October 21, 2019
Author: Scott Hoezee
“I am so glad that Jesus loves me, Jesus loves me, Jesus loves ME!”
“How vast the benefits divine which WE in Christ possess!”
“Blessed assurance, Jesus is MINE!”
We sing such sentiments in church all the time. So before we get all squinty-eyed in regarding the Pharisee in Luke 18 as the quintessential spiritual bad guy, we’d best take a long, hard look at how we regard our own spiritual status—yes, how we regard it even vis-à-vis other people.
Consider: Suppose it is your sweet grandmother praying over the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. “Dear God, we are grateful that we are not like other families we know: people who don’t know you enough to offer thanks to you, families that have fallen apart and so they never gather around the table anymore. We rejoice that we went to church this morning to do what all people should do: render thanks to you as the Giver of all good gifts.”
So this is Grandma now, not the bad-guy Pharisee (in the all-black ten-gallon cowboy hat as the late Robert Farrar Capon once depicted the Pharisees). What, if anything, keeps her prayer from falling into the error of the Pharisee? Or does nothing keep it from that error? Is it the same mistake all over again? When and how does gratitude go bad, and what can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen to us?
To the original hearers of Jesus’ parable in Luke 18, there was nothing startling in this parable–nothing even vaguely unsettling–until Jesus got to the end when he said it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home under the blanket of God’s favor. Because up until that point, the Pharisee was simply being pious. Scholars suggest that the prayer that Jesus places onto the man’s lips was not a caricature of a prayer but appears to have been a standard Jewish prayer of thanksgiving at that time. To those who listened to Jesus’ parable, this prayer was as familiar to them as “Now I lay me down to sleep” or “Our Father, who art in heaven” is familiar to most of us.
It is only right, fitting, and proper to give thanks to God. So if there is something awry here, it must be more in the attitude motivating the prayer than in the prayer proper, and just that is the key.
The Pharisee was not so much grateful to God as he was grateful only when he compared himself to others. Because the moment we begin to stack up our lives against the lives of those around us, it doesn’t take long before the focus becomes what we do, how we act, what we perform. The shape of our lives, and the myriad of activities in which we engage that gives our lives that shape, becomes the taking-off point in our assessment of life.
What we forget when that happens is, of course, nothing less than the grace of God in Christ Jesus. It’s always a balancing act. Should you be grateful that you find prayer not only possible but deeply meaningful? Should you be glad that you have opportunity to engage in ministry projects that benefit the needy in our community? If you are able in your life to avoid committing crimes or cheating on your spouse, should you be thankful for the strength of character that prevents you from walking down certain sordid paths? Of course on all counts! But we must never forget that each of those things is a FRUIT of God’s prior grace at work in us.
A sermon on Luke 18 can help people parse proper Christian gratitude by distinguishing the nature of the Pharisee’s gratitude (which goes off the rails) and the proper, deep-down gratitude for grace that we all rightly nourish as followers of Jesus Christ.
The structure of this parable is striking. When describing the Pharisee, the language all hints at height (as images for pride always do): the Pharisee stands, he (by implication at least) looks up to heaven as he prays, and his very language spirals upward as well as he heaps up a list of all that he does. By contrast the tax collector has all downward words associated with him: he is afar off, he will not look up to heaven, he beats down on his breast, etc.
But it is also interesting to note the set-up for this parable in verse 9: Jesus is said not to tell this parable in the abstract for just anyone and everyone but rather very specifically is said to tell the parable to those who were confident in their own righteousness. That makes you wonder: did a crowd of the self-righteous gather and so prompted this parable or was Jesus so keenly aware of this tendency to self-righteousness that he knew that no matter when he spoke this parable, it would be heard by plenty of people who fit the bill?! I suspect it is the latter! And therein lies a lesson for us also today!
What is one of the most common tendencies of Christians? It is the tendency to mix up roots and fruits. If the Christian life is like a tree that bears the fruit of the Spirit, we have a tendency to turn the tree upside-down. The production of spiritual fruit–the very kinds of things for which we Christians are properly thankful to God–grow OUT OF God’s gracious love. They don’t attract God’s love, they flow from God’s love.
As C.S. Lewis says, the roof of a greenhouse shines brightly because the sun shines on it. The roof doesn’t attract the sun by virtue of being bright to begin with, however! Or, in another Lewis analogy, suppose a six-year-old little girl says, “Daddy, may I have $5 to buy you a Christmas present?” Well, any decent father will give the child the money and, come Christmas morning, will exclaim loudly and gleefully over whatever bauble the child bought.
But only a fool would say that by virtue of the gift, the father came out $5 ahead on the deal!
Author: Stan Mast
As we near the end of Ordinary Time, the Lectionary begins to point toward Advent with prophecies that are more distinctly Messianic. After 9 hard weeks in Jeremiah which was addressed to a nation on the brink of Exile, we turn to the Minor Prophets, beginning with the one about bugs.
Joel rose out of an infestation of bugs, more properly a swarm of locusts that devastated the countryside of Israel so thoroughly that starvation was a real possibility. Joel says that this entomological disaster was God’s judgment upon his sinful people. In the midst of that message of judgment, or rather, after God responded to Israel’s repentance by delivering them from that plague, Joel is given a message of hope for God’s people not only back then, but far into the future. Indeed, this buggy prophecy includes one of the most important prophecies for the Christian church in the first and twenty first centuries. We find it in our text.
There are few if any clues in the book itself about its date of origin. Premodern scholars thought it was one of the earliest prophetic books, dating back as far as the ninth century BC. Modern scholars see it is one of the latest prophets, coming from perhaps the third century BC, long after the exile was over. Most postmodern scholars don’t think its dating is important, seeing it as a timeless message, or better as a message for all times. I lean toward the last interpretation though I see a hint of a post exilic audience in verse 32.
Interestingly, the very first word in our text is time oriented—“afterward.” The question is, after what? Well, the larger context is about the locust invasion, so “afterward” refers to the time after God sent that army of bugs against his people. The immediate context is about God’s promise to “repay you for the years the locusts have eaten (verse 25),” which suggests a post-exilic time. The following context in chapter 3 talks about the great and terrible day of the Lord when Yahweh will judge all the nations in the valley of Jehoshaphat, probably a reference to the Final Judgment in “the valley of decision (verse 14).”
So after God’s judgment upon Israel and after their deliverance and before the Final Judgment, God speaks the marvelous promise in our text. Nearly all scholars agree that it is a promise for the Messianic age, especially given the way both Peter (Acts 2) and Paul (Romans 10) apply it to the age of the church of Christ.
Just before this Messianic promise, Joel makes two other promises that were more specifically directed at Israel: the promise of abundant food after the devastation wrought by the locusts (verses 23-26b) and the promise that God’s humiliated people will never again be shamed before the nations because their God seemed to forsake his people (verses 26c-27). Both nature and nation will be restored.
But the coming Messianic age will mean more than material prosperity and national security. The coming Kingdom is not only earthly and local, it is also spiritual and universal. So, not only will God send abundant rain on Canaan and restore honor to his Jewish people, but he will also “pour out his Spirit on all people….”
Throughout the Old Testament Yahweh gave his Spirit to the occasional king, selected priests, and many prophets, but that gift was sporadic and sometimes temporary. In the Messianic age, says God, I will pour out my Spirit profusely on all people, regardless of sex, age, or social class. Both Peter and Paul (in the previously referenced passages) added all ethnicities. The Spirit will be given to “those who are far off (Acts 2:38),” meaning Gentiles who were formerly excluded from covenant blessings.
In the olden days, only a few people could know and speak the Word of God. In the new age of the Messiah, God will show his revelation to all his people. Joel speaks specifically of prophesy and dreams and visions, but the intent is that “all people will know God and his will (as we heard last week in Jeremiah 31).” All will be prophets (and priests and kings), because all will be anointed by the Spirit who is poured out by God.
As previously mentioned, Peter explained the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost by referring to this promise in Joel. “What you see and hear is the fulfillment of that ancient prophesy.” Here are men and woman, old and young, servants and masters, Jews and people from Gentile nations speaking the revelation of God. This Spirit has been sent by the Jesus whom you crucified, but whom God has declared both Lord and Christ. “I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” Those days have come.
But then in verses 30-31 God seems to speak of another day, “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” That’s an expression found in many other places in the Old Testament and elsewhere in Joel. It refers to the day when Yahweh will visit the earth in dramatic and often cataclysmic ways, as here. So, it seems as though Joel has moved from the beginning of the Messianic age at Pentecost to the end of the world at the Parousia, because signs and wonders in the heavens did not happen on Pentecost. It seems that we have moved to the end of time here.
Or, maybe God is saying that the outpouring of the Spirit is a sign of the beginning of the last times. Often I’ve been asked by anxious parishioners who have been watching the horrors of the evening news, “Do you think we are in the last days?” My answer always disappoints them, because they have been watching TV preachers with their charts and pictures about the End Times. I always say, “Yes, we’ve been in the last times since the shedding of Jesus’ blood and the outpouring of the Spirit.” Specific biblical texts say that explicitly (think of I John 2:18), but perhaps even more dramatic is this close linkage of Pentecost with Parousia in Joel 2:30-31.
Giving further credence to this interpretation is the universal promise in verse 32. “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Peter begins the Christ centered part of his Pentecost sermon right after he quotes those words and he ends his sermon with the promise that the salvation won by Christ is “for those who are far off, as many as the Lord shall call to him.” If that isn’t clear enough, Paul says in Romans 10:12, 13, “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” And if anyone wonders which “Lord” Paul is referring to here, a quick glance at Romans 10:9 will confirm that he is talking about the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Yes, it is true that Joel 2:32 makes specific reference to Mt. Zion and Jerusalem. That, says Joel, is where “there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the survivors whom the Lord calls.” That seems to be a reference to survivors of the Exile who return to Jerusalem, but the fact that Peter and Paul apply these words to both Jew and Gentile should be decisive in our interpretation. Besides, deliverance came to the world when Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. In a deeper sense, deliverance came from Mt. Zion/ Mt. Calvary.
The fulfillment of the promise of verse 32 over the next 2000 years is evidence that we are the last days. As Jesus promised, the Spirit was given and the church took the Gospel to the ends of the earth. When the Final Judgment comes there will be a church gathered from every nation, people, tribe and tongue, everyone who has called on the name of the Lord Jesus.
What seems at first glance to be a narrowly nationalistic little book based on the invasion of a bunch of bugs is, in fact, a gloriously universal message of hope to the nations, even those who will be judged (according to Joel 3). Your sermon on this text should focus on encouraging the “found” to speak the Word of God in the power of the Spirit and on inviting the “lost” to call on the name of the Lord Jesus and be saved.
Discerning the times is a tricky business. I remember a seminary prof illustrating that by referring to mountain ranges. That resonated with me because I grew up in Denver, Colorado, looking at the Rockies all the time. I knew that as I looked at those majestic mountains from my kitchen window, I was seeing many successive ranges, beginning with the foothills and the Front Range and culminating at the Continental Divide. Between the gentle foothills and the jagged peaks, there were many miles of ups and downs, but you couldn’t tell how far each range was from the other. What is true of distances in the mountains is true of years in God’s calendar. We can’t tell how long the last days will go on and how far we are from the peak.
Author: Scott Hoezee
In the Calvin Seminary Chapel above and behind the pulpit area is a large clear-glass window with a cross in the center. A few years ago during a May Term preaching class in the chapel, we all noticed that a large Horned Owl had made a nest in the uppermost window pane near the top of the cross where it was raising a couple or so owlets. Not infrequently while students were preaching their sermons as part of that course, that mother owl would swivel her head around (as only owls can do!) and peer down upon us all. We made jokes that this was like getting a theological education at the Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter stories! (Owls are the key couriers of information and mail in the Harry Potter world, in case you didn’t know, and so they are everywhere at Hogwarts.)
What it maybe should have reminded us of instead was Psalm 84. Because in a well-known image, the psalmist finds himself envying the birds who built their nests in the eaves of God’s holy Temple in Jerusalem. “Lucky birds,” the poet as much as writes, “they get to live in God’s House all the time in ways I sorely wish were true of me!”
Psalm 84 is not technically one of the Songs of Ascent that you can find in Psalms 120-134 but this is all-but certainly a pilgrimage song. This is a song of intense longing to arrive at the Temple. Indeed, it is a song that almost laments the transient nature of this pilgrimage in that the psalmist can think of nothing better than the prospect of dwelling in God’s holy presence in his holy Temple all the time. The poetic language is intense: longs, faints, yearns. His soul “cries out” for God. If this were some romantic ballad, you would quickly conclude that this lover has got it bad! He is wholly besotted with his beloved one. The intensity of the language here could give the lovers in the Song of Songs a run for their money.
But perhaps it is just here that we can pause. Is the ardor expressed in Psalm 84 for God’s presence and for being in God’s special place of worship something to which most of us can relate? When was the last time we were on tippy-toes in eager anticipation of our next chance to go and worship God? Do we find it difficult to sleep on Saturday nights because we are so excited about church in the morning? Or does the alarm go off at 7:30am on Sundays and we as often as not groan before hitting the snooze button for another 15 minutes of zzzz’s?
Before we go much farther down this road of thought, let’s note a few obvious caveats we need to bear in mind if we are going to preach on Psalm 84. First, we no longer have a singular house of worship like the Temple in ancient Israel. The Temple was viewed as a unique place and it was not per se a portable enterprise. The holy presence of Yahweh was (on earth anyway) seen as contained within the Holy of Holies with Almighty God seated on the “throne” of the mercy seat atop the Ark of the Covenant. So to the minds of most Israelites, you could literally be relatively closer or farther away from the living presence of God at any given moment depending on your physical location. The closer to Jerusalem = Being closer to God; the farther from Jerusalem = the farther from God (such that you always prayed toward Jerusalem, albeit sometimes from long distances).
There is a sense in which Pentecost democratized the presence of God for us. The New Testament reveals that we are now, each one of us by virtue of having union with Christ, living temples of the Holy Spirit who dwells in each of our hearts. The living presence of Christ is, therefore, as near to us as flesh is to fingernails such that we have a hard time imagining ever being “away” from (or conversely any closer to) God no matter where we are on planet Earth.
This also means that any given church is no more or less holy—no more or less filled with the living presence of God—than any other church building. St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome may be a wonderful church and is the location where you can often find the head of the Roman Catholic Church but theologically speaking it is finally just another church. My cousin’s church in Texas and my home church in Michigan grant both of us equal access to God in ways that make it hard for us to relate to the idea that we must yearn to be present in only one particular church if we are to go and meet with God.
For these and similar other reasons we find the spiritual mindset behind Psalm 84 to be very nearly alien to our own spiritual sensibilities. But does that mean a poem like this is merely a historical curiosity but not a living song that has meaning for us? One should hope that is not the case.
Perhaps we do not need to spring out of bed on a Sunday morning eagerly to race over to church on a par with how this psalmist could not make his feet move fast enough to get to Jerusalem. But that hardly means there ought to be no spiritual thrill for us in the idea that we have union with Christ through his indwelling Spirit. This should be a source of abiding wonder for us. Yes, it is actually hard to have an abiding sense of eager wonder. It is hard to live every moment of life with tingles going up and down your spine. It is perhaps like being married: even in the best marriages where love is ardent and sincere and the marriage relationship is rock solid, the tingle of early romance and the palpable fluttery sense of romantic buzz you had those first dinners out together do not exactly characterize your average Tuesday evening supper of leftover spaghetti.
But if the marriage is sound, that core love is the wonderful bass note of all of life. And so long as that is so, then we may also expect certain seasons or moments when it does all flood back on us in ways that make us excited and also profoundly grateful. If that never happens, we might wonder if the flame has gone out after all. But where true love is, it will happen. Repeatedly albeit not necessarily constantly.
So also with God: we need not try to fabricate the eager ardor and yearning of the psalmist every time we go to church in order to have the kind of relationship with God that we all want and need. But the grace of God that saved us and made us one with Christ is properly the bass note undergirding the whole of our lives and so long as that is true, there will be moments in worship or in listening to a sermon or in partaking of the sacraments when our pulses will race anew and we will be flooded all over again with a profound gratitude and great ardor for our God. It may not happen every Sunday morning but the presence of Christ’s Holy Spirit within us means it will happen. And what a many-splendored thing it is when it does!
If it is true—as noted in this sermon starter—that even ardent Christian believers do not forever live in a pulse-racing moment of rapturous love for God—then it must surely count as true that those who do not believe in God at all find the prospect of fairly swooning over God to be preposterous. Yet, as Augustine famously said, whether unbelievers know it or not, they were created by God and for God and in God’s image. Without the living presence of God in their lives, there is a God-shaped hole somewhere inside them that may lead to a spiritual restlessness that will never be sated until they let God fill the gap.
Of course, people still try to find spiritual thrills. It’s just that often the things we tap into seem to have little chance to achieve what we’re looking for (to riff on Bono and U2). A great example from the 1980s came in the work of Robert Bellah and associates in their insightful book Habits of the Heart. At one point they highlighted a woman named Sheila who, absent any living faith tradition in her life, decided to worship the sense of the divine she found within her own self. She called her religion “Sheilaism.”
I am not sure if it ever quickened her own pulse or created deep yearning within herself to go and fellowship with . . . well, with herself. I am fairly sure, however, that few others would long and yearn to go be with Sheila.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Author: Chelsey Harmon
So here we are at the most intimate, and soul laid bare, part of Paul’s letters to Timothy. In these sermon starters, we’ve hinted all along about what Paul reveals in these verses—that he’s at the end of his earthly life, abandoned by fellow ministry partners, waiting on his imminent death. The lectionary selection leaves out a number of verses that (a) outline all of the people who have abandoned and betrayed Paul and (b) list items and people Paul wants Timothy to bring to him while he waits for the end. These verses really remind us how human Paul was, don’t they?
The verses that the lectionary decides to focus our attention on, however, serve to draw our attention to Paul’s state of mind. It’s as though the lectionary selection is a guard that keeps us from getting lost in the suffering Paul experiences, and instead transfixes our attention on the source of his strength through hard times.
In Dear Gift of Life: A Man’s Encounter with Death, poet Bradford Smith wrote, “No one has reached maturity until he has learned to face the facts of his own death and shaped his own way of living accordingly.”
I heard that Smith quote in a recording of a sermon on 2 Timothy 4.1-8 by David Watermulder at Princeton Seminary in 1972 entitled “What Death Does to Life.” Among many other memorable things, Watermulder preached, “If we can affirm death as a part of life; if it is something to anticipate rather than something to dread, something to complete rather than something to destroy; then life becomes different. For death does fantastic things to life. The person who doesn’t want to face it can turn into a frantic fool or into a bitter, resentful person. The person who can affirm it and who can embrace death as a part of life, is likely to live a life of victory and of triumph.”
Both Watermulder and Smith capture Paul’s state of mind. As a true disciple of Jesus who had given everything over to the work of the kingdom, Paul was all in. All in. Even before Paul went to court in Rome, Paul knew his death belonged to Jesus just as much as his life did.
Consider the extensive examples from Paul’s letters. Here are just two. In Romans 8, Paul writes “Who will separate us?… For I am convinced that neither death nor life… can separate us from the love of God.” In Philippians 1, he writes, “my eager expectation and hope [is that] Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
Paul’s state of mind, then, at least post-conversion to Christianity, has always included awareness of his death as deeply connected to his life in Christ—just as Jesus’ death was deeply connected to his life. Daily dying and rising with Christ, Paul preached all over the ancient near east, is the call to take off and put to death the old self and to put on the new self, which is Christ!
Consider the power of such a life as well as such a view of death. Like it was for Jesus, Paul’s state of mind regarding his life and death is focused squarely on the glory of God and the revelation of God’s gospel. Paul faces his death as one more opportunity to point people to Jesus’ death and how his death is good news for the world.
Paul’s daily dying and rising transformed his ministry into the effective tool of the Holy Spirit in establishing the church. See how even here in these six verses Paul’s attention to his own story grows to shift the focus on God’s story for all humanity? It turns out that what Paul said earlier about himself is true; Paul is the chief sinner, but also the prime example of God’s great grace on a human life. We see this in two beautiful ways in our lectionary selection today.
First, Paul writes full of hope and trust that he will be welcomed by Christ; the Lord will give Paul a crown of righteousness for finishing the race set before him on the day of judgement. But not only him! Paul is just as warmed and filled by hope because a crown of righteousness awaits “all who have longed for his [that is Jesus’] appearing.” Paul’s whole goal was that more people would come to know Jesus in such a way that they longed for his return. So why wouldn’t he be so passionate and glad to know that they too will be blessed for eternity?
Second, after describing all of the betrayals and abandonment in the excluded verses with such vulnerable honesty, Paul writes “all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!” Yes, Paul is disappointed and hurt and saddened and suffering because no came to his support as he went to court. But his hope for them flows from forgiving them. Paul has decided to not hold their actions against them because he knows that God does the same for him. Though he knows that God is the final judge to whom we can entrust our enemies, Paul’s words connote his intercession that they will not get what they deserve.
These two examples are part and parcel of the witness that Paul gave to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Would that more of us had such hope and love! Such a state of mind is a gift too rare. But where did that gift come from?
We know that it was rooted in Paul’s relationship with the living Christ. And we know that Paul lived by, with, and in step with the Holy Spirit (all of these prepositional phrases are found in the sentences leading up to the Fruit of the Spirit section of Galatians). In other words, the same Spirit that Paul entreated Timothy to rely on for ministry was alive and at work in Paul. And though he doesn’t say so here, the Spirit of God is the one accompanying Paul on this road to death, just as the Spirit accompanied him and empowered every second of his ministry of bringing glory to Christ. In his commentary on the two letters to Timothy and Titus, Gordon Fee writes, “It would have been as natural as breathing for [Paul] to experience the presence of the Lord at such a time.”
It is the Holy Spirit who connects and keeps Paul in the saving work of Jesus. Jesus, the one who Paul knows will rescue him from every evil attack and save him for God’s heavenly kingdom as the resurrected King.
Thinking back to the quote we started with: “No one has reached maturity until he has learned to face the facts of his own death and shaped his own way of living accordingly.” I think that Paul would have said “YES!” to this sentence; but he would have qualified it. Contemplating his own death would have been a powerful moment in his discipleship journey, but even more powerful and shaping was another’s death—that of the resurrected King. Paul might have quoted Smith and then said, “And no one has reached real maturity until they have learned to face the facts of Christ’s death and shaped their way of living accordingly.” For it was Christ’s death that served as the turning point; it was Christ’s death that embodied and gave forgiveness to God’s people; it was at Christ’s death that Jesus’ crown of thorns became a crown of glory.
“To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Historical Point/Illustration Idea
Paul describes himself as “already being poured out as a libation.” This is a very specific way for Paul to say that he views his death as an offering to God. Drink offerings were part of the Old Testament instructions (Numbers 28.7) regarding regular sacrifices and offerings. In fact, they are common among many religions, ancient and modern, including in the Greco Roman world that Paul and Timothy occupied.
The impact of the imagery of a drink offering being poured out has had impressive staying power, finding its way even into modern pop culture. Rap songs talk about ‘pouring one out,’ for a dead friend, and scenes in movies depict people pouring portions of their bottles or cups of alcohol over someone’s grave as they gather as friends to drink and remember their lost companion.
Notice, though, the difference between the way Paul understands the offering and our modern Western view (as depicted in pop culture): one is offered in remembrance of a dead person to God, the other is offered by a living person as a sacrifice to God.
How interesting that we’ve taken the hard part out! It’s fine and dandy to remember someone we’ve lost and to give thanks to God for that person… it’s a whole other thing to offer our own lives and deaths to God like Paul did.
Yet, that’s the crux that makes Paul’s entire life (including his death) and his attitudes so impressive. He was able to forgive, to not hold grudges, to give God extraordinary glory in trying times because he offered his life to God as a living sacrifice. (Romans 12.1-2)