June 29, 2020
The Proper 9A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 24:34-67 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 145:8-14 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 7:15b-25 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 3 (Lord’s Day 2)
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Author: Scott Hoezee
I’m sure they had their reasons. I refer to the folks who put together the readings for the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m sure they had their reasons to leap-frog over verses 20-24 but in so doing, they created something of an irony (if not something of an exegetical faux pas).
Granted, Jesus’ rant against various cities in the deleted/skipped verses here are difficult to read. They also seem to come from out of nowhere, nestled in between some nice musings about John the Baptist and some lovely words about rest for the weary. I imagine that if today one of us preachers suddenly interrupted one of our own sermons for a turn-the-air-blue diatribe, our congregations would arch a collective eyebrow and wonder if we’d had a bad burrito the night prior. Most of our congregants would also doubtless do their best to ignore what had just happened (and hope it did not happen again anytime soon!).
So maybe the Lectionary folks thought that, too. This does not fit here. Maybe it’s even a textual mistake, a wrong insertion. Who knows? In any event, it’s easier to skip these judgments than engage them.
But on that point I must hasten to demur. Because the skipped verses are framed by other verses that pretty much tell us we are making a mistake to pretend Jesus did not speak the words he did about Korazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. In verses 16-19 Jesus pretty much says that it is a theological error to look at who Jesus is and what he does and then choose to deride Jesus for those words and actions.
“The problem with you people,” Jesus says, “is that you want to call all the shots, force every prophet into your own pre-conceived mold. If you don’t like the message, you pick up on some aspect of the messenger as an excuse to reject him entirely. John never eats and you say that’s just nuts. I do enjoy eating and drinking and you say I’m an epicurean liberal. It’s high time you listen to what God’s prophets say and stop looking for excuses for the fingers you keep sticking in your ears to block out God’s truth.”
That’s what Jesus says. So how ironic that the Lectionary then turns right around and edits Jesus by having us ignore something he then went on to say! Let’s just stick our Lectionary fingers in our ears for a few verses here! What’s more, Jesus then goes on to comment in verses 25-27 that everything he says comes straight from the Father and that to know the Father, you need to know and embrace the Son who reveals the Father.
All in all, then, this may not be a good juncture in Scripture to skip over certain words spoken by Jesus! We may not like hearing Jesus in imprecatory mode. We may not enjoy the specter of judgment on those who refused to recognize Jesus through his miracles, but it’s not up to us to edit the divine discourse.
Each preacher can and must make up his/her mind on this issue but my recommendation would be to include Jesus’ tough talk in verses 20-24 and use it as a way to understand this larger passage. In what follows, I will assume that we will not quietly bracket Jesus’ speech on the unrepentant cities.
That said . . . what is there to observe in Matthew 11? First, it is important to remember that all these words flow out of the scandalous and shocking fact that as Matthew 11 opens, no less than the imprisoned John the Baptist has sent some emissaries to Jesus to inquire if Jesus really was The One or if they should go back to waiting for the promised Messiah after all.
Can it really be that the one sent to prepare the way for the Christ got to a point so desperate that he began to doubt the identity of Jesus? Or was John still pretty sure that Jesus was The One but had his disciples ask Jesus this question as a subtle rebuke over what John regarded as the too-slow pace of Jesus’ ministry to date? In that case, John’s question would have been almost a cheeky form of the question we sometimes rhetorically ask to motivate someone to greater courage and action: “Are you a man or a mouse!?”
That was the set up for Jesus not only to send word back to John that more was going on than he maybe knew but also to point out that as it turned out, neither John nor Jesus was exactly what anyone expected. Both were easily caricatured by opponents looking to impugn their characters. John was an abstemious sort who dressed weirdly, talked weirdly, and was given to many a rhetorical excess. So those who wanted to dismiss John as being of no importance in God’s grand scheme of things said, “He’s nuts. He’s got a demon in him. He’s a few garbanzo beans short of a good hummus.”
Jesus, on the other hand, appears to have been anything but abstemious. When people threw weddings, they wanted Jesus at the party (and according to John’s gospel, Jesus was even good at providing a whole winery’s worth of vino for folks who were already three sheets to the wind). When people threw dinner parties, they invited Jesus and at those gatherings, Jesus was not averse to asking for a second helping of the lamb stew. So those who wanted to dismiss Jesus as being a good non-candidate for Messiah said, “That wine-bibbing and cheeseburger-consuming fellow doesn’t look a thing like God and so can’t possibly be God’s Christ.”
In other words, “We’ll know God’s servants when we see them and these two ain’t it.”
But the God of Scripture is consistent in his ability to surprise and to startle. Indeed, a good bit of divine revelation happens precisely through just those surprises. We learn the most about God’s nature and plans not when God puts in some appearance that accords pretty much with what we expect of a deity in the first place but when God shows up in the least likely of guises and in the least likely of places.
Who would have guessed that God would have decided to start a mighty nation by approaching a wrinkled old couple in the retirement home—two people who had not managed to generate children even when they were young and virile? Who would have guessed that God’s favorites would always been the less likely of the possible candidates: crafty and wily old Jacob is favored over his more staid brother Esau; the young braggart Joseph is chosen over his more stable and hard-working brothers; Moses the stutterer becomes God’s mouthpiece instead of his more golden-tongued brother Aaron; the family runt David gets elevated over all the other sons of Jesse.
God always chooses the less likely of the options. And he shows up in other surprising places. The Israelite spies who visit Jericho make a beeline for a brothel. Who knows why they went there first but at the end of the day, God preached a sermon to them from the lips of no less than the establishment’s madam, Rahab herself. God delivers the Ninevites from certain doom by pressing into service the reluctant and truculent figure of Jonah (a man whose personality could have curdled milk, as Frederick Buechner once put it). God frees the Israelites from their long captivity by turning the Persian (and pagan) King Cyrus into a messiah.
And lest we think that these surprises were limited to the Old Testament, God starts out the New Testament with its own surprise BANG by implanting his Son into the uterus of an unsuspecting virgin named Mary and having him delivered into a donkey’s feed bunk.
John the Baptist looked at the shape and content of Jesus’ ministry and said, “This can’t be. He can’t be the one.” But John should have just looked in the mirror. Because if God could use the zany son of Zechariah and Elizabeth . . . well, there was just no telling what God might do next! Small wonder that Jesus ends up saying in verse 25 that praise is to be given to God for revealing the deep truths of salvation not to the wise and learned but to “little children.”
Children, after all, have a vast capacity to be surprised!
Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 about his “easy” yoke and his “light” burden are among the best-known in the New Testament. The word usually translated as “light” is accurately rendered as meaning something that is light in terms of weight. But the other word associated with Jesus’ yoke—the Greek word chrestos—means something more than “easy.” Chrestos carries with it more of a ring of “kindness” and of “pleasantness.” Apparently, Jesus’ yoke is the opposite of what we’d usually associate with yokes. A yoke seems like something you’d impose, something you’d just as soon not have laid over your shoulders at all. Yet Jesus’ yoke is a kind and pleasant phenomenon. It is not a despised thing but is as gentle and kind as when someone you love lays his or her hand on you to encourage you, to love you, to lead you gently and lovingly where you should go and to that place where you can flourish.
One of the more pernicious examples of sin is on display when a clever person finds a devious way to turn another person’s virtue into a liability. The idea is that you zero in on a good character trait that someone clearly and undeniably has and then turn it into something that will get that person into trouble.
For example, during the 1948 Texas campaign for the U.S. Senate, Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson ran against a highly popular former governor of Texas, Coke Stevenson. Johnson knew that Stevenson had a high respect for people’s intelligence. Stevenson believed that people would recognize a blatant lie when they saw one such that there was no need to refute such a lie publicly. The good folks of Texas would figure this out for themselves. So Johnson put out a blatant lie about Stevenson’s stance on a trade issue. Johnson knew Stevenson would not lower himself to attempt to refute this charge. People would know the truth, Stevenson believed.
Except that after Johnson hammered away at the lie long enough, folks did start to believe it. By the time Stevenson realized this and finally spoke up publicly, it was too late. Johnson pounced on Stevenson for his way-too-late feeble defense. “Sure, NOW he speaks up . . .”
Stevenson was a man of integrity and he believed in the integrity of others. Johnson took this virtuous trait and made it a liability for Stevenson. This is not unlike the people in Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s day who took what was good and virtuous about both men and turned it into an accusation, turning virtue into a liability by twisting the words and actions of John and Jesus. They took good things and made them bad. And that is a pretty evil thing to do.
Author: Stan Mast
The last time we saw Isaac, he was being laid on the altar by his father Abraham (Genesis 22). It is now many years later. Abraham has laid his wife, Sarah, in a grave purchased from the surrounding Hittites (Genesis 23). And now he has one more item of unfinished business. Isaac is 40 years old and unmarried, which threatens all the covenantal promises God made to Abraham and his descendants. So, Abraham sends his most trusted servant to find a wife for Isaac.
It was a mission impossible for this unnamed servant. He can’t get a wife from those nearby Hittites; Abraham won’t have his son mixing with those pagans. So, the servant is ordered to travel from southern Canaan to northern Mesopotamia, back to the homeland Abraham left on his mission impossible; “go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac (Genesis 24:4).” It was like looking for one needle in a very large haystack, but with God all things are possible. And that, as we shall see, is the point of the story.
Our reading skips right over the journey to Aram Naharaim, the hometown of Nahor. It omits the fateful meeting of the servant and Isaacs’s soon-to-be wife, Rebekah. But we learn of the journey and that meeting as the servant meets Laban and the rest of the family. Before he will eat, he must tell the story and make his request.
I won’t retell the servant’s speech; you can read that for yourself. I’ll simply ask, how do we preach this story? What is it about? Where do we focus our attention? The possibilities are many: the servant, Rebekah, Laban, or God?
One preacher focused on the servant as a model of servanthood—his godly character and his wisdom, his prayer for a sign and his careful approach to Rachel, his dedication to his master and his mission. His commitment to seek God’s guidance and blessing is a challenge and comfort to all who serve.
Or I can imagine someone preaching a sermon on “How to Find a Godly Wife.” That would be a hit with many devout young people who seek God’s guidance in this all important quest. This text would encourage the laying down of fleece, seeking a special sign that this is “the one.” Further, it would remind a Christian man or woman to seek a spouse from among the covenant people of God, rather than from among the Hittites who surround us.
Another sermon could focus on Rachel—her helpfulness, her boldness, her diligence, and her willingness to go where no woman had gone before. Like Abraham, she willingly heads off into the unknown with a man she doesn’t know to meet a husband she has never met. What faith! What a woman! There is even a legitimate way to use her as a model of a self-possessed independent woman, a precursor of today’s strong feminists. She is not chattel to be bargained for and given away. She is given a choice. Do you want to stay here for another 10 days and have a proper farewell? Or do you want to leave right away, as this servant is suggesting? “Will you go with this man?” “I will go.” That simple reply reminded me of another young woman who responded to an immense challenge with the famous words, “May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38)
Again, one could organize a sermon around the family of Rachel, particularly Laban, who will play a large role in the life of Rachel’s future, favorite son. From the beginning he is presented as a man with an eye for material things. It was the sight of the golden nose ring and bracelets that motivated Laban to run out to meet the servant in the first place. His habit of delaying things for his own benefit is suggested in the ten-day farewell party he had planned. Here is a fellow who can’t be trusted. You could preach a whole sermon on avoiding the clutches of such folks, or on the importance of not being Laban.
All of those things are in the text. But we have to ask if the author of the text really meant to emphasize those people and their example. Are these stories of the patriarchs really intended to teach lessons in morality? Or are they intended to teach Israel and us something about God and God’s covenant with his people? When we see their place in Genesis, as part of the story of how God made a covenant with his people and then guided and preserved and protected and provided for them, it is very clear that the main character in the story is Yahweh, the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Indeed, that is exactly what the servant emphasizes in every part of his speech. When he introduces Abraham to the family, he says, “Yahweh has blessed my master abundantly….” When he reports on Abraham’s instructions for his journey, he says that Abraham sent him with these words: “Yahweh, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and make your journey a success….” When he recounts his meeting with Rachel, here how he tells the story: “When I came to the spring today, I said, ‘O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, if you will, please grant success to the journey on which I have come.” Then he suggests that God give him certain signs to prove which girl is the right one; “let her be the one Yahweh has chosen for my master’s son.’” When things happen exactly as he had prayed, “I praised Yahweh, the God of my master Abraham who led me on the right road….”
Laban and Bethuel sum up the whole story in one sentence. “This is from Yahweh; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as Yahweh has directed.”
This story is not about servanthood, or guidance, or marriage, or womanhood. It is about Yahweh’s provision for the covenantal blessings he would give to Israel and through Israel to the world. This is redemptive history, part of the story of Jesus. The whole enterprise was a mission impossible, except that Yahweh was in it from beginning to end. Gabriel summed it up to the Virgin Mary, “For nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37.”
In your sermon, emphasize the impossible nature of the mission, the unlikeliness of its success, the role God played in it, and how all of this is part of covenant history, redemptive history, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Play with the details all you want, but don’t get lost in them. Use them to make the gospel point. “For nothing is impossible with God.” Jesus is the end result, the proof, and the guarantee.
I am writing this in the middle of this terrible Coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe. It seems invincible. What hope do we have? This story points us to the One who is the hope and help of Israel and the world. I would not suggest that God will stop this awful disease tomorrow, because, of course, we do not know that. But the history of God’s people is filled with moments and months and years when things seemed hopeless, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was there and did redeem his people.
Author: Scott Hoezee
The Lectionary has carved out just seven verses from the middle of Psalm 145 but in truth, the whole Psalm sounds the same notes. Coming as this poem does near the very end of the Hebrew Psalter, we are definitely in the final exultation of singular praise with which this collection concludes. The Psalms have had ups and downs, laments and imprecations. Yet weaving in and through it all was praise and thanksgiving, including even in many of those darker psalms of lament and cursing of enemies. But as the collection prepares to conclude, the Psalter editors selected a half-dozen songs or prayers that ramp up gloriously into a final crescendo, ending of course with Psalm 150, which is a veritable shook-up champagne bottle whose cork flies off with great effervescence!
Psalm 145 celebrates the goodness of God throughout all generations. The breadth of things for which God is praised here is pretty comprehensive: God’s acts of creation and of sustaining that creation, God’s acts of salvation and mercy, God’s closeness to God’s people and how well he listens to their cries, God’s own character of holiness and righteousness. Just about anything you can think of—and just about every subject of praise and thanksgiving that comes up anywhere else throughout all of the 150 psalms—gets tucked into Psalm 145 somewhere. It would be difficult to identify any praiseworthy feature of God or of God’s work that gets left out. About the only thing not included here would be some of the specifics from the more historical psalms that rehearse things like the Exodus from Egypt, God’s presence at Sinai, and other narrative elements of Israel’s past. Outside of that, Psalm 145 is downright capacious.
And in its effervescence it is also downright un-nuanced. We have noted many times in the sermon starters on the Psalms here on the CEP website that we ought never take any one psalm and make it prescriptive for every person at every moment in their life. If you took a poem like Psalm 145 and insisted that every believer feel this way every moment of every day, then that would ignore all of those other psalms of lament (about a third of all the psalms) that indicate that there are other seasons of life when the sentiments of a Psalm 145 become longings, distant memories, the kinds of feelings and confidence to which the psalmist hopes to be able to return to someday but for now . . . not so much.
To insist that Psalm 145’s apparent blank check promises that God always hears our prayers and always answers them more or less in a heartbeat ignores all those prayers in this collection that indicate perfectly good and pious people can endure long seasons of apparent divine silence. So we note again the need to read each psalm in the context of the other 149 in the Psalter. Only when taken all together do these prayers reflect the full scope of human life before God.
That, of course, makes preaching on a psalm of singular sunniness a bit of a challenge. On the one hand, we preachers do not want to fail to acknowledge that on any given Sunday, there are plenty of people who, for the moment at least, see their lives and their attitudes reflected quite nicely in something like Psalm 145. And we do not want them to feel guilty for being so upbeat nor preach in a way that tells such people, “Just wait for it—the bottom will drop out for you again one day too!” No, no, that would never do.
Then again, neither can we preach this in ways that ignore those for whom the bottom has dropped out of late, and in these days of COVID-19 pandemic and racial strife, that might just include a few more folks in the average congregation than usual.
So what is the preacher to do?
Preach the Good News that the character of God as reflected in Psalm 145 is true. What’s more, if the poet of this ancient song sensed these truths about God’s character long ago already, then those of us who have now seen how far God in Christ was willing to go to be faithful to all of God’s promises have far more reasons to know of God’s faithful and righteous and compassionate nature. This is who God is! Psalm 145 is right. And if there are those in the congregation experiencing the truth of that already now, then that is reason for all of us to celebrate. We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice, after all.
And to weep with those who weep. And for those weeping right now for all kinds of reasons, we remind them that the vision of Psalm 145 is ultimately right and will ultimately be our common reality when God’s kingdom—that eternal kingdom celebrated in Psalm 145—fully comes. COVID-19 will never have the last word. Racism will not rule the cosmos in the end but will vanish like a bad dream. As we live between the times, not only can we not always see the truth of all that, sometimes we have a hard time even believing the truth of all that.
Sometimes we have to believe on behalf of our suffering sisters and brothers. We extend our faith out to their faith to hold them up. But we do so in profound hope. The sentiments and the vision of Psalm 145 and its wonderful and comprehensive litany of reasons to be enthusiastic about our great God are all correct. These things about God have been true in the past, they are true in this present moment (whether we can see them plainly or not) and they will be eternally true.
Can we hold onto the glories of Psalm 145 in the teeth of so much that is wrong with our world and with our lives right now? Yes. It may seem a paradox. But then, central to the Christian experience is the most sacred of all symbols that is itself the ultimate Paradox: The Cross.
There is virtually no way to duplicate this in any translation into any language but Psalm 145 is actually an acrostic. Its 21 verses correspond to the letters in the Hebrew alphabet with each successive verse beginning with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Verse 1 begins with A, Verse 2 with B, Verse 3 with C, and so on. So in essence Psalm 145 goes from A-Z. At the very least we think that some Hebrew Psalms were composed this way to make them easier to memorize. But there may also be a sense in which this literary structure reflects what is also contained in this poem—and as reflected on above in this sermon starter—and that is the sense that God is being praised here for every reason one could think of from A-Z, the whole kit-n-caboodle, as it were.
That structure is pretty interesting on both levels: first, this is to be memorized, to be carried in our hearts as a constant reminder of the nature and character of our God. These are the truths we must live by! But second, God is worthy of praise for the whole kit-n-caboodle of Creation, Salvation, and soon the Re-Creation of all things. Everything God is, everything God has done and continues to do, everything God will do through Christ Jesus the Lord and by the Holy Spirit—all of it from A-Z and beyond is worthy of all praise!
Author: Doug Bratt
Those who find it relatively easy to lose weight can’t see the not-so-civil war that’s constantly being waged inside those who must struggle to drop pounds. I, for example, want to do the good that is eating less junk food and more healthy food. In fact, I know that I should eat fewer potato chips and bowls of ice cream, and more fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet I also sometimes crave less healthy food like donuts and pizza.
I also want to exercise more and sit around in my easy chair less. I know that I should be watching television less, and walking and riding our exercise bike more. Yet it’s so tempting to just skip a few days of exercise in order to vegetate in front of the television or computer screen.
In other words, I have a pretty good idea of what’s good for me. But I find it very hard to do the good that I know. It’s far easier just to keep doing the wrong things that, for example, got me into my weight predicament in the first place.
Paul sets his discussion about a similar struggle in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s discussion of the law, of which his view is complex. The apostle sees the law as holy. He also recognizes that the law reveals God’s will and, as such, is a kind of tape measure by which we can measure our behavior.
Yet he also knows that the law can’t free God’s adopted children from slavery to sin. In fact, and this is perhaps hardest for his readers to understand, Paul insists that sin has somehow taken not only people, but also the law captive. As a result, the law somehow tempts us to sin.
Might we think about that this way? A child might never want to touch that beautiful piece of pottery on your shelf. But what happens if you tell her not to touch it? Doesn’t it often seem as though she wants to test you by doing so? It’s almost as if your “law” is what tempts the child to sin.
Perhaps, in a similar way, God’s law tempts people by telling us what we may not do. That may be one reason why Paul, a shrewd observer of the human condition, deduces that instead of justifying people, the law condemns us. The law in that sense brings not life, but death.
However, Paul also insists that Christ has freed baptized Christians from slavery to sin. God has, in fact, graciously raised us to a new life of faithful obedience. So Jesus’ followers no longer have a good excuses for continuing to sin. We can’t even any longer claim that “the devil made me do it!” After all, while sin remains very powerful, it no longer dictates what God’s adopted children do, say and think.
And yet sin remains vigorous even enough in God’s adopted children to deeply puzzle Paul. “I do not understand what I do,” the apostle wonders in verse 15a. He knows he neither must nor should sin anymore. In fact, our desires are often more closely aligned with God’s holy law than our actions. God has, in fact, graciously freed Christians’ desires to align with God’s holy will for us. But our actions somehow stubbornly cling to sin and death.
The Holy Spirit has graciously raised God’s beloved people to a life of thankful and joyful obedience. Yet we sometimes act as if we’re still dead and buried in the grave of our sins. Quite simply, Christians generally know and want to do what’s good. Yet we often find that we can’t carry out the good we want to do.
So, for example, Jesus’ followers want to be loyal friends, loving spouses, good parents, and devoted children. We want to be hard-working employees, supportive co-workers, good citizens, and thoughtful neighbors. Yet we naturally find it so much easier to be fickle, lazy and stingy.
God’s adopted sons and daughters long to be energetic, physically fit and free from anxiety. Jesus’ followers want to be gentle, patient and generous. We want to be racially just and sensitive. So why do we so easily find ourselves so selfish, temperamental and insensitive?
Fleming Rutledge, to whom I’m indebted for many of this Starter’s ideas, notes that nations struggles with similar issues. North Americans and their countries want, for example, to be racially just. Yet we still find it very tempting to prop up rather than tear down racist institutions and power structures.
The great theologian of the early church, Augustine, compared our stubborn wills to our minds giving our bodies orders. When our mind tells our hand to do something, a healthy hand moves so quickly that there’s almost no lag time between the order and the action. Yet when our mind commands our will to do something, the will is slow to obey.
J.R.R. Tolkien soaked his The Lord of the Rings trilogy in good theology. The Ruling Ring to which its title refers is both all-powerful and all-evil. Yet while no one can use that ring for good, the temptation to try proves to be overwhelming. So the council of Elrond wants to send Frodo to destroy the ring.
While Frodo longs to rest and remain at peace in his home, he finally agrees to take the Ring, admitting he doesn’t know how he’ll be able to do it. Eventually Frodo captures the ring, but finds himself alone and in great danger. He’s strongly tempted to do what he knows he must never do. Frodo, in fact, caves in to the temptation by placing the Ring on his finger.
This, however, puts Frodo under the power of the Dark Lord. The Ring carries him off to the Black Land, Mordor. There he feels the loss of all hope. In his despair, Frodo struggles with competing claims on his life.
On the one hand, he wants to retain the ring with what he believes is its power to help him do great good. On the other hand, Frodo hears a voice telling him to take off the powerfully evil Ring because the temptation to use it for evil is just too strong. Eventually Frodo comes to his senses. He stands, worn out, but with a new will and a lighter heart. Frodo tells himself, “I will do what I must.”
What rages inside of Frodo is much like the kind of not so civil war that rages in God’s dearly beloved people nearly all of the time. The conquered enemies that are Sin and Death constantly reach out to grab us. Without help, even Christians do what we know we should not do.
Another of Tolkien’s main characters, Gollum, especially struggles with that dilemma. He was a normal person whom the evil forces of the Ring completely enslaved. Gollum, in fact, so lusted for the Ring that he murdered his best friend over it. He’s become a hideous, disgusting creature who largely sneaks around in the dark.
While Frodo calls Gollum’s story “loathsome,” his friend Gandalf calls it a “sad” story that “could have happened to others.” So Frodo asks him why Gollum didn’t just get rid of the Ring he’d come to hate. Gandalf answers, “He hated it and he loved it … He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter … it was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided matters.”
Without help, God’s adopted sons and daughters are as powerless to as Gollum was to do what’s right. In our case, however, it’s not the Ring but the twin powers of Sin and Death that naturally “decide matters.”
Yet Paul reminds Jesus’ followers that we’re no longer powerless. Help has come to us from outside of ourselves. God, through Jesus Christ, has rescued God’s adopted children from slavery to Sin and Death. The Holy Spirit has graciously freed us to do, as Frodo says, what we “must.”
Yet even Christians can’t do this on our own. We can’t free ourselves from slavery to Sin and Death any more than most slaves can free themselves. Thankfully, then, God in Christ has freed our wills to serve the Lord and each other.
So with Frodo, God’s dearly beloved people too can now say, “I will do what I must.” God has, after all, freed us to do the good things God has prepared for us to do. God’s Spirit has equipped Jesus’ followers to walk, not in the way of death, but along the path of life.
So God has graciously freed God’s adopted children to be, for instance, faithful friends and supportive spouses, loving parents and loyal uncles and aunts. God has freed Christians to forgive and pray for those who have hurt us.
God has graciously freed us to feed the hungry and visit those who are in prison. God has freed Jesus’ followers to clothe needy people and give a cup of cold water to the thirsty. God has freed us to speak up for justice and work for peace.
An old legend involves a Cherokee who’s teaching his young son. He tells him, “Everyone has two wolves inside of them. One wolf is violent, wild and destructive. The other wolf is disciplined, wise and generous. They are fighting inside of you. Which wolf will win?” His troubled son answers, “I don’t know.” His father then answers, “The wolf that will win is the wolf that is fed (italics mine).”
The Bible suggests that those who feed the “good wolf” that is God’s liberating Spirit at work care about the things about which God cares. God has fully equipped Christians to be generous with each other. So we feed the good wolf by being attentive to vulnerable people with our time and money.
God has graciously empowered God’s adopted children to serve the Lord and our neighbors. So we feed the wolf that is making service a priority in our lives. God has freed Jesus’ followers to spend time with the Lord. So we feed the good wolf that is deliberately making prayer, reading the Bible and coming to corporate worship more important in our lives.
Left to ourselves, we’d only feed the ravenous wolf every time. But God has not left God’s precious children to ourselves. The One who laid down his life for his sheep has freed us for joyful service to God and each other.