Jesus’ most popular appeal is as a wisdom teacher, and this makes many Christians defensive. That’s too bad, because they miss out on two gifts that God wants to give them.
- The two gifts we forego in our defensiveness
- Jesus’ twist on thinking about God
- Jesus’ essential message and how we can remember it
- The most popular, and most ignored, teaching of the creation story
- An overlooked but transformative teaching of the creation story
- Eight suggestions for discovering God in creation
It bothers me that some Christians refuse to hear Jesus as a wisdom teacher. “Yeah, but he’s MORE!” they shout back. When we Christians refuse to acknowledge, with most of the rest of the world, that Jesus stands tall among other wisdom teachers like the Buddha or Lao Tzu, we don’t hear the wisdom he has to offer, and we miss an opportunity to talk to others about the “more” we have found. I think God would prefer it if we sat together and listened.
Wisdom is the result of observation or experience leading to reflection and action. It is universal, and we should be proud that Jesus is a wisdom teacher. We find his wisdom surfacing through his parables and through passages like the Sermon on the Mount.
In the development of Christian theology, especially among the Reformed theological community, we usually move from the universal to the particular. This follows the pattern of Psalm 19, which moves from, “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” to, “The law of the LORD is perfect,”—from creation to the Law, the universal to the particular.
It’s noteworthy that Jesus reverses this movement, or at least goes back and forth easily. In the Sermon, Jesus moves from, “You have heard that it was said . . .” to, “Look at the birds of the air . . .”—from the Law to creation, the particular to the universal. Jesus uses creation to illustrate his main point, which is for his followers to become people of increasing faith. This is the case even if we start out with “little faith.”
One of the reasons we sometimes have a hard time with Jesus’ wisdom sayings like this is that only a few of us worry about actual daily food and clothing—all of Jesus’ original audience did. But most of us do bear the marks of an over-active worry, and thus all of us can still wrestle with Jesus’ call to faith.
In essence, Jesus is calling us to remember our “heavenly Father.” In contrast to the Gentiles (non-Jews) who do not know God in the way Jesus does as “Father,” Jesus invites his followers to adopt his perspective. (OK, for my fellow theologically educated readers, I can’t pass this up. If for Tillich “faith” is “accepting one’s acceptance,” then perhaps for Jesus it is “adopting his adoption.” Sorry.)
In order to maintain this perspective, Jesus doesn’t appeal to the Scripture or Tradition, but to Creation: “Look at the birds of the air . . . Consider the lilies of the field.”
One of the most popular, and most ignored, teachings from the first creation story of Genesis 1 is that of the Sabbath, the seventh day of rest. Mystic Thomas Merton invites us to see God’s rest not as kicking back in a recliner, but more like play and dance. (See Richard Rohr’s meditation here). Think about when you’ve completed a hard and important task. Don’t you step back and enjoy it, delighting in your work and its completion?
Brian McLaren describes it this way: “[The Sabbath] day of restful enjoyment tells us that the purpose of existence isn’t money or power or fame or security or anything less than this: to participate in the goodness and beauty and aliveness of creation.” (We Make the Road by Walking, p. 6)
One of the most overlooked teachings of the first creation story relates to the sixth day. There God creates the human in the image of God, male and female God created them. Humanity isn’t separate from and over creation, but a part of it. We are stewards of creation.
But being created “in God’s image” teaches that the Creator also is not just separate and over creation (God is, of course), but God is also revealed in it. Christian theology has taught that through creation we know that God is a God of order, power, and grandeur. But God, as also part of and revealed in creation is there inviting us into a relationship with God. Merton puts it this way: “When your tongue is silent, you can rest in the silence of the forest. When your imagination is silent, the forest speaks to you. It tells you of its unreality and of the Reality of God. But when your mind is silent, then the forest suddenly becomes magnificently real and blazes transparently with the Reality of God.” (As quoted in 24/6, p. 194)
This is the creation of faith. Faith sees the Creator through creation. But creation also calls (or speaks) faith into existence. Here are some suggestions for discovering the Creator and the Creator’s voice in creation.
- Practice Sabbath. Be obedient to the Fourth Commandment and “stop!” Sabbath isn’t vacation or time off; it’s “working” at rest and trust. Play and dance with the Creator in creation.
- Get out in creation. Take a walk in the park. Sit on the patio. Plant something. Look at the birds. Consider the lilies.
- Get “in” to creation. You are part of creation, so sit in silence and listen to your body, to your spirit, to Christ within you.
- Ask yourself, “What makes me feel alive?” You’re a uniquely constructed phenomenon. Your personal history from birth order to culture to choices you’ve made all contribute to your personal preferences. God co-created these with you. What delights you is part of who God created you to be and where God will speak to you.
- Read some Celtic Christianity. The Celts are among the best at recognizing the presence of the Creator within creation.
- Get a massage. I cannot think of a more Christian creaturely devotion. Remember that in the second creation story God fashions the human out of earth and breathes life into us. Submitting to the hands of another’s fashioning always gets me in touch with this aspect of the creation story.
- Indulge in a sensory beauty. You have five physical senses, and multiplied by the number of opportunities to indulge them, there are infinite possibilities. Surely God will use one of them to reveal himself!
- Practice the sacraments. From the opening lines of the creation story, God’s Spirit has been hovering over the waters. In Jesus’ hands bread and wine become divine life. Go get wet; eat some bread; drink some wine. God is there!
Most people think Protestants don’t believe in purgatory. We do. It’s all a matter of timing.
- Two responses to the delayed fulfillment of God’s promise: lust or love
- How the present heavens and earth testify to the New Heavens and Earth
- Judgement by fire and the doctrine of purgatory
- The role of the Lord’s Table in our salvation
- Our Eucharistic prayer
By the time 2 Peter was written, arguably the last book written in the Newer Testament, people had grown tired waiting for Jesus’ return. Some of the faithful expressed their impatience with the taunt: “where is the promise of his coming?” They had lost hope, because, “ever since our ancestors died, all is the same and always has been and always will be.”
Today we might hear things like, “There will always be war in the Middle East, famine in Africa, and competition for limited resources.” Such sentiments reflect the tacit belief that God may as well not exist. According to 2 Peter, such thinking eventually leads to a lifestyle of “lust,” by which the Bible refers not to unrestrained sexual desire, but to indulgence in general, including greed, exploitation, and basic self-centered living.
By contrast, 2 Peter invites us to take the long view. The author urges us to, “remember the words spoken long ago by the holy prophets.” We’re also to recognize that God remains present, as we remember “the commands of the Lord and Savior spoken by the apostles.” From this perspective, God exists, but God is patient. Second Peter assures and urges us to repentance because of God’s desire that none of us perish. Note that the object of God’s patience isn’t unrepentant people outside the church, but those of us inside the church.
Taking the long view leads to a lifestyle of “love” in contrast to a lifestyle of lust. The Bible understands love as an other-serving lifestyle. Second Peter refers to “leading lives of holiness and godliness,” which “wait for and hasten” the coming day of God. In other words, 2 Peter invites us to patience in and service towards the New Heaven and Earth promised by God. By actively waiting—not passively waiting around—we actually hasten the fulfillment of God’s promise.
To help us maintain this perspective, consider the testimony of the present creation. Psalm 46 speaks of earthquakes and floods and human wars, over all of which the Lord shall be exalted. In my own state of Colorado, we have enduring evidence of massive forest fires, only months after which new growth begins to sprout. Yes we have the burn scars, but from the biblical perspective, these scars are the reminder both of the loss but also of the deliverance. Those abandoning the community of 2 Peter see only loss; the faithful see loss and deliverance.
What is more, for the faithful, those who take the long-view, remembrance leads to hope. And hope leads to action. It leads to godly love. And this was the reason 2 Peter was written, “to arouse sincere intention” or “pure mind.” The author knows that right thinking—that is remembrance, taking the long-view—will lead to right action.
Second Peter uses the biblically popular image of judgment by fire. The first earth was flooded, he says, and the present heavens and earth will be purged with fire, yielding finally a New Heaven and Earth. Judgment by fire is the basis of what most of us know as the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, though the concept is shared by more than just Roman Catholics. Within Protestant circles, purgatory is becoming more and more accepted.
Our passage closes with an assurance of a New Heaven and Earth where “righteousness is at home.” What’s really at issue in judgment is that righteousness isn’t at home—WE are not at home. The disagreements about purgatory are essentially philosophical debates about time. We all agree that righteousness is necessary and therefore that sin must be dispensed with. What we argue about is how this is done and when. We both agree that God must do it, so it isn’t really a debate about faith, grace, salvation or how these relate to one another. Coming home to righteousness, regardless of how or when, is our salvation because God does it for us.
Second Peter’s use of the images of judgment, fire, purification, and purgation are invitations for us to burn off spiritual calories now, in this life. And why not, since God is going to do it anyway? This is why we come to the Table of grace. We come to remember the prophets and the apostles. We come to remember the command of the Lord and Savior: “Do this in remembrance of me.” We come to change our diet from one of lust to one of love and to burn off our spiritual fat. We come to rejoice in the promise of a New Heaven and Earth of which Christ is the first fruit, and of which we are the rest of the harvest.
God our Creator and Re-creator, we give you thanks for the beauty that surrounds us and the nature that sustains us. In your wisdom you gave us life and the responsibility to steward your creation. Most of the time it is happy collaboration, sometimes we victimize your world, sometimes your world victimizes us. We thank you that we can take the long view of redemption and peace within your creation, the view you yourself hold, and which you presented to us in Jesus Christ.
When he took our flesh upon him, he brought your life to us in a new way, and proclaimed the promise of your faithfulness to all people. He welcomed sinners at his table, and called them to repentance. He illuminated those with darkened minds and called us to right thinking and action. He modeled for us the way of love over the way of lust, the way of sacrifice over the way of selfishness, and he offered himself for the sin of the world upon the cross of judgment.
On the third day you raised him from the dead by the power of your Spirit, showing us your power to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. Send your Spirit we pray, that we to might be raised to newness of life in Christ, and that we may receive, with this bread and cup, the body and blood the Lord and Savior, that with him, we may live according to your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name and the realization of your dream. Amen.
You should work hard in worship. That’s true not just for pastors, but for you. The reason is this is how we avoid the “second death.”
- Two perspectives on suffering in our lives
- A foundational characteristic of God and the basic message of the Bible
- How David avoided the second death
- How we avoid the second death
Last summer I watched a swimmer practicing at the Olympic Training Center. He had tethered himself to the wall with a bungee cord and swam as hard as he could for as long as he could. Eventually he reached the point of exhaustion and the cord pulled him back to wall. Worship is like that.
Ancient Israel had begun to return from Exile. In 587 BC the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and deported the prominent citizens. But in 538 Cyrus the Persian allowed them return. Our passage from Isaiah is from that time.
While in Exile, the people contemplated their fate. At first, they concluded that this happened because of their sin, and in the Bible we can find examples of this thinking. Another perspective turned to God’s faithfulness. “Eventually God will deliver us, regardless of our sin,” they thought, “Because God is faithful.”
From this perspective they envisioned God as the maker of a New Heaven, a New Earth, and a New Jerusalem. Isaiah is an example of this vision. The ecstatic return to Jerusalem caused the people to envision an exhaustive restoration of all creation. The wolf and lamb, the lion and the ox, will share meals together instead of the one eating the other. And the serpent will be just that—a serpent, not a tempter.
The Book of Revelation picks up these same visions. There we find the New Heaven, Earth, and Jerusalem. There we find the restoration of the people of God from an unfaithful spouse to a new bride. And the “sea,” that symbol of a chaotic creation which God tamed in the first chapter of the Bible, “will be no more.”
Both Isaiah and Revelation testify to a God of Starting Over, a God of second chances, of return, restoration, and recreation, a God of homecoming. In his life, Jesus brings this message to a dramatic climax. He reminds the people of Israel, and us, that this God is the God of Life after Death.
This core message of the Bible is perhaps nowhere better summarized than in Lamentations 3: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Every morning is a resurrection; every morning is a second chance.
But what about those of us who have really messed things up? What if our previous failures can’t be reset overnight, and what if our darkness can’t be chased away by the rising sun?
King David had that problem. One morning God’s chosen and blessed monarch saw beautiful Bathsheba the wife of Uriah bathing. He had her brought to his house and got her pregnant. He tried to cover up his affair by recalling Uriah from the battle field for a respite at home with Bathsheba. But Uriah, a man of honor, would not enjoy the leisure of freedom until all his soldiers could do so. He would not sleep with Bathsheba. So David redeployed him to the most dangerous front of the battle and thereby had him killed. Then he married Bathsheba.
Their lovechild was born sick, and David began to suffer for his wrong. He lay prone on the ground in prayer and fasting for seven days straight. His advisors worried about him, but he would not relent. Finally the child died and David got up, bathed and dressed, and feasted. Now his advisors were thoroughly confused: David had fasted and prayed while the child was sick, but feasted when the child died. Eventually Bathsheba gave birth to Solomon, David’s successor.
By his seven day fast and prayers, David avoided the “second death” mentioned in Revelation. The first death naturally occasions loss and grief. When we don’t deal appropriately with the first death, we experience the second death. Sometimes we add ego to the first death: “I can make it through this if I just try a little harder.”
Sometimes we add resentment towards God: “God did this to me unfairly.” Sometimes we add victimization: “My life is so unfair.” When we do these things, we don’t deal with the first death. When we do this again and again we lose hope. We experience the second death, and third, and fourth, ad infinitum, for as long as we don’t deal with the first death.
But not David. He avoided the second death by grieving the first one. He knew he had done wrong and that his suffering was justified. But instead of trying again in his own strength to correct his mistake, he turned to God in prayer and fasting, finally placing his hope in God.
Jesus also avoided the second death. In the garden prior to his arrest he prayed that the cup of his destiny might pass him by, but even in his grief he concluded, “not my will, but rather yours, be done.”
Isaiah’s people also avoided the second death. In 66:2 God says it’s not those who offer ostentatious worship who will return to Jerusalem, but rather “the humble and contrite in spirit, those who tremble at my word.”
The people of Revelation who avoid the second death are the “thirsty” to whom God will give “water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.” They admit their thirst, they admit their need, they depend on God. These are the ones who “conquer,” are “victorious,” and who “overcome.”
That swimmer struggles against the bungee cord day after day. The cord holds him back and keeps him from realizing his potential. But he keeps swimming. The cord is unfair. It’s stronger than he is. He won’t reach the other side. But he keeps swimming.
One day he will take that cord off. His struggle against the cord will yield. The serpent will be just a serpent—there will be nothing holding him back. He will swim with strength, grace, beauty all the way to the other side.
Worship is training. It is practice. In worship we grieve the losses but we hope in God. In worship we struggle against the cords of death. We don’t deny loss, injustice, war, and sin. But we struggle against them. It is hard work.
But worship is also when we hope for that time when, with Isaiah and Revelation, we “forget the former things” because we remember the God of second chances who overcomes death and who can rescue us from the second death. All this because we worship the God of the New Heaven and New Earth.
You would think changing water into wine was a miracle. It isn’t. Faithful Christians do it every day.
Note: members of my congregation looking for some comments about Mary will find them after the questions for discussion and reflection.
- Signs in the Gospel of John (and our lives)
- Why God judges us
- What God’s judgment looks like
- The extent of God’s judgment
- The purpose of God’s judgment
- God’s judgment and Jesus’ first sign
- Questions for Discussion and Reflection
In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ “signs” are supposed to lead to belief. John doesn’t call them miracles, because they are rather more like messages. These signs are not meant to evoke amazement as much as cause us to ask, “What does this mean?” John tips us off about this with the first few words of this passage, “On the third day.” It is actually the fifth day as John narrates the story. Clearly we’re to listen for the what the sign means about the day of resurrection, not the third day of the gospel.
To fully understand what Jesus’ first “sign” means, we have to understand God’s judgment. The prophecy of Hosea is about God’s judgment of an unfaithful people. Hosea assumes we know the Creation stories well: the Creation of the world and of humanity in Genesis 1-2; and how in Genesis 3 sin enters the world followed by God’s judgment of humanity and all creation.
In Hosea’s words, ancient Israel “did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold.” They are being judged because they have forgotten that everything we need for life (grain, wine, oil), and all the extras (silver and gold), come from God. When we forget this, and act like these are things we’ve earned ourselves, it evokes judgment. (By the way, this attitude is the “deadly sin” of Pride.)
What does God’s judgement looks like? In Hosea’s vision, ancient Israel, depicted as an unfaithful spouse, “shall pursue other lovers but not overtake them; she shall seek them but not find them.” Judgment feels like God frustrating our pursuits or robbing us of satisfaction. Psalm 127:1 reminds us that, “Unless the LORD build the house, those who build it labor in vain.” In this version of God’s judgment, we either do not achieve our goals, or when we do, we are not satisfied. One important insight from Hosea is that judgment is not an “afterlife” event; it is right now.
In another insight, Hosea reminds us that judgment occurs because of our actions, but it includes all of creation. Recall that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, but the ground was also cursed. So in Hosea God says in his judgment, “I will lay waste her vines and her figs—the wild animals shall devour them.” We’re not talking about God sending hurricanes into immoral cities. It’s more like the events impacting Colorado’s Animas River in August of 2015. In part, this passage about God’s judgment calls us to better environmental stewardship.
But finally, Hosea, like all the prophets, wants us to know that God’s judgment isn’t the end. “I will now persuade her,” God says, “and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” God’s judgment has a purpose, but it isn’t punishment, or is it meant to appease a wrathful God. Instead, the point of judgment is reconciliation with a loving God, and the restoration of all creation. “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground,” God says, just as in the original Creation. And it includes reconciliation of all people: “I will abolish the bow, the sword, (the semi-automatic guns, the nuclear submarines), and war from the land.”
What does this have to do with Jesus’ first sign of turning water into wine? Throughout the Scriptures, deliverance, redemption, restoration, and salvation are depicted as the blessings of new wine. The best example comes from the prophet Amos, who like Hosea, has many judgment oracles. In Amos 9:13-14 the prophet writes, “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.”
In John’s Gospel story, Jesus’ “hour has not yet come.” But by the time we, John’s audience, receive the story, the hour (Jesus death and resurrection, see John 13:1) has come. Now is the time—we live in the “third day.” It is important to remember that wine is the co-labor-ation of Creator and Human. It is the “fruit of the vine and the work of human hands” as one prayer puts it. In other words, through the symbol of wine God is calling us to participate in the new creation with Jesus Christ, confident that because of his presence in this work, the wine will never run out.
God’s mighty act of Creation is followed by an even mightier act of New Creation. This means that throughout our lives we are turning water into wine. Through our increasing conformity to Christ, our increasing sanctification, our baptismal waters of purification, like those six jugs for Jewish rites, are changed to the Eucharistic wine of the wedding feast.
The message of Hosea, Amos, and John is this: Don’t lose hope! Filling 180 gallons takes a long time. And while Jesus may be able to turn water to wine in an instant, when he’s working with us it takes longer. It takes a whole life—your whole life. The Scots’ Confession assures us that though we may not experience the fruit of communion at the time we receive communion, it is nonetheless assured by the faithfulness of God’s Spirit (see the Book of Confessions, 3.21).
The Presbyterian hymn writer Maltie Babcock used the image of Hosea’s prophecy to remind us that, “Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.” God’s New Creation in Jesus Christ reconciles sinful Creation with God’s original design and desire. God isn’t satisfied until all earthly creation is reconciled with its heavenly creator, and this includes us. Jesus who died won’t be satisfied until you and God are one.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- How would your thinking about “miracles” in the Bible change if instead of feeling like you had to be “amazed” you asked yourself, “What is the message behind this sign?”
- Does it make a difference to you that God’s judgment is not a punishment or expression of divine anger, but rather a means of reconciliation with God’s love?
- Knowing that God’s judgment of your action includes everything around you (creation and relationships), how might God be calling you to modify your behavior?
- Realizing we live in the “third day,” how is God calling you to co-labor-ate with him in this New Creation?
Postscript on Mary
Some people are intrigued by John’s portrayal of the relationship between Jesus and his mother. She is not named in this story, referred to only as “the mother of Jesus.” And when he addresses her, Jesus refers to her only as “Woman.” And furthermore, he seems to rebuff her insinuation that he should do something about the fact that the wine has run out: “What concern is that to you, or to me?” Doesn’t Mary deserve better treatment?
I think it’s interesting that John tells us first that the mother of Jesus was at the wedding, and only after this says, “Jesus and his disciples were also invited.” It seems the important guest is Mary, almost as if Jesus wouldn’t be there if Mary hadn’t been invited. Mary is also the one who exercises faith in Jesus before anyone else. Even after he refuses to do anything, she tells the servants to do whatever he tells them. Only after the sign do the disciples believe in him; Mary does from the beginning.
On the other hand, John is telling us that Jesus is not subject to anyone’s agenda, not even his mother’s. His “hour” is determined not by a human’s need, but by divine will. John makes this point throughout his gospel (see 7:30, 8:20, 12:27). This is also, perhaps, one reason Jesus addresses his mother as “Woman,” as if to remind her and us that she, like we are, is merely a human.
Later in the Gospel, as Jesus is dying on the Cross, he again addresses his mother as “Woman,” when he entrusts her care to the beloved disciple (19:27). Many commentators have seen in this strange exchange an insight into the relationship between the church and the gospel. A long and venerable tradition sees Mary as a symbol for the church, and the beloved disciple as the author of the Gospel of John. By entrusting the one who gives birth to the Body of Christ (Mary, the Church) to the household of the gospel writer (the beloved disciple), Jesus is reminding all his disciples that his Word—even he himself (see John 1:1, 14)—has priority over their needs and desires as the church.
Practically speaking, then, Jesus’ relationship with his mother in the Gospel of John is a call to us to surrender our own agendas to that of Jesus, to trust God for the timing that conforms to his will, and to exercise faith as the church bears witness to “do whatever Jesus tells us.”
Want spiritual renewal for your church? Read this and share it with your pastor.
- The hard question for pastors: What, how, and when to feed our congregations
- Beyond Eucharistic feeding: The Five Competencies of a Christian
- The question for congregations: What it means to be “blessed”
In this section of Luke, Jesus toggles between assurances and warnings. He seems to be saying that because of the assurance of God’s providence, we can risk living in a new way. And in the passage for today, there are clear warnings and invitations to this new way of living for both pastors and their congregations.
As pastor of a church, I have to answer to special questions. Hebrews 13:17 says church leaders are to keep watch over the souls of their congregations, and that we will give an account. James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Jesus’ answer to Peter makes this dramatically clear.
Peter, spokesperson for the disciples and the symbolic stand in for church leadership (why do you think the Roman Catholics figure he’s the first Pope?), wants to know: “Jesus, are you saying these parables for us or for everyone?” Either he’s hoping everyone’s on the hook, or perhaps Luke is specifying two audiences—church leaders and church members.
Jesus’ answer, a further parable about the Faithful and Prudent Manager, suggests he is addressing Peter and other church leaders. There is a Managing Slave in the Master’s household. This person is still a slave, but one with responsibility for other slaves—namely feeding them their allowance of food at the proper time. Recall that in the Gospel of John the resurrected Christ tells Peter to “feed my sheep.”
So this parable asks a simple question of me as a pastor: “Am I feeding my congregation the right food at the right time?” The parable includes some compelling images that demand an answer. Unfaithful Managers will be “cut into pieces” and “put with the unfaithful.” The distinction of “light” versus “severe” beatings isn’t much comfort, since the possibility of “no” beatings isn’t an option. Every pastor, it seems, will fail and be judged. What we have some control over is how badly we fail.
Of course I hear Eucharistic overtones with the question. I can answer confidently that, “Yes, Lord. As you desire, I feed my congregation every week from the Lord’s Table.” And the earlier parable about the master arriving home from the wedding banquet to find his slaves waiting for him, then dressing himself and serving them a meal confirms the importance of our weekly Eucharistic feeding. It appears that I’m serving my congregation from the Lord’s Table, but in fact more often than not I see Christ staring back at me through their eyes when they receive the bread from my hands. It is Christ the Master (“Lord”) who is serving us all.
But the answer really must be bigger than the Table. More particularly, the parable asks me as pastor the question: Am I listening primarily to the Master’s will? Not my own will, not the culture’s, not the expert’s, and not even the congregation’s–but the Master’s.
In the words of the parable: Am I balanced in listening, preparing, and doing? Or to paraphrase: in prayer, study, and serving?
Together the elected leadership of my congregation and I have formulated “Five Directional Goals” in order to answer this important question about feeding our congregation the right food at the right time. You might think of these as the “five competencies of a Christian,” and we look to these for guidance as we lead the church.
Our Five Directional Goals are: (1) knowing what’s in the Bible and how to apply it to our lives; (2) the ability to pray for ourselves and others; (3) enjoying relationships in the community of faith; (4) responding to the needs of the church and the world with service; (5) appreciating how and why we worship together.
As challenging as these questions and answers are for pastors, the text also includes challenging questions for congregations. The primary question is: Are we like those “blessed” slaves whom the Master finds waiting, alert, dressed for action, and with their lamps lit? Will God find us “at work” when he comes and knocks on the door?
The fact that in this parable the Master “knocks” is telling. Unlike other parables where there are trumpet blasts or forewarnings of the Master’s return, in this parable the Master returns to his own house and knocks. Very unassuming. It seems God is eager to dignify us by creating opportunities for us to respond.
Some time ago Jesus came knocking on our church door. I was preparing to leave when I heard him walking down the hallway. When I opened my door, I saw him—a family passing through. They were seeking help, but I could tell what they really would like is a shower. Because someone in our past was “dressed for action” and made us ready, we have showers. I offered this to them, to which they responded with tremendous gratitude. Hearing the toddler laughing in the bathroom was the highlight of my week.
Earlier that same week someone from our congregation handed me a ten dollar bill. “Dressed for action,” I bought lunch for this family. I wrote the person and said, “Guess what I did with your ten dollars? I bought Jesus lunch!” When my wife heard this story, she created shower bags so that we would be “dressed for action” the next time Jesus comes needing a shower.
These parables tell us that God wants us to be ready to take a journey. We’re to be dressed, waiting, with our lamps lit. Why lamps? Because he may come in the middle of the night, or near dawn when it is darkest. It might be scary, we might not see very far down the road. But follow we must if we are to be “blessed” slaves.
The question for us as a congregation is: “How else might it look for Faith Church to be ready?” I wonder, do we appear ready to “open the door” to our neighbors? I think about the hundreds of people every day who buy coffee at the drive in across the corner from us. Do they think we’re ready to open the door to them? What do they think when they see our weed infested lawn and temporary vinyl sign? Do we appear ready to them? After a long day’s road-trip, would you be excited to drive into the parking lot of a motel with weeds and a temporary sign?
What would it look like for us to be watching and waiting? Because while we’re supposed to be watching and waiting, dressed for action with our lamps lit, our neighbors are waiting for God’s deliverance. In our neighborhood there are children who only get a third meal when school is in session. We are surrounded by elderly who can’t keep up on their housework. We replaced the furnace filter for someone who hadn’t done it in three years! (I check mine every three months.) There are many single people in our neighborhood—young unmarried, recently divorced, widowed, renters.
These people may not know the words of Psalm 59, but they know the feelings. They feel surrounded by predators who threaten their physical safety and financial security. They sense that life is hostile all around them.
And these neighbors, who are familiar with the feelings of Psalm 59, need us as their neighborhood church to pray for and with them the words of Psalm 59, “I will watch for you, O God, for you are my fortress.”
So the question for us is: Do our neighbors drive by Faith Church look and see a fortress of God, a place of refuge? We have been given this church. We have been entrusted with this church. And Jesus’ final words are clear: Much is required of us.
I have to think about feeding us at the proper time. All of us have to be ready to open the door when the Master comes.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- In what ways is your church leadership trying to ensure that you are being fed spiritually? How could they do a better job? How often are you “eating” what your church is offering?
- In what ways is your church “dressed for action, with lamps lit, and waiting to open the door” to Jesus when he comes, especially when he comes at unexpected hours and in disguise? How can your church be more ready?
- How are you one of the “blessed slaves” from Monday to Saturday, when Jesus might “knock on the door” of your office, car, house, or heart?
What does it mean that Jesus “descended into hell” as the Apostles’ Creed says? Could it be that God’s presence extends even that far?
- The descent into hell in the Bible
- Jewish understandings of resurrection
- Four things the descent teaches us
- How Joseph of Arimathea and a passionate lover exemplify real faith
The two most ancient church creeds share many things in common, but the way they refer to the Triduum (the three days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday) is not one of them. The Nicene Creed says Jesus, “was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, and the third day He rose again.” The Apostles’ Creed says Jesus, “suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.”
The older of these creeds includes what happened to Jesus not only on Friday and Sunday, but also on Holy Saturday—specifically, “he descended into hell.”
When we turn the biblical testimony about this descent, we find only a few shadowy references. In 1 Peter 3 and 4, the author writes:
Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, . . . the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.
A second oblique reference is found in Matthew’s account of the death of Jesus. There, the earth shakes, rocks split, and the tombs are opened. Several bodies of the saints are raised, but they do not depart the tombs until Sunday after Jesus’ resurrection, at which time they appear to many in Jerusalem.
The concept that Jesus descends into hell, or among the dead, is traditionally called the “harrowing of hell.” “Harrowing” is an Old English word for “robbing,” and “hell” here refers not to the fantastic realm of eternal torture (think Dante’s Inferno) but to the venerable Jewish concept of Sheol, the place of the departed where no one can praise God.
The harrowing of hell rests upon a very Jewish understanding of resurrection, which is distinct from our present-day understanding. In Judaism, a personal and individual resurrection was a late development. It arose in part from Greek philosophy introduced to the Jews about 200 years before Christ, and in part from the injustice of martyrdom which they witnessed a short time later. They were trying to reconcile the truths of a just God and the unjust deaths of the faithful. They concluded that justice would prevail in the resurrection of these saints. And eventually this led to the hope of a general resurrection of all people, some to reward, others to punishment.
We find an example of this way of thinking in the earliest writing of the Newer Testament, written by the Jewish Christian Paul. In 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 he is addressing the anxiety that some in the church had over those who had already died, before the anticipated return of Christ.
We believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
This concept that God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ extends to the dead proved rather difficult to convey narratively. It appears often in visual depictions and some hymnody, but how should one include it in the Gospels, for example? Matthew’s is the only surviving attempt, and as we’ve seen, even then it is poetic, obscure, and mysterious. What were those raised bodies of the saints doing from the time they were liberated from their tombs to the time they entered Jerusalem? And what happened to them after that? Taken literally, it is more than a little confounding.
The theology behind the harrowing of hell seems to have appeared early in the Christian movement, as evidenced by Matthew’s knowledge of it. But it seems to have been a marginal point, since it only appears in a few places in the Newer Testament. But later, it made a comeback, as we see in the art of the early church. There are several points of merit to this theology.
First, it does offer an assurance of the vindication of the martyrs. The bodies of the saints are raised, and presumably to a blissful reward. Second, it dramatically demonstrates the victory of God over sin and death. And this leads, third, to hope in spite of death in general, whether one is martyred unjustly or not.
But perhaps the most practical implication of this teaching, and certainly the one with which the Newer Testament most aligns, is that Christ’s harrowing of hell gives us reason to live faithfully in this life, for we know how it all ends. Paul teaches that in baptism we participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that from our baptism forward, in this life, we are already new creations.
When we as the church worship, we gather in the hope of Christ’s return and judgment—his promised bringing of justice. We gather hoping for the time when all those who are crucified, burned, stoned, beheaded, sold into slavery, dispossessed of their land, and otherwise robbed of life and hope, will be raised and restored with Christ; when all who have died as the result of sin, will be raised to new life; when those who have lived for goodness’ sake, will be commended; when the deception of fame, fortune, power, and ego will be exposed; when all the captives of sin, death, and hell will be set free.
I sometimes wonder about Joseph of Arimathea. The handful of verses in the Bible about him tell us that he was rich, a respected member of the Jewish ruling council, and a secret follower of Jesus. After Jesus’ death, his admiration for Jesus was no longer a secret.
Joseph probably envisioned his own death. As a respected person of means, he probably had an idea of what the mourning community would do with his body. Matthew tells us he already had a tomb, newly hewn in a rock. John mentions that it was in a garden. In other words, Joseph envisioned his final resting place to be comfortable, just as his privileged life had been.
But after witnessing Jesus’ life and death, Joseph’s vision changed. He gave up his tomb, and from that time forward he surrendered his life as well, just as he heard Jesus teach: “Whoever would be my disciple, must take up his cross . . . Whoever would find his life, must lose it.” Joseph saw something better for his life when he looked toward that newly hewn rock tomb.
It reminds me of the woman who wrote the Song of Songs. She finds herself gazing out the lattice windows, looking also in the clefts of the rock. Finally she sees her lover. These two spend the poem waiting and hoping desperately for each other.
What she saw, what Joseph saw, what the harrowing of hell teaches us, is that it is the Resurrected Christ who greets the dead. He says to them, “Arise, my love, and come away, for now the winter is past, the shadows flee, even the darkest shadow of the valley of death. Arise, for I have come for you.”
This is the Resurrected Jesus who invites us to take refuge in his love now and in this life, to find in him the rock of ages, and to have hope for the resurrection of the dead–both those who have gone before, and those of us who remain.
For a Eucharistic perspective of God’s love for us, see this famous poem by George Herbert.
Since we know “neither the day nor the hour,” it could happen any time and in any place—maybe even now, maybe even here.
- A perspective on the “Last Judgment”
- The meaning of the parable to Matthew and African slaves
- An interpretation of the parable for today
- Questions for discussion and reflection
By where it appears in the Gospel of Mathew, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is a commentary on the “end times.” The surrounding chapters include rumors of worldwide distress, both in creation and among nations. Jesus warns of false messiahs. There are echoes of the story of the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark. There are also stories of the “last judgment,” most famously the parable of the separation of the sheep from the goats. Matthew wants us to hear about the Ten Bridesmaids in this context.
Hosea also includes a judgment scenario. He is the prophet commanded to marry an unfaithful spouse, Gomer. With her he has three children with challenging names: Jezreel, Lo-Ruhamah, and Lo-Ammi. Translated into our day, this is like naming your children Sand Creek Massacre, Not Pitied, and Not My People. This active parable results from the people’s love for God being as evanescent as morning dew.
In our passage this morning, God likens himself to a lion who rips the people apart like prey and carries them away. God withdraws his affection, speaking words that cut to the heart, that even “kill.”
But Hosea knows that after judgment comes grace. He who tears apart will heal. The one who strikes down will build up. The one who blinds with lightning will appear as the dawn; who drowns with floods will gently water like spring rain. Sand Creek becomes Eden, God shows pity, he reclaims his people as his own.
Maybe with God, the “final judgment” isn’t final after all.
The parables of Jesus have many messages. This is the beauty of the parables, and for some of us, the key to retrieving the Bible from the critique of science and reason. In Matthew’s setting of the parable, the message is “Keep awake!” We suspect this is Matthew’s addition to Jesus’ parable because in the parable, “all (even the exemplary wise) became drowsy and fell asleep.”
Among African slaves in the United States, the message was, “Keep your lamps, trimmed and burning.” They came up with this message despite the fact that, “all the bridesmaids (even the exemplary wise) got up and trimmed their lamps.” (To understand their interpretation, however, see also Luke 12:35.)
So here is one message from the parable for us today. In this parable, there is a warning before the final judgment. The Bridegroom is delayed, till “midnight,” but then there is an announcement of his imminent arrival. There was enough time for the foolishness of five of the Bridesmaids to be revealed as all trimmed their lamps. It’s like the moment of time just before the locked car door shuts when you realize the keys are still inside.
But wise drivers have a spare key, and so one message of the parable is to “Keep oil on hand.” We can’t presume to know when and where Christ will appear. It may be a while—it has been a while for some of us.
So one message of the parable is to get the oil while you can. Let me suggest two times when you can get your oil. The first is in those times of Serendipity. These are the unplanned times of refreshing, joy, abundance, and shalom. I had such a time today following an early morning walk.
The second time for replenishing your oil is during a Sabbath. This is the time we are commanded to take to remember times of Serendipity. It is during Sabbath that we look back in our own lives or listen to others testify to their own experiences of Serendipity.
By Serendipity and Sabbath, we keep oil on hand and are ready for Christ’s return, for the judgment. It could happen at any time, in any place; which suggests that in reality, it happens all the time, throughout our lives, and not just at the end.
If we would be wise, we will keep oil on hand, by recognizing Serendipity and remembering Sabbath. Then we can offer light in the dark night. Then we may even offer oil to those “foolish” ones who need it, and maybe that is the wisest message of the parable after all.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- How do you respond to the idea that the parables, and even the whole Bible, contain many meanings that can change depending on context? How has the meaning of the Bible changed in your own life?
- Where have you seen God’s judgment transform into blessing, as it did for Hosea. Where has God’s mercy and grace followed a word of judgment in your own life?
- What are some example of Serendipity in your life? How have you marked these for easy remembrance during Sabbath?