June 26, 2017
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–yet that’s basically the marching orders Jesus issues. And when those service trip vans pull out of the church parking lot, they 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 stand for 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 some streetwalker. 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.
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 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 . . .”
But baptism doesn’t have that 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: Doug Bratt
I have colleagues whom I respect who tell me they’ll never preach this Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. When I asked a very wise friend for advice on how to preach this text, he told me to “Skip it.”
After all, while our text’s Abraham asks no questions, we have plenty of questions about it. Abraham seems to walk straight towards our text’s climax. You and I, as Scott Hoezee notes, by contrast, follow him cautiously, trying not to trip over our text’s apparent scandals.
Yet Genesis 22 is in some ways pivotal to the story of God’s promise, the child of the promise and Abraham. God will, after all, keep God’s promises. Even had Abraham refused to sacrifice his son, God would have given him countless offspring. But will he be a willing partner in those promises? Or will God have to work around rather than through Abraham to keep God’s promises?
While our text seems deaf to the kinds of questions we raise about it, Hoezee suggests that its narrator does appear to recognize what a hard test it poses for Abraham. Yet he doesn’t try to minimize it.
In fact, Genesis’ narrator seems to highlight its pain. He, after all, refers to the son whom God calls Abraham to sacrifice as “your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love” (2). Twice the narrator speaks of how Abraham and Isaac “went on together,” as if they were a dad and his son who were just hiking the Appalachian Trail instead of toward the violent death of one of them.
Those who wish to preach and teach Genesis 21 take the biblical scholar Dale Bruner’s advice to read the text slowly and carefully, especially when it’s difficult. We also remember that the Bible often underlines things not with red ink, but by repeating them.
So we pay close attention when, for example, three times in our text someone says something like, “The Lord will provide.” It’s a profession that’s especially striking because twice it’s Abraham who makes it. After all, much of what happens before our text begins points to an Abraham who seems to operate on the principle of “I must provide.”
Yet sometimes-faithless Abraham’s story also follows Genesis 1-12’s story of humanity’s stubborn faithlessness. The “some time later” to which verse 1 refers also includes east of Eden humanity’s assumption that it rather than the Lord must provide.
So is that why God decides to “test” Abraham? Does God wonder if all too human Abraham is up to the big job of being a blessing to a world that persistently and deliberately tries to provide for itself?
Walter Brueggemann suggests that much depends on how we understand the Hebrew word for “test.” It doesn’t mean that God tempted Abraham to sin. In fact, Hoezee suggests we might think about Abraham’s “test” this way: when we say something like, “That tested her soccer skills,” we’re saying it “challenged” those skills. It tested her ability to trap, dribble, pass and shoot the ball.
Perhaps there’s an element of God challenging Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Even Abraham himself may wonder if he’s up to both fathering and blessing the nations of the world. God’s demands on him are, after all, very high. By testing Abraham this way, God may be giving him a chance to learn that with God’s help, his faith is up to not only this test, but also all the tests that lie before him.
However, none of God’s tests of Abraham are any harder than the command to sacrifice his son. Abraham’s Canaanite contemporaries sacrificed their children at their gods’ request. But Abraham himself may have questioned whether he could sacrifice the child of the promise at the living God’s request.
It’s hard to imagine God testing Genesis 22’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us in any way that’s more demanding than God’s test of Abraham. Yet God in some ways challenges our faith nearly every day.
God’s children may be tested when they walk out of the doctor’s office tomorrow. Or when their daughter tells them she no longer follows Jesus. Or when mental illness lowers its dark curtain over one of Jesus’ followers.
God isn’t the source of those tests’ evil. But God uses them to learn if God’s adopted sons and daughters place our trust in God alone to deal with that darkness. God wants to know if you and I mean what we say when we claim our faith the only reason for the hope we have.
Will we put our trust in God in all circumstances? Or will we cave in to the despair that so quickly grows at the intersection of uncertainty and daily life? Will we trust God to be God? Or will we act as if we’re gods?
Abraham perhaps surprises God, us and maybe even himself by passing his greatest test with straight A’s. While he argued with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, he doesn’t argue about the fate of his son. Abraham gets up early to scale Mount Moriah in order to sacrifice his only son at God’s request.
Yet even the length of that trip must test Abraham’s determination. After all, it gives him three very long, hot days to contemplate God’s hard command. You might even argue it would have been fractionally easier for Abraham to just sacrifice Isaac on the spot.
On top of that, along their way to Moriah Isaac also tests Abraham. “Daddy,” he pipes up. “We’ve got everything we need for a sacrifice but one thing. Where’s the animal?” “Is it me?” the child of the promise whose culture regularly sacrifices children perhaps wonders.
Now if anything could have diverted Abraham from his faithful path, this question would have been it. Since Isaac is starting to ask hard questions, it’s time to turn around. Yet though even Isaac’s poignant question can’t detour Abraham from obedience, he apparently doesn’t have the heart to yet tell him the truth. The one who persistently lied about his wife now also seems to lie to his son. Or maybe, as Hoezee posits, obedient Abram just voices his desperate hope. “God will provide a lamb,” he answers, perhaps choking on the words.
Even when he and the child of the promise leave their servants, Abraham either lies or clings to some desperate hope. “We,” he tells them, meaning Isaac and he, “will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Yet when Abraham and Isaac get to Mount Moriah’s wind-swept summit, they find wood, fire and a lethal knife. There’s also an altar that Abraham has built. But apparently there is nothing to sacrifice.
However, perhaps just as Abraham raises his knife to sacrifice his son, God steps in. God tells him not to even lay a hand on the son of the promise. After all, God now knows that Abraham both trusts and obeys God. So God, in fact, provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice, just as Abraham had promised Isaac. So Abraham calls that place of his anguished trust and obedience, “The Lord will provide.”
Now we usually translate the Hebrew word for “provide” as “see.” Yet God’s “seeing” and “providing” are closely linked. Because God sees what Abraham needs, God graciously provides what he needs. So in verse 14 Abraham calls Mount Moriah “The Lord will provide.”
But, Genesis’ narrator also adds there, “to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided’.” That may seem trivial until we remember Genesis was recorded as much as 600 years after Abraham offered to sacrifice Isaac.
So Genesis’ narrator suggests that even centuries later God’s people are still professing, “the Lord will provide.” Even after Israel’s slavery in Egypt, her passage through the Red Sea and wilderness wanderings, God’s people continue to profess, “The Lord will provide.”
It’s a radically counter-cultural profession for citizens of the 21st century. When we profess that, after all, we profess that God is the source of every good gift. That the God who sometimes tests is also the God who always graciously provides.
But try telling your co-workers, “God gave me a new day today.” Or your neighbors, “God gave me good lunch.” Or skeptical friends, “God is helping me deal with my cancer.” Many of them will look at you as though you’re ignorant, stupid, stubborn or just plain mentally impaired.
So how dare we profess the Lord who sometimes tests is also the One who always provides? My colleague Jack Roeda notes the world once tested God. “Take your Son, your only Son, whom you love,” we told God, “and offer him to us.” And God did precisely that. God sent God’s Son, Jesus. God even let us torture that Son to death so that, among other things, you and I might know that God will stop at nothing to provide us with everything we really need.
That word “provide” is the heart of the word “providence” that the Heidelberg Catechism describes as “the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds and rules heaven, earth and all creatures.” Providence means, the Catechism continues, “All things … come to us not by chance, but from God’s fatherly hand.”
It’s a profession that, quite simply, “the Lord will provide.” That is God is trustworthy, even when God is puzzling. That God’s adopted sons and daughters can rely on God, even when God makes what seems like bewildering demands on us. That “The Lord will provide” even when we can see no way through what lies around and ahead of us.
No genuine preacher or teacher promises hearers that their trip to the doctor will produce a good report this week. The Scriptures don’t promise children will always wholeheartedly love the Lord. They don’t promise their resources will outlast them. They don’t promise climate change will never endanger God’s good creation.
But the Scriptures do promise God will never abandon God’s beloved sons and daughters to those tests. They also promise that God will somehow bend our misery toward God’s glory and the good of those who love the Lord.
As a result, the Heidelberg Catechism professes, “we can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love.”
On the dustcover of Mary Elise Sarotte’s book, The Collapse, the publisher notes, “On the night of November 9, 1989, massive crowds surged toward the Berlin Wall, drawn by an announcement that caught the world by surprise: East Germans could now move freely to the West. The Wall — the infamous symbol of a divided Cold War Europe — seemed to be falling.
But the opening of the gate that night was not planned by the East German ruling regime — nor was it the result of a bargain between either Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It was an accident.”
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 89 is one of the darkest of all the Psalms, the better looking twin of the exceedingly dark Psalm 88, which ends with “the darkness is my closest friend.” Psalm 89 rallies from that kind of despair with bright opening words. In our reading for this Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, it’s a new author, a new day, a renewed sense of hope. Unfortunately, our assigned reading is happy only because the RCL has done an unfortunate bit of surgery on Psalm 89, cutting out the dark pieces. If we read only the assigned words, we will never be able to preach a textually accurate and pastorally helpful sermon on Psalm 89.
Our reading is the whistling part of whistling in the dark. It completely ignores the dark, which is precisely the point of the Psalm. The sunny tone of verses 1-4 and 15-18 stands in sharp contrast to the gloomy ending of this Psalm. That dark ending is announced in verse 38 with that awful three letter word “but.” (Often in Scripture that word signals a turn to the Gospel, the Good News of what God has done to redeem his people. “But God” is the shortest summary of the Gospel.) Here in Psalm 89, however, that word signals a turn to the Bad News, the shocking news of the unthinkable thing God has done: “you have renounced the covenant with your servant (verse 39).” In the end that dark news will serve as a dramatic backdrop for the brilliant Good News of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection. But first we must grapple with this dark Psalm.
The first 37 verses of this Psalm are occupied with the love and faithfulness of Yahweh. “I will sing of the Lord’s great love (chesed) forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness (amunah) through all generations.” Seven times (the Hebrew number of perfection) that combination of chesed and amunah (or close derivatives) pop up in Psalm 89. Those two words are central in the covenant history of Israel. Because of Yahweh’s love and faithfulness Israel could always count on the blessings of his covenant. “I will declare that your love stand firm forever, that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself (verse 2).”
Verses 5-14 are an extended paean of praise to Yahweh for the way those two attributes are revealed in his mighty works of creation and redemption. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you (verse 14).” Then follows the second part of our reading (verses 15-18) which celebrates the blessings of those who serve this covenant Lord.
But Psalm 89 isn’t only, or mainly, about the general covenant blessings enjoyed by Israel in general. As verse 3 and 4 show, it is mostly about the blessing of Yahweh on King David and his line. “You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, “I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.” ’”
This promise of the permanence of the Davidic line was one of the central hopes of Israel through all the turmoil of their monarchy. No matter what happened, Israel could count on a son of David on the throne of God’s Kingdom. The chesed and amunah of Yahweh guaranteed that succession forever. That meant that Israel could never be permanently defeated. The great Davidic kingship assured them prosperity and victory.
Verses 19-37 expand on that covenant promise, assuring Israel that even if David’s sons sin and are severely chastened (verses 30-32), that promise will hold. Yahweh promises, “I will not take my chesed from him, nor will I ever betray my amunah. I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered. Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness—and I will not lie to David—that his line will continue forever….” That is the third time in Psalm 89 that God promises, even swears by his own holiness, that David’s line will never be dethroned. Nothing could be more certain; David’s family will always rule. That promise is rooted in God’s own character which guarantees his covenant.
No wonder the Psalmist calls God’s covenant people “blessed” in verse 15, the second part of our reading for today. So Israel rejoices in the name of Yahweh all day long. He is their glory and strength. His favor rests upon them. They can count on the blessing of God because of God’s blessing on David and his line. “Our king [belongs] to the Holy One of Israel.” God has chosen him. God has adopted him. And God has promised us that this relationship will never end, “so help me God.”
BUT! “But you (!) have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one. You have renounced the covenant with your servant and have defiled his crown in the dust (verses 39 and 39).” The chosen one has become the rejected one. That reversal is the plot of the Psalm and the problem with which it wrestles. The rock solid covenant has been broken, and not just by Israel, but by Israel’s covenant Lord. As James Luther Mays says, “The Psalm describes that disaster as the work of God himself. It does not question his power, but his promise.”
The Psalmist wrestles with God in verses 46-51, asking those two agonizing questions, “how long” and “where.” The first deals with time. We’re dying here, Lord. We can’t hold on much longer. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?” The second question deals with space. We’re surrounded by mockery. The nations taunt us about the whereabouts of our God. So, “O Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David.” The Psalmist ends with one passionate cry: “Remember. Remember us. Remember your servant. Remember your promises.” (The praise in verse 52 is probably the conclusion of Book III of the Psalter, not this particular Psalm.)
We don’t know exactly when Psalm 89 was written and what experience of God forsakenness it describes. It surely captures the despair of God’s people just before and during the Exile, but there were a number of other times when Israel might have felt this hopeless. As we move through the Ordinary Time of our lives, there are certainly times when it feels as though God has rejected us and renounced his covenant. But the very presence of this Psalm in the Psalter is an assurance that God has not rejected or renounced. It is part of the song book of the faithful. It gives voice to our despair. And its questions do have an answer, a firm answer, a flesh and blood answer.
The answer came when an angel appeared to a virgin who belonged to the line of David. “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give him (wait for it, here it comes, the answer to our agonized questions!) the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:31-33)
God has not broken covenant. It only seemed that way in that place and time. He kept covenant in a better, more permanent, more universal way than Israel ever could have imagined. As Mary sang in her Magnificat, the Lord “has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful (Luke 1:54)…..”
Here’s the word to preach today. Rooting your sermon deeply in the place and time of Israel, you can assure your listeners that God does not forget, that God does not break his promises, that God does not stop loving, even when sinners break his covenant. Yes, it will seem that way in our darkest hour. And it is perfectly appropriate, even biblical, to cry out to God in the darkness, “How long?” and “Where?” But we don’t have to linger on that other question, “Why?” The One who hung under the sign that said, “This is the King of the Jews,” has taken that question on his own lips. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was once forsaken by God so that we never will be.
If you preach Christ from this dark Psalm, you will help your people to whistle, even sing, in the dark. But you can’t preach Christ convincingly, unless you walk away from the Psalm’s sunny beginning and dwell for a while in its concluding darkness. After all, it was in the darkness that the Son of David defeated the taunting powers of darkness. But no one knew that until he rose from the grave and proclaimed, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…. And surely I am with you to the end of the age.”
“Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord (verse 15).”
A little boy, tears streaming down his face, reacts to his parents’ announcement that they can’t go on that long planned family vacation to Disney World. “But you promised. You promised.” A shattered spouse, confronted with news of her husband’s unfaithfulness, screams, “But you promised. You promised.” The retired miners have gathered at their union hall to hear from the head of the company they had served for 30 or more back breaking years. “I’m sorry, but the company is going through hard times. We’re going to cancel your pensions.” And they shout, “But you promised. You promised.” Those words capture the disappointment, despair, and darkness of Psalm 89.
Author: Scott Hoezee
“The wages of sin is death.” So proclaims any number of homespun billboards I have driven past over the years. Not a few church signs have sported this just-less-than good news, too. It’s the kind of thing non-Christians expect to hear from finger-wagging preachers or other pious purveyors of the Gospel. It’s what vaguely crazed street preachers shout out on street corners, standing on top of an inverted 5-gallon plastic pail and assailing passersby with this bromide of judgment.
Read in the context of Romans 6, however, it is just possible to take these words another way. Oh, true, they still won’t be the best news anyone has ever heard. This other possible angle on this now-famous phrase won’t evacuate all hint of judgment, either. But it is possible that Paul is being more matter-of-fact than hellfire-and-brimstone. It is possible that at least in part—possibly even in large part—that Paul is less predicting some divine judgment when the roll is called up yonder and more making a simple observation about how life works in this world of ours.
After all, in these verses Paul is making a case for righteous living as a baptized believer and he does this by saying matter of factly that everybody is a slave to something and so we all get to choose our masters. Nobody really lives free and clear. No one actually can re-invent him- or herself at every turning of the way. We might like to think of ourselves as independent free agents, as self-made individuals who make life up as we go along and who rely on our wits and our intelligence moment by moment to make prudent decisions. But it’s a lie, Paul as much as says.
People who dwell outside of Christ and the grace that brings true life are addicts, slaves, indentured servants to their own passions and to the whims of an amoral, immoral culture of indulgence. “Look back at how you used to live before you met Jesus” Paul urges his Roman readers. “You were enslaved to your appetites, eating and drinking too much of the wrong things all the time. The drunken parties, the wanton orgies, the morning-after hangovers, the constant sense of regret and embarrassment over how you behaved when you got drunk . . . In retrospect does any of that look like freedom?”
Even today, how many people don’t lament being caught up in a “rat race” they cannot exit? How many people work 70, 80 hours a week but who long ago forgot the reason why? How many won’t tell you if asked that they are so busy making a life for themselves that they forgot actually to HAVE a life in the first place? Look at the soaring opioid addiction in the United States not to mention dependency on alcohol, cocaine, and other substances.
Then listen to how people talk if by some intervention they are able to leave all that behind. What is one of the first things ex-addicts say over and over? “I finally got my life back.” That’s how a former slave talks. That’s how someone whose life had been OWNED by someone or something else talks. True, not everyone who is outside of Christ has an existence that is that hugely consumed by addiction and the like, and yet even short of such extremes, there are plenty of people who seem more owned by their wealth than the other way around. There are many people who find themselves anxious all the time about how the markets are doing, what’s secure, how well set up they are for retirement. In fact, there are legions of brokers, financial planners, and securities advisers out there whose whole careers come down—on some level—to managing other people’s fierce anxieties.
So when Paul says in the final line of Romans 6 “the wages of sin is death,” he is not so much making a prediction as an observation!
When I was about 9 years old, we had recently moved to a farm in the country and so my parents bought me a horse. It was actually a Shetland-Welsh pony but it turned out that, “Shadow” (as we named her) had never had a saddle put on. But my Dad saddled her up, cinched everything secure, and threw my 5-year-old brother and me onto her back. Well, Shadow cared for this not at all and took off like a shot, nimbly bucking the two of us off her back with no more than 2 or 3 flings of her body. My mother and her mother observed all this from the house. As my Dad and a neighbor ran over to make sure we were ok—we were—my Dad told the neighbor, “Right now my mother-in-law is quoting Scripture to my wife: ‘A horse is a vain thing for safety.’”
She was. But in this case she was not predicting this but OBSERVING it as she watched my brother and me pick ourselves up off the earth onto which Shadow had deposited us.
“The wages of sin is death” is perhaps more like that than we think. Paul surveys the landscape of the Roman world, sees its human carnage, and concludes that such party-hearty, out-of-control living is itself a kind of living death that leads to actual death one day. And if beyond that horizon Paul sees also an eternal death as a result of God’s judgment on sinfulness, well, so be it but even that is finally just an extension of what had been happening on earth all along to begin with.
How much better, Paul advises, to let yourself be a slave to Christ! And that, Paul reminds the Romans, is who you are now. As noted in last week’s sermon starter, Paul is reminding the Romans of their new identity in Christ. This is who you ARE now. Act like it! Be happy slaves to righteousness in Christ. Because—and this also bears itself out in common sense observations of everyday life—this leads to delight in God’s good creation. Not just in the sweet by and by but also in the near term, living happily inside the moral boundary fences God has established leads to a flourishing and a joy in all that God has made.
True, the Christian life can be the persecuted life, too, and no one needed to remind Christians in Rome (of all places) of that reality. And also true, just being a believer is no insulation against sickness or tragedy coming your way. But abiding in the ways of God leads to life, not death, to joy not despair. Lean into all that goodness, Paul says. It is who you are now by baptism in Christ so go with that good flow!
“The wages of sin is death.” That may sound like puritanical judgmentalism. But then again, there are any number of burned out, chewed up, hungover, heroin-addled, sexually broken people in this world who would need no convincing that this is true.
Just ask them.
If you need any indication of how well known Paul’s final words from Romans 6 are, you need look no further than a recent New Yorker cartoon that had been featured on my page-a-day New Yorker calendar back on February 2. The cartoon shows a highway toll station with three toll booths. The booth on the far left is labeled “CASH”, the center toll booth is for “EZ-PASS,” and the one on far right “WAGES OF SIN.” But that toll booth did not feature the usual window through which to pay the attendant but was clearly a curtained Confessional Booth from a Catholic church. And it was the only “toll booth” to which a car was headed!
Even the secular world well outside the church has some sense that there is such a thing as sin, that it does have some kind of consequences, and that sooner or later we each of us needs to deal with that fact. CASH and EZ-PASS will only get you so far . . .