The Blog of Jack Holloway

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Christians, are you prepared to hear the voice of the Bible?

Nowhere have I seen more contempt for the teachings of the Bible than in the Christian church. Countless passages that end in, "thus says the Lord," are spurned and neglected wholesale by self-proclaimed Christians all over the United States. My whole life, I have watched Christians forget Jesus and continually fail to see him in the public square. And so my whole body feels shame and embarrassment as I find myself in awe of the utter depravity of the church's witness.

Why? Because the hungry are crying out, the thirsty are calling to you, the stranger is beckoning you, the naked are lying before you, the sick are dying in front of you, the captives are begging for your attention, and nothing can be heard from you but a deafening silence.

Do you even know the words of Jesus? Have you not read Matthew 25?

"The king will reply, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me' Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. ... Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." (vv.40-43, 45)

Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

The message is clear! There it is in black and white! You who talk so much about Scripture being the Word of God. You who say things like, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." Here, Scripture cries out to us, beckons us toward justice, and you are blind to injustice and blind to your complicity. I can hardly believe just how blind you really are.

Are you not ashamed? Do you not see your failure? Are you not embarrassed when you think upon how depraved your conscience is?

Do you think you would have listened to the prophets in their time? No, just like those Jesus chastised, "you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets" (Matt. 23:31).

Listen to the voice of Amos, crying out because of injustice just like yours.

Woe to those who are at ease in Zion
And to those who feel secure in the mountain of Samaria ...
Those who recline on beds of ivory,
And sprawl on their couches,
And eat lambs from the flock
And calves from the midst of the stall,
Who improvise to the sound of the harp,
And like David have composed songs for themselves,
Who drink wine from sacrificial bowls,
While they anoint themselves with the finest of oils,
Yet they have not grieved the ruin of Joseph.
(Amos 6:1, 4-6).

Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, ...
The Lord has sword by the pride of Jacob,
"Indeed, I will never forget any of their deeds.
"Because of this will not the land quake
And everyone who dwells in it mourn?
Indeed, all of it will rise up like the Nile,
And it will be tossed about
And subside like the Nile of Egypt."
"It will come about in that day," declares the Lord God,
"That I will make the sun go down at noon
And make the earth dark in broad daylight.
"Then I will turn your festivals into mourning
And all your songs into lamentation;
And I will bring sackcloth on everyone's loins
And baldness on every head.
And I will make it like a time of mourning for an only son,
And the end of it will be like a bitter day."
"Behold, day are coming," declares the Lord God,
"When I will send a famine on the land,
Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water,
But rather for hearing the words of the Lord,
"People will stagger from sea to sea
And from the north even to the east;
They will go to and fro to seek the word of the Lord,
But they will not find it.
"In that day the beautiful virgins
And the young men will faint from thirst."
(8:4, 7-13)

Take this warning!

If you are not concerned about the poor and needy, those who are trampled on by the powers that be, if you are not outraged by injustice, if you are not moved to mourning when people are exploited and oppressed, then you are on God's left! To you will God say, "Depart from me." God will bring you to judgment for your indifference to evil.

But if you turn from your selfishness, attune your ears to the cries of the oppressed, and lock your eyes on the needs of the downtrodden, then you will see God's justice. You will see God's victory over sin and death. If you want the kingdom of God, you first have to see with God's eyes, and God pays special attention to those in the world who are suffering and in need.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that to defend the cause of the poor and needy is what it means to know God (Jer. 22:16). If you do not take up the cause of the poor and needy, then you do not know God. It's that simple.

If you cannot see that "Black Lives Matter" is the cry of the poor and needy, then you should go before God and beg for understanding. You should repent of your blindness and pray for revelation. But don't stop there, because you need to educate yourself.

The history of African-Americans is a history of oppression. It began with kidnapping and enslavement. It continued with racist laws that were designed to keep black Americans in a lower state of being than white Americans. And that racist system is not as old as you like to think. It's not as dead and gone as our racist ancestors.

The death-dealing system that white America built has never stopped oppressing black people. We've made strides, we've righted some wrongs, but too many oppressive structures are still in place. That death-dealing system continues to this day. We see it whenever black Americans are denied justice.

Wake up! Do not continue in your ignorance! Stop neglecting the history of the poor and needy in your country, and start listening to their cries!

"O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!"
(Jer. 22:29)

Monday, August 27, 2018

Sermon: The Armor of God's Victory (8/26/18)


I Kings 8
Psalm 84
Ephesians 6:10–20
John 6:56–69

I really like when our Psalm says that we are on “the pilgrim’s way.”

I have often felt like a pilgrim in my life. My family moved a lot when I was growing up. I spent most of my childhood in the greater Seattle, Washington area, but we also lived in California for a while, and later we moved to Florida, to the opposite corner of the country. In the earliest memories I have, we are poor and living in a humble space; in others, we are fairly wealthy and living in a large house.

At 17, I moved to Virginia Beach and start school at Regent University. From there, I moved to Richmond, Virginia, where I married my wife Debbie. And now we live in Brooklyn, where I have earned my Master of Divinity.

I have not experienced life in terms of having a base to always go back to and cultivate. I have not been a part of any local long term projects that last a lifetime. I have not built relationships with store owners or local leaders or cashiers or waiters and waitresses in my area—the kind of thing that tends to naturally happen when you have a lasting home.

For me, life has been a series of different periods. The California period, the Seattle period, the Florida period, etc. I go from place to place, encountering various trials, overcoming various obstacles, meeting new challenges along the way.

And sometimes it even seems like life is hardship after hardship, one thing after another. With my family I have encountered bankruptcy, abortion, divorce, mental illness, depression, anxiety, disillusionment, and the list goes on.

Don Draper in the show Mad Men says, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness!” For isn’t life just a series of hardships, a tiresome journey through struggle after struggle?

It often feels like that. In addition to our own personal trials, we encounter those in the public sphere. For example, while the institution of slavery that restricted black lives to servitude and exploitation was abolished 150 years ago, black people have never been without intense struggle in the United States. After slavery, it was Jim Crow. And they thought they had defeated that with the Civil Rights movement, only to encounter another form of Jim Crow in the war on drugs and the beginning of mass incarceration, so that now we can truly speak of a “New Jim Crow” era.

W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “The slave went free; stood a moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

But while there will always be trials, while there will always be evil that we need to resist, while there will always be “the rulers, the authorities, and the cosmic powers of this present darkness,” life is not just a monotonous series of hardships, one thing after another. For in this journey we encounter more than evils and obstacles. We also encounter God’s provision. We also encounter multitudes of God’s gifts, so that in our confrontation with evil and hardship we are assured victory.

For Paul in our Ephesians does not urge us to conjure up a solution to the evils of the world ourselves—we are not left to reinvent the wheel; rather, he tells us that we are to embrace what has already been established and provided for us: “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power” (v.10).

We are not to create our own armor, but rather, “put on the armor of God” (v.11, 13). We do not have to provide any of the pieces ourselves. We do not provide truth, nor do we provide the gospel of peace, nor salvation, nor the Spirit, nor the word of God. It all comes from God. They are all gifts of God, eternally established and made sure by God. Through God’s gifts and provisions, we come to meet “the strength of God’s power,” instead of being left to depend on our own strength and fend for ourselves.

And because these gifts of truth, and the Holy Spirit, and the word of God, and the good news of our salvation, have been eternally established and made sure by God, the outcome of our journey is predetermined. Victory is assured us by God.

So we do not encounter various hardships with only a slight hope of making it out okay. We do not strive to maintain a fighting chance against the forces of evil, nor is it up to us to keep the flame of hope alive. On the contrary, we are “fighting from a position of victory,” as one biblical commentator put it. “Happy are those whose strength is in [the Lord]!” as our Psalm says (84:4).

We do not put on our own armor, with which we are left to hope against hope that it is enough to survive all the slings and arrows encountered on a dreary, woe-laden pilgrimage. Instead, we “put on” the armor of God’s victory.

Paul says in Romans 13: “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. … Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (vv.11–14).

In Colossians 3 he says: “You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self. … As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. … Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (v.10, 12, 14).

Earlier in Ephesians, he said: “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:22–24).

In the future, he says in I Corinthians 15, our perishable bodies will “put on imperishability,” our mortal bodies will “put on immortality” (v.53).

The message is: Everything has already been done, the victory has already been accomplished. Now, just receive what God has given, and you will be empowered to overcome the evil in your midst. Put away the old, and embrace the new thing God has done.

So in the present, God is asking us if we will maintain the corrupt, old reality, or if we will “put on” the new reality of God.

For even in putting on the new reality of God, we have to withstand the persistence of the old reality, for many suppose that the old way is more beneficial to them. It is not in their best interest, they think, to embrace resurrection and new life. It might compromise their power and their authority.

God’s new reality is the forgiving of all debts, the releasing of all prisoners, the freeing of all slaves, the liberation of all the oppressed. It is the gospel of peace, not of war, or oppression, or exploitation. It is the end of all tyranny. We are not surprised, then, that the rulers and authorities of this present darkness are not too keen on it.

So evil persists. The slave goes free, only to be swept back into oppression. Slavery is abolished, only to be followed up by Jim Crow, which is overcome, only to be followed by mass incarceration. A racist system continually finds new ways of painting black people as criminals, and then subjects them to brutality, imprisonment, and exploitation. The old maintains its grip on reality.

And so, as Paul incites us, we have to resolutely stand against evil. In Galatians 5, he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). Just as many persist in embracing the old reality, we have all the more to persist in standing firm, clothed with God’s new reality, equipped with the armor of God’s truth, God’s Word, God’s gospel, God’s salvation, so that we will resist and overcome dogged evil.

But how do we do that? How do we wage war against evil? How do we properly stand against the rulers and authorities? Which policy should we adopt? Which legislation should we support? What organizations do we join? What practical steps do we take?

Even with the light of the gospel, we see as if in a mirror dimly. God’s ways are not our ways, nor God’s thoughts our thoughts. We do not always know how exactly we should resist evil, nor do we always know how to overcome hardship. We cannot hope to win the war ourselves. But, as I said at the beginning, we are not asked to. Victory is and has already been achieved by God.

So what are we asked to do? Here in Ephesians, we are asked to pray. Pray “at all times,” Paul says (v.18). “Keep alert and always persevere in supplication” (v.18). “Pray without ceasing,” as he says in I Thessalonians 5:17.

Now, let me be clear, prayer is not all we have to do. We are not supposed to simply pray for the world while passively waiting for God to come in at the last day and solve everything, nor are we simply bearing life on earth, waiting for heaven.

But, Paul shows us that it is through prayer that we take up the armor of God. We resist evil first through a position of prayer. As Karl Barth says, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Elsewhere, he asks, “Can serious prayer, in the long run, continue without the corresponding work? Can we ask God for something which we are not at the same moment determined and prepared to bring about, so far as it lies within the bounds of our possibility?”

If the Christian, he says, really prays “as he can and should as a Christian, he will not let his hands fall and simply wait in idleness for what God will finally do, neglecting his witness to Christ. On the contrary, strengthened and encouraged by the thought of what God will finally do, he will take up his ministry on this side of the frontier.”

In prayer, we look beyond the status quo, beyond the present state of the things. We direct ourselves to God and open ourselves up to him. In prayer, we cast ourselves upon God’s help, and so we stand ready to be empowered by him. In prayer, we commit ourselves to God, and so we find consolation and comfort, as well as the power and the will to do what needs to be done.

For though we may be without tangible weapons of obvious power and ability, we have prayer, and when we pray, we put on the armor of God. We put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the gospel of peace, the shield of faith. We are given the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, and therein lies the assurance of victory.

We are on the pilgrim’s way. We venture forth, through difficult terrain, standing up against a mountain of evil, not quite sure if we will make it through. But happy are those whose strength is in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord.

So I encourage you to fill your lives with prayer. Ask God what you should do. Tell God what it is you need. Lift up to God the concerns of those in need. Thank God for what he has given you. Praise God for the victory we have in Christ.

Prayer will not “solve” everything for us. But when we pray we open ourselves up to God, and God loves to fill our lives with good things.

Prayer is not a work that we do in order to be good Christians, nor is it a formula for getting God to do something we want, nor is it like putting a dollar in a vending machine and expecting a gift. When we pray, we ready ourselves for God, we direct ourselves toward God’s kingdom, we seek God’s justice and righteousness. And Jesus says, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything you need will be given to you (Matt. 6:33).

In other words: pray, and you will find your way.

With that, I want to close with the words from the song “May It Be,” by Enya, which comes at the end of the first Lord of the Rings movie, a movie about a long and difficult journey to claim victory for good in a land plagued with evil:
May it be an evening star
Shines down upon you
May it be when darkness falls
Your heart will be true
You walk a lonely road
Oh! How far you are from home

Darkness has come
Believe and you will find your way
Darkness has fallen
A promise lives within you now

May it be the shadow’s call
Will fly away
May it be you journey on
To light the day
When the night is overcome
You may rise to find the sun

Darkness has come
Believe and you will find your way
Darkness has fallen
A promise lives within you now

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for the
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Old First Reformed Church
August 26, 2018

Monday, August 20, 2018

Sermon: Live Carefully (8/19/18)


I Kings 2:10–12; 3:3–14
Psalm 111
Ephesians 5:15–20
John 6:51–58

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10).

What does it mean to fear the Lord?

I spoke about this briefly last week, and I am glad that I now have the opportunity to explore the subject further.

It’s not an easy subject. Why should we fear God? “There is no fear in love,” it says in 1 John 4, “but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (v.18).

If perfect love drives out fear, how is it that we are to fear God? Is this just an element of old time religion? Is this just another feature of the patriarchal world in which the Bible was written? Did they suppose that God demands that his creatures fear him in the same way that self-important fathers want their families to fear them?

Many have made such conclusions, and so when they come to the saying about the beginning of wisdom, they just disregard it. It was another time, the thinking goes. They had different ideas about how we should think of God. We know better now.

I, however, do not think we can make such a move. I think we should feel more compelled to listen to and respect the teaching we encounter in Scripture, especially when it says, “This is the beginning of wisdom”!

It is for this reason that I also cannot follow those who choose to leave the teaching to the side because they can’t make sense of it. When I wrote a research paper on the fear of the Lord during my undergraduate program, I couldn’t believe how may biblical scholars neglected it. Books with titles like Old Testament Wisdom or Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms spent less than a page dealing with the fear of the Lord, despite the fact that the Old Testament again and again says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom!

And these are biblical scholars!—people with PhD’s, charged with the task of digging into the difficult terrain of this ancient literature. If they’re not comfortable speaking about the fear of the Lord, how can we hope to gain some understanding of it?

So maybe we should just drop it. We see only in a mirror dimly. God’ll forgive us for not understanding what this teaching means, so let’s just move on.

Sorry, but, again, that just doesn’t cut it for me.

Throughout the Old Testament, the writers used “fear God” the way we might use “believe in Jesus.” Whether or not a person feared God was understood as the decisive thing about that person. The decisive choice a person had to make was whether to fear the Lord, or to follow evil. The Israelites didn’t have the saying, “What would Jesus do?”—but they did have the saying, “fear the LORD, and turn away from evil” (Prov. 3:7).

So “the fear of the LORD” is not an insignificant biblical topic. It’s not one of those things we can just gloss over, or neglect in favor of other things we like more, or things we find more palatable. If we take our commitment to God seriously, we will take this teaching seriously.

Many who have taken this teaching seriously found an easy way of resolving this issue—with one word: reverence! To fear the Lord, they say, means to revere the Lord, to respect and honor and stand in awe of the Lord.

Okay. Good. Respect and honor and revere God. Nothing wrong with any of that. But how is that the beginning of wisdom? What does it mean to revere God? Is it possible that we make recourse to the word “reverence” in order to stop thinking about the command to fear God?

I personally have found that this rendering of the command carries less weight, that it doesn’t actually inspire much action. Revere God. Okay, I can do that. Easy enough. And then we go back to our lives. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Does the word reverence actually help us much, or are we still left with the question: What does it actually mean to revere God?

I think of a scene from the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life. A priest is leading a church service and he leads the congregation in prayer: “Let us praise God. O Lord, oooh you are so big, so absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you. ... You are so strong and, well, just so … super.”

Is this what it means to revere God? To shower him with compliments and contemplate how awe-inspiring he is? That seems a little too easy.

The Hebrew language has words for “respect” and “honor” and “glorify,” but when the biblical authors talk about the fear of the Lord, they use a word that can suggest anxiety and terror as much as it can suggest awe and respect.

Now, let me be clear, I don’t think the fear of the Lord means being afraid of God. Perfect love drives out that kind of fear. But I do think there is something in the word choice that is supposed to trouble us—only, trouble us in a good way.

It is a good fear, not a threatening one, not one that inspires anxiety, not one of the many debilitating fears we tend to experience in life.

When pastors and scholars try to explain the kind of fear that is proper to the fear of the Lord, there is one Bible verse that usually doesn’t get quoted. It’s a line from a Psalm that we often hear, but one that I’ve never really heard talked about much. It’s the one from Psalm 139 that says, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Its meaning is fairly simple to grasp: we are works of art—God’s poema, as it says in Ephesians 2:10. But isn’t it interesting that the Psalm uses the word “fearfully”?

We are “fearfully” made. Think about that. God created us “fearfully.” It is the same word used for the fear of the Lord.

God did not create us willy-nilly. God did not throw us together at the last minute. Creation was not the work of relaxed, careless hands. It was not done flippantly or frivolously.

On the contrary, God created us with utmost care and attention to detail, with intentionality and precision, with purpose and skill, with artistry and, yes, caution.

God was careful when he created us, like a painter is careful with his painting, or a pianist is careful playing Mozart. We are special. God was cautious in creating us.

Similarly, God asks for the same caution from us.

Be careful how you live,” Paul says, “not as unwise people but as wise” (Eph. 5:15).

Similarly, II Chronicles 19:7 says, “Let the fear of the LORD be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the LORD our God.”

To fear the Lord means to be careful with how we live our lives, to do so cautiously, knowing that how we live matters.

For we are only alive for a short time. We have only a short time to show what we are made of. Karl Barth calls life our “unique opportunity.” We must take it seriously.

This is our moment in history, the decisive time for us. Which side are we on: God or evil? Justice or injustice? War or peace? Love or hate? Every day, it is our turn to choose one way or the other.

And it truly matters which side we choose. Our choices have real consequences for the world in which we live. Choose evil, and evil spreads. Choose love, and love spreads. Our actions have definite, concrete effects on other people.

So be careful! We need to live cautiously, considering our actions, weighing our choices.

If we do not care how we treat the people in our lives, then it shows we are not concerned about what will happen to them or to us if we do not do right by them. It shows we are not properly fearful concerning our effect on them.

If you think you can just snap at your friends out of anger with impunity, then you don’t really respect the fact that you could actually hurt them, and that they might stop being your friend because of it.

If you think you can cheat on your spouse, or even just flirt and philander with other people, then you are not properly fearful of the fact that doing so could wound your spouse and potentially destroy your relationship.

But if we really love our friends, if we really love our spouses, we will be considerate of them.

And yet sometimes we actually think the opposite. Sometimes we think that because the person loves me and knows me really well, he or she can deal with my crap. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I can snap at my wife. It’s okay if I do something wrong to her, because we have a deeper bond and she’ll forgive me.

But that’s not always true. Sometimes, what we do has more of an effect than we would like. Sometimes, my carelessness could mean genuinely damaging my wife and our relationship.

Maybe I say something to her in the heat of anger, something extremely hurtful, and maybe I think that it’ll just blow over and she’ll forget about it—but maybe she won’t. Maybe I’ve just created a wound that will fester for longer than I had thought possible.

But if I love my wife, I will be careful with her. As that old song goes, “Be careful, it’s my heart.”

The same goes for our disposition toward God.

Proverbs 8:13 says, “The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.” If you truly hate evil, you will carefully choose between one action and another, hoping that nothing you do favors evil.

That is why Paul warns against drunkenness. I’m sure we all know that drunkenness makes it extremely difficult for us to be careful. We suddenly become very careless, even reckless and flippant. The more we drink, the less we consider our words and actions, and so the more susceptible we are to foolishness and sin.

The fear of the Lord, on the other hand, drives us to cautious with how we live our lives. Such care and caution come out of a heart that is committed to God’s goodness and love.

Proverbs 16:6 equates the fear of the Lord to “loyalty and faithfulness.” And II Chronicles 19:9 says, “This is how you shall act: in the fear of the LORD, in faithfulness, and with your whole heart.”

The fear of the Lord comes from being earnestly devoted and committed to God and his justice. Just as God, as it says in our Psalm, “is ever mindful of his covenant” (111:5), so we should be ever mindful of our covenant.

Søren Kierkegaard says, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” If we are pure of heart, we will fear God and avoid evil, because we will one thing—we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).

To be pure of heart and to fear God does not mean to be perfect. It does not mean you do everything right and you never make a mistake. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to mess up. God knows that.

We don’t have to live like we’re trying to deactivate a timed bomb. We don’t have to be superego, anxiously suppressing all our thoughts and feelings out of a fear of acting wrongly or out of order.

The fear of the Lord is not an anxious fear. God does not inspire anxiety. Rather, God asks after our heart. What is our heart like? What kind of people are we? Are we the kind of people who care about our neighbors? Or are we the kind of people who only care about ourselves? Are we the kind of people who grieve injustice? Or are we the kind of people who delight in wrongdoing?

God is more concerned with your disposition than your track record. God is more concerned with your heart than your purity stats.

If you love your children, you protect them, care for them, feed them, etc. That is just what you do. It is inscribed on your heart. It is in your nature. That doesn’t mean you don’t make any mistakes, but it means, at the end of the day, your heart is for your children. At the end of the day, you raise them fearfully—seeking the best for them, keeping them safe, always wanting to do right by them, never wanting to lead them astray or put them in a dangerous situation, or neglect them.

That is the kind of “fear” that God wants. You don’t have to be perfect, just be careful. God wants us to care so much about his justice and righteousness and mercy and love that they really, seriously matter to us. God wants us to earnestly, passionately seek after his good things—not out of fear of punishment, or out of an anxiety about purity, but out of love.

Martin Luther wrote, “When a husband and wife really love one another, have pleasure in each other, and thoroughly believe in their love, who teaches them how they are to behave one to another, what they are to do or not to do, say or not to say, what they are to think? Confidence alone teaches them all this, and even more than is necessary. For such a man there is no distinction in works. He does the great and the important as gladly as the small and the unimportant, and vice versa. Moreover, he does them all in a glad, peaceful, and confident heart, and is an absolutely willing companion to the woman. … Thus a Christian who lives in this confidence toward God knows all things, can do all things, ventures everything that needs to be done, and does everything gladly and willingly, not that he may gather merits and good works, but because it is a pleasure for him to please God in doing these things.”

If we really love the Lord, if we really love the things of the Lord, then we will live our lives carefully.

So to ask, “Do you fear the Lord?” is to ask: Do you love mercy? Do you seek justice? Do you passionately long to see God’s goodness in the land of the living?

And if we do, then, as our Psalm says, we will “act accordingly” (111:10). Just as our love for our friends or our children or our spouses means we are concerned about their well-being, so our love for the things of God means we will be concerned about reflecting them in our lives.

And so I will end as it is good for a preacher to end—with the words of Jesus:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matt. 5:6).

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for the
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Old First Reformed Church
August 19, 2018

Karl Barth, CD III.4, 564-94.
Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas V. Steere (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1956).
Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works, 1520, in vol. 1 of The Annotated Luther, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 271f.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sermon: Only Where There Are Graves Can There Be Resurrection (8/12/18)


II Samuel 18:5–9, 15, 31–33
Psalm 130
Ephesians 4:25–5:2
John 6:35, 41–51

“Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom,” was David’s request. And it says “all the people heard” this order. Everyone knew that David wanted Absalom to be kept safe.

Last week, we saw that after David’s great sin the Lord declared, “the sword shall never depart from your house.” And here we come to another tragic tale in the house of David. David’s son Absalom had been leading a rebellion against David, seeking to usurp his father’s authority and inherit the throne early. But he underestimated his father’s political and military prowess, and now the chickens come home to roost.

Despite wanting to crush the rebellion, and despite distancing himself from Absalom by referring to him as “the young man Absalom” as opposed to “my son,” David wants him treated gently. He does not want more bloodshed for his house. Deep down, this is his son, and he doesn’t want to lose him.

But the sword shall never depart from the house of David. Absalom dies. He is not treated gently. He is not successfully protected or preserved by David. The sword takes another victim. Death comes with his scythe and claims another member of David’s household.

David is deeply moved. The Hebrew word here is ragaz. It means to tremble or quiver. It is the same word used to describe an earthquake. David was deeply disturbed, so much so that he was shaken to his core. The mighty king, the great warrior, who had just claimed victory over his enemies, is here founding trembling and weeping.

Now, he does call Absalom “my son,” and he does so five times, in a bitter wail. He repeats his name three times, and wishes that it was he who had died instead.

We are familiar with this kind of weeping. We repeat things again and again, because we can’t believe what has happened. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! … O Absalom, my son, my son!”


Death is an inevitable part of life. Just as we are born, we die. Just as there is life, there is death. For no one is immortal. Nothing we see is eternal.

We often say, “This too shall pass,” when we are experiencing a troubled time. And it is true. Ultimately, all things shall pass. Nothing lasts forever, not even you, not even me. We all have this fate in common: we will someday die.

The Greek poet Aeschylus writes:
Of all gods Death alone
Disdaineth sacrifice:
No man hath found or shown
The gift that Death would prize. …
There is no head so dear
That men would grudge to Death;
Let Death but ask, we give
All gifts that we may live;
But though Death dwells so near,
We know not what he saith.
It seems absurd. Since we’re alive, why is it that we should die? It seems impossible even. How can I die? Surely, there must be some way of avoiding this fate. Surely there is something I can do to bypass it.

And so the Silicon Valley folks spend millions and millions of dollars trying to overcome aging. And I read a New Yorker article last year detailing the multi-million-dollar projects of many of members of the super rich who are building their own private bunkers in case of some future catastrophe.

We don’t want to die. How do we stop it from happening? How do we protect ourselves? How do we preserve ourselves forever? “Deal gently with me,” we request.

But Death disdaineth sacrifice.

We are not quite comfortable with the fact that we will die someday. In fact, death attacks a lot of the anxieties that we humans generally have. If you’re afraid of loneliness, if you’re afraid of not having control, if you’re afraid of uncertainty or not knowing, if you’re afraid of the unfamiliar, or if you’re afraid of change, these fears tend to manifest themselves in the fear of death.

Death is awfully antagonistic. It taps into our deepest drives and anxieties. While it is perfectly natural, and just as much a part of life as birth is, we still find it so fearful. And we disdain it with such resolve.

We disdain it because it means we are not lord. We are not self-sufficient. We are not independent, self-determining, lacking nothing. Death means we are not ultimately decisive. The world does not depend on our existence. We are not essential to the fabric of the universe, nor are we its center. And that makes us uncomfortable.

I think it was this discomfort that drove Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were not comfortable depending on God. They decided that they would rather be independent, self-determining.

They were not comfortable with letting God be Lord. They decided that they would rather be lord.

They were not comfortable with God being the one who knows good and evil. They decided that they would rather have that information themselves.

“The serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of [this tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen. 3:4–6).

But they could not really be Lord. They could not really be God. They could not truly usurp God’s position and assert themselves in that way. God pronounces over them the decisive sentence, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).

Last week I said that being human means living off of God’s provision. As humans we are recipients of God’s gifts, dependent on God’s sustenance and care.

By pronouncing the sentence, “You are dust,” God makes that truth abundantly clear. As James wrote, and I quoted this a couple weeks ago, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (4:14).

Of ourselves, we are but dust. The poet and preacher John Donne asks, “What is there in the nature of man that should keep him from death?” And the truth is, nothing. And he says, we are not “immortal by nature.” Indeed we are not. We are but dust, a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. If we are immortal, Donne says, we are “immortal by preservation”—and not by our own self-preservation, but only by God’s preservation.

In death, we are cast upon the care of God. As Karl Barth says, in the face of death, “there is nothing left for me to do except to commend myself wholly and utterly into [God’s] hands,” for “the Lord is the frontier toward which we move.” Ultimately, death brings glory to God, for death makes it clear that only God is Lord. “God alone is immortal,” says I Timothy 6:16.

Ultimately, only God can give life. Ultimately, only God can preserve and protect, for everything we see is transitory and finite, and only God is eternal and omnipotent.

And so, Barth says, “we need not and cannot and must not fear death.” We have absolutely no need to fear death, because, Barth continues, “at the point where we shall cease to be, God the Lord intervenes for us. … [God] is the beyond in whom [we] in [our] transience … may see [our] temporal being … clothed with eternal life.”

It makes no sense to fear death when we know that the good Lord provides for us and will provide for us.

“Cast your burden upon the Lord, and he will sustain you,” Psalm 55:22.

“God sets the lonely in families, [and] he leads the prisoners with singing,” Psalm 68:6.

“The Lord will not reject his people, because the Lord was pleased to make you his own,” I Samuel 12:22.

The eternal, almighty, and merciful God is our hope. Therefore, we should trust God.

There is forgiveness with God, therefore he shall be feared! There is mercy and redemption and resurrection and eternal life with God—therefore he shall be feared!

To not trust God is to not fear God. In order to fear God, in order to respect and honor and glorify and revere God, we must trust God. And God is worthy of our trust.

To fear death is to doubt God’s mercy and lovingkindness. It is to do what the Israelites did in the wilderness. They did not trust that God would provide manna each day, and so they stored it up for themselves. But God did provide for them!

God provides and will provide. And as long as God is providing for us, we can live forever.

Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

God, out of the abundance of his love, wants to provide for us. He gave us life, he gives us what we have today, and when we die, he will intercede for us. When we die, we will be cast upon his mercy and his care.

Oh, what a thought! To be put in the hands of the almighty, merciful, loving God of Jesus Christ! Can we hear this and not rejoice?

So, as Jesus continually has to tell the disciples, “Do not be afraid, but believe.”

Only where there are graves can there be resurrection, as, strangely, Friedrich Nietzsche stated.

But it is not easy. As human beings, we will to survive. We are not comfortable with being at the mercy of someone else, with not being in control, with not being able to ensure our own security. We would much rather be at the helm. We would much rather be lord. And so death is scary.

I know it all too well. I have struggled with death anxiety for years, and I still have times when I am kept up at night thinking about it, dreading it.

But faith calls our fears into question. Faith reminds us that our anxious minds are not decisive, that the last word does not belong to us. In faith, we let God be true and every anxious mind a liar.

In faith, we fear God as our merciful, omnipotent savior, and we trust that God will provide for us.

So let us pray as the hymnist Thomas Ken did: “Teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for the
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Old First Reformed Church
August 12, 2018

John Donne, On Death (London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2008), 8.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4, 592-594.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Sermon: Bread for the Body, Love for the Soul (8/5/18)


II Samuel 11:26–12:13a
Psalm 51:1–13
Ephesians 4:1–16
John 6:24–35

Let me start by being honest. Our Ephesians passage includes several statements that at first made me a little nervous. “Lead a life worthy of your calling, … making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” The gifts Christ gave were “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come … to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. ... We must grow up … into Christ, … each part working properly, promoting the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

I don’t know about you, but I read this and asked, “How?!”

How are we supposed to “measure up” to Christ? How are we supposed lead a life worthy of Christ? How are we supposed to build ourselves up to Christ?

And, moreover, doesn’t that sound like a rather strenuous life? Making every effort, working, and building—and all toward a goal that, honestly, seems pretty far-fetched.

Are we not born sinners? “I have been wicked from my birth,” David says, “a sinner from my mother’s womb” (Ps. 51:6). Are we not human? Do we not make mistakes quite often? Are we not in the habit of doing what we don’t want to do and not doing what we want to do?

Are we not the kind of beings that are liable to act like David acted? Though he was a great man, an earnest, devoted servant of God, he did obscene things, and then tried to cover them up, and then he had the nerve to pass judgment on another person who acted similarly. When Nathan tells him about the wicked man from his story, David says, “The man who has done this deserves to die,” for “he had no pity.” But did David have pity on Uriah? Did David have pity on Bathsheba? Does David not deserve to die for what he did?

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).

And none of us could throw one, could we? We have all done something that we wish we wouldn’t have, something we wish we could take back. Maybe we’re even haunted by certain memories. I’m sure David was. I’m sure that later he thought of Uriah and couldn’t help but cringe, grabbing his face and shaking in shame and guilt.

Paul says, “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). So how are we supposed to measure up to Christ? Surely, we don’t have what it takes, we finite sinners. Surely, we aren’t made of the right stuff. Surely, we don’t have the proper tools.

A confession in the Book of Common Prayer says, “There is no health in us.” If there is true, how can we build anything that isn’t futile or fleeting or weak?

But thankfully, there are more words in our passage than effort, work, build, and grow. There is another word, one that is absolutely decisive, one that changes the whole dynamic, including ourselves.

That word is: Grace.

Yes, Paul does say, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but right after that he says, “they are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).

And in our Ephesians passage, the words “give,” “gift,” and “grace,” appear several times. It says, “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’”

Out of the abundance of God’s love, God shows us sinners mercy. He forgives us and gives us grace. David prays, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your lovingkindness” (Ps. 51:1), and God does indeed have mercy on him. He prays, “Give me the joy of your saving help” (v.13), and God does indeed give his saving help.

God is merciful and gracious. He gives us an abundance of gifts.

He gives us forgiveness. David prays, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your holy Spirit from me,” and God doesn’t. In Christ, God willed from all eternity to be our God, to be with us. As Karl Barth liked to say, in Christ God determined once and for all that he would not be God without us.

And he did this even knowing our sinfulness. God is always Immanuel, God with us, regardless of our sin. God forgives us. In Christ, he refuses to cast us away or take himself from us. Instead, he draws near, he comes closer, and becomes one of us, so that we might become one with him.

God forgives us and God redeems us. David prays, “Blot out my offenses, wash me, cleanse me, purge me, purify me, create in me a clean heart, renew a right spirit within me.” And God does! God makes good things come from bad. God helps what is passed help. God transforms lost causes into glorious victories. He not only forgives our sins, but washes us clean, purges sin out of us, purifies our hearts, and makes us new.

God heals us.

It may be that there is no health in us, but Jesus made it abundantly clear that God heals the sick. He provides for those in need. We saw with the feeding of the five thousand last week that when Jesus sees people who are hungry, he is concerned for them and intends to feed them. And just like Jesus, God comes for the sick, for the lost, for the poor, for the outcast. He comes for those in need of a savior, and he comes bearing gifts. Whatever our need is, he comes to us with the proper gift.

You’re a sinner? God comes with forgiveness. You are sick? God comes with healing. You are hungry? God comes with food.

God meets us where we are at. We do not have to deserve anything. We do not have to measure up to anything. We do not have to climb our way to the top, or work our way up a mountain in the hopes of getting to our savior at the top. No, Jesus comes all the way down. He “descends to the lowest parts of the earth,” as it says in our Ephesians passage (4:9).

I actually hiked up a mountain recently. It was “Mailbox Peak” in Washington state. At the entrance of the trail, there was a warning sign. It read, “Mailbox Peak Trail is a very steep, wet, unmaintained, difficult, challenging trail. It is 2.5 miles one way to the top and gains 4,000 feet in elevation. Search-and-rescue teams are frequently called to this trail to assist distressed hikers. Please respect your own ability.”

Now, I got to the top.

But getting there was no joke. It was indeed difficult and challenging. I checked our altitude every five minutes, in the hopes that we were almost there. About ¾ of the way up, while I was physically exhausted, I was mostly mentally exhausted. You look up and all you can see is trees. You look down and all you can see is trees. Rows and rows and rows of tall trees that block out the sky. For the most part, ascending the mountain, that’s all you see: trees, more trees, and yet more trees. It rarely gets more dynamic than that. And, mentally, that monotonous repetition is relentlessly tedious, and exhausting. And so ¾ of the way up, I hit a wall.

I was distressed. Fed up, really. Just stop with the trees already! Let me just get there!

Some people experience the Christian life in this way. They feel like they have to ascend a staircase to perfection. Do something good, and you take a step up; do something bad, and backtrack, you take a step down. It feels like every sin puts you farther and farther away from perfection, so that each good work is just making up for the last bad one. With that monotonous repetition, life itself becomes exhausting.

But Jesus does not ask this of us. I say again, Jesus comes all the way down the mountain. He meets us in the valley. He’ll descend “to the lowest parts of the earth.” He meets us where we are at, so that he might meet our need, so that, Paul says, “he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10).

Our Bible passages today talk a lot about the body. David wants “a clean heart” (Ps. 51:11a). He wants God to wash him and cleanse him so “that the body you have broken may rejoice” (v.9b).

Ephesians talks about the church as a body, “one body” (4:4), the body of Christ. The gifts that Christ gave were for the “building up of the body of the Christ” (v.12), who is the head. Moreover, Paul says, “the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament … promotes the body’s growth” (v.16).

We see here an image of wholeness. One body, joined together in Christ, in peace and in love—healthy, “with each part working properly” (v.16). We all know what it’s like when some parts of our bodies are not working properly. We get colds, or indigestion, or headaches, or flus, or viruses, or whatever. We know that life is best when our bodies are healthy. And the same goes for the church, the body of Christ.

God is “above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6). He is concerned with our hearts and our souls, but he is also concerned with our bodies. He wants to meet our bodily needs every bit as much as he wants to meet our spiritual needs. God wants to meet all our needs—bread for the body, and love for the soul.

God wants us to be whole and healthy, so that in our wholeness we might meet the needs of others, helping each other as one whole body of Christ, joined together by our faith and our hope.

In Christ, we believe in and hope for the resurrection of the body. People tend to think of eternal life as some disembodied state. Our soul is separated from our body at death and goes to heaven, which is some kind of bodiless, spiritual, and immortal existence.

But we don’t really get that idea from the Bible. That’s more of a Greek philosophical idea. The Bible preaches the resurrection of the body. Paul says in II Corinthians 15 that we are “sown a natural body” and “raised a spiritual body.” It is only that our earthly bodies are perishable, whereas they will be raised imperishable (vv.42–44).

And Jesus speaks of eternal food. The food we eat now perishes, but the Son of Man will give us “food that endures for eternal life” (Jn. 6:27). Moreover, the “true bread … is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (v.33). Just as we are bodies now, in need of sustenance and care, so we will be raised imperishable, spiritual bodies who live off the sustenance and care of Jesus Christ for eternity.

We are creatures of God, bodies created by God, with needs, dependent on God’s provision. That is our status. As Kathryn Tanner says, “We are here simply to be the recipients of God’s gifts.”

But, as we learned from David, the gifts that God intends for people are often hindered through sin. God’s gifts are stolen or withheld by selfishness and injustice. And so people all over the world go without shelter, or food, or care, even when God has given this earth for the good of all.

And so it is that among the gifts God are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, who equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11–12). The Greek word for ministry is diakonia, which is the same word for waiting a table. Ministry means service. The saints, meaning all who are in Christ, are intended to serve. Just as Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28), so the saints are not here to be served, but to serve.

The saints are among God’s gifts to the world. We are supposed to be gifts to the world. As God meets our needs, so we should meet the needs of others.

That is the kind of life that is worthy of our calling. That is what it means to build up the body of Christ. That is what it means to mature and grow to the measure of the full stature of Christ, who, as we read a few weeks ago in II Corinthians, “though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9).

You are a gift from God to the world. Be a gift to the world. Give gifts to the world. To quote Tanner one more time, “God may not need anything from us, but the world does.” So meet your neighbor’s needs. Meet the needs of the people in your world. Be humble and gentle and patient and peaceful.

In other words, love! Give bread for the body, and love for the soul, just as Jesus does. As Paul says, the body of Christ grows and is built up in love (v.16). So, “bear one another in love” (Eph. 4:2). “Speak truth in love” (v.15).

Not to measure up to a standard! Not to be perfect! Not to ascend some divine staircase! No. To be a Christian means to give because you have received from Christ, to serve because you have been served by Christ, to meet needs because your needs have been met by Christ.

You do not serve because you have been found wanting, or because you are impure and need to be made pure by doing good things. On the contrary, it is out of the wholeness that you receive from Christ that you are equipped and called to seek the wholeness of others.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for the
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Old First Reformed Church
August 5, 2018

Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 69.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sermon: Knowledge of Christ's Love is Power (7/29/18)


II Samuel 11:1 – 15
Psalm 14
Ephesians 3:14 – 21
John 6:1 – 21

When we read our Psalm for this morning, we are struck by a rather a hopeless picture: “All are corrupt and commit abominable acts; there is none who does any good. … Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one” (Ps. 14:1, 3).

When we read our passage from II Samuel, a similar picture emerges. Here, the great King David, the earnest man of God, God’s chosen one, takes a woman out of her rightful home, regardless of her consent, and has sex with her. When she becomes pregnant and he can’t cover it up by pretending it’s her husband’s child, he has her husband killed.

I Samuel 16 says that “the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David” (v.13). David, it says, was “a skillful musician, a mighty man of valor, a warrior, one prudent in speech, and a handsome man” (v.18). And, indeed, he demonstrated that he was such a man. He was brave and fought Goliath with a slingshot when all the other men of Israel were too afraid to even go near him. Later, he was continually victorious in battle. And mighty warrior though he was, he was still merciful toward Saul, even when Saul was evil toward him.

All the while, he remained devoted to the living God. And God himself anointed David, and remained with him, and in II Samuel 7, God makes a covenant with him and promises to remain with him forever.

But it is only a few chapters later that we get to the passage we read today. Lust, promiscuity, adultery, murder. Are these really the fruits of David’s life? Surely, all are corrupt and no one is good, if someone like David can commit such abominable acts.

Have you ever been disillusioned by someone? Think of someone you have known for whom you had a lot of respect, someone who you thought quite virtuous, but who at some point did something that contradicted everything you thought. Maybe it was a family member, a mother or a father, maybe it was a pastor, or a close friend, or a mentor, or even a partner or spouse.

Whoever it was, it was someone great, like David, someone you loved, like God and the people of Israel loved David, someone you needed, like the people of Israel needed David.

But David was human, and he did a stupid thing—a thoughtless, inexcusable thing. A few things in fact. And there was no going back. There was no undoing them. And there was no way to reverse the effects his actions had on others.

What are we to make of it? What are we to say when we encounter such corruption? What are we to do when those we look up to fail us? When those we depend on abandon us? When those we have learned to revere and admire as beacons of light make horrible decisions? When those who we thought had godly, moral integrity reveal themselves to be corrupt and sinful? What are we to do? How do we not become jaded and cynical when that happens?

Thomas Merton says, “it is in the deepest darkness” that “the infinite God Himself becomes the Light of the darkened soul and possesses it entirely with His Truth. And at this inexplicable moment the deepest night becomes day and faith turns into understanding.”

Similarly, today, I want to say that to see corruption is not to see a refutation of God, for all corruption is matched and overcome by God’s righteousness. To see darkness is not to see the absence or the nonexistence of God, for all darkness is matched and overcome by God’s infinite light. Paul says, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

All the corruption in the present state of things finds its limit in God, for whatever we think possible is far surpassed by what is possible for God; whatever we think is concretely decisive is far outweighed by the omnipotence of God.

We can see this from our Ephesians passage. The author points to intimate spaces—“every family in heaven and on earth,” “your inner being,” “your hearts”—and he highlights these intimate spaces as the spaces that God will fill “with all [his] fullness.” He lays out these dwellings, only to fill them to overflowing with the love of Christ, speaking of “the breadth and length and height and depth … that surpasses knowledge.” He sets up a container, only to have the love of God burst it open.

Our hearts are as small as our fists. In the grand scheme of things, what are hearts and our fists capable of accomplishing? What are our fists compared to the vast, expanding cosmos? What are our hearts compared to the irresistible forces of energy at work in the universe? We are dust, and to dust we shall return. We read in James chapter 4, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v.14). What can we really accomplish with our tiny hearts and our tiny fists?

But think of your heart in light of our Ephesians passage. Think of it less in terms of arteries and nerves and veins and all that fleshy stuff. Think of it as strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit. Think of it like a tree rooted in the rich, abundant, and strong soil of God’s love. How far could that tree grow? How many branches could it have? How many leaves break out of its shoots? How many other species of life could its nutrients sustain? How many fruits could it bring forth and offer to the world?

Or think of your heart like a tall building, firmly grounded and set on the foundation of God’s power. How high can it soar? How many stories can it sustain? What sights of far-off places are visible from its peak?

“The power of Christ at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

You can see that this passage is particularly concerned with power. The author prays that the Ephesians “may be strengthened in your inner being with power,” and that they “may have the power to comprehend … and to know the love of Christ.” He makes clear that this power belongs to Christ, that it is ministered to us by the Holy Spirit, and that it can accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine.

And this power is demonstrated to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As Kathryn Tanner says, we see him suffer “the effects of sin – [he is] tempted, anxious before death, surrounded by sufferings of all kinds, [and located] in social conditions of exclusion and political conflict.”  Jesus encounters these effects, but, she continues, as the very Son of God, “he cannot be conquered by them.”  Because Jesus is one with God, when he encounters the effects of sin, he overcomes them, even as a human. In Jesus, a human overcomes sin and death. 

So Jesus approaches a large crowd, and he wants to feed them. But he encounters scarcity. “Not even six month’s wages,” the disciples say, “could buy enough bread to give all of them even a little bit! And we’ve only got five loaves and two fish! What are they up against so many people?” But the disciples don’t understand the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love. They don’t understand the power of the Holy Spirit. So they’re skeptical. Jesus encounters doubt and cynicism.

But Jesus, who is one with God the Father, ignores the disciples. And he ignores the scarcity. He gives thanks for the food, distributes it to all, and then says, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” He doesn’t even ask if there are leftovers, he just tells them to gather them up. Sure enough, there were leftovers. Twelve baskets full!

Jesus overcomes cynicism with faith, and scarcity with abundance.

He was rooted and grounded in God’s love, strengthened with the power of the Holy Spirit, filled with the fullness of God, and so he was able to accomplish more than is humanly possible.

And as we see in Ephesians, we are empowered to do the same through the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that united Jesus to God unites us with Jesus, and so with Jesus’ victory. Quoting Tanner again: “Christian lives reproduce in their own distinct way” Christ’s encounter with sin and death and his overcoming of sin and death.  Because Jesus did it, the Holy Spirit makes it possible for us.

So “do not be afraid,” as Jesus says in our Gospel passage. “Be not doubtful, but believing,” as he says in chapter 20. For with God, all things are possible.

Faith is the assertion that the present state of things is not ultimately decisive, that the status quo does not have the last word, that what seems impossible to us is not impossible to God. Even in the lowest, darkest, most hidden recesses of existence, the darkness dos not overcome the light.

John Calvin describes this element of faith beautifully. He says, “In the realm of faith the two apparent opposites—evidence and things not seen—struggle with one another and are united. … [God] promises eternal life—to those who are dead. He speaks of the blessedness of resurrection—to those who are compassed about with corruption. He pronounces those in whom sin dwells—to be righteous. He calls those oppressed with ceaseless tribulation—blessed. He promises abundance of riches—to those abounding only in hunger and thirst. God cries out to us that He is coming quickly to our aid—and yet He seems deaf to every human cry for help. What, then, would be our fate, were we not powerful in hope, were we not hurrying through the darkness of the world along the road which is enlightened by the Spirit and by the Word of God.”

Eternal life, resurrection, righteousness, abundance, and even God himself all strike us as impossible. The poor stay poor. Sinners stay sinners. The dead stay dead. These claims often seem so self-evident as to be unquestionable. They carry a strange, natural quality, a necessity that is somehow indisputable. We don’t quite know why, but they just seem obvious. The dead stay dead. The poor stay poor. Sinners stay sinners. Of course that’s the way it is. Of course.

So where is room for hope?

I heard a character in a TV show declare, “Hope is a tease, designed to prevent us from accepting reality.” In another TV show, a character says, “The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy … is to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually you’ll be dead.”

I admit, I have had plenty of times in my life when I have accepted such conclusions as inevitable. I know it all too well. But as Paul says, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” The fool says in his heart, “There is no hope.” “Have they no knowledge?” our psalmist asks.

And so Ephesians prays “that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith,” and “that we may have the power to comprehend … and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”

To know the love of Christ is to have the knowledge that surpasses knowledge.

Hope pours forth from God’s love. To know that God loves the world is to know that there is hope. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God loves the world, so we will not perish. God loves the world, so we will have eternal life.

And as Paul says in Romans 8, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? … Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Nothing can separate us from God’s love, so nothing can tear us away from our promise future. We are victorious in Christ. We are accompanied by the Holy Spirit, the power of Christ’s victory. We are never abandoned by the God who loves us with a love that surpasses understanding. 

So, “Be strong and courageous,” as it says in Deut. 31, “Do not be afraid or terrified … for the LORD your God goes with you, he will never leave you nor forsake you” (v.6).

“Do not fear,” Isaiah 41:10, “for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

God loves you. You, in all your complexity and difference and particularity. God loves the world universally, and God loves you specifically. You are never truly alone. You are never truly estranged. You are never truly an outcast, for you are, truly, always in the hands of God. As Psalm 27:10 says, “Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.” Even when you have no one around you, or when you don’t know anyone around you, God knows you. God knows you and loves you.

Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (12:6–7).

When it seems like there’s no hope, when everything around you contradicts the promises of God, when everyone around you doubts and says, “Not possible”—do not be afraid. Know that God loves you, that God is the refuge of the afflicted (Ps. 14:6), that he makes the impossible possible, and that he will restore the fortunes of his people. As God loves the world, so Christ will deliver, Christ will redeem, Christ will save.

This knowledge of Christ’s love is the power that defies all odds, that breaks open the present, overcomes all things, and makes a new world possible.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for the
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Old First Reformed Church
July 29, 2018

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1972), 135.
Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 27f.
Ibid., 29.
Ibid., 31.
Ibid., 56.