Archive for May, 2009
The other day, as I was on my way to work, I was listening to the WOAI morning show where the question of the day was, “At your child’s college graduation, do you stay for the complete ceremony, or do you quietly leave after their name is read?” Caller after caller voiced their opinions on both sides of the issue. Some insisted that you should stay for the whole ceremony out of deference to your child’s classmates while others admitted that they intentionally find excuses to excuse themselves from such a long-winded ceremony. Whatever the opinion expressed, however, one thing was for certain: None of the callers really enjoyed sitting through long litanies of names rattled off at most college graduations. Sure, some insisted that a person should stay through the entire ceremony for the sake of politeness, but no one stood elated at the prospect listening to unfamiliar name after unfamiliar name just so they could hear the one name of the person whom they loved.
Oftentimes, whenever we encounter a biblical genealogy, the lengthy list of names contained therein strikes us to be a bit like the innumerable inventories of names announced at college graduations To use the old King James language: “And Zabad begat Ephlal, and Ephlal begat Obed, and Obed begat Jehu, and Jehu begat Azariah, and Azariah begat Helez, and Helez begat Eleasah, and Eleasah begat Sisamai, and Sisamai begat Shallum, and Shallum begat Jekamiah, and Jekamiah begat Elishama” (1 Chronicles 2:37-41).
Now for a brief time of personal confession. Did you read the above genealogy carefully and studiously? Did you ponder over each name, perhaps even looking up a few of the names in a Bible dictionary to learn more about them? Or, did you just skim over the names in bored indifference? How about in our reading for today from Matthew 1? Did you read each name carefully or did you just skip Matthew’s opening verses to get to the interesting part where Jesus is born?
I know it can be tempting to breeze through biblical genealogies. Admittedly, I myself have far too often paid little attention to these lengthy lists of names. And yet, these genealogies are much more intriguing, interesting, and invaluable than they might first appear. For behind each name lies a life who is part of God’s unfolding story of salvation. Take, for instance, a sampling of the names which appear in Matthew’s genealogy. Tamar (verse 3), a woman who pretended to be a prostitute so that she could coax her father-in-law into sleeping with her. King David (verse 6), a murderer as well as an adulterer. Solomon (verse 6), a son of David, who worshipped false and abhorrent gods. Or how about Jeconiah (verse 12), a king who did such terrible evil in the eyes of the Lord that God cursed his family line. These are the names that Matthew marshals to record the family history of none other than “Jesus, who is called Christ” (verse 16).
Hmmm. Perhaps Matthew should have done some selective editing and left a few of these less savory characters out of the family tree of the Savior of the world. After all, this kind of a sordid genealogical reckoning doesn’t exactly speak well of Jesus’ pedigree. But this is exactly Matthew’s point. For Matthew is seeking to remind his reader exactly why we need a Savior. We need a Savior because of Tamar and because of David and because of Solomon and because of Jeconiah…and because of you and me.
The Greek word for “genealogy” is genesis, meaning “origin” or “beginning.” Perhaps you are better familiar with this word as the namesake for the first book of the Bible: Genesis. This book’s name actually describes its contents. It is a history of the origin of humanity and of Israel. But now in Matthew’s gospel, this word has returned, not to describe a garden named Eden, but a person named Jesus. For Jesus is bringing about a new Genesis – a new beginning. A new beginning that is marked not by transgression and folly, but one that is marked by righteousness and compassion. In a very real sense, Jesus is redoing Genesis. Except that Jesus, unlike us, actually gets Genesis right. He does not sin as do Adam and Eve.
This, then, is sequence of Matthew’s genealogy: He begins with the old Genesis and with all of the sinfulness and brokenness that marks its people. But he ends with the new Genesis – “Jesus, who is called the Christ.” And the new Genesis does everything well. That’s the point of all those boring names. For all those boring names point us to Jesus. Then again, now that you know some of the raucous stories behind those names, perhaps they aren’t so boring after all.
Sometimes, I’m not as quick at returning phone calls as I should be. Last Friday, a good friend of mine called. This past Monday, I was finally able to return his call. After apologizing for taking three days to call him back, I reflexively asked, “So what’s up? Is something wrong?” This buddy of mine is in ministry at a church in Dallas and many times our conversations turn to the challenges of church work. Thus, I assumed that he had called me because he was facing some difficulty that he wanted some counsel on. I assumed incorrectly. “I didn’t call you for anything in particular,” he responded, “I just wanted to say hello.”
Although I’m ashamed to admit it, I hardly ever call anyone “just to say hello.” For my phone calls are usually made with some goal in mind: a task to complete; a deadline to meet; a question that I need answered. But my buddy called me “just to say hello.” And perhaps, even in the midst of our hurried lives and crowded calendars, this is a practice that many of us would do well to recapture.
In our reading for today from Romans 16, Paul rips off the lengthiest list of “hellos” of any of his letters. This is probably because Paul had not yet visited the church at Rome when we wrote Romans, so his greetings were extensive because he was not able to offer them in person. What is especially fascinating, however, is that Paul’s practice of offering “holy hellos” was not common in the ancient world. Primitive church scholar Hans Windisch, who taught at Leipzig, Leiden, Kiel, and Halle before his untimely death in 1935, writes, “In letters of the pre-Christian period, greetings are not too common and there are no long series of greetings.” Thus, even in the first century, it seems people had little time to pick up the phone “just to say hello.” Indeed, normally, “hellos” were reserved only for those of high status, such as priests, rulers, and rabbis, as the ancient Jewish historian Josephus informs us: “Alexander, when he saw…the high priest in purple and scarlet clothing, with his mitre on his head, having the golden plate whereon the name of God was engraved, he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first greeted the high priest” (Antiquities, 11.331). Alexander the Great, a man himself worthy of a great greeting, extends a greeting to the high priest of Israel. Such are the kinds of people for whom “hellos” were reserved. For common folk rarely offered “hellos” and never received them.
Paul, however, describes a different tact when it comes to the kinds of “hellos” that Christians should proffer. This tact is perhaps most clearly expressed in verse 23: “Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.” Erastus was well known in the ancient world as a prominent politician from Corinth. Indeed, a Latin inscription near the Corinthian theatre reads, “Erastus, commissioner of public works, bore the expense of this pavement.” Erastus, it seems, was quite wealthy and donated much of his massive fortune to the betterment of his hometown. Here was a man whom many would have greeted and who would have greeted other dignitaries because of his status. But then there is Quartus. And we know much less about Quartus because he was nothing but a lowly slave. And yet, Quartus too greets the Roman church. And it can only be assumed that the Roman church returns the favor.
For Christians, then, “hellos” became something not reserved only for the elite, but for everyone, whether they be powerful politicians or supine serfs. So today, I offer you this challenge: In a world where, much like in the first century, we all too often only say “hello” to those from whom we need something or to those whom we consider important, call someone today “just to say hello.” Call someone with no favors to ask, no networking to do, and no hidden agenda in mind. Call someone simply to check up on them. For sometimes a simple “hello” from a concerned soul is what a person needs more than anything else. And, if you would, share this challenge with others as well. For together, we can make today a day of “hellos” that are meant not only to accomplish tasks, but to touch hearts. And in the end, that’s more important anyway.
During my final year of college, I had the privilege of taking what many considered to be the “holy grail” of course offerings: I took a course in civics. I know what you’re thinking: “Civics? That doesn’t sound very exciting!” And you’re right. It wasn’t. No, what made this course such a thrill for me wasn’t the content of the course itself, but the way in which this course was offered. Because for fourth year college students, it was offered as an independent study course. In other words, I could study the material on my own, visit with my professor every once in a while, and then take the tests. And as long as I did well on the tests, I passed the course. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to how much I actually studied for my civics course, but I will say this: It wasn’t one of my most studious academic moments.
Thankfully, by the time I got to seminary, I had gained a deeper appreciation for the value of education as I once again did some independent study. And I loved the freedom that independent study afforded me. The freedom to read books that I wanted to read and study theologians that I wanted to study and pursue topics that I wanted to pursue. I also cherished the one on one meetings with my advisor as I was able to share with him all that I was learning and he was able to point me in new directions so that I could investigate new things. I perhaps learned more during my times of independent of study in seminary than I did during any of my formal classes.
One of the greatest values I see in our “Word for Today” Bible reading program is that it allows us, as we read through the New Testament in a year, to do a little bit of independent study. For as we read the Bible, day in and day out, and pause to ponder, pray, and try to better understand the message of Scripture, we do so outside of a classroom setting and a formalized curriculum. And I believe there is great value in that. For all too often, the only Scripture we take in is that which we hear when we’re sitting in a pew on a Sunday morning. And although we do indeed need such times of guided teaching, we also need times of independent study.
In our reading for today from Romans 15, Paul extols the value of such independent study: “I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me” (verses 14-15). Paul, in these verses, says, “I have taught you, I have trained you, I have written you – quite boldly on some doctrines – and now it’s time for some independent study. Now it’s time for you to instruct one another. You have all the tools in the bag you need to continue your studies in Scripture. So get to it.”
The other day as I was perusing the website blog for our “Word for Today” readings, I noticed that one of our Concordia members had posted a question he had about a passage of Scripture. Wonderfully, rather than waiting for a pastor to respond (because admittedly, we can sometimes be a little slow in our responses), another one of our members responded to his question. He began, “I’ll add my two cents worth.” And that’s exactly to the point of this program. To read, to study, and then to add “your two cents worth.” For I myself am convinced, dear brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge, and competent to instruct one another. So keep up your independent study. And keep instructing one another. And remember that even when you study Scripture “independently,” you never study Scripture alone. For the Holy Spirit is there with you to guide you into all truth. Praise be to God for that great gift.
Last week, I had the pleasure of leading our final Men’s Bible Breakfast before we adjourned for the summer. The guys decided that they wanted to have an “Ask the Pastor” session in which they could ask me anything they happened to have on their minds. They finally decided this format would be more appealing if it was billed as “Stump the Pastor.” Thanks a lot, guys!
Although the fellas were gracious and spared me their hardest curve ball questions, otherwise they would have surely flummoxed me, there was one question from this final session that especially struck me: “Is cremation okay?”
My reflexive reaction to this question was to respond with another question: “Why do you ask?” Because the answer to this question has more to do with the intentions behind a person’s desire to be cremated than with the act of cremation itself. For with the advent of the Enlightenment and its accompanying scientific ethos, there are some who, in an act of defiance, want to be cremated solely so that God can not raise their bodies from the dead on the Last Day, which, of course, in their minds is nothing but a superstitious and non-rational belief anyway. Others, however, are cremated simply because of financial or familial concerns. To those in the former group, I would say a decision to cremate would be sinful. Not because cremation itself is sinful, but because the intentions behind it are. On the other hand, to those in the latter group, I would straightforwardly sanction cremation. For those in this group have no ill intent lurking behind their decision.
According to Scriptural theology, our intentions matter just as much as our actions. Indeed, this is what we find in today’s reading from Romans 14. Paul writes, “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him” (verses 1-3). Paul says, “Whatever your view on eating clean and unclean foods may be (cf. Leviticus 11), you should not pass judgment on each other. If some of you follow certain dietary restrictions, fine. If others of you do not, fine.”
Now, contrast this posture toward clean and unclean foods with Paul’s words to the Colossians: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink…Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings” (Colossian 2:16, 20-22). Paul addresses this same issue of clean and unclean foods with the Colossians, but with a very different result. To the Romans he says, “Do whatever you feel is best. You are free to refrain from or to partake of so-called unclean foods.” To the Colossians, however, he says, “Don’t you dare distinguish between clean and unclean foods! If you do, you will desecrate the gospel and acquiesce to sinful human teaching.” The question is: Why would Paul take two such widely disparate stances on the same issue? The answer has to do with human intention.
In the case of the Colossians, those who maintained a distinction between clean and unclean foods did so because they thought they could curry favor from God by their legalistic observances. Paul flatly condemns such bald self-righteousness. In the case of the Romans, however, the issue of clean and unclean foods appears to be more complicated. For there were some in this church, it seems, who refrained from eating unclean foods because they were unsure to what extent the Levitical ceremonial laws had been abrogated by Christ and to eat these foods would have left them with a heavy conscience. Among these Christians, to refrain from eating unclean foods was not an attempt to diminish or supplement Jesus’ all-sufficient work on the cross, it was simply an effort to be faithful to Scripture as they best understood it. Toward such people, Paul encourages patience and love as they gain a better understanding of the radical freedom we enjoy in Christ.
One issue; two different sets of intentions. And it’s the intentions that make all the difference. Those at Colossae had an intention of self-righteousness. Those at Rome intended simply to be true to their consciences. And in light of these widely differing intentions, Paul offers widely differing responses.
Intentions matter. So today, consider not only what you do, but why you do it. Do you give only in the hope of receiving, or out of selfless love for another person? Do you help only to receive a pat on the back, or because Christ came as a servant to us? Intentions matter just as much as actions. So don’t only do right, think right as well.
When I was in high school, I was befriended by a Jehovah’s Witness. She, of course, was all too happy to try to “convert” me to the doctrine of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. One of the hallmark doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that although Christ may have had a special relationship to his heavenly Father, he was not the God of heaven and earth, incarnate in human flesh. Troublingly, the Witnesses even have their own skewed translation of the Bible, the New World Translation, which polemically mistranslates passages that clearly declare the divinity of Christ. For instance, the New World Translation renders John 1:1: “In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” Compare this to the New International Version which translates: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
When my friend first showed me her “translation” which calls Jesus “a god” rather than “the God,” I was horrified. And although I did not know Greek at the time, I quickly began researching the original Greek grammar behind the English translations of this passage and I stumbled across something called Colwell’s Rule. This rule was first formulated in 1933 by E.C. Colwell in an article he published for the Journal of Biblical Literature. In it, he states: “In sentences in which the copula is expressed, a definite predicate nominative has the article when it follows the verb; it does not have the article when it precedes the verb.” Don’t know what that means? That’s okay, neither did I. But I did know that this made the translation of Jesus as “a god” very tenuous and unlikely. And I did know that Jesus was no second-rate divinity. He was and is the one, true God.
And so, I told my friend about Colwell’s Law. I also gave her a veritable plethora of resources refuting the theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses. And I made an appeal to her to believe in the Bible rather than in a centralized, and somewhat enigmatic, Watchtower society. My friend, however, remained un-persuaded. She told me, “Well, I guess you’ll just have your beliefs and I’ll have mine.”
I was shocked. She refused to agree with me when it came to Christ’s divinity! I was at a loss. After all, my study was impeccable. My linguistic theory was unimpeachable. My logic was irrefutable. How could she not agree with me?
I have since learned that there are many people who do not agree with me, no matter how persuasive I may think I am. I will often joke with my wife Melody and tell her, “You know, this world would be a much better place if everyone just agreed with me.” But everyone does not agree with me. And this is where our reading for today from Romans 13 comes into play.
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law” (verse 8). According to the apostle Paul, love is the order of the day. But notice who we are supposed to love: our “fellowman.” The Greek word for “fellowman” is heteros, meaning “different.” In other words, Paul is encouraging us to love not only those who think as we do, believe as we do, dress as we do, and act as we do, but to love those even who are different from us. He is encouraging us to love even those who do not agree with us – even when we have impeccable study, unimpeachable linguistic theory, and irrefutable logic. We are to love everyone.
Is there anyone who is different from you or disagrees with you whom you have failed to love the way you should? If so, now is the time to repent of your unloving heart and reflect God’s love toward that person. Mind you, loving someone different from you does not necessarily mean that you accept their positions or actions, especially if they’re sinful or false, as are those of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it does mean that you treat others the way Christ would treat them: with care, concern, and compassion. After all, love – true love – has a way of bridging divides, breaking barriers, and binding up brokenness. And that’s something that we all need…no matter how heteros we might be from each other.
During the season of Lent, there is an ancient Christian tradition which instructs the faithful to sacrifice some luxury that they enjoy in memory of Christ, who sacrificed his very body on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. In Roman Catholicism, this sacrifice has been loosely standardized: Catholics do not eat meat on Fridays. This, of course, has cleared the way for sumptuous fish fries and good fellowship. Among other branches of Christendom, sacrifice is still often encouraged, but it is usually left up to the individual to decide exactly what he or she would like to sacrifice.
Now, for my confession: I have never been particularly good at sacrificing, at least that which is most valuable to me. Although I may be perfectly happy to sacrifice something which I would consider nominal such as a few dollars to purchase a meal for someone or a couple of minutes to chat with someone about a theological question they might have, this past Wednesday, when I was asked to sacrifice a whole day to serve the State of Texas on jury duty, I was not terribly happy. For overall, my time is precious to me, especially that time which I spend in ministry. And asking me to make this kind of a sacrifice toward something that I am not heavily invested in was difficult indeed.
No matter how much of an aversion I might have toward making certain sacrifices, this is precisely what I am called to do according to our reading for today from Romans 12: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship” (verse 1). Paul reminds us that we, as Christians, in light of God’s mercy, are called to make sacrifices, and even be sacrifices, for Christ has sacrificed himself for us on the cross. In the balance of the chapter, then, Paul delineates what sacrifices we are to make.
First, we are to sacrifice our ego: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (verse 3). Rather than expending our efforts and our energy on boosting our image and our influence, we are to humbly reckon ourselves not according to our accomplishments, but according to the faith which God has given us – a faith which sees the sinfulness and brokenness which resides in our hearts. We are to be humble rather than haughty.
Second, we are to sacrifice our inclination toward vengeance: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath” (verses 17, 19). In other words, when someone else wrongs us, sins against us, hurts us, or betrays us, rather than exacting revenge and executing retaliation, we are to forgive even as Christ has forgiven us. We are to be merciful rather than judgmental.
These sacrifices, of course, are only two instances in a whole life of sacrifice which we are called to live out as Christians. But notice that when we make such sacrifices, we are “living sacrifices.” In other words, the sacrifices which we make won’t kill us. So often, when we are called to sacrifice something for the Kingdom, we dramatically and hyperbolically act as if making such a sacrifice will surely mean our demise. But as my mother used to remind me when she called upon me to “sacrifice” my taste buds on a meal that I did not want to eat: “Just try one bite. That’s all I’m asking. After all, it won’t kill you.” And indeed, it never did. And neither did my day at jury duty. I’m still alive and kicking to write this blog. And even if we are called to sacrifice our lives as martyrs for the sake of the gospel, we are still “living sacrifices,” for the very message of the gospel which we have given our lives for is that not even death can mute God’s eternal life.
One evening last week, while Melody and I were having supper with a wonderful couple from our congregation, the wife offered to show me pictures of her trip to the Holy Land. “They’ll probably bore you,” she warned. I am happy to report, however, that she was sorely mistaken. Seeing her albums full of pictures of such famous biblical places like the Sea of Galilee, the Pool of Siloam, Cana, and even Jesus’ empty garden tomb made my heart sing and my spirit soar. For there is something about seeing pictures from Israel and the very places where Jesus walked that makes the Bible come alive in a whole new way.
Most certainly, the Holy Land in general, and Israel specifically, holds a special and prime place in the history of God’s people. And yet, in today’s reading from Romans 11, Paul reminds us that one does not have to live in Israel or be related to Abraham to be a child of God. For “salvation has come to the Gentiles” (verse 11). Salvation is offered to all, not just to some.
Throughout Romans 11, Paul repeatedly affirms this fact that salvation has come for both Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul’s words, however, have caused countless conflicts amongst theologians and laypeople alike. The crux of the controversy comes in verse 26, where Paul writes, “And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.’” The question of this verse is: What does Paul mean, exactly, when he writes, “And so all Israel will be saved”? And the interpretations are legion. Augustine believed this phrase meant Elijah and Enoch would one day return and covert the entire Jewish nation. Where Elijah and Enoch are to be found in this passage, I don’t know. But nevertheless, this idea of a mass Jewish conversion to Christianity took hold and, by the Middle Ages, it became a fixed doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church.
Other theologians, however, have taken a different posture toward this verse. No less than Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Martin Luther, and John Calvin have asserted that “Israel” here refers not to an ethnic nation of Jews, but to the church of God, Jew and Gentile alike, saved by Jesus Christ (cf. Galatians 6:15-16). As John Calvin writes in his Commentary on Romans: “Many understand this [passage to speak] of the Jewish people, as though Paul had said, that religion would again be restored among them as before: but I extend the word Israel to all the people of God.” Thus, when Paul writes, “All Israel will be saved,” he means, “The true church of God, which is the new Israel, will be saved.”
Although finally, as Paul himself says, the notion that “all Israel will be saved” remains a bit of a “mystery” (verse 25), I prefer the latter interpretation of this verse to the former. I won’t get into the nuances of why I prefer the latter interpretation here, but suffice it to say that this interpretation carries with it a beautiful promise: That from Abraham to Moses to David to the prophets, God has never given up on his people. His desire is that “all will be saved” (cf. 1 Timothy 2:3-4), a desire that is reiterated here when, with great glee and celebration, Paul proclaims: “God will get his ‘all.’ If not in ‘all’ humanity, then at least in ‘all Israel.’ All Israel will be saved!”
What does this mean for us? Simply this: Israel’s story is our story too. Abraham, Moses, David, as well as the prophets are our ancestors. We come from a rich and storied history of people of great faith and now, we get to add our stories to the history of Israel. For we, as believers in Christ, are part of “all Israel.” And even when passages like this confuse theologians and divide scholars, we can rejoice in this marvelous promise: The Bible’s story is our story. And this means that the Bible’s God is our God. And our God has come to us in Christ with salvation. Thus, to encounter God and see Israel, you don’t need a trip to the Holy Land, you just need to look in the mirror. For you are Israel too.
Today, I get to travel downtown for jury duty. Although I appreciate the opportunity to do my civic duty, I must confess that the tediously slow pace at which many of our government offices operate tries my patience. The stories of government offices operating at a snail’s speed, of course, are legion. The sixteen weeks it takes fro the IRS to mail a tax return check. The oppressively long lines at the Post Office. And can a person talk about slow service without making reference to the horror stories that come out of the DMV, or DPS offices as the case may be, when getting a driver’s license?
I asked a friend how long he thought my time at the courthouse would last. “Plan to be there all day,” he replied. “But I’m supposed to report for duty at 8 am!” I protested. “How could it possibly take all day just to see if I’m selected to sit on a jury?” “Plan to be there all day,” came my friend’s reply once more. Slow service strikes again.
In our reading for today from Romans 10, Paul ends his remarks with a quotation from Isaiah 65:2: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (verse 21). It seems as though even God himself is the victim of slow service from time to time. For God has been reaching out to his people with his grace, his love, his mercy, and his salvation all day long. And yet, his “disobedient and obstinate” and people refuse to trust and serve him.
Of course, the length of the “day” that God has been holding out his hand to his people is much greater than any time that could be spent at the IRS, Post Office, DPS, or County Courthouse combined. For God has been holding out his gracious hand ever since sin entered the world with Adam and Eve. That’s one long “day.” God calls to Adam, “Where are you” (Genesis 3:9)? But Adam refuses to come and find forgiveness for his sin in the hand of the Lord. Later, he holds out his hand to the children of Israel when he rescues them from slavery in Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15). But the children of Israel grumble against God and refuse to be guided by his strong arm. Even when God sends his Son Jesus Christ, the ultimate expression of his hand of grace, people do not receive him. Instead, they crucify him and drive nails through – what else? – his hands. Over and over and over again, people reject the very hand of God.
And yet, God continues to hold out his hand. In fact, I love the old King James Version translation of this passage: “All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.” God, it seems, has a long arm – a long arm that he has “stretched forth” across heaven to earth in the person and work of Jesus. The question is, are you going to keep God’s long arm at arm’s length or are you going to trust in his long arm for your salvation? If you refuse the long arm of God’s salvation, you will still have to contend with God’s long arm, but it will be the long arm of God’s law and condemnation. So instead, trust in God’s long arm of grace to take care of all your needs, your worries, your cares, and, most importantly, your sins. Because God is stretching forth his long arm for you.
Teaching kids is always an interesting experience. As part of my training to become a pastor, I had to do a year internship at a congregation of my seminary’s choosing. And I had the pleasure of winding up in a church outside of Chicago of which I have very pleasant memories.
One of my duties at this congregation was to teach sixth grade religion at the school which was part of the church. Junior high school students always seem to have the most interesting questions about God: “If God knew that Adam and Eve were going to sin and eat his forbidden fruit, why did God put the fruit there in the first place?” Or how about, “If Adam and Eve were the first two people on earth, and they had kids, where did their grandkids come from?” Then there is the more troublesome, “If God is so good, why is there evil in the world?” And who can forget the perennial, “Can God make a rock so big he can’t move it?”
These questions are, of course, to a greater or lesser extent, unanswerable. Yes, we can answer these questions in a limited way, but to give a comprehensive answer to any of these questions surely treads toward heady ignorance at best and unabashed arrogance at worst. The unanswerable nature of these questions, however, has not stopped countless Christians from asking them.
Unanswerable questions about God and the divine realm are nothing new. No less than Roman Catholic luminaries Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas spent time pondering such questions as this popularly paraphrased brain buster: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” I tremble to think how much time people have spent quarreling over such a question. Interestingly, the word “dunce” is derived from Duns Scotus’ name, a tribute the pointlessness of such debates.
In my younger years, I would become very unsettled when I wasn’t able to answer someone’s questions about God even if they were, for all technical purposes, unanswerable. These days, however, I have grown much more comfortable knowing what I don’t know and, yes, even what I can’t know. Much of my comfort stems from the fact that I’m in good company.
In our reading for today from Romans 9, Paul picks up on one of the most controversial and convoluted doctrines of Christianity: predestination. Paul makes troubling and brain teasing statements such as these: “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated” (verse 13). “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (verse 18). These troubling statements, although they’ve been well expounded by countless theologians over the years, albeit in different and sometimes disparate ways, still leave many with questions and objections.
As it is in our day, so it was in Paul’s day. For even Paul himself had trouble sorting out all the different nuances of this difficult doctrine. Even Paul himself knew that some questions concerning this doctrine were, by their very nature, unanswerable. Paul freely admits this when he writes, “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for his glory – even us, whom he also called” (verses 22-24). The key phrase of this passage comes in its first two words: “What if…” Paul is basically saying, “I’m not sure exactly why God chooses some for salvation and not others, but what if it’s like this? Or what if it’s like this?” Even Paul does not have all the answers to that which rests in the mysterious depths of God’s will.
At the same time there are things that Paul freely admits he does not and cannot know, he also proudly proclaims what he does know. And Paul knows this: “Even us, whom God also called” (verse 24). In the midst of uncertainty of why God chooses some and not others with his predestinating will, Paul says, “This much I know. I have been chosen by God. I have been called by God. I have been saved by God. And not only I, but us. You too have been chosen by God.” And this, I pray, is something that that you know and believe with absolute certainty: God has chosen you to be his child.
You see, predestination is a doctrine which was never meant to reside in the theoretical and philosophical realms of why God does what he does. Instead, it is a doctrine which is meant to proclaim the good news that God, by his grace, has chosen you. No unanswerable question about it. And even if I can’t know everything about God, I’m thankful that I can know that I have been chosen by God. Because that is the message of my salvation…and yours too.
Perhaps no other comic strip is so ingrained in the collective consciousness and imagination of our American culture as is “Peanuts.” Even with its creator, Charles Schultz, being deceased for some nine years now, his dog Snoopy, along with the rest of his congenial cast of characters, live on in reruns of the famous strip that continue to delight the youngest to the oldest of us.
The central and original character of the “Peanuts” strip, of course, is Charlie Brown. The best way that I have heard Charlie Brown described is as a “lovable loser.” Sure, he is kind and endearing, but he is also quite naïve, much to the amusement of his friends who persistently leverage his gullibility for their benefit. Often, after Charlie Brown has been taken advantage of by a friend, or even after he has simply been hit by one of his legendary strings of bad luck, he will let out his famous *SIGH*. Such a *SIGH* is an indicator that Charlie Brown has come to the end of his rope. He’s ready to throw in the towel. He’s going to call it a day. For he has lost the drive, desire, and hope that things can or will get better. Very simply, he’s given up.
In our reading for today from Romans 8, Paul writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (verse 22). The Greek word used here for “groaning” is stenazo, which carries with it a sense of “sighing” or that which is a “heavy burden” (cf. Hebrews 13:17). Stenazo, then, is that which happens when someone comes to the end of their rope. When someone is ready to throw in the towel. When someone is ready to call it a day. And all of creation, Paul reminds us, stenazos. For all of creation suffers pain. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Droughts. Famines. Tsunamis. These are enough to bring anyone to their knees in despair. And that is why not only does creation itself groan, we, as the crowning glory of God’s creation, groan as well: “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly” (verse 23). We let out a collective *SIGH* at the pain and sorrow that wrecks our world and pierces our hearts. Such is the grim picture that Paul paints in Romans 8.
From where can we find relief from such a bleak outlook on our world and on our lives? Paul continues, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (verse 26). That is, the Spirit helps us when we stenazo. He does this when he “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (verse 26). How does the Spirit relieve us when we stenazo? He joins in. He does not remain distant and aloof. Rather, he takes on our pain, our despair, and our misery and intercedes for us so that we need not bear it alone. And then, something miraculous happens. We find out that he have a little more rope left. We discover that we’re still holding on, even if it’s only by a tentative thread, to the towel. We realize that we have the strength to fight another day. For God has intervened in the midst of our sorrow, misery, and despair. God has seen our stenazo and he has come to help.
This is why Paul can write, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (verse 28). Many people mistakenly take this verse to mean that even when something seemingly bad happens, it’s not really bad, because it’s for God good purposes. But this is far from Paul’s point here. Indeed, it is precisely because there are really bad things that happen to us – things that cause us to stenazo – that we need this verse. For this verse promises that even when really bad things happen, God will conquer these bad things with his goodness. I love the way the philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard paraphrases this verse: “For those who love God, nothing irredeemable can happen to you.” In other words, God can take your truly terrible stenazos and conquer them with his redemptive righteousness. He can take your mourning at the malevolence of this world and turn it into rejoicing at his goodness, etched into the fabric of the cosmos.
Charlie Brown’s *SIGH* would usually come at the end of a “Peanuts” comic strip. For after ole Charlie would be the victim of his friends’ antics, he would then let out a *SIGH* in surrender. The end. This is not how it is, however, with our *SIGHS*. For even the bitterest stenazo does not mark the end of the strip of our life. As Paul writes, “The creation waits in eager expectation” (verse 19). That is, even while creation is presently stenazoing, it’s expecting something more. It’s waiting for something more. It’s waiting for redemption. And so, we look forward to the Day when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:3). We look forward to the Day of Redemption.