Commentary for January 2, 2011
Click here for today’s readings
Many of us will be dealing with themes of a “fresh start” or a “new beginning” on this first Sunday in a new year. Jeremiah knows something about that; his theme of God’s salvation of the remnant, the survivors, those who have lasted another year and are still hanging in there is both poignant and encouraging.
Verse 9 is such an excellent focal point: “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back. I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.”
That’s kind of what we wish for after all the hustle and bustle of the season just past, isn’t it? Not that we finished Christmas in tears (necessarily), but to feel the strong leadership of God beside the “still waters”…to know that there’s a clear path ahead, one in which we shan’t stumble. That’s a promise worth holding on to.
Lots of nature imagery in this psalm. One can’t help but reflect on the ways it is illustrative of the “storms of life” that blow through from time to time. It may be true that “neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night” keep the courageous postal workers from delivering their precious cargo…but the blast of God’s breath is depicted as an awesome force to be reckoned with here.
The place of refuge is within the gates of Jerusalem — here God grants peace and blesses the children.
How long has God planned for the salvation of the world? The Apostle informs the Ephesians that they (and us) have been chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world.” I kind of like to say it like this: “God decided that we would be loved, redeemed, and chosen before any of us were ever born.” God’s love is never conditional. That’s what I call a theological biggie!
With the Holy Spirit, God seals our salvation…a sort of pledge, or promise. As one of my colleagues said when commenting on this passage, “God never breaks a promise!” True that!
John 1: 1-18
Each of the readings for this Sunday mentions children in some way. Verse 12 of the gospel informs us that God has given us power to become “children of God” by believing in the name of Christ.
Not to reduce our Christian experience to “easy believism” (see Donald McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, p. 85…or you could just click here) — but the gospel certainly is rooted in the experience of faith.
Like children, we are sometimes called simply to trust in God. As Liston Mills, late Professor of Pastoral Care at the Vanderbilt Divinity School used to say: “All of life’s experiences can really be boiled down to one question for the Christian: can God be trusted?” (No reference here…just my personal recollection of class and conversation with the inestimable Dr. Mills.)
Verse 18 sums it up pretty well: since we never have and probably never will actually see God in this lifetime, we are called to trust in Christ, “who is close to the Father’s heart” and has made God known to us.
Can God be trusted?
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
(A version of this sermon appeared originally in Homily Service, Volume 42, Number 1)
In her preface to the American edition of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” (a surprisingly funny book about punctuation) Lynne Truss writes:
By far the oddest and most demoralizing response to my book, however, took place at a bookshop event in Piccadilly. It is a story that, if nothing else, proves the truth of that depressing adage about taking a horse to water. I was signing copies of my book when a rather bedraggled woman came up and said, despairingly, “Oh, I’d love to learn about punctuation.” Spotting a sure thing (you know how it is), I said with a little laugh, “Then this is the book for you, madam!” I believe my pen actually hovered above the dedication page, as I waited for her to tell me her name.
“No, I mean it,” she insisted — as if I had disagreed with her. “I really would love to know how to do it. I mean, I did learn it at school, but I’ve forgotten it now, and it’s awful. I put all my commas in the wrong place, and as for the apostrophe . . .!” I nodded, still smiling. This all seemed familiar enough. “So, shall I sign it to anyone in particular?” I said. “And I’m a teacher,” she went on. “And I’m quite ashamed really, not knowing about grammar and all that; so I’d love to know about punctuation, but the trouble is, there’s just nowhere you can turn, is there?”
This was quite unsettling. She shrugged, defeated, and I hoped she would go away. I said again that the book really did explain many basic things about punctuation; she said again that the basic things of punctuation were exactly what nobody was ever prepared to explain to an adult person. . . .
Throughout the encounter, I kept smiling at her and nodding at the book, but she never took the hint. In the end, thank goodness, she slid away, leaving me to put my coat over my head and scream.
(Eats, Shoots and Leaves Lynne Truss, Gotham Books, 2003, pp. xxi-xxii)
In the NRSV John 1: 10-11 reads: He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
Eugene Patterson in his The Message translation renders verse 10 this way: “He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn’t even notice.”
The world didn’t even notice . . . Lynne Truss can feel John’s pain. Here she has written a book teaching adults how to use punctuation, and a woman with that very book in hand complains that there is nowhere to turn to learn punctuation.
“. . . and yet the world didn’t even notice.” It’s an odd note to sound in the wake of a month-long celebration of the birth of Christ, but the reality is the world has noticed Christmas; there is serious doubt as to whether it has noticed Christ.
Of course, that’s what the church’s witness has been about, ever since the day John the Baptist came out of the wilderness, especially since the day he pointed to Jesus as the Christ. “This is the one of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'” (verse 15) Not many people got it then, not many people get it now.
The problem is, because it is so difficult to get people to see Jesus as the Christ of the Scriptures, we in the church are tempted to make it easier for them by presenting a more visible and palatable Savior. This is not a fault simply of Liberals or Conservatives, Liturgicals or Evangelicals, Mainliners or Mega-churchers; we are all guilty.
We all try to present Christ in a way that is attractive to our slice, our niche of the culture. And some of that is legitimate and necessary. But we must be careful not to bend Jesus out of shape, not to turn the Gospel into something it isn’t. This text is a reminder to us of the unlikeliness of the story of Jesus and of our call as Christians to live it and tell it as it is, trusting God to use our telling to open eyes and change lives.
Not to say the world’s indifference is not frustrating.
About 15 years ago my family moved to Nashville, Tennessee. We lived in a three-room apartment on a hill above a strip mall with a grocery store. Friday night was family night and we went to the grocery to pick out items for home made pizza and desert. This was pre-Blockbuster and the grocery store had a video section where the boys and I picked out the evening’s entertainment.
One night I noticed the World War I epic All Quiet on the Western Front, shelved among the WESTERNS. I helpfully took it off the shelf and carried it up to the bored teen-ager at the counter and said, “It’s an understandable mistake, but this movie isn’t a western. It’s about World War I and should be shelved among the dramas.” And the kid took it from me and said, “Thank you very much,” and placed it under the counter.
The next Friday night, and the next, and the next, this little scenario played itself out. I continued to do it for the somewhat perverse pleasure of it and as an experiment to see if anything ever would change. After 15 months we bought a house and moved away and changed grocery stores and All Quiet on the Western Front was still safely nestled between John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. But I still had hope. Somewhere in that persistent telling, I had hope that somebody heard me about that rather unimportant thing.
And as important as it is for us humans to have hope in God, it is even more important that God has hope in us. Otherwise God would have given up on us long ago. No rainbow after the flood; no covenant with Abraham; no ten plagues and ten commandments and manna and pillars of fire; no judges and prophets and anointed kings; and most of all no Jesus, no Savior.
God acts and the world doesn’t notice. Our calling is to be like John the Baptist and keep on pointing to the mighty acts of God in our lives and in the world and to trust in God’s hope for us.