July 01, 2019
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Author: Scott Hoezee
Jesus came to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God, and in Luke 10 he is authorizing a wider band of disciples to go out and do the same thing. He’s not sending them out to be door-to-door salespeople hawking magazine subscriptions or lawncare services. He doesn’t want them to look like moochers or give off even a whiff of being profiteers. He is telling them to go and bring peace, Shalom, to all who will receive it and the rest of their message is pretty straightforward and simple: “The kingdom of God is near you.” They are proclaiming a whole new way to live, a whole new way to look at life and this world, a whole new way to orient not just this or that sideline feature to one’s life but the whole ball of wax, every jot and tittle of one’s existence.
Because at the end of the day you cannot be in the kingdom of God just sort of or kind of. You don’t dabble in the kingdom. You don’t treat the kingdom like a salad bar at which you’re free to choose just some items to put onto your salad but leave be all the ones that look not quite to your liking (or those items that might challenge your palette to experience something new—something new but perhaps also something necessary and good for you).
In short, the kingdom of God and proclaiming the message of that kingdom are serious matters. Life and death and all that. And in the middle of the first part of Luke 10, Jesus makes that seriousness clear by saying that the consequences of rejection of that kingdom are on the serious side too.
But the Revised Common Lectionary doesn’t want us to see that. And let’s be honest, maybe folks in the wider church would prefer not to look at it either. But that is a mistake.
If you are Steven Spielberg, then you always shoot more scenes than can fit in the finished movie and it’s only after you see how they all turned out that you can determine which scenes slow the movie down, end up being extraneous, or just didn’t turn out that well. So you cut them. You sit with your film editor and begin selecting and slicing. Back in the day, real pieces of celluloid were cut and tossed aside. Today it’s all digital, of course, with the deleted scenes getting saved somewhere else on a hard drive, perhaps only to be revisited some day in case they decide to release an “Extended Edition Director’s Cut” on BluRay.
That’s all de rigeur if you’re Steven Spielberg. Because then, of course, the thing you are editing is your movie. But the Bible isn’t my book or a committee’s book and so just because in the middle of Luke 10 Jesus begins to sound some definite notes of judgment and condemnation for those who reject the message of the Kingdom’s approach, that doesn’t mean we can edit that out, skip it, pretend it’s not there. This wasn’t just a hiccup in Jesus’ teaching at this point—he hadn’t had a bad pizza that was coming back up on him for a few moments before he returned to the kinder, gentler Jesus the Lectionary tries to create by sequestering the other stuff.
At this point in Luke’s Gospel Jesus has now made his famous turn toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) and toward all that awaited him there in the balance of Luke’s gospel narrative. The cost of following Jesus was just detailed at the end of what we call Luke 9 and there it is clear that we are dealing with matters of eternal moment and import. Jesus is no hobby enthusiast helping people fill in the cracks of their lives by doling out how-to tips on fly fishing or rock climbing. He did not come to this earth—and is not now in Luke on his way to Jerusalem—to make suggestions for self-improvement or provide tips on how to grow one’s business prospects (despite how much contemporary preaching makes it sound like all of that somehow is the Gospel after all).
All of which brings me back to the Lectionary’s little jump over verses 13-15. The kingdom is serious business. Rejecting it has consequences that are on the grave side. And the simple fact is that those who had long been part of God’s covenant community—those, in other words, who had been given a gracious advantage in anticipating the kingdom and understanding its contours based on everything God had been revealing to Israel for so long—may well be held to a higher standard of judgment on such matters than people without those grace-laden advantages.
It’s not pleasant. It’s definitely not what people in the twenty-first century want to hear when the preference of many—including not a few inside the church—is to assume that getting saved is easy, that God trends toward being a softy, that we humans should never presume to know whether God has any particular standards when it comes to religious faith and so we should assume that any faith is good and that even those with no faith—but who are good folks—may well be just fine, too.
“Woe to you” is something only pastors on the lunatic fringe of the church ever say anymore and we surely don’t want to associate with those folks as they picket in front of a gay man’s house or protest at some military funeral. So if we happen to catch Jesus saying “Woe to you” to or about anybody or any place, we’d prefer to pretend it didn’t happen.
But listen: just beyond this lection we find Jesus being full of the joy of the Holy Spirit as he rejoices in the grace of God that has revealed his truth to the disciples and to so many others. Soon after that he tells everybody’s favorite parable of the Good Samaritan. But the point is that you cannot understand the joy of Jesus in Luke 10:21ff and you cannot understand Jesus’ perspective in the subsequent parable that everybody is your neighbor who deserves love and ministry unless you also understand that for Jesus the joy is deepened and the need to reach out to neighbors in love is heightened precisely because he’s not talking about a game of tidily-winks here.
Take away the prospect of judgment and the need, perhaps, to say the word “Woe” now and then and what you’re left with is shallow and generic joy and some lowest common denominator take on something like the Good Samaritan (which morphs into some DIY tale of public morality instead of being something deeply rooted in the very kingdom of God).
Now with all that said . . . it’s true that we must not be hateful and spiteful people, and if some of the people most prone to say “Woe to you” today tend to come off that way, most of us in the Church are right to want to put some daylight between them and us. But one can still be morally, theologically, and biblically serious enough to know that there is judgment, there is a difference between right and wrong, between being in the kingdom or dwelling outside of it and still be radiant with grace and mercy and love. We don’t have to check out the ethnic, moral, or religious credentials of the robbery victim at the side of the road before reaching out to him in love.
Even when Jesus tells his disciples to wipe the dust of the rejecting town off their feet, he still tells them to conclude their comments with yet one more reminder that “the kingdom of God is near” and who’s to say that we cannot speak those words through tears of love and compassion? Jesus does not tell these people to placard their message on signs that say “God Hates You!” but to speak the truth in love and to do it urgently and perhaps emotionally seeing how high the stakes are.
Luke 9 ends with joy even as the whole gospel does. But you can’t get to the truest and deepest joy of the resurrection by bypassing the cross and in Luke 9 you cannot get to the fullness of Holy Spirit-induced joy by bypassing some of the more difficult things Jesus has to say.
The question is whether we preachers today still have the courage to say just that.
Some while ago—I believe this was in a snippet included in Martin E. Marty’s newsletter “Context”—someone wrote of a conversation he overheard at some East Coast upscale party. The topic turned to morality and at one point a martini-sipping woman proclaimed, “Oh, those terms: adultery, fornication! Isn’t it a shame that people still talk that way in this day and age?!” To this another partygoer replied, “No, I think that what’s a shame is that people still do those things in this day and age.”
2 Kings 5:1-14
Author: Stan Mast
This story has more interesting characters than a novel by Charles Dickens—stormin’ Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, this brave little girl kidnapped from Israel and enslaved, the clueless King of Israel, the greedy Gehazi, and, of course, the unflappable prophet Elisha. It’s a seemingly straightforward story about a little girl, a muddy river, and a clean general. But it’s not that simple. In fact, it’s not just an interesting old story; it has a powerful message for us in our world today.
What does it have to do with us? Well, there are a number of possible points of contact. It is obviously a story of healing; in fact, I once used this story as the biblical center of a service of prayer for healing. Which naturally raises the question, does God still heal this way? We could use this story to bring a message of hope for our sick ones.
Or, we could preach a message of encouragement about how God uses little things to do great things. This little slave girl is an instrument in God’s hands. She calmly speaks for God, while the King of Israel is panic stricken by political possibilities. And the muddy Jordan River is used by God to wash a filthy man clean. God can work his salvation in unusual ways. So don’t despise God‘s unconventional means of salvation, like a rugged Roman cross.
Or, we could emphasize the importance of humility. Naaman almost let his personal and national pride keep him from being cleansed and converted. “I am a big man who deserves personal attention from the prophet. Why doesn’t the prophet come out and wave his hands and call on his God, and put on a show for someone like me? And why should a big deal like me wash in this muddy trickle of a river when we have much cleaner and more majestic rivers back home.” We could talk about how “pride goeth before the fall,” and how it can keep us from accepting God’s grace.
All of that would be true to the story and helpful, but it’s not really what the story is about. We get a clue to the deeper and more important message of the story in Elisha’s rebuke of Gehazi’s greed in verse 26. Gehazi has sneaked off to get a bit of the loot Naaman had offered to Elisha as a reward for the miracle, which Elisha refused. When Elisha catches Gehazi red handed, he says, “Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes, olive groves…?”
There is something ominous in those words, “Is this the time?” What time is Elisha talking about? Well, it was a time of national decline led by wicked kings. That’s what I and II Kings are all about. These books trace the long slow descent of a nation into ruin and exile because its people are wicked and its kings are worse. In the middle of that moral and spiritual decline are these stories of Elijah and Elisha, prophets sent by God to rescue a sinking nation.
These two books were written on the other side of disaster, when Israel had been dragged into Exile. When disaster strikes, people always ask, how did this happen? Why did this happen? Who’s to blame? When those two Boeing 737 Maxx 8 planes crashed last winter, everyone was asking those questions? Was it pilot error? Was it faulty equipment? Who’s to blame? That’s why these historical books were written—to explain to Israel how the disaster of losing their homes and land and temple and national identity could have happened. Was it God’s fault? Where was God when everything collapsed in our personal and national lives?
I have lived through the reigns of over a dozen “kings” in American history, from President Truman to President Trump. I’ve seen how we whipsaw from one party to another. I hear Democrats blasting our current Republican President and I remember how Republicans blasted President Obama. Both sides say that the country is in trouble, in a long slow slide into disaster. And it’s always the other side’s fault, increasingly so. Political tension and intrigue dominate the news media and, thus, the minds of God’s people. This fascinating biblical story helps us to answer those big questions. How did this happen? How did we get here? Why are we in this trouble? Who’s to blame? And what about God?
That last question is the key one. That’s what this story is about—God in the life of a nation, indeed, in the history of all nations, and in the life of individuals, including those who are far from God. We hear that theme in the very first words of the story. We are introduced to a great man, a successful man, a pagan man who doesn’t know the true God of Israel at all. He is a Syrian, commander of an army that has harassed Israel for years. As he will say later, he was a worshipper of the Syrian god, Rimmon, which was another name for Baal, the god who competed with Yahweh for the allegiance of Israel. Finally, he has leprosy, the only disease that disqualified a person from worshipping God in his temple. He was as far from God as anyone could get. Like Israel in exile.
But, says that first verse, “through that unclean pagan the Lord had granted victory to Syria.” Wait! What? It gets more and more interesting, as God raised up a little girl prophet to point the great man to salvation. And the king of Israel hears the request for healing as nothing more than a political ploy to start a war, because to a king everything is about politics. When the mighty general pulls up to Elisha’s house with all the trappings of power, God heals the great man through the greasy green muddy Jordan River that has been central in Israel’s history. Finally, the general, whose skin is now as clean as a little boy’s skin, becomes a convert to Judaism, professing what every Jew knew. “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” How politically incorrect! And how true to the Gospel!
That’s what the story is about—the God of Israel is in charge of even the nation that oppressed God’s people and that God can wash even the foulest sinner clean. The story begins and ends with God, and God is in every detail of the story, even when the characters don’t know it. It explains that the nation of Israel slid into disaster, in spite of the powerful ministry of Elijah and Elisha, because the people of Israel and their kings would not obey God as Naaman finally and reluctantly did. God could have delivered them; he had done it before. But all they could think about was politics and personal success. How can my side win? And which god must I serve to get ahead? No wonder Elisha asks, “Is this the time to take money or to accept clothing, or olive groves vineyards, flocks, herds, or servants?”
This story is not a rebuke to political involvement or to personal prosperity. It’s a political world and we should pay attention to power and how it is best used. And we do have to be responsible about finances and how money is best used. This is a story about trusting and obeying God in the midst of those worldly concerns, about trusting God rather than our party, about prioritizing God rather than our portfolio. It is about who is in charge and how we can be saved.
God is in charge of the destiny of all nations, and he can deliver us from any enemy no matter how desolate our condition. It’s not about Trump or Biden, Republican or Democrat, Russia or China or England or the USA. It’s about the one true God of Israel who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, and who became a Jew named Jesus.
That incarnate God can cleanse you, no matter how unclean you may have become, like Naaman, and however far from God you may have fallen, like Israel in Exile. The God who used a little girl and a muddy river and a clean general to intervene in the decline of a nation can use the blood of his Son to wash us whiter than snow.
Here are a couple of New Testament passages that put the message of this story in specifically Christ centered ways. In Ephesians 1:20-23, Paul is talking about the almighty power of God “which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realm, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
It doesn’t look like that’s true in the world today, but there is a place where the reign of Christ is crystal clear. It’s described in the book of Revelation chapter 7. “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” The writer of Revelation asks one of the Elders standing next to the throne, “Who are these in white robes?” “These are those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Whether you are a little girl serving humbly in a hard place or a great person enjoying the trappings of power and success, whether you live by a muddy river or the majestic shores of Lake Michigan, whether you are a firm believer in the one true God or you barely know his name, whether you are dirty sinner or a spotless saint, a Republican or a Democrat, an American or a Canadian, in exile from God or as close to God as you can be, remember the message of this straightforward but not simple story. “Now I know that there is no God in all the world, except in Israel.” And Jesus Christ is his Son, my Savior and the Lord of all.
Author: Scott Hoezee
A bit cheeky. A goodly dose of chutzpah. A tad forward. You have to admire the psalmists who on many occasions are not the least bit adverse to ordering the whole world to praise the God of Israel. Make no mistake: all those “Praise the Lord” lines in so many of the psalms are in the imperative mood. These are direct orders, commands. And these ancient poets do not seem to care if the people they are addressing are Egyptians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, or Hittites, the command is the same for one and for all: Praise Yahweh, praise the God of Israel.
Psalm 66 even goes one step further. Not only does the psalmist order all peoples to praise Israel’s God, he even provides a script for the prayer. “Praise God and when you do, say this: ‘How awesome are your deeds! All nations bow before you!’” It’s sort of like a choir director handing out the sheet music for an anthem and then saying, “OK, everybody, all together now: One, Two, Three . . .”
It ought to go without saying this would cause no small measure of offense to many people in the ancient world just as much as would happen today if someone from a given religion told adherents of other faiths not only WHOM they should praise but also HOW they should do it. In our era of tolerance and pluralism, this would not go over big. But it surely was not that different 2,500 years ago or so. Few of us like to be ordered around and even fewer of us like to be told what or whom to worship. “Mind your own business” and all that.
Still, there is something contagious about this poet’s enthusiasm for his God. As he surveys this creation, he is excited about what he sees. God’s works are tremendous, awe-inspiring. It’s not that he really wants to become some spiritual drill sergeant and start ordering the cosmos around but he can’t help it. He’s like a child who cannot get the words out fast enough when describing to someone what his day at Disney World was like. It just all comes out in a gush.
But the awesome deeds in Psalm 66 are not restricted to the works of God in creation. In fact, mostly the psalmist wants to testify to God’s great works of deliverance and salvation in history, especially for his people Israel. Now here again: if you are NOT a member of Israel, then how enthused are you likely to become when hearing a recital of the Exodus from Egypt or the crossing of the Red Sea? This would be someone else’s story, not yours, and so how would that motivate you to rise up and praise Israel’s God the way the psalmist is directing all people to do?
But you have to start somewhere and for most of us, personal testimony is properly a powerful way to bring people into a larger narrative that we hope they will join. It is as though the psalmist is saying, “I know this is not your story but . . . it could become your story if you start to worship and follow this wonderful God I am singing to and talking about!” The psalmist’s instincts here are right. After all, who of us can fail to be impressed when we hear the stories of people who have kicked bad habits, who were delivered from terrible circumstances?
Some years ago I heard screenwriting instructor (and creative consultant for Pixar movies) Bobette Buster note that when you survey the best movies in the whole history of Hollywood, you discover that most movies boil down to one of two themes: Redemption and Reinvention. Whether it’s Working Girl or Rocky, The Shawshank Redemption or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Sixth Sense or Groundhog Day, Schindler’s List or Pretty Woman, we are inspired to watch people get saved, transformed, made new. So if that is your story to tell, then tell it. Others will listen. And if in your case you can trace that salvation and redemption all the way back to God, then tell that too!
Ironically, in most of life we don’t find it cheeky or imperious when we listen to people share their testimonies (nor are we turned off by movies that tell such stories. Quite the contrary.) So although some people may get a bit prickly when being told they really should become followers of the God who did great things for someone (we try to treat religion as a solely private affair), there is a compelling aspect to such a witness and who knows? It may well become a turning point for some who hear the story.
Maybe today Psalm 66 challenges us that we are too often too timid to share our story. Will everyone listen or follow the praise imperatives in Psalm 66? Of course not. But it’s a sure thing that no one will listen or be motivated to praise God if they never hear your testimony in the first place.
Some years ago my wife and I were in the San Francisco area and so were able to spend a part of a day walking amidst the ancient and gargantuan sequoia trees in a nearby national forest. If you have ever seen these mammoth arboreal splendors, then you know of their majesty. And it’s not just one such tree but a whole forest of them. The space is hushed most of the time. It’s almost worshipful.
Speaking of which, after the hours we spent walking among these trees, we went to the national park’s coffee shop for some refreshments. A woman at a nearby table was talking to her companion and at one point she said, “I know this might seem strange to say but while I was out there, well . . . I just felt like singing!” I was tempted to turn to her and say “To whom would you sing?”
Believers in God know to whom they sing and where to direct their awe over God’s works. And when you know that—as the poet of Psalm 66 did—well, you just want to share it with others!
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16
Author: Doug Bratt
A text whose dominant metaphors including sowing and reaping seems somehow especially appropriate, at least for residents of the northern hemisphere at this time of the year. This month, after all, some “northern” gardeners and farmers are at least beginning to “reap” the cucumbers, chilies, peas, potatoes, onions and other crops they’ve “sown.”
Eugene Peterson, to whose delightful book Travelling Light (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1988, p. 177) I owe a great deal for this Starter, links this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson back to Galatians 6:6’s, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with the instructor.” While Christ sets us free, Peterson notes, to give, he doesn’t free us not to give.
He then adds that Paul uses our text’s metaphor of sowing and reaping to show how the refusal to give is self-destructive. We reap, insists Paul, “what we sow” (7b). Yet not everything we sow produces a good crop. To stretch the apostle’s metaphor, it’s as if we can plant not only seeds that produce luscious vegetables, but also ones that produce “weeds” and other noxious plants.
Paul suggests that people who “sow weeds” can’t expect to harvest fruits or vegetable. Those who plant weeds harvest only weeds. So, for example, Peterson continues, “every word of criticism, every avoidance of compassion, every indulgence of greed is a seed that will mature to” destruction (ibid).
In commenting on Galatians 6 in his fine June 27, 2016 Sermon Starter on it, my colleague Scott Hoezee notes, “You can create disastrously bad momentum in your life by sowing self-indulgent seeds that are all about satisfying your fleshly desires. But God is not mocked: you can’t do one and expect the other. There is a moral fabric to the universe and it does not bend according to whatever is convenient for you.”
Of course, it’s easy for God’s adopted sons and daughters to deceive ourselves about this (6). We might assume that just as we sometimes plant seeds in secret, we can also “sow” sins secretly. That is to say, I might assume that if I gossip about my wife to my friend, only my friend will know about that sin.
But Paul insists that we not be “deceived” about this. If we sow gossip in order to satisfy our sinful desires, we’ll reap the destruction of things like our marriage and personal integrity. Even the sinful things we plant or do in private have public and destructive results (Peterson, 178).
“The sinful nature” to which Paul refers in verse 8 is a basic orientation toward God and our neighbors that is bent not toward them, but rather in on one’s self. It’s a nature that’s oriented toward the wishes of our natural slave masters that are sin, Satan and death. A person who has a sinful nature loves him or herself far, far more than he or she loves God or his or her neighbor. It’s the nature of someone whose will Christ has not yet freed.
That sinful nature is the direct opposite of a Christ-freed and Spirit-oriented nature. A Spirit-filled nature that aims to please the Spirit is dedicated to loving God above and all our neighbors as much as ourselves. Those whose words, actions and even thoughts flow out of that nature reap eternal life. To again stretch Paul’s metaphor, the Spirit empowers those who plant the seeds of godliness to harvest “eternal life” (8).
Of course, such talk may make those who recognize that God saves us only by God’s grace that we receive with our faith nervous. It, after all, seems to smell like a kind of “works righteousness.” Those who proclaim Galatians 6 won’t just want to skirt that issue. We don’t, after all, wish to proclaim that God saves us by anything but God’s grace.
Yet Galatians 6’s preachers and teachers will want to find ways to offer a couple of reminders. While Christians believe our salvation by grace is one of the Scripture’s central messages, the Bible does also place a heavy emphasis on godly actions, words and even thoughts. Verse 8’s reaping of “eternal life” is very much in line with that emphasis. While God saves us by God’s grace, good works like sowing to please the Spirit remain very central to the life of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
However, Christians also profess that faith that doesn’t somehow manifest itself in good works is less than a living faith. So we might at least suggest that those who deliberately insist on sowing to please their sinful nature instead of sowing to please the Spirit have not yet fully received God’s grace with their faith. As a result, they don’t yet enjoy the full assurance of eternal life.
It is also true, however, that Paul does not make explicit just whose eternal life those who sow to please the Spirit reap. We may generally assume that he’s describing our own harvest of eternal life. But what if he’s implying that whose sow to please the Spirit help open the way for those to whom we reach out to harvest eternal life with their own faith in Jesus Christ?
Of course, as Peterson goes on to note, those who want potatoes for dinner on the following day can’t expect to eat what they’ve harvested on that day (180). They can mostly expect long stretches of darkness, silence and activity that are not visible to anyone above ground. During those stretches, there’s much more cultivating, weeding and fertilizing than reaping to be done.
In a similar way, those who “sow to reap the Spirit” can’t expect a harvest of “eternal life” overnight. The kind of giving to which the apostle refers in verse 6 can be exhausting. The “seeds” of kindness, gentleness and forgiveness may take a very long time to be ready for any kind of reaping. We may, in fact, not be able to “harvest” the new creation’s eternal life for years, if not decades.
So Paul adds, “Let us not weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (9). God’s beloved children don’t stop sowing to please the Spirit by loving, as well as being patient and kind. We keep planting the seeds that are goodness and faithfulness.
Christians keep sowing gentleness and self-control. God’s adopted children keep planting the seed that is doing good, especially to our Christian brothers and sisters. If we do, after all, Paul promises that we can expect God to produce a “harvest” of eternal life.
Of course, the apostle’s call to “do good … especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (10) may also make some of his modern readers at least a bit uncomfortable. (Isn’t it interesting, in fact, just how much of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson has that power).
Peterson responds by noting Paul doesn’t call us to do good especially to those who are of the family of faith because they’re more deserving. Instead he challenges us to care for our nearby brothers and sisters in Christ because they are there. He goes on (181) to write, “The biggest deterrent to the drudgery of caring for an everyday friend is the dreaming of helping an exotic stranger. Giving from a distance requires less of us – less involvement, less compassion. It is easier to write out a check for a starving child halfway around the world than to share the burden of our next-door neighbor who talks too much.”
In noting that doing good to those who are far away is easier than doing good to our neighbor, Peterson refers to John Updike’s novel, The Coup (182). Its central character is Don X. Gibbs, a U.S. embassy official whom locals murder as he tries to deliver American junk food to drought-stricken African country of Kush.
Gibbs’ widow says, “I’ve forgotten a lot about Don … actually I didn’t see that much of him. He was always trying to help people. But he only liked to help people he didn’t know” (italics added).