June 22, 2020
Author: Scott Hoezee
“I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.”
That is the famous closing line spoken by the character Blanche DuBois in the play A Streetcar Named Desire.
In Matthew 10 Jesus basically tells the disciples that they, too, must rely on the kindness of strangers when they go out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. Jesus even went so far as to tell them earlier in this chapter that they were to set out on their first mission trip essentially under-packed. Today we would never send our youth group out on a service project without money, luggage, and extra clothing—many of us parents are familiar with the long packing lists youth group leaders send out ahead of a service trip. Many churches rent trucks just to carry everything and even so, those trucks are LOADED!
By advising the near opposite, Jesus put the disciples at the mercy of the hosts they would encounter along the way. If their message was worth hearing (and if the disciples presented that message with all the loving urgency it warranted), then people would take them in. As this chapter concludes, this theme crops back up through the now-famous image of someone handing out a cup of cold water to a disciple.
In some ways this is surprising. We tend to think that the reception of the gospel is such a spiritual matter. If someone “comes to Jesus” because of the preaching of an evangelist at a revival meeting, we expect the result of this conversion to be new patterns of thought, a new sense of morality, a new inward devotion to God. And indeed, those traits ought to be in evidence among the converted. But we don’t often imagine that the first result of someone’s new life in Christ would be inviting the evangelist over for supper!
But perhaps part of the reason we don’t think along those lines is because we tend to separate the message from the messenger in a way Jesus does not do. Throughout this chapter, and certainly in the concluding three verses, there is a snug fit between the person who talks about Jesus and Jesus himself. “He who receives you receives me,” Jesus says. He doesn’t say, “If they believe the words you speak, then my Spirit will move into their hearts.” No, he says that if people find cause to love the disciples enough as to welcome them into their homes, then Jesus himself will be present in all his fullness.
The reason “the kindness of strangers” receives such a high profile in Matthew 10 is because Jesus is not talking about a message to be heard but about the reception of a person, namely himself as he dwells inside the disciples. Among other things in this passage, there is a curious verbal triple play in the last couple of verses. In the history of the church, commentators have spent a lot of time wondering why Jesus mentions the reception of a prophet, a righteous person, and “little ones.” Do these three groups represent certain people in the church? Some have wondered if maybe “prophets” were to be identified with the apostles, “righteous persons” with the clergy, and the “little ones” with lay people.
But that’s not the point, and if you think it is, you will probably miss the real scandal of this text. It’s not so important to decode just who Jesus may (or may not) have had in mind in listing those three groups. The main thing to see is that whatever group you happen to be in, the message is the same: people are to identify you with Jesus and Jesus with you!
This isn’t the only place in the New Testament where this personal connection to Jesus becomes evident. Recall, for example, a most startling such instance when the apostle Paul said that when a man sleeps with a prostitute, he drags Jesus into bed along with him. In a bold image, Paul suggests that a Christian man’s relations with a prostitute forced Christ to be there in that way, too, making Jesus “one flesh” with that woman. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that warning goes a wee bit further than that song some of us learned to sing as children: “O be careful little hands what you do, for the Father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little hands what you do.” To Paul’s mind (and, in Matthew 10, to Jesus’ mind, too), the image of a Father “looking down” from some point “up above” is too remote a way of viewing things. Apparently, our link with Jesus is vastly tighter.
That is a thought at once glorious and daunting. Jesus once said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Who among us is brave enough to say, “If you receive me, you receive Jesus.” If anything, many of us have been taught to see Jesus as the goal to which we aspire (but which we will never attain in this life). So we mostly focus on the disparity, the gap, between who Jesus is and who we are (and that can become kind of convenient now and then—lets us off the behavior hook at times).
We’d rather present the gospel as something outside of ourselves instead of suggesting that people need to meet Jesus through us. We’ve all heard the old phrase, “Please don’t shoot the messenger!” Just because I need to be the one who tells you the news that your son just flunked out of college, please don’t blame me! I’m only the bearer of the news, not the cause of it. But sometimes we seem to put some daylight between the gospel and ourselves, too: the shape of my life may or may not look a lot like Jesus but at least you can hear the message. Don’t let me get in the way! Don’t look at me as a role model or example!
Matthew 10 says it doesn’t work that way. There needs to be a radical consistency between the Jesus you proclaim and yourself. And perhaps these days it is well that we recall this. Christians who are offensive in the loud, mean-spirited, in-your-face way by which some have tried to fight culture wars in recent decades have not served the cause of Jesus very well. Who wants to believe the gospel’s content if the ones proclaiming that gospel are the very folks many people most want to avoid in life?! If Jeremy is such an uncouth, ungrateful, loud-mouthed fellow that no one would even want to have him over for dinner, then what difference does it make if Jeremy can reel off the Beatitudes from memory? Few people will ever be willing to receive Jesus’ presence into their lives if they are not willing to receive those who represent that same Jesus.
New Testament scholar Dr. David Holwerda has pointed out that underlying Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 is the core of God’s original covenantal promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 when God told the patriarch of our faith, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you, I will curse; all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Something of this fundamental covenant dynamic is on display here as Jesus assures the disciples that blessing and curse attend the reception of the disciples and the message/Christ they bring to all peoples. Indeed, there are other Old Testament stories (particularly the ones involving Elijah and Elisha) that display the coming of blessings to those who received God’s prophets well. In this sense, we can see a link here to the Old Testament lection for this Sunday after Pentecost in the Genesis 22 story. (For more on Dr. Holwerda’s observations, see “The Lectionary Commentary: The Third Readings: The Gospels” Eerdmans, 2001).
On the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation and in some subsequent films there is a nightmare alien species known as The Borg. The Borg capture individual people of all races and backgrounds but then essentially wipes out their individual personalities, cultures, distinctive features. Through a kind of brainwashing, each person becomes just like every other person, assimilated into the Borg Collective. Every single Borg looks alike, talks alike, thinks alike. If you meet one, you quite literally have met them all for they are all one. A Borg never uses the 1st person singular pronoun “I.” Every sentence instead begins with “We . . .”
Although Christians are brought into the one Body of Christ through baptism, baptism doesn’t have a Borg-like effect on believers. Becoming a Christian does not make you less of an individual. We may lose our lives for Christ’s sake, but Jesus also promises in Matthew 10 that once you so lose your life, you get it right back again. You are still you after baptism.
So how can each of us be the unique individuals God made us to be and each also be Jesus? If you had 100 people in a room and then told them, “I want each one of you to imitate and be just like Jimmy Carter,” what would happen? Well, you’d likely see 100 people who started to speak with a soft Southern accent like Mr. Carter, who worked on smiling broadly and who would start to say things like, “Rosalyn and I would like to thank you for supporting Habitat for Humanity.” If all 100 would-be-Carters did a good job, you would expect a certain uniformity and sameness among them.
So what about imitating and being just like Jesus? Why doesn’t this result in an entire Christian community worldwide in which individual personalities are over-written in favor of a certain sameness? The answer has to do with the Holy Spirit. The answer has to do with what can be described only as a true miracle of grace. We are all different. God made us that way. Even so-called “identical” twins are not really identical. God loves variety, as Genesis 1-2 make so abundantly clear. The human face alone is one of the most amazing features to creation of which we know: each face has the same basic set of components, the same basic shape, the same basic make-up. And yet there appears to be an infinite variety of faces–like snowflakes, no two faces are ever truly alike. What’s more, the personalities behind such faces are likewise highly varied.
God is not interested in over-riding the uniqueness he himself created! But by a miracle of grace God is able to place his same Holy Spirit into each one of us. Somehow or another, over and above and even through our marvelous individual variations, God is able to make every last one of us like a window on the one and same Lord Jesus Christ.
Author: Stan Mast
As we walk along with God, we all go through tough times. Many Christians handle tough times with the following theological framework. Satan will use these tough times to tempt us, to try to move us away from God, so that we attempt to make our own blessing. God will use these tough times to test us, to try to move us toward himself, so that we can receive his greater blessing.
Most of us know that theology and we may find it helpful, until it comes to something like this story in Genesis. This horror story, this ultimate test, tears our hearts to pieces and tempts us to hate God, because here God drills down into the very center of our lives and threatens someone we love more than anything in this world.
I can’t imagine a mother who doesn’t recoil in horror from this story. What are you doing with my son? What kind of father would put a knife to his son’s throat, even if God asked him to do it? More important, what kind of God would ask this? And most important, how could anyone ever love a God who would put his children through a test like this?
What kind of man would do something like this? A man, says vs. 12, who “fears God.” That’s the heart of the matter—he fears God. That doesn’t mean he was afraid of God. That’s not what fearing God involves. It involves faith. Abraham had walked with God for decades and had learned to trust God completely. God had made promises and kept them. God had said, “I will bless you incredibly,” and he had. “I will give you a land and a son.” And God had done exactly that against impossible odds.
We can’t understand this story until we grasp that fact. Abraham had learned over the years that he could trust God completely, even when God asked impossible things, because God had demonstrated over and over again that he could do impossible things. So, when Abraham says to his servants in vs. 5, “We will worship and then we will come back to you,” note that “we.” He believed that. He truly believed that even if he had to kill his son, he and Isaac would come back together. Heb. 11:17-19 tells us that Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead. Here is a man who really believed it when he said in vs. 8, “God himself will provide the lamb…,” because God had always provided for him.
Abraham had seen God’s love and faithfulness demonstrated so many times that he trusted God completely, obeyed him without question, and loved his God more than anything, even his son, his only son Isaac, whom he loved more than anything else on earth. That’s what the fear of God involves—not fear, but love. He loved God perfectly, with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, because God had proven himself worthy of such love.
That raises the larger and harder question. What kind of God asks a man who loves and trusts him this much to do something like this? There are some hints early in the story. He is a God who knows Abraham intimately and calls him by name. He is a God who knows what he is asking, so he says, “Please.” That word doesn’t appear in our translation, but it’s there in the Hebrew. “Please take your son.” That make this more an entreaty than a demand, more the request of a loving Father than the demand of a hard-hearted tyrant. God knows what he’s asking here. He calls Isaac, “your son, your only son, whom you love.” God knows that Abraham’s heart will be torn in two by what he is about to ask.
Yet he asks, “Please take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” That is totally out of character for God. It doesn’t fit the picture that has been emerging throughout the story of Abraham, the picture of a God who wants to bless Abraham, who makes wonderful promises, who has big plans for this man, plans that depend on this very son. Elsewhere in the Bible God fiercely forbids human sacrifice. This doesn’t seem to be the God Abraham has walked with all these years. Indeed, he isn’t even called Yahweh in these early verses. He’s just “God,” perhaps a reflection of the fact that, in the midst of a test like this, God seems strange, remote, mysterious.
Has God changed here? How do we explain this? Why would the loving Yahweh ask something like this? We get the beginning of an answer in the very first verse. “God tested Abraham.” Now, there’s a sense in which that is comforting. It tells us that even in the toughest experiences of life, God is doing something. These things are not accidental events. We are not alone in a cold, cruel universe that sometimes crushes us in its mindless machinery. The God we have known as a loving God in other situations is testing us in this. There’s some comfort in that, until we are given a test like this. Then, in agony and confusion, we ask, Why? Why do you have to test me at all, and why this way?
The Bible tells us that God’s tests have basically two purposes—to do something to us and to discover something about us. I Peter 1:7 explains that God tests us to do something to our faith, to make it strong, and pure as gold. Sometimes God is like a drill sergeant in the Marines, who puts his recruits through hell on earth, so that they are prepared for combat. The testing hurts like crazy, but it is designed to help them survive and give them victory in the end. God had given tests like that to Abraham before, and now he was strong in his faith.
The other purpose of testing in the Bible is to discover something about us. Here God is like a teacher at the end of the term. After all the tests that were designed to do something to the students, there comes this final exam designed to discover if they have learned their lessons, if they have achieved excellence. That’s what this test was about, as revealed by God’s words in vs. 12, “Now I know that you fear God.” What kind of God puts his children through the ultimate test? A God who wanted to know if Abraham had really learned to trust him completely, to obey him without question, and to love him more than anything and anyone.
But now, wait a minute! Doesn’t God know everything already? Why did he have to put Abraham through this hell to discover that? This is a great mystery. Some solve this mystery by asserting that God doesn’t know everything. They posit that, once God gave humanity free will, God couldn’t know how we would choose in every situation. God is often be surprised by the choices we make. That solves the mystery, but leaves us with a God who bears little resemblance to the omniscient God in whom Christians have believed for 2000 years.
Perhaps a better answer to this mystery lies in that familiar distinction between knowing in your head and knowing from experience. There’s a difference between knowing in theory that someone trusts you and knowing they trust you because they have demonstrated that trust. (See the illustration at the end of this piece for a real-life example of this idea.) Perhaps, that distinction helps us understand why God would say, “Now I know… that you fear God, that you trust me…”
But I think that’s still a mystery. The only way I can deal with this mysterious test is to focus on the last words of the story, Abraham’s words in vs. 14 and God’s in vs.15-18. What kind of God would ask this? Abraham says, “Yahweh would. Not just God, but Yahweh. The God I have experienced as the faithful and loving covenant partner for all these years. Yahweh will provide.” The God who asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son is the God who provides the sacrificial ram himself. The God who commands his beloved friend to go up on the mountain for the ultimate test is the God who always provides up on that mountain.
Of course, God provides much more than a ram. Think of it this way. What does God give when Abraham passes the final exam? An A, a scholarship, a new car? Listen to the last recorded words of God to Abraham, in vss. 15-18. We’ve heard them before. They are the promise of covenant blessing. But here God adds to them and confirms them for all time: not just Isaac, but countless children out of Isaac; not just inheritance of the land, but conquest of all its cities; and the blessing of the entire world, not only through Abraham, but through all of the children that spring from Isaac, and especially the one known as Jesus. What kind of God tests his children? The God who intends to bless his children beyond their wildest dreams.
Remember how Abraham’s walk with God began. He was a pagan with no children, no land, no future. Now here he is, God’s dearest friend, the recipient of incredible promises that assure him and his child an unlimited future. It has taken God a long time to get Abraham to this point, but he wouldn’t give up on him. Yahweh will do anything to bless his beloved child, because that’s the kind of God he is.
We know that much better than Abraham, because we have seen the length to which God will go to bring his blessing to the children of Abraham. We have seen the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin hanging not from a thorny thicket, but from an old rugged cross. On the mountain of Calvary God provided. That’s the kind of God he is. He will stop at nothing, even the sacrifice of his beloved only Son. God stopped Abraham; he didn’t stop himself, because the deepest desire of God’s heart is to bless his children. He is, above all else, for us. And as Rom. 8:31, 32 says, “If God is for us, who is against us? He did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all. Will he not also with him freely give us all things.” That’s the kind of God who asks us to pass the ultimate test—the God who wants to give us all things.
Why does that involve such testing? Because there is a mysterious connection between faith and blessing. The story of Abraham teaches us that God chooses us freely, and make promises to us even before we believe. But then he gives us faith, so that we can receive that blessing. As Abraham shows us, the secret of receiving God provision is trusting God’s provision. If Abraham had not gone on ahead and passed the test, he would not have seen the lamb or received that incredible blessing from God.
That isn’t because God sits with folded arms and tight fists, growling, “Until you trust me, I won’t bless.” It is rather that we can’t receive the blessing until we trust. If left to ourselves, we’re closed, bent over into ourselves. We curl into a self-centered ball, protecting ourselves, defending ourselves, helping ourselves, governing ourselves, trusting ourselves. To receive God’s blessing, we have to open up, make ourselves vulnerable by obeying God, trusting that God intends us only good. God will not force us to open up and trust him. He will apply the warm pressure of his love. Usually that takes the form of pleasant experiences, but sometimes it takes the form of painful tests. He wants to move us to trust, and obey, and love him more than anything else, so that we can receive the blessings that flow from his fatherly hand.
I know very well that I have not answered all the questions raised by this horror story. But I also know this. You will never be able to love God in the midst of the horror of life in this world, until you believe that he is Yahweh, the loving God who provides, and who in his love tests our faith so that we can receive what he provides. But you will never believe that, until you look up and see that lamb caught in the thicket of hell’s horror for your salvation.
The story is so dramatic that it sounds fictional, but multiple sources say it is true. A famous tightrope artist rode his bicycle back and forth on a line stretched over Niagara Falls. After he had done that several times, he called out to the crowd, “Do you believe I can do it again?” And the crowd shouted back, “Yes!” “Do you really trust that I can?” “Yes!” “Good,” he said, “Who would like to climb on my back and ride over with me?” The crowd melted away. In theory they trusted, but when their own lives were on the line, they didn’t. The only way to prove your trust is to pass the test of putting your life on the line.
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Author: Scott Hoezee
Most of what makes Psalm 89 such an interesting poem cannot be seen if you restrict yourself to just the 8 verses the Lectionary has carved out of the psalm’s full 52 verses. Because this poem that begins in such an upbeat tone and with such a full-throated desire to sing praise to God for God’s faithfulness ends with long and bitter notes of lament.
We start by praising God. Then, in verses 5-14 that the Lectionary skips, the psalmist praises God more for his creation. But then the poet begins a slow slide into lament. It starts in verse 19 when David is mentioned as an anointed one of God who would never be forsaken. But soon enough it becomes clear that whoever is writing this psalm thinks he deserves the same protections David had been promised but, alas, nothing of the kind if happening and he is at the mercy of many foes, being mocked and abused and feeling just generally completely neglected by God.
We will comment in a moment as to how one might account for this combination of praise with lament and what it means but first a couple contextual notes.
First, some wonder if Psalms 88 & 89 are meant to form a pair, kind of one Psalm in two parts (similar to Psalms 42 and 43). Psalm 88 of course is the darkest of all lament psalms. This is the only example of a lament in the Hebrew Psalter that not only never turns the corner back toward brighter things but actually concludes with the bleak line, “Darkness is my best friend.” If Psalm 89 is meant to continue Psalm 88, then perhaps its opening lines are an attempt to be brighter after all even if—by the time also Psalm 89 concludes—it is clear that all that was lamentable in Psalm 88 is still there. In any event, Psalm 88 casts an exceedingly dark shadow and Psalm 89 at the very least stands in that shadow.
Second, internally the Book of Psalms is divided up into five sub-books, each concluding with some version of Psalm 89:52, “Praise be to the LORD forever” (see also Psalms 41:13, 72:19, 106:48, 150:6). No one has ever definitively figured out if each of the five sub-books has a theme or an emphasis. Laments are scattered pretty evenly throughout the books but are concentrated in the first three even as the entire collection concludes with the strongest of all praise psalms starting around Psalm 144 and on through to the end in Psalm 150. Still, it is good to note that Psalms 88 & 89 wrap up Book Three with two decisive notes of lament, signaling perhaps that this is just how life goes sometimes, even for the most faithful of God’s people. Things don’t always turn out sunny right away. Sometimes darkness is your only friend and try though you may to praise God for God’s faithfulness as the first part of Psalm 89 does, the things that nettle us may not disappear right away.
Let’s admit that this is not the cheeriest message one could hear. Particularly in this time of 2020 as we are experiencing both the sorrow and fright of the pandemic of COVID-19 and also experiencing the tensions and sorrows of racial unrest in the wake of the unjust killing of more black people, we maybe are not overly heartened to hear that sometimes—even for God’s faithful people—such difficult times don’t just evaporate as soon as you ask God for help. We may not know why that is the case but for certain we can know that it very simply IS the case and that it has ever been so for God’s people as reflected in many Psalms of Lament or even in many psalms that seem to start out as Psalms of Praise (as with Psalm 89) but that curdle back to some lament after all.
Then again, although the Lectionary’s carving out only a few of the happier parts of this psalm obscures this, the fact is that Psalm 89 does manage some obviously heartfelt praise in the midst of lament. There are things we can focus on in even darker moments that may not lift all the gloom but that can point us toward better, more hope-filled things.
Please know that I am not being a Pollyanna here nor encouraging anyone to preach Pollyannaish sermons. This I would never do! But there may be something to be said for pondering God’s faithfulness in times when the bottom seems to be dropping out on many parts of our lives and of our world. There may be something to be said for doing what the psalmist does in verses 5-12 through pondering the creation (something maybe these summertime months give us the opportunity to do more than usual) and connecting this to the awesome power of God.
In other words, maybe it is spiritually at least a little helpful in seasons of genuine and legitimate lament to do what we can to praise God for God’s faithfulness and for God’s awesome and majestic power on display in the creation. Perhaps although not eliminating all the difficulties, such postures of praise and adoration can fan embers of hope in our souls that God is in charge, that God can and will do something, that God can and will still bring all things to where he wants them to be when the kingdom of Christ fully comes.
And perhaps as Christians if we connect God’s faithfulness to its most radical instance ever—the death of God’s own Son on the cross—then we can be reminded of just how far God is willing to go to be faithful to God’s own promises. And that most assuredly can inspire hope. To quote the well-known line of Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption: Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And good things never die.
Thanks be to God.
I have perhaps used this illustration before in some other connection here on the CEP website but the psalmist’s posture of praise in the midst of lament and suffering definitely puts me in mind of the end of Maya Angelou’s classic essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” It goes like this:
Back in the 1930s and 1940s Maya lived with her family in the Deep South where her parents ran a small grocery store. One day when Maya’s Mama was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of the store, a group of white girls came by and decided to spend some time mocking Mama. They laughed at her for being black. They said nasty, racially wounding things. One 13-year-old girl did a handstand at one point, allowing her dress to fall down around her shoulders to reveal she was not wearing any underwear. So she mooned Mama with her bare bottom and her bare front.
And watching her Mama from a corner of the porch, young Maya was furious that Mama did not do something, say something, shoo those nasty girls away. But Mama stayed calm and as Maya moved a little closer to her Mama, Maya could hear her singing softly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.”
The girls tired of the show eventually and left. And as Mama stood up to return to the store, Maya could hear her singing softly again “Glory hallelujah when I lay my burden down. Glory hallelujah when I lay my burden down.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Among the first times our text’s “The wages of sin is death” grabbed my attention was via a billboard. At that its grammar captivated me. I even remember asking my grammarian dad why Paul used a plural noun like “wages” with a singular verb like “is.”
Now when I drive past that same billboard, however, its grammar no longer seizes my attention. I sometimes get stuck, instead, on its theology. Why on earth, I wonder, does the billboard stop with “The wages of sin is death”? Why doesn’t it go on, as Paul does, to add, “But the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord”?
Of course, it’s not just billboards that shrink Romans 6:23’s message. Churches as well as street corner preachers also sometimes quit less than halfway through it. So why reduce Paul’s message to “The wages of sin is death”?
It may be at least partly because we’ve shrunk the meanings of “death” and “life.” We, after all, like to assume that we’re moral free agents who make rational decisions based on our insights and intelligence.
Yet throughout Romans 6 Paul calls us slaves. He, in fact, insists all people are slaves to something or someone. Bob Dylan may have understood that better than most. He, after all, sang in “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,/ You’re gonna have to serve somebody./ Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/ But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
By nature, humanity serves Satan and his allies, sin and death. They naturally dictate how we act, talk and even think. That unholy trinity calls the shots in the lives of those whom God has not yet freed from slavery to them.
Those slave masters that are Satan, sin and death even enslave our culture. So not just people but also society naturally obeys their orders about the use of things like power, sexuality, money and time.
Current protests against racism and racial injustice reflect humanity’s slavery. Our failure to treat African-American and other neighbors of color as those whom God creates us in God’s image are signs that we let Satan call the shots on our attitudes about and actions on race.
That’s especially despicable when Christians let the evil one shape our attitudes about race and racial justice. We no longer are, after all, Satan’s slaves. God has freed us to treat each other as fellow image-bearers of God. So Jesus’ followers who treat people on the basis of their race, skin color, socio-economic standing hand “the reigns” back to the devil.
Of course, some non-Christians seem more racially just than some Christians. That, we profess, is testimony to the enormous scope of God’s work. God, after all, generally graciously restrains us from being as bad as we could possibly be. We see what happens when God loosens those restraints not just in parts of the Middle East, but also in the violence that plagues some of North America’s homes and neighborhoods.
Of course, Satan, sin and death do pay their slaves. But Paul insists those paychecks consist not of a living wage, but of the death that is, among other things, racial injustice and violence. People cash those deathly “checks” every time we treat a fellow human being as someone less than someone God created, loves and care for.
Yet even Christians sometimes think of that death as the moment our hearts stop beating and brains stop functioning. We assume the apostle means those who sin eventually physically die.
Jesus’ followers may also think of Paul’s idea of “death” as eternal separation from God’s loving presence. In that view, people who don’t have a faithful relationship with God in Jesus Christ pay the price for their sin that is eternity in hell.
But what if Paul is talking about death as not just something people experience when and after we die, but also as something we experience here and now every day? We sometimes talk about “walking dead men” or being “dead on our feet.” By that we mean that while some people’s hearts are still beating, they have at least a temporarily shrunken quality of life.
In a similar way, those who remain slaves to sin may not just spend the rest of eternity in the death that is separation from God’s loving presence. They also live a kind of deathly life that settles for far less than the life God created them to live.
We naturally assume that we’re free to spend our money as we choose. But where does all that wealth and spending get us? If you think big spenders are happy people, you’re not watching the same media I am. Those who aren’t good stewards of God’s blessings live in deadly ways.
In fact, the wages of such sin isn’t just life lived eternally away from God’s presence. It’s also the kind of loneliness, unhappiness and discontent that plagues so many lives already here and now.
We sometimes think of God’s calls to obedience as God’s arbitrary demands that kill our joy. However, God’s law is our loving Creator’s guide to what will give that Creator’s creatures the most joy, purpose and satisfaction.
So people sometimes refuse to share their time and money with society’s people who are needy. But in the end they find themselves to be greedy hoarder of resources who will never have enough of them. It’s yet another deathly kind of life.
Paul insists that we find genuine life not in such disobedience, but in serving Christ Jesus our Lord. By his life, death and resurrection he has freed his followers from our slavery to Satan and his thugs, sin and death. Jesus Christ has freed God’s adopted children to serve the One who helps us to live in the most meaningful ways.
Satan, of course, wants nothing more than to drag people with him into the eternal death that is defiance of God and God’s good and loving purposes. To do so he often makes disobedience look and feel attractive. It’s part of the reason why even Jesus’ followers sometimes find disobedience so tempting.
But such service to Satan, sin and death is, as our first parents quickly learned, nothing but fool’s gold. When we trade service to God for service to the evil one and his goons, we find not life but death.
Of course, slavery to another human being or created thing is despicable. It demeans both the slave owner and the slave. Paul, however, insists that in slavery to God, we find our true life and glory as God’s beloved sons and daughters. God has graciously adopted us into God’s family. So God calls us to be and act like who we are: God’s treasured sons and daughters.
We can be joyful slaves to righteousness in Christ by acting in the ways for which God created and saved us. That, after all, leads to delight in God’s good creation. Not just in the new creation’s sweet by and by, but also here and now.
Paul insists Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters find our true joy and happiness living gladly inside what my colleague Scott Hoezee calls “the moral boundary fences God has established.” Such “slavery” alone, after all, leads to a flourishing in all that God has so lovingly made and provides for.
C.S. Lewis writes about that kind of obedience in his book, The Problem of Pain. In it he notes that we keep slipping, sliding and falling away from God. Lewis then adds, “If we cannot put God first out of mere obedience, can we do so out of the knowledge that God is our greatest good?
“To live life on our own is to live a lie. We aren’t our own, and the pretense that we are is a kind of madness. The center of the heavenly life is self-surrender. See it and say it again and again.”
Of course, it’s hard to surrender to God and each other. We’ve, after all, believed the evil one’s lie that happiness is found in putting ourselves at the center of everything. Yet those who have ever tried that for any length of time know that we’re a tiny center that’s more like a cosmic black hole. You pour everything into yourself but find that it all quickly disappears.
It’s only in giving our lives away that we find real life. It’s only in living for God and God’s good purposes that God’s adopted children really live. People who really want to live find ways to give our time, love and self away to someone else who really needs us.
Of course, you don’t have to look at or read too much to know that self-surrender may carry a high price tag. No one needed to remind Paul’s first readers that people could persecute God’s slaves. Joyful slavery to God does not inoculate God’s dearly beloved people against suffering, sickness and tragedy.
Yet only wholehearted service to God leads to real life, not death. Slavery to God leads to joy, not despair. So God’s adopted sons and daughters trying to lean into all that goodness by giving everything we are and ever will be to complete service to God.
Some of us remember the movie “Chariot’s of Fire’s” Eric Liddell. In his book, For the Glory, Hamilton Duncan writes about Liddell’s life after he won a gold medal in the 1924 Summer Olympics.
Duncan says someone once asked Liddell why he was so willing to give up everything that succeeding Olympics still offered him. Liddell always answered, “Because I believe God made me for [mission] work in” China. There, as you may know, Liddell died in a Japanese concentration camp.
The more mundane good life for which God made us may look at least a little like that of two men who worked in a park in Fon du Lac, Wisconsin. Every day, 82-year-old Bud Caldwell visited a park bench that he bought and dedicated to his late wife, Betty, after she died.
He’d tell her about his day and deliver two gifts: a penny and a daisy. The gifts are tributes to songs the couple had loved during their 56 years together: “Daisy a Day,” and “Pennies From Heaven.”
But when snow covered the walkway that led to Betty’s bench that became too dangerous for Caldwell, he still made the trip but stayed in his car. Two park employees noticed his new routine, and moved by his devotion to his wife, decided to shovel the walkway to Betty’s bench. They vowed to keep the path clear all through the winter.