Weekly Preaching: June 13, 2021

June 9th, 2021

Three texts, all inviting us to "see" differently. Hard to preach three texts, but they do interpret one another wonderfully.

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 begins so ominously, briefly encapsulating a dreadfully fractured relationship. “Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death; but Samuel grieved over Saul; the Lord was sorry he had made Saul king.” The preacher needn’t unpack all this for theological dogma. Can the Lord be sorry he did something? In the Bible, clearly, yes. Can you be angry with someone and grieve them? We’ve all been there, we may be there today. God’s new thing is about to emerge, not because Saul, or Israel, or even Samuel gets it all together and flies right. It’s God’s thing, almost as if a womb of agony is what God needs to birth new life – the hope signaled by God asking Samuel to snap to: “Fill your horn with oil and go.”

God’s new thing is by stealth, fudging on the truth (at God’s request), and much peril. Interesting: we think God wants us to be good, to keep our hands clean. But Bonhoeffer reminded us how our goodness can get in the way of God’s way; and that it is God’s will for us to get our hands dirty.

Not hard for the preacher to dramatize the scene in Bethlehem. It’s worth noting the location – where eventually the very small one, the Lord God incarnate, will arrive to save the universe. The lineup of the 7 boys, tall and strapping, with military experience. One by one, Samuel examines each one, hearing (how?) God say Nope. Seven times. At the end of the row, Samuel – sure God hadn’t sent him on a wild goose chase – asks Is that all? Jesse, blushing a little, admits Well, there’s one more, little David, out in the field. For years I preached this as if Jesse thought David could not possibly be the one. Now I wonder: perhaps Jesse suspected he actually was the one, feared for him, and wanted to shelter him, keep him with him at home.

The logic of Scripture seems to be God can use anyone. God prefers the small, the unlikely, the un-able. It works here – with the theologically quotable line, The Lord does not see as we see. But it then adds, The Lord looks on the heart. Was it that David had a good heart? As the story unfolds, we discover David has a wicked, conniving, do-anything-to-get-ahead heart. He was good-looking… which the writer seems to brag about, but it’s part of David’s downfall.

2 Corinthians 5:6-17 echoes and explicates this theme of discipleship as alternate vision. John Calvin spoke of the inspiration of Scripture as putting on corrective lenses to see things clearly, or rightly. Paul’s rationale for seeing differently, the lens through which we now look, isn’t just Scripture but what Scripture delivers to us: the crucified Lord. It is Christ’s death that compels a new way of viewing the world, others and ourselves. Death and suffering alter the vision for pagans, right? A sympathy — which might be a terror that this might hit me as well —  calms our rancor, and we see broken humanity with some mercy. How much more when pondering the cross – the innocent suffering of God’s pure, beautiful, holy Son, not only as tragic victim but as the one dying for us, in our place?

Folks miss this logic, which Paul is at pains to clarify to those Corinthians who were passionate zealots for salvation by grace alone. Christ died – why? “So we might no longer live for ourselves, but for him.” I recall exiting the theater after seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A man, who’d brought his family, was sobbing outside. I asked him, Why are you crying? He said Jesus suffered, so I don’t have to. Then he and his family climbed into a huge shiny SUV with a Carowinds sticker on the bumper. Nothing evil there – but the idea that I live as I wish, and Jesus died so I get to go to heaven and escape difficulty is all over this man and most of American religion.

Paul, poster child of the saved-by-grace people we like to think we are, clarifies in verse 10 that we “must appear before the judgment seat to receive recompense for what you’ve done or not done.” We saved by grace people are still accountable for what we do with our bodies, and minds, and time. I love Steve Martin’s comedy routine where he muses, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you died, and then suddenly you are in this court with God as the judge – and you’d think What? You’re kidding? That was really true? Oh no!!!” He’s thinking the joke is on the atheists – but I wonder about us saved-by-grace people. We will stand before a judgment seat. A preacher will have to labor strenuously to avoid being manipulative with such a thought, right?

Paul’s ruminations move me, always. He’d rather be away from the body and with the Lord. No wonder we have so many hymns about heaven, or spirituals that long for heaven – or freedom, at least! We “walk by faith, not by sight.” I’ll never forget my Reformation professor David Steinmetz explaining how, for Martin Luther, the organ of faith is the ear, not the eye, which can deceive: “The eyes are hard of hearing.”

Mark 4:26-34 interestingly also introduces an alternate seeing. We who typically read a Bible indoors might ponder the fact that most of what Jesus said and did happened out of doors. Here, he's certainly pointing toward a cultivated field, and some bushes nearby. What is the Kingdom of God like? It is like such a field, or a bush. Can you see it?

Fascinating: Jesus points out how vegetables grow. The farmer does his thing, but the growth happens when he’s asleep. In fact, the farmer can neglect things, and growth still happens. There is some generative power in the seed, some impulse of life, that you can’t see when you look at a seed, and its sprouting you certainly can’t see as it’s underground, hidden, or it doesn’t sprout at all. God gives the growth. The Kingdom involves some efforts, some labor, some attentiveness. But the growth is from God, while the farmer takes a nap or does his other chores.

Everything important works this way. The respiration going on in your chest right now, the beating of your heart, the circulation of blood, the digesting of your food: you can’t see it, but it’s life. Jesus’ words are echoed in the great Thanksgiving hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People, Come”: “First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear… We are God’s own field… Grant, O harvest Lord, that we Wholesome grain and pure may be.” Go outside. Look at growing things. Be a growing thing, for God, for others.

The connection between God’s work and ours is exemplified in the old joke: a priest, strolling through a beautiful garden, complimented the gardener, noting what can be achieved when “human toil and divine providence work together.” The gardener, wryly responded, “You’re right, but you should have seen this garden when nothing but divine providence was working on it.” We labor. The growth is God’s. Jesus would even delight in (and see God in) the mess of an uncultivated patch of earth.

After meditating on a vegetable plot, Jesus turns to a mustard tree. Bush, really. He calls the mustard seed “the smallest of all seeds,” which botanically isn’t accurate. He is impressed by how such a small seed defies gravity and becomes a bush that can be 7 or even 9 feet tall! A little nothing of a seed becomes a big bush that provides for God’s beloved creatures, the birds. I love St. Francis’s famous sermon to the birds, urging them to be grateful for trees, seed, water, air, their wings and beaks. If we ponder them and the bushes, we are ourselves transformed into something lovely, simpler, useful.

I’m also intrigued that Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a 7 foot tall bush. You’d think he’d go for Cedars of Lebanon, or Redwoods of California, truly awe-some trees. The Church, God’s way in the world, isn’t impressive by worldly standards. God’s way is smaller, and humbler, more accessible. I used to complain a little about a shift in our culture: sketches of Colonial American cities show us that the Church steeples were by far the tallest structures, but not it’s the banking towers. I won’t lament that any longer. The dwarfed churches are like the mustard bush, in the shadow of larger trees, providing a little nest for birds. “Even the sparrow finds a home in your courts” (Psalm 84).

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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