October 05, 2020
The Proper 23A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 22:1-14 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 32:1-14 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 23 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Philippians 4:1-9 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT lesson: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 97 (part of Lord’s Day 35)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In a seminar on Matthew’s gospel, Tom Long pointed out that in Matthew, it’s never a good thing to be addressed as “friend.” Every time someone is called a friend in Matthew, what follows is not pleasant! Jesus himself was referred to as a “friend” by the religious authorities in Matthew 11 but it was no compliment: they accused Jesus of being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” In the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, the master of the vineyard overhears the grumbling and grousing of the 12-hour workers over being paid the same as the 1-hour folks. “I am not being unfair to you, friend” the master says. But there is an edge to that—the grumblers were no friends of the owner! Later in Matthew we find the single most poignant such instance when, having been kissed by the traitor Judas, Jesus asks him, “Friend, what have you come for?”
But a close second to that final devastating use of “friend” may well be here in Matthew 22 when a hapless wedding guest is addressed as “Friend” right before being most definitively thrown out on his ear!
When you preach on Matthew, don’t choose “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” for the service!
The concluding incident in this parable is the second shock of the narrative, the first having come when the king orders the complete annihilation of those who spurned his invitation to dinner. All in all, then, the king of this parable is not someone to be trifled with! Whatever is going on as symbolized by this parable, the stakes are clearly on the high side.
Because the center of this parable displays the reach of God’s gospel to the least likely of people—a theme Matthew has been hammering away at since his opening genealogy and then the appearance of also the Magi—it is fairly easy to see how and why this is finally a parable full of grace. But that grace is nestled in pretty closely to judgment as well. And just here is a tension for us preachers.
All of us like to proclaim grace. Indeed, I would contend it is our #1 task as preachers to do just that. We are not supposed to morph into Oprah or Dr. Phil mode when in the pulpit, dispensing good advice or pithy moral aphorisms meant to inspire people to aspire to greater things in their lives (even though plenty of preachers in recent years seem quite content to do exactly that). Nor is it our first task to preach Bad News sermons of finger-wagging condemnation or in which we Christians are encouraged to take on morally superior airs to all the greasy losers all around us in society. Too many sermons do make it sound as though the difference between the saved and the unsaved is that the former group does better things, generates more moral wattage, and so attracted God’s attention in the first place on account of all the merit points folks had racked up on their own. Too often sermons make it sound like it’s finally up to us either to get saved or to stay saved.
No, no. We preach grace. We preach the supreme merits of Jesus. That is the Gospel. That is what we preachers were ordained to proclaim.
But does that mean we may never talk about the other side of the coin? Does it mean we should not mention the fact that if people spurn the Gospel or refuse grace or refuse to turn from their selfish ways that they may well face a dire fate? There is no question that Jesus exuded grace. There is no question that far from being afraid of him, sinners and those shunned by the religious establishment of the day found Jesus attractive and welcoming. And there is no question that salvation is indeed a free gift such that at the end of the cosmic day—as in this parable—more people and not fewer people will come, and a good many of those who end up at the king’s banquet table may well be those whom religious types had long ago written off.
There will be surprises. But that’s grace for you.
But the same Jesus back to whom all of that can be traced was not averse to mixing into all that good stuff darker notes of judgment and ultimacy. It is possible in some sense to tell the God of all Grace to take a hike, and if someone does that in one way, shape, or form, the consequences are real and trend toward the dire end of the spectrum. What Jesus came to offer the world was the most precious thing God could offer: a divine sacrifice of such gargantuan dimensions we’ll just possibly never finish plumbing the depths of a love so great. But precisely because of the value and the beauty and the majesty of all that, to have it rejected, spurned, or chalked up as being of no account is no small matter.
Augustine once discussed the idea—current among some critics of Christianity in his day—that the notion of an eternal punishment for sins committed in this temporal world was patently unfair, if not sheer nonsense. How could anything people could manage to do across a few score of years be so bad as to warrant a punishment into eternity? But Augustine countered that we don’t tend to mete out punishments even on this earth based on chronological distinctions. It may take a man no more than four minutes to rape a woman. It takes a matter of seconds to pull a gun, fire it, and take a life. But no judge or jury ever would claim that given the short duration of the crime in question, a sentence of years and years is unjust. It is the monstrosity of the crime, the value of what was lost or taken, that leads to a just punishment.
I’ll not comment here on what we should think about the prospect of eternal punishment but let’s indeed pick up on Augustine’s notion that we properly assess things in life based on what is at stake in a given instance. In the case of Matthew 22, what is at stake is the Gospel, the free invitation of grace to sit at the king’s table of grace. What’s at stake is of infinite, precious value. Yes, you can receive these glorious riches by grace alone but if you cannot be moved by that same grace—if you look at what is proffered and find it less interesting than other things that are occupying your heart and mind and life—then the result cannot be a simple shrug of the divine shoulders. Offer a person a chocolate chip cookie and have him turn it down and it’s no big deal. Offer to donate a kidney that he needs to have his life saved only to have him spurn also that and your eyes widen at such a thing.
Even as preachers, we may well undermine the very beauty and glory of the Gospel if we leave the impression that there are few, if any, severe consequences for rejecting the Christ of God and the invitation to come to the banquet.
Dale Bruner is at his usual trenchant self in commenting on this passage by highlighting for us the interplay in Matthew 22 between the concepts of being “called” (the Greek kaleo, which in many translations is rendered “invited”) and the concept of being “chosen” or “elected” (the Greek elekto as in verse 14 where many are called/invited but only a few are in the end elected). In verse 3, the servants are told to go out and invite those who were invited (literally in the Greek, to call those who had been called). Apparently there was a general invitation issued and when the banquet was ready, those who had been so invited are summoned. But in the end most of those initial invitees declined, revealing that although called, they had not been elected or chosen. But Bruner reminds us to be cautious. Matthew’s use of the concept of election is not the same as the Apostle Paul’s later use of it. For Paul election is the source of a person’s salvation. For Matthew election is the goal or end-result of truly responding to God’s call with a joyful life of gratitude.
Tom Long once related something that, as he himself admitted, may sound like the set-up for a joke but that is actually a real story. He said that one day Barbara Brown Taylor, Fred Craddock, and he all attended an Atlanta Braves baseball game (“Three homileticians walked into a bar and . . .”). Unbeknownst to them and to others in the stands that day, a drunken man several rows ahead of them was apparently causing problems. The next thing they knew, several burly men wearing bright yellow shirts with the word “SECURITY” written across their backs barreled down the aisle, lifted this apparently troublesome man from his seat, and carried him clean out of the stadium. The crowd sat in stunned silence until finally the somewhat high-pitched voice of Fred Craddock piped up to say, “Obviously he didn’t have a wedding garment on!”
Probably to some of the people there at the ballpark that day, the reference to a “wedding garment” seemed to come from out of nowhere and made no sense to them. If you do not know this parable in Matthew 22, then how could you know what Craddock’s wisecrack meant? But really, even within this parable, this mention of a wedding garment comes as a bit of a surprise in that such attire had not been mentioned earlier. It’s even a little hard to know what it means or what it stands for.
But at very least it may mean this: the party is finally God’s party and everyone there is there by grace alone. You had to be clothed with grace to be there and no matter what you may think of the wedding garment of grace when it is handed to you, you either put it on or risk getting pitched out of the party. There is no other way to be at the party without wearing the attire the master assigns. Those who think they got there some other way or who think they can do without the clothing of grace everyone else is wearing will soon find out how wrong they are.
Author: Stan Mast
In this text, Paradise has almost been regained. Oh, yes, Israel is in a dry desert, not a lush garden. But so much of what had been wrong has been put right. Israel has been released from the house of bondage. Their covenant Lord is leading them to the land of milk and honey, providing food and drink and guidance along the way. He has given them the basic rules for liberated living, and then he added other laws designed to make life better than they had ever known.
Best of all, God has revealed all the arrangements for enjoying his own Presence on a regular basis: instructions for the Tabernacle where he would dwell, offerings and festivals designed to regulate entrance into his presence, and the ordination of priests who would help them meet their loving Lord. All of that re-establishment of Shalom is concluded by these words: “When Yahweh finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18).”
Awesome! That should have settled it for Israel. After Shalom had been shattered by human sin in the Garden, God has nearly restored it in the desert. But then it was like Genesis 3 happened all over again. What we have in Genesis 32 is the Fall of Israel, followed in subsequent chapters by Yahweh’s fierce but ultimately gracious restoration of his sinful people. It’s a remarkable story filled with remarkable things or, more accurately, strange things.
Moses is still up on Mount Sinai in the presence of God, but for Israel he might as well be on the moon speaking to little green men. He is out of sight and, so, out of mind. Or is it Israel that is out of its mind? Just days after receiving the Ten Commandments, which begin with prohibitions against other gods and graven images, Israel frantically demands, “make us gods….” So anxious are they to have access to God that they immediately violate the most basic laws in the covenant with their God. How strange!
And look at who is facilitating their idolatrous lunacy! It’s Aaron, Moses’ brother and aide and the priest just appointed by God. If anyone should have known better, it was him. But upon hearing Israel’s cry for “gods,” he gathers all their gold ear rings, makes an idol in the shape of a calf, builds an altar before the Golden Calf, and then calls for a feast “to Yahweh.” The people respond by shouting “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” Then, these hopelessly deluded people celebrate their gods/God with a combination of the sacrifices God has commanded and the sexual bacchanalia for which the pagans were famous. How strange!
Could things get any worse? Oh yes, much worse, when the God who has been revealing his gracious will to Moses suddenly (?) notices what Israel is doing. How does their covenant Lord and loving redeemer respond? He reveals Israel’s sin to Israel’s human leader and immediately disassociates himself from them. “Go down, Moses, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt have become corrupt.” Notice, “your,” not “my!” So soon after I have redeemed them and given them my law, they have turned away from me and done exactly the opposite of what I commanded them.
This episode with the Calf is not an isolated incident. “I have seen them for who they really are, a stiff-necked people.” They aren’t a basically good people who just stumble a bit now and then. These are fundamentally rebellious people who regularly disobey my laws and demonstrate their lack of loyalty to me. Well, I have had it with them. The God who swore on oath to be God to the descendants of the patriarchs forever now says, “Now leave me alone, so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.” Then I will start over with you, Moses, and “make you into a great nation.” How strange!
The strangeness continues when Moses refuses to leave God alone to do his angry will. Instead of God reversing human sin and suffering (as signaled so often in the Bible with two words, “but God”), our text shows us Moses reversing God’s determination to punish sin (as signaled with two words, “but Moses”.) Moses seeks “the favor of Yahweh his God” by trying to talk God out of his announced plan of destruction.
Imagine a human arguing directly with God’s revealed will, and with what boldness! Moses argues that God is being unreasonable in punishing his own people whom he has just brought up out of Egypt. “Why should your anger burn…?” Why are you being so unreasonable? And what about your reputation, Lord? Why would you want to give the Egyptians the opportunity to speak ill of your redemption? What will the neighbors say, O Lord?
What about what you said, Lord, way back in the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? You promised to make them and their descendants as numerous as the stars. You promised to bring their children to the Promised Land. And you not only promised; you swore an oath on yourself that you would keep your promise. Moses calls the Almighty, All Knowing Creator of Heaven and Earth to “remember,” as though God could ever forget. How strange!
Moses fairly demands that his Lord “turn,” and “relent,” imperatives usually spoken to sinners, and the Holy One of Israel “relented,” literally, “changed his mind.” Contrary to what he had just said he was going to do, Yahweh allows himself to be talked into a new course of action; “he did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” God changed his mind? What about the doctrine of divine immutability so ingrained in classic theology? How strange!
Yes, this remarkable story is full of strangeness. But that’s because the Bible always tells the truth about things, like sin and idolatry and God and redemption. And the truth is that things are not simple; they are strangely complex, diabolically and divinely complex. Take sin, for example. It makes no sense; it is foolish and destructive and nearly irresistible. Why would Israel, having just received the Royal Law of Liberty, turn right around and violate its most basic demands? Because sinners want to do what seems right to them, regardless of what God says. It’s crazy!
And take idolatry, for another example. When the one true God, “immortal, invisible, God only wise,” tells us who he is and how to worship him, why would humans invent other gods and make images using parts of creation? Because people want gods they can see and handle and carry with them and, most of all, control. From the beginning of the human fall into sin, humans have wanted to be like god, knowing good and evil, in control of their own lives, even though their idolatrous efforts always end in ruin. It’s crazy!
And take God, for another example. People want a god they can fully understand, completely wrap their heads around, even as they carry god in their hands, a nice tidy god they put in their backpacks or set on their mantle. “This is your God, O Israel,” right here in front of you! No, it’s not, because God is not manageable, predictable, or comprehensible. Yes, God wants to bless his children, and God is faithful to his promises, and God has revealed himself to his children so that they can relate to him. But God is not simple, any more than his creatures are.
So, this remarkable story gives us a vivid insight into the complexity of God. Redeemer and Judge, Lord and Avenger, loving and angry, all knowing but open to human approach, immutable but responsive to human entreaty. As the New Interpreters Bible puts it, “the tension between mercy that forgives and sovereignty that will not be mocked” is central in the Bible. This “tension is what makes Moses intercession so dangerous, so urgent, and so future producing.” This is not crazy. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The human sin that ruins life and makes God so angry has been forgiven because of the mediatorial work of Jesus Christ. This story shows us a clear foreshadowing of that work in the audacious argument of Moses. As the NIB summarizes, “The terrible theological distortion enacted by Aaron has been overcome by the daring intervention of Moses.” Just so, Jesus was sent by our complex covenant Lord to stand between the crazy sin of humanity and the threat of divine punishment. Unlike Moses in our story, Jesus didn’t just talk God out of it. He took it all upon himself, as Moses offered to do later in this story (cf. verse 32, “please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written”).
The story is strange but wonderful, because it gives us a true picture of ourselves and God and the way of salvation for all who will turn to the one Mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus (I Timothy 2:5).
The combination of strangeness and craziness, terror and wonder, that permeate this story runs through much of modern literature and entertainment. I think of the marvelous novel, The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber. It is about an English pastor who is sent to the planet of Oasis to teach it reclusive inhabitants the tenets of basic Christianity. They become enamored with the Bible, which they call “The Book of Strange New Things.” Or I think of the wildly popular science fiction horror TV program entitled “Stranger Things,” which combines science and the supernatural. Who can resist such strangeness? Well, I can, but my point is that people love strangeness and craziness in this upsetting time in history.
Thank God for the awesome wonder of redemption through the mediation of Christ! “O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works thy hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed…. But when I think that God, his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in, that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin; then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art….” (Hymn by Stuart Hine)
Author: Scott Hoezee
This is now at least the third time Psalm 23 has popped up in the Year A Lectionary and across also calendar 2020. The first time was during Lent and the second time a couple weeks after Easter. The first time was before we knew the world was going to get turned upside-down due to COVID-19 and the second time was in an upside-down world that even then few of us could imagine would last in some fashion all the way into at least early 2021. Indeed, that truth is only slowly beginning to sink in for lots of us even now in the Fall season of 2020.
Psalm 23 hasn’t changed across 2020 any more than it has changed across the millennia this poem has been known in Jewish and Christian circles. But the world around Psalm 23 changes all the time, and every now and again—as in 2020—those changes come so rapidly and are of so radical a nature as to make the acoustics of this familiar psalm seem new all over again.
When I preached on this psalm years ago as a pastor, the title of my sermon was “Everybody Needs a Shepherd.” But most of the time we agree with that idea only in theory. In reality most days we are pretty sure we can operate independently without any shepherd minding after us thank you very much. And then . . . we suddenly find ourselves looking for help. For a shepherd. For a Good Shepherd.
Maybe right now it’s not the green pastures and still waters parts of Psalm 23 that leap out at us but the parts about walking through shadowy valleys. Maybe it’s the shadow of death that leaps out at us. Because all across the globe and right down to our local neighborhoods and most certainly cutting right through the middle of all our congregations there is the fear of death. There is a sense that a shadow has descended that we cannot on our own quite dispel.
One way or another, we are experiencing a valley time. For some of us the valley is dim with inconvenience and uncertainty and a few things that are testing our patience. But for others of us the valley has gone all-but completely dark: someone we know is very sick. Someone we loved has died.
But Psalm 23 tells us even so to fear no evil. Well, easier said than done right now. Easier said than done.
Since the last time we had this psalm on the Lectionary radar, other things have happened that we did not see coming yet near the end of April, like the killing of George Floyd that, when combined with a killing like Breonna Taylor, led to a racial reckoning and a summer of unrest that seemed unprecedented. And on top of all that, we are in a presidential election year in the United States that is taking place in a deeply riven partisan environment that is so brittle (if not toxic) that fears of post-election violence are palpable and perhaps not far-fetched. Worse yet, simple things like mask-wearing have become politicized even in congregations that are struggling with what to do about Sunday worship gatherings. And not a few of my fellow pastors (like most of you reading this) have become the punching bag for people’s fears and frustrations, their anger and their uncertainty.
What keeps us sheep going as we stumble through these valleys? The rod and the staff of the shepherd. They say that unlike cattle who need to be driven from behind if the herd is going to get moving and headed in the right direction, sheep prefer to be led. But sometimes the shepherd must need to walk backwards a bit—or perhaps alongside the flock—because how else can he use his shepherd’s crook to keep us on level paths without our falling off to one side or the other?
But for us as Christians who cannot help but read Psalm 23 in the backdrop of John 10 and Jesus as the Good Shepherd, it’s not just the presence of the Shepherd’s crook that comforts us but our knowledge of how very often this Shepherd has been through this valley himself and on our behalf. If you look closely, the scars of his past valley experiences are visible all over him—hands, feet, side. And the Shepherd’s crook looks oddly enough to be in the shape of a cross.
And here’s the weirdest thing: the Shepherd apparently was himself a Lamb once too. A slain Lamb according to John’s vision in Revelation. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” John the Baptist said, coining a phrase found nowhere else in all Scripture. But that Lamb had to go through something quite horrific—a very deep and very dark valley—to take away that sin and blaze a path toward a Life that could not be taken away.
Is it any wonder that the Lord Jesus who entered death ahead of us in order to blaze a trail to eternal life picked up on this pastoral image in John 10 to say, “I am the good shepherd and my sheep know my voice.” Jesus is the one who has revealed that if all along in this world death has been casting a kind of shadow, maybe it’s only because a brighter light has been shining behind death all along–that’s how you get a shadow after all: a light shines behind something. Jesus is the shepherd who knows the way through death to get at that light.
Like many Christians, I first memorized Psalm 23 in Kindergarten. But back then I knew little of dark valleys. And when you get to also that part of the poem about God’s preparing a table in the presence of one’s enemies . . . well, if I had any enemies back then, I didn’t know it and could not have named any.
But I am older now and so are you. Now we’ve got enemies, including an invisible virus that is stalking us like we are prey. Now we are altogether too acquainted with that final enemy named death. Now more than ever we need a shepherd to guide us through death’s chill shadow in this dangerous world. Life is not easy. It’s not all still waters and green grass. We wish it were and we pine for the day when maybe that will describe our every waking moment. But until that day comes, we can know and celebrate again and again that the Lord is our shepherd. With this great and good shepherd of the sheep with us, we lack nothing because in his presence we already have everything.
This is not an easy truth to be declared lightly in this time. No pastor preaching to an empty sanctuary or into a camera lens needs to be told that right now probably. It’s not an easy truth. But it is The Truth. It is the Gospel’s Truth.
Everybody needs a shepherd.
Thanks be to God, we’ve got One.
As mentioned in this sermon starter, I am told that unlike cattle who like to be driven from behind, sheep prefer to be led. Sheep apparently have an uncanny ability to form a trusting relationship with their shepherds. I read sometime back that a sleeping flock of sheep will not stir if their own shepherd steps gingerly through their midst. But let a stranger so much as set foot near the flock, and the sheep will startle awake as though a firecracker had gone off. In fact, in the Middle East to this day, you may see three or four Bedouin shepherds all arrive at a watering hole around sundown. Within minutes these different flocks of sheep mix in together to form one big amalgamated flock. But the various shepherds don’t worry about this mix-up because each shepherd knows that when it’s time to go, all he has to do is give his own distinctive whistle, call, or play his little shepherd’s flute in his own unique fashion, and all of his sheep will separate themselves from the mixed-up herd to follow the shepherd they’ve come to trust.
Author: Doug Bratt
Few of us will be sad to watch the year of our Lord 2020 draw to a close at the end of December. It has been, after all, to say the least, a most stressful year. COVID-19 has wreaked almost unimaginable havoc on countless lives, jobs and institutions. North Americans are struggling with racial injustice and renewed calls for racial justice. Americans are in the midst of the most heated presidential campaign in my memory.
Those who proclaim Philippians 4 do so knowing that our contemporaries are watching very closely how Christians respond to such stress. From my limited perspective we’re doing only “okay.” While some of Jesus’ followers are responding to the various crises in amazingly Christ-like ways, Christians’ responses especially to those with whose politics we disagree sometimes seem little different than our culture’s.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s beginning refers to stress within the Philippian church community. In it Paul alludes to some kind of quarrel between Euodia and Syntyche. While we don’t know the nature of their dispute, Paul considers it important enough to speak to the whole church about it. So it’s probably not the ancient equivalent of a disagreement about what kind of cookies to serve during church fellowship time.
The apostle reminds Euodia and Syntyche that God expects the same kinds of things of church leaders as those we lead. There is no double standard for church leaders and members. Leaders, after all, have perhaps a unique power to tear churches apart and destroy their unity.
Yet it’s interesting that Paul addresses the tension between two members of the Philippian church in a letter he sends not just to them, but also to their entire church. Perhaps that’s because he expects the entire church community to come alongside those women in order to help them reconcile. To be part of the body of Christ is, after all, to act like a body in working for peace within that body. Since members of the church have contended with the apostle for the gospel, the apostle challenges them to work to end the women’s contending with each other.
But those who proclaim Philippians 4 may want to ask ourselves and explore with our hearers just why Paul so quickly after that invites his readers to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Why do that tension and a call to rejoice seem almost “joined at the hip”? Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers may want to explore the link between stress or division and joy.
After all, the Bible is full of commands to “Rejoice.” Yet it isn’t necessarily calling us to “be happy.” After all, the Scriptures’ calls to rejoice sometimes seem to come in the least happy contexts.
Consider this morning’s text, for example. It’s not just that Euodia and Syntyche are quarrelling and so, presumably, unhappy. It’s also that the Paul who writes to the Philippians also seems to be in an unhappy situation. He’s, after all, in prison awaiting a trial that may lead to his execution. The apostle also worries about the spiritual health of the young churches he has started.
Yet Paul fills Philippians’ short letter with 14 references to joy and rejoicing. Those calls, in some ways, climax with our text’s: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” So though he is deeply threatened by powerful people, the apostle can be joyful as well as call others to be joyful. He’s content whether he lives or dies, whether he’s well fed or hungry, whether he’s safe or in danger.
Yet how can Paul call people, including those who are quarrelling, to “Rejoice” in the face of great adversity? How can God expect those who live in the dark shadow cast by both a pandemic and racial injustice, as well as struggle with things like joblessness, mental and physical illness?
Karl Barth once called “joy a continual defiant ‘Nevertheless’.” It’s a reminder that the biblical concept of joy isn’t based on circumstances. So some of our hearers are happy. They’re celebrating new babies or new marriages, healthy relationships and satisfactory jobs.
Others plan to celebrate upcoming holidays with family members and friends in good physical, mental and economic health. So some of us find that we can rejoice in the good things God has graciously showered on us. Yet others struggle to be happy in these difficult times. We worry about our health and jobs, families and friends, as well as our country and world’s future.
So do does this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson call only God’s happy adopted sons and daughters to “rejoice in the Lord”? The answer is “No!” The imprisoned apostle insists that suffering Christians too can rejoice.
For years I’ve looked for a synonym for the word “rejoice.” I think I’ve found two. Those who are experiencing God’s blessings can “be happy.” Those who are struggling, however, can still “take heart” or “have courage.”
After all, as Paul reminds Philippi’s Christians, whether we’re glad or troubled, “the Lord is near.” Whether Jesus’ followers live in freedom or in some kind of captivity, the Lord is near. Whether our culture is healthy or sick, the Lord is near.
Whether our health is solid or shaky, God’s dearly beloved people can rejoice because the Lord is near. Whether our finances are booming or busting, we can rejoice because the Lord is near. Whether Jesus’ adopted siblings feel alone or surrounded by people, we can rejoice because the Lord is near.
As David Bartlett notes, we can rejoice that the Lord is near especially in two ways. The God who, in Christ, promised never to leave or abandon us is close at hand, by the Holy Spirit. Even our most difficult circumstances can’t wrench Jesus’ followers away from either the Lord or God’s love.
As a result, whether God’s adopted sons and daughters are trudging through dark valleys or hiking through beautiful mountains, God is right with us. Whether we have to swim through flooded waters or bathe in soothing waters, God stays with us.
The Lord is near in the comfort the Holy Spirit gives. The Lord is near in the loving prayers and presence of other believers. The Lord is also near in the trust God grants us that God is working even through difficult circumstances for good.
However, Paul also recognized that Jesus’ followers can rejoice that the Lord is near because Jesus is coming again very soon. When Christ returns, God will show God’s approval of those who have suffered or whom others have ignored or persecuted. Because we know God will someday, perhaps very soon, make all things right, we can take heart even when happiness seems very far away.
God’s adopted sons and daughters can also be “gentle” with each other. We don’t have to adopt the angry rhetoric that currently seems nearly as contagious as COVID-19. Jesus’ followers can adopt the gentle posture that Jesus adopted even with his enemies, because we never forget that even those with whom we most sharply disagree are created in God’s image and, thus, deeply beloved by God.
Because God is near, God’s beloved children don’t have to be anxious either. While anxiety in our culture is nearly as rampant as racial injustice, we can have peace. To quote an old hymn, we don’t have to worry about what tomorrow holds, because we know Who holds tomorrow.
I think it’s no accident that Paul follows up his reminder about the nearly unfathomable peace God grants God’s dearly beloved people with a call to think about wonderful and lovely things. That call may, in fact, be more important than ever in a world that our media and others so often saturate with terrible things.
Christians are realists, not Pollyanna’s about the world’s misery. But those who only focus on that misery easily overlook the signs of God’s loving reign over our world. While our culture almost seems to revel in what’s untrue, unholy, unjust, impure, ugly and vicious, Paul invites Jesus’ followers to a different way. A way the Spirit uses to promote within us joy, gentleness and peace.
God’s dearly beloved people concentrate on what the apostle calls “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy” things. In a world that God called “good,” but we’ve managed to badly scar, we persistently and faithfully look for and contemplate what John Calvin spoke of as “God’s fingerprints” on creation.
Jonathon Kozol’s provocative book about people who are poor in the Bronx is entitled Amazing Grace. His title reflects that of the old hymn that he heard people often sing in churches in the Bronx. However, it also reflects Kozol’s amazement that even in the midst of real deprivation, something very much like joy flourished. Even struggling people were able to “take heart.”
One local pastor told Kozol that the fourth stanza of Amazing Grace was the anthem of the people he served. There, after all, we sing, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
One of Kozol’s students wrote a paper for him that described his vision of the Lord’s nearness in God’s everlasting kingdom: “There will be no violence in heaven. There will be no guns or drugs or IRS … Jesus will be good to all the children who have died and play with them … God will be fond of you.”
It’s a vision of the Lord’s nearness in which all of God’s adopted sons and daughters, even those whom people and circumstances beleaguer, can rejoice.