Christian Paradox: Strength in Weakness

SWH_Carroll_Manor_10012012By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Riverside Presbyterian Church, Sterling, VA, Sunday, August 10, 2014

Welcome

Good morning!  Welcome to Riverside Presbyterian Church.

This morning Maryam is here with me so I will be preaching in English with translation.

Invocation

Let’s pray.

Oh dear Lord, thank you for bringing us together this morning.  Quiet our hearts so that we can hear your voice.  In the power of Your Holy Spirit, inspire the words spoken and illuminate the words heard.  In the precious name of Jesus. Amen.

Text:  2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Opening

On November 24, Maryam, my wife, and I celebrate our 30th anniversary.  During these 30 years, we raised three kids and confronted many challenges together, including serious medical issues, professional ups and downs, and many stressful events.  Still, we were not an obvious couple to get married.

In some sense, Maryam and I come from opposite ends of the world.  I am from Washington; Maryam comes from Iran.  I am Christian; she is Muslim.  I am an avid reader; she is a dedicated television watcher.  When I entered seminary, many people asked:  how can you become a pastor—your wife is a Muslim and does not support you.

At first, I thought that I attended seminary in spite of my wife; later, I came to realize that I attended seminary because of my wife.  You see, my family was my first real ministry.  My new book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality, is dedicated to Maryam and our children.

Sometimes God has to push us to discover who we really are in Him[1] (2X).

Lesson

In our passage today, the Apostol Paul addresses the church in Corinth which has a problem with spiritual pride.  We get a hint of this problem in the many references that Paul makes to boasting—about half (27/57) of the references to boasting in all of scripture arise in the two letters of Paul to the church in Corinth.  In only these ten verses of our passage today, he uses the term, boast, 4 times.

So, what is spiritual pride?  What is boasting? (2X) In our passage today, Paul uses the Greek word, καυχάομαι, which means:  to take pride in something, boast, glory, pride in oneself, brag (BDAG, 4171.1).  Spiritual pride consists of bragging about our relationship with God.

So what does Paul say?  Paul says:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.  And I know that this man was caught up into paradise– whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows–and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter (vv 2-4).

But then he comments on this ecstatic experience and says:  there is nothing to be gained by it (v 1).  Nothing!  (2X)

In fact, he goes on to say:  on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses (v 5).  Further, he says:  So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited (v 7).

But Paul does not stop there.  Paul prayers to God 3 times to relieve him of this thorn in the flesh.  And God gives a surprising answer to Paul’s prayer:  My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (v 9).  In other words, God refuses to heal Paul of this thorn in the flesh, but instead offers Paul His presence—God’s grace. And Paul is content with this answer, saying:  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (v 10).  (2X)

Application

Has God given you a thorn in the flesh? (2X)

Most of us struggle with spiritual pride in one form or another.  Our pride tells us that we are special even when it is not true.  In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes:

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:25-29 ESV)

What brings us together as a church is not our strengths, but our weaknesses.  For not all of us are experts in the same things, but we are all in need of God’s forgiveness for our sins.  So in my own case, my weakness in understanding and speaking Spanish allows me to find room in my life for God. (2X)  Returning to the words of Paul:  For when I am weak, then I am strong (v 10).  Not in myself, but in Jesus Christ.

Closing Prayer

Please pray with me.

Almighty Father, thank you for your presence among us this morning.  Let us brag only of our own weakness so that your voice, not ours, will be the one heard.  Let us point to the light given us through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son.  In all things, may Your name be praised.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Benediction

Receive the benediction:

Go into the world knowing that your weaknesses make room in your life for God and give thanks for that knowledge.  Know that God honors the space that we leave for Him in our lives.  And remember the words of the Apostol Paul:  when I am weak, then I am strong.

Go with God.  Amen.

 

[1] I have always identified with Francis Thompson’s poem: The Hound of Heaven (1893) which speaks of God’s relentless pursuit of his soul. Poem:  http://www.ewtn.com/library/HUMANITY/HNDHVN.HTM.  Reading by Richard Burton:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gToj6SLWz8Q.

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Whom Do You Seek?

Staff
Staff

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Narrative sermon given at Riverside Presbyterian Church (www.RiversideChurch.com), Sterling, VA on Sunday, April 6, 2014.  The narrative of Jesus’s arrest in John 18 is told from the perspective of the Apostle Peter who leans on a shepherd’s staff as he speaks.

Introduction

Good morning!  Welcome to Riverside Presbyterian Church.  This morning we continue our preparation for Easter with the account of the arrest of Jesus in John Gospel.

Prayer

Heavenly father, thank you for your presence among us this morning.  Grant us mouths that speak and ears that listen.  In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.

Sermon Text:  John 18:1-12

Upset

Why did he lead us to that place?

He must known. Why?  Why?  Why?

My mind plays tricks on me when I remember that evening.  The sun had gone down but the moon was so bright that it cast a shadow [1]; yet, I keep thinking that it was dark and stormy—it’s that brook Kidron—outside the camp—with all those tombs.  It is no wonder that the priests have thrown unholy things there since ancient times [2].  Some think that Ezekiel, in his vision of the valley of dead bones [3], had this place in mind.

Why did the teacher lead us to that cursed place?

Oh yeah, I know. It was the garden. Why did he love that garden so much?  It is like it reminded him of Eden.  Of course, Eden had its beauty; it was peaceful and God was with us.  But, Eden was also had a betrayer.  Death began because of what happened in Eden [4].

Oh, but he must have known and he must have seen that cohort of soldiers with lanterns, torches, and weapons (v 3) walking down from temple mount and back up the ravine.  That tribune loves his cohort.  Five hundred men [5] lit up at night cannot hide in a place like that.

Yes, he must have known, but all he asked us was to wake up and keep watch while he prayed.  Yet, all we did was doze after that big meal [6].  Who doesn’t want to sleep after feasting at Passover?

Analysis

Guess who was leading that parade? (v 3)

I should have known he was unreliable.  His name, Judas Iscariot, says it all.   He’s not a Galilean, but a Judean.  People said he came from Kerioth;  people called him a zealot [7].  The teacher had words with him about that woman crying and wiping her hair with the perfume the week before [8].  Seemed that guy only cared about money [9].

Yeah, it was Judas leading the parade.  Such a sight to see Judas leading that pack to the garden in the middle of the night.

Clue

Still, Jesus was fearless—I will never forget.  How could someone who healed people and talked so much of peace speak with such authority?  How could someone like that so remind me of the Judah’s blessing—the lion’s cub and ruler over his brothers [10].  Jesus was fearless.

Jesus asked them:  who do you seek?  (2X; v 4)

The words still ring in my ears.  The words swept over the parade like a hurricane.  The tribune was so startled that he fell to his knees on the ground like a man in deep prayer.  The whole cohort followed him down.  Even Judas and the Jews with him fell to their knees (v 6).  All he asked was:  who do you seek?

Meekly, someone answered:  Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus responded:  ἐγώ εἰμι. I am.

They said nothing; they did nothing.  They were looking back and forth at one another like lost sheep.  Did Judas think that he could force God’s Messiah [11] to do his bidding; force God’s Messiah to pick up a sword; force God’s Messiah to assume a crown?

Jesus asked again:  who do you seek?

This time the answer was more convincing:  Jesus of Nazareth.

To this Jesus responded:  I told you that I am he.  If it is me that you want, then send these other men away (v 8).

Gospel

When I heard those words, I just lost it—Jesus was surrendering to these hooligans.  I drew my sword and attacked Malchus, the leader of the Jews.  But he saw me coming and got out of the way.  Oh, my goodness.  What does a fisherman [12] known about swords?  Well, he did not get completely away—I did chop off his right ear! (v 10)

Jesus said:  Rock, put the sword away (v 11).

What?!!!  Why would God’s Messiah give up without a fight?  I could not believe it.  Later, I remembered how Jesus washed my feet earlier in the evening [13].  Later, I thought, How could my feet be clean if my hands were covered with blood?  Later, later, why is it always later than we think about what we are doing?

The sword is Satan’s tool—even the tribune and his mighty cohort did not yield the sword that night. Why did I?

Consequences

Then, Jesus said to me: shall I not drink from the cup given me? (v 11)

Jesus knew my future that night—I would deny him three times before it was over [14]—why now did I insist on resisting God’s will for my life?  Why?  I survived that fateful evening only because Jesus prayed for me.

Judas, he was not so lucky—after he tried to force God’s hand and failed, he killed himself [15].  How could he know that in obedience, Jesus would vanquish the betrayer; vanquish death itself?  Maybe that is why he returned to the garden—may be Ezekiel was right:  the dead do rise again.

Why was it so hard to answer Jesus’ question that night: who do you seek?  Funny, Jesus asked us the same question when we first met him—first followed him—by the lake in Galilee.  Who do you seek? [16]  Who do you seek?

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Heavenly father, beloved Son, Spirit of all Truth.  Guard our hearts from the temptation to try to force our will on you rather than accept your will for us.  Grant us a spirit of contentment to allow you to remain in control of our lives.  In Jesus’ precious name.  Amen.

References

Lowry, Eugene L.  2001.  The Homiletical Plot:  The Sermon as a Narrative Art Form.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

Footnotes

[1] At the First Counsel of Nicaea (325 AD), Easter was determined to be the first Sunday following the full moon after the spring equinox (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computus).

[2] 2 Kings 23:6, 12.

[3] Ezekiel 37.

[4] Genesis 2-3.

[5] BDAG (σπεῖρα 6759)In our lit. prob. always cohort, the tenth part of a legion (the σπ. thus normally had 600 men, but the number varied.

[6] Matthew 26:38-45.

[7] BDAG(Ἰσκαριώθ 3742) The mng. of the word is obscure; s. Wlh. on Mk 3:19; Dalman, Jesus 26 (Eng. tr. 51f). It is usu. taken to refer to the place of his origin, from Kerioth )in southern Judea; …Another interpr. connects it w. σικάριος (q.v.), ‘assassin, bandit’. 

[8] John 12:3-8.

[9] John 12:6.

[10] Genesis 49:8-10.

[11] Matthew 16:16.

[12] Matthew 4:18.

[13] John 13:6-10.

[14] John 13:37-38.

[15] Matthew 27:5.

[16] John 1:38.

 

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Romans: Faith Seeking Understanding

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Romans: Faith Seeking Understanding

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Riverside Presbyterian Church, Sterling, VA.  Sunday, March 2, 2014.

Forward

Good morning. Welcome to Riverside Presbyterian Church.

This morning we conclude our study of Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome. Although we are jumping into the deep end of the pool again, the lesson is easy. How can we be blessed by something we do not understand? Our salvation depends solely on faith in Jesus Christ.

Invocational Prayer

Let’s pray.

Eternal Father, Beloved Son, Spirit of Hope. Make your presence known to us this morning. In the power of his Holy Spirit, inspire words spoken and illuminate the words heard. In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.

Text

Our lesson today comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans 15:7-13.

Hear the word of the Lord:

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.  For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” [2 Samuel 22:50]

And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” [Deuteronomy 32:43]

And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” [Psalm 117:1]

And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” [Isaiah 11:10]

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:7-13 ESV)

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Introduction

How can I be blessed by something I do not understand? (2X)

As a teenager, I was passionate about my youth group. When the youth director left the church, the group collapsed. My last year of school there were three of us in the group: the Pastor, my best friend, and me. That whole year we meet on Wednesdays for pizza, Bonhoeffer, and the book of Romans. Since then, I have read the Bible through the lens of the Romans, particularly Romans 12:1-2—as written on the wall over there. In college, when I became bitter at life, it was the book of Romans that brought me back to God. Now, after the experience of serminary, I wonder how I could be so blessed by a book that I still understand only incompletely?

Clearly, this is not a new question. Faith is not irrational, but rather it is the beginning of rational discourse [1].

Organized speech always begins with assumptions. In the context of the scientific method, for example, the idea of faith is known as a hypothesis or an assumption. In the same way, even the words of this very sentence in my mouth are unintelligible without some prior agreement (an assumption) as to their meaning (2X).

Then, the logic of modern science and logic of faith are exactly the same. In the scientific method, the hypothesis provides focus for the research problem and a context for understanding it. In faith, we understand life in the context of the biblical narrative. In other words, our faith blesses us helping us to understand the will of God and our role in it.

Scripture Lesson

How can I be blessed by something that I do not understand? (2X) [2]

Paul’s answer to this question arises in verse 13. There Paul says: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope (v 13). The blessings of God are joy, peace, and hope when we have faith [3].

Faith in what? In Corinthians, Paul wrote:  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:22-23 ESV) [4].  Our faith is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death on the cross.

Reflection

Why does Paul spend so much time in his letter on the conflict between Jews and Gentiles? (2X)

It is useful to see Paul’s discussion of Jews and Gentiles as a conflict between brothers, Cain and Abel. No sibling should take precedence over the other in a healthy family. This concept allows Paul to use this tension between Jews and Gentiles as a kind of nature-nurture argument (2X) [5].

The nurture argument is that the law teaches us to give up our natural state of sin and thereby gain the blessing of God—this is a traditional source of Jewish pride. On the other hand, the argument is that human nature is basically good and we need no help from God or the law. For Paul, neither our natural abilities (Romans 1:18-32), nor the mentoring of the law (Romans 7:5) is sufficient to earn God’s grace. Neither brother—not the Jew by the law nor the Gentile through human nature—can claim the righteousness of God. (2X)

This is where the example of Abraham becomes important. Abraham was not righteous in himself nor through his actions. Paul writes: For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3 ESV; Genesis 15:6) (2X).  Like the prodigal son did not deserve his father ‘s forgiveness, neither do we deserve God’s forgiveness (Luke 15:11-23). So like Abraham, we have been justified by faith so that we can have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).

In other words, Abraham ‘s righteousness was a gift given to Abraham by God in response to his faith.

Application

In conclusion.  This argument Paul has a direct relationship with the divisions in the church today .

Consider the conflict over the last hundred years between liberals and evangelicals.  Neither through the natural goodness of human beings (nature) or through strict adherence to biblical principles (nurture) can we earn God’s grace. Salvation does not depend on being a liberal or evangelical.

How can we be blessed by something you do not understand? (2X)

In the eyes of God: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28 ESV). In our context, one can say:  neither Liberal nor Evangelical, smart nor dumb, beautiful nor ugly, active or comatose, young or old.  We are all one in Christ Jesus. Our salvation does not depend on our gender, our culture, our pay, our intelligence nor our political correctness. It is only through faith in Jesus Christ so that we can approach God as sons and daughters.

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father. We give thanks for Paul’s teaching in Romans. Thanks for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and the blessings lavished on us day after day, despite our ignorance. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

References

Dunn, James D.G.  1993.  “Letter to the Romans” pages 838-50 of Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.  Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid.  Downers Grove:  InverVarsity Press.

Hays, Richard B.  1989.  Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.  New Haven:  Yale University Press.

Hays, Richard B.  2011.  Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching—First Corinthians (Orig pub 1997).  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

Hiemstra, Stephen W.  June 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pages 51-54 of Risk Management.  Society of Actuaries.  Accessed: 18 February 2014. Online:  http://bit.ly/1cmnQ00.

Schaeffer, Francis A.  2006.  Escape from Reason:  A Penetrating Analysis of Trends in Modern Thought (Orig pub 1968).  Downers Grove:  IVP Books.

Wallace, Daniel B.  1996.  Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics:  An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Footnotes

[1] The slogan – faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum) – is attributed to Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century. AD 1033-1109. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/anselm

[2] The text of today’s sermon is Romans 15:7-13 that sums up Paul’s epistle (Hays1989, 70-71). Paul premise described in verse 7: For Accept one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:7 NIV) (2X). The word therefore ( Διὸ ), refers to verse 1, which refers to the weak and strong in faith. It says: We who are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak and not to please ourselves (Romans 15:1 NIV). Ironically, the weak, in this context refer to Jewish Christians concerned about the food laws (Romans 14:2).

This implies that verse 7 deals with Jews and Gentiles. If you do not see this point, Paul cites four passages together Jews and Gentiles: 2 Samuel 22:50, Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10. It is clear that Paul focuses on the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the church of Rome.

[3] James D.G. Dunn Theologian (1993) believes that Paul has three goals in Romans: An apologetic objective, a missionary objective, and a pastoral objective. These objectives overlap in their discussion of Jews and Gentiles.

[4] In fact, the whole of 1 Corinthians 1:17-23 is helpful. Also: (Hays 2011, 27-35).

[5] My thanks to Professor Rollin Grams of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC for suggesting this argument ET/NT 543 New Testament and Christian Ethics, 20 to 24 May 2013.

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Defending the Hope We Have

photoBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Riverside Presbyterian Church, November 17, 2013

SERMON SERIES REMINDER

Good morning! It is good to see everyone again.

Today we finish up our sermon series on John Stott’s book, Basic Christianity.  For those of you who have not had time to read the book, I would encourage you to pick up a copy and take a look—it is well worth the time.

PRAYER OF INVOCATION

Let’s begin with a word of prayer:

Almighty Father, Beloved Son, Holy Spirit, we praise you for your compassionate love and presence in our lives.  Make your presence especially known to us this morning.  In the power of your Holy Spirit, inspire the words spoken and illuminate the words heard.  In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

SERMON TEXT

Our scripture reading today is taken from 1 Peter 3:13-17.  Hear the word of the Lord:

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil (1 Peter 3:13-17 ESV).

Here ends the reading.

INTRODUCTION

Have you ever had a close friend who was a seeker?  You know, someone who is obviously curious about God—seeking—but unable to take the step of faith.

I have—my friend’s name was Dave.  Dave and I used to get together for lunch perhaps once a month to shoot the breeze about politics, bank regulation, and religion—especially religion.  We read C.S. Lewis together, watched R.C. Sproul videos, talked about Billy Graham, and debated back and forth for years.  Dave was curious, but as a retired lawyer he was also skeptical.  He just could not accept the idea of the God of the bible.  At best, he would admit that the existence of God was logical, just not the God of the Bible.

In December 2006, we had lunch together as usual.  Two weeks later, Dave’s wife called me.  She told me that Dave had gotten pneumonia; was on a ventilator; and was not responding to treatment.  Should she turn off the ventilator?  She asked.

I was dumbfounded.  Dave was gone.  He had not accepted Christ.

I felt like I had failed Dave and failed God.  Above my bed hangs an original painting depicting the crucifixion of Christ given me by Dave’s widow.  It was a wedding gift which meant nothing to her but everything to me.  It is for me a reminder of the seriousness of our faith and the need to share it.

As the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:15) reminds us:  always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you (2 X).

BACKGROUND

Our scripture lesson today comes from Peter’s first letter to the churches in what is now modern Turkey.  Peter probably wrote this letter from Rome [1] in the early AD 60s before he was martyred by Emperor Nero for the faith [2].

These churches were undergoing severe persecution [3] in the midst of a society that was both multi-cultural and poly-theistic.  Today we might describe their society as postmodern—that is, minus the illusion of modernity.

The hostility of the Roman empire to the Christian message arose primarily because Christians maintained the wild idea that only one God exists and we come to him only through Jesus Christ.  Multiple gods were no problem—they could be bought off with feast days and bribed with sacrifices. You see, the Romans considered themselves very tolerant of foreign gods—at least the tinnie-winnie variety.

TEXT
 
Three points in our scripture reading today have direct bearing our witness.  We are to:
  1. Be zealous for the good (v 13);
  2. Be prepared to offer a defense for our hope (v 15); and
  3. Speak with gentleness and respect (v 15).

Let me address each in turn.

The first point is:  Be zealous for the good. 

It is interesting that Peter sees the Christian lifestyle as our first and most important witness [4].  Listen to what Peter says in chapter 2:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:11-12 ESV).

Do you catch the spirit of what Peter is saying?  We are to be holy, not only because God is holy, but because it is a witness to those who are not.  In other words, be a holy disease that will infect other people!

Be zealous for the good.

The second point is:  Offer a defense. 

The word used here is apologia (ἀπολογία) which means to offer a defense or to speak against [5].  Our word, apologetics, is derived from the same root at apologia, but is used more specifically to defend a particular doctrine or point of view.

What is interesting about Peter’s statement about apologetics is that his emphasis is on living the word, not speaking it [6].  Basically, Peter spends most of his letter, particularly chapter two, talking about righteous living and he devotes only about one sentence about offering a verbal defense.  In fact, in verse 16 after he mentions offering a verbal defense he returns to his emphasis on living the word:

having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Peter 3:16 ESV).

Shame them! We are to shame our critics with our good works!  In some sense, for Peter offering a verbal defense is a matter more of spin control than vigorous argumentation.  The point is that while no one is argued into the kingdom of God, having been loved into the kingdom people need to know that Jesus is the source of that love and why it all makes sense.

Offer a defense.

The third point is:  Speak with gentleness and respect.

This third point follows from the first two.  If people notice that you are zealous for the good and can coherently articulate your faith, then you have their attention.  However, if your attitude is wrong then they will resist your message simply out of stubbornness.

Psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, worked with patients using hypnosis and succeeded with patients no one else could reach. What is interesting about Erickson’s approach is that he never gave his patients advice or asked them to do anything.  Instead, he would hypnotize his patients and tell them stories.  For example, instead of advising someone to take an aspirin for a headache, he would tell a story about a man who took an aspirin which cured his headache.  The point is that people’s resistance to advice and suggestions is so strong that even under hypnosis they refuse to listen! (Rosen 1991).

Speak with Gentleness and Respect.

APPLICATION

Let me offer a couple of points about how to share your faith from John Stott’s Basic Christianity.

Let me start by saying that you need to share your faith, not my faith or John Stott’s faith.  Your faith is the most important witness for two reasons.

First, you have the most credibility with the person that you are talking with.  How you came to faith matters more to them than anyone else’s journey of faith.  Tell them how and why you came to faith.

Second, the tough part in witnessing is not reading a book;  the tough part in witnessing is not the mechanics of witnessing; the tough part in witnessing is understanding your own faith walk (2X).  The best way to understand your own walk is to talk about it or, better yet, to write it out in the form of a spiritual autobiography.  If you need suggestions, Richard Peace has written a book called, Spiritual Autobiography.  Check my blog (http://bit.ly/19KoqU0) for a review of Peace’s book.

Stott summarizes his book making two points.  Stott’s first point is that the great privilege as children of God is relationship with God (2X); Stott’s second point is that our great responsibility as children of God is growing that relationship (2X).  Stott observes:  everyone loves children, but no one wants them to stay in the nursery (Stott 2008, 162).  It is the nature of relationships either to grow or to decline; relationships never stay in one place.  Stott sees our growth needing to occur in two dimensions:  understanding our faith and practicing holiness (163-166). Clearly, I could talk at great length on both issues, but let’s move on.

FINAL POINT

After my friend, Dave, passed away I felt like I had failed him and failed God in my witness.  However, that was not the end of the story.

Several months after Dave died, his widow spoke to my wife, Maryam, about our visits and she made the point—Dave was concerned about my Christian naiveté—he was hoping that he could convince me to give it up. Of course, he failed—I enrolled in seminary about two years later.

Our privilege as Christians is to share the Gospel but we must leave what happens after that to God.

CLOSING PRAYER

Will you pray with me?

Almighty father. We thank you for blessing us in a thousand ways—more ways than we can imagine.  Thank you especially for granting us faith.  Help us to live out our faith; to be willing to defend it; and to speak about it with gentleness and respect.  In power of your Holy Spirit, inspire the words we speak and illumine the words that people hear.  In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.


[1]Peter (1 Peter 5:13) refers to Rome as “Babylon” (Perkins 1998, 11) which parallels the Apostle John references in Revelations (e.g. Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast (Revelation 18:2 ESV)).

[2] Rome burned in AD 64.  Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and a great persecution began.  Peter was himself martyred by Nero during this period (McKnight 1996, 28-29). Nero’s reign ended in AD 68. Bartlett (1998, 230-236) reviews concerns of recent authors that the Apostle Peter was not the author of this epistle. The arguments against apostle authorship stems from an assumption that a Galilean fisherman probably would lack a sophisticated style, theology, and knowledge of Greek.  This assumption is never defended and stands in contrast with the picture of an articulate Peter speaking on Pentecost in Acts 2 who is able to convince 3,000 men to come to faith through a single speech.

[3]See, for example, 1 Peter 1:6-7 (Perkins 1995, 15-16).

[4]Bartlett (1998, 238-240) appears disappointed with lifestyle ministry, particularly as it affects the role of women.  He assumes lifestyle ministry is submissive and ineffective without demonstrating that a more assertive ministry is consistent with Gospel witness or, for that matter, effective in evangelism.

[5]BDAG (964, 2):  the act of making a defense, defense.  See also:  2 Corinthians 11 and Philippians 1:7.

[6]Bartlett (1998, 291) rightly observes that a defense could include legal proceedings, but the context here is more general.

REFERENCES

Bartlett, David L.  1998.  “The First Letter of Peter” pages 227-319 of New Interpreter’s Bible:  A Commentary in Twelve Volumes.  Vol. XII.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press.

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Ed. Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. <BibleWorks. v.9.>. 

BibleWorks.  Norfolk: BibleWorks, LLC., 2011. <BibleWorks v.9>.

McKnight, Scot.  1996.  The NIV Application Commentary:  1 Peter.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Peace, Richard.  1998.  Spiritual Autobiography:  Discovering and Sharing Your Spiritual Story.  Colorado Springs:  NavPress.

Perkins, Pheme. 1995.  Interpretations, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching:  First and Second Peter, James, and Jude.  Louisville:  John Knox Press.

Rosen, Sidney.  1991.  My Voice will Go with You:  The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson (Orig pub 1982). New York:  W.W. Norton & Company.

Stott, John.  2008.  Basic Christianity (Orig pub 1958).  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

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The Problem of Pain, Psalm 51:10

Slave Ship, Art in Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC
Art in Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC

The Problem of Pain, Psalm 51:10

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Centreville Presbyterian Church, Centreville, VA,  August 24, 2003

Greeting

Good morning!

A key point when we face pain and suffering is that God remains with us.  We are not alone.

The prime example of this principle comes in the story of Daniel[1].

Now after Daniel survived a night in the lion’s den, King Darius was astonished that Daniel was still alive.  So, he summoned Daniel into his throne room and asked Daniel why the lions had not eaten him.

“It was easy, your Excellency,” Daniel said. “I went around and whispered in each lion’s ear — ‘After dinner, one of our elders will say a few words.'”

Scripture

Create in me a pure heart O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me. Amen

 Psalm 51:10-12 RSV

Illustration

Let’s start this morning with a little mind experiment.  Think of someone that you respect.  What is special about this person?  Are they strong? Are they good looking?  What led you to respect them?  Chances are that many of the people you have in mind have suffered serious pain in their lives.

Larry’s Funeral

In July I attended a funeral of a colleague, Larry.  Larry was special.  No one was a stranger around Larry.  Larry had the glow.

At the funeral people talked about Larry’s lust for life and his joy.  Larry was known for his singing.  He was known in the office because he remembered co-workers’ children and asked about them.  About third of the church was filled with colleagues of Larry from other parts of town.

At the funeral, people talked about Larry’s strength.  He was a father and a grandfather.  He could throw a football an entire city block—twice the distance of his own brother.  What really stuck out at this funeral was the long list of testimonials—Larry clearly touched many lives.

Why do I mention this?

Larry was black and confined to a wheelchair for the time that I knew him.  Underprivileged, handicapped, and killed at age of 48 by the disease that crippled him, Larry was no stranger to hardship.  In spite of everything, he persevered in winning the golden crown award in the fellowship of saints.

Challenges Grow Us

We respect people that overcome difficult challenges.  In his book, Where is God When It Hurts, Philip Yancey reports that leaders, such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, George Washington, and Queen Victoria, were all either orphaned at an early age or experienced severe childhood deprivation[2].

Why God?

The problem of pain sums up with the question:  If God is all powerful and all loving, why does he allow such pain and suffering? In shining light on this question, I will divide my comments into three parts.  First, I will look at the nature of pain.  Second, I will review Biblical views on pain and suffering.  Finally, I will conclude with a few words of wisdom.

What is Pain?

Pain communicates.  When we put a hand on a hot stove, our hand seems to shout:  get me out of here[4].  When we do something stupid and suffer ridicule from our friends, we experience a different kind of pain.  In the physical world or a social context, pain demands immediate attention.  It teaches us what to do and what not to do.

In discussing the spiritual side of pain, it is helpful to distinguish avoidable from unavoidable pain.

Avoidable Pain

Avoidable pain challenges our intelligence more than our faith.  When we drive without a seat belt and have an accident, God is not normally blamed.  Instead, the wisdom of wearing a seat-belt becomes painfully obvious.  Not all avoidable pains in this life, however, are equally obvious.

Sin.

The relationship between sin and pain is well understood.  Sin occurs when we do something that we should not do.  The obvious case is murder.  The immediate consequence of murder is the pain of imprisonment or death.

Iniquity.

Iniquity is more insidious than sin.  Iniquity occurs when we fail to do something that we should have done (Proverbs 3:27).  Iniquity can not only produce pain, but also a consuming guilt and shame.

When I think about iniquity, I remember a puppy that we had when I was in high school.  This puppy was very enthusiastic and slipped out of the house one morning as I was walking to school.  That morning I was late and the puppy did not catch up to me until I was quite a distance from home.  Upset with him, I sent him home.  Obediently, the dog immediately ran across the road and was struck dead by a passing car in front of my eyes.  I had done nothing wrong, but what I failed to do cost that innocent puppy his life.

More than sin, iniquity challenges modern society.   Consider, for example, the effect of technology on our ability to work 24-7.  As work fills our lives with good things, we have less time to raise our children, care for our elderly parents, and commit time to God.  The workaholic has no special proclivity to sin, but finds iniquity a constant challenge.

The Learning Process.

In the example of the workaholic, it is ironic that something good (like work) should lead to something bad (like iniquity).  This problem arises because the normal learning process breaks down.

Psychologists describe learning as responses to positive and negative stimuli.  We are attracted to positive stimuli and we avoid negative stimuli.  In other words, if it feels good, do it!  Or, as my doctor always tells me, if it is hurts, don’t do it!

The learning process breaks down when a positive stimulus is associated in the short run with pleasure and in the long run with pain.  Such phenomena are described as social traps.  Smoking, alcohol or drug addiction, cheating on our spouses and compulsive attention to work are all social traps.  In each case, the immediate gratification of our desires leads us where we would not normally choose to go.  Because the learning process breaks down, social traps require spiritual instruction.

Unavoidable Pain

Because God gives us the freedom to make decisions, bad decisions can generate avoidable pain.  The problem is that we cannot always avoid pain caused by other people’s decisions and the natural world has rules that all of us must respect.  Accidents happen.  Unavoidable pain is accordingly a consequence of free will and life in the natural world (Lewis, p. 34).  Still, the tendency to blame God for our pains has been with us since the time of Job.

In his book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis (p. 90) describes suffering as: any experience, whether physical or mental, which the patient dislikes.  Like Lewis, I use the terms pain and suffering interchangeably because of personal experience.  When my wife, Maryam, began her battle with breast cancer eight years ago, her surgery and physical recovery were completed within weeks.  The immediate pain went away.  The scars on her soul and mine, however, never completely healed.

Perceptions of Pain

During World War II, anesthesiologist Henry K. Beecher noted that only about one in three soldiers injured on the battlefield requested morphine while about four out of five civilians with similar injuries made this request.  This led him to conclude that physical injuries and the perceived pain are not directly linked (Yancey, p. 177).

Beecher’s conclusion makes sense because morphine calms a patient’s anxiety.  We can infer from Beecher’s observations that soldiers and civilians differ in their morphine use primarily because their sources of fear differ.  For the soldier, a trip to the hospital meant that he would likely survive the war.  For the civilian, the trip to the hospital meant pain and potential disabilities.  In effect, the soldiers’ joy in leaving the battlefield came associated with physical injuries that would terrorize a civilian.

Because fear magnifies our pain and suffering, pain management and a full recovery require that we deal with the spiritual side of healing.

Biblical Views of Pain and Suffering

God works to grow our faith and relationship with Him.  Sin thwarts this objective but God typically does not immediately punish us.  The point of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was to redeem us from God’s judgment and to bring the hope of eternal life—the Good News of the Gospel.   The Biblical view of God’s relationship with His creation can accordingly be interpreted as an antidote to the pain and suffering of the natural world.

The Beatitudes

To understand how Christ’s earthly ministry could end with the cross and the resurrection, it is helpful to begin with the Beatitudes—the happy attitudes.  In Mathew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins with:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
”Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted
(Mathew 5:3-4 NIV).

Notice that Jesus starts his sermon with suffering[7].  What could be more ironic than: happy are those who suffer?

Billy Grahm on Pain

In his book, The Secret of Happiness, Billy Graham describes the mourners in the second Beatitude as those who mourn of their own spiritual inadequacy before God[8].  This is not a spirit of self-pity.  Rather, it is someone who has sensed the presence of a Holy God and found the comparison with self unbearable.  Mourning of spiritual inadequacy is accordingly followed by mourning for repentance (P. 20-21).  More to the point, we are all born under sentence of death, mourn under pain of death, and need the comfort of redemption.  Suffering accordingly plays a key role in our understanding of Christ’s redemptive ministry.

Pain And Suffering As A Wakeup Call

The Beatitudes give us hope that redemption, not suffering, is at journey’s end.  It is accordingly not surprising that the Bible disputes the common notion that God uses pain to draw attention to our sins.

The clearest example of this principle is found in chapter 9 of the book of John.  When Christ heals the man born blind, he answers the question of sin directly: who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? Jesus answered:  Neither this man nor his parents sinned, …but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life (John 9:1-3 NIV)[9]As in Christ’s ministry to the blind man, the point of our pain and suffering is not to draw attention to sin but for God to build a stronger relationship with us (Yancey, p. x).

Spiritual Warfare

In the Bible, great pain accompanies great joy.  In Mathew’s account of Christ’s birth, Mary and Joseph flee in the middle of the night to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s attempt to murder the Christ child[10].  Although we love to celebrate the joy of Christmas, the original Christmas story was marred by genocide and the stench of death.  Great pain accompanies great joy[11].

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Consider the life of Ludwig Van Beethoven.  During the period when he was losing his hearing, Beethoven wrote his ninth symphony, the Choral Symphony, taking the text from Friedrich von Schiller’s poem, Ode to Joy.  On its opening night in 1824 Beethoven conducted the orchestra. The music was so beautiful that some of the musicians cried.  Yet, Beethoven heard none of it.  He was so deaf that when the symphony ended a member of the orchestra had to get up and draw Beethoven’s attention to the audience who had already begun to applaud.  Had Beethoven given into depression in his deafness rather than looked to God for inspiration, the world would have been robbed of one of its greatest musical treasures.

Beyond Pain

Just like we must look beyond the pain of crucifixion to see the joy of the resurrection, we must look beyond the suffering in our own lives to see the perfect future that is in Christ.  Just as James writes:

Consider it pure joy, my friends, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-5 NIV).

This Biblical view of pain accordingly turns the stimulus-response world of human psychology upside down.  Normal learning is disrupted because a positive response (that is, joy) follows a negative stimulus (that is, suffering).  In Christian psychology, the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear.  This is why Paul writes: but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Words of Wisdom

In confronting pain and suffering, we are not alone.  We are not alone!  As the Apostle Paul writes:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 35-39 NIV)

Like Daniel in the lions den (Daniel 6:10-24), we testify to our faith by how we cope with pain and suffering.

Why Me?

The temptation in time of great adversity, of course, is to turn inward[13] and ask:  Why me?  The consequence of turning inward is that we end up blaming God for our problems and we become slaves to fear.

Stressful Year

During about a 12 month period in 1992-93, I lost my job, my son was born with a kidney defect, and my wife went through her first battle with breast cancer.  This was the hardest year of my life and I reacted by retreating into my work.  Out of deep seated fear, I worked every waking hour to learn new skills and to advance my career.

Initially, this approach worked.  I found a better position and was later promoted.  As time passed, however, the office situation changed.  Technical skills became less important and I found myself less able to adjust—I lacked self-confidence and fear prompted me to turn ever more inward.  It took me almost a decade before I was able to trust God enough to pull out of my shell.  While these years were not exactly wasted, I vowed before God that I would never again let myself become a slave to fear.

Where is God Leading Me?

Instead of asking why me, a better question to ask is:  where is God leading me?  Focusing on God’s plan for our lives is not only better theology; it diverts our attention away from our suffering and directly reduces our pain.  The change in attitude is also critical.  We are no longer victims of our own fears, but servants of an almighty God who are both willing and able to cope with the adversity.

An important byproduct of our own suffering is an increased capacity to minister to those suffering around us.  As the Apostle Paul wrote:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV).

The strength that we gather from a life at the foot of the cross therefore allows us to be available to those who suffer around us.  Can you listen?  Can you empathize?   In the words of Paul: Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15).

Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi [14]

Lord, grant that I may seek rather

To comfort than to be comforted,

To understand than to be understood,

To love than to be loved;

For it is by giving that one receives,

It is by self-forgetting that one finds,

It is by forgiving that one is forgiven,

It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life. Amen

Benediction

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen.

(Romans 15:13 RSV).

 Footnotes


[1] See chapter 6 of the Book of Daniel.

[2] See chapter 6 of the Book of Daniel. Zondervan:  Grand   Rapids, Michigan.  P. 141.

[4]God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains:  it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.  Lewis.  P. 93.

[7] It is interesting that in the much shorter version of the Sermon on the Mount found in Luke 6, Luke also highlights these two among the four Beatitudes he lists.  Mathew lists nine Beatitudes.

[9] Likewise, Job learns to depend on God in adversity (McGee, pp. 188-89; Job 42:1-3 NIV).  Similarly, Paul write:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV).

[10] Mathew 2:16-18. Exodus 1:15-22.

[11] Similarly, in speaking of the second coming in Romans 8:22, Paul describes it as the pain of childbirth which is immediately sweep away by the joy of holding a newborn baby.

[13]If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!  Ecclesiastes 4:10.  Also, Cloud and Townsend, p. 216.

[14] Graham. p. 24.

References

Cloud, Henry and John Townsend.  1992. Boundaries.  Zondervan:  Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Cross, John G. and Melvin J. Guyer. 1980. Social Traps.  University of Michigan Press:  Ann Arbor. 1980.

Graham, Billy 1955. The Secret of Happiness, Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain.  MacMillan Publishing Company:  New York.

McGee, J. Vernon.  1991. Job.  Thomas Nelson Publishers:  Nashville, TN.

Skinner, B.F. 1971. Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  New   York:  Bantam Books, Inc.

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Walking in the Wilderness, Luke 15:11-24

By Stephen W. Hiemstradesert_sign

Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, VA

Invocation

Father Almighty. Make your presence known to us here this morning. Grant us wisdom, grant us consolation. In the power of his Holy Spirit, inspire the words that are spoken and illuminate the words heard, in the precious name of Jesus, amen.

Introduction

Who here enjoys risks and uncertainty? (2X)

Unless you have a gambling habit you probably prefer stability, not risk or uncertainty. Unfortunately, life is often marked by many stressful changes.

Over the past year, I worked at Providence Hospital in Washington DC as a chaplain intern. In working with patients in the emergency department, I started seeing hospital visits as a special type of change called a transition.

A transition has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Initially, patients come to the hospital with a problem and focus on the things that used to be. In the middle, patients receive their treatment and worry about how things will work out. In the end, almost all patients return to their old lives. At this point, the question is: what comes after the hospital?

This last question is inherently spiritual. For patients who came to the hospital because of a poor lifestyle choice, a better question is:  what will be different when you leave the hospital? (2X)

In life there are many transitions. During periods of uncertainty my prayer typically is:

Why did God bring me to this time and this place? (2X)

Scripture

The book of Exodus tells of a great transition in the history of the nation of Israel, the departure from Egypt and entry into the wilderness, and, then, the departure out of the desert and the entry into the Promised Land.

Listen to what Moses said to Pharaoh:  “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness” (Exodus 7:16 ESV) (2X). Where does Moses see the people who serve God? Ironically, it is not in Egypt, nor in the Promised Land. Rather, it is in the desert where we more often encounter God. This is because in the desert we are more likely to look for God and depend on him, exactly during these stressful periods of risk and uncertainty. It is in the middle of a transition.

Why did God bring me to this time and this place? (2X)

Jesus tells the story of a man who had two sons. The younger son came to him one day and asked for his inheritance in cash. He then left town with the money and began living with style. This reckless lifestyle did not last long and soon the young man had to get a job. Not being one to plan ahead, he was forced to accept a degrading job for Jews – feeding pigs. As the son’s mind began to wander, he began to reflect on how good things had been with his parents and he decided to return home. When his father found out he was coming, he went out to meet him and wrapped his arms around him. As the son began to apologize for his horrible behavior, his father would hear none of it. He took his son, cleaned him up, brought him some new clothes and threw him a party (Luke 15:11-24 NIV).

We all often behave like the younger son. Things must be really bad in the desert before we arrive at our senses and recognize that we need our Heavenly Father. The good news is that our Father is waiting for us, will forgive us, and will take us back into the family. Amen.

Prayer

Heavenly Father. We thank you for your care during transitions of life, but especially in times of uncertainty. In the power of your Holy Spirit, give us strength for the day and hope for the future. In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.

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Becoming a Spiritual Lifeguard, Mark 4:35-5:20

Photo of Stephen W. Hiemstra
Stephen W. Hiemstra

Becoming a Spiritual Lifeguard,

Mark 4:35-5:20

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Centreville Presbyterian Church, Centreville, VA

Invocation

Heavenly Father; God of all seasons and all times; Lord of places familiar and places unfamiliar; God of our emotions and our thinking.   In the power of your Holy Spirit silence any voice in our ears but yours.  Make your presence known to us today in the words spoken and the words heard.  In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Story of Reluctant Swimmers

In thinking about this afternoon’s message, I kept coming back to my experience in high school as a swimming instructor at Goshen Scout camps. At one point I was asked to teach a troop of special needs scouts how to swim. Talk about scary moments. The image of a lake full of drowning scouts still comes to mind.

By the end of the week, however, two of these scouts, Elmer and Freddie, had passed their swim test. Both had the swim routine down before I met them, but both also faced certain obstacles to finishing the course.

Elmer

Elmer swam the American crawl perfectly, but only in shallow water where his fingers touched the bottom. He loved to show off his great form, but in his heart of hearts he thought swimming was a scam.  He became visibly upset when I prodded him to venture into deeper water.

Freddie

Freddie swam just fine, but thought it was more fun to be rescued by the lifeguard. He would begin his swim test and swim a lap or two. Then, a great big smile would come across Freddie’s face and he would pretend to drown. I can still see the horror on the faces of those watching me as I got mad at this drowning scout—that is, until they saw Freddie stop drowning and finish his swim test.

Isn’t that so like us when hear God’s call? (2X)

Stop focusing on myself and finish the race?  Who me, Lord?

Swim into deeper waters and trust you to support me? Who me, Lord?

The moment we get over our pretensions and really appreciate how much Christ has done for us, we want to tell the whole world.  When we do, we become spiritual lifeguards.

Scriptural Background

Our scripture lesson is taken from the book of Mark who recorded what is believed to be the witness of the Apostle Peter.  The story of the healing of a man with an unclean spirit appears in the three synoptic Gospels and in each case follows the account of the storm on the Galilee [1].  Mark’s version is the longest and offers details of obvious interest to a modern reader.  The length of Mark’s account is particularly striking because Mark wrote the shortest Gospel.  Why does Mark spend twice as much time on this particular story as does Matthew or Luke? [2]  (2X)

Uniqueness of Mark’s Account

Only in Mark, for example, do we learn that the crossing of the Galilee involved multiple boats and took place in the evening (Mark 4:35-36).  The storm on the Galilee inspired fear, in part, because it happened after dark.  Nightfall might also explain why Jesus was sleeping [3].

The Man with the Unclean Spirit

Two details suggest that Mark expressed great sympathy for the man with the unclean spirit [4].

The first detail is his use of the term, unclean spirit (ἄνθρωπος ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτω (Mark 5:2 BNT)).  By contrast, Matthew starts by saying the man is demonized (δαιμονιζόμενοι (Matt 8:28 BNT)) while Luke reports that he has a demon (ἀνήρ…ἔχων δαιμόνια (Luke 8:27 BNT)) [5].  The term, unclean spirit, is less judgmental and evokes the image of ritual impurity rather than demonic manipulation.

The second detail is also unique to Mark.  Only Mark tells us that this man cuts himself with stones (κατακόπτων ἑαυτὸν λίθοις (Mark 5:5 BNT)).  In other words, he was a cutter.

What is a Cutter?

In case you have never known a cutter, a cutter is someone, usually a young person, whose emotional pain is so deep that self-induced physical pain comes as a relief.  Cutters feel abandoned by their friends and family.  Cutters are not normally suicidal although they may accidentally kill themselves.  Mark gives us a picture of a young person in unbelievable anguish which is in sharp contrast with Matthew’s image of a raging, fearsome maniac (Matt 8:28) [6].

Can you feel the pain being communicated here?  (2X) If you could heal this kid, would you take the risk to step into his messy life and do it?

Moral Ambiguity

Other details in this passage evoke less pathos but focus more on moral ambiguity.  The synoptic Gospels, for example, differ on the location of this pericope but all place the location in Gentile territory known as the Decapolis, region of ten cities.  Mark and Luke locate this story in the Gerasene while Matthew cites the area of Gadara [7]. Scholars place the location at Gergesa, a relatively unknown location on the Sea of Galilee with a steep slope. The Gerasene and Gadara locations, while better known, are not on the Sea of Galilee [8].

In summary, the location, the man’s lack of clothing, his presence in a graveyard, the presence of demons, and the local raising of pigs (Lightfoot 1979, 254) all reinforce the image of the man as ritually unclean and probably a gentile.  The idea that this man was a gentile makes sense because Apostle Peter led the church in accepting gentile ministry (Acts 10).  Peter’s leadership in accepting gentiles into the church may also explain Mark’s special interest in this story.

Jesus’ Pathos

Jesus’ pathos for the pain of this young man is obvious.  There is a sense here that the man with the unclean spirit is the personification of unrepentant sinner undergoing a difficult conversion (Garland 1996, 212).  As the Apostle Paul put it:  If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17 ESV).  Through the story of this young man, Mark has painted a picture for us of both the old self and the new self in Christ (Eph 4:20-24).

Salvation Message

What does God’s salvation look like to you?  (2X)

The Apostle Paul described salvation in these words: if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved (Romans 10:9-10 ESV).

Exodus as Salvation

For me, salvation evokes memory of the Exodus story when God rescued the people of Israel and brought them out from the land of Egypt.  Remembering the Exodus, the Prophet Isaiah writes:  But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you (Isaiah 43:1-2 ESV).

Downing as a Metaphor

Have you ever felt in over your head?  Do the waters of life leave you grasping for life-preservers that are nowhere to be found?  Do you feel like Jonah trying to run away from God and end up being thrown overboard?   Here in Mark we find the disciples in a raging storm in the middle of the night on the Galilee.

As the Psalmist  writes:  Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.  Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven (Psalm 107:28-30 ESV).

The Lifeguard

Do you see the lifeguard at work?  (2X)

Jesus simply says:  “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm (Mark 4:39 ESV).  What’s the big excitement?  Where is your faith? Jesus asks.

But what if the storm in our lives is more personal?  (2X)

Postmodern Haunting

What if we find ourselves in a strange land, surrounded by strange people, confronting death or, worse, confronting people living hollow, haunted lives?

Jesus, why are you still here?  Jesus, why do you torment me?

But our lifeguard is still on duty.  Jesus asks:  what is your name?

Name?  We have many names!  What name would you like?  Anger? Depression?  Fear? Guilt? Grief?  Humiliation? Shame?

Our lifeguard simply says—you have my permission to give them up.

Anger…(snap) gone.  Depression…(snap) gone.  Fear…(snap) gone.  Grief…(snap) gone.  Guilt…(snap) gone.  Humiliation… (snap) gone.  Shame…(snap) gone.  Gone…gone…gone…(Snap 3 X)

But what happens when the storm is over?  Jesus says:  Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you (Mark 5:19 ESV).  We are called to be witnesses of our own healing and lifeguards for those around us.

Closing Story

Let me close with another story.

A woman by the name of Debra used to live outside my office when I worked downtown in Washington.  Debra lived on the sidewalk there outside my building for seven years—longer than I had worked there.  When I was feeling all full of myself and generous, I would visit with Debra and give her lunch money.  When I was mad at the world and feeling sorry for myself, I sneak out the building so as to avoid her.  I felt the judgment of God in her presence because I was rich, warm, and well-fed while she was poor, cold, and hungry.  For this reason, I prayed that God would cure her of her mental illness and cure me of my moral cowardice [9].

Confronted with someone in pain in a morally ambiguous situation, what do you do?  (2X)

Confronted with a young man in great emotional pain, Jesus set aside his own agenda and healed him.

Prayer

Almighty God.  Father of all compassion.  Beloved son.  Holy Spirit. Thank you for your presence in our lives.  Calm the storms that plague us.  Heal us of the names that haunt us.  Make us whole people created in your image.  Help us to model your love to the people around us.  In Jesus’ mighty name, amen.

Footnotes


[1]Mark 4:35-5:20, Matthew 8:18, 23-34, and Luke 8:22-39.  Note also the allusion in Revelations Rev 21:2. In each account the man with the unclean spirit declares Jesus to be the Son of God (Matt 8:29; Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28).

[2]The word count in Greek is approximately:  Mark (472), Luke (407), and Matthew (236).  This is shocking because the Book of Mark (12, 015) is the shortest compared with Luke (20,683) and Matthew (19,474) (BNT, BibleWorks).  This implies that almost 4 percent of the Mark text is devoted to this story while less than 2 percent is devoted in either Luke or Matthew.

[3]An episode of near drowning in a boat on the Galilee evokes a dramatic image of the exodus from Egypt—a communal baptism.  Because baptism is frequently thought of as a symbolic death and resurrection (Rom 6:4) which is similar to the allusion evoked in mental illness (Foucault 1988, 16), the storm on the Galilee is thematically related to story of the demoniacs that follows.  Both are also miracle stories and display Jesus’ authority (France 2007, 333).  By contrast, Saint Jerome (1977, 163) saw an allusion to the prophet Jonah (Garland 1996, 193).  Taken together, the literary argument is implicitly from the greater to the smaller, if Jesus can command the wind and waves, he can surely cast out demons in a possessed gentile.

[4]The OT provides at least two examples of demonic possession (Judges 9:23 and 1 Sam 16:14-16), but no exorcisms. Casting out demons is a NT innovation.  ἐκβάλλω (exorcise) is frequently used in this sense in the NT, but the LXX uses this word primarily in a military sense of driving one’s enemies out.  The allusion most likely in mind for a first-century Jewish audience is:  then the LORD will drive out [ἐκβαλεῖ] all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and stronger than you (Deut 11:23 NIV).  ἐκβάλλω (BDAG 2328) . The only hint of a spiritual use of the word in the LXX arises in 2 Samuel 7:23 (driving out nations and their gods), Isa 2:20 (cast away his idols), and Jeremiah 23:31 (against the prophets).

[5]Even authors that question Jesus’ divinity acknowledge that he performed exorcisms (Sanders 1993, 149-154).   Porterfield (2005, 36-37) cites John Meier writing:  What made Jesus unusual, if no unique, was not simply his role as an exorcist but rather his integration of the roles of exorcist, moral teacher, gatherer of disciples, and eschatological prophet all into one person.  She also notes that in Mark, the first even in Jesus’ public life was the healing of a possessed man (Mark 1:23-27).   The early church routinely performed exorcisms as part of the baptism ritual and exorcist was a church office, much like elder or deacon.  For example, see (Hippolytus AD 215, 21:10; Cyprian AD 250).

[6]Because Mark is thought to be recording the experiences of the Apostle Peter, is this sympathetic view of this man a reflection of the heart of the Apostle Peter for the mentally ill?

[7]France (2007, 340) reconciles this discrepancy citing Josephus (Life, 42) who places Gerasene within the jurisdiction of Gadara—a Roman stronghold .  This is more subtle way to make a political inference than naming the demons:  Legion (the name of a Roman military unit).  Later manuscript variants explicitly substitute the Gerasene for Gadara in the Matthew account suggesting that the inference may have been too subtle for a gentile audience to pick up.

[8]Schnabel (2004, 255-256) writes:  Gergesa is identified with ancient Chorsia and located near ruins of modern Tel el-Kurst (Kersa) situated on Wadi Sermakh on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, an area that belonged to the Decapolis.  Near Tel el-Kursi there is a steep slope toward to the lake….A localization in Gergesa, a small and insignificant settlement, could well have been changed by a copyist in West to the well-known city “Gerasa,”  which copyists in the East would have “corrected” to “Gadara.”

[9] Foucault (1988, 26) sees mental illness as a metaphor for death (p. 16) and as a mirror on society.

References

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Ed. Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. <BibleWorks. v.8.>.

BibleWorks. Norfolk: BibleWorks, LLC., 2011. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

Cyprian.  Epistle XVI. Translated By Ernest Wallis.  Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. ANF5.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.  In BibleWorks, V.8. AD 250.

Foucault, Michel.  1988.  Madness and Civilization:  A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York:  Vintage Books.

France, R.T.  2002. The Gospel of Mark.  New International Greek Testament Commentary.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

France, R.T.  2007. The Gospel of Matthew.  New International Commentary on the New Testament.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Garland, David E.  1996.  The NIV Application Commentary:  Mark.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Hippolytus.  The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome. Translated by Kevin P. Edgecomb.  Cited:  31 March 2010.  Online:  http://www.bombaxo.com/hippolytus.html, AD 215.

Jerome.  Commentaire Sur S. Matthieu (398).  Translated from Latin into French by Emile Bonnard.  Paris:  École Normale Supérieure, 1977.

Josephus.  Life of Flavius Josephus.  1:42. In BibleWorks, V.8.

Lightfoot, John.  1979. A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica Matthew – I Corinthians (1859).  Vol. 1.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House.

Porterfield, Amanda.  2005. Healing in the History of Christianity.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Sanders, E.P.  1993.  The Historical Figure of Jesus.  New York: Penguin Books.

Schnabel, Eckhard J.  2004.  Early Christian Mission.  Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press.

 

Also see:

Prayer for Shalom 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

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Resting in God, Psalm 23:2

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Riverside Presbyterian Church, Sterling, VA

Invocation

Lord God, heavenly King, loving Father – Rest with us this morning. In the power of your Holy Spirit, inspires the words that are spoken and illuminate the words heard. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Introduction

Monday, February 12, 2007 was a long day for me.

Driving on Route 66 halfway to Washington at about 6:40 a.m., I received a phone call from my mother. She told me that my sister, Diane, had suffered a heart attack and stroke. She is asking for her brothers. After the call from mom, I turned around and headed back to Centreville. A few minutes later, I picked up my brother and we drove to an unfamiliar hospital in Philadelphia. Upon arriving at the hospital at the end of the morning I found my parents. My sister was in a bed on life support. Unfortunately, it was too late. Diane had left us.

We read together Psalm 23, we said goodbye to Diane, and prayed.

Psalm 23 is familiar and powerful. Why do we find comfort resting with God?

Passage

He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters (Psalm 23:2 ESV).

Anyone familiar with the Middle East knows that green pastures are hard to find and wars fought over scarce water resources. The desserts are best known for nasty weeds and drought. So when our verse speaks of green pastures and still waters, the psalmist makes an allusion to the Garden of Eden, one of the biblical visions of heaven. Listen to the words in Genesis:

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.  And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers (Gen 2:8-10 ESV).

Eden pictures restoration. Here the world’s corruption is not present. Nor there is no sin. We are in full communion with God. There is no death, there is no fear. Here we find peace in the biblical sense of Shalom, which means not only the absence of conflict, but also a fullness of spirit caused by communion with God himself.

Consequently, resting with God gives comfort deeper than just green grass and clear water, because all conflicts and struggles have been eliminated.

He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters (Psalm 23:2 ESV).

Interpretation

The theme of rest appears in the New Testament. Jesus said: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (ἀναπαύσω (BNT), Matthew 11:28 ESV). The author of Hebrews expands on this idea and uses the word, rest, four times with four different meanings. Listen for the four uses of rest in Hebrews 4.

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.  For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.  For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,'” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world.  For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” (Heb 4:1-4 ESV)

These four lines are dense. We could have a Sunday school class on nothing but these four verses. By the end, we see the word, rest, interpreted four different ways: physical rest, Sabbath rest, rest in the Promised Land, and heavenly rest. Please stay with me when I explained why. Vaya conmigo!

The story begins in the Greek text with the word for the rest: κατάπαυσις.  Here is the only place in the New Testament where it is used. However, the text refers to two passages from the Old Testament: Genesis 2 and Psalm 95. Allow me a few minutes to look at these passages.

Genesis 2. This passage is familiar because God rests on the seventh day. Here rest means to stop working. If you think about it, however, this idea seems strange. Ask yourself: was God physically tired when He rested on the seventh day? OBVIOUSLY NOT:  exhaustion is a problem for us, not for God. God was never physically tired from creating. Maybe God stopped creating for spending time with us (2X) (Murray 1996, 159-60).

Psalm 95. This Psalm is less familiar. We read in verses 10-11: forty years I was angry with that generation, and said: For forty years I loathed that generation and said, They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways. Therefore I swore in my wrath, They shall not enter my rest. (Psalm 95:10-11 ESV)

The rest here is a metaphor for the Promised Land. The generation of Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, they could not enter into the rest of God, because they did not believe that God would keep his word (2X) (Murray 1996, 156).

In Hebrews 4 includes a mystery. Why does the author say that the promise of rest still stands? When this book was written, the people of Israel had lived in Palestine for a long time. How could the author say that the promise of the Promised Land is still standing? The image here is of Jesus as our new Joshua who leads us from this earth to heaven (Murray 1996, 160-61). Here we find heavenly rest.

So we see the word, the rest played four ways in Hebrews 4:  physical rest, Sabbath rest, rest in the Promised Land, and heavenly rest – a return to Eden. Each of these inferences applies also to Psalm 23.

Application

Christian psychologist Henry Cloud, asks the question: which values ​​are not optional in your life? (2X) Our deepest values ​​are not the most urgent, but they determine the quality of your life and are easily overlooked (Cloud 2008, 133-142).

How can we rest as God intended? Three are obvious: practice physical rest, observe Sabbath rest, and mediate on heaven.

First:  Practice Physical Rest. The obvious place to start is the physical rest. If you want to feel more holy, take a nap (2X). People hurried have decreased ability to love God and neighbor. Hurry is not just a messy schedule, but a messy heart (Ortberg 2002, 72, 79, 81). Practice physical rest.

Second: Observe Sabbath Rest. Spend quality time with your family in front of God.  As the psalmist writes:  Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10 ESV).  Abraham Heschel (2005, 15) describes the Sabbath as:  a palace in time that we build (2X). Observe Sabbath rest.

Third: Mediate on Heaven. Heaven is two important things: a place where God lives and our eternal destiny. Because we know that the future lies with Christ, we can afford to take greater risks in life to bring heaven to earth. C.S. Lewis (2001, 134) writes: If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next. Mediate on heaven.

In short, the rest practiced three classes: physical rest practice, observe Sabbath rest, and mediate on heaven.

Prayer

Almighty Father. Thank you for the spiritual gift of rest. Help us to rest with you now and always. In the power of your Holy Spirit, guide our thoughts and keep us close to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

REFERENCES

Brueggemann, Walter.  1984.  The Message of the Psalms:  A Theological Commentary.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg.

Cloud, Henry.  2008. The One-Life Solution:  Reclaim Your Personal Life While Achieving Greater Professional Success.  New York:  Harper Business.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua.  2005.  The Sabbath (Orig. Pub. 1951).  New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Ciroux.

Lane, William.  1985.  Hebrews:  A Call to Commitment.  Vancouver:  Regent College Publishing.

Lewis, C.S.  2001.  Mere Christianity (Orig. Pub.1952).  New York:  HarperCollins.

Murray, Andrew. 1996.  The Holiest of All (Orig. Pub. 1894).  New Kensington: Whitaker House.

Ortberg, John.  2002.  The Life You’ve Always Wanted:  Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

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