October 24, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Maybe it was that sycamore tree that did it.
Maybe even before Jesus wandered by, Zacchaeus looked at where he was and wondered how it had come to this. What was it that had quite literally chased him clean up a tree? His nice Armani tunic had a chlorophyll stain or two on it from some sycamore leaves he’d smushed up against on his way up into the branches. He’d scuffed his Bruno Mali sandals and had chipped one of his nicely manicured fingernails on his left hand. And now there he was, hunched up in that tree like some schoolboy hiding from the teacher.
This was ridiculous.
What was a man of his social position doing in this silly position? Clettering up a tree like this was not one of the seven habits of highly effective people! (Today it would be like seeing Donald Trump straddling and hanging off a light pole on 5th Avenue in New York just to watch the Saint Patrick’s Day parade.) This tree was no place for a man like Zacchaeus!
In fact, tree-climbing like that was something only a desperate sort of person would do—someone who knew deep down that he had gained the whole world but forfeited his soul; someone who knew that deep down in his heart he had a yearning and a hunger that not all the shekels in the Roman Empire was going to sate.
In the familiar little Sunday school song about this story, we are told that Zacchaeus climbed that sycamore tree “for his Lord he wanted to see.” But we have no evidence that Zacchaeus’ curiosity toward Jesus had anything to do with his regard for Jesus as a Savior, a Lord, or any other potentially positive thing. “He wanted to see who Jesus was” is all the text says. That sounds pretty generic. It’s the kind of thing you say about someone whose character, identity, and physical appearance are all totally unknown to you.
Indeed, curious though he was, it seems very likely that Zacchaeus’ scramble up into that sycamore tree was not something he was eager to have his fellow Jerichoites witness. My hunch is that he was hiding up in that tree. He was not sitting there with his legs dangling inelegantly from beneath his tunic holding up some hand-painted “WELCOME JESUS!” sign like one of those eager people who daily mug for the camera and hold up “Hello!” signs in Rockefeller Center where the “Today” show gets filmed in New York City. Instead Zacchaeus was likely well ensconced in the foliage of this tree, peering out from behind the leaves and branches and hoping that as the parade passed by, the crowds (and Jesus himself) would be too preoccupied by what was going on at street-level to notice him up there in that tree.
So when the parade stops, when Jesus looks right up at him, and when the rest of the crowd follows suit, I imagine that Zacchaeus’ first reaction was a deep gulp and a rush of blood to his face. He must have felt like the 7th grade boy caught trying to peek into the window of the girls locker room!
But Jesus speaks kindly and says that it is his house where Jesus will stay for the day. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus fairly tumbled out of the tree and welcomed Jesus “with joy.” Something about the very presence of Jesus changed this sawed-off little crook. Luke 19 makes clear that Zacchaeus really did not climb up into that tree looking for a change in his lifestyle or outlook or fiscal practices. He had not set out from his house that morning hoping to have a 180-degree turnaround. He was just curious, that’s all.
Ah, but sometimes curiosity is the outward manifestation of an inward emptiness and restlessness. On the surface of Zacchaeus’ life, he had it all. He probably even told himself that he had it all. He strutted around Jericho giving off the vibes of a man who had it all. Zacchaeus was not one to appear shaky or uncertain. There was a steely glint to his eyes, a certain set to his jaw, a certain jutting forward of his chin that was all semaphore of a man who had it all together, who knew what he wanted, knew how to get it, and who had as a matter of fact mostly acquired what he wanted already.
But despite all that . . . here he was, quite literally up a tree and wondering how it had come to all this.
Maybe it was that sycamore tree that did it.
Maybe up there in that tree he was wondering how it had come to this. Maybe at some point, looking around him that day, the thought occurred to Zacchaeus, “I am lost.”
And just then a voice said, “Zacchaeus!” and somehow he just knew he’d been found.
Two little words in the original Greek leap out at me in this text. The first is when Jesus says that he “must” stay at the house of Zacchaeus that day. The verb there is the tiny Greek word dei and this is the same word used so often in the New Testament when the writer wants to convey the necessity of the incarnation or the utter necessity of Jesus’ death on a cross. “It is necessary” is the more typical translation of dei and it ties in just often enough to the utter necessity of God’s way of doing salvation that its use here in Luke 19 tells you that this business about Jesus’ wanting to stay at that particular house was in the end going to be a matter of redemption, of salvation itself.
The other word is the one that describes Zacchaeus’s reaction to Jesus: he received Jesus chairon, “with joy.” Flash back 4 chapters in Luke and read how this kind of joy and rejoicing was the bottom line of all three of the parables of lost-and-found in Luke 15. The “joy” with which this little tax collector received Jesus is the very joy that always crops up when salvation is in the air!
Oh, and the fact that this joy was present BEFORE Zacchaeus did any of his subsequent actions of giving money back to the poor and the defrauded is further proof that Zacchaeus was saved not by those works but by the grace that came FIRST and that then overflowed into those later deeds.
From “Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who” by Frederick Buechner. Harper & Row San Francisco, 1979, pp. 180-81.
In this book, Buechner presents from A-Z several dozen character sketches of well-known (and sometimes not-so-well-known) biblical characters. The last entry in the volume under the letter “Z” is, not surprisingly, Zacchaeus. What Buechner shares about this man, and how he lets Zacchaeus be a summary for all the other folks in the Bible, is as delightful as it is instructive! Buechner observes:
“Zacchaeus makes for a good [character] to end with because in a way he can stand for all the rest. He’s a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that’s why he reminds you of all the others, too. There’s Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition, and Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring Job to death if Yahweh had not stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even. Like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them somehow treasured, too. Why? Who knows? But maybe you can say at least this about it—that they’re treasured less for who they are and for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them at their best to be because ultimately, of course, it’s not the world that made them at all. “All the earth is mine,” says Yahweh, “and all that dwell therein” adds the 24th Psalm, and in the long run, presumably, that goes for you and me, too.”
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Author: Scott Hoezee
As most every Bible commentary would tell you, the way Paul uses Habakkuk 2:4b (“the righteous will live by faith”) in Romans and Galatians may be a bit different from how the text “sounds” and seems to function in Habakkuk 2. Habakkuk has spent most of his prophecy up to this point complaining to God about how the evil and the greedy and the wretched people of the earth keep getting away with their crimes. God, in turn, has been replying to Habakkuk to tell him that he had to be patient: God was going to do a new and amazing thing. In the longest run, he was even going to save his people through most surprising means. In the meanwhile, however, evil would seem to prevail for a time. Even the lyric ending of this prophetic book in Habakkuk 3:17-19 indicates that faith would have to hang on to God’s promises even while hard times endure.
In this second chapter, the famous line that caught the Apostle Paul’s eye (and later Martin Luther’s eye) is, oddly enough, a kind of parenthetical within Habakkuk 2:4. In fact, where the Common Lectionary stops this reading (at verse 4) is stranger yet in that the sentence begun in verse 4 actually continues into verse 5. God is telling the prophet that a great revelation will come but it might take a while. Those who are puffed up with pride—those who are drunkards and greedy and arrogant—may seem to have the upper hand. But in the midst of all that, the righteous will be able to go on in their faith, in their belief that the new things of God will yet come. This is what will help them carry on even in those times when the wretched of the earth seem dominant and destined to win the day.
But that steadfast ability to rely on God’s promise—the ability of one’s faith in God’s faithfulness to become a stronghold for one’s life that allows one to soldier on in confidence even while the wicked seem to prosper—is a little different from how Paul later uses it. In the context of defending the gospel of salvation by grace alone in Romans 1 and again in Galatians 3, Paul seems to use “faith” as a gift imputed to believers by God (and by grace). Contained in the faith granted to us by the Holy Spirit is all the salvation of God we need. The gift of faith just is salvation and so it is literally true in a gospel context that the righteous live by faith: all of the resurrection life of Jesus comes to us in the gift of faith that God alone can give. “Righteousness” is not an accomplishment but a gift. As Paul says in Galatians 3 just before quoting Habakkuk 2:4, no one gets saved by the law (by being perfect in one’s own strength and by virtue of one’s own morality) but only by the righteousness of Jesus as given to us as our justification in Christ.
But perhaps there is something of a connection between Habakkuk and these New Testament epistle texts after all. Because in the context of Habakkuk, people needed faith in God’s faithfulness in order to soldier on and live with hope. But if that truly was an inspirational source of energy for the people then, how much more strength don’t we have now that we have come to understand and to see the fullness of God’s having already been faithful to his every promised through Jesus (in whom God’s every promise finds its “Yes”)? If faith in God’s faithfulness is a source of strength, how much greater is faith as a gift that comes on account of God’s having already been faithful to an astonishing degree?
God said that his revelation would come and that it would be really something once it arrived. Well, that is most certainly true! Who could have seen the gospel coming, replete with the shock of the incarnation and the scandal of the cross? The faith that just is our life now comes as a sheer gift of grace through the death and resurrection of no less than God’s own holy Son.
Habakkuk reminds us that God does not let evil have the final word. The final word belongs to God, and the ultimate revelation of that Word did indeed finally come to the earth, as God always said it would. If living with the faith that such a revelation would come was a source of strength once upon a time for the people of God, we now know that faith as the gift of God is not just a source of encouragement or hope: it really is life itself.
The Hebrew word for “faith” as used in Habakkuk 2 is a cognate of “amen.” And when we hear the gospel come to us once again in the reminder that the righteous do indeed live by faith alone, we cannot help but respond with a very loud and enthusiastic “Amen!”
What does the person of faith look like, I wonder? Is the faith-filled person someone who exudes a serene confidence, a calmed and hushed and unperturbed spirit? Or is the faith-filled one the active and always-in-motion kingdom worker who is mostly a kind of holy blur of volunteerism? Is faith a set of convictions that could be counted-cross-stitched and hung on a wall or is faith seen best only when it is put into practice out on the nitty-gritty streets of the real world?
In the Bible Abraham is the father of all faith, and his life was mostly a series of journeys that involved trust. By faith Abraham packed up everything he owned one day and set off on a long trip toward an as-yet unspecified far country. God said “Go” and Abraham went. God said “Go to a place I will show you later” but Abraham did not reply, “Well, if I’m going to go, could you at least give me a hint, a general direction, a region on the map?” No, Abraham just went–no map, no end destination. Just a wing and a prayer, a dream of starry skies and sandy seashores and a home country out there . . . somewhere.
What does the person of faith look like, I wonder? Is he the easy-chair person who ponders all the right creeds in his mind or is she the holy blur of ministry who practices faith through the work of her hands more than she ponders it in her head? The person of faith is, of course, both. The person of faith knows something all right. The person of faith knows the truth of the one Word: Jesus came to this earth because God is love; Jesus came to tell us that and to show us that and even to go to hell and back to convince us of that. The person of faith knows that singular Logos, that one gospel Word, that joyous creed.
But the person of faith knows also the many words of Jesus and is driven forward in life by the command that we love one another. So this person can’t only sit still, can’t only recline in faith’s easy chair to think about a creed. The glorious truths that we ponder through our doctrines force us to get moving, too. Faith is an active journey and it is often a perilous journey at that in a world that is still as mixed-up and confused as this one. We do have to do the Abraham-like thing of stepping out on faith, pressing forward in ministry even though we can’t always see the road ahead as clearly as we might like. We even press on knowing that there are potholes and dangers up ahead.
What does the person of faith look like, I wonder? He, she looks like Jesus, the One who so often sat down to teach but then always got up again to perform loving deeds. The person of faith looks like Jesus, the still-center of all comfort and joy and the ever-moving Son of God who knew better than anyone how much work there is to be done. The person of faith looks like Jesus who, even after his resurrection, did not sit around but said “Behold, I am going ahead of you into Galilee.” He’s always going on ahead of us. The person of faith who remains in the Word is always eager to follow.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 32 is one of the seven penitential Psalms in the Psalter. Not surprisingly, the Revised Common Lectionary sees it as a perfect fit for the season of Lent. Indeed, I wrote on Psalm 32 just a few months ago for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (cf. the entry for Feb. 29 in the Sermon Starter Archive on this same website). The fact that it comes up again so soon may be a bit disconcerting to the preacher, but it is also helpful. This rapid return to Psalm 32 on this 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time is a good reminder that penitence is not just a Lenten thing; it should be a part of ordinary Christian living and worship.
I have some anecdotal evidence that it’s not. A colleague of mine reported on his experience in a church he had never visited before. He was alarmed that there was no confession of sin or assurance of pardon in the liturgy for the service. That “service of reconciliation” has been a standard feature of historical Reformed worship for centuries, so he was dismayed that it was missing.
I wasn’t surprised. As I preach in various churches around West Michigan, I hear a fair amount of discontent with any theology that emphasizes sin. “It’s such a downer, and we want to be lifted up.” The last time I preached on another of the penitential Psalms (51), I saw many downcast eyes and unhappy faces in the congregation. It was very clear that they didn’t appreciate a careful examination of sin and guilt and confession. “We’ve had enough of that; let’s move on.”
Plus, such an emphasis on confession of sin may be a big turn off to seekers who are unfamiliar with all things Christian. Those who have drunk deeply at the wells of postmodern relativism probably won’t have a strong sense of sin or any understanding of objective guilt (as opposed to guilty feelings). So a Psalm that focuses on confession will be like a message from another planet or at least from another time, a relic from the bad old days.
A pastorally sensitive and evangelistically motivated preacher will have to take account of these negative reactions to Psalm 32. But we shouldn’t skip around this profound Psalm because it is really about joy. How can we help folks find the joy of forgiveness? That’s the essential message and central purpose of Psalm 32. It begins with its conclusion. “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven….”
Here is a message that should appeal to both turned off church members and uninformed seekers. Contrary to Psalm 1, which says that it is those who walk in God’s ways who are happy, Psalm 32 says it is those who have strayed but have been forgiven who are happy. That is not an invitation to stray. It is an assurance to the straying, to the Prodigal living in the pig pen, that there is a way home again, a way to be happy again.
I want to suggest four things that will help you preach Psalm 32 in a way that will make Prodigal children sing and dance with their Father. First, stress the idea of blessedness, particularly the blessedness that comes with being forgiven. As I said above, many people will have negative associations with this whole business of confessing sin, so we must emphasize that the Psalm begins and ends with great joy. While the Psalms are filled with beatitudes, the double beatitude here, along with the triple description of forgiveness, suggests that the highest blessedness, the blessedness from which all other blessings flow, is forgiveness.
To help people experience the joy of being forgiven by God, focus on the three words Psalm 32 uses to describe forgiveness. The Hebrew word translated “forgiveness” in verse 1 has to do with the lifting of a burden. Work with the idea of struggling through life under the heavy load of sin and guilt. The next word is “covered,” which suggests that God can’t even see the ugly blemish of our sin anymore. The end result, says verse 2, is that the Lord “does not count our sin against us.” That’s an accounting term; think of God cancelling debt or, as Romans 4 puts it more positively, giving us the credit of Christ’s righteousness. The lifting of a burden, the covering of an ugly stain, and the cancelling of a debt are all images that will resonate with even the most biblically illiterate seeker. No wonder God’s forgiveness brings happiness unmatched in human experience.
However, some listeners might still be put off by the whole idea of confession. Granted that forgiveness is a blessing, what we have to do in order to experience that blessing is so difficult that many won’t want to go there. It’s too degrading, too embarrassing, too painful, too demanding. So, in the second place, we need to help people realize that it is even more difficult to live with un-confessed sin. David expresses that is verses 3 and 4. “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long…. my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.”
Modern psychology has taught us a great deal about the physical symptoms of emotional stress. Psalm 32 teaches us about the physical symptoms of un-confessed sin. These few words of Psalm 32 are expanded by Psalm 38, which goes on at great length to describe the day to day reality of sin-caused suffering. That is not to say that all suffering is directly caused by some specific sin we have committed. It is to say that keeping silent about our sin will make us suffer physically. Not confessing sin doesn’t just keep us separated from God (spiritual death), but it also takes a deathly toll on our bodies.
David adds a disturbing spiritual note to the negative physical consequences of keeping silent about our sin. He says that “day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon me.” Most scholars I’ve consulted ignore this part of Psalm 32, because it raises all kinds of hard questions about the relationship between our sin and our suffering and God’s anger (cf. Psalm 38:1-3). This will be a real turn-off to many of your listeners, but they will notice it. So what do we say?
Well, we can’t say that God sends this suffering upon us to punish us for our sins. Job’s friends and Jesus’ disciples (John 9:1ff) voiced that common Jewish wisdom, but God in Christ said they were wrong about that. What we can say is that God uses our suffering to bring us to repentance. Not punishment, but chastening is the right idea. Like a loving parent, God chastens us through our suffering, so that we come back to God in repentance and faith. This will not be a popular idea, but it does assure us that God never leaves us alone, even in our suffering. In his stern love, he uses even the pain of life to do us good.
To further avoid the idea that God is hard-nosed, and even heartless, we must show how swiftly and powerfully God forgives those who confess their sin. In verses 5 and 6, David describes how he came out of his suffering silence. It was not easy; it took effort; it may have taken him some time to do it. After all, he suffered “day and night” under the weight and heat of his sins. But as soon as he confessed, God forgave. It is instructive that it took David three lines to express his penitence and one line to describe God’s response. God is slow to anger, but swift to forgive.
David helps us a great deal with his three line description of confession. In the first line, he teaches us that confession is an acknowledgment of sin, admitting that what we did was wrong and what God says is right. It is not enough to talk about errors, or mistakes, or misjudgments, or faux pas, or slip ups, or mis-speaking. We must acknowledge sin to God—to God, for it is ultimately God against whom we have sinned. Only this will lift the burden, cancel the debt and cover the blemish.
It is significant that David talks about not “covering up my iniquity.” God wants our sins covered as much as we do, but only God can do that. If we try to cover our sins, sin will only go underground and rot and cause an infection that will be deadly. Only if we uncover our sin, only if we stop lying about it, only if, as verse 2 puts it, there is no deceit in our spirit—only then can we truly confess our sin.
And finally, in verse 5 David reports that he said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” I will speak to God out loud about my sin. This is crucial. It is not enough to think about my sin, to feel badly about it, to plan to stop, to strive to be better. David says that there is no remedy for sin until we confess it out loud to God. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever benefited from psychotherapy. Brueggemann put it this way. “Long before Freud, this Psalmist understood the power of speech, the need for spoken release and admission, the liberation that comes with actual articulation to the one who listens and can respond.”
That brings me to the fourth thing you should emphasize in order to help people experience joy when they hear this Psalm and, consequently, confess their sin and receive forgiveness. It’s that word in what Brueggemann just said—“liberation.” In another place Brueggemann puts it this way. “Forgiveness permits the freedom to get on with living.” In verse 6 and 7, the Psalmist describes the new life that comes to those who have been forgiven. When they know that they are once again right with God, they experience the security our world so desperately seeks.
“Therefore, let everyone who is godly [not because they are perfect, but because they have been perfectly forgiven], pray to you…, surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble.” Those words about mighty waters are probably a reference to ancient ideas about the waters of chaos and evil, but they will evoke more recent memories of flooded Southern States and a hurricane soaked East Coast. In a world filled with trouble, what a comfort it is to know that we have a place to hide. That place is a person, the person who has seen us at our worst, heard our humble confession, and accepted us into his everlasting arms. Confession of sins results not only in peace with God (though that is central), but also in a more peaceful existence amid the troubled waters of this world.
When preached positively as suggested above, Psalm 32 is anything but a downer. It is the ultimate upper. No wonder our reading ends with the Psalmist surrounded “with songs of deliverance.” When we have been so blessed, “how can we keep from singing?”
Oh, one more word. Don’t forget Jesus when you preach on Psalm 32. David doesn’t mention him, of course, but the fact is that the kind of forgiveness described and experienced and promised in Psalm 32 would not be possible without the sacrifice of Christ. How could a holy God simply lift our burden, cover our ugliness, and cancel our debt?
In Romans 4:6-8 Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2 as part of his teaching on justification and forgiveness. But Romans 4 depends on Romans 3, where Paul says that we are justified and forgiven only because Jesus was the atoning sacrifice for our sins (verse 25). His sacrifice satisfied God’s justice, which had, hitherto, only passed over sins (verses 25, 26). That is a difficult and currently unpopular thought, to be sure, but it is necessary if we are to assure people that God really does, in good conscience and with full knowledge and complete righteousness, forgive all our sins. On that sacrifice all of our happiness depends.
Regarding my last point about the role of Jesus’ sacrifice in securing our forgiveness, an article in the Washington Post might be helpful. Sgt. Joseph Serna had been through a lot. The former Special Forces soldier did four combat tours in Afghanistan over a nearly two-decades-long career in the Army. Through those years, he was almost killed three times: once by a suicide bomber and then again by a roadside IED. During a tour in 2008, Serna and three other soldiers were driving down a narrow dirt road in Kandahar when their armored truck toppled into a canal. As water filled the vehicle, Serna struggled to escape. It was a fellow soldier, Sgt. James Treber, who saved him. He pulled Serna from the vehicle, but then died himself.
While Serna’s years in combat earned him many military accolades, including three Purple Hearts, he was unable to leave the battlefield behind him. He suffers from PTSD and has been charged with driving under the influence. He entered a veterans’ treatment program over which District Court Judge Lou Olivera presides. Serna has fought to stay sober, but he recently confessed to Olivera that he lied about a urine test.
Olivera sentenced him to one day in jail, and drove Serna to his cell himself. Then the judge did a compassionate thing. “When Joe came to turn himself in, he was trembling. So I decided that I’d spend the night serving with him.” Afraid that a night in jail would trigger Serna’s PTSD, this compassionate judge spent the whole 24 hour sentence in the cell with the hurting soldier.
We are moved by such unexpected compassion. How much more should we be moved to sing songs of deliverance by what God has done for us in Christ! Serna was a warrior wounded in brave service to our country. We were enemies of God (Romans 5:10) and Christ not only came into our cell for a night, but gave his life in the darkness of Calvary. “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) No wonder Psalm 32 opens with the double “blessed are….”
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Author: Scott Hoezee
“To that end . . .” begins 2 Thessalonians 1:11. Ah, but inquiring minds want to know to WHICH end and why? What is the antecedent to this? The Revised Common Lectionary would have you remain ignorant of that by suggesting that you politely skip over verses 5-10 so that you are left only with Paul’s typically warm words of thanksgiving in verses 1-4 and then some equally warm words of encouragement in verses 11-12 about God’s making us worthy so God and Christ may be glorified in us.
Yes, yes, but what about that transition phrase in verse 11 that clearly harks back to something prior? Well, that’s a judgment passage that we should delete in order to keep things positive and upbeat and so as to prevent God from looking the least bit wrathful over against sin and sinners. Because that is the theme of verses 5-10: When Christ returns, those who find themselves on the wrong side of history on account of their lifelong efforts to thwart God or ignore his plans for this creation will suddenly discover that there is a cosmic right and wrong, a universal form of justice after all. And the God and the Savior Jesus Christ who embody that righteousness are going to deal with those who fought against it, and it may well not be very pretty.
And indeed the idea of God’s inflicting vengeance on his enemies and sending at least some of them eternally away from his presence in what we have traditionally referred to as Hell—all of that is unsettling. And let’s also admit that no Christian whose heart is saturated with the love of Christ should read such verses in a fist-pumping manner of enthusiasm as we as much as shout to the receivers of that vengeance “See ya later, suckers!!! Boo-Yah! You’re finally getting what you got coming to you!”
No, no, Christians should hope—and should live and witness in such a way to help make it possible—that Hell will be a very under-populated realm. We should have holy sorrow over those who might face a separation from the God who is everyone’s only true source of Life, yes, even those who are for now unaware of that or resistant to the claim. And if now and then in the deep recesses of our hearts we hope that God may yet find a way to apply salvation universally and so bring into the New Creation a whole lot of people who are most certainly not candidates for that in this life, well . . . you can understand why we will hope for that even as we should hope we won’t be disappointed, either, in case our own enemies get into the kingdom after all.
Still . . . even if we hope for God’s saving more people rather than fewer and even if we succeed at resisting the temptation of schadenfreude to finally see old so-and-so finally get his comeuppance by getting lashed with fiery whips, it is even so not right to ignore the parts of the Bible that speak of this. And in the context of 2 Thessalonians 1, I’d like to advance two reasons why we preachers need to engage the Lectionary verses in their proper context here (and also elsewhere in other passages that the Lectionary likewise edits around judgment themes).
First, we are not going to take the reality of sin and evil seriously enough if we cannot allow God to be deadly serious about it. Evil is not something that is just a little messed up. Evil is not just something that’s a tad bit icky now and then. Evil is not the proverbial cosmic glass of spilled milk. It is a very real, very dark power. It is an affront to all that is holy in God and all that was intended to be good in this creation. And it is a force for destruction, for the shredding of human lives and of all life in all its forms. It strips noble creatures made in the image of God and reduces them to garbage, to objects, to disposable means to some grim end. As theologian Neal Plantinga has written, sin is very simply vandalistic of shalom.
Now and then we glimpse this ourselves. Even as finite creatures who cannot come close to having a sense for holiness and righteousness on a par with God, we now and then see things that we know are so wrong, so evil, so raw that we want to scream. We see children in Aleppo, hollow-eyed and dazed, covered with blood and dirt from the evil of mortar fire. We see a little refugee boy from Syria washed up dead on a Turkish beach. We see Christians beheaded by ISIS, crucified for their faith, burned alive and terrorized. We see 6 million Jews annihilated by the Nazis and far more disappeared by Stalin in the following years. We see innocent children shot to death in the crossfire of woeful gun violence on the south side of Chicago. And even we, finite as we are and being such an admixture of good and bad ourselves, even we cannot but recoil and recognize that THIS cannot stand, THIS cannot be the last word, THIS needs to be dealt with be it ever so severely.
We cannot write off evil as something that can be waved away. And we should be glad to serve a God who is rightly offended and angered by it. Who would want a God who met it all with a shrug? We cannot even stand to see another human being take some cold, callous attitude toward dead children in Aleppo. Why would we want a God to be that way?
Second, we cannot properly revel in eternal gratitude over our own salvation by grace alone until and unless we see it against the backdrop of what we otherwise would so richly deserve. “To that end” Paul says at the head of verse 11 and what follows is a desire for the love of God to flare anew in the hearts of the Thessalonians not only so that they can avoid the grim fate of others that Paul sketched out in verses 5-10 but also so that the glory of salvation in Jesus Christ may shine forth the more brightly for all to see. There is so much goodness in Jesus and so much good work we can do on Jesus’ behalf. When we know more keenly how bad the alternatives are for those who wallow in sin and evil, this only increases our gratitude and also our resolve to let more and more people know how great is the love of God in the salvation he so freely offers in Christ.
In my Reformed tradition one of the more grim of our confessions is something called the Canons of Dort. It sketches the Five Points of classic Calvinism, including the depth of human depravity and the complete inability of any human being to contribute to his or her own salvation even the tiniest little bit. But for John Calvin the need to be that unrelenting about our human helplessness as grave sinners served but one glorious purpose: to let the grace of God in Christ Jesus shine and shine and shine ever more brightly. Whittle away at how bad sin is, and grace loses that much more of its luster. This was something Calvin could not countenance because of how precious God’s grace is. Grace is the animating center of our very lives.
We should not want anything to diminish grace’s luminosity. Not even a fraction of a little bit.
Two thoughts: First, historically the people who had the greatest longing for heaven and for the coming of God’s justice were those who were the most oppressed and persecuted. Some while ago a study of hymns was done across the last two centuries. It was unsurprising to find that African Americans—particularly during and after the period of slavery in the U.S.—tended to sing the most songs about “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and other songs about going home to Jesus. Economic hard times for all people also saw increased singing about the coming of justice and the desire for heaven. But by the time you got to the 1950s when prosperity was settling in across the land, songs about and sermons about heaven waned and when even better economic times came in the late 20th century, heaven-talk in song or sermon was almost non-existent. Sometimes our resistance to thinking about God’s judgment, the coming of his justice, and the bringing in of his kingdom stems from our not suffering much ourselves. The Thessalonians no doubt had a different take on it all.
Second, C.S. Lewis once mused that when it came to anyone’s being separated from God, it was rather a matter of giving in to people’s wishes. People who throughout their lives refused to say to God “Your will be done” may have God end up saying, “Fine, you have never wanted to be a part of me or my kingdom, you have distanced yourself from me and so YOUR will be done—you will have no part of me now either.” Lewis may or may not be right about that but it’s a point to ponder.