May 28, 2018
The Proper 4B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 2:33 -3:6 from the Lectionary Gospel; 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20) from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 81 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 4:5-12 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 92 (Lord’s Day 34)
Author: Scott Hoezee
There is no joy or delight in any of life, including on the Sabbath, if rules eclipse all else. In Mark 2 and 3 Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees ends on a note of murder. Just about the last word in the whole story is “kill.” It’s only appropriate, of course, since the Pharisees had turned the Sabbath into a deadly, deadening day anyway. The rules had become so important that even God dropped out of sight, not to mention other people.
Once upon a time, somewhere way, way back, the people who cooked up all those ancillary rules had the best of intentions. The same was true of the rules some of our parents and grandparents followed. I learned the hard way in my first church that if you poke fun of the rules of yesteryear, you will hurt someone’s feelings. After a sermon in which I lampooned some Sabbath excesses of my own tradition, a man tearfully reminded me that although he agreed that those rules were arbitrary, he still loved the grandma who meant well in enforcing them. True enough.
But it’s in the nature of rules to take on a life of their own. Sooner or later they have a way of sapping joy and making people and their needs disappear from sight. That’s why Jesus wants us to begin with God, with creation, and with each other. Jesus wants us to begin with love, as he made clear that day in the synagogue.
Eugene Peterson once observed that when you think about it based on the Genesis account of creation, in God’s plan, Adam and Eve’s very FIRST day of existence was a Sabbath. Humanity began with the proverbial “day off!” The human race started its existence on a Sabbath as a reminder of the very reason for which God created us in the first place: he made us in love, for love. When love for God and for one another sets the Sabbath tone, most of what most nettled the Pharisees—and all of what led them to plot Jesus’ murder in the end of this story—would properly disappear.
In the end, on that Sabbath day long ago, the Pharisees went out and planned to kill Jesus. They hatched a murder plot. On the Sabbath, no less. I wonder why they didn’t ask themselves if that was lawful to do on the Sabbath? Asking that never occurred to them, though, and I suspect we know why. As the apostle Paul so well put it, “If I have a faith that can move mountains but have not love, I am nothing.” So true, and never more so than on the Sabbath day.
But was the whole thing kind of a set up? Mark gives us two back-to-back Sabbath vignettes in this lection such that when you get to the second incident in chapter 3, you can tell that the religious leaders are just itching to have Jesus break the Sabbath yet again. The last incident had happened out in the middle of nowhere in fields of grain. What if they can get Jesus to do it again but this time in a much more public venue: in the synagogue itself. We’re told that a man with a shriveled hand was in the synagogue that particular day but reading Mark 3, you have to wonder if maybe one of the Pharisees had picked this man up from his home to ensure that he would be there. “I’ll give you a ride to church,” a Pharisee may have said to this man. “We really want you to be there this Sabbath day.”
How ironic that the Pharisees knew enough about Jesus that he could not resist healing and yet they did not really understand the fundamental nature of Jesus, of the God he called “Father,” or of the kingdom he proclaimed to be at hand (no pun intended!). They knew that Jesus was fundamentally compassionate, good, and gentle enough that he would not pass by a sorry figure like this man. So they exploited that goodness so as to trip Jesus up according to their religious system of rules and regulations. Since they could not be moved by Jesus’ compassion, they used it against him.
So maybe this was a set up. Maybe that is why Mark reports how angry Jesus was and deeply troubled in his spirit. Jesus was no fool. He knew he had been set up, that his compassion was being used against him. Isn’t it interesting that the few flashes of indignation that the gospels show Jesus as having now and again are never elicited by sinful people or those shunned as outsiders to the religious community of the day. Rather, it was hypocrisy, the ways by which the already-religious (or allegedly religious) manipulated God and God’s Word for their own purposes—those are the times Jesus’ eyes flashed and his temper rose. It was when those who claimed to speak for God used their position to draw boundary lines of rigid inclusion and exclusion that Jesus felt the blood rising in his face.
There is most certainly a message in that for today. Those who have ears to hear . . .
Notice the cleverness of Mark in how he put in the word “kill” twice in chapter 3: once in verse 4 and then again as about the last word in verse 6. In verse 3 Jesus asks what by all rights should have been the proverbial “rhetorical question”—that is, a question whose answer is so obvious the person who posed the question did not really expect an answer. Sadly, however, by the time this story is finished, we discover it is not a rhetorical matter at all. ON THE SABBATH DAY the Pharisees go out of the synagogue to begin hatching their murder plot against Jesus. Few details in this short story better highlight the silliness of the Pharisees—and their woeful blindness—better than this detail. Initially Mark helps us to say to ourselves, “Well, of COURSE no one should kill on the Sabbath—that’s too radical and ridiculous even to consider!” But then the Pharisees . . . well, if the irony were not so grim, it would be almost funny.
Albert Einstein’s greatest insight was likely the one that involved time. Before Einstein people assumed that whatever time is, it is constant. “Time marches on,” the old saying goes, and before Einstein we assumed that time marches ever and always at the same pace. It does not matter who you are or where you are or what you are doing, you cannot affect time. If your battery is running out, then your watch may run slow but the actual time that passes around you can never slow down or speed up.
But Einstein realized that time is a truly existing dimension. Time is as real as the wood of a tree trunk. And it is not constant. Time is affected by motion and position. It is relative. Einstein’s classic illustration has to do with a train. Picture yourself riding on a train. Picture another person sitting on a bench alongside the train tracks watching the train go by. Now imagine that two bolts of lighting strike the train tracks, one just behind the moving train and one just ahead of the train. To the person sitting on the bench it is clear that these two bolts of lightning struck the tracks at the exact same instant. They were simultaneous. But the person riding 60 MPH on the train would not perceive it that way.
If you were riding on the train, you would see the bolt of lighting ahead of the train before the one behind the train. At one time it was thought that this could be explained the same way you can deal with sound waves. If you are in your car waiting for a train to pass, you hear the crossing bell go ding-ding-ding-ding, always the same tone. But people on the train don’t hear it that way. As you move toward the bell and then away from it, the pitch changes, first higher as you approach the bell (and the sound waves scrunch up as you move toward them) and then lower as you pass by (as the sound waves elongate behind you). So perhaps the same thing happens with the lightning–you just get to the light waves of the one bolt quicker since you’re moving toward it (and away from the other one).
But it doesn’t work that way. The phenomenal insight of Einstein was that you cannot explain this difference in perception by fiddling with the speed of the light because the speed of light is constant. Light always goes the same speed–you cannot get light to come at you faster. So Einstein realized that what accounts for the person on the train seeing the lightning bolts differently than the person on the bench is that time is different for the person on the train. Time is relative. It can be affected by motion. Scientists have even discovered that if you take two very sensitive nuclear clocks, synchronize the time on both, and then place one at the top of a skyscraper and one at the bottom and let them tick away for a few days, it turns out the clock on the bottom runs slower because it is closer to the earth’s center of gravity than the one at the top which moves faster as the earth rotates!
Well, it took an Einstein to figure that all out but there is a sense in which the importance and impact of time is something Jews and Christians have known all along. The Bible itself lets us know that time can affect us but also that we can affect the time around us. That’s why there is such a thing as Sabbath. God took care to weave Sabbath rest right into the richly embroidered tapestry of his creation. As such, Sabbath is not just a human technique for stress reduction, it is a way to take hold of time and make it serve the cosmic purpose of glorifying God by paying attention to the rhythms God himself instituted.
That’s why in the Jewish tradition the Bible takes care to mention that Sabbath is not just for the well-off who can afford to take a break–for that matter it’s not just for people. The commandment says that your donkey and your ox need a Sabbath, too, and so do your servants, your staff, your employees, and even the out-of-town guest who happens to be with you at any given time–Sabbath is for you and your children, for your friends and animals, for the stranger who is within your gates. Every seventh year the Israelites were even supposed to give the soil a sabbatical year off!
Of course, the very fact that God had to make this into a law shows how foolish we are. In the Garden of Eden God did not command Adam and Eve to take a Sabbath rest. Adam and Eve were smart enough to recognize a divine gift when they saw one. But we’re not so wise anymore. Now God needs to command us to take a Sabbath! But if you think about it, that’s about as ridiculous as giving a child a chocolate ice cream cone and then needing to make it a rule that the kid start licking it! But God does need to put Sabbath in commandment form. Worse, even with this commandment most of us do a pretty sorry job at taking the concept of Sabbath very seriously, as did the Pharisees long ago.
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
Author: Doug Bratt
At first glance, “the word of the Lord” hardly seems as “rare” in many parts of Christ’s Church as it was in Samuel and Eli’s family’s day (1). After all, many who are reading this make at least part of our living proclaiming that word of the Lord. American cable television providers still broadcast numerous church services and preachers. People who at least claim to proclaim the word of the Lord bombard social media.
In fact, it sometimes seems as if the problem is not so much that the word of the Lord is “rare,” but that it’s so common. It’s increasingly hard to actually hear God speaking. It’s hard to untangle so much of the noise that our culture makes from God’s Word of Life. So many people claim to speak for God that we need some kind of good theological filter to help us listen for God’s Word.
The Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday might serve as a kind of metaphor for our culture’s struggle to hear the word of the Lord. While, of course, it’s so much more than metaphor, 1 Samuel 3 is a passage the Spirit can use to help those who proclaim it to speak its truths into the 21st century.
I Samuel 3 reintroduces us to the Samuel whom we first “meet” in earlier in the book. His godly but once-infertile mother had given him back to God after God empowered her to miraculously conceive and give birth to him. Now our text’s Samuel has matured enough to live in the temple of the Lord where he works for the aging priest Eli.
Yet Samuel works in a spiritually and morally vacuous Israel. It’s not just that Israel’s priests are moral and spiritual hooligans. It’s also that Israelites aren’t listening to the Lord who’d done so much for their ancestors and them. Israel has, as one scholar notes, spiritually become much like her priest who is hearing and sight-impaired. All Israelites, as the end of the book of Judges mourns, they as they see “fit.”
Those who proclaim 1 Samuel 3 may want to explore parallels between Samuel’s and our 21st century world. While the word of the Lord may not seem rare, many of our contemporaries also do as they see “fit.” 1 Samuel’s preachers and teachers won’t have to troll the media very long to find examples of this moral and spiritual anarchy. Yet, of course, we want to be careful not to imply that it’s just “others” who do as they please. There are enough examples of God’s people doing as we see fit to fill a whole library of lessons and sermons.
Yet God speaks God’s grace into Israel as well as our own darkness. Some scholars find a hint of that in verse 3’s report that “The lamp of God” that was the golden menorah that God had called Moses to commission had “not yet gone out.” It was a symbol of God’s lasting presence that Israel’s priests fueled with the oil the Israelites brought to them. Verse 3 implies that that “lamp of God” is flickering as Samuel works for Eli. Yet it’s not yet extinguished. That at least suggests that there’s still hope for an Israel that’s spiritually blind and deaf.
That hope shows up in God’s persistent call to Samuel. While both visions and the word of the Lord are rare (1) in his day, God gives him both a vision and a message in the same night (10-14). Yet Samuel is, in a sense, a kind of outsider. Eli’s sons are of the priestly line. Samuel’s parents are faithful but aging people with no particularly famous lineage. Yet because Eli’s sons have not used their lineage to serve the Lord, God turns to Samuel, not at all unlike the way God also turned to outsiders like Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David and fishermen-turned-Jesus’ disciples.
Of course, the young outsider Samuel at least seems to be as largely deaf to God’s call as his fellow Israelites. God must, after all, call to him three times before, with help, the young man recognizes that it’s the Lord who’s trying to tell him something. He, after all, assumes his boss is calling to him in the night. Samuel seems more in tune to his boss’s voice than the Lord’s.
The word of the Lord is rare in Samuel’s day. What’s more, the young man is first sleeping, then perhaps dozing when God calls him. On top of that, while Samuel “ministers before the Lord” (1), he does “not yet know the Lord” (7). Yet it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to see in Samuel’s failure to recognize God’s a mirror of his fellow Israelites’ failure to recognize God’s voice.
Ironically, it’s old Eli who’s physically as well as perhaps at least somewhat spiritually hearing and sight-impaired who finally figures out that it’s God who’s talking to Samuel. Yet here too there’s great grace. After all, while Eli and his family are in moral and spiritual shambles, God empowers him to recognize what’s going on with Samuel. While Eli’s priestly dynasty will soon die with him, God equips him to help move God’s plans and purposes forward by sending Samuel back to listen for the Lord.
Of course, it takes the old priest three tries to finally figure out that it’s God who’s on “the other end of the line.” “Go and lie down,” Eli eventually tells his young charge, “and if he calls to you say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’” (9).
Those who proclaim 1 Samuel 3 might at this point point out how God’s voice is heard only in community in this text. Samuel doesn’t hear God speaking to him until Eli helps him to listen for it. In a culture that’s so noisy, those who proclaim this Sunday’s Old Testament lesson might explore with hearers the importance of God’s adopted sons and daughters both needing each other and coming together, like Samuel and Eli, to hear God speaking.
Yet when Samuel does finally get down to listening to God’s voice, God’s message must almost certainly chill him to the bone. God, after all, warns him that desperate times are coming to and for Eli’s spiritually and morally bankrupt family. The priestly family will, in fact, fall so hard and precipitously that a daughter-in-law will deduce that God’s glory has simply departed from Israel (I Samuel 4:21).
Yet our text offers Samuel and Israel hope. After all, even old Eli responds to God’s ghastly warning by saying, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes” (18). What’s more, while the word of the Lord is rare as 1 Samuel 3 opens, its narrator closes the chapter with the report that God’s word is coming fast and furious. In fact, because God is with Samuel, God lets “none of his words fall to the ground” (19). God wastes none of God’s prophetic words through God’s servant Samuel. God’s words have their desired affect.
Those who proclaim 1 Samuel may want to look for ways to show those who hear us how God’s words continue to have their desired affect, by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. Preachers and teachers may even want to look for examples of the kinds of Samuel’s through whom God continues to speak in the 21st century. The word of the Lord is, after all, by God’s amazing grace, no longer “rare.”
The story of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s road toward canonization in the Roman Catholic Church is a fascinating case study in the perils and controversies of proclaiming God’s word. A Salvadoran death squad allegedly gunned down the advocate for the poor and others on society’s margins while he was celebrating mass in 1980.
While already in 2015 Pope Francis declared Romero a martyr and announced his intention to move his canonization ahead, he met fierce opposition. Romero, after all, was proponent of liberation theology, a movement popular in many quarters in the 60’s and 70’s but fell out of favor. Subsequent Roman Catholic theologians argued sometimes vehemently about whether the death squad assassinated Romero for his political or theological views.
Author: Stan Mast
I’ve chosen to write on the alternative Psalm reading for today, since I have written on Psalm 139 twice in the last year (see January 14, 2018 and July 23, 2017 in the Sermon Starter Archives on the website for the Center for Excellence in Preaching). Rather than repeating what I’ve said before, I want to suggest that you take a different tack on this second Sunday of Ordinary Time.
The great feasts of the Christian year are behind us. We are entering that long stretch of time during which we focus on living out the Good News that we celebrated at Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Psalm 81 starts us off by calling us to keep celebrating the mighty acts of God. Don’t let ordinary time become ordinary time. Keep worshipping with exuberance and with all your heart.
That is a necessary word for the church. During the lazy hazy days of summer it is easy to lapse into worship that is insipid and empty, or to skip it altogether. That’s the problem to which Psalm 81 speaks. It issues a strong call to worship to a church that is not listening very carefully to the God who speaks. Not only are their ears closed to the voice of God, but also their hearts are turned to false gods. It’s a problem with which the 21st century church is very familiar. So, you could use Psalm 81 to preach a much-needed sermon entitled, “If You Would But Listen to Me!”
The Psalm opens with a call to worship that is powerful in what it says and in how it says it. Verses 4 and 5 make is clear that worship is not optional, not just a nice thing to do on a Sunday morning if you don’t have anything better to do. No, God commands worship; the Psalmist uses three different words to underline the obligation of worship—“decree, ordinance, statute.”
That pattern of threes runs through this opening call to worship. God’s people are commanded to “sing, shout, and begin the music.” They are to strike the tambourine (or hand drum, since tambourines weren’t invented until the Middle Ages), strum the harp and lyre, and blow the trumpet (percussion, strings, and brass). They are called to celebrate three different festivals—New Moon, Full Moon, and the “Feast,” probably the Feast of Tabernacles.
This is not a polite invitation to worship; it is a powerful, insistent command. Such heartfelt worship was a key part of Israel’s covenant responsibilities. And it is for us today, though you wouldn’t know it from the lackadaisical attitude demonstrated by many Christians, who use the day of worship as a personal day, a family day, a recreational day, a day for doing their own thing.
In verses 6-7, God reminds Israel and us about why we should worship him. Here’s the answer to the teenager’s whining, “Why do I have to go to church?” and the weary worker’s groaning, “Why can’t I just sleep in for a change?” Because of all God has done for you. In thinly coded language, the Psalmist alludes to the Exodus event: the deliverance from Egypt (“I removed the burden from their shoulders and their hands were set free from the basket”); provision in the wilderness (“I rescued you”); the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai (“I answered you out of a thundercloud”); and the testing of their faith (“I tested you at the waters of Meribah”).
There are some interpretive problems in that list of God’s mighty acts. For example, the rest of the Bible sees Meribah as the place where Israel tested God, not the other way around. The solution is probably that God tested them first by leading them into a waterless place, and then with parched throats they tested God by rebelling against his leading. But those difficulties don’t change the basic message. You cried to me in your distress and I acted to save you. And for that you ought to worship me as a continual act of grateful, loving obedience.
But now that their cries of distress are over and God has acted, Israel has stopped listening to God. In their relief, their mouths have stopped crying out to God and their ears have gone deaf to God’s voice. So in verses 8-9, God pleads with them to listen. “Hear, O my people, and I will warn you—if you would but listen to me, O Israel.” But Israel has not only stopped listening to Yahweh; they have also wandered away to foreign gods. In direct violation of the First Commandment, the commandment from which all the others flow, Israel has bowed down to other gods. So God reiterates the prologue to the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt.”
This may seem like an ancient problem to many of your congregants, an issue with which we don’t have to wrestle in the 21st century. But James Montgomery Boice puts it very well when he identifies this as the greatest issue of life. Will we worship the God of the Bible and of Jesus? “The sin to which redeemed people are forever prone is that very idolatry from which the Lord has redeemed us. Those idols seem forever to call us back, even though we have turned away from them ‘to serve the living and true God.’” (1 Thess. 1:9) Boice continues: “The problem is that the people of God do not know God, or at least they do not act like they do. Instead of worshiping the Lord and him only, Christians seem to be worshiping the gods of secular culture—gods of wealth, pleasure, fame, status, and self-absorption.”
In Psalm 81, God is obviously upset, but amazingly God is also persistent in his loving call to worship. Even as he commands them to worship him and him alone, he pleads with them as his beloved children. Three times he appeals to them as “my people” (verses 8, 11, and 13). The old Scottish commentator Alexander Maclaren accurately points out that “there is a world of baffled tenderness and almost wondering rebuke in the description of the rebels as ‘my people’… that the tribes bound by so many kindnesses should have been deaf is a sad marvel.”
But God’s love does not make him soft on sin. Rather his love makes him respond to sin in a way designed to show us how foolish and destructive sin is to our welfare. That’s what the remaining verses of the Psalm are about. Our assigned lectionary reading ends with the warmly generous invitation of verse 10b. “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.” I suspect that the lectionary ends there because the mood seems to shift in the next verses. God says some hard and politically incorrect things about the enemies of his people. But to end the Psalm with verse 10 ignores the covenant blessings that flow to those who do, indeed, worship God in grateful, loving obedience.
God says has done all those things for his people and he wants them to have full lives, “but my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit (literally, did not love me). So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.” How redemptive of God to treat our sin that way! He doesn’t smash us for our rebellion, for our dalliance with false gods. Rather, he lets our sin run its course, gives us what we think we want, allows us (in the words of the old Burger King commercial) to “have it your way.” Then we discover that we are enslaved to the very gods we thought would give us the life we thought we wanted.
That’s how we should read those words about enemies in verses 13-15. As part of his covenant blessings upon Abraham and his seed, God promised to “bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3) Of course! Those who ruin the lives of God’s children will find their own lives ruined. That’s how sin works. It always rebounds on those who do it. Sin is its own punishment. And obedience is its own reward.
So if God’s people will (finally) listen to his voice and follow his way, he will quickly subdue the forces of sin. If we insist on going our own way, we will wander into a life that is less full that God desires for us, a life dominated by the forces of destruction we have embraced. If we listen to God’s voice and worship him in loving obedience, he will satisfy our longings and hungers with blessings both cultivated (“the finest of wheat”) and wild (“honey from the rock”). So, open your ears to God’s voice and open your mouth to God’s blessings. Give him the worship he deserves and he will give you gifts far beyond your deserving.
If the problem addressed by Psalm 81 seems too culturally distant to be relevant, it might help to remind people of the powerful verses throughout the Old Testament about worship that is less than heartfelt. Isaiah 29:13 thunders, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” And Amos 5 leaves no doubt about God’s attitude toward heartless worship. “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies…. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.” Remember how Jesus cleansed the temple of those who had perverted worship. And recall how the New Testament applied the history of Israel to the life of the church in passages like I Corinthians 10:1-11 and Hebrews 3:12-4:2. I love the advertising campaign developed by the conservative Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, PA. It focused on the theme of the above Scriptures and Psalm 81. “Jesus Hated Church Too.”
God’s entreaties to his distracted and distant people in Psalm 81 (“if you would but listen to me”) reminded me of worried parents reaching out to their media fixated adolescent or of a lonely wife pleading with her sports-addicted, TV-absorbed husband. “Listen to me. Are you listening to me? Can you even hear me anymore? If you would only listen to me, we could be close again, have hope again, and have a life again.”
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Author: Scott Hoezee
In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion recounts what she thought about during the year following her husband’s sudden death. Near the end of December 2003, Didion and her husband were sitting down for dinner, having just come back from visiting their gravely ill daughter in the hospital. Her husband John was in mid-sentence when suddenly he stopped talking, his hand still raised in the air from the point he had just been making. For a fleeting second Didion thought he was trying to be funny. But then he fell to the floor, never to rise again.
In its own way, The Year of Magical Thinking is a kind of secular version of C.S. Lewis’s, A Grief Observed. But in Didion’s case, most of her wrestling with grief and loss takes place outside of the context of faith. The “magical thinking” mentioned in the book’s title refers to the strange thoughts that Didion entertained in secret in those months following John’s death. Unable to accept the utter finality of death, Didion quietly believed that maybe somehow John would come back to her.
That’s why when it came time to clean out the closet and start getting rid of her husband’s clothes, she could not bear to give away his shoes. When he came back, he’d be angry if he found his shoes gone. At one point, Didion relayed her and her husband’s take on the Apostles’ Creed. For the most part they were able to go along with the Creed but they both had agreed years ago that they could not accept the line about “the resurrection of the body.” But in a striking line, Didion at one point writes, “I did not believe in the resurrection of the body but I still believed that given the right circumstances John would come back.”
As Didion’s memoir shows, death is at once an inescapable phenomenon while at the same time representing something we cannot accept. We keep ourselves from thinking about death whenever we can and we rage against it when forced to confront it after all. We become so disoriented when in death’s grip that, like Joan Didion, we find our minds playing tricks on us, believing the outrageous in a vain attempt to find a way to let life continue on the way it once did before death robbed us of one we loved.
In 2 Corinthians 4, the apostle Paul makes it clear that whatever else the gospel of Jesus Christ is, it exists in the midst of death and of a dying world. In fact, a close look at Paul’s language here may reveal that in truth, the gospel requires an acknowledgment of death. Yes, as Paul writes in verse 6, the Gospel is indeed about a light shining in the darkness. The universe did turn the corner from darkness to light in Christ Jesus. But then comes verse 7 with its opening conjunction, “But . . .” Paul knew what we know: you can talk about the gospel all you want, you can climb up to the highest mountain and shout the gospel at the top of your lungs. But . . . but when it’s all said and done, there is no denying that we are surrounded still by darkness. Ours remains a world of depression, of dark nights of the soul, of the valley of the shadow of death.
And so Paul pivots from talking about hearts that are filled with a gloriously illuminating knowledge to saying that even so, this message is one we carry around in clay pots, in earthen vessels, in notoriously weak and crumbly containers. He then goes on to point out that being a bearer of the gospel in this world is a difficult prospect. Paul admits to being perplexed, hard pressed, persecuted, and often struck down. The world is not nearly as eager to accept Christ’s light as you might guess. For some bizarre reason, people prefer the dark and are forever ready to take some swipes at those who proffer illumination. So then comes verse 10, which is as odd and as arresting as anything Paul ever wrote. “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus,” Paul claims.
We carry around Jesus’ death. What could that mean? Following on verse 9’s litany of woes, it would seem that it is the presence of Jesus’ death that prevents Paul from being done in. Yes, they are hard pressed on every side but they are not crushed. Yes, they are often perplexed, but they avoid despair. Yes, they get knocked around and even laid out flat at times but they never feel abandoned. And what prevents all that bad stuff from happening? The death of Jesus that they carry with them. Here is another place in Scripture where Jesus’ death has the paradoxical effect of fending off death.
It’s as though Paul is saying, “Because I carry Jesus’ death around with me, you cannot kill me. Not ultimately anyway. Because I carry Jesus’ death around with me, you can knock me down but not out; you can throw me into the deepest pit but I will even so not be abandoned; you can do your level worst to me but I have a security that makes me rise above it all. I carry around with me the worst thing that ever happened to anyone anywhere: the death of God’s own Son. So the worst you can do to me is still not as bad as what happened to Jesus. So long as I am identified with Jesus’ death, I will live; yes, even if you kill me.”
Paul doesn’t say it here, but ultimately this ties in with baptism. In baptism we get identified with Jesus’ death. We are buried with Christ in baptism. The waters of baptism represent not just some tidy washing up of dirty souls—these are also deadly waters in which our sinful selves get drowned.
But as with Christ, so with us: carrying death around is prelude to carrying resurrection life around. Paul says in verse 10 that you can’t get the life without passing through the death. The truth, of course, is that in this world there is no escaping death in any event. The death rate remains stubbornly fixed at 100%. It’s been that way for a while now and indications are it won’t change anytime soon. Still, people deny it. They cover it over. As Thomas Lynch has written, people have found ways to turn even funerals into something resembling a theme party in a mad attempt to affirm life precisely by refusing to acknowledge death.
But Paul says that it’s exactly when Jesus’ death is seen on display in us that we realize all over again that the gospel of Christ Jesus the Lord fits our world precisely because it comes in the midst of death. The gospel fits this world. The life of Jesus is what a dying world needs in the same way a starving person needs food: it’s the solution for what ails us! In the grand paradox of the gospel, by carrying around Jesus’ death, we find reason to rejoice. Seeing Jesus’ death in this world of death lends hope.
Joan Didion found the resurrection of the body a strange idea. But still she thought her dead husband might need his shoes again one day soon. When you think about it, though, both prospects are fairly outrageous. I do believe in the resurrection of the body but I do so recognizing full well what a strange, awesome, finally almost spooky idea it is. If Joan Didion’s husband were to stroll through the front door of their apartment some afternoon and asked for his black wingtips, that would in one sense be no less stunning than if some day in our Father’s kingdom I encounter my Grandpa Hoezee and again hear him ask, “How’s it going, Snoop,” the way he used to when I was a boy.
But to carry Jesus’ death around with us means to believe in just such a miracle. It means that our mortal bodies will be made like Jesus’ glorious body. It means that the death we experience in this world, as well as all that we encounter that is sad and diminishing and hurtful to us, do not have the last word. For God has epiphanied the light of Christ into our hearts.
At one point in her memoir, Joan Didion said that in the months following her husband’s death, she was desperate to avoid going anywhere near places she and John had visited together. Each day she plotted her walks or her travels in the car with great precision so as to steer well clear of all memory-laden locales. But it was all for naught. She found herself blinded by tears even when traveling roads she had never traveled before. Like C.S. Lewis, she discovered that grief is like the sky—it’s over everything.
The darkness of this world is like that. There are no places we can go that will not remind us of life’s fragility and of the losses we have suffered, not in this new year, not ever. But into all those places we carry Jesus’ death with us. We carry that spot of cosmic darkness into which we were baptized. Yet in so doing, the light starts to shine through, too.
In one of his many fine sermons the Rev. Dr. John Timmer once gave a vivid baptismal image involving fisherman along the Irish coast. Once upon a time each fisherman wore a very distinctive wool sweater. Such sweaters kept them warm during cold months at sea but these sweaters had another use, too: identifying the dead. When a fisherman drowned at sea, it didn’t take long for the rough, cold, brackish waters to disfigure the body beyond recognition. So when a body washed ashore, it was as often as not identified by way of the design on the sweater. Charley McSween might be unrecognizable by the time his body bobbed ashore but one look at that red sweater with the blue diamonds on it, and everyone knew who he was.
As Timmer pointed out, this meant that every day those fishermen wore on their bodies a reminder of death. And that’s what baptism does, too. We are marked with Jesus’ death. In some traditions infants and adults alike receive also a chrismation in which the sign of the cross is made on the forehead with some oil. It’s a reminder that baptism places us under the cross, under that signal sign of death.