How to Amaze Jesus (a sermon on Luke 7:1-10)

I don’t know about you, but I think it would be pretty hard to amaze Jesus. I get the sense from the gospels that he’s usually got a pretty good grasp of any situation he’s in. He seems to find it easy to see through people; he knows their motivations, he knows when they’re being sincere and when they’re trying to trick him. John’s Gospel says of him that ‘Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone’ (John 2:24-25).

Nevertheless, there are one or two occasions in the gospels when Jesus seems to have been genuinely surprised, and one of them is in our gospel reading for today. This reading comes from a chapter which is full of stories of Jesus reaching out to outsiders, to marginalized people, to widows and orphans, and to notorious sinners who are meant to be beyond the pale, beyond the reach of God’s love. And it’s one of these outsiders – a Roman army officer – who astonishes Jesus by the strength of his faith.

Let’s explore the story for a minute. Jesus has just returned to the Galilean fishing town of Capernaum on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee. It’s a town where he is well known, and it’s the most natural thing in the world that a Roman soldier, a member of the occupying army, has heard of him. What isn’t so natural is that this soldier should reach out to a Jewish man and ask for help. Imagine a German officer in World War Two asking for help from a Jewish rabbi! That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about here.

Centurions were the non-commissioned officers of the Roman Army; they led a ‘century’, which was a unit of approximately one hundred soldiers. They were the professional soldiers, the backbone of the Roman army. Interestingly enough, there are no bad stories about centurions in the New Testament. Every time a centurion appears, he’s seen in a good light, and this man is no exception.

What do we know about him? The Jewish elders come to Jesus and ask him to help this man, saying ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us’ (v.5). This is unusual: a Roman soldier who took an interest in the people of Israel and went so far as to finance the building of a local synagogue out of his own pocket. Why would he do that? We’re not told, but it seems reasonable to believe that he was one of those in the ancient world who had gotten tired of the stories of the Greek and Roman gods and had been attracted to the idea of one true creator God – a God who called his people to follow him by obeying the strict ethical standards of the ten commandments.

It’s also noticeable that he takes an interest in the welfare of his slaves. Of course, the institution of slavery was taken for granted in the ancient world, and there’s no hint of reproach in Luke’s mention of the fact that this man owned slaves, but it is noticeable that, to him, this slave is not just a tool to be discarded when he gets worn out. A lot of people in the ancient world would have seen a slave in that way, but not this centurion. He values this slave highly, and so he’s willing to take the unusual step of humbling himself before Jesus in order to ask him for a healing.

Note that at first the centurion does not presume to talk to Jesus himself; he sends the Jewish elders to speak on his behalf. He’s well aware of his position as an outsider in Judaism: he’s a foreigner, a Gentile, an enemy soldier, and he thinks it’s very likely that Jesus will rebuff him. In the normal run of things, this centurion has all the power, but in this situation the roles are reversed, and he needs some intercessors to plead his case, so he sends the local elders. They, of course, are very gratified that this soldier has taken an interest in their synagogue; he’s a good donor to the local church and they want to stay on good terms with him, so they’re more than happy to go and speak to Jesus on his behalf!

To their surprise – and, probably, to the centurion’s surprise too – Jesus not only agrees to heal the slave, but immediately sets out to visit the centurion in his house! This is completely against Jewish law and tradition: he will be going into a Gentile house, where protocol will require that his host give him a meal, so he will be eating non-kosher food in fellowship with a soldier of the occupying army. This is far beyond anything that the centurion was expecting! When he hears that Jesus is on the way, he quickly sends more messengers – this time not Jewish elders, but personal friends. “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word and let my servant be healed” (v.7). It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the centurion has a completely different view of himself than the synagogue elders? They said, “he is worthy”, but the centurion says, “I am not worthy”. We’ll explore that a little more in a minute.

But then comes the money quote, where the centurion explains the ground of his faith.

“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

Jesus is astounded at the strength of this man’s faith.

‘When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”. When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health’ (vv.9-10).

What has this story got to say to us today? Well, I think we all know that we could use a little help with our faith. All too often we feel like that other man in the gospels, who in a moment of honesty said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). We’d like our faith to be stronger, but we know that it often isn’t. Is there anything we can learn from this man who amazed Jesus by the strength of his faith? Let me point out two things to you.

The first one is humility. I read a story this week about a Christian writer called Dallas Willard who died a year or two ago. Dallas was being interviewed for a Christian magazine, and he was asked, ‘Do you believe in the total depravity of human beings?’ Dallas replied, ‘I believe in sufficient depravity’. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that, when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, “I deserve this”’.

Interestingly enough, the Jewish elders have a different take on this than the centurion. The elders say to Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (vv.4-5). But when the centurion himself sends a message to Jesus, he says, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” – a remarkable thing for a soldier of the occupying army to say to one of the people under his power.

Why this difference? Well, I would suggest to you that we know all about this in our personal lives. How many times have we heard people being described by their family and friends as ‘good’ or ‘kind’ or ‘respectable’, but when we hear them talk about themselves, they’re all too aware of how much they fall short of what they’d like to be. I think that’s true for most of us; we’re very aware of our personal failings. We know all about our skeletons in the closet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, once sent postcards to ten prominent British politicians; on each card he simply printed the words, “All is discovered; flee immediately!” He selected the politicians at random – he had no inside information about their sins and failings – but within twenty-four hours, all ten of them had fled the country!

Well, it’s easy to point a finger at politicians, but what about me? What about you? I know I would be totally mortified if information about the things I feel most guilty about was posted online, or spread on a screen in front of everyone in church today! Am I the only one who feels that way? I doubt it. Christian writer Adrian Plass used to be a heavy smoker; one day someone came up to him outside a church where he was speaking and said, “I see you’re still indulging in that dirty habit”. Adrian didn’t know the man, but he quickly replied, “It’s a lot better than your dirty habit!” The man’s face went white, and he quickly turned away.

So yes, we’re all familiar with the difference between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves; we’re all too aware of our sins and failings. We may even see them as a barrier keeping us away from God. But this man shows us that they aren’t a barrier, and that the way to get to God is to be honest about them. “Lord, I’m not worthy…” No, of course you’re not – neither am I – neither is anyone. According to St. Paul, the good news is that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). Are you a sinner? Then apparently you qualify! As the Apostle John says in his first letter, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:8-9).

So that’s the first thing we learn from this man. Apparently it’s a really important part of faith not to be too puffed up about ourselves, not to be under the illusion that the whole show is being arranged for our benefit. Apparently it’s vital for us to be well aware of our own limitations. The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says, ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable’. In other words, we admitted our desperation; we turned from the illusion that we are worthy and capable, and admitted instead that in a host of ways we are unworthy and powerless.

Desperation, a strong sense of our own helplessness, is an indispensable part of faith. The Norwegian writer Ole Hallesby once wrote, ‘Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray…Your helplessness is your best prayer. It calls from your heart to the heart of God with greater effect than all your uttered pleas…Prayer therefore consists simply in telling God day by day in what ways we feel that we are helpless’.

So here is the first thing we can learn from our centurion: we can learn to be honest with God about our own helplessness. Do you think you can do that?

Secondly, let’s think about the nature of this centurion’s faith. What is faith, according to this story? Faith is a proper understanding of how the authority structure of the universe works. This man was a soldier and so he understood all about authority:

“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another, ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this’, and the slave does it” (v.8).

The way the centurion saw it, God is the ruler of the entire universe, and Jesus was obviously in a special relationship with God, because he had been able to heal all sorts of diseases in Capernaum; the centurion had heard the stories about him, and may even have seen some of his healings himself. It was clear to him that Jesus spoke and acted with the authority of God. The slave’s illness was a serious problem, but the problem was not bigger than the authority of Jesus.

At this point we might feel a little wistful. We might think, “Well, that’s all very well for the centurion, but I’ve never seen Jesus do a miracle. I’ve never seen him lay his hands on someone and do a dramatic healing, and often when I ask him for things, I don’t seem to get them”.

This is true and I don’t want to deny it. But at the same time I want to point out to you that Luke might have had people like us in mind when he wrote this story. Matthew tells this story in his gospel too, but he tells it slightly differently; he gives the impression that the centurion came himself and spoke to Jesus. Very likely he’s just trying to make a long story short and so omits the details about the messengers who went between Jesus and the centurion.

But to Luke it’s very important to include those messengers in the story. It’s very important to include the detail that the centurion himself never actually saw Jesus, because most of Luke’s first readers would not have seen Jesus either! They would have heard the stories about Jesus, and perhaps sensed the touch of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, but they were not themselves eyewitnesses. Luke wanted to make it clear to them that this was not a disadvantage for them. They did not need to be able to see Jesus for Jesus to be able to help them. His authoritative word could still be spoken and could still bring them help and healing.

So Jesus reached out to this humble and honest centurion, and he’s reaching out to us too with the touch of God’s love. He calls us to come to him in humility, acknowledging our shortcomings and limitations and not trying to hide them, but coming to him nonetheless. In the same book I quoted from earlier, Ole Hallesby says that ‘The essence of faith is to come to Christ. Such a faith as this sees its own need, acknowledges its own helplessness, goes to Jesus, tells him just how bad things are and leaves everything with him… You and I can now tell how much faith we need in order to pray. We have faith enough when we in our helplessness turn to Jesus’.

That’s what the centurion did. It was a simple act, and perhaps it was its very simplicity that Jesus found so amazing. There’s a lovely old prayer that’s spoken in the Roman Catholic liturgy at the time of communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed”. I find this a very moving prayer – not just when I’m about to receive communion, but at all times when I realize my need of the help of Jesus. So can I suggest we end with this prayer today?

Let us pray together: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only speak the word, and my soul will be healed. Amen”.

 

Nicole Cliffe: How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life

Nicole CliffeNicole Cliffe tells the story of the work of God in her life that resulted in her moving from atheism to Christianity:

I became a Christian on July 7, 2015, after a very pleasant adult life of firm atheism. I’ve found myself telling “the story” when people ask me about it—slightly tweaked for my audience, of course. When talking to non-theists, I do a lot of shrugging and “Crazy, right? Nothing has changed, though!” When talking to other Christians, it’s more, “Obviously it’s been very beautiful, and I am utterly changed by it.” But the story has gotten a little away from me in the telling.

As an atheist since college, I had already mellowed a bit over the previous two or three years, in the course of running a popular feminist website that publishes thoughtful pieces about religion. Like many atheists (who are generally lovely moral people like my father, who would refuse to enter heaven and instead wait outside with his Miles Davis LPs), I started out snarky and defensive about religion, but eventually came to think it was probably nice for people of faith to have faith. I held to that, even though the idea of a benign deity who created and loved us was obviously nonsense, and all that awaited us beyond the grave was joyful oblivion.

I know that sounds depressing, but I found the idea of life ending after death mildly reassuring in its finality. I had started to meet more people of faith, having moved to Utah from Manhattan, and thought them frequently charming in their sweet delusion. I did not wish to believe. I had no untapped, unanswered yearnings. All was well in the state of Denmark. And then it wasn’t.

Read the rest in Christianity Today magazine here.

‘The Glory of God and the Glory of Humanity’ (a sermon on Psalm 8)

It’s said that the philosopher Immanuel Kant was once attending an astronomy lecture on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The lecturer concluded with these words: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: astronomically speaking, man is the astronomer!”

Humans are the astronomers. Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, for eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

The writer of Psalm 8 felt this longing. I want to explore this psalm with you this morning under two headings: first, the glory of God, and second, the glory of Humanity.

First, then, the Glory of God. In 1952 J.B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God is Too Small. Today I think that many of us still have that problem, a problem we share with our ancient ancestors. In the time of the Bible many people believed in local, territorial gods. The early Hebrew people probably thought of their god in the same way; in fact, he’s often called ‘Yahweh the god of Israel’ in the Old Testament.

We have no right to look down on our ancient ancestors for this; I suspect that many of us have small views of God as well. In Sunday School we were taught about God in simple ways, but often we still speak of God as if he were our personal assistant, dedicated to our well-being and pleasure – a sort of divine butler, who comes to us every morning and says ‘What can I do for you today?’ – or a heavenly pharmacist whose greatest desire is to find the right spiritual aspirin to take our pain away.

The author of Psalm 8 is not content with these puny views of God. Look at verses 1-2 in your pew Bibles.

O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

Our Book of Alternative Services psalter translates the first line ‘O Lord our governor’; the NRSV has ‘O LORD our Sovereign’, with the word ‘LORD’ written in block capitals, to alert us to the fact that the Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’. Actually, in Hebrew this first line combines two names for God: ‘Yahweh Adonai’.

‘Adonai’ is often used for God in the Old Testament: it’s the Hebrew word for ‘lord’, ‘master’, or ‘owner’. ‘Yahweh’ is the name for God that God gave to Moses in Exodus chapter 3. God had called Moses to go down to Egypt and tell the Hebrew slaves that he was going to set them free. Moses said, “If I tell them, ‘God’s going to set you free’, and they ask me, ‘Which god?’, what shall I say?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

‘I am’ in Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’, but it’s a very strange name, one that almost defies definition! “I am who I am! I will be who I will be! So don’t think you can tie me down or figure me out”. In later years the name was often wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’; most modern translations use the word ‘LORD’ in capital letters.

So what does our poet have to say about ‘Yahweh Adonai’? Well, the first thing we see is his appeal to God’s creation as evidence of God’s glory.

‘You have set your glory above the heavens…
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (vv.1b, 3-4).

For many of Israel’s neighbours, and some people in Israel too, ‘the moon and the stars’ were gods themselves. Today, of course, we know what they are, and we also know all about the ‘vast expanse of interstellar space: galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’ (B.A.S Eucharistic Prayer #4). As people of faith in one Creator God, we don’t see these heavenly bodies as rival gods, but neither do we see them as random bits of rock and gas that just appeared out of nowhere by chance. Our poet says they are ‘the work of God’s fingers’; in Psalm 33 the image shifts: ‘By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Psalm 33:6). Yahweh’s fingers, Yahweh’s mouth – we’re using images for God, of course, none of which are entirely adequate! But the point is clear: the vast, mighty heavens above our heads are well within God’s creative capacity!

Today, of course, we know far more about the wonders of creation than our poet did. We know about the enormous distances of space, and the enormous stretches of time too – over fourteen billion years since the universe came into being – approximately 4.5 billion years since our Earth was formed. We know about the wonder and mystery of DNA – the intricacies of the human eye – the instincts that guide birds for thousands of miles on their migrations. We know about the incredibly beautiful creatures that live in the depths of the oceans, where no light penetrates – ‘Who are they beautiful for?’ Philip Yancey asks! We see the grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the forests, the peaceful lakes. For us as believers, all of these things speak to us of our God – of his wisdom, his creative power, his artistic skill, his love of outrageous colour combinations – have you looked at a sunset lately? – and his fondness for extravagant variety.

Glory be to God! God is the creator of all that exists; it was all planned and made by him, and he continues to love and care for it. Our poet sees the stars and planets as praising God, and the little children and infants on earth are joining in as well! We humans can never fully understand him – our minds aren’t big enough to take him in. St. Augustine is reputed to have said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!” As we try to describe God, we’re a bit like people looking up into the sky at the sun – our eyes are almost completely screwed tight shut against the brilliant light, so we can’t see too well to be absolutely clear about what we’re looking at! But we can worship our glorious God, and we can follow his instruction for our lives – including the particular call he has given to human beings as we seek to live for his glory. And this leads us to the second part: the glory of humanity.

In Donald Coggan’s little book about the psalms he has this to say about Psalm 8:

‘In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

‘We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?’

You’ve probably felt this sometimes too; I know I have. I’ve felt it when I was hiking in the mountains; I’ve felt it when I was out on the barren lands of the Arctic, in the immense silence, looking up at the night sky. “Space is so huge, and I’m so small! O God, does my life really matter?’ Or, as verse 4 says, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

What are human beings? The Book of Genesis has an answer:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth”. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:26-27).

What does it mean for humans to be created in the image of God? Well, exactly the same language is used in the fifth chapter of Genesis when Adam has a son of his own: ‘When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’ (Genesis 5:3). So the idea of the ‘image of God’ is a parental metaphor: we’re God’s kids! We parents understand this – for good or for ill, we often see ourselves in our kids. God has made many different kinds of creatures – millions of different species, down through the millennia – but in the fullness of time it was all leading up to the arrival of his children: human beings, made in the image of their Father God.

Now one of the things about kids is this: they don’t just want to be helped or provided for. They want a role! They want to help, to contribute, to be valuable in the household! ‘I want to do it myself!’ And so the Psalm tells us that as a good parent, God doesn’t just care for human beings or provide for them; God also gives them a vital role to play.

What is that role? Part of the answer to that question is found in verses 5-8:

‘Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea’.

This is royal language – to ‘have dominion’. The one who really has dominion over the whole creation is the Creator God, but he chooses to share that dominion with his human children.

So what is it that we’re called to do, exactly? Verses 6-8 talk about us being given ‘dominion over the works of God’s hands’. Older generations tended to see this in terms of taming the earth and subduing it; human life was seen as a life of conflict with the forces of nature. Of course, there are times when we still feel that: when great forest fires rage, for instance, fires so fierce we call them ‘the Beast’! But nowadays we’re also aware of the awesome power of humans over our environment; we’re aware of the possibility that our activity may even be doing something that would have been unthinkable a century ago: changing the climate of the earth. We’re aware that we have created weapons so terrifying in their power that using them might well have lethal consequences, not just for us, but for our planet as well.

And so in our time we’ve begun to notice another strand of this Old Testament teaching. In Genesis 2:15 we read, ‘Yahweh God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’. ‘To keep it’ has the old sense of ‘to guard it’. The Common English Bible has a wonderful translation: ‘to farm it and to take care of it’. Here is our call as human beings to be good stewards of the earth. And in our time, a time of climate change and of massive extinctions of wildlife species, it has become an urgent matter that we respond to this call.

We Christians don’t always think of this as being part of our call to discipleship; it wasn’t such an urgent issue in Jesus’ day. But let’s not forget that in Romans chapter five St. Paul calls Jesus ‘the Second Adam’. In Paul’s imagery, the first Adam failed in his calling and was unfaithful to God. But now Jesus has come, and where the first Adam failed, he has succeeded. So the call given to the first Adam – ‘to till the earth and keep it’ – has also been given to the second Adam, and as we follow Jesus, it’s given to us as well.

This creation call to humankind has never been revoked; we have been placed on the earth to till it and to guard it. God our Creator took great care when he first made this home of ours, and he continues to take great care as life here continues to evolve and develop. If we are made in his image, sharing his dominion over his creation, can we do any less? I think not.

To sum up, then: what is it that makes our lives significant? We humans are frail, and short-lived in terms of the life of our planet; why are we important? Why is your life important? Why is mine?

We’re important because we’re made in God’s image and created for relationship with God. It’s significant that in this psalm God is addressed throughout in the second person: ‘Yahweh our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ Many psalms speak about God in the third person – ‘Come, let us sing to the Lord – but in this psalm we address God directly, because we’re called into relationship with God, as his beloved children.

This psalm calls us to reflect on the wonder and majesty of God. One of the best ways to do this is to get outside, into God’s natural creation. You’ve heard me say before that if we do all our praying indoors, we’ll end up thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. But if we get out into the river valley, or go walking in Elk Island National Park, or hike in the mountains – or even just go out into the country regularly and look up at the night sky, undisturbed by street lights – we’ll learn a different view of God. We’ll walk there with the great Creator, and our hearts will be full of praise for him.

And of course, our lives are important because God has chosen to share his care for creation with us. He’s not going to do it without us! He’s not going to revoke our job description! His rule over creation is not the rule of a despot, a tyrant who exploits the world to feed his own self-centred greed. God rules and cares for his world with love, patience, and skill. And he calls us to learn to do that too.

So maybe, as we think about these things, the question we ought to ask ourselves is this: is God’s natural world a better place because of me, or not? And if the answer is ‘not’, then we’ve got some thinking and praying to do. One day we’re going to be asked to give account for our stewardship. On that day, I don’t think, “I just did what everyone else was doing” will be an acceptable answer.

Let us pray:

O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Today we join in the praise and worship offered to you by all created things. Today we thank you for making us in your image and calling us to be stewards of this wonderful, beautiful earth which you have made. Help us to care for it as you care for it, our God, that we may truly live our lives to your honour and glory. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 8: A preliminary study

I plan to preach on Psalm 8 this coming Sunday. What appears below is not a sermon; it is my study notes as I have been digging into the psalm over the past couple of days. Hopefully it might be helpful for any other preachers who may be thinking of preaching on this psalm.

Text (NRSV, slightly amended according to John Goldingay’s translation[i])

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

  1. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.
  2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
    you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.
  3. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
  4. what are people that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you pay attention to them?
  5. Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honour.
  6. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
  7. all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
  8. the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
  9. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Exegesis
Donald Coggan introduces his comments on this psalm with these words:

This psalm begins and ends with identical words: ‘Lord our sovereign, how glorious is your name throughout the world!’ It is within this framework of adoration that the rest of the psalm is set. God in his majesty is praised in the vastness of the heavens and even babes and infants (v.2) chip in! The God who elicits the praise of his universe is a God of justice, concerned for his creation, and concerned about those who flout his laws (v.2b).[ii]

This psalm holds in tension two amazing truths. On the one hand, there is the wonder and the glory and majesty of the eternal God, Yahweh, whose glory is even higher than the heavens. On the other hand, there is the care that God takes of human beings, who are so small in comparison, and yet have been given dominion over the works of God’s hands. This creates another tension: what are the limits of that dominion?  When does God stop respecting the free will he has given to humans in order to prevent them doing evil to ‘babes and infants’? Where is the bulwark, the barrier, which he has established ‘because of your foes’?

All ‘God-talk’ runs out into mystery in the end. We little humans are tiny in comparison with God, and so we can’t grasp the full wonder and magnificence of his presence and his glory and his love. Neither can we grasp how he balances his respect for free will with his desire to protect those who are vulnerable. We know that God has given us a high calling, crowned us with glory and honour, and made us to rule over the works of his hands. But we also know that we have fallen from our high position by our own pride and sinfulness, and often dispute Yahweh’s ownership of the things he has set under our feet. We can only praise God for his goodness and also pray that he will restrain us from doing irreparable damage to the world he has created and to precious young lives that he has made.

 

 

  1. O Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.

The Hebrew of verse 1 has ‘Yahweh Adonai’, which presents a problem for translators who don’t want to use the name ‘Yahweh’, and prefer to use ‘Lord’ instead, because ‘Adonai’ means ‘lord’! The New Jerusalem Bible has no such scruples and simply translates accurately ‘Yahweh our Lord’.

‘How majestic is your name’; the ‘name’ stands for the person, so ‘how majestic is your name’ is a poetic way of saying ‘how majestic you are in all the earth!’ We’re going to read about Yahweh’s glory being set above the heavens, but this doesn’t mean that he is not present ‘in all the earth’ as well. Indeed, he is above heaven as well as earth; his glory is not ‘in’ the heavens, but ‘above’ it.

We humans sometimes take our pictorial language too seriously. In our minds we may have a renaissance painting of God as an old man with a long beard floating in the sky, and maybe reaching down to us so that his finger touches ours. ‘The heavens’ thus become the home of God; God is one being in the heavens, the Son is another being, the angels are others. In this picture, God is contained by the heavens, in the same way that we humans are contained by the earth.

But the reality is far different, and is well described by the writer of 1 Kings in the words of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built” (1 Kings 8:27).

That author knew a thing or two about God! We talk about inviting God into our hearts; the reality is that it is God who holds us in his heart! ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). God plus a human being doesn’t equal two; God is sometimes called ‘the ground of being’, the one who makes all other beings possible. We cannot possibly adequately imagine him; every picture we create of him, even the picture of Christ, is a partial representation of the reality of God’s greatness and justice and love. 

2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
     you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
     to silence the enemy and the avenger.

John Goldingay points out that babes and infants in the Bible are usually on the receiving end of atrocities; they are the ones who are crying out to God for help. So the sense of this verse might be that this mighty God, who is far above anything we can conceive or imagine, is so concerned for us that he even hears the cries of the least significant of people – babes and infants. And he founds a barricade, a bulwark, to protect them from their foes, who are his foes as well, ‘the enemy and the avenger’: ‘Thus far you may come, and no further’, to use a military metaphor.

Of course, this raises questions in our minds, because we know of many instances where it is not true. Prayers for help have sometimes been answered, but often not: children have been abducted as child soldiers, or sold into sex slavery, or simply been bombed or raped or murdered, or treated cruelly in a whole host of ways. Prayers for their protection have apparently not been successful.

The reality of course is that, for a God who has apparently decided to respect the free will of human beings and allowed us to make decisions that have real consequences, it is not a simple thing to both respect that free will and also protect the innocent victims of it. I personally can’t understand how God can possibly do it. That he manages to do it at all is a mystery to me. It’s a little like a Doctor Who episode, where the Doctor goes back in time and is given the opportunity to remove a great evil, like the Daleks, from the time line of history. But he is always slow to do so, because he is afraid that their removal would also remove the good things that have happened as a consequence of their great evil. Changing time to erase all evil would be a very complicated thing, and maybe we humans would not like all the results of it. So where is the ‘bulwark’? Where exactly in the mind of God is ‘Thus far, and no further’? I don’t think we humans can know that.

Not all commentators agree with Goldingay’s interpretation, however. Rolf Jacobson prefers to see this obscure verse as ‘a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation’. He says,

But v.2bc may also reflect the creation motif, as Nahum Sarna has argued. The enemy and avenger in v.2c are best explained  as a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation. As is well known, the mythic concept of creation as a conflict was commonly held among Israel’s neighbors. Within the Old Testament, vestiges of this mythic idea are found. In Ps. 74:13-14a, 16-17, for example, the psalmist writes,

You split, by your might, the sea;
You broke the heads of the sea monster on the waters.
You shattered the heads of Leviathan;

Yours is the day, also yours is the night;
You fixed the light and the sun.
You set the boundaries of the earth;
summer and winter, you formed them.

It is particularly enlightening that both Psalms 8 and 74 refer to God’s might (‘ōz; cf. Is. 51:9, Ps. 89:11). The term is part of the vocabulary of the creation conflict myth, lending support to the view that the phrase you have established might because of your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger is another reference to the act of creation.[iii]

 

 

3       When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
            the moon and the stars that you have established;
4       what are people that you are mindful of them,
            human beings that you pay attention to them?

Rolf Jacobson comments:

What sort of ecstatic event or experience has caused the psalmist to cry out in praise? The answer is given in the first full stanza of the psalm. As v.3 indicates, the psalmist has wandered outdoors at night, gazed up at the heavenly wonders, and been moved to praise the Creator…[iv]

We have all felt this at one time or another. We’re walking out in the country at night, and we look up at the sky and see the countless numbers of stars spread out across the heavens. We see the vastness of creation, and as 21st century people we are even more aware of just how vast it is, stretching out for millions of light years, millions of galaxies, far vaster than anything we can ever imagine. We also think about the vastness of time: 14 billion years since our universe came into being through the big bang – about 4.5 billion years since our earth was formed. For the great majority of the history of our planet we humans were not even here; we arrived at 3 seconds to midnight. We are tiny in terms of our size, tiny in terms of the length of our existence as a species, and almost infinitely tiny in terms of our individual span of life.

Donald Coggan says,

In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?[v]

But I’m reminded of a well-known anecdote about the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He was attending a lecture by a materialistic astronomer on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The astronomer concluded his lecture with: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: man is the astronomer”.

Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, and eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

Commenting on the psalmist’s mention of ‘the moon and stars that you have established’, Jacobson adds:

Many in Israel and among her neighbours worshipped the heavenly bodies as divine bodies. In this pagan conception, the heavenly orbs were endowed with sentience, power, and identity. Here, they are merely objects that testify to their Creator’s glory – indeed, the psalmist belittles them by calling them the works of your fingers.[vi]

“What are people that you are mindful of them, human beings that you pay attention to them?” The author of Genesis has the answer, of course: human beings are made in the image of God and are of tremendous significance to God. And the psalmist goes on to reflect on the creation story and what it means in terms of humanity’s place in the world.

 

5       Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
           and crowned them with glory and honour.

The familiar translation of the King James Version has ‘For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour’. The NRSV footnote indicates that the Hebrew word for ‘God’ here is ‘elohim’, a plural word, which could be translated ‘God’, ‘gods’, ‘divine beings’, or ‘angels’. The note in the New Oxford Annotated Bible says, ‘God, better, ‘heavenly beings’ (Heb “elohim” [lit. “gods”]. …As the heavenly world is ruled by heavenly beings, so the earthly world, parallel to it, is ruled by earthly beings’.

So we have here an enormous leap in the writer’s imagination. In the previous verse he was stressing the smallness of human beings; compared to the vastness of God’s heavens, they are tiny creatures indeed. But now we see that God assigns them a very different position; they are still lower than the elohim, to be sure, but only ‘a little lower’, and God who has ‘set (his) glory above the heavens’ (v.1b) has also ‘crowned them (humans) with glory and honour’. The glory of God has been shared with his human creations; we are made in God’s image and we reflect God’s glory to the world around us. Small, yes, but far from insignificant!

Jacobson comments:

Far from being insignificant, human beings are but a little lower than heavenly beings. Indeed, the king of creation has made humanity into royalty who are to govern creation responsibly. What is notable about the start of the second stanza is that even though the topic is the worth of human beings, the poet stresses the actions of God. In each of the four lines that comprise verses 5-6, the subject of the verbs is God: You have made, you have crowned, you have made them to rule, and you have set. What gives human beings dignity and value is not anything that humans have done for themselves, but rather something that God has done for them. Our worth comes to us from outside of ourselves (extra nos). That which God confers upon us is the key to our status, not that which comes from inside of us.[vii]

Perhaps a Shakespeare quote is appropriate:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals![viii]

 

6       You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
            you have put all things under their feet,
7       all sheep and oxen,
            and also the beasts of the field,
8       the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
            whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Here there is a conscious reflection of the language of the first creation account in Genesis chapter 1:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”’ (Genesis 1:26).

The one who naturally has dominion over the works of God’s hands is God himself; he has made everything, and everything owes its continued existence to him. Furthermore, as far as we can tell there is absolutely nothing to be gained, in the strict sense, for God to delegate this dominion to his human creations. God is quite capable of looking after everything that he has made; indeed, he could probably do a much better job of it, even if human beings had not fallen into sin! So we can only speculate that it was for our benefit, not for his, that God chose to delegate this job to us. ‘Yahweh God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15 CEB). As we humans developed our skill and ability to take care of God’s good creation, the growth would be ours; we would be growing into maturity as the mature adults God had longed for when he created us. For this reason, it seems, he shared his glory and dominion with us: so that we could grow and become all he dreamed for us to be. Jacobson comments,

Any person who has been around small children may be helped to relate to the message here. Children do not only want to be helped and provided for. Children want to help, to contribute, to be valuable to the household. They want to do things themselves. The powerful message of this psalm is that God does not merely care about human beings, but values them so much that they are given a role in God’s economy.[ix]

‘Whatever passes along the paths of the seas’ (v.8, NRSV) seems a little strange; maybe the meaning is ‘not just the fish, but all the sea creatures that travel through the sea’. It seems unlikely that human commerce on the sea is in view here; that would give the strange meaning that humans have dominion over their own sailors (and why only their sailors?). So I think it’s better to stick to a non-human meaning here: not just fish, but also whales and shellfish and everything that lives and moves in the seas.

Jacobson points out that there is an interesting special movement in the poet’s language here. Through the first six verses of the poem, the poet has included a subtle motif of vertical descent: ‘above the heavens’ (v.1b) > ‘heavens, moon and stars’ (v.3) > ‘but a little lower than heavenly beings’ (v.5a) > ‘crowned them’ (a reference to the head) (v.6a) > ‘hands’ (v.6a) > ‘feet’ (v.6b). Having come down to the earth, the poet now changes direction and moves horizontally outwa4d from human society: ‘Sheep and oxen’ > ‘beasts of the field’ > ‘birds’ > ‘fish’ > ‘whatever passes the paths of the sea’.

The first animals, sheep and oxen, are the domesticated animals that share space in the midst of human society. The trajectory described then proceeds outward until it ends in the sea, which in the ancient near east was conceived as the place of chaos, least hospitable to human society. But that is all the more reason to marvel at the assertion made here in Psalm 8: the fish of the sea and even those mysterious creatures that pass in the depths of the sea are realms of human responsibility! God has placed even these wild and unknown creatures under our care! [x]

 

9       O Yahweh, our lord,
      how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The psalm ends with a repeat. This is the first hymn of praise in the psalter; Psalm 1 is a reflection on the blessedness of the one who meditates on the Torah, and Psalms 2-7 are complaints, both individual and communal, about human injustice, oppression and sinfulness. But this wonderful psalm turns to God in praise, and addresses God directly, in the second person: ‘You’ (other psalms of praise don’t do this; they speak of God in the second person: “O come, let us sing to Yahweh’ (Psalm 95:1). CEB Study Bible says, ‘Psalm 8 is unique among the songs of praise because it addresses God directly; that is, it is actually a prayer of praise’.

Jacobson comments:

Most of the Psalter’s hymns begin with an imperative call to a congregation to praise God. Psalm 8 begins differently – with an exclamation of praise spoken directly to God. The first word out of the psalmist’s mouth is ‘LORD’ (‘Yahweh’). No other hymn begins in this fashion. To begin a psalm with God’s name is a characteristic way for a prayer for help to begin; this connection is appropriate, for as a prayer for help begins with a passionate cry for help, this psalm begins with a similarly passionate cry of praise. The import of this nuance is that Psalm 8 is not just a poem about God. Psalm 8 is a poem about God and us and about our relationship with God.[xi]

It’s also notable that the previous psalm, 7, ends with the words ‘I will give to Yahweh the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ (7:17). A person praying the psalter all the way through will make this commitment – ‘I will…sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ – and then go immediately to ‘O Yahweh our lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ (8:1).

Summary
I think that this psalm is about the glory of God and the glory of humanity. It is a prayer of praise addressed to God, who has set his glory far above earth and heaven; the entire creation, from the moon and the stars in the heavens to the lowliest babies and infants in the earth, joins in praising and worshipping this glorious God. But this glorious King of creation has invited human beings to reign with him; he has given us dominion over all living things. So far from the glory of God diminishing our own glory, it enhances it: this unimaginably great Creator has called created and called us to be his fellow-workers! We are his children, and like a good parent he involves the children in the work of the house!

So what is the psalm calling us to do? It is calling us to worship God as the creator of all, and it is calling us to be faithful in our work as stewards of God’s good creation. Science helps us in both these callings: it gives us a bigger picture of the immensity of the created world (and therefore, by extension, of the greatness of the Creator), and it also gives us a better understanding of the world and how we can care for it, as God has called us to do.

References

[i] John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone Part I, Westminster John Know Press, 2013, p.27.

[ii] Donald Coggan, Psalms 1-72 (The People’s Bible Commentary), Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998, p.38.

[iii] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Eerdmans, 2014, p.123-4.

[iv] Jacobson, p.123.

[v] Coggan, p.38.

[vi] Jacobson, p.123.

[vii] Jacobson p.124.

[viii] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

[ix] Jacobson p.126.

[x] Jacobson pp.125-126.

[xi] Jacobson, p.122.

‘A Double Share of Your Spirit’ (a sermon for Pentecost on 2 Kings 2:9b)

Today is the day of Pentecost, sometimes called the birthday of the Christian Church – the day we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that his disciples would be baptized in the Holy Spirit and would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. We’ve heard the story in our first reading for today: the believers were all together in one place when they heard the sound of a mighty wind that filled the room, and they saw little tongues of flame that rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them that ability.

But I’m not going to preach on this passage this morning. Instead, I want to take you to a rather obscure verse in the Old Testament, because I think it sheds a lot of light on what we’re celebrating today. In the 2nd Book of Kings, we read this request from the prophet Elisha to his old mentor, Elijah, who is about to be taken up into heaven by the Lord: “Please, let me inherit a double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9b).

Old Elijah was the first great prophet of the people of Israel, and he lived about 850 years before Christ. He appeared without warning in 1 Kings chapter 17, during the reign of King Ahab, one of the most wicked kings ever to rule the northern kingdom of Israel. Ahab was married to Jezebel, a Sidonian princess who worked hard to introduce the worship of the Sidonian god Baal in her new country. Ahab went along with her, and together they won over much of the population of Israel to the extraordinary idea that there could be more than one god worshipped by the people of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

So Elijah appeared in 1 Kings 17 and announced to King Ahab, “As Yahweh the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word”. Then Elijah disappeared into the wilderness, and for the next three years there was no rain in Israel.

Eventually after three years Elijah appeared again (I’m summarizing here!), and he challenged the prophets of Baal to a public contest on Mount Carmel. “Let’s each build an altar and lay out a sacrifice”, he said; “and we’ll each pray to our god. Whichever god answers with fire to burn up the sacrifice, we’ll know he’s the true god”. The prophets of Baal agreed (there were 450 of them, by the way), and Elijah invited them to go first. So while all the people were watching, they built an altar, laid out their sacrifice, and began to pray. They prayed and danced and worked themselves up into a frenzy all day long, but no fire came.

Then it was Elijah’s turn to build his altar and lay out his sacrifice. We’re told that he even went so far as to pour buckets of water over it, to make it even more difficult for Yahweh! Then in a very simple prayer he asked God to vindicate his name and show everyone that he was the only true god. Immediately fire from heaven fell and consumed the sacrifice and the stone altar. The people were suitably impressed and all fell down and worshipped Yahweh, the God of Israel. As for the prophets of Baal, they quickly came to a sticky end.

One person who was not impressed was Queen Jezebel, and she sent word to Elijah that she’d make sure he died just like her prophets had died. So Elijah, the great man of faith, ran away. He went to the desert, to Mount Sinai where Moses had received the law of God. There he prayed to Yahweh and complained that there were so few followers of Yahweh left, and that Jezebel was trying to kill him. But God met him in a quiet place on the mountain and told him to go back; “There are more of my followers out there than you think”, he said. He told him to anoint new kings in waiting for Israel and Judah, and he specifically commanded him to take on an apprentice, Elisha son of Shaphat, to learn the prophet-business from him and to take his place when he was gone.

So Elijah did as he was told; he went and found Elisha and, in a symbolic action, “threw his mantle over him” (1 Kings 19:19c). Obviously the mantle symbolized Elijah’s prophetic office, and Elisha understood immediately what was going on; he went home, told his parents he was leaving, and then ‘set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant’ (19:21c).

There are a few more chapters of stories about Elijah in 1 Kings; always he is speaking the word of the Lord in judgement against the idolatry and injustice perpetrated by Ahab and Jezebel. But eventually, in the last chapter of 1 Kings, God’s judgement comes upon Ahab. He goes into battle against the Arameans at a place called Ramoth-Gilead, and even though he has disguised himself so it won’t be obvious who he is, he is struck by a chance arrow, and in the evening he dies. His death is the last major scene in the first book of Kings.

And so we come to 2 Kings chapter 2. Elisha has been following Elijah around as his servant for some years now, and we can assume that he’s been suitably impressed with the old man’s faith and courage. I think we can also safely assume that he’s terrified by the idea that one day the old man will be gone, and he will have to take his place. After all, that’s how we would feel, isn’t it? Imagine yourself in Elisha’s place; you’ve been watching all this time as Elijah boldly prays to God for miracles, fully expecting that God will answer – and God does! Elijah is constantly speaking the word of God to kings without fear – or so it seems to Elisha – and his words always seem to come true! Talk about a big pair of shoes to fill!

So 2 Kings chapter 2 tells us that the time has come when the Lord is going to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind: the old prophet is so great that he won’t even die a normal death! So Elijah and Elisha walk together to the place where this will happen. They come to the Jordan River, and Elijah takes his mantle – the very same mantle that he threw over Elisha’s shoulders when he took him on as an apprentice – and strikes the river with it. The water is parted before him, and the two men walk together on dry ground.

Now at last Elijah speaks to Elisha. He says, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you”. Elisha replies, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit”. Elijah says,

“You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not”. As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The Spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha”. (2 Kings 2:10-15)

And indeed, as the 2nd Book of Kings continues, Elisha does the same sort of things as Elijah, only more so. He speaks the word of God without fear to kings – not only Israelite kings, but foreigners as well. He performs extraordinary miracles, and God protects him in spectacular ways. I haven’t counted myself, but I’ve been told that Elisha is recorded as performing exactly twice as many miracles as Elijah – obviously the writer wants to make the point that God answered the prayer for ‘a double portion of Elijah’s spirit’ in a literal way!

Now, what connects the old story of Elijah and Elisha with the story of Jesus, the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, and us today?

The first thing is the miracles. A lot of people have the impression that the Bible is full of miracle stories from start to finish. Actually, it isn’t. The miracles tend to cluster around specific periods in biblical history. The time of Moses and Joshua is one of those periods; the time of Elijah and Elisha is another. The third period is the time of Jesus and the early apostles. It’s not that miracles are absent at other times; it’s just that they’re rather rare.

Elisha prayed that he would receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, and his prayer was answered: God worked mighty miracles through him, even more so than through his mentor Elijah.  Interestingly, Jesus promises his early followers the same sort of thing. In John 14:12-14 he says,

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it”.

Greater things than Jesus? How can that be possible? It’s possible because he is ‘going to the Father’, and he is going to send the promised Holy Spirit on his followers.

Now, the truth is that we do not see the early Christians performing twice as many miracles as Jesus did. Yes, there were many spectacular healings, but there were also times when they experienced unanswered prayer, just as we do today. But where their works did exceed those of their Master was that the early Christians preached the gospel to far more people than Jesus did. Jesus restricted himself mainly to the people of Israel, but the early Christians obeyed his command and went not only to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, but also to the ends of the earth, and many thousands became believers through their witness.

I’m sure that they found it hard to believe that they would do ‘greater things’ than their master, just as Elisha would have found it hard to believe that he would actually receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit and do greater things than his beloved mentor. And I’m also sure that the early Christians would have had a hard time believing another thing Jesus said to them in John 16:7:

“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you”.

‘The Advocate’, of course, is the Holy Spirit. Now if you’re like me, you might have found yourself thinking from time to time that we modern believers are at a disadvantage. We’ve never seen Jesus in the flesh. We’ve never heard his voice with our physical ears. We’ve never seen any of the miracles he did in the gospels. So aren’t we somehow ‘second class Christians’? Isn’t it actually to our disadvantage that Jesus ‘went away’?

Not at all. After all, if something is being taken away from you, your reaction will depend on what’s being given to take its place. And in our case, the gift of the Holy Spirit is not an inferior gift at all! In fact, in several places in the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit is referred to as ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ – just as Elisha talked about receiving a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. When Jesus walked the earth as a human being, he could only be in one place at a time, so if he was with a group of his followers in Jerusalem, he couldn’t be in Galilee at the same time. But now that the Spirit of Jesus is available to every believer we can all experience the help and support we need from him as we try to do the work he has called us to do.

So today, my sisters and brothers, you and I are probably in the same sort of place Elisha was as he contemplated his beloved mentor being taken from him. How could he possibly carry on Elijah’s work? The old man had such a powerful faith, while Elisha, in contrast, probably felt his own faith was weak. Elijah seemed fearless, while Elisha probably was desperately aware of his own fears. And when we think of carrying on the work Jesus began, we probably have similar feelings.

But remember last week’s gospel reading, and Jesus’ command to his followers: “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). As Jesus spoke these words, was he perhaps thinking about the story of Elijah’s mantle falling from heaven to clothe his successor, Elisha? ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha’, and just as surely the Spirit of Jesus rests on you and me today. So let’s turn from our fears and pray that the Spirit will fill us and give us the gifts we need – and the courage we need – to do the work that Jesus has asked us to do. And then let us go in the power of the Holy Spirit and do even greater things than Jesus did, just as he promised, taking the message of his power and love to people who have not yet come to know him, so that his kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘On Not Losing the Plot’; a sermon on Luke 24:44-53

When I was reading through today’s gospel I found myself thinking of a few sayings we have in the English language, all of which seem to cluster around the same set of meanings. I’m thinking of sayings like, “We seem to be losing sight of the big picture here”, or ‘I can’t seem to see the wood for the trees”. Sometimes we shake our heads and say of someone else, “He seems to have lost the plot!”

Well, there are times when churches can lose the plot, too. We can get caught up in doing ‘the things we’ve always done’ – holding worship services on Sundays, running a Sunday School, baptizing and marrying and burying people, holding Bible study groups, and trying desperately to raise enough money to pay for it – and we can lose sight of why we’re doing these things. What’s the church actually for? Why is it important that it exists? Why does God think it’s important? If we can’t find an answer to that question that goes any further than “Because it’s always existed and we like it that way”, we probably won’t have very much motivation for making sure that our church does the work Jesus called us to do.

So we need to recover the plot – and today’s Gospel for Ascension Day will help us.

Actually, in today’s gospel we’ve come full circle. This is where we started the Easter season six weeks ago – in the upper room, with the risen Jesus and his astonished disciples. You see, Luke’s not too worried about chronology. If all we had was the Gospel according to Luke, we’d assume that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension took place on the same day! He begins chapter 24 with the women coming to the tomb on Easter morning and finding the body gone. Then he tells the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Sunday afternoon, and how Jesus came and walked along with them without them recognizing him. When they got to Emmaus and invited him for supper, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. They ran back to Jerusalem to find the eleven apostles in the upper room, very excited because the risen Lord had apparently appeared to Simon Peter. And while they were still speaking with each other, Jesus appeared to them. “Peace be with you”, he said, and showed them his hands and feet. They couldn’t believe it, until he took a piece of broiled fish and ate it in their presence.

Then comes today’s gospel. Jesus explains to them how everything that has happened to him has been in fulfilment of the scriptures. He commissions them to be his witnesses, and he promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit to equip them for the task ahead of them. And then – on the evening of the same day he rose from the dead – he leads them out to Bethany, blesses them, and is carried up to heaven. You see: the whole forty days of Easter is compressed into a single day!

Did it actually all happen on a single day? Probably not. Luke is also the author of the Book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church. The first chapter overlaps with Luke 24, and in Acts chapter one Luke tells us quite clearly that ‘After his suffering (Jesus) presented himself alive to (his disciples) by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God’ (Acts 1:3). So Luke is well aware of the extended chronology of the Easter season. Nonetheless, in his Gospel he’s giving us the big picture, so he squeezes it all into a single twenty-four-hour period, so that we don’t lose sight of the wood for the trees.

Let’s look closely at what Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel. First, he gives them an overview of what the past was really about. Look at verses 44-46:

Then (Jesus) said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day”.

We’re used to the idea that there are all sorts of prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and so it’s easy for us to lose sight of the fact that until Jesus came along, no one had put two and two together quite like that before. What I mean is that Jesus joined together two strands of Old Testament prophecy that hadn’t been joined before. The one strand was the idea that God was going to send a Messiah – a king like David, who would lead his people in battle, destroy their enemies, and then set up God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth, with its throne in Jerusalem. These prophecies are expressed in passages like Psalm 110:1: ‘Yahweh says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”’. God would give his chosen king the victory over Israel’s enemies, and Israel would be free and safe again, as it was in the days of King David.

The other strand was the idea of God’s Suffering Servant that we find in the second part of the Book of Isaiah, where we run into a mysterious figure who will suffer because of his faithfulness to God – but in some strange way, God will use his suffering to bring healing to his people. Isaiah says,

‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:4-5).

Jewish people today don’t read that text as referring to the Messiah. They never have. They’ve always understood it as referring to the nation of Israel as a whole: somehow the nation has a vocation to be faithful to the Lord through suffering and to help bring healing to the world. But Jesus seems to have initiated a startling new way of reading this passage – a way that led to the entirely unprecedented conclusion that the Messiah would not defeat the Lord’s enemies, but be killed by them. But somehow, through his death, God would win an even greater victory.

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer…” (v.46). Of course he is; that’s what the whole idea of God becoming a human being was all about. This whole world that God created and that God loves is now shot through with human suffering. Some of that suffering is caused by human sinfulness: war and injustice, cruelty and oppression, violence and selfishness and greed and prejudice. But some of it is caused by natural forces: earthquakes and diseases, and natural disasters like this massive forest fire that’s afflicted the folks from Fort McMurray this past week.

How can God be a God of love and hold himself aloof from all this suffering? If he truly loves the world, surely he has to come into it and share in its sufferings. We humans don’t tend to trust people who shout advice to us from the safety of the command post. We trust leaders who know what it’s like to be in the trenches, and who have the scars to prove it. Jesus shows us a God like that.

Luke loves the idea of Jesus reaching out to suffering people, especially the victims of prejudice and injustice. Luke’s gospel stories especially focus on Jesus’ care for the lepers and outcasts, the Gentile soldiers and the tax collectors, the shepherds and children and women – people who were seen as being somehow on a lower level in the society of his day. Those folks are often ‘despised and rejected’ by others, and ‘acquainted with grief’. Jesus enters into their suffering; like them, he is despised and rejected by the leaders and the powerful people of his day. But he is faithful to God in his suffering, even going so far as to forgive those who crucify him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

And God is faithful to Jesus; he vindicates him by raising him from the dead, and our reading today ends with him ascending to heaven, the place of authority. He isn’t ‘going away and leaving us’; he is being honoured by the Father and assuming the title that Peter gives him in Acts 10:36: “He is Lord of all”. This is the big picture of Luke’s gospel: Jesus has come among us and lived out the love of God for all people, including the weak and the outcasts, the poor and the rejected. And in the end, love is stronger than death; the love of God wins the victory over death, and the risen Jesus, the Lord of love, is the true ruler of the world.

So what’s the church called to do? Surely we’re called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We’re not called to separate ourselves from the sin and suffering and messiness of the world. We’re called to get involved in it, reaching out to all people, whether we like them or not, whether we think they deserve it or not. And we’re especially called to reach out to those who are rejected by others. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you who some of those people are today! We’re called to suffer with them, even to die with them if need be, all the while reaching out in love and forgiveness to those who persecute us. And we’re called to believe that God will be faithful to us in our suffering; that he will not abandon us, but one day will raise us up with Jesus.

So Jesus gives his disciples an overview of what the past was really all about – what his life and suffering and death and resurrection really meant in terms of God’s love for all people. And we as a church need to ask ourselves: how are we fulfilling that mandate? How are we intentionally getting involved in the lives of ‘the last, the least, and the lost?’ How are we embracing the pain of the ones God loves, and bringing them a sense of the healing touch of God? How am I doing that? How are you doing it?

But Jesus also looks ahead and gives his disciples a sense of what the future is going to be all about. Look at verses 47-49, where he says,

“…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (the Messiah’s) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”.

They are witnesses. They’ve seen God’s love at work in Jesus, reaching out to everyone – young and old, rich and poor, men and women, sick and healthy, worthy and unworthy. They’ve seen Jesus’ faithfulness and how it led him to the cross. They’ve seen him alive again. Now they’re called to spread that story.

Why? Not because it’s a pretty story, but because it has the power to set people free from guilt and sin. We live in a world that’s not very big on forgiveness. This is a ‘one strike you’re out’ kind of world. Social media is everywhere: if politicians make one mistake, they’re finished. We live in a highly competitive economy: if we don’t measure up, we’ll be fired and replaced. And we live in a world of perfectionistic relationships, where people are quite ready to replace us if we don’t live up to their expectations.

Some people think God is like that, too, but Jesus wants them to know that he’s actually not. Jesus talks about a father running to meet his prodigal son and welcoming him home, even after the son has rejected his father and wasted all his property. Jesus reaches out to guilty and unworthy people and assures them that God forgives them and welcomes them when they come home to him. As we’ve seen, he even goes so far as to forgive those who murder him – demonstrating by his actions that God is a God who loves even his enemies.

We’re often told that we live in a world which has lost its sense of guilt and sin. That may be true, but I’m absolutely sure that the people in our world have not lost their sense of failure, of not measuring up to what’s expected of them. I know I haven’t lost that; have you? I suspect not?

Jesus wants to introduce people everywhere to a God who loves them as they are, who reaches out to them and forgives them. And so ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (Jesus’) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (v.47). Proclaimed by who? By the church, of course. And who is the church? I am. You are. Everyone who follows Jesus and loves him is part of the church. And this is the job Jesus has given us: not just to live his love, but to speak about it too. He doesn’t say that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be demonstrated, but that it is to be ‘proclaimed’. Announced verbally, that is!

So again, we have to ask ourselves, how are we doing at fulfilling this mandate? Witnesses are people who tell others what they have seen and heard and experienced. What good news about Jesus have we experienced, that we would like to share with others? Who have we told about it?

Maybe you think “I know I should do that, but I don’t really know how, and I’m scared of getting it wrong”. Excellent! Then you’re in exactly the right place spiritually to become a better witness! I have two encouraging words for you.

The first is, you can learn to get better at it. It’s not a complicated thing, being a witness. Many people have done it before you. You don’t have to worry about offending people or putting your foot in your mouth; you don’t have to be scared that your friends will think you’re weird. You don’t have to go out onto street corners and preach sermons through bullhorns, if that’s not the temperament God has given you. God can teach you to be a witness in a way that feels natural for you, in a way that fits the personality he has given you. If you’d like to learn more about that, please come and talk to me. Believe me, nothing would delight me more than to help you learn to enjoy being a witness for the Gospel of Jesus!

The second encouraging word is, you’re not alone. God has a gift for you. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (vv.48-49). You know what that promise is about, don’t you? It’s our theme for next Sunday: the coming of the Holy Spirit. Every follower of Jesus has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit is the one who connects us to God and fills us with the love and power of God. And when it comes to this work of being witnesses, the Spirit has a special role to play.

First, the Spirit goes before us, working in the hearts and minds of receptive people, preparing them to receive the good news of Jesus. We saw this two weeks ago in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit worked in the life of Cornelius, the Roman soldier, leading him to turn away from the worship of the old gods of Rome and to long to know and love the one true God, the creator of the world. By the time Peter got to Cornelius, he was more than ready to hear about Jesus. And the Spirit still does that kind of thing today.

Second, the Spirit guides you and me. If we ask him to lead us, and then stay attentive to his voice, he will give us the nudges we need toward the people who are ready to find out more about the good news of Jesus. We saw that last week in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit guided Paul to go across the Bosporus to Philippi, where Lydia was ready to hear the gospel message. Again, the Holy Spirit has not stopped doing this. I’ve had many experiences of being led to the right person at the right time, just when a word of witness was needed. If you ask, the Spirit will guide you.

So, brothers and sisters, we don’t need to lose the plot. We’re about following in Jesus’ footsteps as he reaches out to everyone with the love of God, especially the last, the least, and the lost. We’re called to do that naturally, as a part of our daily lives. We’re about being witnesses, sharing the good news that God forgives us and welcomes us into a loving relationship with him. We’re called to pass that invitation on to others so that they can know God for themselves. And we’re not left alone to do this by ourselves; we’re not smart enough or strong enough for that! No – God wants to pour out his Spirit on al flesh, and that includes us.

That’s the plot: that’s what church is all about. Now let’s make sure these things are front and centre in our life as a congregation, and in our own daily lives as well. Amen.