Weekly Preaching: March 15, 2020

March 10th, 2020

Exodus 17:1-7  testing the Lord! The Lord has just miraculously delivered them from harsh bondage in Egypt. The Lord has begun strewing manna around every day so they will be nourished and learn to trust. But then they get thirsty and whine; they “murmur” (an English translation that astoundingly improves upon the Hebrew ylvn, as it actually mimics what it’s describing!). How manifest is God’s grace? Responding to grousing with abundant water in the desert. Such pathetic people (like us); such an astonishingly merciful God.

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Romans 5:1-11. Every time I imagine Paul pacing around a room, dictating this letter, I get slackjawed with wonder. There was no New Testament, no theology textbooks  and off the top of his head he came up with this! Inspired, sure, but it still amazes me. What was the secretary thinking? Wow, this guy is on fire today. I ruminate on this in sermons sometimes. No takeaway, no go-thou-and-do-likewise..

Romans 5, the preacher should note, is entirely in first person plural. It’s not I have peace with God, or you, you individual person out there, have access to God. It’s we, we’re part of the Body; God doesn’t intend for us to do this alone. The logical consequence of all Paul has declared in chapters 1-4? Peace. C.E.B. Cranfield reminds us that eirene isn’t “subjective feelings of peace (though these may indeed result), but the objective state of being at peace instead of being enemies.” It’s a fact. Done. And not by you but by Christ, and at immense cost to himself.

"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead

James K.A. Smith, in his marvelous On the Road with Saint Augustine, paints a homiletically intriguing picture of what our pursuit of peace is:

“Like the exhausted refugee, fatigued by vulnerability, what we crave is rest. 'You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you’… Joy, for Augustine, is characterized by a quietude that is the opposite of anxiety—the exhale of someone who has been holding her breath out of fear or worry or insecurity. It is the blissful rest of someone who realizes she no longer has to perform; she is loved. We find joy in the grace of God precisely because he is the one we don’t have to prove anything to." 

“Obtained access” in v. 2: F.F. Bruce vividly explains that the Greek, prosagoge, means “the privilege of being introduced into the presence of someone of high station.” Verse 3: “We rejoice in our sufferings” — which is aspirational more than true.

There is beauty in suffering; Ray Barfield spoke at our church last month on just this (check out his little book, Wager: Beauty, Suffering, and Being in the World, on this). People know if you press them: “I was with my mother when she died, and it was a beautiful moment.” Paul has in mind some origami in the soul that suffering initiates. His lovely litany is memorable, and worth repeating (or cross-stitching): “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope.” I’m tempted to edit Paul a little by inserting the word “might” or “sometimes.” Suffering can make you bitter or mean. Why does it produce character and hope in some and not in others? It's too cheap just to say "If you have faith, if you trust God." Isn't community involved? Doesn't God have mercy on is when suffering drowns us in depression?

“Hope does not disappoint.” Christopher Lasch clarified how optimism—the sunny view that tomorrow will be a better day, and it’s up to us to make it happen—is vastly inferior to hope, the substantive faith that all will be well, even if tomorrow is worse, for this future is in God’s hands ultimately.

I may fiddle around with the “poured out” image from v. 5, a picturesque image of the lavishness of grace. Jesus’ blood poured out, pouring coffee in the morning, the pitcher pouring water into the baptismal bowl, Jesus pouring water over the disciples’ feet, the bartender pouring you a drink, the woman pouring oil over Jesus’ head, the priest pouring wine into the chalice, your mother pouring you a glass of milk, a waterfall, water over a dam, a garden fountain. Is there a way all of these and more not only symbolize but actually are the pouring out of God’s goodness?

“While we were still weak” reminds me of a terrific story. In 1980 I was running “Helping Hands,” a ministry to folks in need at Myrtle Beach, S.C. Our most problematical guy was named Belton. I drove him to the job I’d helped him get; when I came back for lunch he’d quit. I bought him groceries; he sold them to buy queludes. He tore up the temporary living quarters we found for him. Finally the board and volunteers met to decide how to cut him off, I think. All was proceeding in that direction until a woman said, “You know, the Bible says ‘God helps those who help themselves.’”

Everyone nodded, except a very old, frail woman, who countered: “That’s not in the Bible. That’s Ben Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack.” I was impressed. She then opened her New American Standard Bible to Romans 5:6 and read “While we were helpless, Christ died for the ungodly.” And she added “That would be all of us.” The vote was unanimous: We’d keep doing whatever we could for and with Belton. I wish I had a happy ending, like He got on his feet, went back to school, and now is an executive at Bank of America. But no. We hung together another month or so, and then he just vanished. Did we fail? I don’t think so. We kept one of God’s helpless children alive a little longer, which is good. And God’s other helpless, ungodly children got a refresher course in theology from the physically weakest but most spiritually astute one in our group.

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John 4:5-42 Here’s the sermon I preached on it last time, and here is my post on it.

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I'd like to commend to you my book on preaching, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and the Wonder of PreachingIt's not an intro on how to preach, but is a collection of reflections for those who've been doing this and who want to go deeper and keep going in fresh, hopefully lovely ways.

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