Weekly Preaching: March 18, 2018

March 15th, 2018

Intriguing texts we have this week. I doubt I’ll focus on Jeremiah 31:31-34, although try to imagine the small scroll scholars believe chapters 30-31 once were — a small roll indeed, yet full of promise and hope, and for the very people Jeremiah had been castigating for years! That’s something, like a long pamphlet of hope. I very much admire Elizabeth Achtemeier’s wisdom on the need for the law to be written on the heart, for a radically new and different covenant:  

“It is obvious from this passage why moralistic preaching does no good. It does not and it cannot produce any change in people’s lives, for they have no power in themselves to change... They are like prisoners — slaves of sin — and exhorting prisoners to be good is like telling them to fix up their prison cages a little — maybe to hang a picture on the wall or to put a rug on the floor. But what is needed is someone to come and open the door!”

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Even if you don’t preach on Jeremiah, hold that thought in the back of your mind. I believe I will preach on Psalm 51:1-12, as somehow I don’t think I’ve ever done so (and I even co-authored a book, with Clint McCann, called Preaching the Psalms!). What a great, famous, heavily-used and oft-quoted Psalm — what could be more fitting for the season of Lent? The seven “Penitential Psalms” in general could draw more attention during Lent. I love this: when St. Augustine was confined to his deathbed, his eyesight failing, he asked that the Seven Penitential Psalms be printed in oversized hand on huge pieces of paper and hung on the walls around his bed.

In seminary, you learn that the headings attached to Psalms aren’t original. It is interesting that whoever pieced the Psalter together saw a fit between Psalm 51 and the sordid, telling tale of David and Bathsheba; the temptation is then to launch into a digression and wind up preaching on 2 Samuel 11-12. A worthy text! On that text, though, I’d urge you to read Robert Barron’s brilliant, probing insights in his fabulous Brazos commentary, which I reviewed in Christian Century; after assessing David’s balcony view as “a parody of God’s providential presidency over creation,” and the way David “seizes the prerogatives of divinity, like Adam did,” he pairs the story to Psalm 51 and shrewdly points out that “David does not need a program of ethical renewal; he needs to be re-created.”

Humble, eloquent, heart-rending contrition; Psalm 51 hardly needs explication. As a preacher, it would be too easy and simplistic just to default to an old-timey sermon plot: yes, you sin, and yes, God forgives if you ask. But the Psalm happily complicates things — and we do, too. The Psalm is after, as Barron mentioned, not a plan of ethical renewal, or a determination to do better, but a radically new heart, like the one Jeremiah 31 dreamed of. Maybe this is the sort of thing Jesus had in mind when he said we must be born again.

This text isn’t after the mere absolution of guilt. It’s about reconciliation, a healed, renewed relationship with God that only God can achieve. Randy Maddox helped us see how for John Wesley, grace isn’t just God letting bygones be bygones; grace has a medicinal, healing power.

The Psalm also highlights the image of being wiped clean — very different from the accounting of sin being erased. I love this thought: in his Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis ponders something John Henry Newman wrote in his “Dream of Gerontius.” A saved soul, at the very foot of God’s throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed before continuing in heaven:

“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ — ‘Even so sir.’”

Relevant preaching will touch on why sin is an elusive topic nowadays. Yes, the Psalm implies “original sin.” I'm unsure how much the preacher should delve into that.

Our bigger challenge isn’t persuading anybody of the doctrine of original sin. It’s getting anyone but the most conservatively-reared, guilt-riddled Christians to understand sin is a real thing.

A generation ago, the psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote Whatever Became of Sin? It’s a better question now than then. But it’s no use hammering on people (as I’ve tried a few times), saying You don’t think much about sin, but you really are a sinner! People can’t conceive of sin as an impudent violation of God’s commands, with which we only have a passing, thin acquaintance anyhow. And if sin is breaking a rule, then we fail to understand what revolutionized Martin Luther’s ministry 500 years ago — that sin isn’t this or that action but our entire nature.

How do we explore the human condition and then help people realize the trouble they are in?

Douglas John Hall (in his wonderful Professing the Faith) rather wonderfully suggested that we don’t feel so much like Prometheus, defiantly scaling the heights to steal fire from the gods, but rather we feel like Sisyphus, valiantly pushing that stone uphill, only to have it roll down again; we are weary, hollow, frustrated people. We are dogged (and you needn’t persuade anyone) by all kinds of brokenness. Such as these:

  • Sin, today, is being enmeshed in a culture that is not of God; the “seven deadly sins” (pride, sloth, greed, lust, gluttony, envy and wrath) are the very definition of the good life in America we mindlessly pursue and accept!
  • Sin, today, is our irrational attachment to and ultimate trust in our political ideology, which is today’s idolatry. If your god is what you rely on, what can make your day (or ruin it), what you believe can deliver the fullness of life, what unites you with some other angry people, then political ideology (and perhaps especially for those who vehemently insist politics not be spoken of in church!) is sin.
  • Sin, today, may well be our bland niceness, and believe it passes muster as a Christian life. All of these, and even old-timey garden variety rebellion against God, mean-spirited sins, indulging in the more sinister aspects of our culture: all are manifestations of fear, fear of isolation, fear of pointlessness, fear even of God, fear there may be no God, fear I’m insufficient somehow, fear of missing out, fear of death.

The Psalm urges us toward what Luther figured out. My witty and brilliant professor of Church History, David Steinmetz, explained things this way (in Luther in Context). As a young priest, Luther encountered the common medieval understanding, which sounds hauntingly like the common modern church understanding of religious reality:

“Although Christ died for the sins of the world, it is still the responsibility of the sinner to act on behalf of his own soul by rigorous self-examination, by good works and self-denial, by prayer and pious exercises. God is willing to forgive the sinner, but there are conditions which must be met — and which lie within the power of the sinner to perform.”

But then, after a deep reading of Paul, and thrashing through his own personal struggles and guided well by his mentor John Staupitz, Luther arrived at a very different, more mature, and theologically on target view of things:

“The problem with human righteousness is not merely that it is flawed or insufficient (though it is both). The problem with human righteousness is that it is irrelevant. God does not ask for human virtue as a precondition for justification. God asks for human sin.”

I love that. God asks for sin. And we’ve got it.

A few other details in the Psalm might merit attention. “Cast me not away from your presence”: the verb is more like “Hurl” or “Fling me not away…” And this: the craving is to be “whiter than snow,” which got erased from “Have thine own way, Lord,” in the hymnal; but if you rail against this as political correctness, you are exposed as the very sinner in need of being washed. And the opening verb, “Create,” renders the Hebrew bara’, which is used rarely in Scripture, and only with God as its subject — as in Genesis 1!

* * *

Our other texts? Hebrews 5:5-10 has always left me puzzled. This “order of Melchizedek” business meant so much to early Christians, but for most of us it’s just plain mystifying. How fascinating is Hebrews 5’s narrative, that Jesus prayed “with loud cries and tears.” In Gethsemane? On the cross? And “to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear.” Really? The Gospels imagine Jesus’ prayer not being heard, or being heard but resolved quite differently. Or is Hebrews envisioning the resurrection? I think not, but who knows?

* * *

John 12:20-33 is a rich text. In the wake of being anointed, of Palm Sunday, and then just before the footwashing, we find this public scene where some Greeks approach Philip (the one disciple with a Greek name!) and say “We wish to see Jesus.” I heard a sermon years ago that used this as a cadence throughout, the whole homily playing on what it means to wish to see Jesus, how to find him, what we see when we find him, or how we are found by him. This is our request, and I suspect this is even the request of a cynical, unbelieving world, of our Christ-haunted landscape.

I love the way Philip told Andrew, then Andrew told Jesus. There’s something hidden in there about the nature of community, but I’m not sure what. Jesus’ “hour to be glorified” is near; for John, that glorification isn’t on Easter morning but as he breathes his last on the cross. How startling is the way this Johannine text picks up on Paul (“unless a grain falls into the earth”) and the Synoptics (“he would would save his life will lose it,” and the voice from heaven)... It’s as if this text is an overture, a big musical climax, a “greatest hits” explicating Jesus. And then (and I recognize it’s past our reading), what is that in verse 36?

“And he hid from them.”

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

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