If people know anything about Jonah, it’s that he was swallowed by a whale. Although the Bible actually says a big fish. The book of Jonah is only four chapters long, but there’s a lot more to it than the whale. It’s great: lots of action, and completely hilarious. Our reading this week gave just the ending, but it’s worth reading the whole story, and I hope you will.
Jonah is a prophet, and as prophets do, Jonah gets an assignment from God: go and warn the city of Nineveh that they are in trouble. Well, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a very powerful nation, known for its war crimes and brutality, a major enemy. Like any patriot, Jonah hates those lousy Ninevites, and besides, they’ll probably string him up the second he walks through the gates. So Jonah has a brainstorm: he’ll run away from God’s assignment. Sure, that sounds like a good idea. So he hops on a ship to Tarshish, which is basically as far as you can go in the opposite direction. It was as if Jonah showed up at the dock and said “Gimme a ticket for wherever is furthest from Nineveh.”
But at sea, there is a storm. Jonah confesses that he is running from God and the sailors freak out: “what did you do that for? Are you nuts?” And he says: “look, I’m ruined. Just throw me overboard.” And when they do lo! the sea calms down – as, we might expect, rebellious Jonah sinks to his well-deserved doom.
But the Bible doesn’t say what we expect. It says instead, God didn’t let him drown. God sent a huge fish, and it swallowed him whole. I certainly expect Jonah wasn’t in very good shape when he got vomited up three days later, but still this fish saved him from death, and Jonah prays a psalm of gratitude for God’s mercy.
And then, we might expect, God says to him, “You’re finished! I’m never trusting you again!” But the Bible doesn’t say what we expect. It says that God gives Jonah a second chance to be obedient and blessed. He speaks to Jonah again: go and warn the city of Nineveh that they are in trouble.
So off Jonah goes, but you can tell he still doesn’t like it. The city is of a size that it would have taken about three days to walk across it; well, all Jonah does is come partway in and say one sentence. “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown.” Boy, that’s really going to be helpful to the Ninevites, isn’t it? Don’t put yourself out, Jonah. But God is on the case, so nevertheless the Ninevites get it. In response to this lackluster message, they demonstrate one of the greatest examples of group regret that we find in the Bible. The mayor proclaims a fast. They remove their fancy clothes, they sob in grief, and most important, they change their behavior.
And this was the moment where our reading started today: “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” God sends Jonah to warn the Ninevites that the road they are on leads to disaster, but all along God was really just hoping for them to repent.
And what does Jonah think of this? He is furious. First off, these guys deserved to be punished; they are an evil regime. Second, Jonah looks like an idiot – he said they’d be destroyed and now they won’t.
The Ninevites got it, but Jonah sure didn’t. I mean, listen to the words he speaks in rage: “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!” And Jonah does not see this as a good character point. So, we might expect, because Jonah’s so judgmental, God smites him! But the Bible doesn’t say what we expect. No, God just asks gently, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah ignores this overture of love, and sets up camp a little ways away to watch what happens. And the narrative pictures God arranging a comical little object lesson. He has a shade tree grow overnight at Jonah’s camp, to keep his poor judgmental prophet cool. Jonah likes the tree. Thanks, God! The next day God has a parasite attack the tree, and it withers, and poor Jonah gets a sunburn.
And what does he do? Becomes furious again. God asks once more , “Is it right for you to be angry?” And what does Jonah say? “You bet it is! You killed my tree!” Jonah is outraged that his personal plant is hurt, but he feels nothing for a whole city of perishing human beings made in God’s image.
So does God finally show him who’s boss? No, all he does is ask a question: “You care, Jonah, about this little tree? Shouldn’t I care about Nineveh, these people who are lost, these people I made, even if you don’t like them? Are you angry because I love other people besides you? Should I not be concerned about this great city?” And that question is the last line of the book.
“Should I not be concerned about this great city?” The book ends with a question. It’s written that way to force us to ask ourselves for an answer. To ask why we keep being tempted to focus only on what benefits people we like or who look like us. “Should I not be concerned about this great city?” Who or what is your Nineveh? Who can you not stand the idea of God loving every bit as much as he loves us? Who would you likely avoid the invitation to talk to and listen to? Who is your Nineveh, and will you allow God to be concerned about them?
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”
Since when has love been a debt?
Our epistle passage begins with Paul’s advice to not owe anyone anything—which seems fair. It’s not a good habit to rack up IOUs, whether that’s money or favors or time. Nobody wants to always be looking over their shoulder come pay-day, knowing that the creditors are on their way. But then the apostle goes on. “Owe no one anything,” he says, “except in this one area: love.”
“You have a continuing debt,” Paul tells us. Don’t forget to pay up.
For many of us, that’s news. Digging around in our purse or rifling through our briefcase, we pull out the relational checkbook. Who is it that we’ve borrowed from and not paid back? Our neighbors? Besides a cup of sugar and an occasional tomato, not really. God? What happened to needing nothing but faith? And how does this kind of transaction work? If we miss a payment, do we forfeit . . . something? Will we watch as creditors carry off what once was ours, leaving us with an empty house, an empty garage, and an empty feeling in our stomachs?
Paul has spent much of his letter to the Roman church assuring them—and us—that faith in God and faith in God alone is what saves. Nowhere has he hinted that there’s some kind of cosmic loan shark watching the mail for our monthly payment. What does it mean, then, that we are in debt, that we owe love to people we’ve never borrowed from? And that, according to Paul, we should keep ourselves in such a state?
The answer lies in what has been done for us. “Jesus paid it all. All to him we owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow.” This fact doesn’t mean that God has given us a free gift and neglected to tell us that we actually have to work for it. What it does mean is that we have been freed by Christ to live like him, freed once and for all to love our neighbors—even the grouchy ones—as Christ loves us: with no holding back.
Paul tells us to outdo one another in doing good because Christ died for us. Always be in debt, he says, always owe more love to your neighbor—for this is the way of Christ, the overflowing cup of his love that testifies to God’s mercy in the world. And it really does. Every time we bring water to an enemy, every time we return blessing for cursing, every time we count ourselves less than those around us, God is glorified and the Gospel is proclaimed.
We have been redeemed and the debt we owe is really no debt at all but is rather the constant search to worship God by loving our neighbors. Christ has revealed to us what we have been saved from; he has also shown us what we have been saved for: communion with God that will transform everything, right on down to our most mundane relationships. He has done this not so we might earn his regard but so the world might continue to witness his Spirit as we love another.
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” May we remember this week Paul’s command to us and the power in which we can fulfill it, the power that can “change the leper’s spots and melt the heart of stone.” AMEN.
According to the Youtube videos that somehow evade my ad-blocker and the various news articles I reluctantly read, there is one thing on which all political parties and candidates agree: these are dark and dangerous times, and we need a strong leader to deliver us.
The power of this marketing strategy is obvious. We’ve lived through months of pandemic. We’ve watched as protestors fill our streets. And we are currently holding our breath as first wildfires and now hurricanes rip through small towns and large, leaving destruction and grief in their wake. It doesn’t matter if you belong to the political Left or Right: We all know that these are indeed times of deeper darkness than many of us have ever experienced.
Which is why we want our political champions to be models of strength, of purpose, of promise—because we can’t tolerate the thought of 2021 being a 2020, part two. Our hopes are built on nothing less . . . than the victory of one of two men. Or so they want us to believe.
More than ever before, the presidential nominees want us to see them as our Savior. They want us to believe that they are our only hope. But that is a false assertion, regardless of how poignant it is at this point in time. Because we already have a Savior, a man who, if he was to be represented by a full marketing team and millions of dollars worth of TV commercials would be so exactly the opposite of a strong candidate that no one in their right mind would vote for him—because his entire platform is based on what the world can never understand.
Jesus is our Lord, but he is a Lord unlike any other.
Just moments after Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things . . . and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And Peter, alarmed at the turn the conversation had taken, grabbed Jesus by the shoulders and said, “this shall never happen to you,” which prompted Jesus’ gut-wrenching reply: “Get behind me, Satan. . . . For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Confused silence greeted his words. Our Messiah was planning to do what? The disciples’ hopes had only just been confirmed. Jesus was the promised one, the Savior of Israel who would bring injustice to an end and re-establish communion with God, not to mention crushing the armies of Rome and freeing the Jewish people from foreign tyranny forever. That he should die was most certainly not on the agenda. And if Jesus thought they would let go of that hope, that they could really trust a leader who was walking toward his death . . . It wasn’t even an option. He must be mistaken.
Thousands of years later, we thumb through our Bibles and can feel awfully tempted to judge these men for their sheer obtuseness. But Peter’s reaction and the disciples’ failure to understand Jesus’ words shouldn’t surprise us—because we, like them, are so often blinded by what we can see.
The photographs, the news reels, the catastrophic projections, the memories crowd our minds and make the world—in all its fallenness—more apparent and more apparently powerful than the God who has saved us. At times like these, we want power, not sacrifice. Dominance, not submission. We want a leader like Peter and his fellow disciples wanted: a man who will strike down our enemies and accomplish our goals.
But what we have is a crucified Messiah. What we have is a God who has chosen—on his own terms—to dwell with us. He doesn’t look polished or important. In fact, his hands are cracked and his robe frayed. He is an unassuming Jewish man who grew up the son of a working-class family; who wandered through deserts and country towns, feeding the hungry and healing the sick, urging those he helped not to tell anyone what he had done. He is a Messiah who will speak with Gentile women, who will bring tax collectors and prostitutes into his fold, who will continue to love and lead his disciples even knowing that they will abandon him in the end.
He is the Messiah we need as we walk through life in a world that is fallen. He is the one who will get down in the dirt with us when we trip, the one who will hold us up when we have no strength to stand. He is the life, the true life that we crave, the only life that can lead us into eternal glory—because he lives with us.
Jesus’ call to us today is to follow him, a crucified Messiah, a man who will guide us through the lowest of lows and carry us into the highest of highs. “Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. We will not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.” AMEN.
Paul tells us today in his letter to the Romans chapter 12 that we are to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.” I’d like us to think a little bit about the word sacrifice, both how it’s normally used, and how differently Paul uses it.
A sacrifice is, in common language, something you give up. When you sacrifice something, it is lost to you. We are experiencing sacrifices in all kinds of ways right now because of the pandemic. We have lost getting to go to ball games. We have had to give up coming together to see a friend get married with lots of loved ones. In this season, each of us is sacrificing, giving up things, for the common good all the time.
In the same way, in religious contexts, a sacrifice is usually something you give up or even destroy. Once it’s sacrificed, you’ve lost it. Various world religions past and present have structured their lives around sacrifice, the giving up of animals or things in order to please or appease God. This can be something like burning a container of clarified butter, leaving a fruit or vegetable at an altar, killing a goat or cow, or in some ancient cults even human sacrifice.
Whatever it looks like, when you sacrifice something, it’s given up, dead, gone. You give it to the deity you believe in, and therefore you don’t have it anymore. It’s a sort of exchange, by which your loss of an animal or a valued possession then merits forgiveness or favor or help from your deity.
That’s what sacrifice means in most contexts. But that’s not at all what Paul says today. In this passage from Romans 12, Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” So in this kind of sacrifice, you don’t lose what is sacrificed. It is still living. In fact, it becomes better, according to Paul: you become better. You become transformed by a renewed mind, more able to discern the will of God, more equipped with gifts to serve the world.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Why do we Christians get to sacrifice ourselves but still keep ourselves? Why is sacrifice in Christianity so different than sacrifice in other religious traditions? Why a living sacrifice all day long, and not a dead one at a special ritual? Well, because of the previous 11 chapters of Romans.
You see, for us, the one true sacrifice has already been made. On the Cross Christ offered himself up for our sake. God offered God to God – by definition there can be no greater gift, no more powerful sacrifice, and in that one action any need for further sacrifices was swept away. Human efforts to do something else to satisfy God become laughably redundant.
The whole point of the previous 11 chapters of Romans, of the Mass itself, really of the Christian way of being, is that the sacrifice has been made already, and now our lives, if we say yes, our living is swept up into it. What Christ did on the cross is already ours. What he did as he rose from the tomb is already ours. Every time we come to Mass we are reconnected with that sacrifice, ingesting it, being filled once again with the unique and irreplaceable power of God offering God to God, in case we’ve lost track.
That sacrifice has already made us holy and acceptable. There is nothing supplemental that we could add to it, as if there were some further deity out there who needs appeasement or is still keeping a running list of our sins. As Christians we have the opportunity to live in the freedom that was released into the universe when God offered God to God, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. To live in that, and let its finality and enoughness live in you.
You will have many temptations not to live that way, not to acknowledge the sacrifice that has already been made on your behalf. Many of us forget, day to day, that there is nobody out there to please or appease because God offering God to God has already accomplished our enoughness. We act as if the full and final sacrifice hasn’t been made. But it has. So I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty… For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind.” (1982 Hymnal #469)
This familiar hymn expresses what we have seen and learned about Jesus and his love.
And then we read today’s gospel story.
Jesus’ attitude in this gospel is at the least, unexpected, and perhaps we might even say, shocking. Not that Jesus’ comments aren’t often shocking, at least to the establishment of his time. But his attitude today is not directed to the religious authorities but rather to a distraught Canaanite woman seeking help and healing for her child. His compassion is lacking in this encounter which is what makes it seem out of character to us. And we wonder why. Is Jesus just having a bad day or is there another explanation?
The Canaanites were ancient foes of the Israelites. Canaan was the grandson of Noah so the conflict went back to the days of Genesis. And since the time of Abraham, God had promised the Israelites the land of milk and honey—the land, the property, of the Canaanites. There were well-fought battles over this area. The animosity and lack of respect between these two peoples was long standing. By the time Jesus was on earth this was entrenched in both groups and at best they avoided each other. At other times they hurled insults at each other and called the other names, such as dog.
All he had was God.
And God, instead of roaring to Elijah’s rescue in the wind or the fire or the earthquake, arrives in the softest of whispers.
Up until that point, Elijah had been accustomed to dramatic pyrotechnics, the kind of powerful demonstrations that make you squint and shade your face, eyes watering from the brightness of the light. Only a few days ago in our narrative, Elijah watched as God set a soaking wet ceremonial sacrifice ablaze just to spite the priests of Baal. Before that, Elijah had seen the power of God manifest in the drought he ordained over Israel, a drought that would hold until Israel repented of her idolatry. And then, of course, we have Elijah’s own boldness, inspired by the LORD’s might, that enabled him to challenge a wicked king to his face.
But now, after the blaze on Mt. Carmel has fizzled out, and King Ahab’s homicidal queen, Jezebel, is out for Elijah’s blood—now more than ever before, our beleaguered prophet needs a sign, a big one, to assure him that everything will in fact be okay.
What he gets, though, is the sound of sheer silence, a few words rather than a thousand fireworks, an anti-climactic revelation when all he wanted was for God to do some additional smiting or perhaps set the royal palace on fire.
As a child, I remember singing “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do” right after hearing stories about God’s acts of creation, of Jesus calming the storms, of the Apostles raising the dead in the name of their Lord. Each of us children in the Sunday school classroom were primed and ready to spot the metaphorical lightning strikes, the wonders that would irrefutably prove God to be God. Then, as we got older, the expectations became more subtle. We began asking God for signs—just get rid of the bully. Just make it super clear what I’m supposed to do. Just give me a new job, a new friend, a new passion, and I’ll know you’ll have heard my prayers. Like Elijah, we find ourselves looking to God for a firestorm or an earthquake, but what we end up with is a whisper, the sound of sheer silence, or with nothing more than a hand gripping ours as we flounder in a stormy sea of troubles. It doesn’t seem fair—we’re inviting God to divinely intervene, but all we’re getting is a smile from our neighbor across the street or a crumpled $20 stuffed in a forgotten jacket pocket.
These small moments of God’s mercy are easy to miss, easy to explain away. We find ourselves hunting for a big solution when, all along, God has been gently and quietly sowing our path with mercies, guiding our wayward feet through the dark moments of life and toward his light, using whatever comes to hand: a goofy friend, a fuzzy dog, a beautiful sunset.
God’s whispers, quiet as they may, are nevertheless words of creation, changing their hearers, who are then empowered to change the world. “Go back to Israel,” the LORD tells his servant, but on the way there you will anoint two kings and call another prophet to help you in your struggle against Israel’s idolatry. You are not alone, Elijah. There are people who will help you, and hidden amongst your enemies are 7,000 Israelites who are still fighting to live righteous lives amidst the decay and injustice of their circumstances. The war hasn’t ended. No conclusive victory has been won. But hope is once more in the air, breathed out from the mouth of God.
“My God is so big, so strong and so mighty,” that sometimes he works like a drop of water on the rock, spending years carving a divot in the face of a mountain even when we know he could just snap his fingers and have it done in an instant. His gentleness may not fit our idea of getting things done. If we were in charge . . . we might say. Yet, God’s smallest miracles, his quiet voice, his steady hand, these are our companions on the way. St. Paul tells us that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved—and I do believe that’s true, even when the saving comes and goes as quick as a flash in the dark. We are not alone. God is here to help us. AMEN.
Both Isaiah and Matthew today point out how determined God is to feed us, and how powerless we are to help him do it. In Matthew, Jesus feeds 5000 men plus women and children, working with nothing more than one person’s sack lunch. It’s almost funny: the well-meaning helpers in the story scrape together enough to nourish a single individual, and in response Jesus lavishes a banquet on a crowd that could fill the Assembly Hall, and ends up with twelve baskets more food than they can possibly use.
Isaiah is even more insistent on the asymmetrical generosity of God: God cries out “You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!” Even if you wanted to reimburse God a little something for his trouble, you couldn’t, because the sustenance he gives is free. He already paid the price for it. Come, be fed without money, without price. You can’t possibly afford to buy what God gives.
Last week I watched a webinar with two of the Episcopal Church’s great teachers of prayer, Fr. Martin Smith and Mother Sarah Coakley. Fr. Smith was talking about a question he often uses when doing individual spiritual direction or leading retreats, as a way of inviting people into a direct encounter with God. He asks them, “Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?” He has asked all kinds of groups and individuals to turn to God with this question: “Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?”
If we have spent time with readings like Isaiah and Matthew this morning, and absorbed them into the way we actually approach life, we will know that God gives grace and nourishment all out of proportion to anything we do or are. God feeds us lavishly, forgives us exorbitantly; we could never reimburse him for his generosity. If we have listened enough to who the Bible tells us God is, that we begin to behave as if it were true, we will know…. God is like that.
What Fr. Smith discovered, though, is that even those who were interested enough in God to come to retreats or sign up for spiritual direction didn’t know this. They were often working on the assumption that Christianity was something they had taken responsibility for doing. Why did Fr. Smith say that? Because, he revealed, at the majority of his retreats and events – for Christians, I emphasize – at the majority of his retreats and events where he had asked people to pray with the question, “Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?” they would come back to him and say something like, “I was so grateful for that idea, and I found it really challenging to ask God who he wants me to be for him right now.”
Over and over, people turned the question around backwards. Fr. Smith asked them to pray with a question about the love and generosity of God proactively acting on us, and over and over people turned it into a question about what kinds of actions they could do for God. God is crying out, “You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!” and we are looking at the slightly stale granola bar we have in our backpack, and saying “I can help you out, God. I know you need me!”
Do you believe God is like these two passages of Scripture say he is? Do you believe in a God who right now, in response to his infinite knowledge of you, wants to be for you in some way? Who is fundamentally not a taskmaster, not an inspiring ideal you might live up to some day, but a participant in your life who is determined to be for you? Who is looking right now at whatever hunger you have, whatever lack you have – whether it’s boredom or frustration or outrage at injustice or guilt or loss or fear or desire to change – who is looking actively at that and wanting you to allow him into it, out of his infinite love and grace?
Do you believe in a God who has so infinitely much to give that every time we really let him do what he wants with us, there will be twelve baskets of leftovers to feed others as well? Because that’s the God who came to us in Christ. That’s the God who told us about himself in Holy Scripture. The god who is a taskmaster or an inspiring ideal is a human invention.
So, Who is it that God wants to be for you right now? I invite you, as Fr. Smith invites his retreatants, to pray with that question this week. Not the turned on its head version addressed to the kind of guilt-inducing god we would invent. The Christian version, addressed to the God who has told us over and over how much he loves us. Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?
“Steady my footsteps in your word; let no iniquity have dominion over me.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Steady my footsteps in your word. This directive is one of the gems of psalm 119, in my opinion. There are other familiar poetic phrases from this often neglected psalm which include “your word is a lamp unto my feet”, “let your loving kindness be my comfort, O Lord”, “you are my refuge and shield”, and so on. And yet I will admit a certain internal groaning when I see that this psalm is the appointed one for the day. Or I should say, a portion of this psalm is appointed.
Psalm 119 is the longest of the psalms and while it has a unifying theme of the law, God’s word, it is sometimes difficult to see where it is going. We hear “God’s word”, or a synonym for God’s teachings repeated over and over. It has 22 stanzas, each stanza with eight verses. In Hebrew it is an acrostic poem. Each stanza represents a letter of the alphabet and then each verse begins with that same letter. Today’s passage is for the letter Pe (pay) so originally these 8 verses began with Pe words. This structure is lost in the translation to English and so it often seems that the verses have little to no connection. To us as readers now, they can be unrelated phrases strung together.
I have chosen to take this as my text this morning for a few reasons which also have what might be considered a “thin connection” but in my mind they are related. I invite you into my reflections.
I always find the psalms to be of comfort especially in stressful times and use them in most pastoral situations, as do many clergy. They are a rich source of assurance about God and his love of humankind, as well as acknowledgement of the depth of human emotion, both grief and joy. I encourage you to watch the short teaching videos that our curate Marisa is currently doing on the psalms.
Specifically this morning’s verses of psalm 119 talk about the word of God as a source of rejoicing and delight. God’s teachings are a divine and cherished gift, not something to restrict us, but rather to give us structure. The word of God brings light in our darkness. However, we are not left merely to contemplate what God has told us. Rather we are directed to put into action what we are taught. Loving God and loving our neighbor has to be carried out by what we do, not just what we think. This Pe stanza uses the words, footsteps, eyes, heart, mouth, all parts of our bodies, implying action in response to God’s direction. We also learn that following God’s word, seeking to love God, requires God’s help. We cannot “do love” on our own. We are reminded that it is God’s grace which directs us, leads us and supports us.
The particular line that stood out to me this morning is “Steady my footsteps in your word” or in another translation, “Order my steps in your word.”
There is a song based on this phrase which I first heard while worshiping in a traditional African American church. “Order my steps in your word” is sung over and over, in an easy tune. Then the tune rises and the words are: Lead me guide me every day, Send your anointing Father I pray. And the verse finishes with “Order my steps in your word”. The next verse is “Order my tongue in Your Word” following the same pattern. Other verses include the phrases “guide my feet in your word” and “wash my heart in your word”. The constant plea is to God for His direction and guidance. We don’t just know God’s teachings with our minds; we seek for God to infuse all of our body and all of our action in his precepts.
Reading this one line of Psalm 119, remembering this song (and where I first heard it) came at the same time that I heard of one of my personal hero’s death. John Lewis was a Civil Rights Leader, US Representative from Georgia, and a man deeply grounded in God’s word.
In thinking of his life along with this song, I realized just how much God had directed his footsteps in multiple marches, memorably in Selma Alabama, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. How God had continually directed his tongue, Baptist preacher that he was, stirring crowds to non-violent action over multiple decades. Steeped in scripture and theology he sought righteousness in the middle of oppression. His feet were guided as he walked with God. John Lewis was a man who loved God and his neighbor, with all his heart and who sought to follow Jesus, God’s embodied word. I believe it was because of his deep faith that he was able to be tenacious and continue to seek justice. John Lewis was a light, reflecting God’s light in a dark world. May he rest in peace and may we strive to follow his example.
I invite you to your own musings on the psalms this week and may God “Order our steps in His Word”.
Growing up, we quickly discover that there is both good and bad in the world. That reality may strike us upon seeing a fight spool out on the playground; or it could be that we had a lesson about the animal kingdom in school, a first glimpse at the survival-of-the-fittest; or we could know in our bones, having seen how our parents treat each other since we were small. By the time we’re adults, most of us have come to the conclusion that humans are just devilishly good at hurting one another.
This is our reality, our world in a nutshell—a world where women tuck keys between their fingers to walk to their cars, where the medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients aren’t able to access the protective gear they need, and where poverty and wealth live just blocks away without even crossing paths.
We live in a fallen world. We do the best we can. And we long for deliverance. We pray for the suffering to end. But all too often, it doesn’t. All too often we find ourselves in situations we don’t choose, where we feel as powerless as a stalk of wheat overshadowed by a virulent weed.
Jesus put before them another parable. The kingdom of heaven, he said, is like a field where a man plants good seed; but while his servants were sleeping, an enemy slipped over the gate and sowed weeds among the wheat. No one guessed that the deed had been done until much too late, when pulling up the weeds would mean pulling up the wheat, too. “Let them grow together until the harvest,” the master decided. “Then and only then will we separate them.” We might imagine the servants raising their eyebrows at this statement; but the decision had been made, and not by them.
Given the parable’s uncomfortable implications, it comes as no surprise that Jesus’ disciples are interested in an explanation. “Tell us,” they say, “what you meant by this parable of the weeds in the field.” And he does. The master, Jesus explains, is the Son of Man. The enemy is the devil. The field is the world. And we’re all planted in it, good and bad together, growing up until the harvest arrives.
Entrenched as we are in reams of bad news these days, it’s easy for us to relate to the disciples’ confusion and to the servants’ dismay. Did the master really mean to let the weeds and the wheat stay as they are all the way until the harvest? Wouldn’t it have been better to get rid of the weeds at some point, even if it risked some of the crop? Wouldn’t it be nicer if the children of the kingdom could just get a break?
But the answer we get, the answer we will always get until Jesus comes again is no. God’s will is for good and evil to grow together in every aspect of our world—which of course leaves us asking the question: why?
It’s easy to get tied up in knots trying to figure that out, though that doesn’t prevent many of us from trying. We want answers. We want justice. We want peace. Now. And for good reason. Not one of us here has escaped the experience of good and evil clashing in our lives. Like the psalmist, we cry out, “O God, the arrogant rise up against me; a band of violent men seeks my life; they have not set you before their eyes.” What will happen to us? we ask. What will happen to the wheat when the weed grows taller, leaning over the plant, taking its rain and stealing its sunlight? Will the Lord simply let it die?
“But you, O Lord,” the psalmist writes, “are gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger, and full of kindness and truth. . . . Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate me may see it and be ashamed, because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.”
In the midst of our suffering, in the midst of our struggle to live alongside the evil in the world and to battle the evil in ourselves, we are nevertheless watched over and cared for by Christ, who is merciful and gracious, always ready to “give strength to his servant and save the child of his handmaid.” He has not nor will he ever leave us alone as we live out our lives in this present evil age. Every moment of every day, he walks the fields of the world, tending the wheat and whispering to the weeds, telling all who will hear of the power and mercy of the God who can turn thorns into cypress trees and briers into myrtle.
The master said that the weeds and the wheat would remain together, that we who are his children might grow in strength as we exercise our faith in this era between the gardens—and that we might also, by our very presence in the world, give testimony to the One who saves.
As we pray for strength, for a sign of God’s favor, the world around us notices and wonders just what it’s seeing. Pain, death, and sin plague everyone, but as the children of God bow their heads at the foot of the cross and seek the way of the LORD, they are witnessing to the children of darkness. “God, show us a sign of your favor,” we pray, “that those who hate us may see it and learn that the LORD reigns and that he is merciful and gracious even to his enemies.” Weed and wheat will be together until the end, according to the will of the Father—but it is so for our sake and for the sake of the lost, that all might come within the reach of his saving embrace. AMEN.
God tells us in his Word today how effective his Word is. And if we’re more used to receiving human words than receiving the divine Word, as most of us probably are, we may have trouble believing what God tells us.
In the case of the human word, we all know you can’t trust everything you hear. There’s spin and disinformation. There’s hyperbole on one side and minimizing on the other.
There’s also the fact that we humans often say one thing with good intentions, but then find ourselves doing something else. We tell people we are turning over a new leaf on diet or exercise, but then it doesn’t happen. We post memes or news stories online to be seen supporting a cause, but we don’t actually make real changes ourselves. Or maybe we try the popular technique of affirmations: Repeat three times, I am content and at peace -- except, to be honest, we’re actually feeling peevish and agitated. The human word goes out from the human mouth, and very often, what it says is not quite the same as what actually happens.
Listen, in contrast, to what God tells us about the divine Word through the prophet Isaiah today:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
When we read a portion of Scripture we always need to look at the whole book for context, and in the context, this is God telling his people they can count on a particular promise he’s made them. The promise is of liberation and restoration to their homeland, from which they’ve been exiled. God speaks their liberation, and it is. They don’t exit their captivity right away, but, what God says, is and it does come to pass. Genesis, the first book in the Bible, depicts the entirety of our universe coming into being by God just speaking it. God said, let there be light, and there was light. God speaks, and it is.
This utterly reliable communication that Isaiah is talking about comes to its real fulfillment in Jesus. In Jesus, God speaks his ultimate Word to the universe – we even call Jesus the Word of God. Jesus is God’s communication in person, God in person. So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose.
What God says does not return empty but accomplishes that which he purposes. So what is this in-person speech that we can be confident does what it says? What does God say to us in Jesus?
Well, God says things that if we receive them into the depths of our being and accept that they are true, will change us completely.
He says: you are mine. You are forgiven. You have nothing to fear. I have already changed the world. I have already conquered evil. Death has no power over you once I have claimed you. Sin has no rights over you once you belong to me. All that needs to be done for you to be acceptable and worthy is done. It is finished. And of course that’s the final word of Jesus from the Cross: it is finished. And it is.
Listen again to what God tells us through Isaiah:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
God’s purpose cannot be stopped. It can be delayed or pushed away or misrepresented, but it cannot be stopped. This is why we study Scripture, to learn what God says, and thus what is. This is why we read the Bible; to receive the reliable divine Word rather than just our own unreliable human words.
There’s nothing wrong with human words and human feelings, of course, but they aren’t what we come to church to receive. We come to church because here we are addressed by a Word that can be ultimately counted on, a Word that does what it says, a Word whose message we were made to receive:
You are mine. You are forgiven. You have nothing to fear. I have already changed the world. I have already conquered evil. Death has no power over you once I have claimed you. Sin has no rights over you once you belong to me. All that needs to be done for you to be acceptable and worthy is done. It is finished. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.