November 11, 2019
The Proper 28C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 21:5-19 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 65:17-25 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 98 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1 (Lord’s Day 1)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Talk about the end of the world and everybody gets interested. The disciples were, too, when Jesus predicted some apocalyptic events. “Well,” they asked with faces a shade paler than they had been moments before, “when will all that bad stuff happen?” In answering them, Jesus gets even more vivid in predicting great and terrible things to come. But in reading this passage, I am struck by one of the quieter things he said: in verse 16 he says that the day would come when Jesus’ followers would be betrayed by even family members and friends.
And friends . . . We have an advantage over the disciples who first heard those words in that we’re able to glance across the page in our Bibles to see the heading for Luke 22: “Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus.” One wonders what thoughts flit through Judas’s mind when Jesus predicted that even friends would one day turn into betrayers. Did those words give Judas the idea? Probably not. He had been slouching in that direction within his heart for a while already. So did those words cause Judas to blush? To avert his eyes? To look down as his feet and shuffle his sandal in the dirt for a few moments?
Yes, we all like to focus on the big things, on the predictions that are apocalyptic in nature. But when you read Jesus’ words correctly in Luke 21 and in similar such passages in the gospels, you realize that it was not the distant horizon of history that was supposed to occupy our minds but times and events much, much closer to hand—in Jesus’ case, the events in question were quite literally within the reach of his arm to the spot where Judas stood. For Jesus, his words would have almost immediate resonance when one of his own friends would betray him to the authorities. But the rest of the disciples would not exactly have to wait until the roll was called up yonder by and by to experience moments of truth and terror when they, too, would have the choice to stand firm for their Lord or not.
Too often we think that passages like this one are meant to make us starry-eyed surveyors of distant horizons. Actually, they were meant to inspire discipleship and faithfulness over the long haul and in all the tough circumstances we’d face long before The End would come. As someone once put it, Jesus was not training short distance sprinters but long-distance marathon runners who could carry his message far and wide for a long while to come. What’s more, in and through it all we are being reassured: God will be faithful. Jesus by his Spirit will give us the words to say.
How ironic that a passage that makes some people unsettled—even as the disciples were initially unsettled to hear Jesus predict the destruction of the Temple—is actually meant to settle us in our faith and re-assure us. It’s also instructive that we may need the power of that reassurance sooner rather than later in our lives. That may not be an easy message to hear but it is one we may need to hear anyway.
I think it was Mark Twain who once observed that the Bible is far too brutal a book to read to children. And in truth, despite the longstanding practice of having devotions at the dinner table and reading the Bible to our children, a good deal of what is actually said by even Jesus can be chilling. Luke 21 is a passage we’d all rather not hear. We want Jesus to say something else. We want a different set of predictions and an alternative set of promises. We want Jesus to say, “Don’t worry about trials and persecutions for I shall deliver you from them before they happen.” We want Jesus to say, “The world will be so impressed by the church’s rhetoric, accomplishments, and proclamations that they won’t dare lay a hand on you to begin with.”
We want the ecclesiastical equivalent of “Homeland Security” that will seal up our borders from evildoers and proffer us protection into the future. Instead of that Jesus assures us that when it comes to the world’s hatred of us on account of his very name, there’s nothing for it. It will happen. But he will remain with us and in us when it does.
For those of us who preach, it’s difficult to imagine a more challenging message to deliver. Deep down, many of us pastors worry that if we preach this bluntly and boldly, some folks will leave our congregations to join up with those sunnyside-up folks up the street who promise 40 Days of Purpose and the theology of “your best life now.” North American Christians in particular like “possibility thinking,” and by “possibility” they most assuredly do not mean the possibility of getting persecuted to death!
True, the probability and/or likelihood of persecution and even martyrdom are not the whole of the gospel picture and many believers all along the ages (and even right up to the present day) have been spared the worst of it all. Still, if we cannot proclaim a gospel that will help people be glad for Jesus’ abiding presence even in the midst of death and trials of all kinds, it’s an open question how well we are really presenting the Christ we follow as latter-day disciples of our Lord.
Or put it this way: can the people to whom we preach (if not we ourselves as preachers) still take joy in Jesus even though we can by no means promise that being a Christian means you will get your best life now, that you will get your wishes granted and see your every dream fulfilled? Or do we “stand firm” (as verse 19 mentions) only when we’re getting the best life possible already in the here and now?
The Greek text of this lection is loaded with interesting words and phrases. Of particular note are verses 14-15 where Jesus says that believers must “resolve in your hearts not to mount an apology in advance” for the faith. Then he goes on to say that he himself will provide the words and wisdom needed at the time—words and wisdom that would be convincing beyond refutation or contradiction even. Curiously, the word translated as “words” here is stoma, which literally refers to the mouth (and only metaphorically, therefore, refers to that which comes out of one’s mouth in the form of words or speech). Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch but it’s almost as though Jesus is saying that what he will provide for his followers when they find themselves “in extremis” goes way beyond just words—he will open their very mouths in ways that will then make possible a kind of proclamation, speech, and witness that goes above and beyond anything we could say with our ordinary mouths in other, less extraordinary times.
Say the word “apocalypse” to the average man or woman on the street, and you will conjure up in his or her imagination pictures of catastrophic happenings. But were you to probe deeper into people’s thoughts regarding such matters, you might find a kind of fatalism that many folks quietly harbor. As writer Daniel Wojcik noted in his book The End of the World As We Know It, you can detect the fatalism people carry around in their hearts just by listening to certain popular catch phrases.
People will refer to this or that event in their lives (be it something good or something bad) and they’ll say things like, “It was fated that we meet this way. This was your destiny. It was meant to be. It was in the cards.” Or, when someone dies, people may characterize this by saying, “I guess his number was up. It was just his time. It was his fate.”
When facing the uncertainties of the future, many people will say that since there is nothing we can do about it anyway, the best we can do is grit our teeth, press forward, and hope for the best. And if the worst happens and some apocalypse comes, then that’s just the way it has to be. It’s all rather random anyway and so, in the meanwhile, we’ll live life while we have it and let the chips fall where they may.
Of course, many people are perhaps not aware of the fatalism that colors their perceptions of the present and the future. It reminds me of the man who once declared, “I am not a fatalist! And even if I were, what could I do about it!?” Christians, of course, should not be fatalists, but for some Christians past and present, there has been an attempt to do an end-run on fatalism by claiming that they know already precisely what the future holds. And so they’ve turned passages like Luke 21 (and entire biblical books like Revelation) into a kind of giant secret code that, if we can just crack it, will spell out in neat and precise details the future’s exact timelines.
Probably, though, that’s the wrong approach. Although there is no denying the forward, future bent of passages like Luke 21, in the end Jesus is not interested in telling us precisely what the future holds but rather Who holds the future. And when you know Who holds the future, then you know Who holds your every moment in this present time as well. It is that confidence that allows us to rest easy when Jesus tells us that he will be with us and will even provide us with words to say if and when the world presses in on us and persecutes us for his sake.
Author: Stan Mast
I love how the Lectionary brings the church year to a close. Next Sunday, of course, is the celebration of the reign of Christ the King. This Sunday we get a dramatic vision of the completion of the work of the King with this prophecy from Isaiah 65.
It’s a welcome relief from our long sad journey through Jeremiah’s gloomy prophecies about the end of Jerusalem and Judah. In recent Sundays, we’ve heard more upbeat prophecies of the time after Exile and in the more distant future, when God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2) and “the desire of all nations” will come to redeem his people from the frustration and unfruitfulness of life (Haggai 1 and 2).
Here we come full circle from the fall of creation in Genesis to its recreation, from Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained, from Shalom shattered to Shalom restored. Putting Isaiah 65 in that redemptive historical framework will save us from the interpretive issues that arise if we take all of Isaiah 65 literally (for example, does verse 20 mean that there will still be death in the new heaven and earth?). This is a poetic, theological portrayal of how completely God will restore the earth to its pristine peace, using imagery drawn from the Genesis account of creation and from the ordinary lives of God’s people in a fallen creation.
I won’t say more than that, except to refer you to the piece I wrote on Easter Sunday earlier this year (see Sermon Starter for April 15, 2019). Easter was the inauguration of the new heaven and new earth, which will be completed at the return of the Risen Christ at the last day (cf. Revelation 21-22).
Author: Scott Hoezee
Reading Psalm 98 is like uncorking a well shook-up bottle of champagne. The cork rockets upward and the bubbly inside the bottle fountains forth in exuberance. We’ve all seen those locker rooms after a team wins the World Series or the Super Bowl when players spray each other with such bottles—some years ago someone finally had the good sense to outfit everyone with goggles after too many players discovered that champagne in your eyes doesn’t feel real great (not to mention the odd errant cork flying around the room). But those are scenes of intense joy and celebration.
Psalm 98 is like that when it comes to the praise of God. The psalmist just cannot contain himself. His praise of God sprays holy froth over the whole creation by the time this poem is finished. It’s a kind of “everybody in the pool” sort of thing as the praise moves from people to musicians with every conceivable type of instrument and then onward to include the very earth itself. Seas, rivers, mountains, trees, and every last person anywhere are all brought into the divine choir. Never mind that the psalm invites what we otherwise regard as inanimate objects to sing: it doesn’t matter one bit to this poet. God’s praise can never be exhausted and it is as though even our finest human efforts to sing are not enough: this song won’t be complete until every last creature and thing contributes its own kind of musical praise.
But then comes the rather surprising conclusion. Yes, yes: everyone: you are hereby ordered to praise God, to praise specifically Yahweh in the Hebrew imperative hallelu yah! Why? Well, the first part of the psalm gave a brief litany of God’s faithfulness to Israel. But the capper to it all comes in verse 9: why praise God? Because he’s coming to judge the whole world.
Now it’s just possible that some might find that prospect to be something just shy of a cause for exuberance and thanksgiving.
Being judged might sound threatening to a lot of people. Indeed, as pastors we not infrequently counsel with people—sometimes dear saints in the final days of their lives—who despite their lifelong devotion to Christ, will share with us that the prospect of Judgment Day scares them. “What if I don’t measure up? What if I am one of those people Jesus talked about who will cry ‘Lord, Lord’ but who will be sent away empty after all?” Indeed, few people are not at least a little unsettled by Jesus’ quasi-parable about the Sheep and the Goats.
In history the church has often used the specter of Judgment Day to frighten people into behaving. Medieval cathedrals used to put graphic depictions of Judgment Day over their front doors as a veritable giant finger wagging in people’s faces as they entered God’s presence. “Shape Up or Else!” seemed to be the message.
So how is it that this exuberant psalm thinks it is a good idea to cap off a universal call to praise God with the prospect of being judged? Well, there may be several things to observe in this connection.
First, the prospect of judgment usually IS good news to those who exist on the underside of history and society. Victims and the victimized, the exploited, those living under the sting of the injustices of racism or sexism or other forms of abuse regard judgment pretty positively. The only people who genuinely need to fear judgment are precisely those who have a sense that they will be shown as being on the wrong side of things. (And probably it is the case that quite a few of the people who for now wield all the power would be loath to praise any God in any event.)
Second and related to this first idea: most everyone ought to have a deep-seated hope that at the end of the cosmic day there will be the revelation that there is such a thing as right and wrong, as justice and injustice, as good and evil and that all of the books of justice that are for now out of moral whack will get balanced out. Those who have gotten away with murder their whole lives ought not get away with it fully and finally. And those who have been the victims of such people ought to be vindicated somehow. Very few people—except just possibly those who are profiting from unjust lives—look at the world as it is at any given moment and conclude that everything is working out pretty much the way we all deep down think it should.
A final note: despite those dear saints who tell us pastors that they fear Judgment Day, we now are armed with the Gospel and the Good News that there is nothing to fear. All of the judgment that might ever descend upon any of us—not to mention all of us collectively—definitively descended upon Jesus on our behalf. If we are in Christ, then even judgment does not cause us to fear. One of the gems of the Reformed tradition is The Heidelberg Catechism. Faced with those Medieval attempts to frighten people with the prospect of Judgment Day, the authors of the Catechism took the line from the Apostles’ Creed “he will come again to judge the living and the dead” and they framed it up exceedingly positively in the question and answer that begins “How does Christ’s coming to judge the living and the dead comfort you?”
Comfort in the face of judgment? Yes. Exactly. That is the Gospel. So come on, everybody, and you rivers and seas and everyone else too: praise the Lord!
When Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., wrote his award-winning book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, he got the inspiration for the book’s title from a scene early in the Lawrence Kasdan movie Grand Canyon. A well-to-do white man named Mack has his Lexus breakdown in a Los Angeles neighborhood where one most definitely never wanted to be stranded. Predictably he is soon accosted by some gang members who threaten his life and are preparing to jack his car. Just then Simon shows up, an African-American tow truck driver who makes it clear that gang intimidation or no, he is going to tow this car away and take the driver safely with him. As you can see in this compilation scene, eventually Simon tells the gang members that “everything is supposed to be different than what it is.”
Wise words. And true. Things are out of plumb. Injustices abound and go unchecked. Maybe that is why the idea that a good and loving God is going to come by and by and judge all things really is precisely the motivation for praising God that Psalm 98 claims it to be.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Author: Chelsey Harmon
Why were people in Thessalonica not wanting to work? Was it because they figured that Jesus was returning soon, or had already returned? Was it because things were a bit desperate after a famine in the area? Was it because many of them were continuing in a very normal pattern of client-patron relationships common in the Greco-Roman world? We cannot say which of these is the most likely reason (or what combination of these scenarios may have been at play) with absolute certainty. However, based on what Paul writes in our lectionary section today, as well as his teachings in the first letter to the Thessalonian church, this was not a new issue in Thessalonica.
It’s helpful to remember all of this context as we dive into this section of the letter, otherwise Paul’s words could seem quite harsh. Shun hungry people, Paul? That doesn’t sound like what Jesus taught when he said, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…” (Matthew 25.35) Paul’s instructions get even more firm in verses 14-15: “have nothing to do with them; so that they may be ashamed…”
But it’s those verses that also help us begin to soften the blow of Paul’s strict instructions. Right after he writes that he wants the ‘freeloaders’ to feel shame, he says, “Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.” The people in question are part of the community; they matter.
Along with mattering as human beings, how they live as part of the community matters. Like Paul implicitly reminds the faithful in so many of his letters, the community’s life together is a lynchpin for its safety in the Roman Empire. In tumultuous times, they need each other. Furthermore, as Christians live together, care for and with one another, they show through their living what God is all about and who God is to their nonbelieving neighbours.
So if some of the members of the community are not contributing to the well-being of everyone, then they are not truly taking part in the caring for and with one another that is paramount to the Christian life. This has direct consequences on the survival of a persecuted community as well as on the reputation of the Christian community within the city—and thereby directly reflects on the God of the Christians.
Paul took this so seriously that when his missionary travels took him to Thessalonica, he looked around at the situation there and decided to work a little differently in their midst than he had in other cities. Instead of getting donations from the locals to help cover their costs, Paul says that he and the other missionaries worked hard (bivocationally) day and night to make sure that they weren’t a burden to anyone in Thessalonica; they always paid for what they ate even though they could have asked for the people to help out. Teachings from both Jesus and Paul support workers, including missionaries, being paid for their labour by the people they were serving and allowed for (even celebrated) donations being collected from other believing communities to see the gospel be spread. But here in Thessalonica, Paul realizes that his way of being is also telling a story, modelling a needed transformation, pointing people to a better way of living for the glory of Christ.
Making such a conscientious choice in Thessalonica allowed Paul to use himself as an example, as he is apt to do in many of his letters. This time though Paul isn’t just setting himself up as an example of faith and knowledge, but of practice. Paul blessed and gave to the community of believers forming in Thessalonica without burdening them financially nor taking away from their resources. And he did so because there were too many people already doing that.
Returning to the various reasons why people didn’t want to or weren’t working in Thessalonica, it’s important to note that none of them are based on an inability to work. Note too that in verse 10 Paul says that if anyone is unwilling to work, then they should not eat.
It seems to me that the implication of Paul’s words is that people were choosing to engage in practices that Paul wouldn’t call work—even if it was an acceptable way of making a living in the Greco-Roman world—because they didn’t fit the godly, or Christian criteria.
So was it because they thought Jesus was coming back soon and/or had already returned? If you believed that you missed the thing you were waiting for, wouldn’t you be more than a little despondent and give up? But earlier in this very letter, Paul cleared up the confusion about Jesus’ return, so no one has an excuse to continue to stay downcast and uncaring about what’s to come. Instead, the refrain is to care deeply about living Christ’s righteousness in the here and now. In other words, if someone decided to keep being unwilling to work, this excuse was no longer a viable option.
Similarly, if this letter was written after the time of the famine in AD 51, then some of the Christians could have recently gone through a period where they severely struggled to put food on the table. Famine and poverty are often interconnected cycles. Once conditions turn around, it can be difficult to step out of old practices. In the case of the church, especially in the early church which was known for its benevolence and sharing as anyone had need, it isn’t difficult to see how such relationships could turn co-dependent. Co-dependent relationships “benefit” both sides… the person receiving doesn’t have to try him or herself to change and overcome their challenges. The person giving gets to feel good about themselves for helping (also known as altruism), sometimes even developing a sense of being superior to the person they are helping (which can also make us feel good about ourselves). So when Paul says that an unwilling person should not eat, he could also be instructing the person tempted to give them something to eat to really consider whether their aid is warranted and to examine their own motives for helping out.
Perhaps the most intriguing possibility for why Paul’s instructions were necessary comes from a common practice at the time. In the Roman Empire, a person of influence, a patron, sought to build up a network, or following, of clients. In exchange for their political or civic service, a patron made sure that a client had food to eat without having to work. In other words, clients busied themselves with the work of their patron instead of working for themselves.
So why might this be an issue for a Christian? If your patron wasn’t also a Christian, some of the things you might be expected to do could easily contradict your newfound faith and morality. For instance, clients could be told to go to a temple and make sacrifices to the gods on behalf of their patron. Uh oh! Or, they could be told to represent their patron at cultic meals at pagan temples as part of making sure that a patron kept their social status in the community even while they were out of town or attending other events. It’s easy to see from just these two examples as to how this system wouldn’t really work for a follower of Jesus.
This client-patron scenario seems quite possibly what Paul witnessed in Thessalonica. Consider the play on words he uses in verse 11: these busybodies who are at issue are not willing to do their own work, but they sure are willing to be involved in someone else’s business.
And there is definitely a word for us modern listeners in this text. Along with the reminder that we are part of a community that cares for one another and that we contribute to the common good of the faithful, we are also reminded that work is good and meant to be for good. It turns out that not every kind of way of making money is worthwhile in the kingdom of God. If our work is built on idleness or it makes us dependent on another for our own well-being—especially when we are able to do better and more, then perhaps we need to reconsider. Or what if the company purposely exploits the vulnerable of the world? Paul tells us to not grow weary in doing what is right, but to busy ourselves in doing the good God has placed in us to do. What we choose as our daily work and the way we make our livings truly ought to reflect the goodness of God.
In her book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown opens with a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Paul was definitely a “man in the arena,” a man of God who tried and tried to serve the kingdom and God’s people. Paul’s willingness to work day and night instead of receiving offerings in Thessalonica is an example of the lengths he would go to live the worthy call and cause of Christ. His is a voice worth listening to, and his life one worth learning from.