Weekly Preaching: February 25, 2018

February 21st, 2018

The pairing of the Old Testament (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16) and Epistle (Romans 4:13-25) raises an intriguing question when the NT directly interprets an OT text: would you rather preach on the OT, illuminating it via the NT? Or preach the NT, acknowledging the OT background? I’d almost always prefer working from the Old — and almost grudgingly allowing the New perspective some space, believing as I passionately do that the OT has plenty of legs on its own. The NT, at times, lops off the narrative richness of the Hebrew text and even jams a square peg in a round hole to make it fit the Christian dispensation — apart from supersessionist concerns! I’m teaching Preaching the Old Testament, and the lead textbook is John Goldingay’s Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itselfwhich pretty persuasively lays down the notion that very little is new in the NT (except for the incarnation and Holy Week realities... although even the theological thrust behind those is very present in the OT!).

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I preached on Romans 4 three years ago; you can watch here. If the center of gravity of your sermon is Genesis, you have to stretch beyond the prescribed verses, which lops the story off a nanosecond before “Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (verse 17), which is pretty pivotal; not to mention the reiteration/repetition in chapter 18, which more vividly sets the encounter “by the oaks of Mamre." Here it is Sarah who laughs, and the theological clincher, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” polishes things off in verse 14. If I fix on Genesis, I’d want to tie the story together with the birth in chapter 21, and the irony/pun in the name Isaac (which means “laughter”…).

Paul doesn’t improve on Genesis. He omits key elements I’d preach on (the cruciality of hospitality, the mocking laughter/doubt, etc.). Paul steers the story in a kindred but distinct direction — the whole business of faith in God’s promise, resting entirely upon grace. The most grave peril here, well-corrected by N.T. Wright, is that we over-personalize or over-individualize what Paul is about, trivializing it into the simplistic question of How do I get saved? Abraham sure wasn’t thinking how to get into heaven, and Paul has a far larger agenda.

The question addressed here is not “How do I get saved?” but “How do I become a member of God’s people?” Even more: “How do I become a participant in God’s larger work of the redemption, not merely of humanity but of all of creation?” I remember being struck as an undergraduate taking a philosophy course on Existentialism by Paul Tillich’s understanding of faith as “ultimate concern." This appealed to me enormously, as my only definition of faith prior to this was a mental assent to propositions about Christianity and then scrunching up my face and devoting myself out of fear to get out of trouble with the God who cooked up the propositions.

And yet, not just any ultimate concern would qualify as the faith Paul is after. N.T. Wright explains: “Paul has in mind a specific form of faith/not general religious belief, an awareness of the other/It was trust in specific promises that the true God had made.” Admittedly, as a Methodist I am drawn to and accountable to Wesley’s “warmed heart” experience, which made doctrinaire dogma quite personal (for me!) — but really it’s for us.

I do like Paul’s probing of Abraham’s old age: “He did not weaken when he considered his own body” (v. 19). We can weaken even when young and fit. I picked up a prayer card when visiting the lovely Bolton Priory in the U.K. which included this prayer: "Humbly and sorrowfully I crave thy forgiveness ... for every weakening thought to which my mind has roamed ..."

The hope business, as we see many weeks, is quite different from optimism — never more clearly than with Abraham’s hope, which is quite alien to sunny optimism. Christopher Lasch distinguished this very well in The True and Only Heaven:  

"Hope is not the naïve thought that tomorrow will be better. Hope has braced itself, and is thus prepared to cope if tomorrow isn’t better.  It may take some time. And hope doesn’t depend on you and me getting our act together and fixing things, like optimism does; no, hope depends on God, not us."

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In all this, we come to the Gospel, Mark 8:31-38. The God who hears, cares, and then comes down takes on flesh in Jesus is nowhere more puzzling or wonderful than in this very clear apogee and turning point in the plot of Mark’s Gospel. The preacher needs to clarify for the people all that is at stake in this most pivotal of texts. Years ago, I stumbled upon an audio recording of Henri Nouwen’s A Spirituality of Waiting. In it, he expanded upon the work of W.H. Vanstone’s profound book called The Stature of Waiting, in which he directs our attention to the peculiar plot of the Gospels.

In the opening chapters of each Gospel, Jesus is in control; he is an actor on the stage of history, dashing off miracles, wowing the multitudes. Then, in the middle of the story, everything changes. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus has ventured far to the north, then turns his face toward Jerusalem, explaining he will be “handed over” and suffer and die. From this point forward, Jesus is pretty much passive, with only a minor miracle left to do, one now acted upon, no dazzling (except by the powerful vision of compassionate, suffering love). This stuns Vanstone and Lewis (and me too), as we think life’s plot should be toward increasing control, independence — and we loathe any turn toward dependence.

I had a close friend with colon cancer. A few years back, on the week I was preparing to preach on this text, he told me with immense sorrow, “Today they handed me over to hospice.” We shudder; we pity; but Jesus invites us to respect and relish this backwards plot to our lives, for it was the plot of his life. Jesus was amazing in his first weeks of ministry, but the real glory came when he let himself be betrayed, beaten, tried unjustly, when he “never said a-mumblin’ word,” when he refused to come down from the cross or strike his enemies dead but instead forgave them. Even his resurrection was passive: he didn’t bolt from the tomb and knock the guards aside; God raised him. We age; our bodies "weaken." Then comes our glory — which isn't ours, but is glory that reflects God's.

Everything in us, especially as can-do Americans who cherish our independence above all else, rebels against and shrinks back from this. No wonder Genesis 17 and Romans 4 are hard to digest. But this is God. Matthew's Peter (ch. 16), like us, chides Jesus for even thinking of such a path. But Jesus says “Get behind me” — which, ironically, is precisely where we need to be. We follow Jesus, and you can only follow from behind.

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You might consider Philippians 2 as background music to our text. Paul explains God’s ultimate nature: "Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself." I concur with those who translate this not as although he was God he did this humbling thing, but rather because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself. Jesus isn’t play-acting or pretending for a short time to be humble, vulnerable, and suffering. Jesus shows us the very heart of God, God’s truest, most core nature when he turns his face to Jerusalem and gets mocked and gruesomely killed.

And when he is in solidarity with all sorts of people. Marianne Meye Thompson wrote a great article in which she explains how "having the mind of Christ" isn't just trying to be like Jesus, but is also identifying with the characters in the Bible on whom Jesus had mercy.

"Perhaps we need to learn not only to be like Jesus, but to be like the sinful woman, and like Simon Peter. To have the mind of Christ is to hear what Jesus says about us and to us, to hear in his words to the woman his words to us: Your sins are many; your sins are forgiven; go in peace. We are the recipients of God's generous mercy and God's expansive holiness in Jesus Christ: we are the beneficiaries of 'the mind of Christ.' " 

Our Gospel, and our Epistle, both draw us into a revolutionary way of being in the world.

You see, Jesus uttered those words about turning his face to Jerusalem to be passive, vulnerable, and to die, not in a church or with a beautiful sunset in the background. He was in Caesarea Philippi, a place sacred to pagan deities for centuries, then more recently dedicated to the emperor, who was increasingly viewed and treated as a deity strutting the earth. Imagine the city in Jesus' day with temples to the Greek gods, to the emperor. Painting the physical place might help in a sermon, and the theology of the clash between the world's gods and the humility of the true God must be clarified.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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