Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” That is actually the title of a book written by Martin Thielen. The book evolved from Thielen’s friendship with a self identified atheist who, over time, became increasingly open to faith and finally posed the question that became the title. The first half of Thielen’s book identifies ten notions that Christians do not need to accept. These include the claim that God causes cancer, that the theory of evolution must be rejected, that women must be subject to men and that God is indifferent to ecology. If these notions were all that stood between atheists and faith in Jesus, then the scandal of the gospel would be just a PR problem. The church has bad actors and bad theologians in her midst who have muddled the message. If we can just make the atheist understand who Jesus really is and what he is really about, the atheist will recognize that we don’t confess the god s/he has rejected. Conversion is just a few conversations away.
Thielen’s book does an admirable job of dispelling inaccurate notions about Christianity and clarifying what is central to Christian teaching for those harboring hostility toward the church. While that is a worthy undertaking, I doubt that it brings atheists or any of the rest of us closer to faith in Jesus. Having less to believe might seem to make faith a lot easier. But faith is not supposed to get any easier. The truth is, the more you learn about the God of the Bible and what that God demands of you, the more you are called upon to believe. The deeper you are drawn into the mystery of God, the more problematic your life in this world becomes. The more the mind of Christ is formed within you, the deeper the contradictions between what you see and what you believe. If you follow Jesus to the end, you will be reduced to walking by faith and not by sight. II Corinthians 5:7
In this week’s lesson, Abram is asked to believe that his descendents will inherit the land in which he now wanders about as an alien with no legal status. He is asked to trust God’s promise to make his descendents as numerous as the stars-even though Abram and his wife Sarai, both in their late 80s, have no children . Abram is being asked to stake his life on a promise that seems beyond any reasonable hope of fulfillment. In our gospel lesson Jesus assures his disciples that that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” and then challenges them to “sell your possessions, and give alms…” Luke: 12:32-33. Against the yawning gap between these magnificent promises and the hard realities in which we live, a minimalist approach to faith leaves us only two options. Either we reduce the promises to metaphors of things that will fit plausibly the confines of our cramped and confining world view-a rationalist solution that requires no faith; or we reject the promises as wishful thinking-a nihilist solution that likewise requires no faith. Perhaps that is why Jesus had such contempt for “little faith.” Matthew 8:26. In reality, “little faith” is no faith at all.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 1:1. To put it another way, faith is the conviction that the promises God has made to us are just as real as the obstacles that seem to stand in the way of their fulfillment. Faith stubbornly shapes life according to God’s promises and leaves to God the task of removing the obstacles. Faith understands that the reign of God appears under the sign of the cross in a world that rejects it. But God’s reign is present nonetheless and will one day be recognized by the whole world as the only enduring reality. The new creation is the real thing and is destined to replace the old. Militarized borders will be broken down; swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore. Every knee in heaven and on earth will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. How and when will this happen? I don’t know. But the zeal of the Lord will do this. Can you be a disciple of Jesus and believe in anything less than that? Perhaps, but why would you?
Abram’s arrangement with Eliezer reflects a custom known to have existed in Mesopotamia documented in the Nuzu tablets. Nuzu was an ancient Mesopotamian city located southwest of Kirkūk in Iraq. Excavations undertaken there by archaeologists in 1925–31 revealed material extending from the prehistoric period to the age of the early Roman Empire. More than 4,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered at the site. These tablets date from about the 15th century B.C.E. and contain numerous statutes governing family relationships and civil institutions. According to these provisions, a childless property owner could provisionally adopt a slave who would then be obligated to care for his owner until death and see to his proper burial. In exchange for these services, the slave would be freed and inherit his owner’s property. The arrangement was provisional insofar as it became null and void upon the birth of a legal heir to the owner. Such was the case for Eliezer upon the birth of Isaac. (Sorry Eliezer. Close, but no cigar.)
Abram is assured that his line will not become extinct, but that a son born to him will be the channel of fulfillment for the original promise made in Chapter 12 (Genesis 12:1-3) and repeated here. Abram’s response is to believe the promise. This particular response of Abram is prominent in Paul’s arguments in both Romans and Galatians for the primacy of faith over works. Knowledge of this background is critical to understanding what Paul means by “faith.” It is not the unquestioning acceptance of doctrinal propositions, but confidence in God’s promises. Therefore, even though faith is primary, it is never divorced from a faithful response. Abram has already demonstrated his confidence in God’s promises to him by uprooting himself from his homeland and becoming a wandering sojourner in Canaan. Though some of Abram’s subsequent actions reflect a less than faithful attitude, that only goes to show that the fulfillment of the covenant promises finally depends neither upon Abram’s faith nor on his works but upon God’s faithfulness.
This psalm of praise celebrates Israel’s God as both creator and lord of history. Sunday’s reading begins at verse 12 with the exclamation, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he has chosen as his heritage!” God is not a passive and objective observer when it comes to the affairs of nations and peoples. God is unashamedly partisan and favors Israel through which he will be made known to the world of nations. Neither kings nor their armies direct the course of history. Reliance upon them is futile. By contrast, the Lord can be trusted to deliver those who rely upon him. Consequently, while the nations rely upon their rulers and their armies, Israel’s hope is in the Lord.
It is difficult to date this psalm. An argument can be made that, given the psalmist’s dismissive attitude toward the power of kings and military might, the psalm was likely composed after the Babylonian Exile when Israel had neither the monarchy nor an army. On the other hand, even during the pre-exilic monarchy Israel always understood that victory comes from the Lord. Consequently, it is altogether possible that this psalm constitutes a festival liturgy used for worship in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem or perhaps even during the era of the Judges.
In a culture that is prone to rely increasingly upon military might, violence and raw power to settle disputes, this psalm sounds a dissonant chord, calling us to recognize God’s reign and leave the business of retribution to him. The Lord neither needs nor desires our assistance in punishing the wicked. Instead, we are called to bear witness to God’s goodness in lives of faithful obedience. The extent of faithfulness to which we are called is the measure of Jesus’ faithfulness unto death. Knowing that “the eye of the Lord is on all who fear him [and] on those who hope in his steadfast love,” we can face the might of kings and their warhorses without violence and without fear. “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield.” Vs. 20
As we will be hearing from the Book of Hebrews for the next four weeks, it might be helpful to refresh our recollections with an overview. As most of you know by now, I do not view this epistle as an assertion of Christianity’s superiority over Judaism. Instead, I believe that the letter was written to explain the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and to deal with the disappointment of some disciples who might have been expecting that event to usher in the new age. The destruction of the Temple was a severe blow to both Jews and Christians who, according to the Book of Acts, worshiped there. For Jews it meant the end of the sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. For Christians it meant the loss of an institution Jesus attempted to purify and the failure of a prophetic understanding of its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the destruction of the Temple was a traumatic event for Jews and Christians alike. Jews dealt with this catastrophe by turning to the Torah as their center of faith and life. Disciples of Jesus saw in Christ “a new temple not built with hands.” John 2:19-22. So the objective is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how the ministry and mission of Jesus fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it.
Chapter 11 of Hebrews comes after the conclusion of these arguments. The disciples are called to live faithfully in an uncertain time. There are no eschatological markers (such as the Temple) to indicate where they stand in relation to the consummation of God’s reign. The day might be just around the corner, but it is more likely somewhere further out into the indefinite future. The disciples must therefore accept their current status as aliens in a hostile land awaiting the country God is preparing for them. In this respect, they are following in the train of a long list of Israelite heroes whose faith sustained them and who died without seeing the realization of their hope. Abraham is raised up as a primary example of faith which is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Vs. 1. In obedience to God’s call, Abraham set out for a land he had never seen on the strength of a promise whose fulfillment was humanly impossible.
Verses 13-16 make the point that neither Abraham nor the other Hebrew heroes of faith were truly at home. They had received the promise of a homeland more real to them than the land of their sojourning. Precisely because their lives were pattered after the ways of this anticipated homeland, they were constantly at odds with the predominant cultures in which they lived. Such lives, lived in faith and ending in hope, became paradigms for discipleship in the early church. We see rightly, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, only as the biblical narratives become our own stories. I think the late John Howard Yoder says it best of all in his book, Body Politics:
“Whereas contemporary dominant mental habits assume that there is ‘out there’ an objective or agreed account of reality and that faith perspectives must come to terms with that wider picture by fitting into it, as a subset of the generally unbelieving world view, I propose rather that we recognize that we are called to a believing vision of global history, suspicious of any scheme or analysis or management that would claim by itself to see the world whole or apart from faith or apart from avowing its own bias. The modern world is a subset of the world vision of the gospel, not the other way around. That means we can afford to begin with the gospel notions themselves and then work out from there, as our study has done, rather than trying to place the call of God within it.” Yoder, John Howard, Body Politics, (c 2001, Herald Press) p. 74.
I am not sure what the lectionary people had in mind here. It seems as though verses 32-34 belong with verses 22-31 in which Jesus gives his sermon on God’s care for the ravens and the lilies of the field, admonishing his disciples not to live anxious and fearful lives. Verses 35-40 advance into a new topic, namely, watchfulness and readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. So it seems to me that, if one chooses to preach on the gospel, it probably will be necessary to make a choice between these two topics.
The admonitions against anxiety follow naturally from last week’s parable of the rich fool. It is just as foolish for the destitute disciples to fret over their seeming lack of necessities as it was for the man in the parable to fret over what to do with his surplus of goods. God provides for the ravens (crows) that feed on carrion. Are not the disciples of more value than these birds? So also God clothes the lilies, short lived plants that perish in a matter of days, in raiment more glorious than that of kings. Can the disciples imagine that this God will neglect them?
That sounds comforting until Jesus spells out the natural consequences. “Sell your possessions and give alms.” Vs. 33. There is no need to amass any degree of wealth if you believe what Jesus has just said about the birds and the lilies. To store up supplies for the future is to make a mockery of the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Yet as I pointed out last week and in last Sunday’s sermon, accumulation is a way of life culturally ingrained upon our consciences. The financial industry impresses upon us constantly the need to save through investing, the need to plan for the indefinite future and the necessity of obtaining to that nirvana of “financial security.” In the face of all this, obedience to Jesus in this instance appears to be highly irresponsible. So who do you believe: Jesus or the banks? Whose word do you follow, Jesus’ or that of your financial advisor?
I cannot find an easy out for us here. Of course, there are plenty of tricks preachers have used over the years to dodge this bullet. One is the contextual argument: The society in which Jesus lived was vastly different from our own. The banking and monetary systems on which we depend did not exist. Therefore, you cannot take what Jesus said in the context of an agricultural subsistence economy and simply apply it to the economy of a modern industrialized society. So the argument goes, but I find myself asking, “Why not?” How is piling up money in the bank different from storing your surplus grain in barns? Isn’t this just a distinction without a difference?
Then, of course, we can spiritualize the text and argue that Jesus was speaking only figuratively. Selling all of your possessions means simply remaining sufficiently detached from them. That is, “have your wealth as if you had it not.” I have heard that one too. It sounds about as convincing as the drunk who insists that he is not an alcoholic because he really could quit drinking any time if he wanted to. In the end, I think this is one of many instances where Jesus tells us something about our lives, our values and our culture that we really would rather not hear.
Verses 35-40 mark an abrupt change of subject. The topic now is readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus begins by directing his hearers to “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning.” Vs. 35. The Greek word for “loins” or “waist” is “osphus.” It refers to the locus of the reproductive organs. In the first century, garments were worn loosely around the waist without a belt while inside the home. When one went outside the home, it was customary to tie them up about the loins with a belt functioning in much the same way as a male athletic support. Thus, having “your loins be girded” was a sign of readiness for immediate departure or vigorous work. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 The Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 535. There is an echo here of Moses’ instructions to the Israelites in Exodus on the eating of the first Passover meal: “In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand…” Exodus 12:11. Just as the Israelites had to be prepared for God’s imminent act of liberation from Egypt, Jesus’ hearers must be prepared for the salvation God will usher in through the coming of the Son of Man.
Jesus uses the image of a man gone off to a marriage feast, leaving his slaves in charge of the house. Marriage celebrations in ancient Palestine could last for days and so the slaves would have had no way of knowing precisely when their master would return. They must therefore be ready to unlock the door and welcome him home at any time of day or night. This much is entirely plausible. But then Jesus goes on to promise that, should the master of the house find his slaves ready and waiting for him with everything in order upon his return, he will invite his slaves to sit at table and will gird himself for work and serve them. It is hard to imagine a fellow making dinner for his servants after coming home in the middle of the night from days of partying. Yet that is precisely the point. The coming of the Son of Man brings with it rewards that are beyond imagination-for those ready and waiting for it. But for those who are unprepared, the day will come like a thief, catching unprepared the householder who leaves his home unattended.
Whether the coming of the Son of Man is understood as the final event signaling the end of the age or whether one understands this coming as an event occurring throughout the life of the church, the point is the same. For those waiting with eager anticipation for that day and who have pattered their lives on obedience to the Son of Man, the coming of the Son of Man will be an occasion of unimaginable joy. For those living as though Jesus’ coming were some distant event so far in the future that it has little bearing on day-to-day life, that coming will be a rude awakening.
In some respects, this latter section of the gospel lesson ties in nicely with the lesson from Hebrews urging us to let our lives be shaped and our expectations informed by the narrative of those heroes of faith who lived in anticipation of God’s future. Make friends with God’s future now and you need not worry that it will overtake you like an ambushing foe.