July 01, 2018
The Proper 9B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 6:1-13 from the Lectionary Gospel; 2 Samuel 5:1-10 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 48 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 30 (Lord’s Day 11)
Author: Scott Hoezee
This lection from Mark 6 provides a curious set of contrasts as well as a wonderful irony.
First, we twice read the word “amazed” here: first in verse 2 and then again in verse 6. Jesus here is doing what he’s been doing ever since Mark 1 and 2 when he began his public ministry of authoritative teaching and wondrous miracles. This time, however, he’s doing this work back home among people who “knew him when.” And so although we are told that they were “amazed” at his work, this is a different Greek word than the one used in verse 6.
The people are, in Greek, ekplesso, a word that contains more than a hint of incredulity. This kind of amazement is not the fall back in awe sense of wonder you have when something amazes you in a delightful way but more the astonishment you feel at something you’re not 100% is even real. Sometimes people amaze me by what they say but a good portion of the amazement I feel stems from my disbelief that ANYONE could ever think in so odd or illogical a way! (The Greek word here explesso may have no linguistic connection to “perplexed” but part of this word reminds me of “perplexed”.)
For his part in verse 6, Jesus’ amazement is from the more common Greek word thaumazo, which is the kind of astonishment that contains little doubt but that bowls you over with power. When a gifted violinist whizzes through a series of arpeggios in a Bach violin solo, I am amazed, blown away, simply left speechless at the wonderful thing I just experienced. That’s how Jesus felt: he had no doubts as to what he was seeing before his eyes, it just took his breath away that the situation was what it was.
Jesus’ amazement stems from their dubious amazement as to what Jesus was saying and doing in their midst. The reason is that the crowd can’t quite believe what they are witnessing. This has to be some sort of conceit, some trick, some chimera that is not what it appears to be at first glance. Notice how they move themselves from dubious astonishment to a wholesale impeaching of what arrested their attention in the first place.
Literally translated, here are the people’s collective comments in verse 2: “What’s all this now? Who gave this fellow such wisdom? What kind of (miraculous) power is this that flows through his hand?” These comments are peppered with vague words of the “how now?” and “wassup?” variety. The Greek is littered with tiny particles and interrogatives of a general and generic nature.
But precisely by stating and framing things just this way, the people are implying that the obvious conclusion—viz., this is all from God himself—cannot be the right conclusion. SOMEthing is up, but who can say just what it is? All their “whither” and “whence” queries darkly hint at the possibility that the source for all this is something shady, something underhanded, maybe even something evil. It’s almost as though they are sputtering, casting about for some explanation, ANY explanation, other than the obvious one.
They then further back this up by mentioning Jesus’ pedestrian origins in a simple family from their community. Who does he think he is anyway? He’s parading himself around as someone great, but everyone in his hometown knew better than to accept that at face value! And so they rather quickly manage to transform their initial (albeit dubious) astonishment at Jesus’ words and deeds into a scandal—a hometown scandal. In verse 4 the Greek skandalizo—literally to be tripped up by someone—is the word translated as “offense” in some versions of Mark 6. They found Jesus to be a stumbling block, a cause of falling down instead of a source of inspiration that could lift them up.
Jesus could not do much for or with people who viewed him that way. Doubtless there was a little envy going on here, and as we all know (and see the Illustration Idea on this text) once you are the target of envy, there is little you can do to defuse that envy. You’re rendered powerless by those who envy you—anything you do to try to get around their envy merely deepens their suspicion.
In a wonderful twist, however, Mark shows us that Jesus turns right around and far from being undone by the treatment he received at the hands of his fellow townsfolk, he actually EXPANDS the mission by sending out the disciples (who will soon be referred to as “apostles” for the first time ever in verse 17 of this same chapter) armed with more power over disease and demons than they ever had before. That’s the great irony here. The more the world tries to tamp Jesus down, impugn his character, hinder his ministry, the more the Holy Spirit responds by sending out more workers to do even more miraculous teachings and deeds!
And THAT, very properly, should evoke amazement from us all!
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
In Mark 6 is it the case that Jesus couldn’t do many miracles or that he just wouldn’t do them? On the assumption that Jesus could do whatever he wanted with his power—that is, on the assumption that even yahoos and yokels were not sufficient to actually sap Jesus of his divine abilities—I tilt more toward the “would not” side of the ledger.
You see, miracles and deep teachings of the type Jesus had been performing were meant to redound to the glory of God. They were not sideshow spectacles designed only to be eye-popping for their own sake. This was not titillation for titillation’s sake. No, these were signs of the kingdom, arrows pointing to the new day dawning through Jesus’ presence on the earth.
But when people were torn up with envy and riven with disbelief, none of that could happen. Criticism replaced praise, doubt displaced thanksgiving. And if people were not going to glorify God for what they see—if they were not going to become more hungry for the kingdom as a result—then the very purpose of the whole enterprise was short-circuited from the get-go. What’s the sense of even trying in that case?
Maybe it was like trying to hold a party in the midst of one of the most sour, dour, and gloomy folks you could imagine. Imagine whipping up some excellent cuisine—some perfectly cooked lamp chops perhaps, a side of melt-in-your-mouth good whipped potatoes with hints of truffle and cream. But then imagine placing this great food in front of people who just poked at it, sniffed it, and then pushed it aside. “Got any burgers or fries?” they might say to you.
Your goal in producing great food was to create a festive atmosphere, to throw a party for heaven’s sake to celebrate some great thing. But how can that happen when the best you have to offer is scorned? It reminds me of a moment on the videotape of our wedding. We’d just had a wonderful lunch at a fine Grand Rapids restaurant. My bride and I had selected the menu ourselves: Dijonaisse Amish Chicken Breast, Pan-Roasted Vegetable Medley, Caramelized Onion Tart. But at one point during the video footage shot just after lunch, you can hear my father-in-law ask one of his relatives how they enjoyed their meal, only to hear one of our grumpier relatives grouse, “There were no potatoes.”
That kind of comment just does not put one in mind to have this person over for a meal sometime!
Jesus did not do many miracles in his hometown because people flat out missed the point.
As noted above, the Greek of this text contains some interesting clues as to how to interpret what is going on here. First, there are two different verbs in verses 2 and 6, even though in many English translations both get rendered “amazed.” But the people’s amazement in verse 2 (Gk: ekplesso) contains a whiff of incredulity and doubt. Jesus’ amazement in verse 6 (Gk: thaumazo), on the other hand, is the more usual sense of being surprised at the situation before him. Speaking of the people’s doubt-tinged amazement, the “offense” that the people take at Jesus as reported on in verse 4 is in the Greek skandalizo, which is literally a stumbling block. This could even give you a title for this sermon: “Hometown Scandal.”
In his story “Abel Sanchez,” writer Miguel deUnamuno nicely highlights the nature of envy and why it that the envied person is often trapped. In this retelling of the Cain and Abel story from Genesis 4, the Cain character is played by a skilled surgeon who has for years secretly envied his friend, Abel Sanchez, a skilled artist. At one point in the story, the doctor is scrutinizing one of Abel’s paintings. This particular painting is a depiction of the Cain and Abel story from the Bible. At first, the doctor is convinced that the face of Cain in the painting is modeled on his own face. And he becomes furious! How dare Abel Sanchez use HIM as a model for envy? The gall! The nerve! The implied accusation!
But then, upon closer inspection, the doctor decides it’s not his face after all. Does this defuse his anger, however? By no means! Instead the surgeon becomes irate that Abel Sanchez did NOT deign to use him in one of his famous paintings! How dare Abel NOT use his face!
DeUnamuno’s point is clear: when you are the object of envy, you cannot do a blessed thing to make the situation any better. Try to be extra kind to the one who envies you, and this kindness will get written off as condescension and charity. Try to rise above things by ignoring the one torn up with envy and you will be written off as arrogant and rude, thereby merely confirming the envier’s low opinion of you. Neither approach nor avoidance can help the envied one.
It’s difficult to know how much of a role envy plays in Mark 6 but surely the sneering attitude of Jesus’ fellow townsfolk revealed at least a smidgen of envy-driven sentiments. Maybe this had something to do with his inability/unwillingness to do miracles there. He was doomed no matter what he did. Do more miracles, and the people write him off as a showboat (and/or as someone drawing off power from dubious sources). If he refused to do miracles, maybe a few would say, “What now?! We’re not good enough for ya, not WORTHY of your wonder-working power!?”
Perhaps the only thing left to do was leave town and go to other villages, from which Jesus sent forth his disciples-cum-apostles to do wonderful work in places where it could be unalloyedly appreciated.
2 Samuel 5:1-10
Author: Doug Bratt
When North Americans think of politics, even some Christians sometimes think only of endless campaigns and slick advertising. We sometimes relegate talk about God’s involvement in politics to the conversations of people we think of as religious zealots. At least some Christians are especially reluctant to talk about God’s role in putting people into political office.
The Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday describes the zenith of David’s rise to political office. By its end, he has fully morphed from a largely irrelevant youngest son into Israel’s king. It’s the kind of political “underdog” story to which North Americans sometimes seem drawn like bugs to a light.
David’s meteoric rise is improbable. When, after all, God used Samuel to launch it by anointing him to be Israel’s king, Saul was still sitting on Israel’s throne. He also had a number of sons who were his potential successors. So if David was to actually become Israel’s king, he would need a lot of help.
That assistance comes from unlikely sources. First, Israel’s mortal enemies, the Philistines, kill both Saul and all but one of his potential successors. That prompts the people of Judah to anoint David to be their next king. However, Abner, Saul’s former commander, anoints Saul’s sole surviving son Ish-Bosheth king over all but Judah.
Yet at that point still another unlikely ally came to David’s aid. Abner, after all, does a 180 by defecting to David’s side. This leaves Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth unprotected from David’s soldiers who promptly eliminate him by murdering him.
So at first sniff, David’s rise to power smells a bit like the political shenanigans that have so often plagued so much of the world’s politics. After all, David’s rivals dead bodies seem like the steps he ascends to Israel’s throne.
Of course, others have “built” those “steps.” David has not ordered henchmen to carry out his work for him. He hasn’t even dirtied his hands or sullied his reputation by calling for his rivals’ deaths. David, in fact, has both publicly grieved their deaths and severely punished those responsible for them. Yet he doesn’t take over after his predecessor dies of natural causes. David seems to have become Israel’s king simply because people have eliminated all of his potential rivals.
The books of Samuel, however, tell us who really makes David king. It reports, after all, that it’s God who directs a reluctant Samuel to anoint him Israel’s new king, even while the old one is still “in office.” Only God, in fact, can even imagine that David, the runt of his family, will be Israel’s king.
So even as tensions escalate between David and Saul, God persistently protects David. In fact, only that sometimes-implicit protection of him spares him. David could well have and, in fact, perhaps “should have” died several times before he actually becomes king.
The bud that is David’s reign over Israel finally flowers as 2 Samuel 5 opens. After all, according to verse 2 the tribes of Israel try to convince him to become their next king. Yet they also make it clear that they’re not making their own appeal to David to become king. They claim to only be acting on God’s behalf. The Israelites basically beg the man who started out tending his dad’s sheep to say “yes” to God’s call to tend God’s Israelite “sheep.”
By referring to God’s call to David to “shepherd” (5) them, the Israelites set a high standard for his rule. God, after all, expected the “shepherds” who were Israel’s kings to rule in ways that both strengthened and protected God’s “flock” that was Israel.
God, in fact, clearly expects all people who have authority to use it wisely for God’s glory and people’s good. While David will generally meet that criterion, he will also sometimes act like the “bad shepherd” that texts like Ezekiel 34 so roundly condemn. He will periodically act as though Israel exists not for God’s sake, but for his own. Most notably, David will act like a predator when he takes the beautiful but married Bathsheba.
Such sin will eventually result in Israel’s loyalty drifting away from David and toward Absalom, who’s, ironically, a result of David’s predatory acts. However, 2 Samuel 5’s Israel’s tribes are so desperate to be David’s “sheep” that they set no preconditions for his leadership. They simply beg David to become their next king.
Yet while such desperation doesn’t always produce good leaders, David largely flourishes. After all, as Bruce Birch notes, he’s both a surprisingly young and durable leader, at least by ancient standards. David, however, isn’t just a durable king. He’s also a very successful one. David leads Israel to the high point of her nationhood, establishing remarkable stability and security.
Yet the threats to that security are both immediate and daunting. Israel’s ancient nemesis, the bloodthirsty Philistines, lurk just over the horizon. The first threat to David’s rule is, for some reason, the formidable obstacle that is Jerusalem. Yet our narrator takes only one short verse to eliminate it: “David captured the fortress of Zion, the City of David” (7).
Both 2 Samuel 5 and songs like Psalm 20 remind us that only God’s protection is completely reliable. So while David takes steps to secure Jerusalem, II Samuel insists that its security is not the secret to his success. Jerusalem’s first occupants mistakenly assumed that it would be strong enough to protect them. Our narrator won’t let Israel, you or me make the same mistake. He insists that David grows more and more powerful because “the Lord God Almighty is with him” (10).
We, however, know that God didn’t first come to be with David when he became king and conquered Jerusalem. After all, in II Samuel 7:8-9 God tells David, “I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone.”
In fact, God even goes on so far as to promise that long after David has died, God will stay with his often-faithless descendants. David’s house and kingdom, God insists, “will endure forever” before the Lord.
At least some North American Christians are understandably nervous about asserting that God made people like President Trump or Prime Minister Trudeau our leaders. Most Christians, after all, recognize the unique role that God played in elevating Israel’s kings to their thrones.
Yet the Apostle Paul seems to at least imply that God has some kind of role in raising up leaders. In Romans 13, after all, he writes, “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” So the Belgic Confession professes “our good God has ordained kings, princes and civil officers.”
That doesn’t mean that God pulled, for example, Justin Trudeau out of Parliament or Donald Trump out of the Trump Towers be a national leader in the exact same way God plucked David out of his dad’s fields to be Israel’s king. Israel was, after all, a theocracy that God directly ruled. No modern nation can legitimately make that claim.
Yet since they believed God has a role in putting leaders in place, biblical writers like Peter called his letter’s readers to respect them. “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every governing authority instituted among men,” the apostle writes. “Honor the king.”
In the Belgic Confess Reformed Christians profess that “Everyone, regardless of status, condition or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s word, praying for them, that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways.”
Yet even as we respect and pray for our leaders, we’re also realistic about their limitations. Some of them do some good things for their countries and world. So we continue to pray that God will use people like national leaders to honor God and bless God’s world.
David, after all, richly blessed Israel. Very quickly in II Samuel we read of how he defeats Israel’s mortal enemies, the Philistines. David is also godlier than most leaders. However, he will also morally stumble, sometimes very badly.
Yet God’s anointing of David as king links him to his descendant, Jesus Christ, who perfectly saves God’s people. Jesus is David’s “son” who brings the deliverance that is God’s salvation to the Lord’s people.
In fact, in the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed Christians profess that God the Father ordained him to be, among other things, our king. In that royal role, they profess, Christ “governs us by his Word and Spirit and … guards us and keeps us in the freedom he has won for us.”
Yet those who proclaim 2 Samuel 5 also note that God is not just “with” this Son of David like he was with David. God is, in fact, Jesus Christ, the Son of David. In this anointed descendant of David, God is “with” not only David, but also God’s adopted sons and daughters always.
On June 16, 2018 USA Today quoted United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions as using Romans 13 to defend President Trump’s administration’s immigration policies. “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said. “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later added: “It is very biblical to enforce the law.”
This use of Romans 13 enraged many Americans as well as people across the world. Yet while oceans of ink have been spilled debating Sessions and Sanders’ exegesis, I was struck by the response to it of a wise member of the church I pastor. He said, “I always get nervous when government officials quote Romans 13 to defend their own policies.”
In doing so my friend wasn’t just alluding to governments’ historic abuse of Romans 13 to defend things like slavery and racism. He was also noting that it wasn’t a government official who first penned its words. It wasn’t even just an outsider who wrote Romans 13.
Its author Paul was a member of a persecuted religious minority. The apostle wrote Romans 13, in other words, not from a position of power, but of vulnerability. Instead of trying to defend his own policy, he was urging respect and prayers for those who made and implemented policies that sometimes threatened Christians.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 48 is one of the several Songs of Zion scattered throughout the Psalter (Psalms 46, 76, 84, 87, 122). They sing the praise of the great capital city of Israel, because God has blessed her beyond imagination. This combination of patriotism and religion makes Psalm 48 a perfect Psalm for this first Sunday after July 1 (Canada’s Dominion Day) and July 4 (America’s Independence Day). It not only swells with pride and confidence over Jerusalem because “God makes her secure forever (verse 8).” It also gives us an opportunity to preach about the danger of placing too much confidence in the supposed security of a nation that says, “In God we trust.” As we celebrate the freedoms of our great nations, Psalm 48 and particularly the history that followed the writing of this Psalm provide a cautionary tale for all who are proud of their country and are sure that God is on our side.
As we proceed into this patriotic Psalm, it is important to note that it is first and last about God, not about Jerusalem. If Israel (and all subsequent singers of such patriotic songs) had remembered that, things might not have gone so badly for them in the end. I say “first and last,” because verses 1 and 14 bracket the Psalm with praise for and confidence in Yahweh. “Great is Yahweh, and most worthy of praise,” and “this God is our God forever and ever; he will be our guide (an echo of Psalm 23, where Yahweh is the Shepherd King of Israel), even to the end.”
Within the brackets of that comforting confession, Psalm 48 turns immediately and insistently to the glory of Jerusalem and the mountain on which it is built. Indeed, God’s greatness is to be found quintessentially in Jerusalem. “Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise, in the city of God, his holy mountain.” Our Psalm is composed of 4 symmetrical stanzas: verses 2 and 3, with 3 lines about the beauty of Zion as God’s impregnable citadel; verses 4-7, with 4 lines about the futility of enemy attacks against Jerusalem; verses 9-11, with 4 lines about Zion’s joy over God’s saving acts in defeating the enemy; and verses 12-13, with 3 lines, singing the glories of Zion’s impregnability. Right in the middle is verse 8 with its rock-solid assurance that “God makes Jerusalem/Zion secure forever.”
Verses 1-3 alternate between singing the praises of Jerusalem (“beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth, like the utmost heights of Zaphon”) and the praises of God who is “in her citadels” and has “shown himself to be her fortress.” The “heights of Zaphon” are probably a reference to a high mountain in Phoenicia where the storm god El allegedly lived (a kind of Canaanite Mount Olympus). The implied claim here is that Mount Zion is greater, because Yahweh is greater than El or any other god.
Israel’s utter confidence that Yahweh is greater was based on many historical events, in which he defeated the other gods, most prominently the Exodus from Egypt. But here in verses 4-7 the Psalmist refers to another victory, when “the kings joined forces… and advanced together,” presumably against Jerusalem. Scholars are uncertain about the historical reference here. One calls these verses the foundational story of Jerusalem, connecting them to David’s initial conquest of the city chronicled in II Samuel 5. Others think they refer to some coalition of minor kings whose attack on Jerusalem is not recorded in the Old Testament. And still others see this as a reference to the attack of Sennacherib on Jerusalem in 701 BC. But none of those explanations quite fit the words of verses 4-7. So. one enterprising scholar says that this is simply a reference to all who ever have or would attack Jerusalem.
Such attacks will always be futile, say verses 5-8, because Yahweh makes that city secure. When the kings attack, they are overwhelmed by the awesomeness of Jerusalem and they are utterly defeated. Their defeat is described in humiliating language to underscore the futility of attacking the city where Yahweh dwells. The reports Israel has heard about Yahweh’s past victories have now been proven before their very eyes. “As we have heard, so we have seen….”
In verses 9-11 the victorious Israelites repair to the Temple to worship the God who lives there. They will meditate on God’s covenant faithfulness (the word hesed looms large in their worship, as always). There will be a quiet thoughtful dimension to their celebration; this is not the debauched reverie of pagans. But they will also make a lot of noise; God’s praise will reach to the ends of the earth as the villages of Israel join the celebration on Mount Zion. And it will not be a celebration of the violence of war. It will focus on God’s righteousness. God’s mighty right hand doesn’t merely smite his enemies; it is filled with righteousness and justice. Yahweh is not some bloody warrior God, though he does wage war. Rather, he is a just judge who fights for Israel in order to bring justice and equity on the earth.
The last stanza (verses 12 and 13) pictures a triumphal procession around the impregnable city, in which the worshippers “count her towers, consider her ramparts and view her citadels.” Here the focus seems to shift from the praise of the victorious Yahweh to the admiration of the city he saved. This is a switch often seen in victory—from God to country, from the Divine Warrior to the weapons we used to win the victory. Is this a subtle hint of the idolatry of nation that would ultimately ruin Israel? And is the reference to “the next generation” an unintended prophecy of the day when Jerusalem would lie in ruins? The Israelites who sang this song would not have anticipated that event, because “God makes her secure forever…. [and] this God is our God forever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.”
This kind of unshakeable faith in God’s presence in Jerusalem has led to the kind of theology voiced by Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod. “There is a place where God dwells and that place is Jerusalem. He dwells in Number One Har Habayet [= Mount of the House/Jerusalem] Street. It is a real dwelling and for every Jew, the sanctity of the land of Israel derives from the sanctity of Jerusalem, and the sanctity of Jerusalem derives from the sanctity of the temple, and the sanctity of the Temple derives from the sanctity of the Holy of Holies where God dwells.” Such is the theology of the religious Jews who fight for Israel today and the theology of the Christian Zionists who support them.
I’m not going to argue with them. I only want to point out that the close identification of patriotism with religious conviction can be a very dangerous thing. As I said before, some scholars think that Psalm 48 might have been written on the occasion of the defeat of Sennacherib described in II Kings 19. When Sennacherib mocked Yahweh, King Hezekiah asked Yahweh to defeat him, “so that the kings of the earth may know that you alone, O Yahweh, are God (II Kings 19:19).” God did just that, declaring in verse 34, “I will defend this city and save it, for my sake and for the sake of David my servant.”
Because of that defeat, many Jews came to believe that God’s protection of this city would forever save them from any defeat. That’s the confidence voiced in Psalm 48. But, as Patrick Henry Reardon says, “Their presumptuous confidence in this illusion grew into an arrogant, almost magical audacity at odds with earlier warnings they had received from the prophet Micah. Unrepentant sin inevitably invites the judgment of God, even on his chosen city (Micah 3:12).”
Then, more than a century later, Jeremiah repeated this warning when Nebuchadnezzar led Babylon against Jerusalem. Reardon writes, “So strong and popular was their rash, magical presumption of Jerusalem’s invincibility that Jeremiah’s words fell largely on the deaf ears of a people not convinced of their need for conversion. God would protect his holy city…, so why repent?”
So, it happened that Jerusalem fell and the Jews found themselves in Babylon, where they said in Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion… our captors demanded song of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How can we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land?’” And how could this terrible thing happen, given the confidence of Psalm 48? How could God allow such devastation to befall his beloved people?
The Jewish nation wrestled with that question for centuries, as have Christians (think of Paul in Romans 9-11). There has been no agreement among Christians. But as early as the late fourth Century AD, an Egyptian Father distinguished 4 meanings of the name Jerusalem in the Bible: historically, the city of the Jews; allegorically, the church of Christ; analogically, the heavenly city of God; and tropologically, as the soul of man. In other words, Jerusalem is more than Jerusalem.
Again, this is a larger question than I can deal with here, but this Psalm does clearly warn us against identifying our country, our city, our cause with God himself. Even the city in which God chose to dwell in Old Testament days finally fell because of unrepentant sin. It happened to them; it has happened to one empire after another throughout history; and it can happen to us. This Psalm does forbid not our singing, “God Bless America.” Patriotism is a good thing. But presuming that God is on our side, no matter what we do as a nation, is the kind of rash, magical presumption that can lead to ruin.
So, let us sing our national anthems, celebrate our freedoms, support our troops, and rejoice in our beautiful and powerful countries. But let’s remember the beginning and end and middle of Psalm 48. Our only hope is Yahweh, the God who entered history again and again to help his people. Let us pledge our ultimate allegiance to the God who became one of those people so that all the world could be part of “the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, beautifully dressed for her husband… the wife of the Lamb (Revelations 21:2 and 9).” “God makes her secure forever.”
The absolute certainty about the homeland being secure in Psalm 48:8 stands in stark contrast to our fearful preoccupation with security today in North America, particularly in America. We talk about border security, go through airport security, and invest in internet security. The fear of a security breach has us running for all manner of devices and procedures and structures that will keep us safe. Psalm 48 calls us to the source of ultimate security.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Author: Scott Hoezee
As we have been noting, throughout 2 Corinthians Paul seems a bit all over the map. The criticisms made behind his back and the charges of the “super apostles” seem to have driven Paul to a kind of emotional brink. By his own admission in one form or another, he has been nearly beside himself in defending both his mission, his person, and above all the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But now late in this letter we encounter this odd passage in 2 Corinthians 12. Is the man who had been caught up into the third heaven really Paul himself? At first it seems he really is talking about someone else but then next thing you know, he is claiming that these “superior visions” are actually his after all. “I don’t want to brag on myself” Paul writes “but I would brag on this other guy (who is not me but kind of is). So I won’t brag and anyway to keep me from thinking too much of myself given these grand visions I have this thorn thing to keep me grounded and humble.”
I suspect that if any of us who preach today came off this way in the pulpit, our Executive Committee would convene a secret meeting to see about getting the pastor some time off. Soon!
What are we to make of this curious passage, and is it a real preach-able text? Well, let’s admit we have to do a lot of work to explain these verses. That is complicated by the fact that no one has ever been sure about that mysterious “thorn” in Paul’s flesh. That he mentions “flesh” makes it fairly likely it is a physical ailment. Some speculate it is some leftover vision problem from his Damascus Road blazing encounter with the glory of Christ. Others think Paul seemed to be prone to come chronic illness (maybe migraines or a malaria-like condition that apparently—reading between the lines of some of Paul’s writings—laid Paul out flat for some time every now and again).
In the end it doesn’t matter and is a somewhat academic question to nail it down. But this is the one place where Paul makes it clear he had prayed—often—for a cure, for a healing but that the Spirit of Christ had conveyed to him that for whatever the reason, that was not going to happen. And although the whys and wherefores of that refused prayer request for Paul may have been as wide and varied as it is for any of us when for whatever the reason the Lord does not come through for us on what most would regard as a reasonable request, in Paul’s case God has a very specific reason: to teach Paul to rely on God’s strength above all. If God got great things done through Paul despite his weakness, then there could be no doubting—not for God and above all not for Paul himself—what was the source of that success and what was the origin of that strength. And it was not from Paul!
How interesting! And it makes you wonder: from everything we know about the former Saul of Tarsus, he appears to have been a highly motivated, decidedly driven individual. He reminds me of something someone once said of Charles Colson, the convicted Nixon hatchet man who later turned to Christ and founded Prison Fellowship. Colson is said to have been the ultimate Type A personality such that when he was working for Nixon, he was ALL IN on Nixon and would do anything for him (and he did do pretty much “anything” which is why he ended up going to jail over the Watergate cover-up and such). Thankfully Jesus got a hold of Colson but once that happened, Colson was equally ALL IN for Jesus. It was the same basic personality, the same drive, zeal, and hyper motivation it’s just that thankfully it got turned in a righteous direction eventually.
Maybe Saul-turned-Paul was like that. As he himself says in places like Philippians 3, when his gig was Pharasaism, he was the Pharisee of the Pharisees. A few might have tried to top Saul in the zeal department but no way! This man could not be beat. And once this Class A Pharisee turned his ire on this Jesus person and his sorry band of messianic followers, there was likewise no stopping his persecution of the just budding church. In the battle Saul vs. Jesus, Jesus was going down.
But then Jesus got a hold of Saul and he became the hyper zealous Apostle to the Gentiles who was once again ALL IN but this time for Jesus. Same zeal, same hyper temperament, same basic personality bent on success. It just all got shifted and aimed toward righteousness for God’s kingdom in Christ instead of ascending the ranks of the Pharisees by wiping Jesus’ name from the face of the earth. As the ironies of history go, this was a good one!
Still, even for a believer, that is the kind of thing that could go to your head. Even Paul was perhaps not immune from the temptation to survey all the churches he had planted and then pat himself on the back to say “Well done, old boy, well done. Lookee here what ye have accomplished!” So God found a way to keep his #1 Apostle grounded, perhaps literally, through a physical ailment that laid him flat now and then as a reminder that it is finally all about God, not us.
Part of me wants to say that was not very nice on God’s part but . . . I prefer not to question the tactics of the all-wise God. And anyway, it worked. Paul remained a loyal, zealous, outrageously effective Apostle to the end of his days.
And when it was all over, Paul had no reason to doubt: it had been the power of Christ in him all along. None of us in the church today should have any reason to doubt the same is true of us all no matter what we do or how gifted we are. And if we do feel that way, God may find a way to re-orient our thinking too.
In the movie Star Trek: First Contact, the crew of the USS Enterprise inadvertently travels back in time as they pursue the dreaded nightmare species of The Borg. As it turns out, the Borg had traveled back to late 21st century earth in order to prevent earth’s first contact with an alien species. According to the story, a man named Zepharim Cochrane had figured out how to build a spaceship that could go to “warp” speed, traveling faster than light. On the day he took his initial flight, another spaceship from a planet called Vulcan was passing by, took note of earth’s ability to break the light speed barrier, and so made contact with the earthlings, with Zepharim Cochrane becoming the first human being to shake the hand of an alien.
This was key in the story because in the Star Trek universe, the first part of the 21st century on earth had been marred by a global nuclear war that made the future of the human race precarious. Cochrane’s accomplishment and the discovery that there was other intelligent life in the universe saved earth, giving people a purpose and a rallying point that united the planet and led to a whole new day. If the Borg has succeeded in preventing Dr. Cochrane from taking his space flight, the Borg could have easily conquered the planet themselves (they did not succeed of course!). Zepharim Cochrane was a legend, a hero, as famous as Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr.
But then Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew made a discovery once they traveled back in time: it turned out that Zepharim Cochrane was not quite the heroic figure that crew of the Enterprise had grown up adoring and honoring and nearly worshiping as earth’s savior. Turned out Cochrane was drunk a lot of the time, that he could be rude and loud, that he developed his warp ship not to save the planet but make some money. He was a regular, flawed person. So when members of the Enterprise crew from 300 years into the future fawned over Cochrane and told him things like “I went to Zepharim Cochran High School” and things like “Right over there is where your 200-foot statue will be in the future when this whole area becomes an international park honoring you” . . . well, Cochrane could not abide it. He didn’t want stuff named after him. He did not want a statue. It was all a bit too much.
I wonder sometimes what the Apostle Paul—who worked so hard to let the power of Christ alone shine through him—would make of all those future churches and cathedrals named “Saint Paul Church” or what he would think of “Saint Paul the Apostle High School.” What would be make of half the New Testament consisting of HIS letters, including little memos like the one he dashed off one day to Philemon (“Really!? You regard that little note of mine as divine Scripture!!!?”). What would he make of the thousands of biographies of Paul that have been written, the miles and miles of library shelves sagging under the weight of books dedicated to dissecting his theology.
Surely he would be like the fictional Dr. Cochrane: he didn’t want all this. THIS had not been his goal or desire.
Yet few of us would deny Paul deserves the honor we give him even as we cherish the divine gift that just is his body of writing in the New Testament. Oh, it’s still all God but God has a good sense of humor too: he had used Paul’s thorn to keep him from being too big for his own britches in his lifetime but God then let the Holy Spirit make Paul a very big deal to the glory of God in Christ after all!
Paul might protest. “I am too weak, too unimportant for all this fuss.” True enough. But God’s power is made perfect in precisely that, Paul!