June 08, 2020
Author: Scott Hoezee
Be careful what you pray for—you might just get it! You can see a little of the dynamic of this bit of proverbial wisdom in the pivot from Matthew 9 to Matthew 10. At the end of Matthew 9, Jesus tells the disciples to pray that more workers would be sent out into the ripe harvest fields he saw all around him. If we assume that the disciples took their master’s urging seriously and did indeed pray for more workers, they soon discovered that God answered their prayers by sending out the disciples themselves! No sooner do we turn the corner into Matthew 10 and immediately the disciples are sent out into those harvest fields to do ministry in Jesus’ name. Their prayers were answered and the answer was them!
In many ways Matthew 10 is a remarkable chapter but also a strange one. The Common Lectionary has recognized the richness of Matthew 10 by dividing the bulk of its verses up among no fewer than three different Sundays in the Year A cycle. Here we get just the first 8 verses, most of which are devoted to a listing of the disciples and then to the broadest commands Jesus gives them for their new mission (viz., to go to the lost sheep of Israel only for the time being and to do a ministry of preaching, healing, and exorcism).
But stepping back a bit, we can wonder about something we don’t often ponder, which is why and how it can be the case that Jesus authorizes such a powerful ministry for disciples who were clearly—at least as of that moment—completely clueless as to the meaning and shape of Jesus’ wider mission. It’s like authorizing some high school students to go out and start building skyscrapers even though they really do not yet understand the basics of engineering and the mathematics that (literally) undergird technical marvels like the Empire State Building.
In the gospels, the disciples remain clueless about the fundamental things of Jesus. Indeed, if Luke’s account is to be believed, most of their misunderstandings as to the nature of Jesus’ kingdom persist all the way until Pentecost. Remember Acts 1 and the moments right before Jesus’ ascension into heaven when—even at that late date some forty days after the resurrection—the disciples ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” A question like that does not get asked by people who understand the kingdom.
And yet even so in Matthew 10 Jesus tells these people to go declare “The kingdom of heaven is near.” But can you preach that message and not understand the kingdom? And lest we think that all these instructions were meant to go into effect only after Pentecost, remember that Jesus’ restriction to stick with the Jews locates this ministry and this proclamation as taking place prior to the Great Commission (when Jesus will open up gospel ministry and proclamation to all people from all nations).
So in essence what Jesus does in Matthew 10 is to tell disciples who really do not grasp the full richness of Jesus’ kingdom to go proclaim that same kingdom’s nearness. And since in the ears of many Jewish persons a proclamation of the kingdom would sound like a political message—and since the disciples were perhaps not in a position to clarify the spiritual nature of Jesus’ kingdom in that they shared this perception at this time—it’s fair to wonder just what Jesus was doing sending out these disciples with the core of his message!
Perhaps here is a good chance to reflect on some of Thomas G. Long’s observations on the shape of Matthew’s gospel. First, we need to remember that although the disciples in Matthew obviously still do not have everything figured out, neither are they presented as being clueless and repeatedly in the dark the way they get presented in, say, Mark’s gospel.
As an illustration of this, Long reminds us of the parallel incidents in Mark 8 and Matthew 16. The story is the same: the disciples and Jesus head out in the boat but the disciples forgot to bring lunch along. So when Jesus says “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees,” the disciples all get a little white around the gills and say, “Oh dear, he’s mad that we forgot to pack lunch!” But in Mark, even after Jesus tries to explain what he had really been getting at, the bottom line of the story is Jesus, with brow furrowed, plaintively looking at his bewildered disciples and asking, “Do you still not understand?” Apparently they did not. But not in Matthew. Matthew assures us that after Jesus explained what he had been getting at, “then they understood.”
The disciples “get” more in Matthew and so in this particular gospel, it may appear a bit less risky to send them out with the message of the kingdom on their tongues.
But Long also reminds us that in Matthew there is great urgency to getting the kingdom message across. Indeed, there is so much urgency that it’s worth the risk of sending out even less-than-fully-informed disciples to start beating the bushes and getting the message out there. As Long says, for Matthew the circle of light is small—there is in Matthew great fear that people will fall out of the light and into the darkness. And so even messages of judgment and stern exhortation are seen by Matthew as finally loving, not unloving. Judgment exists to help people, not hinder them; judgment is for the people, not against them.
So the urgency of the situation—and Jesus’ sorrowful sense of how lost people were without the guidance of God, their great shepherd—is what propels the disciples out into ministry even before they are as fully informed as they might otherwise have been.
“The kingdom of heaven is near.” What can we do also this day to invite others into that kingdom with all the urgent—but loving—intensity that invitation deserves?
But what is this kingdom we proclaim? It does not seem to have the usual hallmarks of a kingdom or a realm or a country. It is difficult for us to conceive of a kingdom that is not also a definable place on the map–a realm with borders and with visible signs that this particular place is different from all other places.
Most of us know what such markers might be like. Cross the border into Canada and immediately lots of things look different: highway signs, street signs, traffic lights. Everything is in kilometers, some traffic lights have something called a “Delayed Green.” The lines painted on the roads may be a different color. In England the entire flow of traffic is reversed, which is why some of us very nearly got hit when crossing some London street because we instinctively looked the wrong way to see if any cars were coming.
A kingdom or country or nation or realm would rather be like that, we think. And so we tend to relegate the reality of the kingdom to a future time. We even refer to distant events as “kingdom come.” But no. The kingdom is now and must be now to the extent we can display it in our lives and in our churches.
As Dallas Willard has written, the kingdom is real and it is real now. Because a kingdom is that realm where the effective will of the king determines what happens. That’s why the kingdom of God is real and that’s why we can see it, right now today. The kingdom is present wherever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray. The kingdom is present wherever Jesus nurtures certain behaviors and lifestyles that we call the fruit of the Spirit. The kingdom is present wherever people pour water over the heads of babies or take bread and wine to their lips all simply because Jesus told us that this is the way we are to act in remembrance of him.
The kingdom is present wherever a believer somewhere refuses to go along with some scheme because she believes it is untruthful and that going along with it would make her less transparent to Jesus. Whenever and wherever a woman says no to abortion, whenever and wherever a college student refuses to participate in some binge-drinking party, whenever and wherever someone refuses to cut corners on his taxes, whenever and wherever a kindly old woman brings light into a neighbor’s darkness by speaking a word of peace, whenever and wherever a man sits down to tutor a homeless child, and whenever and wherever all such things are done because all these people believe there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus, then there–right there and right here and right now–the kingdom of God is present because the effective will of Jesus is calling the shots.
If we preach this text in June of 2020, we will do so in a time of COVID-19 pandemic as well as—in the United States anyway—a time of grave racial tensions and riots. How dearly and desperately people need to see the possibility of a different kingdom, a different ethos, a different way of being where King Jesus calls the shots, where what happens is what King Jesus wants to happen. How dearly people need to know this is possible. Now, not only by and by.
The message we have to proclaim and to embody and to exemplify is the same now as it has always been: the kingdom of God is at hand. Today as much as ever, people need to know that this kingdom is real and available. They need to see the joy and the possibilities of that kingdom in us.
In Matthew 10:8 the NIV translates Jesus’ words as “Freely you have received, freely give.” Other translations like the NRSV say, “You received without payment, give without payment.” Both translations are dancing in the right neighborhood linguistically and theologically but both miss the real punch of the original Greek. In the Greek Jesus utters just 4 words here: “DOREAN ELABETE, DOREAN DOTE.” But the word DOREAN there is the accusative of the word DOREA, which means “gift” and when used in the accusative like this, it is emblematic of something that comes gratis, as a gift. It carries with it the idea of being totally undeserved (and hence unexpected) and can even trickle over into meaning something like “unreasonable” as when Jesus says in John 15:25 “They hated me without reason” (in the Greek, EMIMESAN ME DOREAN). In other words, this is a word that traffics in the area of divine grace, of that wild—almost irrational and incredibly lavish— and prodigal gift of God that always comes to us from out of a clear blue sky as the greatest gift ever given or received. That is what the disciples are supposed to pursue in their ministry: they are to embody and proclaim and proffer the same divine grace that they received from Jesus.
Dallas Willard writes that when he was a boy, rural electrification was just happening and power lines were being strung throughout the countryside for the first time ever. But suppose even after the lines were up and running you ran across a house where the weary family still used only candles and kerosene lanterns for light, used scrubboards, ice chests, and rug beaters. A better life was waiting for them right outside their door if only they would let themselves be hooked into the power lines. “My friends,” you could proclaim, “electricity is at hand!” But suppose they just didn’t trust it, thought it was too much of a hassle, and anyway didn’t believe the promises that things might be easier with this newfangled juice running into their house. “If it’s all the same to you, we’ll stick with the old ways.”
Maybe the kingdom is like that: it’s here, it’s real, it’s right outside your door. The kingdom of God is at hand! Don’t be so easily satisfied with the temporary pleasures of sex and money, power and food, cable TV and the wonders of technology. A better, exciting, hopeful, joyful kingdom of life is real. We need to be in the business of driving away the demons of doubt, despair, cynicism, arrogance, and anything else that hinders people from believing our message and so entering Jesus’ kingdom. The kind of unclean spirits Jesus so routinely encountered have not gone off duty, my friends. Just look around. It is because they remain so real and powerful that we must proclaim and also live under the rule of God right now. The kingdom of God is at hand. We live knowing that this is true! We live to help others believe it, too.
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Author: Stan Mast
We are only two Sundays into Ordinary Time, having concluded our celebration of the great festivals of the faith with Pentecost Sunday. So, it might seem a bit strange to return to Christmas today, but indulge me for a moment. It doesn’t take a brilliant biblical scholar to see parallels between this story of Sarah and that story of Mary. They are about the same thing, the powerful grace of God doing the impossible for the salvation of God’s people.
But they are a mirror image of each other. The one is about a young girl, the other about an old woman. The one isn’t married, has never had sex, is a virgin; the other has been married for years, but in spite of numerous attempts to have a child is still childless, because she is barren. The one receives a terrifying visit from an angel, who promises a child who will be conceived even though no man will provide the seed. The other is visited by three strangers, one of whom is the Lord himself, who promises a child who will be conceived even though she has no eggs to provide for the conception. The first responds to this impossible promise with that lovely line, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” The other responds to the promise by laughing to herself about how impossible it is.
We love the story of Mary, but the story of Sarah is more like the story of our lives. On this second Sunday of Ordinary Time, as we begin the journey of everyday life with the God who has done great things for us, let’s reflect on this experience so many of us have had—when the promises of God’s salvation are so out of touch with the reality of your life that all you can do is laugh. My sermon on this text would be entitled, “When God Makes You Laugh.”
As I said, we love the story of Mary, this tender young girl living her dream, in love with a decent and gentle Joseph. When her dreamy life is abruptly interrupted by God, she is shocked. “How can this be, since I have no husband?” But she recovers quickly when the angel reassures her and explains that the Holy Spirit will impregnate her. By the end of the story she is compliant and trusting and obedient. When the child is born, she treasures and ponders, as the shepherds return to their flocks glorifying and praising God. “God rest you, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay….” It’s a lovely, joyful story.
Unless you are Sarah, on the opposite end of life’s journey. She has been around the block many times, and she has plenty to be dismayed about. In many ways, life has been a nightmare, at least since that day she was uprooted from her home in Ur of the Chaldees and hauled along on that long trip to an unknown land, all because her husband said God had told him to go. Abraham claimed that God had made wonderful promises about land and children.
But she had lived in a tent for decades now, as they wandered around that land, and she remained childless. And there was that terrible incident down in Egypt, when Abraham talked her into lying about being his sister and she spent time in Pharaoh’s harem. And when Sarah tried to help out with the “child problem” by giving her slave girl Hagar to Abraham, that little snip had scorned Sarah when Abraham got Hagar pregnant.
But at the leaden heart of her life was the disappointment and shame of never having her own child. Yes, Abraham kept assuring her that God had promised a child, a child from her own body. But after 90 years, it hadn’t happened. And it never would, not now, not with her body in its post-menopausal condition.
Then those three strangers suddenly appeared out of the shimmering heat. It was the hottest part of the day. Abraham was just drifting into his siesta as he sat in the entrance of their tent pitched in the shade of the great trees of Mamre. As he nodded, something made him look up, and he saw them. In a marvelous display of ancient Near Eastern hospitality, Abraham treated them like kings, like lords. Which, of course, one of them was.
But Abraham didn’t know that, nor did Sarah. The story teller does and, thus, we do too. “The Lord appeared to Abraham…,” he says. With that the curtain rises on the greatest act in the divine drama—a foretaste of the incarnation, God incognito, God in disguise visiting his desperate and disappointed people, God with us in human form to wake us from the nightmares of our lives. But Abraham and Sarah didn’t know it was God, any more than we do as we nod through our discouraging days.
Sarah plays a bit part in the first scene of this greatest act in the drama, scurrying about with mealtime preparations and then retiring into the tent as the men folk ate their dinner. She is in the background, hiding behind the tent flap, curious about these strangers, listening to the conversation. Suddenly she is thrust into the center of things with one question. “Where is your wife, Sarah?” they asked. You can imagine Sarah’s head jerking up, her pulse quickening. “How do they know my name?” Abraham grunts his monosyllabic response, “There, in the tent.” Then comes the bombshell. “The Lord said, ‘I will return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’”
After all these years of childlessness, all these years of hearing Abraham saying, “God told me, God promised a son,” but hearing nothing herself and seeing no results– after all these years of disappointment, she herself hears God speak the promise. In one year, Sarah will have a son. Oh joy! Oh ecstasy! Oh Lord! Oh brother! Are you kidding me? Are you serious? What a joke! “Sarah laughed to herself….”
It’s not hard to imagine why she laughed. In fact, the text tells us explicitly. It wasn’t just the years of disappointment, though, frankly, that would have been enough. I mean when you wait this long for God to act and he never does, you eventually conclude that he won’t, not for you anyway. Maybe for other people, maybe for Hagar, maybe for Abraham, but not for you. Whatever other people may say about God’s faithfulness in keeping his promises, it hasn’t happened for you. God has been silent and absent in your life. Sarah may have laughed because of her past, her long disappointment with God, but that isn’t what the text says.
It says she laughed because of the present, because of the sheer impossibility of the promise. If God had promised this 60 years ago, even 30 years ago, I might be able to believe it. But now? “Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” That tells us that Sarah was simply past the age of childbearing. She was far beyond menopause.
A recent scientific article in the local newspaper said that menopause begins on average at age 51. Sarah was now nearly 40 years beyond that. It had been 4 decades since her body had produced any eggs. Sarah was no modern doctor, but she knew what she knew. She knew reality and she wasn’t afraid to say it. “I am worn out, dried out. It is literally inconceivable that I can have a child. And now this stranger says I will have a son. Get real. It’s impossible. Who does he think he is?” And she laughed to herself.
Well, that is precisely the question, isn’t it? Who is this stranger who makes such impossible promises? We know, because the narrator tells us, but no one tells her. She didn’t know it was the Lord. She might have, could have known, if her disappointment and sense of reality hadn’t gotten in the way. After all, there were these clues.
How had this total stranger known her name? How did he know she laughed when she was hidden in the tent and had only laughed to herself? Further, she had heard this promise before. God had repeated it to Abraham at least 3 times, and he surely had told her. How could she not put two and two together and figure out that she was listening to Yahweh here. And the Stranger said, “Is anything to hard for Yahweh?” Isn’t that a dead giveaway? Of course, he said that after she laughed.
But my point is that she could have known. In fact, I wonder if she didn’t know, and laughed anyway. She knew what she knew. Given her past and her present, she was not going to have a baby, no matter who says she will. Even God. So, she laughed at the promise of God.
Let’s talk about laughing at God. There are two kinds of such laughter. One is the laughter of mockery, of ridicule, of rebellion, of simple outright unbelief in the message of God about Jesus Christ. It is the laughter that is met with the scornful laughter of God, as we hear in Psalm 2. When the nations rebel against God, God laughs in derision at them.
Such was not the laughter of Sarah. She laughed not in God’s face, but to herself. She laughed not out of arrogance, but out of a broken heart, out of a lifelong disappointment that had taught her not to clutch at straws. Hopelessness, not pride underlay her inability to believe God’s impossible promise. It wasn’t that she had no faith, but that her faith was small because of the nightmare of her life. She was not a rebel, but a realist. When she was confronted with her laughter, she doesn’t shake her fist under God’s nose. She cowers, and lies, but she doesn’t keep laughing as a rank unbeliever would.
God knows that. That’s why he responds to her unbelieving laughter not with fire and brimstone, but with truth and grace and with his own little joke. “Yes, you did laugh.” That’s the truth. You can’t fool God. He knows the truth about our secret laughter in response to the promises of his Word. He knows how we lie to him and to ourselves about the strength of our faith. He knows about our secret unbelief, our inability to put the past behind us and believe that he can and will do miracles in our present and future.
And he responds with grace. The next thing we hear about Sarah is in Genesis 21:1, “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah, as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised.” Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age at the very time God promised him.” God keeps blessing even the little faith of his children. He remembers we are dust and he gives us grace, even when we laugh because of our inability to believe with the kind of surrender Mary showed.
Could it be that God even laughed with Sarah, that his response to her faltering faith was not an angry scowl, but a warm chuckle. I wonder about that because of the name Abraham and Sarah gave to their precious, promised son. They called him Isaac, “laughter,” because that’s what God told them to do. He was God’s wonderful little joke, the punch line of a long story of suspense and confusion. You shall call his name Isaac, because his mother (and father?) laughed when God promised his birth.
“You shall call his name Jesus, because he shall save his people from their sins.” Including the sin of laughing at God’s promises. That’s the Gospel message in this old story. Because of God’s all-powerful grace, those who laugh behind God’s back, even those who laugh in his face, can find God’s blessing. It’s an unspeakable comfort to know that salvation depends not on our unfaltering faith, but on God’s grace in Christ. “God rest you, merry gentlemen and women, let nothing you dismay….”
The picture of God walking up to Abraham’s tent and Sarah hiding behind the flap where she laughed at God’s promise reminded me of these lines from Francis Thompson’s immortal poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”
I fled him, down the nights and down the days,
I fled him, down the arches of the years,
I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the mist of tears
I hid from him, and under running laughter.
Still with unhurrying chase
And unperturbed pace
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet
And a Voice about their beat,
‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter me.’
Author: Scott Hoezee
It’s such a perky psalm. So upbeat. It’s a call for the whole cosmos to sing as one. One big happy choir entering God’s gates with thanksgiving and praise.
Well, maybe it’s just me in early June 2020 but perky is not the mood one finds in most of the world right now. COVID-19 and racial violence and tensions on every side have curdled the moods—even the outlook—of many people. We’d love to sing in one big choir. That is, if singing around one another were not so potentially deadly right now with all those possible coronavirus germs expelling from our lungs and mouths. Choir practice right now can be lethal. We’d love to enter God’s gates with thanksgiving but lately it’s not been possible to enter even the doorways of our own churches, for goodness sake.
Shout to the Lord . . . via Zoom. Enter his gates . . . online. Come before him with joyful songs . . . in your living room.
“Psalm 100 COVID-19 Version” just doesn’t quite cut it, does it? It doesn’t quite have the zip of the original. Yet this is the Hebrew poem the Lectionary assigns in Year A to introduce the long season of Ordinary Time. Thing is, our times are not ordinary in most any sense and no one is completely sure when (or if) they will feel ordinary or normal ever again. This is one of those times in history—and surely not the first—when full-throated songs of praise stick in our throats at least a bit and maybe a lot. Maybe some of us who have gone through the worst this pandemic has to offer cannot sing such words at all just now. We are quite literally too choked up with the loss of loved ones.
Is now the time to call for global praise? Is now a moment to ask people to shout to the Lord because we are the sheep of his pasture? Can we praise God during a season that otherwise seems far more prone to lament? There are plenty of lament psalms available to us in the Hebrew Psalter. Should we go to one of those instead of the assigned Psalm 100?
Maybe. We all have to exegete our own context and congregations to know what people can bear just now. And maybe it’s more than OK to admit that even the most pious and hope-filled among us are singing praises these days with just a little less enthusiasm than might otherwise be the case during different times when there is not so much cascading suffering around us on every side.
Still, as believers we are called to acknowledge God as our Sovereign, we are still called to recognize God’s goodness. We can still know that the earth is the Lord’s even though it is for now such a fractured and fragmented and hurting planet. We have to have a Psalm 100-like preview of the fact that at the end of the cosmic day, praise and not lament is going to have the last word.
The actor John Krasinski (Jim Halpert of “The Office” TV fame) hit on an idea just as the global lockdown stated to happen in March to produce a little weekly online program called “Some Good News.” It became something of a sensation as Krasinski and his staff culled YouTube and Facebook and Twitter for videos from ordinary folks showing how they were getting by in quarantine, how they were reaching out to people despite all the obstacles, how encouragement and good humor and lyric acts of kindness were not going to be derailed by COVID-19.
Soon people all over the world were doing mini-versions of the show themselves for friends and neighbors even as many people started posting videos and stories to the “Some Good News” social media pages (obviously in the hopes they might actually get onto the show, which many have of course). Krasinski’s tagline for the show has basically been to remember that even when times are tough, there is always some good news out there. Such heartwarming stories do not banish all sorrow but they keep us going with something we all need: hope. Inspiration. A reason to get teary-eyed now and again for good reasons instead of merely sorrowful ones.
To state the merely obvious: if John Krasinski and company can do it, the church surely can. We have not just some good news but we are the custodians of the Good News that just is the Gospel. And the Gospel assures us that although the Son of God had to get dragged through the mud and the muck of this ugly world to do it—indeed, the Son of God had to go clear to hell itself to do it—Jesus Christ did win the victory. Songs of thanksgiving and the entering of God’s courts with praise are all still possible because the Lord Jesus died and rose again.
As John of Patmos experienced in a grim time of exile in his own life, God can pull back the curtain of history for us to reveal the heavenly choruses of praise that are going on right now and that are, in fact, never-ceasing. That’s what John saw on that otherwise desolate island: not visions of what will be but a glimpse of what is right now. Choirs of angels and saints singing “Worthy is the Lamb!” Right now. The song goes on. In this sense Psalm 100 pairs well with this week’s Gospel Lectionary text from Matthew 9-10 and the need to proclaim “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That kingdom is not future but is real today.
And so perhaps equally real is the need to sing Psalm 100 with everything we can muster from quarantine, from our homes, on our Zoom feeds, and as we go out and about into our fragmented, grasping, hurting society. So yes, as I said at the outset of this article, at first glance long about now in early June 2020, Psalm 100 seems to sound all the wrong notes vis-à-vis the mood many of us are in.
Or maybe it’s the other way around: given the mood we are all in, perhaps Psalm 100 sounds all the right notes.
Those of us over a certain age remember a Coca-Cola commercial that ran incessantly in the early 1970s. In it a choir of people from all the world sing a song about global unity, about teaching the world to sing “in perfect harmony.” And somehow buying everyone in the world a Coke was going to be the ticket to make this happen. After all, as the song concludes, Coke “is the real thing.”
Well . . . it’s an advertisement after all. But Coke is not “the real thing” to unite the world, to help us sing in global harmony. But the call of Psalm 100 does connect us to the real thing, to the real deal, to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who can and will in the end help us all shout to the Lord in perfect harmony as we enter his gates with thanksgiving.
And maybe there will be Coca-Cola in the New Creation but . . . it won’t be the main event. Thanks be to God!
Author: Doug Bratt
Is there any phrase in the English lexicon that’s stranger than “to die for”? After all, when we claim something is “to die for,” we’re not describing something that’s as tragic as death itself. I’ve never heard anyone say, for instance, that racial injustice or a global pandemic was “to die for” – even though they sometimes cause death.
When we say something is to “die for,” we mean that it’s especially beautiful or wonderful. I’ve only heard people say that something like lovely weather, a stunning dress or luscious food was “to die for.”
Yet in Romans 5 Paul says that what was “to die for” was something that is tragic and flawed. “When we were still powerless,” the apostle tells the Romans, “Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
We can almost see Paul’s thoughts trip over each other as the words roll out of his inspired pen. He begins by insisting, “Christ died for the ungodly.” Yet we can almost imagine the apostle then stopping himself and saying, “But what did I just say?”
After all, who in the world would die for an ungodly person? Most people might not even give their lives for a good person. A few people might be willing to die for an outstanding person. “But,” we also can imagine Paul adding, “I doubt it!”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers and hearers might envision giving our lives for people we like, such as our family members or closest friends. But, frankly, it’s hard for me, for instance, who assumes I still have life to live, to imagine dying for anyone else.
Of course, dying for one’s country is a sad but routine part of military service. President George W. Bush awarded U.S. Navy Seal Michael Monsoor the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Iraq war. When insurgents threw a grenade onto the roof of a building where six other soldiers were positioned with him, Monsoor immediately fell onto the grenade, fatally wounding himself but sparing his comrades.
Memorials for heroes like Michael Monsoor sometimes contain Jesus’ words from John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Yet as Fleming Rutledge, to whom I owe a number of ideas for this Starter notes, what Paul is saying in our text is far more radical.
After all, the apostle isn’t talking about dying for one’s friends, family members or country. No, he insists, “When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” And in case we didn’t get the message the first time, Paul adds, in verse 8, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
In order to let the Spirit open our hearers to Romans 5’s truths, its proclaimers might ask them to imagine the least godly person they know. Some would answer brutal police officers or greedy looters. Then we might ask our hearers to imagine them going or sending good people to die for them.
While that’s hard to imagine, Paul says Christ did something remarkably like that. He died not for those who naturally consider ourselves religious, but for those who were still irreverent. Christ died not for those who are respectable, but for those who were still disreputable. Quite simply, Christ died for people like us who, if we’d been there, would naturally have tolerated if not demanded his death.
Of course it’s in some ways, hard to for God’s dearly beloved people think of ourselves as “ungodly.” The Holy Spirit is, after all, transforming us to resemble the risen and ascended Christ. So as Romans 5’s proclaimers and hearers read this text, we need to think of ourselves as we would be had God not rescued us. Or, perhaps, we need to think of ourselves as we are at our most selfish moments, as “sinners.”
Jim Van Tholen was a 31 year-old Christian Reformed minister. As he was dying of cancer, he wrote one of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever read. In it he admitted that the prospect of his death sobered him because he was scared of meeting God.
After all, he’d had more than thirty years to heap up a stinking pile of sins. Yet Jim had always assumed that he’d have forty more years to make up for all his bad actions. But as he preached this stirring sermon, he realized that he had months, not years to do so.
The Holy Spirit, however, comforted Van Tholen by pointing him to that little word “still” in our text’s 6th verse. In fact, though the English doesn’t reflect it, Paul actually uses the word twice there, literally insisting, “Still while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
While God has equipped God’s adopted children with the Holy Spirit in order to make us holy, we’re not as obedient as we should be. While Christ gave us everything, his followers have given him comparatively little in return.
Of course, Christians like to imagine that we’re making progress toward sinlessness. Yet the Bible remains us that we make little genuine headway. The Israelites repeatedly flunked the Covenant. Jesus’ disciples were uneven ambassadors. Sin scarred even the New Testament’s early churches. Every Sunday many of God’s people set aside time during worship to confess that we’ve sinned against God.
Recent events in the United States have reminded us that we’ve made insufficient progress in combatting racism and racial injustice. The global pandemic reminds us that we remain vulnerable to contagious diseases. It’s not just that we’re not all we can be. It’s also that we’re not what God created us to be.
So as long as Jesus’ followers live, we never stop praying, with Luke 18’s tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or with the Church, “Christ, have mercy upon us.” In fact, if Christ were to return at this very moment, it would be the prayer that first came to many of us.
Ironically, however, as Rutledge notes, few but those whom God has graciously saved think of ourselves as sinners. Most people whom God has not yet redeemed reject the idea. Nor do even God’s adopted sons and daughters like to talk about what Paul calls our “powerlessness.” People have, after all, convinced us that, unless someone has victimized us, we’re powerful enough to take care of ourselves. What’s more, our culture has convinced us that “God helps those who help themselves.”
Yet the Scriptures actually teach us just the opposite of “God helps those who help themselves.” They repeatedly insist that just when his adopted brothers and sisters couldn’t help ourselves, Christ died for us.
However, something about this text may still puzzle God’s beloved people. In it, after all, Paul says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Yet while he and some of his contemporaries were probably alive when Jesus died, not one of this Starter’s readers was even born yet. So how can Paul say, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us?”
The answer is that he’s speaking corporately. Paul isn’t just talking about his contemporaries and himself. He’s talking about humanity. The apostle is essentially saying, “When humanity was still stuck in the mess that is sin, Christ died for us.” When, in other words, sin left the human race powerless to go to God in faith, God graciously came to us in Christ.
Yet what’s true of humanity in general is also true of individuals. We profess that our own sin leaves us naturally powerless to go to God in faith. So God showed God’s self-giving, self-sacrificing love for us by coming to us in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us. God loved not the lovable, but the naturally unlovable, even at the cost of the death of God’s only Son.
Paul probably understood this better than many relatively good Christians who have tried to follow Jesus as long as we can remember. After all, while the apostle was still busy persecuting Christians, God graciously reached down and saved him.
While the apostle wasn’t even contemplating repentance, God’s grace stopped him in his tracks. While he was running away from God’s will, God graciously turned him around to proclaim the gospel of God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
Rutledge invites us to imagine someone we’ve deeply hated or has hurt us saving our life. Wouldn’t that completely change the way we view that person? Now imagine that person you once despised not only saving your life, but also actually giving her life for you, perhaps by taking a bullet. Wouldn’t that completely overhaul your life?
That’s precisely what God has done for us in Christ. In Isaiah 53 the prophet says, “He was despised and rejected by men … the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
My cancer diagnosis reminded me of my frailty and mortality. The global pandemic has confronted at least some of us with the fact that there are things about death that sober, if not frighten us. At times we fear the pain and suffering that sometimes accompany death. I sometimes also dread the tearing away from our loved ones that death will bring.
But this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson reminds us that there’s one thing about death that God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t have to fear. Because Christ lived, died and rose again from the dead, we don’t have to fear meeting God. Who, after all, on a summer Sunday is to “die for”? To God’s way of thinking, we are, by God’s amazing grace.
The unlikelihood of giving one’s life for another person is part of what makes what happened outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania on 9/11 such a dramatic part of American lore. It’s a startling story that those who survived that ghastly day will never forget.
Americans deeply treasure it in part because United Flight 93’s passengers gave their lives not only for their friends, but also for strangers like all of us. In fact, they let death rip them away from those they loved for people they’d never met.
It’s almost too dreadful to even imagine what would have happened if terrorists had succeeded in flying United Flight 93 into the White House or Capital. I suspect that the United States would still be recovering had those passengers not given their lives for their fellow Americans on 9/11.
Just imagine how much more terrible our plight would be had Jesus not died for naturally ungodly sinners like us.