The Blog of Jack Holloway

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Sermon: "Woman Surrounds Man" - Jeremiah's Vision of New Being

Click here to listen to the audio

Before we dive in, I want to acknowledge that this passage from Jeremiah discusses gender in a binary way—woman and man—and because this sermon is in part a word study, I will also use that language. The biblical prophets wrote from their own understanding and cultural context. Now, thousands of years later, as we grow in our understanding and celebration of gender diversity, we can still look to texts like this one for lessons on how to disrupt expectations and challenge norms.

This poem from Jeremiah is about one of the foremothers of Israel. Rachel in the book of Genesis dies giving birth to Benjamin, who she had named Ben-oni, which means “son of my sorrow.”[1] She dies in childbirth, weeping. This poem in Jeremiah says that Rachel, one of the foremothers of Israel, is still weeping. She’s weeping over her children, and after all this time, she has never been consoled. 

The first woman, Eve, had been cursed in Genesis 3 with pain in childbearing, and with subjugation to the man, Adam (v.16). The biblical scholar Phyllis Trible describes the curse as the woman corrupted in becoming a slave while the man is corrupted in becoming a master.[2] 

So when Rachel in Genesis 35 dies in the pain of childbirth, her death is a direct result of this corrupted state from Genesis 3. And in this poem from Jeremiah, she has spent generations weeping over her children, who still live under this corrupted state. 

Rachel’s pain is a central image that Jeremiah deploys in speaking of Israel’s crisis. Many times Jeremiah prophesies that the people’s pain will be like the pain of “a woman in labor,” which is a phrase the prophet uses nine times throughout the course of the book.[3] The despair and sorrow in Rachel’s death are at the heart of the prophet’s message. 

And it is such a painful and poignant image, an image of eternal mourning. It reminded me of a part of the movie 12 Years a Slave, where a black woman is forcibly separated from her children as they are sold into slavery. She weeps unceasingly for days. When she is confronted and told to get over it, she refuses to forget her children and cease mourning. She utterly despairs, for there is no way to fill the emptiness of lost children.

This theme of utter loss is present throughout the book of Jeremiah. The prophet talks about having an “incurable wound.”[4] He is overtaken by despair, seeing, as he repeats several times, “terror all around.”[5] 

The major threat for Jeremiah is an absolute tyranny of evil that leaves no room for hope or change. This poem wrestles with that threat, but witnesses to the opening for hope that God creates. As Kelly Brown Douglas says, “Into the midst of a mother’s deepest pain and suffering God is present in the world bringing hope.”[6] 

While I love this entire poem and wish I could spend the rest of the night talking about all its wonders, in returning to it I found myself transfixed by a single line—in fact, the very last line of the poem. In Hebrew, it is only three words: “woman surrounds man.” When I read it I thought, What is that doing there? How have I never noticed that? 

I rushed to my Jeremiah commentaries, and read every entry on verse 22. And I learned a lot, not just about the verse itself, but, more surprising, I learned about the lengths people will go to resolve their discomforts with a text. 

Just about every commentator I read made a statement about how confusing the verse is. The most dramatic came from the Anchor Bible commentary. The scholar John Bright says, “The meaning is wholly obscure. ... Quite possibly we have here a proverbial saying indicating something that is surprising and difficult to believe, the force of which escapes us.”[7] He even goes so far as to say, “it might have been wiser to leave the colon blank,” wildly seeming to suggest that we omit these words from our Bibles.

The fact that historical-critical scholars such as this one could be this baffled by a Bible verse got me real interested in learning its history. 

I want to share some of that history with you, because it is just so fascinating. 

The first translation I want to highlight is actually a Hebrew-to-Greek translation—specifically the Septuagint, the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible from just before the common era. The Hellenistic-Jewish scholars who translated Jeremiah 31:22 at this time apparently thought it was too objectionable to take literally, because they simply removed ‘woman’ from the verse. It says, “men shall go about in safety.”[8] The theme of male security remains, but woman is excluded. 

They just took ‘woman’ out of the verse! Can you believe that? 

No longer does woman protect man, but man is just, safe, somehow. 

Man is safe. No word on the plight of woman.

So that’s the Septuagint. Jumping ahead a couple thousand years: the second translation I want to highlight is the New International Version, released in the 1970s. The translators for this version did not leave out any words in Jeremiah 31:22 but rather settled for exchanging one of the words. Instead of the woman protecting or surrounding the man, the NIV says, “the woman will return to the man.” … Return to. 

Now, the theme of reconciliation between God the husband and Israel the wife is common in the prophets. And the translators of the NIV clearly thought it wouldn’t be inappropriate here. 

But they totally change the meaning of the verse! Whereas, before, woman overwhelms man, surrounding him, now man stands over woman, as she humbly returns to him. 

The “new thing” God creates is then simply welcoming the adulterous wife back to his arms. As the Word Biblical Commentary puts it, this thing is new, “because, in the world of Israel’s experience, a husband cannot remarry his adulterous wife.”[9] So “woman surrounds man” is transformed into a statement about a sinful, adulterous woman submitting herself and returning to her righteous, male lord. 

The patriarchy is secure. Just as in Genesis 3, the male is made supreme. Woman returns to subordination. 

So that’s the NIV. 

From the same decade, the third translation I want to highlight comes from the Roman Catholic Church—the New American Bible. Apparently the scholars behind this translation were also perplexed by Jeremiah 31:22, because, while the New American Bible translation of this verse preserves all the original words, it just adds a little, shall we say, clarification. The NAB says, “the woman will encompass the man with devotion.” … Isn’t that just incredible? 

The first translation changed the text by subtraction, taking an offending word out of the text; the second translation changed the text by substitution, altering an offending verb; and this third translation changed the text by addition, tacking on more desirable text. 

These are all attempts, not to draw out meaning, but to dictate meaning. These translators are attempting to speak for the Bible. 

Woman doesn’t “surround” man! How could that be? Women are the weaker sex! If woman surrounds man with anything, it’s with devotion!

It appears that the Bible here is saying something subversive. Jeremiah 31:22 is apparently so gender transgressive that patriarchal Bible translators feel the need to change it. They sterilize the verse. They make it unthreatening to them, unthreatening to their male supremacy. 

But one interpretation I read that I was actually impressed by came from the infamous theologian John Calvin. He’s got his limits, but he has proved that he can be insightful.

In the 16th century when he was writing, the traditional Christian interpretation of Jeremiah 31:22 held that the woman in the verse is Mary and the man is Jesus. “Woman surrounds man” refers to Jesus in Mary’s womb. Calvin criticized this interpretation, saying it is “deservedly laughed at by the Jews.”[10] He often preferred Jewish scholars to Catholic ones, and here he was able to see how ridiculous of an interpretation the traditional Christian one was.[11] There is no mention of Jesus or Mary in this passage, and the context has nothing to do with prophesying a coming Messiah.

Even more ironic, Calvin’s alternative reading of the verse is perhaps the most radical that I read. He points to the fact that the word for “surround” in many other parts of Scripture means “besiege,” as in Joshua 6 where the word is used in reference to the Israelites surrounding the city of Jericho. And Calvin’s interpretation says that it refers to a future state in which the Jewish kingdom will be so victorious that any Jewish woman will be stronger than any of their male enemies.[12] In other words, “woman encompasses man” is another way of saying “the meek will inherit the earth.” 

And I was not expecting what Calvin went on to say. He says, and I’m paraphrasing a little for clarity’s sake, it is right that the prophet calls this vision a wonderful thing, because it would be a revolution of the enslaved, liberated by God, and taking their oppressors captive.[13] 

Of all the commentaries I read, Calvin offered the liberationist reading.

With this interpretation in mind, let’s go back to the 1970s:

In the same decade when the NIV and the NAB were released, the feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible was doing some translating of her own. 

But before I go into Trible’s discussion of our text from Jeremiah, I want to show you something. It’s a picture of the first Phyllis Trible book I purchased, her book Texts of Terror.[14] I had ordered a used copy online, and when it arrived I noticed there was something written, or rather, carved, on the cover. The previous owner had taken a pen with no ink and pressed the words “Very bias account” on the cover, … and then got rid of it. [Add photo to chat.] I guess he thought the book was too feminist or something.

What’s interesting about this engraving though is that Phyllis Trible is widely considered one of the best biblical interpreters of the 20th century, known specifically for her careful attention to the text. What’s more, when she translates Jeremiah 31:22, she does not argue with the way the text is written, but rather, translates it word for word. 

Isn’t it just so funny that in the 1970s, conservative biblical translators, including those who supposedly believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, intentionally changed and imposed meaning on a biblical verse. But at the same time, a feminist is the one reading the text word for word and not attempting to add to or subtract from it.

The irony just kills me. It seems that the enemy of biblical interpretation is not privileging marginalized voices in the text, as Phyllis Trible does; the real enemy of biblical interpretation is male supremacy!

Now, when Dr. Trible translated Jeremiah 31:15-22, she found that there is an abundance of female imagery throughout this poem, so that its final claim about woman encompassing man is the culmination of an overarching, female-centered narrative.[15] 

The poem begins with Rachel’s weeping, and God moves in to console her. And later, God herself joins in Rachel’s lament, expressing a motherly longing for reconciliation with Ephraim. God says, and this is Trible’s translation, “my womb trembles” for Ephraim. The Hebrew word here means “inner parts,” and considering the mother/child images and other clues from the context, “womb” stands out as a strong choice of word.[16] The desire is for wayward Ephraim to return to his mother who birthed him.

So, by the time you get to the final statement of the poem, we have an abundance of female imagery, and a vision of returning to mother’s loving embrace and care. And it is now that it says, “God has created a new thing in the land: woman surrounds man.”

Altogether, this poem offers us a multitude of female images for God, for dealing with suffering, for seeking redemption, and for new creation. The images are, albeit, mostly limited to motherhood, leading the scholar Walter Brueggemann to call the poem “sexist,”[17] but the poem’s final line invites us to imagine a new way of female being: “woman encompasses man." 

What the male-supremacist translations I discussed earlier fail to articulate, is that the real punch of Jeremiah 31:22 is in its stark troubling of gender roles. God has created a new thing on the earth: woman encompasses man. The supposed “weaker sex” protects the supposed “stronger sex.” The surprise is the point! The prophet is inciting the people to imagine a totally other world.

Jeremiah 31:22 imagines the liberation of the oppressed. The lion will lay down with the lamb (Isa. 65:25), the last will be first (Mark 10:31), the meek will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5)—woman will protect man. It’s an image of a just society, of a state of peace, with necessarily different roles for human beings to play. 

Ephraim will return to his mother, God, who will heal his wounds. No longer will Rachel cry out in labor pangs. The curse will be lifted. Man will not rule over woman, but woman will surround man. The new thing God has done is symbolized by this vision of restoration and equality.

In the days that come, we may or may not catch a glimpse of the new thing God has created. We may spend more time weeping than singing. We may find ourselves in a state of hopelessness, feeling like there is “terror all around.” There is room in God’s motherly embrace for all of that pain and struggle. But Jeremiah also asks us to continually imagine new ways of being.

When Jeremiah says, “God has created a new thing,” this is the first and only usage of this particular Hebrew verb for “create” in the book of Jeremiah.[18] It is as if even the prophet’s very statement about God’s new creation calls for a totally new verb—because God’s creative activity is always new, always transgressing our limits. 

Correspondingly, Jeremiah offers us new roles to take up as children of God, roles not bound to patriarchy, but which reflect harmony and a revolutionary peace: woman surrounds man.


[1] Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 40.

[2]  Ibid., 128.

[3] See Jeremiah 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 48:41; 49:22; 49:24; 50:43.

[4] Jeremiah 10:19, 15:18, 30:12.

[5] Jeremiah 6:25, 8:15, 14:19, 20:3, 20:10, 46:5, 49:29.

[6] Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015), 228.

[7] John Bright, Jeremiah, vol. 21 of The Anchor Bible, eds. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965).

[8] Jeremiah 38:22 LXX-B.

[9] Keown, Scalise, and Smothers, Word Biblical Commentary, 123.

[10] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. John King; Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1847), paragraph 39218.

[11]  See David L. Puckett, John Calvin’s Exegesis of the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), ch.3

[12]  Calvin, paragraph 39219.

[13]  “Justly does [the prophet] set forth this as a wonderful thing, for it was a sort of revolution in the world when God thus raised up his servants, so that they who had enslaved [his servants] should become far unequal to them.” Calvin, paragraph 39504.

[14]  Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).

[15]  Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 40-50.

[16]  Ibid., 45.

[17]  Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 288.

[18]  William L. Holladay, Jeremiah: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, Chapters 26–52, vol. 24B of Hermeneia, ed. Paul D. Hanson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 195.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Sermon: To Wake from Sleep

Watch the service:

Ex. 12:1–14
Ps. 149
Rom. 13:8–14
Matt. 18:15–20 

Romans 13:814: "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For 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; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires."


In the Roman world, the entire society was based on conquest and domination. The imperial architecture constantly surrounding Rome’s inhabitants flaunted Roman subjugation, depicting their gods, emperors, and warriors crushing Rome’s enemies and reigning over them.

Society under Roman rule was made up of stark divisions—colonizer vs. colonized, freeperson vs. slave, landowner vs. laborer, uncircumcised vs. circumcised, and so on.

These divisions operated under a law of contempt. You are supposed to hate those who are not like you. You are supposed to be superior to them. It is a pyramid structure, where each brick is supposed to rule over the bricks below it.

This law of contempt is lawlessness and death. Empire is based on such lawlessness and death, because it is based on theft: theft of land, theft of lives, theft of resources. Caring only for its own rights, empire steals, kills, and destroys all over the place, continually building its society on injustice.

Rome was such a place. And America is such a place. The overwhelmingly white American prosperity we see today was built on theft. White settlers took the land of indigenous peoples, over countless dead bodies and broken treaties. As if that weren’t enough, white prosperity was built on the backs of black slaves.

Our country’s laws were made possible by the violation of God’s law. Just like the Roman empire, the American empire constructed a system of domination, complete with divisions and hierarchies: slave vs. free, white vs. black, rich vs. poor, capitalist vs. worker, man vs. woman.

Is that love? Is that a Christian nation?

You can’t have a Christian nation without love for all people. For in Christ, the law is to “love one another.” Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies.

Love is the fulfilling of the law. The law says, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t covet, etc. These prohibitions flow from love, from a spirit of mutual respect between persons. I am not above you. I have no right to wrong you. I have no right to steal from you. I have no right to do you harm. That is the law. If I love you, I will keep this law.

Love for all people accomplishes the entirety of the law because the law exists to protect human rights, and love makes the rights of others paramount. Love takes care of people and ensures their rights are fulfilled.

So the theologian Karl Barth says, “Love is … the end of all hierarchies.”  

Love demands equality. If a president is to love his neighbors as himself, he cannot assert himself as more important or more worthy than others. He cannot sacrifice the needs of others on the altar of his own needs. Nor can he place his group above other groups. For someone holding power to love someone without power, there can be no hierarchy of significance. The penniless foreigner cannot be less important than the richest CEO. That is the law of love.

White people cannot be more important than black people. Not according to the law of love.

To “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” necessitates a relinquishing of one’s imperial status. As Paul says in Galatians, “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27f.). In Christ, there is no hierarchy, only equality. We are all one, so we are all equal. We can’t be 3/5 equal. 3/5 does not equal one. In Christ, we are all one. And one equals one.

Love for all people is the end of hierarchies because love asks, “Who isn’t being loved? Who is hated? Who is trampled on? Who is cast out and marginalized? Who is exploited? Who is oppressed?” Love demands equality, and it goes out and gets it if it must.

But I grew up with a different understanding of love, which was more akin to niceness. Love meant being polite and kind to all people. Love concerned how I personally treat people, and that’s about it. But niceness and politeness are compatible with injustice, and love isn’t compatible with injustice.

Love goes out into society and looks for those in need. The needy need love, and I don’t mean kindness, I don’t mean give’em a dollar, I don’t mean give’em an encouraging word. Love doesn’t just treat the oppressed nicely. The oppressed need loving care. Love seeks to meet peoples’ needs and ensure their rights.

As Howard Thurman writes in his groundbreaking book Jesus and the Disinherited, “Wherever a need is laid bare, those who stand in the presence of it can be confronted with the experience of universality that makes all class and race distinctions impertinent.”  When we focus on meeting the needs and fulfilling the rights of all people, we cannot maintain our divisions. Instead, we encounter our universal humanity, and we encounter love’s demand that we care for all people.

Love is humanistic. It sees a human in need and seeks to fill that need. That is what love does.

This is why Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Because justice would be the universal meeting of needs. Righteousness would mean everyone lives fully within their rights and are not deprived of any.

So love is not blind. It sees the unloved. It sees those the world refuses to take care of, and it sees who the world takes care of too much.

Church, for the sake of love, it is time to wake up. It is time to stop denying that we live in an empire built on injustice. It is time to stop turning a blind eye to the grip of white supremacy on this nation. It is time to stop denying that this country’s laws were designed to benefit white property-owners over everyone else. It is time to stop neglecting this nation’s racism and its racist history.

It is time to lay aside our escapism. It is time to wake up from our fantasies. No longer can we pretend like everything is hunky dory, like the status quo takes care of everybody.

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Trayford Pellerin. Daniel Prude. All of them were killed by police this year. The footage of Daniel Prude’s murder was released last week. Police can be seen laughing at him as he lay naked and cuffed on the ground. He suffocated under the bag they put over his head.

Mocked, brutalized, murdered, just as Jesus was mocked, brutalized, and murdered.

How long are we going to let this continue? As Bob Dylan asked in 1963, How many deaths will it take ‘til we know that too many people have died?

We know what time it is. Now is the moment for us to wake from sleep. It is time put aside tranquility and complacency and put on the armor of love.

What do you do when you wake up in the morning? You get up and you put your clothes on! And once your clothes are on, you do what the day requires of you. Similarly, we need to wake up, clothe ourselves with justice and love, and determine to do what this day requires of us.

For we can see the truth. We can see what God is calling us to. The oppressed are crying out. The groans of black bodies are ringing out in the streets. We can hear the proclamation, “Black Lives Matter” all over the world. This proclamation comes straight from heaven. And if we have an ear for divine justice, we will hear “Black Lives Matter” as a word of truth, and as God’s unyielding call to our nation.

So what are we gonna do? What are we going to bind and loose? What are we going to demand in Jesus’ name? How are we going to show our love? How are we going to help liberate the oppressed? For, as our Psalm today tells us, “the Lord takes pleasure in his people, and adorns the poor with victory.”  

As a predominantly white church, and as a church that for two hundred years benefited from the existence of a slave economy, we have to start indicting ourselves, because it is easy to fall into complacency and denial.

I’m a white person, so I have to ask myself hard questions, and I have to seek out the questions that are being asked of me by oppressed people in this country.

I need to privilege black voices. I need to hear their suggestions and heed their calls to action. I need to educate myself and not expect others to educate me. I need to ask myself, How much do I know about black history? How many black stories am I hearing? What can I do to learn more?

I need to support black organizations. I need to ask, Who are the people fighting for black liberation in this country, and how can I support them? Which organizations do I donate to, and what are they doing to advance the cause of black people in this country?

If I’m in a position of power and influence, I need to ask, How can I use that power and influence to help and uplift disenfranchised people?

Educating ourselves, participating in communities of action, and challenging ourselves will be essential to becoming co-conspirators for black liberation. We’re living in a time when information is more accessible than it has ever been. We have YouTube, podcasts, Wikipedia, eBooks, audio books, online library catalogs. The list goes on. We have all the resources we need to start educating ourselves and pursuing understanding on what we can do to accomplish racial justice in our world.

And what’s more, it is love’s imperative that we do so.

We have an obligation as Christians to seek out the testimony of the oppressed in our world, and to do what we can to restore their fortunes as much as possible.

It is a sign of hope to me that we are dealing with these issues as a church. I am inspired by our Anti-Racist Reading Group, which focuses on “discussing ways that we, as individuals and as a community of Jesus, can work to dismantle racism.” This is exactly the kind of work we need to be doing. Whether you join this particular reading group or not, we should be doing this kind of thinking as a community, asking these kinds of questions, and pursuing radical change in our world.

Our past and present are defined by inequality, but our future does not have to be. Not if we are guided by the law of love. Not if we determine to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make it our mission to fill the needs and ensure the rights of all people.

Our passage from Romans says, “salvation is nearer to us than when we became believers,” and that “the night is far gone, the day is near.” I will be honest and admit that I do not understand these words. ‘Cuz it still looks like night to me! The rays of the sun seem nowhere in sight. “Salvation” seems more like a pipe dream than an imminent reality.

But, church, I’m tellin’ ya, there will be a day when justice will dawn on the world. God will execute judgments on the idols of Egypt. We will sing to the Lord a new song, a freedom song. And creation will rejoice in its creator.

We will see glory in the streets. We will see the dead vindicated. We will see the healing of the sick. We will see abundance for the poor. We will see deliverance for the captives. We will see it. We will do it. It cannot be stopped. You cannot stop the irresistible force of God’s love for his creation.

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.