This post is the concluding portion of the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 18:9-14 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.
Did you notice the Pharisee and the tax collector both start their prayer the same way? “God….”
They use the same word, the same way of addressing God, but you get the impression they are praying to two very different Gods.
We wonder: who must the Pharisee think God is, to be praying his way? And what does the tax collector think about the God to whom he prays?
Also, how does our own image of God shape our prayers?
For the Pharisee, there’s very little introspection. He’s critical of others and not himself. He mentions God, but it’s really only a quick appetizer before he can get to the main dish that is his own righteousness.
Maybe it’s as simple as: he’s just arrogant. His religiosity has gotten the best of him.
But imagine for a moment that the Pharisee is being sincere in his prayer. Sincerely wrong, yes, but what if he really means what he’s praying?
What kind of God would he have to have in mind to be praying like this?
It would be a God who just can’t stand all the ways we terrible humans mess everything up all the time.
It would be a God who LOVES when we get it right, and loves us more when we get it right more often.
It would be a God who doesn’t need a relational connection with us—just for us to check certain things off the list, and that’s enough.
It would be a God who wants us to jockey for position—who wants us to outdo each other in religious practices and spiritual disciplines, in fasting and giving and serving.
Then when we pray, if this is who God is, we’re just reporting back to our judge on all that we’ve done, desperately trying to find our place in God’s system of punishment and rewards.
The God of this Pharisee also seems to be a God who wants people to do it on their own. Because as the Pharisee is contrasting himself with others and listing his achievements, not once does he say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not once does he ask, “God please help me as I fast… increase my generosity so I can give cheerfully.” Never does he invite God into his faith practice.
What kind of God is that?
Maybe one we’ve believed in, from time to time. Maybe that’s a God we’ve prayed to.
Who we believe God is will shape how we pray. And that means that we can listen to our own prayers, dig a little deeper, and ask ourselves, “Who do I really believe God is?”
The French thinker Montaigne was right on the money when he said, “Oh senseless man, who cannot possibly make a worm or a flea and yet will create Gods by the dozen!”
By contrast, who is the God the tax collector believes in?
It’s a God who listens.
It’s a God you can approach—even from far off—no matter what evil you’ve done.
A God you can confess to, and who will hear you, and will forgive you.
The tax collector believes first and foremost in a God who is merciful.
This is a God to whom you can tell the blunt truth about yourself. You can talk to God about your sin, bring it right into God’s presence.
1 John 1 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
The tax collector believes in a God who receives us when we confess, arms open, just as the father did the prodigal son.
We don’t have to read our spiritual résumé to God. We don’t have to put other people down when we pray, to elevate ourselves. In fact, God’s presence calls for our humility. Prayer is not first about us, after all. Prayer is first about God.
God is so full of mercy, so ready to forgive—as the tax collector knew—that we simply can enter in, as we are, and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The tax collector is a model for us, not only in how to pray, but in how to think about God.
Of course, if we overheard the Pharisee’s prayer in real time, we’d be faced with a particularly cruel irony. We’d have to be careful not to say, “Lord, thank you that I am not like THAT arrogant Pharisee. Thank you, God, that I know who you are.”
Thomas Merton wrote:
There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious [people]. As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God.
New Seeds of Contemplation
In the end, the Pharisee’s idea of God and idea of himself were really not that different. He was so good, so giving, so upright, he didn’t even need God! He was basically his own God.
The tax collector knew he couldn’t survive another day without God’s mercy.
And whether we realize it or not—insulated as our lives can be—none of us can truly live another day without God’s mercy.
We need it, we crave it, we have to have it now, Lord Jesus, because we are sinners in need of Christ’s mercy.
This post is an adaptation of a sermon I preached a few weeks ago, with Psalm 55 (read it here) as my preaching text.
Can we pray them? Yes, we can!
Recently the The New York Times published an Opinion piece called “The Mosquitoes Are Coming for Us.” The subheading was: “They are our apex predator, the deadliest hunters of human beings on the planet.”
An opening line was innocent enough: “It has been one of the most aggravating sounds on earth for 190 million years — the humming buzz of a mosquito.”
But the article shared some alarming facts. It described mosquitoes as “a swarming army of 100 trillion that kills (some) 700,000 people annually…” and “…research suggests (they) may have killed nearly half of the 108 billion humans who have ever lived.”
Even the most humane among us have no trouble swatting or smushing a mosquito. We might have some choice words for them.
Were mosquitoes to become a topic of prayer, we’d have no trouble praying against them: may they die a thousand deaths; may they leave no progeny behind; may they burn in the unquenchable fire. Even as I was looking over this sermon in the cool quiet of the morning, I found myself praying for a wretched fate for the crows that loudly feasted on our compost.
But when it comes to praying against other people or institutions, we might be a little more reluctant. We might wonder: can I pray that? We hear David pray, “Let death come upon them; / …for evil is in their homes and in their hearts.” We wonder what to do with this verse and others like it, that are right here in our holy book.
Psalm 55 is a prayer of vengeance—an “imprecatory” Psalm is the category interpreters put it in. We have Psalm of thanksgiving, Psalms of confession, Psalms of trust, Psalms of lament, royal Psalms, and others. But the imprecatory Psalms may be the hardest ones to know what to do with. These are Psalms that, in short, call on God to take swift action on enemies, even to the point of their destruction (HT: Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies).
Imprecatory prayers can be as specific and harmless as, “Dear God, I pray that that person who is texting while driving would get into the slightest of fender benders as a harmless but effective wake-up call so that they never text and drive again.” And imprecatory prayers can be as broad and intense as, “God, destroy these your enemies, so that they never see the light of day again!”
Some commentators say we should not pray these Psalms, as Christians. The verse “Bless those who curse you,” they say, is reason to no longer ask God to curse those who curse us.
Some of these commentators—including ones with a high view of Scripture—have described these Psalms in less than favorable terms, like:
C.S. Lewis reacts to these Psalms this way: “The hatred is there—festering, gloating, undisguised—and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves” (Reflections on the Psalms, 22). Lewis said, the imprecatory Psalms—Psalms of vengeance—“are indeed devilish” (25).
He’s entitled to his interpretation, of course, but in recent months I have come to view prayers of vengeance in a different way. I’ve made it my practice—given myself permission, really—to pray like the Psalmists do when they’re praying God’s vengeance would come to earth.
Thinking of the haughty and proud who abuse their power, I’ve prayed words like these ones in Psalm 59:
For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter, consume them in wrath; consume them until they are no more. Then it will be known to the ends of the earth that God rules over Jacob.
For those that lie serially, and who incite violence, I have prayed words like these ones in today’s Psalm, Psalm 55:
Confuse, O Lord, confound their speech; for I see violence and strife in the city.
I’m far from alone in reading the Psalms this way. Readers and interpreters of these Psalms have argued that just like we need Psalms of lament, we need imprecatory Psalms—prayers of vengeance. This is especially true when we consider the church across the world, and Christians who may live under a kind of duress or oppression that we may not know in our contexts. One commentator says, “A diet of upbeat songs and positive testimonies does not meet the needs of those suffering disappointment, ill health, or persecution.”
To be clear, no one in this worshiping community has been the subject of my recent imprecatory prayers. But as I’ve tried to inhabit Psalms like the one we read—as I’ve tried to pattern my own prayers after them—I’ve been reminded that God is a God of mercy and a God of judgment.
This is not just an Old Testament characteristic of God, either. Even the New Testament features words of imprecation, on the lips of Paul and even on the lips of Jesus himself. Martyrs in Revelation 6, killed for the sake of Jesus, cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
In my own praying, I’ve found myself feeling more vulnerable and more honest in God’s presence when I pray a prayer like Psalm 55. That honesty has led me to a greater sense of intimacy, or at least to feel like I’m doing something.
The big question about imprecatory Psalms—with a nod to Bob the Builder—is: Can we pray them? Yes, we can!
Still, I think the Psalms suggest some important parameters, if we’re going to take the plunge and pray prayers of vengeance.
1. Leave vengeance to God
First, imprecatory Psalms leave vengeance to God. They leave vengeance to God.
This is hugely important, noted by many readers of the Psalms, and gives us a reason to pray a prayer we might otherwise be uncomfortable with.
Our Psalm ended like this:
But you, O God, will cast them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days. But I will trust in you.
It did not end like this
But I, O God, will case them down into the lowest pit; the bloodthirsty and treacherous shall not live out half their days, because I will make sure of it myself. I will trust in myself.
Fundamentally, a prayer calling God to take action against his enemies is an affirmation of trust in God. It’s to say, “This is God’s job; not mine.”
Deuteronomy and Romans and Hebrews all quote God as saying, “Vengeance is mine; I shall repay.” Vengeance is not ours. We do not repay. God does.
When Psalm 55 and others like it pray for vengeance, it’s an affirmation that God judges in a way we cannot and should not. Better to ask God to exact justice—even destruction—on a serial evildoer, than for us to go rogue try to do it ourselves.
Prayers of imprecation pray for vengeance to come from where it should come from—from the Almighty and just God, not from ourselves.
2. Know “your” enemies
A second parameter seems important to Psalmists who prayed against others: knowing who “enemies” really are. Prayers of vengeance are not for that kid in your class who just bugs you; they’re not for someone who looks at you funny; they’re not for New York Yankees fans.
Imprecatory Psalms are chiefly reserved for those who are enemies of God, who set themselves up against God’s righteousness and justice, and who persist in doing evil in the world. They are those who harm precious ones created in the image of God.
Think of our Matthew passage today. Jesus says:
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.
Or consider Psalm 139, powerfully rendered in the King James Version:
O that Thou wouldst slay the wicked, O God; depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed. For they speak against Thee wickedly, and Thine enemies take Thy name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate Thee, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against Thee? I hate them with the utmost hatred; they have become my enemies.
As we say in my family sometimes, “Hate is a strong word.”
We’re probably hesitant (rightly!) to even use the word “enemy.” And we know Jesus calls us to love our enemies, whoever those may be.
But whatever else we make of this part of Psalm 139, the point of the pray-er is that he’s calling on God to silence and put an end not to those who speak against him, but who speak against God.
Prayers of vengeance are not for personal vendettas. They’re prayers that God would deal justly with God’s enemies. And if we want to know who those are, we’d do well to spend lots of time reading Scripture and praying and connecting with other Christians, so we don’t mistake our enemies for God’s enemies.
Further, we want to keep in mind, as Ephesians says, that
(O)ur struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
If you’ve got pent up energy and frustration when you see injustice and wickedness in the world—pray first “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Those are the invisible powers animating the visible powers of this world.
3. Imprecate yourself?
Psalmists who prayed imprecatory prayers (1) were leaving vengeance to God and (2) were defining as “enemies” those who set themselves up specifically as God’s enemies.
A third parameter that’s important, if we’re going to pray like this, is that we be ready to turn this kind of prayer back on ourselves.
In Psalm 139, David confesses in prayer to despising those who despise God, calling down judgment and destruction on them.
But we know how that Psalm ends:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
I trust I’m not the only one who has read that Psalm and skipped from, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” and, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” to, “Search me, O God, and know my heart.” But those intense imprecations come in between. And they cause the ending to make even more sense.
David says, “See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Because he knows that there may be others who could rightly pray prayers of imprecation against him! Bathsheba certainly could have. His daughter, whose rape David did not take seriously, certainly could have. He at least has the self-knowledge to pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. See if there is any offensive way in me….”
We might consider a similar ending to our prayers, as we pray for God’s justice and judgement to be enacted on the wicked.
For example, we might pray against racism, and those who advance it. In the same prayer, we might also pray, “Lord, show me any racist thoughts—however minor!—in my heart. Reveal to me, God, if there are any ways have I benefited from and perpetuated systems of racism.”
And we pray against those who harm others day after day, we might also ask, “God, help me to see: how have I hurt others with my words and actions, perhaps causing them to want to pray prayers of imprecation against me?”
One interpreter cautions about these Psalms: “Those who pray them are inevitably faced with the question of their own complicity in the web of violence.”
That makes praying imprecatory prayers even harder—we maybe already feel uncomfortable praying them, but to do so in good conscience before God, we need to be ready to point the prayers back on ourselves.
“Surely there is a God”
Psalms of imprecation, at their best, leave vengeance to God; they define “enemies” less as their own enemies and more as God’s enemies; and they are ready to implicate themselves.
It’s helped me to see this kind of prayer as a more detailed expression of lines in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
If God’s kingdom is going to come, if God’s will is going to be done, that means there will be judgement for the wicked.
One interpreter and modern-day prayer of these Psalms said it like this:
As poetic prayers, the psalms of vengeance are a passionate clinging to God when everything really speaks against God. For that reason they can rightly be psalms of zeal, to the extent that in them passion for God is aflame in the midst of the ashes of doubt about God and despair over human beings. These psalms are the expression of a longing that evil, and evil people, may not have the last word in history, for this world and its history belong to God.
Psalm 58, another one of these “Psalms of zeal,” we might call them, ends like this:
The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.”
If God lets evil go on forever, what hope is there for us? If God cannot stop and will never stop evil, how can we have faith?
As with lament Psalms, imprecatory Psalms are a way for us to keep showing up in God’s presence, even when seemingly unchecked evil might otherwise shut us down and keep us quiet.
“Surely there is a God!”
We need to see—the world needs to see—God in all power, exercising mercy and judgment, so that we can all say, “Surely there is a God!”
It’s been a while since I posted one of my Sunday sermons here. Below is what I preached this morning, the Second Sunday of Advent, on 2 Corinthians 4:1-6.
Until recently I’d forgotten that the sun could even set before 5:00. Last night the sunset was at 4:08 p.m. 4:08!
My six-year-old asked me this week if it was true that there were only four hours of daylight each day in December.
Not quite, but it feels like it.
These short, dark, cold days seem to linger on. We await a later sunset, the buds of spring, and warmer days.
What are we to do with all of this in-between time?
That’s the question of Advent. Christ has broken into our world, but so much remains untransformed by his power. We are waiting. We are hoping. We are longing for Jesus to come again and make everything right.
The stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg once disparaged instant oatmeal. He said:
I get up in the morning, and I make myself a bowl of instant oatmeal, and then I don’t do anything for an hour… which makes me wonder why I need the instant oatmeal… I could get the regular oatmeal and feel productive!
Advent calls for our patience in dark days where God’s kingdom (still) isn’t here. It doesn’t come in an instant.
But it’s not a passive waiting that we do. And there’s nothing hopeless about Advent. It’s not a season where we throw up our hands and say, “Welp, I guess we just hang out until Jesus comes back.”
On the contrary, in Advent we remember and re-activate that hope within us that believes—that knows—Christ will come again. We proclaim with Zechariah:
Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.
In these dark, cold, in-between days, “the light shines in the darkness.”
And the light shines right into our inmost beings.
That’s what Paul says to the Christians in the city of Corinth:
The [same] God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
There’s the miracle of God’s love… the all-powerful creator of the universe who could bring light from darkness, has sent his light right into our hearts, so that we could know Jesus. The one who created worlds could be bothered to shine light into my dark heart, and yours. God even delights in shining light into our hearts.
What does the light do?
The light shines in the darkness, and that includes the darkness of our inner world.
I think Paul has something in common with us. None of us wants to just talk in platitudes or generalities. The light shines in our hearts, yes, so now we want to know: what exactly is the light doing in us? What does the light-of-Christ-in-our-hearts do?
Paul suggests a few things. As it shines in your heart, here is what the light does.
First, he says, the light illuminates what is hidden.
Here is the first part of verse 2: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides.”
That’s because Paul and his fellow believers have the light of Christ in their hearts. That light has illuminated what is hidden—shameful things.
Paul models a response to the shameful things the light has shown him in his heart. “I renounce them.”
It’s a line you’ll hear in the baptismal liturgy: “I renounce them.” The light illuminates my hidden, shameful things, shows me what and where they are… and I renounce them.
I’ve always been glad no technology exists to Google our brains. Think about what that would be like. All our memories, experiences, hopes, wayward desires, and hurts. Your search for envious thoughts toward others returned 13,849 results.
Thank God we can’t Google our brains. But in a sense, that’s what the light of Jesus does. As the Psalmist David put it, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
The light of Christ in us illuminates what is hidden.
Second, Paul says the light of Jesus is a floodlight on lies. The light of Christ shows lies for what they are.
After verse 2 says, “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides,” it goes on: “we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word.”
Because the light of Christ shines in his inmost being, Paul and his co-laborers in ministry commit to be truthful, especially when it comes to the revealed word of God. “We refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word.”
The light shines on lies in the darkness. It points at them and calls them what they are. Where the light of Christ shines, there can be no lies.
I’m reading a book right now by James Clear called Atomic Habits. The author describes a process that train conductors in Tokyo practice. It’s called “Pointing-and-Calling.” He says:
As each operator runs the train, they proceed through a ritual of pointing at different objects and calling out commands. When the train approaches a signal, the operator will point at it and say, “Signal is green.” As the train pulls into and out of each station, the operator will point at the speedometer and call out the exact speed. When it’s time to leave, the operator will point at the timetable and state the time. Out on the platform, other employees are performing similar actions. Before each train departs, staff members will point along the edge of the platform and declare, “All clear!” Every detail is identified, pointed at, and named aloud.
The author concludes:
Pointing-and-Calling is so effective because it raises the level of awareness from a nonconscious habit to a more conscious level. Because the train operators must use their eyes, hands, mouth, and ears, they are more likely to notice problems before something goes wrong.
This is great for habit development. But good habits aside, here is the light of Christ, practicing the same method of Pointing-and-Calling in us! That’s what the light of Jesus does!
The light of Christ illuminates what is hidden, even shameful things. And it’s a floodlight that shows lies for what they are. The light of Jesus points-and-calls in our hearts.
Eugene Peterson translates verse 2 this way:
We refuse to wear masks and play games. We don’t maneuver and manipulate behind the scenes. And we don’t twist God’s Word to suit ourselves. Rather, we keep everything we do and say out in the open, the whole truth on display, so that those who want to can see and judge for themselves in the presence of God.
Paul also says more generally: the light of Jesus guides our inner life.
Are you confused, or torn up inside? The light of Christ can guide you.
Are you anxious, scared, uncertain of what the coming days and weeks will hold? The light of Christ doesn’t make all your problems go away, but it will illuminate your inner thought life, as you try to make sense of it all.
Things become more visible, clearer by the light God gives us.
The light of Jesus guides our inner life.
Finally, and most important, the light that God shines in our hearts reveals “God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
This is more than just your run-of-the-mill illumination. Verse 4 says it’s the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Verse 6 says the light God shines in our hearts is the light of the knowledge of his glory.
Paul is not talking about “the light within” or whatever light or goodness or hope you can generate yourself.
There may be a place for that, but it will only take you so far.
The Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge says, “(I)f Christian faith is going to have any guts, it simply cannot be satisfied with exclusively human hope.”
This isn’t just any light. It’s Jesus light.
One poet put it like this:
It gets so dark it stays dark, Even when I turn on the light.
We need more than ourselves to turn on the light. We’re prone to error, prone to despair, prone to exhaustion if we try to face and fight the darkness all on our own.
Thank God, we don’t have to.
The [same] God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
For light to truly shine in our hearts and illuminate our paths, it needs to come from an external, inexhaustible source.
That light source is Jesus. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.”
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer waited in prison for a release that would never come, he wrote, “Only the coming Lord can prepare the way… the end (goal) of all preparing the way for Christ must be the recognition that we ourselves can never prepare the way.”
To that let’s add: we ourselves never shine enough light to dispel the darkness.
The light persists
Paul begins this passage thus: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”
Paul and company knew deep in their bones that the mercy and love of God were essential to their doing ministry.
We show mercy, he would say, “just as we have received mercy.”
And that’s how the light works—it’s received, it’s given, just like grace. It’s not all up to you to do the shining.
You know that your light alone, will burn out. Maybe it already has.
Your batteries will expire.
The flame will extinguish.
The wick will run out.
And you’re not just contending with yourself here: Satan will try to keep you from living in the light.
But as Paul says, “the god of this world” may try to keep people from “seeing the light of the gospel,” but he can’t actually touch the light itself. The so-called god of this world can’t stop or prevent or even reduce the shining of the light of Jesus.
Jesus’s light is eternal… limitless; it forever burns bright.
And that light is yours. It’s ours.
So with the beleaguered apostle Paul, “we do not lose heart.” We wait in hope; we wait in power.
We have the light of Christ already in part, and lean forward, eagerly awaiting the day when we’ll have Christ’s light in full.
God has shined the light of Christ in us.
NOTHING can darken the light of Christ.
May God shine that light, brighter and stronger and warmer, in our hearts this Advent season.
God’s covenant people have always needed a mediator. And God—with limitless grace—has always sent mediators to the people.
A mediator joins two parties together, stands in the gaps, bridges their conflict. A mediator is “a go-between,” a re-negotiator, an arbitrator. An effective mediator is a miracle worker.
Scripture narrates a familiar pattern: God makes covenants with his people; his people break them; God uses mediators to make peace.
The Greek word for mediator is μεσίτης (mesitēs). Careful readers of Scripture know that “the idea of mediation and therefore of persons acting in the capacity of mediator permeates the Bible” (New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edition). However, the word mediator=μεσίτης (mesitēs) occurs only six times in the Greek New Testament.
Three of those uses are in Hebrews (8:6, 9:15, and 12:24). Two are in Galatians 3:19-20. And one is in 1 Timothy 2:5, a theologically rich verse:
there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human….
The concept and practice of mediation (think: sacrifice, atonement) does indeed fill the pages of the Old Testament. Most of the New Testament uses of mediator, in fact, reference the old covenant. So I found it especially fascinating when I learned that mediator=μεσίτης (mesitēs) occurs only once in the Greek Septuagint.
It comes up in a striking passage in Job 9:33.
Job has already lost everything. But we remember as he utters these words in chapter 9 that the Bible describes him as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” It said he would “rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings,” just in case his children had sinned. He covered all his bases. He kept at least the semblance of a covenant with God.
And yet Job senses a breach. All manner of tragedy has befallen him, and everyone around him tells him to curse God. He won’t, but still he feels at odds with God. Job says to the Lord:
… you are not a mortal like me, with whom I would contend,
that we should agree to come to trial.
Would that there were a μεσίτης/mesitēs/mediator for us and an investigator
and one to hear the case between us two.
(This is from the NETS translation, which translates μεσίτης as arbiter.)
Job longs for a mediator, an arbiter between him and God. An “umpire,” the NRSV says, translating the Hebrew.
Again, Job calls for a mediator, even though we have no narrative evidence that he broke a covenant with God! He acknowledges that he can’t “contend” with God as in court, but still yearns for a “mediator” to bridge the gap between him and God.
And now, for the pastoral payoff:
If Job, who led a blameless life, thought he needed a mediator to get to God, how much more do we, God’s not-blameless people, need a mediator to be in the presence of a perfectly holy God?
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
–Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)
The Problem with New Year’s Resolutions
According to one study only 9% of people in the U.S. succeed in achieving their New Year’s resolutions. 9 per cent.
More than 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, but 91% of people who make them admitted to failing to meet their goals. Only 9% were successful with their resolutions.
There are myriad reasons for such bad odds, many ways that New Year’s resolutions are problematic: We set resolutions that are not specific enough or are too hard to measure. We may make resolutions that are not realistic, or resolutions that work against other deeply embedded values we hold. We don’t have the patience to develop new habits. Etc.
One church worker writes of his experience of Christians at the turn of a year. He says:
Church people—our people—don’t just resolve to go to the gym or call their moms more often. They ramp it up. They resolve to get up at 6 a.m. for quiet time, to read the whole Bible through in a year, to have family devotions every night. They resolve to boycott ungodly [companies] and write their congressmen more often. They volunteer at soup kitchens and take up tutoring. I can’t keep up with them!
A week in to this new year it strikes me there is something even more problematic about New Year’s resolutions, besides our inability to keep them.
It’s this: if we’re not careful yearly resolutions—that we set— have power to shift our focus from Jesus, too much onto ourselves. Aggressive resolutions for self-improvement run the risk of overdoing effort and undergoing grace.
Wherever there is discipline, there must always also be grace. When discipline, then also grace—God’s grace, to be specific. Otherwise we risk leaving Jesus in the dust, running to what a priest I know once called “life-enhancement spirituality.”
Who really sets direction?
It’s a good time to remember the Proverb (16:9): “The heart of a man plans his course [the heart of a woman plans her course], but the LORD directs their steps.”
Better than just about any New Year’s resolution is an openness to let God direct my steps. To let the LORD direct my steps in this coming year.
It is Jesus, after all, who sets the direction of our faith.
John the Baptist learned this first-hand.
Our text says, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.”
One commentator says, “Christ did not wait for John to complete his career before he arrived on the scene, but, while John was still teaching, he appeared.” Jesus just shows up at the Jordan River.
Matthew should be able to go right on, “So John baptized Jesus.” But instead verse 14 gives us, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” Or in another translation, “John tried to deter him.”
Jewish understandings of relating to God seem to leave more room for push-back than Christian tradition does.
Even so, John campaigns for his own agenda. Wait, Jesus, I’m the one doing the baptizing here. Like Peter on Maundy Thursday: Wait, Jesus, you’re not going to wash my feet, are you? That’s not how this goes. Or like probably all of his disciples: Jesus, wait, you don’t really have to die, do you?
That’s how I find myself relating to Jesus more often than I’d like: Okay, God, this is what 2018 will be like. I’m going to do this, stop doing that, do a little bit more of this other thing, our congregation is going to take on this… NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, O LORD, and you may resolve with me if you like….
Jesus says to John: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” John tries to deter Jesus and Jesus says, “Dude, chill. Let it be so.” This is how it will be. Same thing to Peter with the skittish feet: Jesus says, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
And to us who would chart a new and improved course for ourselves, to us who might invite Jesus to walk after us or maybe alongside us, to us Jesus says, “You. Come, follow me.”
Who is really setting the direction for how it will be?
“Seeing what is actually there”:
God who knows and loves
John follows Jesus’s lead. John abandons his own agenda for Jesus, and follows Jesus’s agenda for Jesus, and Jesus’s agenda for John. Verse 15 says John “consented.” He said yes to Jesus, even though it wasn’t in his original plan.
Many followers of Jesus have said yes, have consented to Jesus, even when he called us to something we hadn’t anticipated. And at any given time there are a lot of us who have an unexpected opportunity to say yes to God, when God shows up not-in-the-way-we-wanted! We may plan our way, but the Lord directs our steps. Will we follow?
A whole new reality is open to John, when he gives Jesus his, “I do.” He has left behind the world of how Jesus can be part of my plan and is in the realm of how I can get in on what Christ is doing.
And he hears something! He baptizes Jesus, Jesus comes out of the water and sees the Holy Spirit like a dove. And then, a voice from heaven comes. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
John is privy to this, because he has consented to following Jesus. He has said yes to letting Jesus chart the course. He hears, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
When was the last time you experienced writer’s block?
Michael McGregor, an author and professor of writing, talks about how writing teachers sometimes tell their students to lower their sights when they get stuck with a blank page. “Lower your sights.” But McGregor says, “A better thing to say might be, ‘Forget about the writing and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.’” He says, “Viewed in this way, writing is not a craft or even a talent but a way of understanding the world, others and ourselves. The focus isn’t on writing beautiful sentences or telling a compelling story but on seeing and understanding what is really in us and around us….”
Isn’t this more than great writing advice? Isn’t this the kind of re-focusing John had to do with his agenda? “Forget about the [baptizing] and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.”
And isn’t this how we want to follow Jesus, too? “Forget about the [doing and the striving] and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.”
“What [was] actually there” for John, when he listened, was a Father who intimately knew Jesus (“My Son”). “What was actually there” for John, when he listened, was a Father who deeply loved the Son (“whom I love, with whom I am well pleased”).
“What is actually there” for us, when we stop and listen carefully, is that same God, who has adopted us into his family with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This same God says to you, “You are my son, whom I love.” “You are my daughter, whom I love.” I know you as well as a good parent knows their children. And I love you so much I delight in you. I smile when I think of you, and I take great joy in calling you daughter, son. “I have called you by name; you are mine.”
As 2 Timothy says, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his.’” You are God’s, and he knows you and loves you. He demonstrates his love for us—shows us what it is—in a million ways, but especially through the act of self-giving sacrifice at the cross.
“Before we lift a finger”
Matthew tells the story of Jesus’s baptism before he’s narrated any of Jesus’s actions. Jesus hasn’t done anything in the Gospel at this point, in Matthew 3. But still, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
It’s as if Matthew wants us to see that God doesn’t love Jesus because of his miracles or because of the great sacrifice he will make or because of who his mother is or because of anything else….
God the Father just… loves… his child. God’s daughters and sons are loved just… because… God wants to love.
Adopted into the family of God, you and I, too, are God’s beloved children. It’s not due to anything we have done. It’s not because of who we think we already are. God’s love doesn’t come to us as a result of our contributions to humanity… God doesn’t shower his love on us because we have set out to have the best year yet. God loves us not because of who we are, but because of who GOD is. And then God’s abiding love for us makes us who we are. When we follow the trail blazed by God’s love, then we find out how to live and what to do.
We may still try to shape our identity around what we contribute, the service we can render to another, the brilliant solutions we can offer in a murky situation.
But to borrow a line from a book I never finished two Januarys ago, God’s love is about “how God views us before we lift a finger.” It’s about “how God views us before we lift a finger.”
So, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”
And, sure—look back to 2017, look ahead to 2018, but let’s first look up with John the Baptist to see a God who knows and loves those who are his.
The above is adapted from the sermon I preached this past Sunday.
Last week I posted the mind map I made to help me visualize the letter to Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-7.
Here is my mind map of Greek Revelation 2:8-11, the letter to Smyrna. Interesting to see how the structure of this “oracle” is both similar to and different from the letter to Ephesus.
As with last time, this passage outline definitely informed my sermon outline, but the latter differs quite a bit from the former. If you want to hear these sermons, by the way, you can subscribe or listen to the podcast here.
I haven’t posted about it since, but I mentioned a while ago that I’m preaching through the first three chapters in Revelation, calling the series, “The 7 Last Words to the Church.” God still speaks to the church today, I believe, but these are the 7 last “words” (or messages) as recorded in Scripture.
This Sunday I’m preaching on the message to Ephesus, the first of seven churches to be addressed (Revelation 2:1-7).
If you are reading this post, it is at least possible that you read Words on the Word because of its nerdery and not in spite of it.
So I wanted to share how much fun I had this morning working through the Greek text (via Accordance) and making a mind map outline of the passage (with MindNode). This is my passage outline, which is not always the same as the sermon outline itself (generally I think of this much alliteration as verboden). Seeing the verses visually like this has helped me get a good grasp on the flow of Revelation 2:1-7. (Click or tap the image to enlarge it.)
I’ve just begun a preaching series on the first three chapters in Revelation, called, “The 7 Last Words to the Church.”
Just as Jesus uttered “7 last words” (or 7 series of words) on the cross, the Bible’s final book has 7 words (or passages) directed to individual churches in John’s day. Just about every interpreter that I can see, including yours truly, understands those passages as having significant universal application to today’s church.
The words to the 7 churches come in Revelation 2 and 3. Before that is one of the most remarkable chapters in all of Scripture. (I know… you can’t really rank these things.) Revelation 1 is rich and powerful and worthy of deep reflection in this season of Easter, soon to give way to Pentecost. In my church we’ll spend a number of weeks in Revelation 1 before moving to the 7 last words to the church in chapters 2 and 3.
The first week I offered our congregation the simple encouragement to read Revelation 1:3 and take it at face value. It says:
Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.
Okay, I’ll admit: “face value” when it comes to Revelation’s “the time is near” is anything but agreed upon by those who read Revelation! That’s fine. John’s vision and words to the church still have a sense of urgency regardless of when “the time” is and how “near” it may be.
The book–this revelation from, by, and about Jesus Christ–begins with an apocalyptic beatitude. Maybe we’re right to be skeptical any time a preacher asks, “DO YOU WANT TO BE BLESSED?” But John begins his letter with an ironclad promise, endorsed by Jesus himself. Namely, if you read these words of Scripture, if you hear them, and if you take them to heart, you will be blessed, fulfilled, content.
It’s a great way to start this apocalyptic and prophetic letter-Gospel.
González notes that Luke’s story in Luke-Acts doesn’t really end per se: “Paul has suffered countless vicissitudes. He has been shipwrecked. He has finally made it to Rome. He is awaiting trial before Caesar. And then—nothing!”
(If you can never remember how Acts ends, rest assured! This may be why.)
Gonzalez goes on:
In telling his story and leaving it unfinished, Luke is inviting his readers to be part of it, to join the throng. ….But since the story is unfinished, it is more appropriate to conclude it with “RSVP,” like an invitation that awaits a response. This is what Luke demand from us: not satisfied curiosity about the past, but a response here and now. RSVP!
It’s neat to think about the church today as being a new sequel to Luke-Acts. Or, more accurately, the threequel to those two stories: Luke, Acts, the Church Today.
May God continue to empower with his Holy Spirit those of us who would RSVP faithfully to his invitation!