November 09, 2020
The Proper 28A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 25:14-30 from the Lectionary Gospel; Judges 4:1-7 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 42 (Lord’s Day 16)
Author: Scott Hoezee
“Well done, good and faithful servant.” How often haven’t we heard—or even spoken—these words at the funeral of some beloved member of the church? How often haven’t we seen these words etched onto tombstones in a cemetery or printed on the cover of the memorial folder for a funeral? This is what every believer hopes to hear his or her Lord say when approaching those proverbial “pearly gates” of heaven.
Since no less than Jesus himself speaks these words twice in Matthew 25, there is no denying that they carry biblical clout. But is it really a great idea to latch onto this phrase and use it as the be-all and end-all of how we assess what the Christian life is all about?
I thought we were saved by grace alone!
We do teach that, and yet I have long held the suspicion that a lot of people come to church each week with the nagging fear that they are not “good enough” for God. Hence, a lot of even the most virtuous of Christian deeds get fueled by guilt and fear accompanied by an overwhelming desire to hear God say “Well done . . .” when the roll is called up yonder.
So a main job of gospel preachers is again and again to proclaim the real good news that in Christ, we are all saved by grace. If we are in Christ, then what God will say to us at the end of days is not in question and is most certainly not determined by whatever grade we managed to achieve on the Report Card of life.
So what is Christian living? Where does it fit? Maybe the Parable of the Talents gives us a ready-made answer and maybe it is one that ties in with an image Eugene Peterson has used. Peterson says that in most languages (like English, for instance) there are just two verb voices: the Active and the Passive. In the Active Voice, the subject is solely responsible to initiate action: “The boy throws the ball.” “I am painting the wall.” In the Passive Voice something is done TO the subject: “The boy was hit by the ball.” “The tree got struck by lightning.” This linguistic way of talking affects our thinking in other areas: we assume that all of life comes down to a choice between our initiating activity or activity being visited upon us. Either I do it or someone else does it but there is not much in between.
But in the Greek language there is also the Middle Voice. In the Middle Voice the subject enters into an action that was started by someone else and that will ultimately be finished by someone else. It’s sort of like jumping with an inner tube into an already-flowing river. You didn’t create the river nor cause the current to flow. What’s more, it will keep flowing to its destination even if you hop out of the river at some point. But in the meantime you can jump in, float happily on the current, and also do things to steer yourself well, to position yourself well, to avoid rocks and overhanging tree limbs, etc.
And the Christian life, Peterson suggests, is like that. We are saved by God’s grace alone but then are also given the opportunity to jump into that already flowing river of grace. The river and everything we get a chance to do while floating in it are ultimately all the work of God. Our actions in the river would not be possible were it not for God. But what a joy and privilege it is to be in that river at all!
Of course, if like the third servant you are convinced that there is no joy to be had—that the Master is a “hard man” who is more to be feared than loved—then even grace cannot make a dent. But if you catch all the joy of the grace that kicks all this off in the first place, it makes all the difference in the world in what you then do in response.
In the Parable of the Talents, although the third servant missed it, the very giving of the talents was itself a divinely initiated act of grace. Everything else that happened after that was all a direct result of grace, grace, grace. What we do in the midst of this great river of grace is important and every true follower of Jesus who knows and experiences something of his holy joy must want to get in on “the master’s happiness” with every fiber of their being.
Indeed, we demonstrate that we understand this joy when we do throw ourselves into such Christian living wholeheartedly. Hence, the motivation for getting busy with our talents is not fear and not guilt but the very joy with which those talents were handed out in the first place! And it’s not a matter of what we do versus what God does but is a matter of our cooperating with God by participating with God in his great program of cosmic restoration!
Frederick Dale Bruner notes that a talent was a huge denomination of currency in Jesus’ day. One talent would have been the equivalent of a lifetime’s worth of wages! But as Bruner notes, that means that what this master gave away at the outset of this story was a whopping sum of money. And to Bruner’s mind, that is semaphore for grace. Giving that much away indicates the master’s confidence in these people and is indeed a shorthand way of getting at the idea that this story begins with grace. The question for each servant is not firstly what will he do with what he has been given but will he realize what the very reception of this means?
Near the end of C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” Aslan the Lion takes Lucy, Edmund, Peter and everyone to the New Narnia–to what we would call “heaven” or the New Creation. It is a place of astonishing light and beauty; a place where every blade of grass seems to mean more and where every creature sings for the sheer joy of the Creator. It is a place where everything is just so real in depth and color that the mere sight of a daisy takes your breath away and makes you weep for the sheer beauty of the thing.
But then, in the midst of all this splendor, the children see a group of dwarves huddled together, convinced that they are sitting in the rank stench of a barn–a place so dark that they cannot see their hands in front of their faces. Lucy is so upset that the dwarves are not enjoying the New Narnia that she begs Aslan to help them to see. Aslan replies, “Dearest Lucy, I will show you what I can do and what I cannot do.” Aslan then shakes his golden mane and a sumptuous banquet instantly appears in front of the dwarves. Each dwarf is given a plate heaped with juicy meats, glistening vegetables, plump grains of rice. Each also receives a goblet brimming with the finest wine anyone could ever imagine.
But when the dwarves dive in and begin eating, they start gagging and complaining.
“Doesn’t this beat all,” they lament. “Not only are we in this stinking stable but now we’ve got to eat hay and dried cow dung as well!” When they sip the wine, they sputter, “And look at this now! Dirty water out of a donkey’s trough!” The dwarves, Aslan goes on to say, had chosen suspicion instead of trust and love. They were prisoners of their own minds. They could not see Aslan’s gift of the New Narnia for they would not see it. Aslan can but leave them alone to the hell of their own devising.
Might something similar be going on with the third servant in this parable? Could it be that he just could not see the goodness of his master, choosing fear and suspicion over hope and joy?
Author: Stan Mast
We are nearly at the end of our journey through Ordinary Time. Next Sunday is the celebration of Christ the King and then the liturgical year begins again with Advent. This first Lectionary reading for today is at once discouraging and encouraging, depending on where we focus our attention.
Similarly, Israel has come to the end of their journey. We have followed them from the olden days of the patriarchs when God called Abraham from Haran with the promise of a new land where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived as resident aliens. We spent a lot of time with Jacob’s children in Egypt and in the wilderness. Recently, we have watched them enter the Promised Land and conquer it with God’s help. God has kept all his promises to them and they are home at last.
But they are not at peace. Last week, we witnessed that great covenant renewal ceremony at the end of the book of Joshua. Israel promised three times that they would serve Yahweh and Yahweh alone. In dramatic fashion they backed up their words with the deed of throwing away their foreign gods. Their loyalty lasted as long as Joshua was alive, but then began the cycle we see in our reading from Judges 4.
Israel was home, but not at peace. They were still surrounded by enemies outside their borders and within their borders. They were constantly being raided by outside nations seeking plunder and they were attacked again and again by close neighbors seeking to drive the Israelite invaders from their ancestral lands. They were not at peace with their enemies because they were not at peace with their own God. Incredibly, the gods of their enemies were a constant source of temptation to Israel, so God stopped fighting for Israel (Judges 2:2-3, 21-23).
Our story of Deborah is the fourth account of what happened when Israel went after other gods and their God let them go. Israel sinned (“did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh”). “So Yahweh sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan….” He “had nine hundred iron chariots and… cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years….” After all those years of suffering under the hand of Jabin’s general, Sisera, Israel “cried to Yahweh for help.” Finally, as he had done before in similar situations, Yahweh raised up a judge to deliver his foolish, sinful, suffering people.
What a judge she was, a hero for every woman who has ever chafed under the nearly monolithic patriarchalism of the Old Testament! Deborah was a prophetess who spoke directly for God. She was a judge who “held court” under a palm tree named for her, settling disputes for the Israelites. She became a warrior when general Barak, God’s choice to lead an army against the Canaanites, begged her to go with him into battle (verse 8). And, for good measure, she was a mother (Judges 5:7).
For reasons impenetrable to me, the Lectionary stops our reading even before Barak begs Deborah to accompany him into battle, so we have no idea how it all turns out. But if we finish this pericope, we learn not only that Sisera’s army of chariots has been routed, but also that Sisera himself has been assassinated in gruesome fashion by (are you ready?) a woman named Jael.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, this story is both discouraging and encouraging. It is tremendously discouraging because of Israel’s repeated defection to foreign gods. In spite of their ancestors’ solemn and sincere avowal of loyalty to Yahweh alone, these children and grandchildren and great grandchildren did not keep that vow. No matter how many times God allowed them to suffer for their disloyalty and no matter how often Yahweh rescued them from their persecutors, they kept going back to the gods of the very people they had just defeated. You can’t make up this kind of folly.
Judges tells the story of 3 generations of God’s people who were caught in a long slow downward spiral into violence and corruption and suffering that would end in the Exile. God had said this would happen if they forsook him, and God kept his word. Or rather, God’s word proved to be absolutely accurate. This is exactly what happens when God’s people leave the God they loved.
This ought to be discouraging to us, because there is a real sense in which Israel is us. Though we don’t recognize it when it’s happening, how many times have we suffered because we went running after other gods? Throughout the history of the church, God’s people have been attracted by the objects and people and ideas and movements that seem to make our neighbors happy and successful. We blame our suffering on our enemies, both internal and external, but could it be that the Lord has “sold us into the hands of…?”
I know, that’s not the kind of talk people want to hear today. Neither did the Israelites. But as they sat there by the willows of Babylon, wondering what in the world had happened to them, they needed to hear the bad news of Judges (and the other historical books of the Old Testament). Hopefully, God’s people today won’t wait for 20 years before they cry out to the Lord in their distress.
But there is also great encouragement in this representative story. The Good News is that our faithful covenant God hears the cries of his people, even when they are merely cries of pain, not repentance. What mercy! After giving them over to the results of their own sin, God listens even when they don’t cry, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” but simply, “Help, help, help!”
Again and again, throughout Israel’s history and the church’s history, God has responded by raising up prophetesses, judges, warriors, mothers and fathers, women and men to bring salvation to sinners. Of course, the real hero in this story is Yahweh, who gave Sisera into the hands of Deborah, Barak, and Jael. With our justifiable contemporary interest in correcting centuries of gender discrimination, we might focus too much on that feature of this story. It is, after all, a stunning chapter in redemptive history, and two women loom large in it.
But fundamentally, this is simply another example of how God delivers through a complex nexus of humans, and we will never be able to figure out whom it will be. That is encouraging for contemporary believers. We can’t imagine how God can lead us to victory in today’s world. But this story shows us that God can raise up any person, any combination of persons to deliver his people from their sins.
One of the thematic lines that runs through this book of Judges is, “in those days there was no king in the land.” Clearly, that was written in the days of the monarchy when there was a king in the land or in the days of the Exile when once again there was no king in the land. The absence of a king meant that people could do whatever they wanted. The last verse of Judges sums it up. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” And, thus, ruin came as depicted so graphically in Judges 17-21.
Of course, there was a King in the Land, but the Israelites couldn’t see him the way they could see the gods of their neighbors. So, they kept pledging allegiance to their invisible King, but serving those visible little gods. After a time, Yahweh yielded to their frantic pleas for a visible king, but that didn’t work either. Those human kings were as flawed as those gods. And things went from bad to worse, to the ruin of Exile.
Then, in the fulness of time, God raised up a little child who would be judge, warrior, prophet, priest, and king. History had demonstrated that no mere human, however gifted, charismatic, powerful, and righteous, could save God’s people from their sins. Only God himself could do that. In the complex nexus of divine and human that was Jesus Christ, God did it.
It is fascinating and disheartening that contemporary culture so closely parallels this ancient story. We suffer under a pandemic, and racial discord, and economic inequality, and near civil war, and inept leadership, but do we cry out to God, “Be merciful to us, sinners?” No, instead month after month, we flail about uttering what Annie Lamott says is one of the two constant prayers of humanity. “Help me, help me, help me!” And we hear nothing of the second universal prayer, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Psalm 90:1-8 (9-11), 12
Author: Scott Hoezee
If you bring together this week’s Psalm text with the Gospel text from Matthew 25, you may notice something curious. In Psalm 90 we are given some sober warnings about not taking God’s wrath lightly. The psalmist claims God had already afflicted his people for a long while and could do so again if they did not watch their step and try to live God-glorifying lives in the future. I will comment more on this aspect of Psalm 90 below.
But first notice that in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, having an undue fear of the Master and of his anger was the problem that kept the third servant in the story from doing what the first two servants did: namely, go out and make more out of the original sum given to each. The third servant’s timidity and hence his just stashing his talent away rather than risk losing it was premised on the idea that his Master was “a hard man.” Had he had more trust in his Master’s goodness and generosity as the first two servants had, he might have been OK.
So which is it? Psalm 90’s message to cower before the potential wrath of God or Matthew 25’s message that we should trust that in the end our God is not a figure so to be feared as to paralyze us into inaction?
Maybe the apparent difference in the message of these two passages reflects the periods of salvation history when each text first appeared.
I always tell my students in Psalms class to not put too much stock in the superscriptions on many of the psalms. Sometimes it is suggested where a given psalm came from, as in Psalm 51 and the superscription’s claim that David wrote this after Nathan confronted him about Bathsheba. And many psalms are attributed to David or a few other figures. In the case of Psalm 90 we are told—and this is the only psalm with this superscription—that this was of Moses.
The problem is that these superscriptions were not part of the original text of the Psalms and so few believe they are inspired. Even those psalms where the author is identified it is not clear whether the indication is that David or Moses or whoever wrote the psalm or if this is dedicated to that person or if this was written in the spirit of David or Moses or some other figure. In any event, we should not pin too much on the superscriptions.
More likely some later interpreters looked at various psalms and concluded that, for instance, Psalm 51 sure looks like it could fit the Bathsheba story and so someone stuck that into the superscription at the head of the poem. So also with Psalm 90: Moses may or may not have had anything to do with the composition of this song but this sure looks like something Moses might have thought or written and so his name got associated with it.
The Psalm, after all, opens by claiming that God had been Israel’s dwelling place or “home” for many generations and that this was a good thing in that for a long time Israel was a wandering, nomadic people without a home. Surely this called to mind the 40 years in the wilderness and hence (again) the association with the time of Moses. The wilderness was surely a place where the transient and fragile nature of life would come to mind on a regular basis. Grass might spring up in parched land and flourish for a few hours but a stiff desert wind could wilt that same grass in the course of a single day. Human life is like that in the desert too. If God did not send the manna and give Israel fresh water to drink—in miraculous ways in a few stories—then they would be as dead as withered grass.
But, of course, Israel ended up in the wilderness for as long as they did because of their unbelief. The 40 years or wandering was a punishment for faithlessness. Hence Psalm 90’s meditation on God’s anger and on the prudent human need to avoid this anger by being obedient. But this then brings us back to this sermon starter’s opening question: how do we reconcile these somber warnings with the portrait of grace we get from Matthew 25 and its parabolic warning to trust God rather than fearing God?
Let’s just admit that for most of us who preach and for most people who listen to sermons, we don’t often talk like Psalm 90. We don’t try to frighten people into straightening up and flying right. If it is true that Psalm 90 seems to go overboard in pondering God’s wrath, we today in the church may go too far the other direction in not giving God’s anger or God’s offense over sin much thought.
There is something right about that. We are saved by grace alone. The Gospel is Good News, not depressing and fearful news. If salvation is left up to us, we fail every time. Thanks be to God, then, that Christ came and fulfilled all righteousness for us and then credited all of that righteousness to our spiritual bank accounts.
What we may forget, though, is that God’s sadness and hence anger over sin was real. It’s just that now that we are this far on the other side of Psalm 90’s period of salvation history, we now celebrate that God poured out that wrath on Jesus on the cross. The cost of our salvation was high because the price to be paid was so enormous.
No, as Christians saved by grace we should not go around cowering all our lives like a dog with a rolled up newspaper poised over his head. Jesus, after all, invited us to call God our Father and our Father clearly loves us. However, that does not mean we should forget what happened on the cross and the soul-crushing hell of what Jesus endured on our behalf. Jesus had to die not just any old death but specifically a cursed death because that is what sin did to God’s originally good creation: it cursed it.
Psalm 90, then, need not induce fear in us by pointing out God’s righteous anger on sin. But since we know what Jesus did, Psalm 90 can induce profound gratitude in us in taking all that heat for us.
Few writers in recent times have done as good a job at reminding us of the meaning of the cross than Fleming Rutledge in her landmark 2015 book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. In particular Rutledge highlights the curse of the cross and also the horrible public shaming of Jesus that the cross and that particular kind of death entailed. Appreciating both aspects is vital to understanding the how and the why of Christ’s death.
At one point Rutledge recalls the terrible death in 2000 of the young gay man Matthew Shepherd. Shepherd appears to have been tortured and beaten before finally being murdered by some local anti-gay thugs. When they were finished with their evil deed, they tied Shepherd’s body to a fence, a grim display for all to see. One of the police officers who found Shepherd’s body commented later to a local newspaper on the horror of the spectacle, saying that they tied him up “like a scarecrow” and also commenting that it reminded this police officer “of a crucifixion.”
We don’t like to think of God’s anger or wrath over sin. But it is real. That is why Jesus was hoisted up on a wooden spike, like a scarecrow, shamefully on display for all to see just how cursed he had become.
I Thessalonians 5:1-11
Author: Doug Bratt
At the end of the fourth chapter of his letter to the Thessalonians Paul addresses the issue of what happens to people after we die. Now, at the beginning of his fifth chapter, he addresses the issue of the fate of those who are still alive at when Christ returns.
Apparently during his visit to Thessalonica Paul taught its Christians about what he calls in verse 2 “the day of the Lord.” He probably explained that that day would be one of judgment. So the Thessalonian Christians seemed to wonder how naturally sinful people can prepare for such a dreadful day.
Apparently, however, they also tried to solve that problem by trying to calculate what Paul calls the “times and dates” of Christ’s return (1). We sense the Thessalonians made these calculations because they assumed they could best prepare for Christ’s coming by knowing when exactly he’ll arrive. After all, we generally like to know in advance when guests are arriving so that we can adequately prepare for their visit.
Paul, however, insists that knowing Christ’s return’s date in advance is not the best way to prepare for it. To begin with, no one can know its date. Jesus said that even he didn’t know the date of his own return. In fact, Paul can go on in verse 2 to compare “the day of the Lord” to the arrival of “a thief in the night.”
While various parts of Scripture seem to hint at the time of Jesus’ return, Paul insists that God won’t give advance notice as to when exactly Christ is coming back. So in verse 3 he can add, “When people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman.”
In fact, while he compares Christ’s return’s suddenness to the onset of labor pains, it may turn out to be even more sudden than labor pains for modern pregnant women. They, after all, have things like due dates. Yet the analogy still has some validity today. After all, labor pains still sometimes start suddenly when we least expect them.
So if Jesus’ followers can’t prepare for his return by knowing its exact date, how can we prepare for it? Quite simply, we prepare for Christ’s return by remaining what Paul calls in verse 6 “alert and self-controlled.”
Think back to Paul’s analogy of a break-in. Burglars surprise people because they generally come at night. We can’t see them coming and are usually sound asleep. So people are generally unprepared for a burglar’s nocturnal visit.
That’s why Paul says that Christ’s return may be like the visit of a friend . . . or the break-in of a burglar. He will come in the middle of the night for people who live in spiritual darkness. For them it will be like a thief’s break-in because they’ve done nothing to prepare for it.
Yet Christ’s return will be a daytime one for Christians. We are, after all, what Paul calls in verse 5 children of “the light” and of “the day.” By God’s Spirit, God has shone God’s light in our hearts, graciously alerting us to, among other things, the imminence of Christ’s return. So readiness for that return depends on whether we’ve live in spiritual darkness or in spiritual light.
Perhaps a colleague’s analogy will help. When the sun sets, you turn off your lights, close your curtains and go to bed. You sleep well because you know that your favorite cousin is coming for a visit on the following day.
Because you’re tired, however, you oversleep. So you’re not aware that the sun has risen because you’re still asleep and your curtains remain closed. One member of your family, however, wakes at sunrise. She gets up and opens her curtains to let the sun stream in. Through her window she sees your cousin walk to the front door. That member of your family is ready to welcome him because she’s awake, alert and in the light.
Of course, proper spiritual alertness is more than mental. Our spiritual alertness for Christ’s return reveals itself, Paul goes on to write in verse 8, in the way we live. Those who are alert for Christ’s return act, talk and think the way Jesus did, as though Christ were going to return in the next thirty seconds. Yet we aren’t just Christ-like because we realize that the world may end tomorrow. Christians also realize that we may not have a tomorrow to surrender our lives to Christ.
However, God’s adopted children aren’t just alert and self-controlled in anticipation of Christ’s imminent return. We also properly “dress” ourselves for that return. In verse 8 Paul goes on to challenge Christians to put “on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”
Those who know Christ may return at any time also know that Satan will attack us until the very moment Christ comes back. The evil one especially attacks Jesus’ followers by trying to convince us that Christ’s return should terrify us because we deserve God’s eternal condemnation.
To ward off that attack, Paul challenges his readers to cultivate the virtues of faith, love and hope. Those gifts nourish humble confidence in us because they remind us that our eternal fate is not up to us, but to God whose grace we’ve received with our faith.
That hope that we nourish, however, isn’t tentative like, for instance, our hope that we’ll develop a vaccine for COVID-19 before Christmas. We know that God will give us what we hope for because it’s based, as Paul goes on to write in verses 9-10, on God’s gracious work in Christ.
The heart of the hope those who anticipate Christ’s imminent return cultivate is that God, as Paul writes in verse 9, “did not appoint us to suffer wrath.” God hasn’t chosen to let God’s adopted sons and daughters endure the hellacious condemnation our sins deserve. Instead. Christians’ sure hope is that God has graciously chosen to give us what Paul calls in verse 9 “salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
What’s more, Paul writes in verse 10, Christ “died for us so that . . . we may live together with him.” He died that his followers might live in constant fellowship with him, both now but even more fully in the new creation’s glory.
Yet even for those whom God has prepared for Christ’s return by giving us salvation and life, the world can be a tough place. We, for example, continue to deal with the twin horrors of a global pandemic and racial inequality. Americans also live under the dark cloud of deep political turmoil and division.
What’s more, we must often cope with the deaths of those we love. Jesus’ followers wonder about the well-being of those whom we love who will survive our death. Some of us also worry about the eternal fate of those we love.
In verse 11 Paul challenges the often-beleaguered Church and Christians to be a community of mutual “encouragement.” Brothers and sisters in Christ help each other prepare for Christ’s return by lovingly building up each other. That aid may range from simple smiles and hugs to more sacrificial patient listening, sympathy and friendship.
However, when we think of what he means by “encouragement,” we especially remember Paul’s advice in chapter 4:18 about “these words.” Paul’s treatment for the Thessalonians’ anxiety in the face of pain was largely theological.
So the source of our encouragement isn’t just our knowledge that Christ is coming back soon. For some of us, after all, that’s somewhat worrying rather than encouraging. Our comfort arises from the fact that the Christ who is coming back is the same Christ who died and rose for us.
In I Thessalonians 4:14 Paul assures us that “Jesus died and rose again and . . . that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” And in chapter 5:10 he adds that Christ “died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”
This is a difficult time for all who live under the clouds of a pandemic and racial injustice. We fear for the well-being of those we love as well as ourselves. We mourn with those who are sick and grieve. We worry about health care workers, first responders and those whose work is deemed necessary.
This sows seeds of worry and fear in the people we know and love, as well as many people around us. We need the encouragement about which Paul writes twice in the space of only about 12 verses.
The apostle insists that we don’t have to be afraid for those we love or ourselves. Nor must we worry about our fellow Christians. After all, death or Christ’s return, whichever comes first, leads Jesus’ followers into eternal fellowship with the Lord. We don’t have to be afraid of anything because the King who will soon come for us is also the One who lived, died and rose again for us.
When William Willimon was a young pastor, an uncle of a congregation member died suddenly. Though this man was not a member of his church, Willimon and his wife drove to a little Baptist church for the funeral.
After ushers wheeled the casket into the church, the pastor began to preach. With arms flailing, he thundered, “It’s too late for Joe! He might have wanted to do this or that in his life, but it’s too late for him now! He’s dead … He might have wanted to straighten out his life, but he can’t now. It’s finished!”
Yet the minister wasn’t finished: “But it ain’t too late for you! People drop dead every day, so why wait?! Too late for Joe but not for you! Make your life count, wake up and come to Jesus now!”
Willimon calls it the worst thing he’d ever heard. “Can you imagine a preacher doing that to a mourning family?’” he asked his wife in the car on their way home. “I’ve never heard anything so manipulative, cheap, and inappropriate! I would never preach a sermon like that.”
His wife agreed: it was tacky, calloused, and manipulative. “And of course,” she added, “the worst part is that everything he said was true.”
That pastor’s “encouragement” (12) may not have been the kind of encouragement we want. But it may just be the kind of encouragement we need.