The Bible is a flesh and blood story. Now, when I refer to the Bible as a story, I don’t mean fictional or made up. I mean that it makes sense with a unified plot from beginning to end, and we understand it best when we understand the whole story, not when we take small bits out of context without keeping the rest in mind.
The Bible is a grand story telling us how God did not give up on human beings when we rejected heaven’s way of doing things; instead God became one of us, and showed us what it’s like when heaven comes to earth in flesh and blood.
We do God’s grand story a great disservice when we reduce it to a law book or basic instructions or a learner’s manual for how to get to heaven. I love to imagine what it must have been like to experience the miracles in Scripture – remember these flesh and blood stories?
The Nile turned to blood. Dry bones grew tendons and flesh. A widow’s jug of oil and jar of flour did not run dry, so that the flesh of her boy did not hang on his bones in starvation. A boy’s fish and loaves nourished a famished crowd of thousands. The flesh of a leper’s skin was made whole, and the blood of a weak, unclean, iron-deficient, woman stopped flowing after 12 long years, making her strong again, making her clean again.
Flesh and blood is all through this story. But the flesh and blood miracle that defines all the other flesh and blood miracles is the one at the empty tomb. He is not here. He has risen!
I tell you. I love this story.
I love it so much that I have a confession: Sometimes I am more comfortable loving the story than I am loving the one to whom it points and the people he calls me to embrace. Bibliolatry describes people who hold to such high view of the Bible and perhaps biblical interpretation that they stop seeing God because they can’t stop looking at the book that points to God.
I think it’s almost impossible to grow up in the Stone-Campbell Movement of my heritage without a tension with bibliolatry. We love the Book. But, here’s the thing: sometimes I think we love our interpretation of the book more than we actually love the Book itself. And that is actually self-idolatry. So, when I’m honest, my confession is not only bibliolatry, but self-idolatry. I really like my interpretation of the Bible; sometimes I love it more than I love my brothers and sisters in Christ who interpret the Bible differently – and that’s not a life shaped by the cross, shaped by the flesh and blood of Jesus when heaven came to earth.
At times, I am tempted to love my interpretation more than I love God. Even calling it my interpretation is a bad starting point. Nothing about God’s story was meant to have a first-person pronoun attached to it.
I grew up with an approach to Scripture that’s common in Churches of Christ. It includes discussions of such things as commands in Scripture, examples we may follow from Scripture, necessary inferences we deduce from Scripture, and arguments from silence in Scripture. It felt quite empowering to me to have a plan for interpretation. Well, I’ll be honest, it felt quite empowering to have a plan that ensured eternal salvation in heaven instead of the fires of hell.
I don’t have time to explain the full process now. I’ve written about it in my book, A Woman Called, but eventually I began to read the Bible differently than I had earlier been taught, and differently than most of the people at my local congregation. When I shared some of my thoughts, it didn’t really go very well.
When I became convinced that a different way of looking at things, especially concerning the role of women in church ministries was the correct way of reading Scripture, I went through several years of loneliness, frustration, and cynicism– because as sincerely as I was convinced it was right way to read the Bible, many of my brothers and sisters were convinced it was not.
As I struggled with this conflict, it didn’t seem to matter how sincerely I was convinced about how to interpret the Scriptures. I became just as much a fundamentalist about my interpretation as I perceived people with more traditional interpretations to be. I eventually had to face this Scripture in relation to myself, the passage I thought was reserved for the Pharisaical types – hear it in that context:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
A friend of mine, Josh Graves, recently made this point in one of his sermons:
“Knowledge of scripture will only save and bolster your faith if your reading of scripture leads you to Jesus. If your reading of scripture leads you to knowledge, that’s all you end up with.”
One of the best aspects of my Church of Christ heritage is our emphasis on the Lord’s Supper – you can’t miss it on a Sunday morning unless you sleep through it, or walk out on it, which I’m ashamed to admit I have done on a couple occasions.
But if we really contemplate the Supper as we should, if we eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus in light of the entire story of what God is doing to redeem us, we cannot continue in self-idolatry or Bibliolatry or individual faith apart from the body of Christ. The body and blood mercifully wash away cynicism and self-righteousness and individualism –and as we swallow God’s mercy, more mercy is born in us in flesh and blood actions in our lives.
Sometimes I need a reminder that it’s Jesus I’m following, not my own interpretation of the Bible. And when others in the body of Christ don’t agree with me, I shouldn’t make it about me. Finding this balance between believing wholeheartedly in the importance of full gender inclusion in church ministries and respecting my brothers and sisters who see it differently is making me more like Jesus.
But it’s terribly hard sometimes -something like eating flesh and drinking blood.
Some people question whether sermons are helpful at all.
David Norrington, for example, wrote a book titled To Preach or Not to Preach? And in it, he questioned the fundamental validity of sermons. He finds no evidence in Scripture to support the contemporary practice of preaching sermon. He . . .
- says its origin is in Greek and Roman rhetoric.
- argues that preachers become egotistical primadonnas who inevitably induce listeners to become dependent on them.
- claims that sermons can even damage a congregation’s health because they stunt the growth of listeners.
- says that it’s elitist that for one period each week someone who is more gifted than the rest will speak and everyone else will attend in silence.
Norrington is not alone in his critique of preaching.
I am familiar with church groups that agree with Norrington. They gather weekly to sing, share prayer requests and testimonies, with no sermon at all, and they base their practice in the example of the New Testament. It’s easy to see how it would be appealing to experience a more communal, personal approach to church gatherings. The Word is certainly preached through hospitality and shared meals and wine.
Or other groups I’m familiar with use sermons, but their primary purpose is to facilitate church growth. Sermons are seen as opportunities to draw seekers into the community. It’s that kind of thinking that would lead a church to design sermons which appeal to a specific demographic. One church with which I’m familiar concluded that that the best use of time during sermons was to preach a message that appeals to men, honing in on the message of family leadership. Women, they found, tend to go to church regardless of the content of the message, so the sermons in this church are specifically and purposefully aimed at men. This kind of preaching is exemplary of “masculine” Christianity which I find a fascinating topic. Whatever you may think about it, it works if the goal is numbers; this kind of preaching reaps people in the seats. I can appreciate why some church groups make the case that the primary purpose of a sermon is church growth. And before any of us, including me, get too judgmental, we must all admit that preaching is one of the reason we tend to choose a church in the first place. And it’s sometimes our primary reason for leaving.
But, I believe the conversations we have about preaching often miss the most basic reason we read and preach and teach and study God’s Word. This Christian life, all of it, is about the heart of Christian people becoming like the heart of Jesus Christ. Everything we do and say should center on that transformative process of spiritual growth. And sermons, while they may help with church growth or entertainment or dispersing important information – all of that is in the service of the higher goal – cultivating hearts of Christians to become like Christ, calling God’s people to act like Jesus when he was in human flesh on this earth.
The sermon is an opportunity in which a prepared person with a gift of preaching testifies through the power of the Holy Spirit to the power of the gospel in the lives of God’s people. It can be a profound opportunity for communal growth. At its best, preaching is not about either the individual who’s speaking or the individuals who are listening. At its best, preaching is about the community being one while they experience the power of testimony among them.
In the growing literature on postmodernity, there is consensus that postmodern people yearn for a deep spiritual experience: authenticity, genuine relationships, holism in worship and life, and mystery and wonder in experiences of spirituality.
So, preachers have quite a lot of thinking to do about how they will preach in our shifting culture.
While preachers must obviously address our shifting culture, my question for those of us who do the listening is this – do we really think preachers will accomplish all that by themselves? I don’t want us to think so much about the preacher’s role, as if the preacher is primarily responsible for what we will do about postmodern preaching.
I’ve been reading a book, 360 Degree Preaching by Michael Quicke, and he says that unheard preaching is a waste of breath. A sermon is not a sermon if my preaching minister, Adam Hill, preaches it in an empty auditorium. It’s the gathered body that makes Adam’s sermon a sermon.
So, I have to ask this question: Could it be that the skills of the hearer are just as important as the skills of the preacher when it comes to the effectiveness of a sermon?
Hearers of a sermon are so much more than consumers who get what they pay for or audience members who demand good entertainment. Hearers of sermons are participants, and I think emphasizing the role of the hearer in the sermon could actually help us address postmodern challenges better than making sure our preachers are young, cool, and hip. People can see past that.
So, here are 2 roles of the hearer of a sermon Quicke emphasizes. Think about what it means to embrace these when you sit in the pew:
1) As a hearer, I am not hearing as an individual.
The sermon is a communal instead of individual experience. Individualism is one of the greatest challenges to the Western church, maybe the greatest. Proclamation of the Word of God should elicit a communal response, or we may as well listen to all our sermons at home, on cds with ear buds in our ears and stop congregating on Sunday morning. Hearers of sermons have a role, together with the preacher, and it’s a communal role – I think that communal experience is what our culture is crying out for.
2) As a hearer, I have a responsibility before, during, and after a sermon.
When the word of God is proclaimed, we need to listen and respond with all we are. It’s not just about intellect or just about emotion – the Word of God demands all of who we are: heart, soul, mind, and strength. It means praying before we receive God’s Word, preparing our minds for a sermon and searching our souls in response to sermons. It means meditating on the words of the preacher. It means confessing when we’ve been convicted. It means lamenting or rejoicing if that’s how the Word of God calls us.
When was the last time you prepared yourself to receive a sermon?
Think of your role as a hearer like this: Isaiah, in chapter 55, compared the Word of God to the cycle of rain falling from heaven and returning after having watered the earth and caused seed to grow. Isaiah says, “So shall my word be that what goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
The preacher does his or her part in proclaiming the Word, but hearers must make sure that Word does not return empty without nourishing spiritual growth in our lives.
The preacher can’t do all that.
I’m so thankful for God’s grace that makes this cyclical process possible and God’s Spirit that accompanies the Word. So, as hearers, we have a responsibility to make sure The Word does not return empty.
Ask yourself next time you settle down to hear a sermon: How will this sermon nourish spiritual growth in my life, not returning to God empty?
This is the lesson I presented at Pepperdine Bible Lectures, May 2013. Many thanks to Mike Cope for the kind invitation, to D’Esta Love for a beautiful reading of the text from Acts 11, to Jimmy Cone for his prayer, and to Chris Stivers for leading thoughtful hymns of worship and praise.
While raising Nate and Brynn, I was determined they would not be picky eaters. I know in the whole scheme of things in the world, being a picky eater is not the most important characteristic we hope to engender in our children, but for me, it is a big one, and I like to think my reasons are theological. Table fellowship is central to the human experience of community – we were missionaries in Uganda, and I wanted my children to fully appreciate the food given to us by people who sacrificed for our family when they served us the exotic jack fruits out of the trees in their yards, the millet that was the product of their hard work in the fields, and the chickens that they really, literally sacrificed for us. I will never forget the flurry of activity when we arrived at a friend’s home in Uganda, and all the children in the home were told to go catch a chicken for the visitors. The chickens scattered as the children chased them, and one poor squawking hen was snatched and soon became our lunch. It was beautiful to learn about generosity of spirit from people with so little who shared so freely. I was determined that my children would appreciate it. One of my proudest moments, right there with pictures of graduation and honor roll awards, was when Nate and Brynn dug into a big bowl of roasted termites, and I snapped their picture as little termite wings and tentacles stuck to their lips. The look on some of your faces right now helps make my next point…we respond to things we don’t like with disgust.
Richard Beck, in his book, Unclean, writes about that look of disgust. He describes it like this: “ . . .disgust is characterized by a distinctive facial response seen in the wrinkling of the nose and the raising of the upper lip . . . .we know that this distinctive facial expression is a cultural universal. All humans make the same face when experiencing disgust”
Well, my goal with my children was that when they were exposed to a new food, they would not respond with disgust but with openness – I hoped they would genuinely and with excitement want to try new things, to experience the wide world of tastes that I believe is one of those fingerprints of God’s imagination and creativity. So, thanks to the wisdom of The Holy Bible and another important classic, Green Eggs and Ham, I must brag on myself and say that one of our family’s favorite things to do together is to try new foods.
Despite my success in this parenting goal, however, God must keep me humble, so we did eventually encounter one food Nate does not like. Mushrooms. He has tried them various ways, with an open mind, but he does not like them in a box. He does not like them with a fox. He does not like them here or there. He does not like them anywhere.
He especially did not like them when we were at our neighbor’s house one evening and mushrooms were served, not a part of the soup or a topping on the pizza, but as a side dish. A big bowl of straight mushrooms. Nate, knowing it was polite to take a bit of everything that was passed, put some mushrooms on his plate. And he tried. He tried to keep an open mind. He wanted to show appreciation and respect for what he had been given. But the look of disgust on his face as his own hands brought those mushrooms to his own mouth and eventually chewed them, was . . . . well, you know that look, a look of disgust. And if you are seeing our text today properly, you will see that look as you hear the Word of God from Acts 11:
11 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” 4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
We have to hear the collective gasp here; we have to see the look of disgust that Nate makes when he’s served mushrooms. This moment is pregnant with suspense as the circumcised believers hear the story, picture Peter eating unclean foods, and respond with a visceral response, a look of disgust.
Peter says what they all are thinking.
8 “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
I like the versions that translate this response, “No way Lord,” which I think better captures our American dialect. We can see little children looking at a new food with disgust, and saying, “No way am I going to eat that.”
9 “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying.
This is actually a story told twice in Acts. It’s Luke’s way of emphasizing the importance of the story. So, it’s relayed by the narrator in chapter 10 by the narrator, and here in chapter 11 by Peter. The chapter 10 version tells us that this “house” was a tanner’s house, and from studies of ancient Israel, we know it’s likely that a tanner’s house was on the outskirts of town because tanning involved taking the skins of dead animals, carrying the stench of decaying flesh and rubbing them with animal brains and dung and urine. A tanner’s house was already a nauseating place to be even before the pig dream. Oh the irony – Peter stands on the roof of a tanner’s house amid the stink of dung and urine, and he defends kosher food laws!
He says, “No way Lord” to a vision of a picnic blanket that he knows is being offered to him by God.
With that scene in mind, we hear Peter continue his story.
12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
While visions are not generally our method of discernment in our modern world, they were respected in ancient days. Luke uses them throughout Luke and Acts. Remember how Mary first received a vision, and then Joseph was able to understand because he also received a vision. Corroborating visions were evidence. They were useful for discernment. And one thing Luke doesn’t want us to miss is that even Mary, a young woman at the bottom of the social pyramid of her day, with no social capital or respect, in a forgotten place like Nazareth, was worthy of God’s vision. And here, stretch even further, even a Gentile like Cornelius is worthy of a word from God.
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
This passage is obviously about more than Peter’s dietary preferences. Food, for people in ancient Judaism, was much more than food. And who you ate with was about much more than chewing food side by side – it was about acceptance and equality in relationships. So, when Peter stood on that roof and said “No way Lord,” and later when the circumcised believers were questioning him, it wasn’t just about the food. It was about the people. They weren’t just turning up their noses at food; they were disgusted by people. They were disgusted because of human beings they considered unclean. And the point is that God has made, not only food, but people clean through power of the Holy Spirit.
When Luke constructed this passage in Acts, he was using all his creative and writing talents to meet a specific purpose. He crafted it; he put it together with great care. And he very specifically decided to tell this story twice. This story is so central to Acts – and to the Gospel in the big picture – that it needed to be told twice. In chapter 10, we hear about the sheet, and the animals, and the “No way Lord!” from the narrator’s perspective. And then here in chapter 11, we hear about the sheet and the animals, and the “No way Lord!” from Peter himself.
Why would Luke do that? The story is repeated for a reason. Luke is showing us that tricky process of human decision-making at a time when the church was called to include people they did not want to include. Luke is showing us how the church took a risky step, involving great struggle – requiring them to fundamentally reinterpret everything they believed.
At these Pepperdine Bible Lectures, many of you are leaders and devoted servants in your churches, and if anyone knows of the great struggle in Churches of Christ to fundamentally reinterpret some long-held beliefs, it is you. It is us.
Here’s one thing we can all agree on: When God moves in new and unfamiliar ways, everyone is not always happy about it. There is almost always resistance. And this text asks us a hard question – Are we capable of becoming excited about how we may have been wrong? Look at the end of the passage. The circumcised believers in Jerusalem praised God . . . because they realized they had been wrong!
How do we get there? How do we get to the place of praise when God includes people we don’t think should be included? For most of us, it just feels safer to maintain boundaries. It’s just more comfortable for everyone involved if we don’t change things. But, the Gospel teaches us that great joy comes with movement. Keeping up with God’s love in this world has always been hard – it has always stretched us– but the Gospel demands it. It means that we have to study the Scriptures. And it means we have to know how to recognize the Holy Spirit in others.
There’s no time to answer all the questions about how that works here today. But, we can respond to the text with some introspective, heart-wrenching questions:
Today, are we keeping up with God’s action of inclusion in the world?
Do we believe God is still on the move, surprising us with unimaginably open arms of love?
Do we believe God still might still surprise us by including marginalized people who we do not think should be fully included?
Most importantly – Are we willing to praise God if we find that we’ve been wrong?
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), Liturgical Press.
F. Scott Spencer, Journeying Through Acts: A Literary-Cultural Reading, Baker Academic.
Joel Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, Cambridge Univ. Press.
I wish you could meet Taryn. She’s a nine-year old girl in our church community. Well, she actually just turned ten last month and would probably want me to claim the full ten years, but she made her impression on me when she was still nine.
This past year, Taryn made a goal to read the entire Bible, and she did! With her smart-girl glasses, Taryn already looks the part of a biblical scholar. Her parents are lovely people; I wish we could clone their parenting style. Taryn’s reward for reaching her goal was that she got to pick out a new Bible, any Bible she wanted. I wish you could have seen her when she showed it to me at church. The picture here shows the excitement on her face when she received the Bible from her parents.
Just look at that face!
When I first heard what she was doing, I asked Taryn to go to coffee with me at a local bakery so I could hear about her experience. I got coffee; she got a blue cookie.
I am especially intrigued about what readers notice about the Bible the first time they read it. I love to experience the story with people who haven’t read it before.
Teaching freshman Bible at Rochester College allows me to read with quite a few people who haven’t read the story before, and being a missionary in Africa also presented lots of opportunities. My favorite shocking moment in Scripture is when Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar, who is about to be stoned to death for adultery, pulls out Judah’s staff and seal, and says “I am pregnant by the man who owns these things.” It is a dramatic scene. One of my students recently remarked that Genesis 38 is the first ever episode of Maury Povich’s TV show, “Who’s the baby Daddy?”
I was curious how a nine-year old experienced some of the mature themes of the Bible, so as we sat down for our coffee conversation, I asked Taryn several questions, and she kept surprising me with her answers.
Here’s an example: What’s your favorite part of the Bible?
Taryn didn’t mention any of the stories we usually teach our kids – Noah’s Ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, David and Goliath . . . . She said that her favorite parts are the family lines. “Family lines?” I said.
Do you know what she meant?
Genealogies! Long lists of names – probably the part we often skip over. So, I said, “Why do you like the family lines so much?” And she explained that it’s because she knows all the people in the family, and the family lines help her remember everything she has read and see how God has been working in people’s live’s over a long time.
That’s exactly why genealogies exist, don’t you think?
We ended up having a deep conversation about Matthew’s genealogy and why he began with a family line when Mark, Luke, and John did not. Sometimes I don’t think we give our young people enough credit for how they can understand some intricate parts of our story. Taryn went home to her daddy later that evening and explained the Jewish audience of Matthew’s Gospel to him!
Another example of our discussion was this: Which part of reading the Bible was the hardest? Was there a certain book you wanted to skip or that made you want to give up?
I expected Taryn to cite Leviticus or Numbers, the part where most of us want to give up reading the entire Bible. She did tell me that when she was reading Numbers, she had several weird dreams about numbers. But, that wasn’t the hardest part to read. She said,
The hardest part of the Bible to read is the story of Job. He was sick and lost everything, and the people he loved were dying. And it seemed like he would stop believing in God, but he didn’t. It was just hard to read a story like that.
And I thought how insightful Taryn was; of course that’s a hard story to read.
We had a nice long conversation, and the theme remained the same – Taryn didn’t read the Bible just to reach a goal and get a reward. She was experiencing the entire narrative on a spiritual level that some of us adults reduce to the intellect alone.
It’s a time-tested fact that as children we experience the world through imaginative lenses, and we tend to lose that imagination as we grow older. But, what if we worked to expand our spiritual imagination when it comes to our experience of the Word of God? What if we asked the Spirit to enlarge our experience of the Bible? What if we entered the Bible like Lewis’ children enter Narnia?
Christians have tended to reduce the story to a set of rules or a map to heaven. What if it’s not something we can get our arms around and control in any way? What if the Bible is an invitation to join a story that just keeps on going?
Would we as readers and hearers of sermons then step into the story in new and fresh ways, the very new and fresh ways our souls cry out for?
Many thanks to Taryn and her parents for including me in their experience. May we all learn from the little theologians among us.
” . . . and a little child shall lead them.” Isaiah 11:6
We used to play a game in elementary school that we called Mercy – where kids would see who could stand having their hands folded backwards the longest. So, after you couldn’t take it anymore, you would say, “mercy!” – and they had to let go.
Mercy – We talk about in sports too. If a team gets ten goals ahead in soccer, there’s a mercy rule, and the game is called early, to be merciful to the losing team.
When I was growing up in the south, we would say “mercy me” when we meant “wow” or “I’ll be darned.” A friend of mine stepped out onto her back porch one time, and a poisonous copperhead snake wound around her foot and ankle. She kept her calm and stood perfectly still until it slithered on without biting her. The appropriate response to that situation, “Mercy me,” and I remember saying it on that occasion.
A mercy pass is when a student is so close to passing that the teacher passes him or her in the class, even though the grade is not technically a passing grade. Don’t get any ideas. That does not happen around here.
Mercy -I learned this on the internet – is the brand name of a hangover prevention beverage.
You’ve probably visited a hospital with the name Mercy. Mercy hospitals abound.
Kanye West raps about Mercy.
The urban dictionary defines mercy as the one thing Chuck Norris does not know the meaning of.
With all these nuances of mercy, it seems like we ought to know what it means. But, what would you do if God told you – Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy. Where would you look for it? How would you define it?
There’s a scene in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus tells some religious folks to go learn what mercy means.
In the situation, we’re at Matthew the tax collector’s house. Tax collectors were the worst of the worst kind of people. Just look who they get lumped with in the Gospel. Tax collectors and sinners here in chapter 9 and again in 11. Tax collectors and pagans in chapter 18. Tax collectors and prostitutes in chapter 21. They were hated. They were dirty. They were bad people.
I imagine what it was like to be Matthew: One day he was sitting at his tax collector’s booth, wearing fancy clothes that he bought with poor people’s tax money, he looks all devious and calculating. He’s used to being invisible to “the good people”– perhaps sometimes he goes an entire day without one person greeting him, except apparently for an occasional pagan or prostitute. He bears the weight of the hate. He’s an outcast.
But, then Jesus, a rabbi, one of the good people, comes along and calls him to become his disciple; it’s Matthew’s chance to completely redefine himself and be in a class with good people.
And for some reason, Matthew actually says yes – he walks away from it all –he joins Jesus, a penniless do-gooder. I think in our quest to find mercy – we’ve found it in Matthew. The love and acceptance and new start he received from Jesus was merciful. And the first thing Matthew did was throw a party to celebrate the mercy he was experiencing. He’s no longer sitting in the hated tax-collector’s booth – he’s sitting at the feet of a rabbi, learning what mercy means.
The neighbors were watching the comings and goings at the party at Matthew’s house. Sharing a meal was a crucial occasion because it declared a person’s class – and this was a society where class mattered. And, Matthew’s “class” of people was not acceptable company for a rabbi. All the neighbors were stunned to see Jesus there, and they whispered from house to house. “There’s a rabbi at the tax collector’s house.” ”He’s actually eating there!” “Matthew the tax collector has gone and got himself some religion.” It was the talk of the town.
Jesus eating at the home of a sinful tax collector. We have to understand how outrageous that was if we want to understand mercy. Only Jesus would think of calling such a bad sinner to follow him, eat with him, to be in his intimate group. Only God does mercy like that.
But in the story, there are some other people, the Pharisees, who are confident that they know what mercy means, and they don’t see it as a “mercy party,” they see it as a riff-raff party. So they demand to know what Jesus is doing there.
And Jesus responds not with defense – he gives them a challenge – he tells them – Go learn what mercy means.
Mercy: there’s no simple definition for it. How can we explain a word that can have the connotation of a hangover beverage and at the same time describe the action of God?
I tend to think of mercy as God’s long, tender strategy to reconcile with us, his loving kindness extended to human beings. By the mercy of God, we are reconciled – and we become ambassadors of reconciliation.
I’m the daughter of an Arkansas farmer, and here’s a metaphor for mercy that works for me.
I’ll never forget what it was like when my Daddy taught me the miracle of gardening. I told him I wanted to grow something, so he went to the kitchen cabinet in his straightforward, no-nonsense manner and broke open a plain old bag of pinto beans and showed me how to get my dirt ready and make straight rows with haybail twine before dropping those beans into the dirt. I was hooked a week or two later when those beans had morphed into plants that broke through the ground and opened their little green arms to the sun. I gave them names. My little babies.
But, then, that particular year, the spring rain stopped. And the scorching Arkansas sun beat down on my little miracles, and every day they looked more and more pathetic. My sister got sad when cows died; I was sad when my little garden was thirsty.
One night was cool, and we got a light drizzle, so in the morning, the plants perked up a little. But, by noon the hot sun came back and burned away the moisture – it was like the plants were frying in the sun – worse than before the misty rain. My Daddy explained how that little bit of rain couldn’t soak down to the roots. It was a shallow remedy, a deceptive drink of water.
That’s how some people show mercy, says the OT prophet, Hosea. Like morning dew gone before noon, shallow mercy, false mercy, mercy that doesn’t cost anything, mercy that stays on the surface and doesn’t soak in deep.
But, the kind of mercy God is looking for – it soaks to the roots.
God’s mercy is not for shallow people who take shortcuts when they show mercy.
It the old days of Hosea, the Israelites would get dressed up in religious clothes and walk to the temple with a religious walk and talk the religious talk and make a religious sacrifice in the temple. Then they would leave the temple and exploit and manipulate and hate their neighbors. Their mercy was like dew on the grass gone by noon.
People still do it today. They think that if they go to church on Sunday and give their money in the offering and avoid drinking too much or associating with the wrong people, that is what it means to live a righteous life.
I’m still learning what mercy is – part of the definition of mercy is that it’s a deep, ongoing, experience of God’s loving kindness – and we learn better what it is when we do it. So, we are continually learning more about it – But, I know this – Mercy is not some Sunday morning sacrifice that’s forgotten by noon. God’s mercy has to soak in so deep that it oozes out of you into the lives of your neighbors.
There are people in this community right now who devoutly attend church on Sunday and thank God for his abundant mercy and then by noon, by they time they are eating lunch in the cafeteria, they are putting people into “in” and “out” categories just like the Pharisees did. There are people in this community who some of you won’t (or at least don’t) eat with.
Mercy like dew on the grass gone by noon.
In my classrooms, there are people in this community who aren’t chosen to be in a group when I tell my students to break into groups. And they feel left out, so at a Christian college, I sometimes have to assign groups so my students will not pair up only with their friends. In Bible class.
Mercy like dew on the grass gone by noon.
In this very community, there are people who feel that they cannot openly share who they are – their past and present struggles – for fear of being judged and excluded. I have students who write about that feeling every single semester.
Mercy like dew on the grass gone by noon.
There are people in this community who are quick to accuse those who step into leadership of being manipulative or being self-aggrandizing, and ironically they do not seem to remember the mercy they’ve been shown time and time again when they made efforts in leadership.
Mercy like dew on the grass gone by noon.
Make no mistake: we have a wonderful community here. I could have mentioned innumerable acts of mercy among us – I certainly see them, but some days the message is supposed to be a hard one, some days it is supposed to confront us. I love the way we gather around education at Rochester College, around learning, around growing, around expanding our minds. But may we never become comfortable with mercy. May we never forget the mercy we’ve been shown by God.
Sometimes the message has to be this: Never stop learning what mercy means.
Widows are often highlighted in Scripture, and if we look closely at their stories, we begin to see a pattern. Again and again, they are strong and impressive characters. It’s Tamar, a widow in Genesis 38, who is referred to as righteous in contrast to Judah, Jacob’s sinful son. It’s Ruth, a young widow, who first utters those powerful words of covenant to her mother-in-law, Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” While the leaders of the Temple reject Jesus, it is Anna, an old widow who prays day and night in the Temple for eighty-four years, who blesses Jesus when Joseph and Mary bring him to the Temple as an infant.
Then, there’s the unforgettable widow in Luke 21. Jesus points her out as she gives her two small copper coins, saying, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all the others.” This scene is especially striking when we realize that Jesus is highlighting her faith in contrast to the important men bustling about in the Temple, wearing fancy robes and saying fancy prayers while taking advantage of widows’ financial situations (Luke 20). The heroine of the story, Jesus says, is this generous widow.
But, there’s a scene in Luke that we often overlook as we consider widows in the biblical story. Her story is recalled by Jesus himself, and it happens at an important moment, when he essentially announces himself as the Messiah, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. It’s a big moment, and we should listen:
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “prophets are not accepted in their hometowns. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Luke 4: 14-27
It’s a weird story. In it, the people are hot and then cold. They love Jesus, and then they hate him (Luke is foreshadowing what will happen on a wider scale).
The reference Jesus makes to the widow in Zarephath may seem confusing at first, but it’s one more potent story about a widow in Scripture (1 Kings 17). She shared the little food she had with Elijah, and in return, her jar of flour and jug of oil did not run dry for three years. In her society, the widow was a marginalized outsider in every way imaginable to an ancient Israelite. First, she was a woman, and women were automatically at the bottom of the social pyramid of their day. She was also poor, with only a tiny bit of food to her name and a child to feed; she was only one meal away from becoming a beggar. And, she was a Gentile, so that put her far outside the boundaries of Israel’s society, not just any society but Zerephath is in Phoenician territory, making it Jezebel’s home territory: Jezebel! Elijah’s greatest enemy. In the world of Israel, it was hardly possible to be any lower or any farther outside the boundaries of proper society, but she was uniquely called by God and remembered by Jesus.
Jesus remembered this faithful soul- and he told her story as his opening illustration of what the Kingdom of God is all about. He’s saying that God will reverse a world in which outsiders like this widow are marginalized!
Jesus is saying to his own people – In the Kingdom of God, the people on the bottom are really on top. The people who cry are blessed. The people who are poor are blessed. They are the ones who know how to give, who know how to pray, who know how to worship, who know the Son of God when he’s standing in their midst.
It’s true that widows should be cared for and provided for. We should mow their lawns and shovel their driveways and help them raise their children. But, beyond our service to widows, they should be understood as women with something significant to teach everyone else!
Sadly, along with women in general, widows are still marginalized in churches today. Oh how I would love to hear the prayers of strong widows, our teachers in how to mourn, how to cry, how to heal, how to find hope in darkness. How I would love to hear a woman like Ruth preach to us. How I would love to hear a young widow like Tamar teach us lessons in righteousness. How I would love to enjoy the leadership of a woman like Anna and learn about faith from a woman like the widow of Zeraphath. In many churches, the very ones that Scripture tells us to hear, we have silenced, and we are the ones who are supposed to know how God’s power structures work.
Fleming Rutledge, And God Spoke to Abraham (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011).
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina, (The Liturgical Press, 1991).
Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995).
Within the past month, I preached from Romans 12 on two different occasions. I posted one of those sermons on my blog last week, and here’s the other one. This sermon was prepared for the Lipscomb University Preaching Workshop, and my audience was a group of fellow ministers. I found myself preparing quite differently with the change in audience in mind, and I decided to take a bit of a risk by using visuals along with the sermon (something I have never done before). They are imbedded in the sermon below. I also used references that my audience would recognize that might not be meaningful outside that context. The sermon was limited to twelve minutes, and after the sermon, I received helpful feedback for how to improve. It was a delightful experience. Thanks Lipscomb University, John York, Anna Carter Florence, Josh Graves, and David Fleer for offering this rich experience.
When I was a little girl, I passed the time during church by drawing pictures of whatever the preacher was preaching about. My favorite memory of this exercise was when I once drew a foot that had a mouth because “if the foot should say to the hand, I don’t need you,” he would certainly be in need of a mouth as he marginalized the hand. I’m a visual learner and thinker, and this method of interacting with the Bible has stayed with me all my life. When I look at a text, I try to see it.
Paul’s advice in Romans 12 begins with a stark visual image: Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice. Me, a living sacrifice? What does that look like? From my perspective in the 21st century, it strikes me as a violent image. – Ropes confining loud, shrieking innocent animals, a knife ready to slit their throats.
It’s a hard visual Paul has given us here. I wish he had used a different one, something besides the visual of me seeing myself as a sacrifice.
I know I’m supposed to get on the altar, even if it’s not a physical slaughter place, so I do. But even when I do, it’s hard to stay there. There’s a battle in me. I feel as if this present age has me by one hand, and I’m holding on to the altar with the other, clinging, stretching like a rubber band about to pop.
I know I’m supposed to hate what is evil and cling to what is good, so I grab hold of what is good, and I hold on tight. But, I’ve learned what my problem is – I don’t completely know how to let go of what is evil. So, this idea of hating what is evil and clinging to what is good stretches me. I know I am not superior to anyone else, so I take hold of that reality, and I remember I’m not above anyone else. But at the same time, when I’m honest, I still feel superior . . . quite a lot of the time . . . I grab hold of humility, but I don’t completely know how to let go of pride. When someone insults me, I know I should forgive and speak words of blessing about my persecutor, but somewhere within me, I hold on to words that aren’t exactly blessing words, and sometimes they slip out.
On my good days, as I hate evil and cling to good, as I stay on the altar and resist this present age, here’s a visual of what it feels like to be Sara the Super living Sacrifice:
Incredible Sara. Like Elastigirl. Overcoming evil with good. Those are the good days on the altar.
But, most days, as I hate evil and cling to good, those not-so-good-days when I’m trying to hold on to the altar, but this present age is winning the tug of war, I must admit the visual feels more like this –
As hard as I try not to be overcome by evil, as hard as I try to overcome evil with good, it leaves me contorted out of the shape for which I was created, squeezed into the shape dictated by this present age, remembering that Christ has inaugurated a new age, but I’m stuck, groaning, in the old one.
This painting, by Spanish surrealist, Salvador Dali, is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s his prophetic comment on war, on violence. War is horrible. We all become a bit like this when there is war; being at war with other humans is war with ourselves. But, my problem is that I don’t have to be at war to feel this way. I just have to go to a church elder’s meeting. Or I just have to log onto Facebook in an election year.
It’s been a bit intimidating to prepare to preach to you, a bunch of preachers. And, at one point in my preparation over the past weeks, I imagined Paul overhearing me as I’m speaking to you, taking his Romans 12 passage and visualizing it like this. How would Paul respond to me as I characterize our freedom in Christ, liberation in Christ, like this?
And upon reflection, I think he might say something to this effect: “Sara Barton, what a load of skubula. If you think God allows this present age to contort you, your body, your mind, your soul into the shape of Salvador Dali’s painting, then you have missed the entire point of my letter to the Romans. Sara, you who think you are a writer, have forgotten the context of this chapter, the wider letter to the Romans. I started with therefore. Please, Sara, remember what the there is there for. The letter is good news! It’s about how God who unveils his grace and power, makes that power available to everyone who believes. And his power looks nothing like a Christian version of Elastigirl.”
Oh, Paul chastises me. He reminds me that being a living sacrifice is not about my own personal quest for salvation in which I heroically hate evil and cling to good. The list of deeds in Romans 12 – these are not moral qualities capable of being developed autonomously by me as an individual clinging onto some archaic cold place of slaughter. I can try to please God with my deeds, but if it’s in any way self-aggrandizing, if it’s self-centered, it’s not holy and pleasing worship to God. The idea of an individual clinging to an altar, clinging to good while evil pulls on her – it’s all wrong. God saves and transforms individuals, yes, but always in community.
You (plural) present your bodies together as one sacrifice (singular) – holy and acceptable to God, which is your (plural) spiritual worship.
Seeing the plural pronouns makes the images in my visual aids silly. Salvation is a social reality.
And, let’s face it: community is especially hard for those of us in ministry. Even if we can preach community eloquently, it becomes tiring to live it in reality. Perhaps ministry sets us up for the spiritual temptation to be Mr. or Ms. Incredible, so spiritually strong that we begin to think we are clinging to that altar alone, perhaps holding that altar up on our own.
I have come up with a couple images of what this passage is not. But what visual does fit?
Oh, how do we draw the mercy of God?
You know, Paul’s entire argument here, as we zone in on his “therefore” appeal – “by the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice.“ - All of this – being a living sacrifice, hating evil & clinging to good, living peaceably with all – it’s ALL a byproduct of the mercy of God. God has shown mercy to us (Romans 9:15 and 11:30 and 15:9). And people who have been shown mercy share it. It’s an attitude that expresses itself in specific acts of sharing listed here in Romans 12, and they are all modeled after the act of God giving his son (5:6-8). Mercy only makes sense when we are on that altar, offering our lives in worship together, motivated by what God has done for us together. That’s a pleasing sacrifice.
One way we can know this present age is squeezing us into its mold is when we take the good gift of God’s mercy and try to experience it individually. I speak from experience. Attempts to live this Christian life apart from the body of Christ reap cynicism and spiritual death. That Dali painting – that’s me at my most cynical, selfish point. When I had forgotten how the mercy of God works- when I gladly accepted God’s mercy for me, but I wasn’t giving it out to anyone else who didn’t agree with me.
I was hoarding mercy. Hoarding is not some new phenomenon discovered by A&E for a reality TV show. Hoarding has been around a long, long time. In the wilderness, when God gave his people the gift of manna, what did they do with it? They hoarded it, and it spoiled – filled with maggots.
God’s mercy is a lot like God’s manna. Trying to hoard mercy – get what you can out of God’s mercy so you will be blessed and feel secure in your spiritual life– that’s like someone who hoards so much stuff in his house that it’s not a home anymore. All the stuff turns rotten.
As I searched for an image to capture what it means to be a conduit of mercy, as I tried to visualize the reciprocal and shared mercy of the sacrificial life of Romans 12, I considered several images. How do you draw mercy?
But, here’s the one I ended up with.
This is biblical interpretation by Jacopo Tintoretto, a Venetian Renaissance artist. It’s called the Miracle of Manna. This painting, covers an entire wall; it’s gigantic in scale. And I think its sheer size is part of why it captures me. It conveys the effort of the artist to visualize something much larger than one scene from the Old Testament. I think he was painting the dilemma humans face when we receive God’s good and merciful gifts.
It’s on the wall of a church in Venice, and it’s placed purposefully so that the worshipper sees it when kneeling to receive the Eucharist. Tintoretto painted manna in the form of communion wafers – he understood how the new exodus is related to the old one. This juxtaposition of manna and communion bread reminds me that God’s body and blood, God’s mercy are not mine alone, to be hoarded– Everyone is invited to the table of God.
Mercy is given to us – we look at it with awe and say, “What is this? This thing called mercy is not like anything else in this present age.
When we taste it, we then have a decision, a dilemma – will we attempt to keep it to ourselves, or will we, in great acts of faith, trust God to miraculously provide more mercy tomorrow if we obediently give it away today.
It starts in the body of Christ. The altar of Romans 12 stands in the body of Christ. There’s no mercy for the world out there if it doesn’t start in our communities. If mercy stops with Christ-followers, if mercy stops with Christian ministers, it rots.
And that’s how I think is one way to visualize Romans 12 – Mercy flowing through a group of Christ followers – where love is sincere, where we honor one another, where we practice hospitality, where we live in harmony, where we are not overcome by evil-but we are overcoming evil with good together - a holy and pleasing sacrifice to God.
Fleer, David and Bland, David. Preaching Romans: Rochester College Lectures on Preaching, Abilene: ACU Press, 2002.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
Wright, N.T. “The New Inheritance According to Paul,” Bible Review, 14.3, June 1998. and http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_BR_New_Inheritance_Paul.htm
Wright, NT. Romans for Everyone, Part Two. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Last month, I preached at the East County Church of Christ in Portland, Oregon. It was a lovely morning with old and new friends. This post is the manuscript from that sermon. Many thanks to the East County Church and the Abney family for how they received and blessed my family while we were there.
I was once at a basketball game when a friend of mine, a young father I’ll call Mike – came in and sat by me with his 2 ½ year old son. Trevor, like most 2-year olds, wouldn’t sit still. Mike told him – don’t go past that row, but then Trevor went past that row. So, Mike got him in his lap, talked to him sternly, warned him again – don’t go past that row. Then, Mike turned to me and apologized, “I’m so sorry about that.” “It’s ok,” I said, “he is two.”
Then Trevor spotted popcorn on the floor on the next row. And Mike warned him, “Don’t eat that popcorn off the floor.” But Trevor crawled over the bleacher seat and ate the popcorn. So, he got a stern talking-to again. And, I got another apology.
It went on like that throughout the game, and I noticed that Mike kept apologizing to me when Trevor disobeyed him. And each time, he got more and more frustrated with Trevor and more and more apologetic to me. Eventually, a friend of ours from church took Trevor to play on the court during halftime.
So, I decided to ask – “When Trevor was misbehaving, you kept apologizing to me. Are you worried about what I think of your parenting?”
He said, “Honestly, Liz and I just read a parenting book that her sister loves, and I’m trying to do what it says. I am following the exact procedures, but they are not working. I feel like this book is ruining my parenting and everyone can tell what a horrible parent I am.”
So, we ended up having a conversation about the role of parenting books– how every parenting book doesn’t work for every family. I’m around Mike all the time – and he’s a good father. He is working out his role with integrity and grace. But he did not fit the mold of that first parenting book he read, and I’m glad he stopped trying.
We can all identify with Mike on some level. As the boss at work, you might try to squeeze yourself into the mold of the well-loved boss who came before you, but his style and your style just are not the same. As a freshman in high school, you may try to squeeze yourself into the mold of a certain click because you want to be accepted, but then you find yourself acting like someone you are not. As a basketball player, you get your big moment to start when the regular point guard is injured, and all you can think about is playing like he does.
That’s not exactly what Paul is saying here in Romans – but it does get us thinking about what it’s like to be squeezed into a confining mold or shape that dictates how we should behave. Look at what Paul says about being squeezed into a mold, or being conformed into an inhibiting shape:
Romans 1:1-2 says, “So, my dear family, this is my appeal to you by the mercies of God; offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your true and appropriate worship. What’s more, don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you can work out what God’s will is, what is good and acceptable and complete.”
I am somewhat claustrophobic. I can do elevators, but I don’t like it. I will sit in the back seat of a two-door sedan, but my pulse beats a little faster in the process. I draw my line at caves.
Now, what will perhaps seem strange to you is that the passage we are studying today from Romans 12 – brings out my claustrophobic tendencies.
As I studied this text in preparation for my visit with you, I felt that familiar discomfort of being confined. Now, at first glance, it might seem that the confining nature of this passage is the fact that as a Christian, I must be a sacrifice. In temple worship, the bodies of dead animals were placed on altars in religious ceremonies. I picture animals tied up, confined, led to be sacrificed whether they liked it or not. A literal translation of altar from Hebrew is “slaughter place.” So, the idea of being slaughtered, of being a sacrifice might sound like the confining part of this passage. But, that’s a misunderstanding of the passage. That’s not what makes me feel claustrophobic.
The confining aspect of this passage comes when we realize the magnitude of the power of this present age in squeezing us into its shape. This world whispers seductively into our ears the same thing that the serpent said to Eve: Do life your way instead of God’s way. Independence is better than dependence. You can have power and freedom – God wants to take those things from you, to confine you and control you.
But the serpent lied. And the result was that death and rebellion began to squeeze human beings into the mold of the present age of this world.
The point of this passage is to remind us how people live when they have experienced mercy, how they live when they are no longer confined or squeezed into the mold of this world but are shaped instead by mercy.
This present age doesn’t know anything about mercy – the confining mold of this world is selfishness, but the way of mercy is sacrifice.
And do you want to know where that altar of sacrifice is located – it’s often where we least expect it. In Romans 12, that altar stands in the middle of our fellowship with each other. Crawling upon the altar, being a living sacrifice, involves living in harmony with each other. Loving each other so much that others notice it.
I’m a visitor, so I can’t say for sure, but if you are like most churches, you experience your share of bickering. You do your gossiping. You are deeply disappointed with each other sometimes. Some of you don’t keep your commitments to one another, but you are defensive if you feel judged for it. Some of you are so cynical that you oppose every idea that comes along.
This present age wants us to think of yourself a little more highly than we ought to, but the way of mercy is to be humble in our relationships. This present age wants us to avoid people in a low position, but the way of sacrifice is not to think we are superior to anyone. The way of this present age is to repay evil for evil, but the way of mercy is to overcome evil with good.
One way we can know this present age is squeezing us into its mold is when we take the good gift of God’s mercy and keep it to ourselves. It’s a form of hoarding. Hoarding is not some new phenomenon discovered by A&E for a reality TV show. Hoarding has been around a long, long time. In the wilderness, when God gave his people the gift of manna, what did they do with it? They hoarded it, and it spoiled. It was filled with maggots.
God’s mercy is a lot like God’s manna. Trying to hoard mercy – get what you can out of God’s mercy so you will be blessed in this life and go to heaven in the next one – that’s like someone who hoards so much stuff in his house that it’s not a home anymore. All the stuff turns rotten.
Mercy is given to us so that we will then turn and extend mercy to others. And it starts right here; it begins with each other. There’s no mercy for the world out there if it doesn’t start right here. If mercy stops with Christ-followers, it rots.
And that’s what I think it means to be a living sacrifice. Mercy flowing through you – a holy and pleasing sacrifice to God.
Several years ago, I rafted the Nile River. When we and the the Abneys had been in Jinja with our team for a couple years, a group of crazy, adventurous South Africans moved into Jinja to start a rafting business. They chose Jinja and that portion of the Nile for several reasons:
- Uganda was opening to business after years of civil unrest. In a time of peace, they expected tourism to boom – and it did.
- The stretch of the Nile starting at Jinja offered 8 rapids, perfectly spaced so that you weren’t going through one too quickly after the other; there was time to recover. But, it also wasn’t too far in between, so you didn’t have to row so long you became bored.
- The river offered class 5 rapids, the highest class you can raft commercially.
- It also has a high volume of water, so even though you were going through class 5 rapids, you weren’t likely to smash into rocks. The rafts stayed where you hoped they would stay because of the high volume of water.
- Unlike Zambezi River in South Africa, that particular segment of the Nile did not have a high population of hippos and crocodiles, so there was less danger of having your customers eaten by wild animals, a perk for the rafting business!
So to celebrate my husband John’s 30th birthday that year, all the men in our group rafted the Nile. And then all the women rafted on my friend Heather’s 30th.
The morning of the expedition, all the women and I loaded into the raft, and we received a speech from our guide. I knew him for several years – I don’t think I ever saw him wearing shoes or a shirt – I rarely saw him without a cigarette. His tattoos were all about the adventurous life he was leading, and his accent added to the sense of fun.
So, that morning, I put myself in his hands and listened to his speech while he had his morning smoke. I learned the commands for rowing on the right and rowing on the left, rowing backward and forward. One of his words of warning was serious: “When I say get down – I mean down. Get in the bottom of the raft and hold on.”
Before long, I found myself headed into Bujagali Falls, a class 5 rapid. I could hear the roar of the falls and see the huge rock formations that I was worried about hitting. As we neared the falls, I was intent on rowing right through that class 5 rapid in order to avoid the perils of splatting against the rocks, my greatest fear that day. And apparently, as I was concentrating on rowing, I missed my guide’s serious command to get down into the bottom of the boat. On that adventure, I went down Bujagali Falls in my lifejacket, tossed to and fro in the waves while my friends who paid attention were secure in the bottom of the boat. The river spat me out way ahead of them down the river. During the thirty seconds I was in the forceful water, I certainly thought I was breathing my last gasp of breath.
In America today, we live in permanent white water. The pace of life, the constant connectivity we experience, the worries of school shootings and terrorism and the economy – And it is tempting with all this white water, to choose independence over dependence. It’s tempting to keep your head down and take care of your own survival.
But no matter how much this present age seeks to confine you, living the transformed life is about listening to the guide in the back of the boat. Yes, in my story, the wild South African with tattoos and a cigarette gets to be our Jesus example.
Hear the voice of the one who teaches us about being a living sacrifice. Know he is there. Feel his guidance. Listen to his commands. Obey his words. Do what he showed us how to do.
It’s not about the white water – no matter how loud it may get or how much it wants to confine us.
It’s about hearing the prophetic word of Jesus. He’s been down this river before. He’s done this life. He knows the way
And he knows that if we will freely put ourselves on the altar, we won’t be dead. It’s there that we will find life.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.
Wright, NT. Romans for Everyone, Part Two. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2004.
I found myself drawn to Psalm 1.
More than drawn.
Like a bird to a nest in the branches of this old poem.
Like roots through dirt and stone.
And I didn’t know why.
So, I curiously stayed in Psalm 1.
Sure, I read other passages of Scripture in the meantime, but I always found myself going back, knowing that I hadn’t yet learned what God had for me.
Waiting, singing in my spirit, I shall not be, I shall not be moved . . . .
Blessed is the one . . . . whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever she does prospers.
The days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months.
Singing in my Spirit, He’s the one that’s leading, I shall not be moved.
A year of Michigan’s seasons; another year of life gone by.
If I trust Him ever, I shall not be moved; He will fail me never, I shall not be moved.
The tree in my mind budded, bloomed, flourished, shed its leaves, and then submitted to the winter.
I love the picture of a strong tree planted by the water.
That’s the vivid picture.
Those who meditate on God’s Word, the Psalmist says, are like strong trees planted firmly by water.
And one day, I suddenly knew why I was contemplating the tree.
The line of the Psalm that wanted to change me was the one that eluded me for a year, but when I finally grasped it, I knew.
It reads, “Like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season . . .”
Yielding fruit in season.
The message for me was this – Sara, you seem to think you are an anomaly of nature; you seem to think you can yield fruit day after day and week after week and year after year.
Running yourself to death.
Saying yes more than you say no.
Pride in doing instead of humility in being.
That’s not how nature works.
Be Still and know that I am God.
So, I began to shed the commitments that I could. I began to say no to requests. Like a tree, I submitted to Winter.
At first, it was a vulnerable feeling . . . cold . . .eerily quiet.
I didn’t know what to do if I wasn’t busy, busy, busy yielding fruit.
I didn’t know how to talk to people without talking about being busy.
I didn’t know what others would think if I wasn’t busy.
Busy had come to define my life, and the Psalmist reminded me that life is deeper than that. Life is about being more than it’s about doing.
The lesson of the tree is still changing me.
I’ve learned to welcome Winter, to love Michigan’s stark seasons, to be still and thank God that I am so much more than what I do.
Sometimes around Christmas, Christians can come across a little “bah humbuggy” in attitudes toward gift-giving. We hear quite a lot about keeping Christ in Christmas, and it is often contrasted with the evils of succumbing to our culture’s consumerist desire for stuff. A few examples from Christian tweeters:
- Avoid consumptive activities with your child; instead of going Christmas shopping, discuss the hazards of consumerism.
- Herod is the culture that surrounds Christmas - power, showiness and wealth; ostentatious self centered consumerism. God help us!
- Christmas traditions are all about lying to your children and encouraging consumerism. Very beautiful.
- If you spend hundreds this Christmas, you have already worshipped consumerism, & will receive your reward in full. Worship the Lord instead
Charlie Brown has been reminding me to search for the real meaning of Christmas since I was a little girl, and just last week, the Pope made a special plea about the real meaning of Christmas (read it here). From Charlie Brown to the Pope, we’re in agreement: Christmas should not be overtaken by consumerism.
While I agree that Christmas shouldn’t be the materialistic, debt-inducing frenzy that we often make it, it’s not all bad!
Giving good gifts can be transformational opportunities as we develop hearts like the generous heart of God our Father, who knows how to give good gifts to his children.
I know how careful many parents are to spend the same amount of money on each of their children at Christmas, or how we want to make sure we aren’t caught in the awkward experience of receiving a gift from someone for whom we haven’t prepared a gift (you know you always buy a few of those generic gifts just in case of such an occasion).
Let’s keep Christmas “even Steven” we seem to say. I think that’s a little bit silly. What if we purposefully didn’t make Christmas “even” but sought to customize it instead?
Several years ago, John and I read The Five Love Languages and The Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman. In the books, Champman explores five different ways people love to receive love: words of affirmation, physical touch, quality time, acts of service, and receiving gifts. You can read more about it and discover your love language here.
What most of us do is give love the way we like to receive it. So, if gifts are your thing, you tend to give gifts to others. Or if you feel loved with words of affirmation, you give affirmative words in abundance.
Christmas presents an interesting quandary, because most of the gift-giving that’s traditionally done is stuff that costs money. But, that’s not how everyone best feels loved.
Instead, what if our gifts were customized to the love language of our friends and family members and Christmas became a time of loving each other the very best way we know how?
Words of Affirmation: If someone is loved through words, write him a letter, or poem, or song. Cross-stitch a word that describes her best quality. Wake him up on Christmas morning with a sentence or two whispered in his ear that affirms who he is to you all year long. Speak a word of blessing over those who have cooked the meal when your family gathers to eat. Write words of blessing and include them in the kids’ Christmas stockings.
Acts of Service: If someone is loved through acts of service, give her a coupon book for five hours of help in the garden. Offer to clean the house before all the guests arrive on Christmas day. When you are putting up the Christmas tree, promise to put it all away after the festivities are over (and keep your promise). Give a young couple a night of free babysitting so they can go shopping for their children. Offer to hang Christmas lights for the older couple on your block struggling to do it themselves – it will mean more to them than a fruitcake.
Quality Time: If your loved-one feels love through quality time, give him or her a trip. Whether it’s a trip to Dairy Queen or a trip to Disney World, give your undivided attention. For those who are loved through quality time, Christmas Day can seem like a blur of events in which no one really connects. Stop. Sit still. Play Candy Land or Scrabble. Give coupons for “unplugged” hours if your spouse resents the way your phone and computer seem to come before her. Give the gift of time.
Physical Touch: Lots of folks need affection in order to know that they are loved. Give her a kiss, a hug, a pat on the back. For someone who is loved through affection, a massage is a gift – not a massage you buy at the spa – rubbing his shoulders while you watch a TV show. Hold hands as you walk with him. Brush her hair. It doesn’t cost a thing.
Receiving Gifts: Some people feel loved when they are receiving a gift. So, when we make a big stink about how consumerism and materialism are taking over Christmas, he may feel misunderstood. Just because he is loved through receiving gifts, it doesn’t mean he is materialistic. She may love a flower as much as a diamond ring. She loves to be loved with a gift that says you spent time thinking about her and figuring out what she likes. He loves to know that you heard him mention a new book that’s coming out. Gifts can be beautiful opportunities for blessing; they certainly are not all bad.
I would love to hear how you have been blessed through creative gifting.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, here’s my score on the 5 love languages:
8 Words of Affirmation