June 04, 2018
The Proper 5B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 3:20-35 from the Lectionary Gospel; 1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15) from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 138 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 9 (Lord’s Day 4)
Author: Scott Hoezee
There is an old saying that sometimes a person “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The idea is that sometimes we become so wrapped up in one thing that we lose sight of the larger picture. Sometimes this can be humorous. So on a TV show you may see a man who is obsessed with getting his tie knotted just so. Hence, he spends an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror until the tie is perfect and he has achieved that small crease just below the knot. Satisfied that he now looks good, he walks out of the house totally oblivious to the fact that his pants have a big rip right on his backside!
Viewed from the right angle, something like this has happened when it comes to Mark 3. Many people have walked away from this chapter fretting to the depths of their soul the so-called “unpardonable sin.” We worry what the precise contours of that sin may be. We worry that someone we know may have been guilty of it. We worry that we may have accidentally committed this very sin. So in the past we preachers have tried to address this matter very often through the traditional line, “If you are worried about this sin, then you didn’t commit it.” Others of us have suggested that this most perilous of sins isn’t a one-time lapse. For the consequences to be this eternally dire, the person in question must be a hardcore anti-God figure who never accepts the Lord’s work even for a moment.
But however we deal with this pastorally and theologically as preachers, the point is that we need to remember that many people have become obsessed with this particular part of the chapter very nearly to the exclusion of all else. Hence, what we sometimes come close to forgetting is that there are two rejections of Jesus in Mark 3. But when we become obsessed with the ins and outs of the unpardonable sin, we tend to ignore the fact that Mark 3 shows us also another unhappy way to view Jesus and that we need to avoid that attitude, too. To see this other rejection, we need to look at Jesus’ family and the role it plays here.
Jesus’ mother and brothers have apparently not yet become members of Jesus’ band of disciples. They have been following Jesus in a literal sense but not in the more important sense of discipleship—they are more stalking him to figure out what is going on than following to learn from his teachings. But the result of that kind of following is a dire conclusion: Jesus is off his rocker! He has become something of a family embarrassment, a public spectacle that they are eager to whisk out of sight. They want to take Jesus home, put him to bed, keep him quiet for a while, and then see if all this talk about casting out demons and the kingdom of his Father abates.
As some commentators have pointed out, it appears that it was particularly Jesus’ engagement with the demonic that was causing Mary and Jesus’ brothers to arch their eyebrows the sharpest. It all seemed a little bizarre to them. In verse 21 They say literally that they had to get him on home because Jesus was exeste, a word meaning to stand outside of yourself. Even today we may refer to a person who is an emotional wreck as being “beside himself” with grief. The idea is that someone has taken leave of his senses (or his senses have taken leave of him) and so what remains for the time being is a person whose emotions are unchecked and unregulated. This is the family’s assessment of Jesus.
Apparently all Jesus’ talk about invisible kingdoms of God and the casting out of demons led members of his own family to the conclusion that Jesus was seeing things that no one else could see and the reason was simple: he was out of his everloving mind!
We probably can give the family a break—no one in history, after all, had ever before had to deal with having the Son of God as a close family member. Still, to look at Jesus and chalk up his words as delusional, incorrect, incoherent—that is a pretty bad thing to do, too. It’s maybe not an unpardonable sin but it may well be a sin in which we sometimes participate Whenever we pick and choose from among our Savior’s words, deciding on our own which to take seriously and which to chalk up as no more than metaphor or something that doesn’t apply to us in the modern age, aren’t we essentially saying that sometimes Jesus said things that no one can take seriously? Mark 3 shows us that there is indeed more than one way to reject Jesus. We do well to pay attention to the lesser one sometimes and not let undue worries about the big one eclipse this for us.
How easily we preachers can sometimes miss the wider context in our narrow focus on the lection at hand. In the case of this passage in Mark 3, it is vital to notice the frame Mark placed around this incident (Mark does this a lot, after all). Just prior to this in Mark 3:13-19, we find Jesus appointing the twelve disciples as Apostles, as the “sent ones” who would one day become his heralds in bringing the gospel to the world. Then, immediately following this incident, we encounter the well-known “Parable of the Sower” in Mark 4 that reminds us that the seed of the gospel will inevitably fall on many kinds of soil, the majority of which (alas) will prove to be unreceptive to the subsequent growth and flourishing of that seed. Plunked down in between those two incidents is this scene of terrible rejection of Jesus by both his family and, less surprisingly, by the religious leaders. If the disciples-cum-apostles want a preview of what will face them in the future as they go forth to sow the seed of the gospel, they need look no further than how their Lord and Master is treated here! We ought expect no less today.
The key question in Mark 3 is easy to spy: what is the so-called unpardonable sin? Apparently it has to do with morally inverting the world to the point where darkness is light and light darkness. And that is no run-of-the-mill sin. You do not live this way and talk this way and view the world this way due to some little mistake or a momentary lapse of judgment.
What can be done for people who insist on looking at the world that way? This is the essence of blasphemy. Blasphemy is at bottom a form of theft. Blasphemers steal holy language and symbols, associate them then with ugly and awful things, and so rob God of the chance to get through to us via his chosen form of revelation. So if the KKK can take the symbol of the cross and transform it into a symbol of racial hatred instead of what it really is (namely, a sign of reconciliation among all races and between God and the entire world), then God loses a key piece of how he wants to convey his love to us.
Maybe that is why this “sin” is unpardonable: the ones who need the grace that could pardon it reject that same grace as sheer poison. And what can be done for one such as that?
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)
Author: Doug Bratt
How many times hasn’t each of us thought if not said something like, “But everybody else is doing it!”? How often have you heard children and young adults say something like, “Everyone else’s parents are letting them go!”? After all, we like to think that if “everyone else” is doing something, it can’t be wrong.
That’s essentially how the Israelites think of a monarchy in the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Since all the other nations have a king, they essentially tell Samuel, we want one too. After all, if everyone else has a king, it must be right, right?
Samuel, however, has a decidedly different take on a potential Israelite monarchy. God’s perception, while hardly clear-cut, also differs from the Israelites’. Those who proclaim 1 Samuel 8 may want to explore with their hearers its intersection of Israel, Samuel and God’s perceptions. After all, while its story is ancient, its ramifications are modern.
The period of Israel’s judges was a time of great confusion and conflict. God appointed judges by anointing them with God’s Spirit. That Spirit fell on both the great, like Deborah, and the less-than-great, like Samson. Yet virtually each judge enjoyed some success, followed by failure whose solution awaited another divinely appointed judge.
Israel’s last judge was Samuel. In a real sense, however, he was much more than just a judge. After all, Samuel ruled virtually every aspect of Israel’s culture, including its economics and politics, as well as religion. He also largely ruled effectively.
Yet as 1 Samuel 8 opens, the prophet is aging (2). While he’s still in charge, he has appointed his sons to be Israel’s new judges. So as our text unfolds, it’s clear that Samuel wants his sons to rule over Israel. While he still can, he even establishes them as judges in Israel’s far southern deserts.
However, there’s one major hitch in Samuel’s prophetic succession plan. His sons don’t take after him. They only look out for themselves as they accept bribes and pervert justice. Samuel had dedicated his life to providing Israel with godly and stable leadership. However, his heirs quickly become famous for ungodly and unjust leadership.
So virtually everyone recognizes that neither Israel nor God should let Samuel’s sons rule. Certainly, then, wise and godly Samuel will also recognize that Israel needs someone else to rule her, won’t he? After all, he may die at any time, leaving his sons in control.
Perhaps that’s why Israel’s elders approach the aging prophet at his home in Ramah. “You’re an old man whose sons don’t follow in your footsteps,” they remind him in verse 5. “So give us what everybody else has – a king to rule us.”
That at first glance certainly sounds like a logical request. After all, Samuel himself has already begun to replace Israel’s way of establishing leaders through God’s anointing with creating a family dynasty. Since his family isn’t very godly, why shouldn’t he just go ahead and appoint a king, just like the other nations have? Won’t that at least create some political stability as well as keep power out of the morally grubby hands of Samuel’s sons Joel and Abijah?
Samuel, however, can see no wisdom in this plea for a king. He probably recognizes that Israel’s desire to be like “all the other nations” conflicts with her status as God’s special people. Samuel also knows that God longs to form a people in God’s image rather than in the image of everyone else.
Yet when Samuel prays about it, God’s reply isn’t what he hopes and may even assume it will be. “Go ahead and do what Israel is asking,” the Lord says in verses 7-9. “It’s me rather than you that she’s rejecting … Let them have their way. But be sure to warn them to be careful what they ask for. They may, after all, just get it.”
Yet while Israel and Samuel’s wills concerning a king are very clear in our text, God’s will is somewhat less clear. Twice God tells Samuel to listen to the people, implying that the prophet must make the Israelites a king! Yet while this might suggest that it’s God’s will that Israel have a king, 1 Samuel 8 at least suggests the granting of her request for a monarch is more God’s giving in to Israel’s hardheartedness.
Yet no matter what God’s will is, only a most reluctant servant could possibly miss what God tells Samuel: the prophet must appoint a king. Sadly, however, he hears only the end of God’s answer. While Samuel is not eager to appoint a king, he is eager to warn the Israelites about their coming king.
The angry, aging prophet describes a king who will be out of control, a petty tyrant who will “take” virtually everything away from his subjects. Six times he warns that Israel’s king will take everything, from her children to her land to her sources of income. And what will be the result of all this royal taking? In verse 17 Samuel bluntly warns Israel that she will become her kings’ “slaves.”
You might think that would have thoroughly rattled the Israelites. God, after all, had already freed them once from brutal slavery in Egypt. Now Samuel predicts a return to such horrible slavery. It doesn’t much matter, after all, whether the monarch is an Egyptian pharaoh or an Israelite king. Tyrants are only interested in what’s theirs.
Samuel even closes his catalogue of coming royal sins with one last withering blast. In Exodus 2:24 we read that “God heard” the Israelite’s “cry for help” and was “concerned about” her slavery in Egypt. What more, when Samuel cried out to God for help in I Samuel 7:9, “the Lord answered him.” However, Samuel warns that when Israel cries out to God because of her king’s abuses, she’ll no longer be able to rely on God rescuing her.
However, Samuel’s Israel longs more than almost anything else to be just like “all the other nations.” By God’s amazing grace, she’d enjoyed an intimate relationship with God that none of “the other nations” enjoyed. Yet the Israelites remain stubbornly willing to surrender that uniqueness in order to be just like all the other nations, no matter how much it costs them.
Of course, history shows that God and Samuel were right to be so leery about a monarchy. Saul, after all, was a terrible failure as a king. David, while successful as a king, was a failure as a father and husband. What’s more, King Solomon fulfills nearly to the letter all the furious warnings Samuel issued before he ever crowned a king.
As a result, an Israel that becomes enslaved to her monarchy does soon cry out to God for help. However, as Jeremiah 7:15 and 51:1 report, the Lord does not answer. Left to her own meager resources, Israel is reduced to only a shadow of her earlier self.
Samuel and God both desire that God alone be Israel’s king. Their will is that God alone be her master, her ruler, and her “boss.” They know the terrible consequences of an Israelite monarchy. Yet while Samuel warns her of those terrible consequences, Israel’s will is still that she has a human king. Samuel’s will refuses to bend. By contrast, however, God’s will does, in one sense bend. For the Lord’s own reasons, the Lord calls Samuel to give Israel a king, however disastrous the results will be.
Of course, God’s will alone is good. God knew what was best for Israel, just as God’s knows what’s best for all of God’s adopted sons and daughters. God knew that it would be best for Israel if he alone were her king. Yet God told Samuel to give Israel the king she wanted anyway.
Those kings, of course, help lead Israel’s downhill charge toward ungodliness that ends up in her near-obliteration. However, the Lord graciously used even Israel’s deeply flawed and disobedient desire for a monarch to work out the Lord’s own will. After all, who turns out to be not just Israel, but also the whole world’s King? Jesus Christ … a great, great, great grandson of one of Israel’s kings, David.
After all, as the apostle Paul writes in a stunning burst of lovely eloquence in Romans 8:28, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” As a result, in a burst of poetic comfort, Reformed Christians confess, in Answer 29 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “the Lord will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world.”
We sometimes think of that “adversity” as things imposed on us from outside. God’s people generally think of the trouble in which God works for our good as things like hunger, cancer, unemployment and terrorism. However, 1 Samuel 8 reminds that God’s adopted sons and daughters also sometimes create our own adversity. Like our text’s Israelites, we too sometimes make disastrous choices.
God may allow us to deal with the consequences of those bad choices, just as Israel had to accept the grim consequences of her demand for a king. Yet even in those bad choices and grim consequences, the Lord always somehow works for our good.
From Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, Harper & Row, 1988, pp.70-71:
“’Who is this King of glory? The LORD, the Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!’ proclaims the Psalmist (Ps. 24:10). This rich metaphor is used again and again in Scripture. Yahweh alone was King over Israel, the prophets thundered: to be feared, to be loved, above all else to be obeyed.
“When the people decided they wanted a king of flesh and blood like all the other nations, Samuel warned them that the consequences would prove tragic, and history proved him correct in every particular. In the long run Israel as king and kingdom vanished from history altogether.
“When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, it was as King and Son of David that his followers hailed him. If it was a king like David the conquering hero that they were looking for, they were of course bitterly disappointed.
“What they got was a king like David the father, who, when he heard of his treacherous son’s death, went up to his chamber and wept. ‘Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ he cried out. They were the most kingly words he ever uttered and an uncanny foreshadowing of events some thousand years off.”
Author: Stan Mast
While some scholars call this an individual Psalm of thanksgiving, I think there is enough evidence to label it a royal Psalm of praise. For one thing, it is “of David,” the first of 8 Psalms attributed to David. While that doesn’t definitively prove that David wrote it, the central section (verses 4-5) is addressed to (other?) kings. Further, Psalm 138 has all sorts of resonance with other Davidic Psalms; for example, compare verse 7 with Psalm 23:4. It simply feels Davidic. And, finally, reading it as a royal Psalm of praise provides us with an eminently relevant way to preach it in this day when the politics of power dominate the news. National and international affairs are being driven by men who would be kings. (Isn’t it interesting that none of these throne seekers are women?)
I must confess that I was nudged in this interpretive direction by the other Old Testament reading for today. I Samuel 8 records that moment in Israel’s history when the people demand a human king. Samuel protests that they have a king, Yahweh. They insist that they need a human king to govern them, to represent them in international affairs, and to lead them into war. In the end, God accedes to their demands, but warns them severely that the reign of a human king will change their lives dramatically. He will take their children and turn them into soldiers and servants; he will take their property and produce; he will tax them; and, contrary to the King they have now, he will not always be benevolent and just and merciful and wise. Israel’s history would prove Yahweh to be right over and over again, with a few exceptions.
In Psalm 138 we meet the great exception to the general rule. Here is a faithful king who gives all the praise to God and who invites all the kings of the earth to do likewise. When read against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s presidency, Psalm 138 can give you an opportunity to speak truth to power. Of course, you’ll have to be very careful not to make the sermon about Trump, as though he is the only leader who needs to hear this Psalm. Every democratic leader is tempted to err on the other side of the political divide. Preach it as a call to all leaders to be the kind of king David was, regardless of party, even quite apart from politics. And preach it so that Jesus Christ is lifted up as the King we all need and want.
Imagine how different the world would be if all leaders were to begin each day with Psalm 138:1-3. Rather than puffing up their chests with their own self-importance, what if everyone in power said, “I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart; before the gods (that is, all the other leaders and the divinities they represent) I will sing your praise?” David bowed toward the temple, as all good Jews did. Jesus said that he was the new temple. What if everyone bowed down to Jesus at the beginning and end of every day!?
And what if every leader (and follower, for that matter) treasured the gifts that God gave David everyday—love, faithfulness, and his word. By the time you read this, the royal wedding in England will be over. Lavish gifts will have been laid at the feet of the royal couple. But what everyone really needs is the assurance of God’s covenant love and faithfulness, the counsel of God’s infallible Word, and the saving knowledge of his blessed name.
How wonderful it would be if every leader would pray as David did in his hour of trial. And what a difference it would make if those prayers received the kind of answer David did in verse 3. We always want God to change the situation we’re in: stop the North Koreans, change Putin’s heart, remove Assad from power, restrain the rash impulses of Trump, stop racism and school shootings and terrorism. Those are all legitimate prayers. May God answer them all. But David’s prayer was answered not with changed situations, but with a changed heart. “You made me bold and stouthearted,” so that I could lead through the situation with my faith focused on God.
In verses 4 and 5, David voices the audacious claim at the heart of the Psalter—Yahweh, the King of Israel, is really the King of all kings. The kings of this little third-rate power in the dusty hills of Israel are the servants of the Great King over all the earth. And here, David calls all those other kings to join him in praising Yahweh, the God of Israel.
There is a lot of talk these days about summit meetings between Trump and Kim and Putin and Xi, and a host of smaller meetings designed to solve the problems of the world. David calls for another kind of summit meeting, a praise meeting where all the kings of the earth praise Yahweh for his words and ways. Compared to the glory of Yahweh, all the pomp and circumstance of those meetings are tawdry and cheap. There is only one leader great enough to solve the world’s problems, but sadly our leaders are preoccupied with their own words and ways. Ephesians 1:20-23, Phil. 2:9-11, and the entire book of Revelation apply this message to Christ.
Verse 6 voices a truth that would stun the leaders of the world. As high as you might think you are, Yahweh is higher. But though he is on high, he actually “looks upon the lowly,” meaning that he looks with favor and mercy on those whose hearts are humble. In a world that values pride and self-confidence and braggadocio, David speaks a counter-word. God actually looks down on the proud “from afar.” That is, the Most High King does not draw near those who vaunt themselves. The more they puff themselves up, the smaller they become in God’s eyes. As the ego-centric Pharisee in Jesus’ parable discovered, the person who goes home justified by God is the poor publican who cries out, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
In verses 7 and 8 we find abundant opportunity to talk about Christ and about our lives as Christians. Indeed, these verses could be seen as a “prophecy” of the ministry of Christ. The Gospel reading for today in Mark 3:20-35 shows us Jesus under attack from his “foes,” the Jewish leaders who accuse him of being in league with devil and his family who are afraid he has lost his mind. Jesus walked in the midst of trouble, but God preserved his life until it was time to lay down his life. So it is with all of his children, as we walk though the valley of the shadow.
Jesus spoke often about his purpose, his time, his work, his business. David speaks for Jesus when he says, “Yahweh will fulfill his purpose for me.” That is the great comfort for all believers, both high and low. How much calmer would we be, how much bolder, and determined, and focused, and loving, if we truly believed that God has a purpose for us that he will fulfill. We wouldn’t need to scrabble and plot and push and defend ourselves and attack others, if we truly believed that, at the end of the day, we would be able to say with Jesus, “It is finished.” Paul voiced that kind of Christ-like confidence in Phil. 1:6 and Romans 8:28-30.
We hear the words of verse 8b repeated throughout the Psalter, most insistently in the Psalm just two ahead of this one, Psalm 136. “Your love, O Yahweh, endures forever.” That love (the ubiquitous hesed), the never-failing covenantal commitment of Yahweh to his people, is the foundation of life. In a world where everything changes, this alone is unchanging. World leaders fight to maintain their national security, but as recent hacking attempts and intercontinental missile launches and random terrorist attacks illustrate so dramatically, there is no human way to make the world secure. Of course, we can’t just roll over in front of security breaches, but what a different world it would be if the kings of the earth would say with David, “Your love, O Lord, endures forever.” “Here I stand!”
The Psalm ends on a seemingly peculiar note. This king who trusts Yahweh with his life and kingdom prays that Yahweh will not “abandon the works of your hand.” If he really believes that God’s covenant love endures forever, why would he pray something like that? Well, given the confidence he voices throughout the Psalm, we must read those last words, not as the cry of fearful desperation, but as the quiet confidence of a secure believer. It is the same kind of holy tension we hear in Jesus announcement that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” and his classic prayer, “thy Kingdom come.” That Kingdom has come, but it is not yet here in its fulness. God will not abandon his work in me or in this world. However, in the daily struggles of life, it is an important exercise of faith to pray, “Do not abandon the works of your hand.” The theological truth of the Gospel must be expressed in the spiritual and psychological need to pray that truth.
The Psalmist’s call to the kings of the earth to join him in praising God made me think of a wonderful novel by Ann Patchett. Bel Canto is about the beauty of music overcoming the divisions of humanity. A multi-cultural group of dignitaries are invited to hear a world-famous opera singer perform at an exclusive dinner party in a third world country. As they sit mesmerized by her “bel canto,” a band of guerillas raid the party and take everyone hostage. For the next 4 months, these ragged rebels hold hostage these important people from all over the world—Japanese, Russians, English, French, Spanish, etc. Throughout that time, the opera singer performs each day and the power of her music draws them all together, captors and captives, poor and rich, male and female. All are transformed by the power of beauty, even as the Beautiful Savior, the King of Creation, will one day re-unite all things (Eph. 1:9, 10).
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Author: Scott Hoezee
There’s no two ways about it: Paul’s second letter to the folks in Corinth can be tough to read. When Paul is not ranting and raving against his “super apostle” foes who have been badmouthing him up one side of the street and down the other, Paul also makes it clear that he himself has endured a bevy of woes, travails, beatings, and that mysterious thorn in the flesh too. Back in his celebrated Pharisee phase Saul’s star had been in the ascendant and no small amount of various perquisites and other pleasant things attended that rise.
But ever since the Jesus whose name Saul had been trying to wipe from the face of the earth had met Saul in a blinding flash of transformation, Saul-turned-Paul’s star for Jesus had also been rising but in this case the results were anything but perks. The world roughed up and killed Jesus, after all, and as Jesus himself had promised his followers, it would keep doing the same to them. “Tell me about it” would doubtless have been Paul’s reply to that promised persecution.
All of which brings us to 2 Corinthians 4 and the first few verses of chapter 5 (the Lectionary includes only 2 Corinthians 5:1 in this reading but that’s almost like stopping in mid-sentence so go ahead and include verses 2-5 while you’re at it). If the Apostle Paul had been one of the world’s first “bi-vocational pastors,” then we know that his day job was tent-making. And so unsurprisingly in 2 Corinthians 5 he reaches for a tent metaphor when describing what was going on to his physical body (and the bodies of also his roughed-up apostolic colleagues).
“My outward tent is wasting away” Paul writes, seemingly without complaint. “The fabric is torn, rain gets in, the more vibrant color of the original tent fabric long ago faded away to now some dull gray, pale looking thing. I’ve lost half my tent pegs and two of the supporting cord ropes have frayed to almost nothing. One strong gust of wind could knock this old tent down to a flattened mess.”
All things being equal, this sounds like the rhetoric of a defeated man. But “defeat” is a far cry from Paul’s tone here. Yes, yes, it is at least as bad as Paul describes it here but yet he is able to dismiss all that as “a light and momentary affliction.” Really?! Sounds miserable enough to me. How can Paul keep his chin up, keep going, carry on for the kingdom of God when his earthly tent is in undeniable tatters? Because through Christ Jesus he knows a larger truth: there is a divine Tentmaker who is even now designing and fashioning something quite wonderful for us all. This earthly tent is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot.
There is this thing that Paul eloquently labels a kind of “weight of glory” that had gotten itself deep inside him through faith. Paul doubtless knew that the Hebrew word for “glory” is kabod, which also means “heavy, weighty.” Glory has power behind it, oomph. It is heavy enough to create its own gravity well—as the planets orbit the sun because the sun’s weight and mass bend space around it, so also once the weight of glory gets into your core being, everything else in your life orbits around it. Everything gets focused on that glory and that glory’s own heft nuances, qualifies, helps you to see even the harder things in your life in a new light.
Paul would probably be the last person to wave off someone’s lament over life’s hardships or the persecutions one might endure for Christ’s sake. My own European Reformed tradition has sometimes been caricatured—though the caricature is not far from the truth—as brushing off every bad thing by comparing it to something else. “I used to complain about my migraines until I met a man with a brain tumor . . . The crippling arthritis in my feet seemed bad to me until I met a woman with no feet at all . . .” I don’t think Paul would do that. Some bad things happen in our lives and they are not the way it is supposed to be, they hurt, they wound and there is a whole biblical tradition of prayer designed to deal with that fact: lament.
Still, by faith a weight of glory exists inside each one of us now and while that does not mean the tattering of our earthly tents is no big deal, it does mean that this is not the final deal. Fixing our eyes on the eternal things of Christ helps us to not lose heart, not ultimately, not finally, not as the last word on anyone’s life.
Whenever we preach, we inevitably address people in our congregations who are keenly aware of the wasting away of the earthly tent. It may not be—as it was for Paul—primarily due to persecution. More likely it is the forty-something mother of three who senses that the more the doctors chase those breast cancer cells here, there, and everywhere in her body, the less likely it is she will live to see 50. More likely it is the 70-year-old man who realizes that he is not just having trouble remembering names anymore as a part of normal aging—no, sometimes he has to work harder than is typical to figure out if he is even supposed to know that person who just came up to him in the supermarket for a chat or not. More likely it is the dear saint of the congregation who, it seemed, used to serve on about every committee the church had but who now sits slumped in a wheelchair near the back of the sanctuary when everyone else stands to sing.
Few people need a preacher to convince them that our earthly tents waste away in one form or another. What they need is the Gospel word that their doctors and therapists and home health care providers cannot provide: the Good News about that weight of glory that cannot be dislodged from inside these sagging old tents. The Good News that there is a master Tentmaker who is even now sewing and stitching something together for each one of us—something quite extraordinary.
When our tents tear and sag and ultimately really are laid flat by a stormy gust of wind, there is yet another word to be spoken. We do not lose heart. Not at the bedside of the Hospice patient, not at the funeral, not at the solemn lump-in-your-throat graveside of ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We do not lose heart. Our troubles may not seem light or momentary but in the face of all eternity, they are. They will give way to something glorious.
That is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Preach it!
From Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper, 1979, pp. 128-133).
On the Apostle Paul:
“He was not much to look at. ‘Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose.’ Years after his death that’s the way the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes him, and Paul himself quotes somebody who had actually seen him: ‘His letters are strong but his bodily presence is weak’ (II Corinthians 10:10). It was no wonder. ‘Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one,’ he wrote. ‘Three times I have been beaten with rods, Once I was stoned. Three times have I been shipwrecked. A night and a day I have been adrift at sea. In danger from rivers . . . robbers . . . my own people . . . Gentiles. In toil and hardship, in hunger and thirst . . . in cold and exposure’ (II Corinthians 11:24-27). He was also sick off and on all his life and speaks of a ‘thorn in the flesh” that God gave him to ‘keep him from being too elated.’ Epilepsy? Hysteria? Who knows? The wonder of it all is that he was able to get around at all . . .
“Nobody’s sure whether he ever got to Spain the way he’d planned or not, but either before he went or soon after he got back, he had his final run-in with the authorities and the story is that they took him to a spot about three miles out of Rome and right there on the road, where he’d spent most of his life including what was in a way the beginning of his life, they lopped off his head.
“At the end of the less than flattering description of his personal appearance, the Acts of Paul and Thecla says that ‘at times he looked like a man and at times he had the face of an angel.’ If there is a God in heaven, as even in his blackest moments Paul never doubted there was, then bald-headed and bowlegged as he was, with those eyebrows that met and that over-sized nose, it was with angel-eyes that he exchanged a last long glance with his executioners.”