October 30, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Matthew 23 indicates that pastors (i.e., most of us reading this sermon starter) need to be wary of the titles people afford us. Although neither “Reverend” nor “Pastor” is specifically mentioned in Matthew 23, only a very wily preacher would ever suggest this indicates that those titles are exempt from Jesus’ comments. So what are we to make of Jesus’ words in Matthew 23?
We will begin with the passage in context, which means glancing back at the end of Matthew 22. As Matthew 23 opens, it looks like Jesus has had about as much as he can take from the religious leaders who had been engaging in a tag-team effort to trip him up. So he cuts loose with the single-most harsh and negative speech Jesus gives anywhere in the New Testament.
Beyond the verses of this particular lection, the balance of Matthew 23 presents seven hard-hitting indictments, each of which charges the clergy with hypocrisy. The Pharisees are all about false fronts, facades, public relations, prestige, and just generally getting ahead in society. And in detailing all this, the otherwise soft-spoken man from Nazareth does not spare the verbal lash: he calls them sons of hell, blind guides, stinking graves, snakes, vipers.
Bracing stuff, that.
Yet all that fiery bluster begins quietly. Jesus even tells everyone that they must obey the words of these leaders. Probably what Jesus means is that when these ministers read from God’s Word, the content of the Scriptures must be heeded. But that’s where the positive part ends. “Do what they say, not what they do,” Jesus says. “They don’t practice what they preach, and so even though they want you take note of their lifestyles, ignore them!”
He doesn’t practice what he preaches.
There are few indictments of a minister more wounding than that. From personal experience, I know how that accusation, whether or not it has any truth to it, cuts straight into a pastor’s heart like the sharpest of scalpels. (After an unhappy staff dust-up that led to the dismissal of a staff person, I had a few people tell me how sad it was that I was good at preaching forgiveness but not living it. That’s just shattering for a pastor.)
It is hurtful because if it were true, such a charge would undermine all credibility. It is not something to say lightly, and there is every indication that Jesus has given this a lot of thought. This is not how Jesus began his ministry, this was not based on a mere week’s worth of observation. This had been a long time coming. But after all that time had passed, Jesus felt certain that this was the verdict. The Pharisees did not practice what they preached. They did not listen to the words of God they themselves read from the pulpit.
Instead, they focused their energy on just looking good. They strutted around trying to look ever-so-holy but only because it generated prestige. They made certain always to have their flowing robes on because when they did, they got a clergy discount on fruit in the marketplace, got upgraded to First Class when they traveled, got seated up on the dais at the head table whenever VIPs came in from out-of-town to speak at a banquet.
Like altogether too-many celebrities today, the Pharisees came to believe their own press releases. Actress Helen Hayes was always known as, introduced as, and lauded as “the first lady of American theater.” Over time what most reporters forgot was that it was Helen Hayes herself who first cooked up that sobriquet and then spread it around! But that’s the way it goes when image becomes a way of life. After a while, things get so weirdly inverted that it’s difficult to tell what’s what anymore.
The entertainment industry is an ego-driven affair populated by throngs of people who are full of themselves. As even actor Marlon Brando once observed, “The greatest love affairs I have ever witnessed took place with one actor, unassisted.” Yet there is even so a kind of unspoken “code” among these people that says if you are too obvious with this self-infatuation, you will be shunned. Back in 1985 when actress Sally Field won her second Oscar in the span of only a few years, she famously gushed in her acceptance speech, “You like me! You really like me!”
Well, not after that speech. It would be 28 long years before the Academy ever nominated her again (for her role in 2013 as Mary Todd Lincoln in the film Lincoln).
After F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar for his stellar performance as Salieri in the movie Amadeus, he was tapped to be an Oscar presenter at the following year’s ceremony, and when he did this, he conducted himself quite pompously–in other words, he outwardly displayed the same pompous pride that inwardly filled the hearts of every actor there. But because he made the mistake of letting it show, he, too, has ever since been cast out into a kind of wilderness.
So here is a curious combination: the Academy Awards depends on self-congratulatory people all getting together to celebrate themselves, yet if a person lets this pride show, it is considered bad form. But probably what that points to is the core of hypocrisy: deception. The hypocrite is a deceiver of other people. What counts is not what you are really like but what other people think you are like. What counts is not whether you are worthy of the nice things people say about you but that they say them in the first place. What counts is doing whatever it takes to maintain your image, which often consumes so much time and energy that there is little left to nurture the genuine article in your heart.
Jesus, of course, is interested only in the inner person. If it should be that people admire you for the kind of person you genuinely are, that is fine as far as it goes, but Jesus’ warning in Matthew 23 indicates that even so, those honors should not assume too high a profile in your own mind. Because Jesus also knows the seductive power of such things. If you start falling in love with your own P.R., then even if public respect for you began originally as a proper response to the kind of person you really were, eventually it may well be that your own focus will shift.
Frederick Dale Bruner points out that in Matthew 23:5 when Jesus says that everything the Pharisees do “is for people to see,” the Greek verb there is theathenai, and even a quick glance at that Greek word suggests its connection to the English word “theater.” What Jesus is saying is that for people like this, the entirety of the religious life has become less about God and more about a kind of public theater, a drama meant to unfold in front of the eyes of other people, who in turn are no longer brothers and sisters in God but passive viewers, an audience. But one of the main things Jesus always taught is that the only “audience” we should think about is our great Creator God. When we make other people our audience before whom we perform theatrics designed to garner us lots of attention, our desire truly to serve God in our hearts diminishes right along with the enhancement of our own theatrics before others.
Although I am quite certain I won’t be doing so anytime soon, if I ever felt inclined to write a letter to Pope Francis in Rome, papal etiquette would suggest that I close and sign my letter as follows: “Prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness and imploring the favor of your apostolic benediction, I have the honor to be, Very Holy Father, with the deepest veneration of Your Holiness, the most humble and most obedient servant and son, Scott.”
As someone has wryly noted, this may explain why the pope gets so few postcards!
Whether or not any given pope would ever insist on such a salutation, the fact is that over time, honorifics and titles of privilege and prestige have most assuredly accumulated for members of the clergy. The pope is addressed as “Very Holy Father” or “Your Holiness,” cardinals and bishops are often referred to as “Your Eminence,” ordinary priests are always addressed as “Father.” Although the Catholic Church is a fairly obvious and large example of this kind of thing, they hardly have that market cornered. In my own Dutch tradition of the Reformed church, for a very long time every pastor was hailed as “Dominie,” which has clear connections to the Latin dominus or “lord.” These days few people in my tradition still use “Dominie,” but “Reverend” and “Pastor” are still pretty common.
Author: Doug Bratt
Joshua 3 always feels, at best, somewhat anti-climactic. After all, you might argue the Bible’s first five chapters have all been pointing toward the Jordan crossing it describes. Patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have given their lives to God’s promise to make this happen. The people of Israel have been heading (but sometimes meandering) toward it for at least forty years. Its Israelite witnesses have even been standing on Jordan’s banks for three days.
Yet Joshua 3 dispatches this monumental crossing of the Jordan River and entering of Canaan in about four verses. In fact, even those four verses spend more time talking about the river than about Israel’s crossing of it. They don’t tell us if, for example, the priests’ knees knock and hands shake as they “go and stand in the river” (7). Are some Israelites reluctant to take steps of faith across what had been a raging river just moments earlier? Do some of them sing and dance their way across the Jordan and toward what their ancestors have been looking for centuries? Do some Israelites drop to their knees in worship and wonder at what God has privileged them to share?
God has been preparing the Israelites and Joshua 3’s readers for this crossing for a long time. Among the more intriguing elements of that preparation is God’s preparation of Joshua to lead Israel into Canaan. Israel’s new leader has, after all, enormous shoes to fill. He has succeeded Moses about whom it was said “no one has ever shown the might power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Deut. 34:12).
Of course, Moses himself publicly commissioned Joshua to lead the Israelites across the Jordan and into the land of promise (Deut. 31:7-8). Yet verse 7 of our text suggests God still feels the need to somehow “begin to exalt [Joshua] in the eyes of Israel, so that they may know I am with you as I was with Moses.” So God doesn’t seem to part the Jordan’s waters just make a way for Israel to enter Canaan. God does so to show that God is with Israel’s new leader by doing for Joshua what God did for Moses when God used him to part the Red Sea’s waters during Israel’s desperate flight from Egyptian slavery.
Yet as Scott Hoezee notes in a fine sermon starter on Joshua 3, Joshua refuses to let the spotlight fall on him. He makes it abundantly clear that it’s God, not he who will lead Israel into Canaan. “This is how you will know the living God (italics added) is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites …” (9).
Perhaps that’s why the biblical scholar Carolyn Sharp suggests that Joshua 3 is more than just an account of God’s ratification of Joshua’s promotion. After all, had God not accompanied Israel during her wilderness journey, she would surely have died outside the land of promise. In fact, when she ran out of water in the wilderness, Israel even wondered if God were with her (Exodus 17:7). So it’s hard to imagine Israel having any confidence about seizing the land of promise if she questions whether God is with her. God’s affirmation of Moses’ successor Joshua seems to affirm God’s presence with those Joshua leads.
A second prominent feature of Joshua 3 is the ark of the covenant. That ark is what Tremper Longman III (The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings: Eerdmans) eloquently calls “the mobile symbol of God’s presence.” Israel had built it during her wilderness wanderings to contain God’s Tabernacle’s Holy of Holies. By carrying it with them across the Jordan and into Canaan, Israel’s priests show that the God who has accompanied them through the wilderness does not abandon them as they enter Canaan. In fact, it’s God, not the priests who carry the Ark who leads the Israelites into the land of promise.
The Israelites who prepare to follow God across the river and into Canaan are in some ways surrounded by danger. After all, behind them lies the barren wilderness that their parents, grandparents and ancestors’ sun-bleached bones litter. In front of the Israelites lies a whole country of fierce warriors that are the Canaanites. And beyond them lie the “Hittites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites” (11) who will prove not to be eager to share their homelands with a bunch of ragtag ex-slaves.
Yet Israel’s most immediate obstacle stands directly in front of her. It’s the Jordan River on whose banks she stands as Joshua 3 opens. Just forty years earlier the onrushing Egyptian army had pinned her up against another dangerous body of water. God, however, divided the Red Sea’s waters so that God’s Israelite people could escape the Pharaoh and his army and begin their journey toward the land of promise.
No army seems to be hotly pursuing our text’s Israelites. But the Jordan River is at what verse 15 calls “flood stage.” On top of that, while God had divided the Red Sea before even one Israelite dipped one toe into it, God doesn’t divide the Jordan’s swollen, swirling waters until after Israel’s priests step into them. So it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder if not just Israel’s priests but also all the Israelites wonder if God is trying to drown them on the doorstep of the land of promise.
Yet God somehow convinces the priests that God is accompanying them all the way, even on their last few steps into Canaan. So they perhaps tentatively stride forward in faith. Israel’s priests carry the ark of the covenant into the Jordan’s raging floodwaters.
There God’s Israelite people learn that the God who has accompanied them out of Egyptian slavery and through the wilderness in fact also goes with them across the Jordan. After all, “as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing” (15-16).
So Israel’s priests can walk to and even stop right in the middle of the Jordan. After all, God is there to dry up the river. Israel’s religious leaders can stand there and not sprint for their lives across the river while Israel files past them. God, after all, is there, right in the heart of the Jordan River. God also stays right with the priests until every Israelite has passed by them and into the land of promise.
Those who somehow proclaim Joshua 3 might choose to let the Spirit carry them in a variety of directions. Among those options, we might help those who hear them think about transitions and new beginnings. For Israel, after all, the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday marks a kind of ultimate new beginning as she moves to receive God’s gift of the land of promise.
Those whom we teach and to whom we preach know about standing on the edges of new beginnings. Some are preparing to graduate from school, start a new job or even retire. Others are contemplating getting married, having children or making new friends. Others are facing surgery or some other kind of financial crisis.
It’s never easy to make a new beginning. It usually entails, after all, ending something we’ve known. New beginnings generally involve trading something familiar for what’s unfamiliar. New beginnings also almost always require some kind of step, if not leap of faith.
Sometimes it seems quite clear that God goes before and with God’s adopted sons and daughters into those new beginnings. It feels as if God has laid out a well-marked path to a new home, job or relationship. At other times, however, the trail seems less well defined. It may even pass through some kind of danger, tempting its travellers to turn around and head back toward more familiar terrain.
It’s among Joshua 3’s teachers and preachers’ main tasks to help God’s people see that the God who goes with the Israelites into Canaan also accompanies God’s adopted sons and daughters into all of their own new beginnings. The way ahead seems unclear for some who hear us. But we proclaim that the God who has refused to abandoned God’s people in the past stays with God’s people in the future.
It might also be worth exploring how the Church can encourage God’s people in that way forward. The Israelites had the symbol of God’s presence with them that was the ark of the covenant that their priests carried in front of them into the waters of the Jordan. Are there symbols the Church might carry “before” God’s people as they make their new beginnings?
Certainly preaching that’s shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one such symbol. After all, those defining events remind us that God is with us until the very end of the age. But might the sacraments also serve as events that, in one sense, go before us into the future? They, after all, tangibly remind us, much like the ark of the covenant reminded the Israelites on the Jordan’s banks, that God goes with and before us in our transitions, as well as all of our new beginnings.
Whenever I read the accounts of Israel’s various river crossings, I think of the road signs that dot the United States’ southwest that read something like, “Turn Around Don’t Drown.” Those signs reflect the fact that according to the US National Weather Service (NWS), each year more deaths occur due to flooding than to any other thunderstorm related hazard.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that over half of all flood-related drownings occur when a vehicle is driven into hazardous floodwater. The NWS says just 6 inches of fast-moving floodwater can knock over an adult. It takes only 12 inches of rushing water to carry away a small car, and only about 24 inches of rushing water to carry away most vehicles.
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
Author: Stan Mast
Though it is the first Psalm in Book V of the Psalter, Psalm 107 seems to be a continuation of the historical Psalms that ended Book IV, the end of a trilogy that includes Psalm 105 and 106. All these Psalms sing the praises of the God who acts in history for his people. Psalm 107 may be the liturgical exclamation point of the trilogy. It is full of indications that it was intended to be used in worship, probably at one of Israel’s great festivals. There are repeated patterns and standardized calls to give thanks. Indeed, the opening words, “Give thanks to the Lord,” might be called the text for the liturgical sermon, followed by examples that illustrate why we should give thanks. Instead of teaching a principle in a didactic way, Psalm 107 moves our emotions with gripping stories.
All of the stories have one main point, announced in the theme text. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good….” But what does Yahweh’s goodness consist in? It could be his moral purity, or his beauty, or his usefulness, or his justice, because Yahweh is good in all those ways. But the dimension of God’s goodness that always moves God’s people to the highest praise and deepest thanks is his chesed; “his love endures forever.” No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do, no matter how dire our situation or depraved our sin, “his love endures forever.” He will not break covenant with his people.
That is the great truth that stood at the center of Israel’s faith. But true as it may be, the mere repetition of that truth won’t move us to thanksgiving and praise. That’s why Psalm 107 tells these stories of people had lived through hard time and had actually seen Yahweh’s chesed at work in their lives. Each of these stories follows the same pattern, an almost ritualized pattern, pointing to the liturgical purpose of Psalm 107. Whether it is the story of people wandering in the desert (4-9), living in foreign bondage (10-16), dying on a bed of illness (17-22), or suffering through a storm at sea (23-32) each story is told in the same way: a description of their distress, a prayer to the Lord, the details of their deliverance, and a call to give thanks for that deliverance. You can almost hear the gathered congregation repeating the words of thanks in unison.
Indeed, the Psalm opens with an invitation to do just that. “Let the redeemed of the Lord say this.” Or, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” That is either an invitation to repeat the following words; here is the pattern of your praise. Or it is a call to speak up, to shout it out, not to sit in stoic silence, but to sing your thanks. Indeed, Psalm 107:2a was used as a theme text in my taciturn Dutch Reformed tradition when we finally awoke to our evangelistic responsibility. “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so; tell your story, speak up for Jesus.”
It was a good text for us quiet Calvinists, but it was originally addressed to the Israelites who had returned from the Babylonian Captivity. The “redeemed” congregation is identified as “those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, those he gathered from the lands, from east and west, from north and south.” The fact that Jesus used the same points of the compass in Luke 13:29 suggest that Christians can use Psalm 107 in our celebrations of God’s love too. “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the Kingdom of God.”
Our Lectionary Reading for today focuses on the first representative sample of the Redeemed, those who had “wandered in desert wasteland….” Obviously, that could be a reference to Israel’s post-Exodus wilderness experience, but given the context here it is probably a memory of the journey back from Babylon through the vast Arabian desert. But this description could also fit any believer who has ever felt lost in a “dry and weary land.”
Though hunger and thirst threatened life in a physical way, the heart of their distress was that they couldn’t find a “way to a city where they could settle.” God always provided food and water to Israel in the Sinai Wilderness, but they remained homeless, landless, without a permanent dwelling where they could root their lives.
The yearning of the human heart for a dwelling place, a home, a city goes all the way back to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. The promise of a return to Eden is at the heart of the covenant God made with Abraham, the father of all believers. Hebrews 11:9 and 10 summarizes the hope of that covenant in these words. “By faith [Abraham] made his home in the promised land, like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Is it any wonder that the Bible ends with the redeemed living in the city of God, the New Jerusalem, described with unparalleled beauty in Revelation 21 and 22? The redeemed in Psalm 107 were looking for a city as they wandered in a wilderness, just like the rest of us.
Like all the other redeemed groups in Psalm 107, these wilderness wanderers finally did the right thing. Rather than simply complaining or cursing, “they cried out to the Lord in their trouble.” That very sentence is found in each of the four stories of Psalm 107 (6, 13, 19, 28). It seems so simple and so obvious, but we all know that it is neither. When we get stuck in trouble, we can get so focused on the trouble that we forget the Lord.
James Luther Mays explains this sentence in a way that should give us all pause. “What sets the chesed of the Lord in motion in every case is the cry to the Lord in trouble.” That may sound too much like “prosperity gospel” to folks who believe in the absolute sovereignty of God, but it is exactly what the text says. “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” That’s something we can sit and think about until our heads ache. Or it is something to simply give thanks for, as Psalm 107 calls us to do.
Verse 7 validates my comments above about the centrality of city. The Lord responded to Israel’s cry for deliverance not just with food and drink, but with a city. In other words, he didn’t just meet the immediate needs of his children; he took care of their larger, long term needs. They needed a place where they could settle down, raise their own crops and tend their own livestock, and have a dependable means of making a living. As verse 9 puts it, he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. But he does that not with food and drink dropped from the sky and flowing from a rock (though he did that once, for a long time), but with a city where they could settle.
Notice how the Psalmist puts it. “He led them by a straight way….” It wasn’t just that Israel was in a wilderness; it was even more that they were wandering in circles. They were lost; they didn’t know the way. So, in words reminiscent of Isaiah 40, he led them by a straight way. This is something to be thankful for. Even when we are utterly lost, the Lord can “make straight in the wilderness a highway for the Lord. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low, the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all mankind together will see it (Isaiah 40:3-5).”
The Lectionary leaves off the end of this story, and that’s too bad, because verses 8 and 9 echo the point of the Psalm. When Yahweh hears your prayer and redeems you from trouble, there’s one thing you should do above all else. “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love, and his wonderful deeds for men.” Again, this is clearly a liturgical refrain to be repeated by the congregation, as it is found in each story in exactly these words.
The words of this refrain remind us that God’s unfailing love is not just an idea or an attribute; it is an action. As I’ve said ad nauseam in these articles, at the heart of biblical religion is the conviction that Yahweh acts in history. We give him thanks because he has “performed wonderful deeds for men (and women and children, of course).” Intervention, interruption, incarnation are the center of our faith.
The God we worship is the great Reverser of Fortune. That is the point of the second half of our Lectionary reading for today. Verses 33-38 are a kind of summary of the way God acts in human history. These verses sound more like wisdom literature than the narrative that occupies most of Psalm 107. Reflecting back on God’s actions in history, particularly in the wilderness, the Psalmist arrives at some generalizations about what God does. He turns things upside down, reversing the natural course of things. He turns rivers into deserts for the wicked and turns deserts into pools of water for the righteous.
Do not think that we make our own fortunes, says the wise man. Yes, we play a role in our own destiny, but ultimately it is God who lifts one up and puts another down. But it takes wisdom to see that. Thus, Psalm 107 ends with a call to think wisely about human experience. And that means, think about God’s role in human history as previously outlined in this Psalm. “Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the Lord.”
It’s almost as though the Psalmist is saying to Israel, “Give thanks to the Lord,” but don’t stop with thanks. You also have to think. Yes, thinking without thanking can led to sterile emotionless faith that never grows close to God. But thanking without thinking can led to mindless emotionalism that is blown away with the first problems that challenges your faith. Thus, Psalm 107 is not only an exaltation of chesed; it is also an exposition of it. We need both.
Somewhere in your sermon or in a liturgical response to it, you simply must use that grand old hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” It puts the poetry of Psalm 107 to soaring music.
Above I gave two readings of the phrase, “let the redeemed of the Lord say this/so.” Here’s another way to picture that call. The Psalmist is priming the pump of thanksgiving. You might need to explain that image to children. Back in the olden days when people got water out of a well by vigorously pumping a big iron handle, sometimes they had to pour a bucket of water down the well to get the water flowing. That was called priming the pump. Or to put it another, more modern way, Psalm 107 is designed to jumpstart the engine of thanksgiving. When your car won’t start of a frigid morning, you can use a set of jumper cables to connect your dead battery to a battery of a car that is already running. The current from the good battery will get your dead battery started. Or, to use an analogy that even little ones will get, Psalm 107 reboots the computer of thanksgiving. When your computer is not working right and you’ve tried everything to fix it, sometimes the best thing to do is turn it off and restart it. That’s called rebooting, and it often gets the computer working again. For folks who are a dry well of thanksgiving, or who have a dead battery when it comes to thanksgiving, or who have a malfunctioning computer of thanksgiving, Psalm 107 primes the pump, jumpstarts the battery, and reboots the computer. Corny? You bet, but the imagery just might help your folks grasp the point of this great Psalm.
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
We preachers need to be careful. When someone catches us at the church door to disagree with our sermon some Sunday, it is tempting to say “Hey, your quarrel is not with me but with God. I was just preaching God’s Word so . . .” Of course, sometimes that really may be the case. Sometimes and upon further conversation with the upset parishioner it turns out that what this person does not like is less your sermon on this or that text but the text itself. Other times, though, what was disagreeable was more our application, the spin we put on the text, the rather careless way we spoke about some situation or subject. Sometimes those who object to a sermon are right—we messed something up.
All of which is to say, we had best not move too quickly to what some might regard as the dodge of saying “Your problem is with God, not me.”
True enough. But at the end of the day what all preachers should hope will be the case is that the bulk of what we present in a sermon really is God’s Word, not merely our ideas or thoughts about God. We cannot paper over our occasional mistakes by slapping a “Thus saith the Lord” label overtop of the sermon but hopefully a lot of what is in any given message is from the Lord. Or at least the most important things that we communicate should be rooted firmly in the biblical text.
In some ways this lection from 1 Thessalonians 2 is covering the same territory thematically that was in the previous Sunday’s lection on the first 8 verses here. Paul is taking pains to remind the Thessalonians that the apostles were neither charlatans nor money-grubbing leaches when they were in Thessalonica. Stung by accusations along these lines—and as noted in last week’s sermon starter it seems that such accusations go back to the earliest days of the church—Paul hits back with reminders of their gentleness, their love, their sincerity, and their having earned their own keep by doing honest work with their hands. That theme continues into this text in verses 9-13.
But the new element in this reading is that the Thessalonians ultimately received the words of the apostles not as mere human speech but as no less than the Word of God. As such, the Word they received was elevated in importance, it rang with truth. What’s more, unlike human speech—no matter how eloquent or stirring—God’s Word is active. Paul says it was “at work” within the very people who heard and received this divine Word. The “at work” here is the Greek from which we get our word “energy.” God’s Word is an energizing Word that activates all kinds of things inside of people who have faith.
Indeed, that distinguishes this Word from all others. But you wonder sometimes if we still really believe this is so about God’s Word. In our world right now we all bob around in a sea of verbiage, of language, of words, words, words. Tweets, Facebook status posts, Instagram messages, blogs, comments on articles posted online, never-ending streams of emails, talking heads on split-screen cable news shows, shouting matches encouraged by TV hosts who know that verbal back-and-forth arguments are good for ratings . . . On and on it goes but so very often to so little effect.
As one Facebook post I read recently said, “Posting your political views on Facebook changes the minds of so many, said no one ever.” And it’s true: we all tend to live in our own echo chambers today, gravitating to anything that props up our pre-existing viewpoint, disagreeing angrily with those who challenge such positions, but then walking away from those fields of verbal warfare unfazed, unchanged. Maybe now and then we actually succeed in making someone re-think something briefly. But mostly we don’t really expect much to come from lobbing our verbal hand grenades about. It all ends up feeling like that Beatles song in which John Lennon sang “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup. They slither as they pass, they slip away across the universe . . .”
In the midst of all this, can we believe there is an enduring Word of truth that can and really does go to work inside people? Can even we preachers whose lifeblood is the proclamation of that Word believe that the Spirit will take what we say and—insofar as it is transparent to God’s enduring Word—actually DO something, create something, activate something glorious and far beyond anything any other form of speech could ever do? Paul knew the power of that Word preached. He saw its fruits in the lives of the Thessalonians and so many others.
If today we let our expectations for the powerful working of God’s living Word to atrophy on account of our overall verbal bombardments on multiples fronts, then we have pretty much given away the Gospel farm. Yes, it is hard to be heard in this cacophonous environment. It may be even harder to sell the idea that in all that noise there endures a true Word that cuts through everything else and that goes to work inside people in a way nothing else could ever do. But that is what we are called to say, to proclaim, to believe.
We preach the Word and then sit back to watch what the Spirit of God will do. And we should expect it will be amazing.
From Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 96-97.
“God never seems to weary of trying to get himself [his word] across. Word after word he tries in search of the right word. When the Creation itself doesn’t seem to say it right—sun, moon, stars, all of it—he tries flesh and blood. He tried saying it in Noah, but Noah was a drinking man. He tried saying it in Abraham, but Abraham was a little too Mesopotamian with all those wives and whiskers. He tried saying it in Moses, but Moses himself was trying too hard; tried David, but David was too pretty for his own good. Toward the end of his rope, God tried saying it in John the Baptist with his locusts and honey and hellfire preaching, and you get the feeling that John might almost have worked except that he lacked something small but crucial like a sense of the ridiculous or a balanced diet. So he tried once more. Jesus as the mot juste [exact right phrasing] of God. ‘The word became flesh,’ John said, of all flesh, this flesh: holy, hick, whore’s hero, poor man’s Messiah, savior as schlemiel. Jesus as Word made flesh means take it or leave it: in this life, death, life, God finally manages to say what God is and what man is. Means: just as your words have you in them—your breath, your spirit, power, hiddenness—so Jesus has God in him.”