June 14, 2021
Author: Scott Hoezee
For fishermen ostensibly accustomed to being out on the water—presumably in all kinds of weather—the disciples sure panicked over the weather often enough in the gospels. The only calm one in all those storms-at-sea situations was the land-lubber carpenter from Nazareth. So also here in Mark 4: With just a word the Jesus, who had not been sufficiently bothered by the storm to be awakened by it in the first place, calmed that same storm with apparent ease.
But according to Mark, that was when the real terror of the night began. The only time in these brief verses when the disciples are described as “terrified” is not when the storm was swamping the boats but after Jesus rebukes both the winds and the disciples. The terror in their eyes and in their voices comes not when they are shaking Jesus awake to ask if he doesn’t care whether they live or die but only when they are asking each other, “Who is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
We are not told the disciples were filled with wonder. We are not told they asked this question trembling with joy or anticipation. We are not told that they asked one another this question with excitement rising in their voices. No, we’re told they were “terrified,” and the discerning reader has to wonder why.
After all, the disciples have been with Jesus long enough now to have seen a lot of spectacular healings, including the casting out of some demons. Mark’s Gospel is nothing if not uber-dramatic from start to finish. They have been around Jesus long enough to sense that he possesses phenomenal powers and is, by most any reckoning, no ordinary man or rabbi. True, they’ve not seen him command the very forces of nature in just this way but it wasn’t exactly the first time they’d seen power at work in and through the very words of their master.
Yet they were terrified at this particular display. “Who is this?” they asked.
It’s not a bad question.
It reminds me of a scene I saw in a movie years ago about a man who, to the best of his family’s knowledge, was just a typical insurance salesman from Indiana. In reality he was a highly trained government spy who spoke a half-dozen languages fluently, could wield weapons with the best of them, and knew all kinds of tricks of the spy trade. In the film the man’s wife disappears on a trip to Paris and so, with his son in tow, the man more and more utilizes his spy skills to find his wife back. Early on the man’s son overhears his father speaking fluent French into a pay phone even as he slickly tucked a pistol into his belt. As he emerged from the phone booth, his son—eyes as big as saucers—looked at his own father and asked, “Who are you?” Something was up with his father that he had heretofore never sensed or even suspected.
You can’t blame the disciples for having a similar reaction about Jesus but why had they not asked a similar question earlier when demons fled before Jesus, when paralyzed people stood up and walked, when lepers were made clean? And not only that but why in Mark 4, when they ask this question, do they do so with terror in their voices? For whatever the reason, it’s pretty clear that this incident with the waves and the wind tipped the disciples off that Jesus was not just a skilled healer but was in fact almighty God, the Creator of heaven and earth and, just so, the one who could command those elements as well.
And that maybe was the part that terrified them. It’s one thing to think you’ve hitched your wagon to a highly charismatic teacher and healer. It’s one thing to think you’re in the inside circle of one gifted human being. If you’ve ever had the chance to shake the hand of a president or prime minister or royal figure, you know there is a certain electricity that courses through you at being in the presence of so extraordinary a person.
But things are different in case you realize you are in the presence of not just a gifted person but no less than God himself! Because if you have occasion to realize that you’ve been hanging around with God all along, suddenly you start to wonder about other things. Suddenly you wonder if all along he’s been able to read your mind, know your thoughts, see the envy and the anger and the things you didn’t say (but wanted to) and that were not all that kind. Suddenly you wonder if you’ve been sitting up straight enough and behaving well enough all along, if maybe the things you’ve done and said are going to have consequences well beyond the momentary (as in, maybe into eternity . . .).
As Fred Craddock once said in a sermon about John the Baptist, what made John the Baptist intriguing was that his preaching brought people right into the presence of God which, as Craddock put it, “Is what everybody wants, and what nobody wants.”
The presence of God. It’s what we want, and yet what terrifies us, too. We can only feel safe about it in case we are convinced that the God in whose presence we are is finally a good and gracious God, a God who loves us despite our foibles and sins, despite the things he can see going on in the more fetid parts of our hearts and minds at any given moment.
Thankfully, another part of the answer to the question “Who is this?” is also that he is, indeed, gracious and full of mercy.
Some versions—including the NRSV—try to soften Mark 4:41 by claiming that what the disciples felt after Jesus calmed the storm was “great awe.” But that may not be correct. The Greek says Καi eφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν, which really piles on the fear, claiming that they “feared a great fear.” It’s the kind of thing a frightened child might say, “Daddy, when that big bang of thunder happened, I was scared with a really big scare!” It’s not the kind of thing that sounds like awe. It sounds like “terror”!
There is a scene in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath that reminds me a bit of how the disciples react to Jesus once they start to get a true sense of all the power and strength that he possesses. The Joad family is traveling in their jalopy to what they think will be a new Promised Land in California. Along the way the grandmother of the family gets sick. During a long night Ma Joad lies down next to Granma in the back of the truck. In the morning and just after the family finally had crossed over into California, we read the following as it turns out Ma had laid next to a corpse most of the night:
“The fambly’s here” [Ma Joad said]. Her knees buckled and she sat down on the running board.
“You sick, Ma?”
“No, jus’ tar’d.”
“Didn’ you get no sleep?”
“Was Granma bad?”
Ma looked down at her hands, lying together like tired lovers in her lap. “I wish’t I could wait an’ not tell you. I wish’t it could be all—nice.”
Pa said, “Then Granma’s bad?”
Ma raised her eyes and looked over the valley. “Granma’s dead.”
They looked at her, all of them, and Pa said, “When?”
“Before they stopped us las’ night.”
“So that’s why you didn’ want ‘em to look.”
“I was afraid we wouldn’ get acrost,” she said. “I tol’ Granma we couldn’ he’p her. The family had ta get acrost. I tol’ her when she was a’dyin . . .” She put up her hands and covered her face for a moment. “She can get buried in a nice green place,” Ma said softly. “Trees aroun’ and a nice place. She got to lay her had down in California.”
The family looked at Ma with a little terror at her strength.
~~ (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath: Penguin Books 2002, p. 228.)
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49
Author: Stan Mast
As we continue to trace the development of the monarchy in Israel and use that history to reflect on the relationship between human leadership and divine sovereignty in our own lives, we come to this famous story of David and Goliath. It is the second chapter in the story of David’s rise to power in Israel. How did the young shepherd boy we met in I Samuel 16 become the most powerful king in Israel’s history? Here’s one key piece in that success story.
This story is so well known that one wonders if it is worth preaching a sermon on it. I mean, this account of a mere lad with a slingshot conquering an monstrous giant with impregnable armor and invincible weapons is so much a part of Western culture that even the unchurched know it. So, why bother? Well, like many other stories, there’s more going on here than meets the eye at first. (I think of Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis on one end of the spectrum and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl on the other.) And what’s really going on here has tremendous implications for our time in history.
On a purely literary level, there are marvelous thematic threads running through the story, suggesting that this is not a simple, straightforward tale of bravery in the face of insurmountable odds. Take, for example, the fact that David comes from Bethlehem (house of bread, literally) with bread for his brothers on the battle front, and then both Goliath and David threaten that they will give the bodies of their enemies to the birds and beasts as food. More importantly, David’s fainthearted brothers accuse him of having a wicked heart, when, in fact, he is the man whose heart God has seen (16:7), so that he is the man after God’s own heart (13:14). And most centrally, David has been delivered from the paw of the lion and the bear, and he is confident that the hand of the Lord will also deliver him from the hand/paw of Goliath (vs. 37).
On the surface, this is a story about youthful bravery in the face of an overpowering bully. David is cast as a simple youth. Previous mention of him as a warrior (16:18) does not come up here, because that is not the point. He is nothing more than a shepherd who occasionally runs errands for his father, particularly shuttling supplies to his brothers on the battlefront with the Philistines. When he arrives on the front lines and hears Goliath, David comes off as cocky and mouthy when he boldly volunteers to do what the entire Israelites army is afraid to do. In spite of his arrogant bravery, he doesn’t stand a chance against Goliath.
The writer of the story has taken pains to point out the size of the challenge facing David. Goliath is literally a giant, by one measurement 9 feet 9 inches tall (think of the top of his head being 3 inches short of a basketball rim). He is an experienced warrior who is armored and armed in way that makes him impregnable on defense and invincible on offense. His armor may weigh more than David and the head of his spear was heavier than a shot put. Goliath is so convinced of victory against any Israelite (let alone a stripling like David) that he is willing to risk the fate of his entire army on the outcome of one-on-one combat.
David doesn’t stand a chance. His brothers know it, the army knows it, Saul knows it, but David doesn‘t. Even though he knows that his defeat will mean slaughter and slavery for his people, he is willing to battle Goliath, because he knows that this battle has nothing to do with chance. It has everything to do with God.
We hear the first hint of that when David hears Goliath roar his defiant challenge. David feels the disgrace of his countrymen fleeing in fear from this giant, but he is mostly outraged because his people are “the armies of the living God.” This is not just about Philistine versus Israelite; it’s about the living God– not a dead, non-existent, powerless god like Dagon of the Philistines, but the living God who has repeatedly acted in history to save his covenant people.
Indeed, David has experienced the saving power of the living God in his own life again and again. When a lion or bear would attack David’s flocks, David would grab the beast by the hair and drag it away. And if it attacked him, he would kill it with his bare hands or his shepherd’s staff or maybe his soon-to-become-famous sling. But David knew full well that the victory in such overwhelming battles came from the living God. “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”
Those were David’s private words to Saul, but David wanted to make sure that all Israel and all Philistia knew the power of the living God, so he augmented those words in his challenge to Goliath. After Goliath cursed David by his Philistine gods, David gives one of the most stirring professions of faith in all of history. “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, Yahweh of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day Yahweh will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down….”
And so, the battle is joined. In a flurry of verbs (15 active verbs in all), David attacks Goliath. With one slung stone and one whack of the giant’s sword, the battle is over. The brave youth has summarily defeated the invincible giant. All because of the power of the living, covenant- keeping Lord of Israel.
The question is, how shall we preach on this story? It has been used for centuries to encourage the oppressed to battle the oppressor—from elementary school children and their playground bullies to African American slaves and their plantation masters. And that is legitimate. I mean, David did a brave and bold thing here. He is an action hero and we can all use such heroes. He has loomed large in Israel’s history for his actions in this story.
Or shall we preach on the reality of the living God who comes to the aid of believers in their struggles with the Goliaths in their lives? Shall we emphasize David’s bravery or God’s gracious salvation? David clearly comes down on the latter. For him, this story is not about him, but about God. That, he says, is why this has all happened. I will defeat you “and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel,” not a lifeless god like the Philistines worship, but the living God of Israel.
Further, and perhaps more important for us today, “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves: for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give all of you into our hands.” We are called to be people of action in the face of defiant evil, but how are we to battle? This story is in the Bible to remind us that our God saves in ways different than ours. The cross of Christ is the most obvious and important example of that truth.
How does this truth translate into our modern-day battles with Goliath? To answer that we must be able to identify David and Goliath. Is David any oppressed person or assembly of persons? Is Goliath one person, or an organization, or a system, or a government either foreign or domestic? Here’s how The New Interpreters Bible applies this story. “The story embodies the hope of all persons when they are faced with overwhelming and evil power that there is a way to overcome that power and win the future. This story has been told and retold especially by the weak, the oppressed, the marginal, and the powerless… who know that their only hope lies in the living God.”
So, can we apply this story to the battle for racial equity or the struggle for gay rights or the disagreements between red states and blue states? Is this a text that has implications for social justice? Or is it a story about a deeper spiritual struggle, not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12)?
I do not pretend to know the answer to those complex questions. I merely want to point out how complex they are and urge you to be careful how you apply the major theological points of the story as captured in David’s speeches to Saul and Goliath. As Brueggemann puts it, David “calls Israel away from its imitation of the nations and calls the nations away from their foolish defiance of Yahweh.” The story is not first of all about human bravery, but about divine deliverance for those who rely on the living God who saved us by the One who was pierced by nail and spear.
What qualifies a person to be the main leader of a nation or a state or a church? Commitment to certain causes? Level of education or experience? Personal charisma or moral rectitude? Mental acuity or psychological stability? Campaign promises? Demonstrated loyalty to the organization? Those are the kind of questions people asked in the last election in my country. Interestingly, and sadly, very few seemed to be looking for the one characteristic that made David Israel’s greatest king—a heart commitment to the living God, a deep trust in the saving power of the God of Scripture. Given our standards, is it any wonder that we are always in turmoil?
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
Author: Scott Hoezee
The Lectionary assigns Psalm 107 now and again—the most recent time was just earlier this year in March—but chops it up somewhat differently each time. It never assigns the whole psalm, even though thematically it all hangs together. Because if you read the entire psalm, you will discover it is a curious historical retrospective on various experiences that various unnamed people have had at the hands of God. Throughout the Psalm the upshot of those first few verses is the theme: God delivers people from distress. And even if at times it seems like God was the sender of the distress in the first place (usually as a punishment for sin), nevertheless God receives all the praise for the deliverance from distress that eventually comes.
The larger poem runs through a checklist of different groups and how they got into the distress from which they eventually needed deliverance.
Some wandered in desert wastelands . . .
Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness . . .
Some became fools through their rebellious ways . . .
Some went out onto the sea in ships . . .
Of course, in no case do we receive any clue as to who the “some” are. But from the looks of the opening verses, this psalm appears to be casting a wide net. References are made to “all” whom the Lord has redeemed as well as to “all” the people gathered from north, south, east, and west. In that sense the scope of Psalm 107 appears to be much wider than just Israel. For sure there are parts of this poem that echo Israelite experiences in Egypt and in the wilderness but since Israel was not a sea-faring people (indeed, they viewed the sea as a remnant of pre-creation chaos) surely the reference to people setting out on the sea in ships goes beyond Israel. (By the way, this may be assigned in conjunction with Mark 4 due to the peril-at-sea theme.)
In that sense Psalm 107 is an ode to salvation for all people who cry out to the Lord God in their distress, whatever that distress might be and whatever the source of that distress might have been once upon a time. So while it may be the case that “some” get into trouble through Path A and “some” others lose their way on Path B, the fact of the matter is that “all” (and not just some) of us are on a path to perdition unless Someone can rescue us from our inevitable demise in death. Small wonder the New Testament refers to death as the last enemy. It is not the only enemy, and Psalm 107 lists a few other foes for us. But death is the last enemy because it is our common foe.
But this ultimate deliverance has come and so the other refrain that punctuates Psalm 107 is also something to which we need to pay attention: the call to give thanks over and over to God for what God has done.
This knowledge of God’s great salvation, though, is even more. It also sets the agenda for what we ought to ponder, think about, call to mind, celebrate on a regular basis. Although it not part of this lection, the final verse of Psalm 107 states it well:
Let the one who is wise heed these things
and ponder the loving deeds of the Lord.
Heed these things. Ponder God’s loving deeds. This is the vocation that is properly common to us all.
In his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, Neal Plantinga notes at one point that for now and in this world nothing set our tongues to wagging like bad news. Bad news spreads like wildfire. The news media is all over bad news. We regale one another with the bad things that happen, write Op-Eds for newspapers about it. But one day in God’s bright kingdom, things will be different. People will sit on their front porches and call out to passersby to lift up and celebrate good and positive things! We will get effusive about lovely acts and most certainly about the loving deeds of God that led to salvation. We just won’t be able to get enough of the good stuff!
This also reminds me of an observation in Marilynne Robinson’s luminous epistolary novel Gilead. At one point the book’s narrator, the Rev. John Ames, muses if we will remember our lives on earth once we get to “heaven.” Some say no, we ought not remember our old troubles in a fallen world. But Ames thinks otherwise. “In eternity this world will be like Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”
Remembering some of what was difficult will be the path to do what Psalm 107 says: ponder God’s loving deeds by which he rescued us from so much sorrow.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Author: Doug Bratt
2 Corinthians 6 virtually drips with pathos. It reveals the heart of an apostle who has been both reconciled to God and invites others to be reconciled to God, but has been stonewalled by people to whom he longs to be reconciled. While God has graciously reconciled Paul to himself, Paul’s friends in Corinth have alienated themselves from Paul. While Corinth’s Christians have, at least in theory, been reconciled to God, they have not been reconciled to the apostle.
2 Corinthians 6’s proclaimers shouldn’t try to unpack and proclaim it until we at least familiarize our hearers and ourselves with the second part of chapter 5. It too, after all, deals with reconciliation. In just 4 verses, in fact, Paul uses some form of the Greek word katallaso that we translate as “reconcile” five times.
Yet while 2 Corinthians 6 largely concentrates on reconciliation among Jesus’ friends, chapter 5, focuses on the need for those friends to be reconciled to God. God, reports Paul in both verses 18 and 19, has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation. Paul clearly believes that at the heart of our “new creation” (17) is God’s reconciliation of himself to God’s adopted sons and daughters, through the gracious saving work of Jesus Christ.
While both those who proclaim and hear this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson are by nature God’s enemies, God, the apostle insists, has graciously reconciled himself to us. Because of what Jesus Christ did on our behalf, we’re now God’s adopted sons and daughters, and Jesus’ adopted siblings.
Yet all too often, Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters get along better with our adopted Father and Elder Brother than we do with each other. That seems to be the case of our text’s Apostle Paul and the Corinthians to whom he writes this letter. After all, in verse 12 the apostle laments that while “we are not withholding our affection from you … you are withholding yours from us.” And in verse 13 he goes on to beg his Corinthian siblings in Jesus Christ, “As a fair exchange – I speak to you as children – open wide your hearts also.”
In light of those verses, it’s fair to deduce that when Paul says don’t receive God’s grace “in vain” (1), he means something like, “Don’t shrink the affect of God’s grace by staying alienated from me. Let God’s grace make a difference in your life. Since now is the time of salvation, let it result in you opening your hearts to me.”
Some scholars compare reading the New Testament letters to reading someone’s mail from at least twenty centuries ago. After all, while they contain inspired great gospel truths, they’re also correspondence between apostles and those for whom God has called them to care.
Yet in most cases, reading the New Testament’s letter is like reading only one part of a correspondence. It’s a bit like reading Aunt Bertha’s letters to Uncle Floyd without reading his responses. We don’t always get a full picture because it’s just one (albeit inspired) of a conversation.
So we don’t know why the Corinthians have withheld their affection from Paul. Jesus’ 21st century friends can’t know why they’ve closed their hearts to the apostle. Readers of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians can, of course, guess. We can see how his critique of their sexual and worship practices, as well as eagerness to sue each other might enrage Corinth’s Christians. But 2 Corinthians 6’s modern proclaimers can’t be entirely sure of the cause of the rift between Paul and the Corinthian Christians.
Both my colleagues Scott Hoezee and Stan Mast’s wonderful sermon starters have already explored how preachers and teachers might carefully share this text’s implications for relations between Christians and church leaders, including pastors. Frankly, that’s probably the most biblically faithful proclamation to this text.
But for 2 Corinthians 6’s proclaimers who are willing to wander just a bit “farther afield,” an exploration of the need for reconciliation between all of God’s adopted children might be fruitful. An exposition of the need for reconciliation between Jesus’ adopted siblings might be beneficial, both for its expositors and our hearers.
Proclaimers who take that tack might consider inviting hearers to consider this text from the perspective of both Jesus’ friends who have been so wronged that they’re reluctant to be reconciled, and those who have so deeply wronged a sibling in Christ that the sibling is reluctant to reconcile to them. Both approaches, however, require spiritually soaked wisdom.
After all, Christians have deeply wounded some of the Christians to whom we proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. A family member has (or members have) abused and/or abandoned them. A trusted friend has betrayed them. A neighbor, co-worker or even stranger has deeply harmed them. The examples of the causes of alienation are nearly as endless as the human capacity for hating our neighbors.
Yet those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 6 might gently and pastorally remind victims, “God has reconciled himself to you. Now God summons you to let God’s grace have a positive impact on you (1) by being reconciled to those who have hurt you. Make the most of the grace God has shown you by being gracious to those who have made themselves your enemy.”
That, of course, is a hard message to hear and even harder to practice. There are, after all, a lot of wrongdoers who don’t deserve to be reconciled to their victims. A fair number of those wrongdoers don’t, what’s more, as Lewis Smedes once wrote, give a fig for our attempts to be reconciled to them.
But those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson join our hearers in being the beneficiaries of the extreme lengths to which God went to reconcile himself to those who would otherwise have been quite content to remain God’s eternal enemies. So we want to look for sensitive ways to proclaim that truth, while admitting it’s hard to be reconciled to some of our enemies.
But 2 Corinthians’ proclaimers might also look for ways to carefully speak on behalf of those who are alienated but long to be reconciled. We might imagine them saying, “We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding your affection from us … Open your hearts also.”
Of course, gospel proclaimers will want to be very sensitive about speaking on behalf of wrongdoers to their victims. After all, some victims will carry their scars until the moment they pass from life to Life in God’s glorious presence. Some victims will need to maintain boundaries that keep their perpetrators from ever having the chance to physically, emotionally or even spiritually harm them ever again.
But the God who raised Jesus from the dead is perfectly capable of reconciling the hearts of the most wounded victims and grievous perpetrators. God is able to raise from the dead or even create open hearts in those whose hearts others have closed by abuse, neglect, betrayal or other inflicted trauma.
Of course, this Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers don’t want to add to the pain and/or guilt that victims already feel. We don’t want to unnecessarily add the long list of things victims already need to do. But we do want to hold out the hope of the gospel and the very real difference it, by the power of the Holy Spirit, makes in God’s adopted sons and daughters.
A Man Called Ove features a man who appears to be ornery and bitter. Ove is a recent widower who lives alone in a small Swedish condo complex in which, as its one-time association president, he tolerates no noise, speeding, cigarette butts, or commotion of any sort.
Deeply saddened by his wife’s death and his forced retirement, Ove tries to take his own life. Yet each time he tries to do so, something or someone interrupts. And that’s a good thing, because life is not yet done with old Ove.
To be sure, enough bad stuff has happened to Ove Lindahl to push him to consider a swift exit from his life. While we contemplate his irritability, we learn more and more of a backstory that explains a good deal of his grumpiness about the often-ambiguous “gift” of being alive.
Ove’s actually a decent fellow who has been both too timid and suspicious of the world’s injustices to fully make his home in it. While his wife Sonja convinced him to live for the first time in his life, her death causes everything to fall apart, and his anger to escalate. “It’s just chaos when you’re not there,” he tells her in one of his regular visits to her grave.
It takes another forceful woman to reawaken a hunger for life in Ove. A fiery new neighbor, Parvaneh who’s an Iranian immigrant, wife and mother lives across the street from him. In her Ove meets his match as she hauls him back into living, kicking and screaming but finally laughing. She, and events, turns his grief and anger into loving.
Finally, Ove gets it and acts it. At his wife’s graveside, he confesses his almost countless wrongs –“Idiot! That’s what I’ve been” – and begs forgiveness of the departed Sonja who’d relished life and endlessly gave of herself, especially Ove. Parvaneh reminds him that “No one manages completely on their own. No one. Not even you.”
While we can understand it, given everything that has happened to him, Ove has proven to be a slow learner. Finally, however, he has come more than ever to realize that life is for connectedness, mutual appreciation, help and reconciliation. In a review of A Man Called Ove, Roy Anker writes, “The film’s final shot is a long way from the Sistine Chapel and the Father reaching to humankind, but it surely hearkens to the same richest gifts of connectedness and genuine intimacy.”