come to me, do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.”
The point is not that children are cute and cuddly, though they certainly are. The disciples’ impatience with blessing the children came from their cultural viewpoint. Children were simply regarded as not being worth time and effort. They were to be “seen but not heard,” and had no importance until they were adults.
Jesus’ point, therefore, is not just that children are important and worthy of our attention, but that the Kingdom of God belongs to “such as these.” The Kingdom of God is a place of welcome for the nobodies, the weak, the fallen, and the forgotten in society.
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). Preaching at its best is a form of pastoral care. This text offers an opportunity for churches to promote and foster healthy marriages, and in the case of divorce and remarriage to extend compassion and facilitate healing.
As mentioned above, in preaching the section of the the text on marriage it is important to carefully consider how this is going to be heard by various people in the congregation. In most congregations there will be those who are divorced for various reasons and with various outcomes, many of whom will still be conflicted over the experience. There will be children of divorce of various ages, from traumatized young children to hurting adult children.
Yet, no matter what experiences people bring, whether painful memories, or a feeling of the necessity of the divorce, or even the liberation it might bring, everyone can affirm the beauty and blessing of the life-long marriage covenant as ordained by God.
The key is to make sure that Jesus is not out to condemn divorced people, but to instill an understanding of the blessedness of marriage, and to deepen our commitment to it. You may also want to emphasize that in any divorce there is some fault on both parties. The work of recognizing those faults, and repenting of them, can often enable people to move on in their lives.
You might remind your congregation that any marriage can grow stale and rigid. The high of romance seldom remains hot. Marriage is work, blessed work, but work. It is one of the best laboratories to learn the hard work of self-giving love.
One suggestion I’ve practiced and recommended to others is to get a regular marriage “checkup,” just like you go to the doctor for a yearly physical. Seeing a marriage therapist together for a few sessions every few years can do much to correct bad habits creeping in as well as rekindle the fires of romance.
There are lots of books and movies that portray dysfunctional marriages, but few that offer an anatomy of a good one. I recently read William Kent Krueger’s “Ordinary Grace” which pictures a marriage beset with enormous difficulties, and yet commitment, trust, and love enable the couple to emerge wounded but with a deepened love for each other.
2). I recall singing a simple Sunday School song as a child, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” The second section of the text regarding children provides an opportunity to comment on the ways in which our society, and others, tends to respond like the disciples. So many children are condemned to degrading poverty, inferior schools, and parental neglect. How does the church, which represents the Kingdom of God, advocate for these children whom Jesus loves so dearly?
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.
Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Author: Stan Mast
After a month of looking at Wisdom literature from a woman’s point of view, we will now spend a month in the decidedly masculine book of Job which wrestles with the question that has confounded the wisest women and men in the world. Why should a righteous person suffer in a world ruled by a good and just God? This is a fitting subject as we near the end of Ordinary Time, that season of the ecclesiastical year when we focus on the many dimensions of our walk with the crucified, risen, and reigning Christ. The suffering of the innocent has always been a major stumbling stone in many believers’ walk with Christ.
It’s a troublesome subject and our reading for today raises it in a troublesome way. Nearly all preachers know that Job directly challenges the common wisdom of ancient Israel and of modern Christianity about suffering. If you are suffering, it must be because you did something wrong. It’s a simple equation; it makes moral sense; and it is often completely wrong, as in the famous case of Job. This gut-wrenching story skewers that common sense wisdom in an unforgettable way. And that’s good.
But along the way to that helpful conclusion, Job raises some deeply troubling questions about God and Satan and us. Why was God talking to Satan at all? Does the scene portrayed here happen all the time? Does God make bets with the Devil? Why would God test Job, since God presumably already knew what Job would do? The story seems to say that God wanted to prove Job’s unfailing righteousness to Satan. But who cares what Satan thinks? He is a devil, a liar and a murderer. Why didn’t God just tell him to shut up and go back to hell where he belongs? Why give in to his taunts? To shut him up? To test Job? Or to make a point to the readers of this story throughout history? That last question probably gets at the truth, but it doesn’t erase those other questions.
Job 1:1 is perhaps the most important verse in this long book, because it declares Job’s complete innocence. Thought he was not sinless (as he himself admits later in his argument with his dear friends), he was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” He was not just a good man; he was the best in the whole world. God says so twice (1:8 and 2:3). If ever there was a man who didn’t deserve to suffer, it was Job. Indeed, he didn’t suffer at all prior to the evil intrusion of Satan; he lived a charmed life or, more accurately, a life blessed to overflowing by God. If Job had any flaws, it would have ruined the whole moral point of the story. It is his complete innocence that make his suffering so incomprehensible to him, and to us.
Except that we are let in on a nasty little secret about the reason for his suffering. It all came about because Satan taunted God about the reason for Job’s innocence. Unfortunately, the Lectionary skips the rest of chapter one, where we encounter the strange scene in heaven’s courts and the disasters that subsequently befall Job’s possessions and family on earth. But chapter 2 picks up the story back in that heavenly court with an almost verbatim repetition of God’s conversation with Satan in verses 1-3 of chapter one.
Several things are worthy of note in that conversation. First, Satan “presents himself before Yahweh” along with the other angels. Although he is “the Adversary (the literal meaning of Satan),” he is still there among the angels (or “sons of God” in Hebrew). He is not a gatecrasher; he is a servant, albeit an unwilling one, who must give an account of himself to his Master (whom he despises). Yahweh (note the covenant name of God) is sovereign over this creature.
Second, Satan is constantly at work to ruin God’s good earth. He has been “roaming through the earth and going back and forth on it.” The word translated “back and forth” can refer to the turbulence of the ocean or the disturbance of the air when a whip is cracked. In other words, Satan is always looking to stir up trouble, to disturb the peace of the planet. Or, as I Peter 5:18 put it, he is looking for someone to devour. God is in charge, but there is this other powerful (im)moral agent at work in human affairs.
So, when God points out that there is one person in this troubled world who has not fallen into the Devil’s traps, Satan replies, as he did in the parallel scene in chapter 1, that Job serves God so well because God has made Job’s life so wonderful. Job, says Satan, is guilty of the worst sin of all, putting on a front of faith and obedience while in reality manipulating God to get God’s blessing. As Hywel Jones so eloquently puts Satan’s assumption/accusation: “Piety is self-centered, and so is God! God buys praise by selling protection and Job pays for prosperity by his loyalty and Satan is utterly confident that he can prove it.”
In chapter one, the Evil One says, “You have put a hedge around him, but if you take away that hedge and he loses all your blessings, he will curse you to your face.” In chapter two, Satan repeats his scurrilous charge. Job is in this for himself. As long as has his health, as long as his own skin is untouched, he will pretend to serve you. But touch his skin, and he will curse you to your face.
Third, these first two chapters emphasize the multiple agencies involved in Job’s suffering. In chapter one, Job’s prosperity and family bliss are ripped from him by human enemies and by natural forces. But those things come into his life at the instigation of Satan. Just as soon as God gives Satan permission to touch Job’s possessions and family, disaster strikes. Those things, says Job 1:12 have been put in Satan’s hands. Job 2:7 is even more unmistakable; “Satan afflicted Job with painful sores….” This troublesome book ascribes real power to Satan. All of which means that we cannot blame God for every bad thing that happens to us; there are evil humans and there are natural forces and there is the Adversary who “works us woe.”
But finally, and this is the shock of these opening chapters, it is God who is ultimately in charge of all that befalls us. Yes, it is true that “an enemy has done this,” as the farmer says in Jesus’ parable of the “wheat and the weeds” in Matthew 13:28. But the enemy could not have acted if God had not given him permission. Twice, after being taunted with Job’s allegedly selfish piety, God says, ‘Very well, then, everything he has in in your hands…. Very well, then, he is in your hands….” God puts strict limits on what Satan can do to Job, indicating that God is in control here. But he does allow Satan to inflict terrible suffering on his most righteous servant.
And that fact raises a huge crisis of faith for us. But it didn’t for Job, not at first. Even after he loses everything and writhes in unbearable physical pain and is urged by his wife to give up on his moral and spiritual integrity and curse God, Job will not let go. Contrary to his wife whom he accuses of speaking like a fool, Job demonstrates the heart of biblical wisdom by expressing his “fear of the Lord.” Still centered on God, he says, “Shall we receive good from God, and not trouble.” And, says the writer, “In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.” Satan failed. God won. Job does not serve God for selfish purposes.
But there is still a lot of misery to come. Many questions hang in the air. Does this kind of thing happen all the time? Yes, the Bible does talk about God’s saints going through trials of all kinds (James 1:2ff and I Peter 4:12-13). But does our suffering in trials come as result of God’s conversations with the Adversary? Are we part of a “bet” between God and Satan? Or is the story in Job a one-time thing, a one-off historical object lesson designed to correct some wrong and harmful ideas about the relationship between sin and suffering?
For that matter, did all of this really happen? Or is this just a story made up to teach some big moral and theological points? Is this simply the kind of parable Jesus so often told, “earthly stories with heavenly meanings?” For example, think of the parables of The Prodigal Son or The Wheat and the Weeds. That seems unlikely because Job seems to be understood as an historical person elsewhere in Scripture. But, on the other hand, Job has no genealogy. Everywhere else in Scripture, historical figures are connected to other historical figures by family trees. Does that mean Job didn’t actually exist in history?
Or is Job like Melchizedek in Genesis, who simply appears on the scene and then disappears? This similarity to Melchizedek leads C.J. Williams (The Shadow of the Cross in the Sufferings of Job) to posit that what we have here in Job is typology. Like Adam (who also, obviously, had no genealogy) and Melchizedek, Job is a type of Christ. Williams speaks of the “Messianic Trajectory” of Job, in which Job moves from an exalted state to the bottom of the pit to an even more exalted state, as in Philippians 2:6-11.
Williams says that Job is focused on a very different question than the ones I have raised above. “The basic question of Job is: what will God do to curtail the power of Satan and subdue the Great Adversary who wanders the earth. The ultimate purpose of the trial of Job is to give a divine answer to the rebellious wanderings of Satan. That answer comes in the form of a righteous man who endures great suffering, and who is finally exalted and vindicated at last. The divine answer is intended to put the earth-wandering adversary to shame and to break the strength of his power.” Again, “the trial of Job is a provisional picture of what was to come, meant to give assurance to God’s people, and put Satan on notice.”
Thus, the Gospel lessons we can preach from Job are not just the traditional ones: suffering is not necessarily caused by our own sins; God is in charge even of Satan and the suffering he wreaks on the earth; God in his justice and mercy will make our ending immensely greater than our beginning and anything in between.
True as those points may be, they don’t speak to the issue of why God would engage in this terrible conversation and make this deal with the Devil in the first place. The only answer to that is Jesus Christ. Here’s what I mean. Satan is convinced that Job is in it for himself and so is God (see the quote from Hywel Jones above). Because self-centeredness is at the heart of Satan, he is sure that the same is true of God and those who serve God. That accusation strikes at the heart of all biblical religion. It makes of God a self-centered demon and it makes each of us a selfish worm. By engaging in this wrenching deal, God proves to Satan and all who read this story that Job isn’t in it for himself. And God proves that point about himself on Calvary, where the anti-type of Job offered himself, “the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God (I Peter 3:18).”
What kind of God does the kind of thing we see in Job? As Job later confesses, we don’t understand very much about the workings of God’s mind. But we do understand the workings of his heart, because we have seen the perfectly righteous one suffering for us. Questions will always trouble our minds when we suffer, but the suffering of Christ brings peace to our hearts.
Satan’s diabolical challenge to God in this book of Job reveals his pure hatred of God and all God has made. Some time ago one of my parishioners told me about a movie entitled “The Devil’s Advocate.” It stars Al Pacino as the Devil, operating in modern corporate America. In one unforgettable scene, the Devil disguised as an executive named John Milton (no, I don’t think that name was accidentally chosen) tries to recruit a young businessman played by Keanu Reeves.
Pacino/Milton’s speech about the character of God sounds like Satan in Job, only more verbose and more vicious. (Warning to the preacher—this movie is probably too graphic and blasphemous to be used in a sermon to the average church. I mention it here because it is a modern insight into the Devil’s character and campaign. I suspect you can find a similar speech in Milton’s Paradise Lost; indeed, this movie speech may well have been inspired by Milton’s Devil.)
The Devil says, “God is a prankster. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift, and then what does he do? I swear, for his own amusement… his own private, cosmic gag reel, he sets the rules in opposition. It’s the goof of all time. Look, but don’t touch. Touch, but don’t taste. Taste, but don’t swallow. And while you’re jumping from one foot to the next, what is God doing. Laughing… He’s a sadist. Worship him? Never!” To which Reeves replies, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, right?”
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
I am writing this piece a day after the gut-wrenching spectacle of the Kavanaugh hearing. If you ever wondered about the context and meaning of Psalm 26, just think of it on the lips of either one of the witnesses who testified before the Judiciary Committee. Think of Blasey Ford’s hesitant, earnest, and searing testimony of sexual assault, and Kavanaugh’s fierce, angry, and personally aggrieved testimony of innocence. Who are we going to believe? Who can declare where the truth lies? Only God knows. “Vindicate me, O Lord….” This is the prayer of the betrayed, the falsely accused, the victim of evildoers.
To many in your congregation, this may Psalm seem odd, if not downright offensive. The Psalmist addresses God by declaring his blamelessness and innocence. In addressing God, we are far more likely to confess our sinfulness and blameworthiness. We are taught that we are all sinners, through and through. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
We need to imagine a situation many of us have faced in one way or another. Like Judge Kavanaugh, someone has accused you of wrongdoing of which you are believe yourself innocent. Or, like Dr. Ford, you have been sexually violated and your story has been denied or ignored. Or, you have been treated unjustly or spitefully by your co-workers, boss, or friend, or even a member of your congregation. That’s the kind of situation the Psalmist was experiencing.
The Psalmist’s claim of blamelessness is not that he is sinless, or totally innocent of any wrong-doing, but that he is innocent of the particular charge that has been alleged against him. He is claiming his integrity, not his complete and consistent perfection of behavior.
Just as many of us felt watching the hearing, no one can look into the heart of these two people. There is no conclusive evidence that justifies either one. We may each have leanings one way or the other, but no proof. That’s often the way it is in life.
But the Psalmist knows that there is one who searches the heart. There is one who can properly judge our guilt of innocence. God is the judge of all the earth, and God knows what we have done or not done, down the the the most hidden thoughts and motives.
The Psalmist knows that he is not truly capable of rendering a final judgement on his own innocence or guilt.
Test me, Lord, and try me,
examine my heart and my mind;
for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love
and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness. (vss. 2-3)
The Psalmist is placing himself in the hands of God. Let God be my judge, not me or my accusers. He can do this because he loves God and knows God’s love, and trusts in God’s faithfulness. He can place himself in God’s hands not only because God may declare his innocence, but also because God is the one who can and will forgive his guilt should God make clear his wrongdoing.
The Psalmist goes on to declare his commitment to God’s righteousness.
I do not sit with the deceitful,
nor do I associate with hypocrites.
I abhor the assembly of evildoers
and refuse to sit with the wicked.
Here again, we raise questions about these claims of righteousness. Is this the way we should talk to God, proclaiming our goodness?
We should not read this as a claim of total innocence. The Psalmist is describing his commitment to a righteous life. I do not countenance lies, or engage in hypocritical behavior, or hang around people bent on evil. All of us should be able to declare this commitment to God.
I have lately been bothered by the ways in which Christian faith has been reduced to a gospel of mere forgiveness without a corresponding commitment to righteous living. It’s what Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace.” The gospel is transformative, it changes our behavior patterns, it gives us a love for the good. The fruit of the work of the Spirit in our lives ought to be evident, even to ourselves.
It’s clear what gives the Psalmist this sense of integrity, his love a devotion to God and to the assembly of God’s people. He “washes his hands in innocence.” This phrase reminds me of something that happens each Sunday in my church. After the confession of sin, water is poured into the baptismal font as a remembrance of our baptism. In that act, we both “wash our hands in innocence” through the grace of baptism, but we commit ourselves to “live wet” in the identity of one who has been baptized into Christ, the one perfect human being.
Notice too, how the Psalmist acknowledges his own weakness. He not only declares his righteousness against whatever false accusation has been made against him, he knows that he is also liable to fall into sin. So, he asks God for protection and guidance.
Do not take away my soul along with sinners,
my life with those who are bloodthirsty,
in whose hands are wicked schemes,
whose right hands are full of bribes. (vss. 9-10)
But notice that this is said in context of the worship of God’s people. The Psalmist declares, “I love the house where you live, the place where your glory dwells…. My feet stand on level ground; in the great congregation I will praise the Lord. (vss 8 and 12) It’s not only his faith in God that guides his life of integrity, but the community of God’s people. This serves as a reminder of how important regular worship is for living the Christian life. We are built for community. Standing alone in our integrity does not suffice. We need to stand with others. We need the encouragement, the example, the instruction of the Christian community and its worship.
We all live out of a story. It could be the story of the marketplace, the mall, the nation, or the stories that form us from binge-watching on Netflix. These stories, James K. A. Smith calls them secular liturgies, shape the ways we think and act more than we know.
That’s why it’s so important to love God’s house, and to immerse ourselves in its worship. The worship of the church, its liturgy and sacraments, is meant to drench us in the story of God, the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Coming back to this grounding story our lives and the life of this world week after week strengthens us to live with integrity as the baptized children of God, the people who are citizens of a kingdom that is not from this world.
Preaching the Text:
Perhaps the commentary above also might suggest how to move through the text in a sermon:
1.)You may begin with a situation of betrayal, false accusation, or hurt. Whether or not you use the Kavanaugh hearing as I did above, probably depends on your congregation, but it is on people’s minds, It certainly must be used carefully, and not to render judgement one way or another.
Explain that the Psalmist is not declaring himself totally innocent of any wrongdoing or sin, but stating the bent, the direction, the commitment of his life. Should not any Christian be able to say that they are committed to life of righteousness, truth and justice, even though they may not always live up to it in every circumstance.
The Psalmist does not seek to justify himself only before people, but turns to God. The only true vindication we can have is in God’s hands. It is the vindication of his knowing our hearts, and the vindication of his forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We do not achieve this righteous life on our own, but through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. And one of the most important ways we stay in the domain of the Spirit’s work is through the worship of the church, where we are immersed in God’s story, the story out of which we live our lives.
2). I have always found that the most powerful way to read and pray the Psalms to think of them coming from Jesus lips. We know that Jesus did pray the Psalms, especially on the cross (Psalm 22 and 31), so we can certainly imagine him praying Psalm 26 as well– “Vindicate me, O God….” He is the only person who could pray this prayer with complete blamelessness and integrity, and only through his death on the cross do we find our own vindication.
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Author: Doug Bratt
Until relatively recently I’d never preached a series of sermons on the book of Hebrews. That’s partly because I’ve struggled to relate it to life in the 20th and 21st centuries. Hebrews has always seemed to me to be so impractical and theological. So I’ve shied away from much of its talk about things like sacrifices, ceremonies and rules.
The change in our culture has heightened the challenge of systematically preaching on Hebrews. When I was ordained, there was still a kind of cultural residue of Christian awareness, if not outright faith. Many of the people we knew were at least somewhat familiar with Jesus.
Now, however, virtually all of us live in very multi-religious settings. Many people to whom we proclaim Hebrews 1 and 2 live and work alongside people who couldn’t tell them much about Jesus. It sometimes seems that the only time Jesus’ name gets even mentioned outside the Church is by Christian radicals or in profanity.
Yet it isn’t just culture that has changed. Most people recognize the Church has changed as well. It isn’t just that we’re more contemporary, multi-cultural or liberal. It’s also that our awareness of basic Christian doctrine has apparently shrunk. We’ve largely lost track of Jesus as anything more than a nice guy who helps us when we’re in trouble. That makes some of Hebrews’ foundational terms and illustrations highly mysterious to our contemporaries.
So perhaps it’s time to take a careful look at Jesus again. Maybe this is a good time to let the book of Hebrews remind us not just about what he came to do, but also about just who he is. As those who proclaim the Lectionary Epistle do that over the next few weeks, we might invite our hearers to think of Jesus as a kind of lopsided smile.
Not just for our reactions to the joy, peace and sense of purpose Jesus brings into our lives. But also because, as Tom Long, to whom I owe many ideas for this Starter, points out, while the Son of God initially lived in the heavenly realm’s glorious splendor, he gave all of that up to become like us in every way. Once he’d completed his earthly work, however, Jesus returned to heaven’s glory. It’s what Long calls the “parabola of salvation,” but what I call “the Jesus slightly lopsided smile.”
Hebrews 1 and 2 begin by reminding readers that the Son of God, the second person of Trinity, is what 1:3 calls “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Then, however, Hebrews notes that the Son’s trajectory sweeps downward from the heavenly realm into painful human experience. Jesus was made, insists chapter 2:9, “a little lower than the angels.” Then, however, Hebrews’ Son’s arc climbs upward again. “After he had provided purification for sins,” says chapter 1:3, “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
There you have what I call the Son of God “slightly lopsided smile.” He eternally existed in the glory of the heavenly realm. However, for our sakes the Son of God gave that all up. Yet once he completed that task, God’s Son returned to the glory of the heavenly realm.
Yet why did the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ even give up all of that glory and splendor in the first place? Hebrews 1:1’s Preacher begins to answer that by noting, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways.”
God, after all, loves to speak. Yet God doesn’t just drone on in the same way at us. God speaks to God’s people in different ways. Those ways include, says the Preacher, speaking through the “prophets.” God historically spoke in ways we could understand through people like Moses, Rahab, Deborah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos.
But God’s beloved children didn’t listen. And even when we did listen, we quickly forgot what God said to us. Or simply disobeyed what God said. In fact, we chose to listen to the evil one and his allies. So while God has always talked a lot, God’s people stopped listening to God in any meaningful way.
That seems to have been an issue for the Preacher’s first Hebrew audience. He, after all, reminds them to “pay more careful attention … to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (2:1). The Preacher conveys the sense that his first readers, like all of God’s people, basically tuned out what they heard from God. God’s children naturally show we’re not listening to what we’re hearing by acting as though we don’t hear it.
You might even argue that’s the root of so much of what’s wrong in our culture. Our leaders are rude, greedy or both because we aren’t listening to God. We neglect or abuse God’s good creation because we aren’t listening to God. We harangue, hate and harm those we think of as our enemies because we aren’t listening to God.
So did God simply stop talking or just scream at us even louder? No, God instead, in one sense, started speaking baby talk. “In these last days,” the Preacher says in 1:2, God “has spoken to us by his Son.” God bends over what a colleague calls “this violent playpen we call home” to speak to us again. This time, however, God doesn’t just talk baby talk to us. God also comes and at least initially talks to us as a baby.
Soren Kierkegaard told a parable about a king who loved one of his beautiful servants. While he wanted to tell her about his love, he wished to do so in a way that would let her freely love him. So the king traded in his royal robes for peasants’ clothing and moved into a village near his servant. There the king courted her so that they gradually got to know each other.
Eventually the servant girl fell in love with this man she assumed was a peasant just like her. At that point her king had to tell her just who he was. But because she knew him so well, she could hear him speaking about his love for her in ways that she could understand.
Why did the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ give up heaven’s glory to move into a “village” near us? Because he wanted us to hear God speaking in ways that we would not only understand, but also gladly live by.
So those who want to hear what God’s saying look at Jesus. God’s people watch him care for little children, scold religious leaders and eat with sinners. Those who want their children and grandchildren, as well as nieces and nephews to hear God speaking help them hear Jesus talking about God’s kingdom, love, service and even praying for our enemies.
Of course, we live in a noisy culture in which much talk clamors for our attention. What’s more, many of us also love to talk. So to hear God talking, God’s adopted sons and daughters may have to at least temporarily ignore those other noises. To pay more careful attention to what we’ve heard, God’s beloved sons and daughters may also need to just be quiet for a little while.
After all, once upon a time, God spoke to us through prophets. God gave God’s Spirit to help God’s people understand and live by what those prophets said. Now, however, God has also spoken and still speaks to us by God’s Son. However, God also gives us the Holy Spirit to help us not only pay attention to what we’ve heard, but also live by what that Son says.
That’s one reason why the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is such an important part of the rhythm of godly living. The Holy Spirit, after all, uses it to, in a sense, speak to us about God’s hatred of evil as well as the depth of God’s love for us. The Spirit also uses Communion’s bread, wine and juice’s means of grace to equip us to pay attention to God talking to us because God loves us so much.
In his fascinating book, The Man Which Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sacks tells the story of Jimmie who remains forever stuck in 1945. Jimmie is a very nice, pleasant person with whom you can have a nice conversation. But if you leave the room after even a two-hour conversation and then return a bit later, he’ll greet you as if for the first time.
This vacuum leaves Jimmie with minimal joy because it locks him in what a colleague calls “an ever-changing but finally meaningless, present moment.” With nothing old to ever look back on and nothing new ever to look forward to, joy is largely impossible.
But there is one time when Jimmie shows something like joy, one moment when the vacant look on his face is replaced with something that looks completeness and calmness. That’s when he takes communion in chapel.
When Sacks mourned that Jimmie’s disease had stolen his soul, the nuns who care for him told him to come back for communion. When the author returned, he saw Jimmie fully participate in the service, recite the familiar lines, say the prayers, and then go forward to receive the wafer. As he did, Jimmie’s face was a picture of calm and even joy.
God was at work in Jimmie in ways that made him what my colleague Scott Hoezee calls “a living, breathing, walking, talking display window of a very surprising grace.” Sacks knew there was no good neurological explanation for this. “But perhaps,” says Hoezee in a reflection on Jimmie’s remarkable story, “Grace has its own reason.”