The Finger of God

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Oxford Lutheran Mission 2012 on 26 August 2012, Trinity 12.
Text: Mark 7:31–37

A recording from Our Saviour is available here.

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum under Creative Commons Licence 3.0

As is well known, the Gospel according to St. Mark is the shortest of the four gospels by quite a margin. Of all the evangelists, Mark is the most economical with words. Where Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount and other long discourses of Jesus, where Luke records long parables and John gives us nearly chapter-long sermons by Jesus, Mark hardly ever quotes anything longer than short snippets and summaries of Jesus’ teaching. He leaves out many of the events and details that we find in the other Gospels, as if in a great hurry to get to the Passion Narrative, the description of Jesus’ death. So breathless is Mark’s account, that one of the most common words in his Gospel is the Greek word e)uqu’s: immediately. Mark uses it 41 times, whereas in the rest of the New Testament it only appears ten times. Jesus was baptised and immediately he was taken to the wilderness by the Spirit. Immediately, Jesus went into the synagogue. Immediately, immediately, immediately. Hurry along.

One effect of this breathlessness is that when Mark does slow down, we need to sit up and pay attention. When he gives us more than the bare bones, when he pauses to dwell on some detail, we need to slow down with him and follow his gaze to that detail. If it wasn’t important, Mark if anyone would pass over it. In Mark’s account of Jesus, it’s not the devil that’s in the detail but the Gospel!

We are before one such moment in this morning’s Gospel selection. Most of this passage is not unlike other healings by Jesus. Mark records several of them in the short space of his Gospel. But unlike at other times, here he draws us in to observe in detail how Jesus heals, what the Lord actually does: Continue reading The Finger of God

The luckiest man alive

A homily preached on 21 November 2010 at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Oxford Lutheran Mission.

The Last Sunday of the Church Year
Proper 29C
Luke 23:27–43

Have you heard of Gladstone Gander? A character in Donald Duck short animations and comic books, he is Donald Duck’s cousin, rival and nemesis all at once. The thing that most infuriates Donald about Gladstone is that he is the luckiest bird alive. He never needs to exert himself or make any effort—he wins every raffle or lottery going, stumbles on wallets dropped by their owners and in every way enjoys improbably good fortune. In the meantime, his luckless cousin spends his days working hard for very little reward—and resenting both his bad fortune and Gladstone’s luck.

They are hardly serious works or profound literature, but the tales of the two feathery cartoon characters genuinely strike a cord with the human condition: both the desire to be ‘lucky’—to get good things without the effort—and the resentment for the fact that there others luckier than ourselves. How else do you explain the National Lottery: people spending their hard-earned money on a competition where you are statistically more likely to die on the way to buying the ticket than you are to win the thing—because who knows, you might be lucky this time. Whether it’s relationships, careers or wealth that we value, I suspect we all would would prefer to be Gladstone Gander rather than Donald Duck. Who wouldn’t want to be the luckiest man or woman alive?

In today’s Gospel, we also encounter two classes of people who fall broadly into these two archetypal categories: those doing well and those down on their luck. At first glance, it seems obvious which people belong to which category. On the one hand, we have Jewish leaders, ordinary people, Roman soldiers. On the other hand, we have three condemned men led to the Place of the Skull to be executed. It’s no hard to spot the unlucky ones, the ones on whom fortune is no longer smiling. At least two of the men had brought their bad luck on themselves. The evangelist describes them as ‘evil-doers’. In the case of Jesus, it’s an even more tragic story: His downfall is the result of the schemes of others, a judicial murder born out of envy and malice.

It’s not for nothing, then, that the women of Jerusalem are moved to tears as they watch the pitiable down-and-out heading towards his grisly end.

And it’s not for nothing that we shed tears for those who walk the same road today, having met with the sharp end of the world’s wrath. Writing to the Romans, Paul quoted the psalmist’s despairing cry:

“ For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

If that was the case in the first century, how much more so today. Christians today in Muslim countries daily risk their lives—and too often, lose them—when they confess Jesus as their Lord, while the rest of the world turns a blind eye. More and more, Christians in Western countries are under pressure from society and government—and sometimes even from church leadership—to abandon the Word of God in exchange for a message that is more palatable to an increasingly pagan society.

And where there isn’t hostility, the Gospel is met by a deafening wall of indifference, as it is among so many of our family members, friends and neighbours. More often than not, we don’t even have the privilege of meeting the enmity of the world, as a sign that the Word and our testimony is having an impact on people. We are not being killed, just ignored.

It can be hard not to feel that the Gospel has run out of steam, run into a brick wall—whether that brick wall is violence of silence. It’s easy to weep for Jesus, on His way to another defeat.

But Jesus did not accept the pity of the women. Not because He was stoical or proud, but because He saw things very differently. It is not He who was to be pitied. Yes, He was about to die an agonising death, and that unjustly. Yes, to the eyes of the witnesses of those events, His very fate was proof positive that He was a failure, another would-be-Messiah who in the end couldn’t save others because He couldn’t even save Himself.

But He needed no pity. He had chosen His path, He was carrying His cross willingly and ultimately by choice. It was the women themselves, all the people of Jerusalem who were to be pitied. Because they, too, would feel God’s wrath as Jesus was feeling it then. In a very short time, Jerusalem would be destroyed, and it would lead to scenes far more atrocious and pitiable than the death of one man on a cross. A city that was chosen by God as His holy habitation had turned its back on Him by rejecting His Son: that would be the real tragedy.

Even as He was mounting the hill of Calvary, Jesus knew how the story would end: in His glorious resurrection, His vindication and the salvation of all who trust in Him. Whereas the end of unbelieving Jerusalem would have no happy end.

The fate of Jerusalem was a local tragedy for a small group of people in the corner of the Roman Empire. But as we heard last week, the destruction of the Holy City had a far greater significance: it was a dress rehearsal for the fate of the fallen, unbelieving world. Just as Jerusalem was destroyed amid terrible scenes, so the world too will be brought to a cataclysmic end when God finally allows His righteous judgement to fall on it. The world will end, and the end will not be happy. Those who now cause Christians to weep because of their unbelief and their hostility will one day weep for themselves as they are forced to acknowledge in the face of His coming in glory: that Jesus Christ is Lord, who has come to judge the living and the dead.

Weep not for Jesus, and weep not for His people—because He is already victorious over death, and so is His body, the Church. Even death cannot defeat the bride of Christ, because death no longer has dominion over us.

Jesus was most definitely not down on His luck on that terrible Good Friday. It looked like a defeat, an ironic proof that He had failed. He saved others, but He cannot save Himself. Whereas it was the greatest victory of all: He saved others by refusing to save Himself. His failure to save Himself wasn’t a failure—it was precisely that that was the means of His victory, the completion and fulfilment of His saving work. His death may have looked like the death of the other two, the criminals on His left and His right, but it was the precise opposite: they came to a nasty end as a reprisal for their evil deeds. He came to a nasty end—but which wasn’t the end—for our evil deeds.

So it wasn’t Jesus, who was having a Donald Duck day outside Jerusalem on Good Friday. That misfortune was yet to be played out, and it would fall on those who seemed to have got their way with Jesus that day, who rejected Him.

But who, you may ask, was the Gladstone Gander of Golgotha? Who would you say was the luckiest man alive that day? Was it Pilate, who had managed to avert a potentially disastrous riot by some careful manoeuvring? The chief priests, who had got rid of their nemesis after all? The soldiers, who had another victim to amuse them in the midst of dreary garrison life, and some new clothes to boot?

None of the above? The luckiest man alive that day was none other than a thief on the cross, a dying criminal suffering at the hands of earthly justice. A man who had got what he deserved and was feeling it. A man who was on death’s door, a man under the curse of law, the curse of society and even the curse of God’s law—for cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree. He had nothing left of his life. He would leave no legacy except his crimes and their just desserts. He had nothing left to offer to anyone, except a bloody spectacle. It was curtains time for him.

Except for one thing: he was crucified next to Jesus, and at death’s door, knew what that meant. He alone recognised in Jesus the means of his salvation. He had nothing he could bring to Jesus, except this plea: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus, remember me—because you can save others. Jesus, remember me—my only hope.

And he discovered that fact, which is also our only hope: that sinners with nothing left to offer who pin their hope on the mercy of Jesus are in the best place in the world. Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. You have placed your faith in me: by faith, you are mine, and I am yours. Wherever Jesus is, there is paradise. In his wretchedness, in the moment of the shipwreck of his life, this criminal was the luckiest man alive: he was in paradise even as he hung on that cross.

He was the first to enter paradise after Good Friday. But he was not the last. Over two thousand years, millions of sinners have heard the same voice of Jesus: today, you shall be with me in paradise. At every baptism, Jesus speaks these saving words. He spoke them to you at your baptism. When your sins assail you, when your conscience troubles you, when you run into the hostility or indifference of the world, Jesus invites you to say after the thief on the cross: Jesus, remember me. And in His word, He repeats to you, again and again: today, you shall be with me in paradise. I did not save myself so that I may save you. In His Supper, you will participate in the feast of His kingdom, reminding you of the fact that you already are in the kingdom.

There is no need to weep for the Church. Even as we grieve the earthly damage wrought on the body of Christ and its individual members, we need not weep as those women wept, bereft and disappointed. Rather, we may rejoice that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. We may rejoice that every Christian who endures suffering for the sake of the cross is thereby displaying the saving cross of Christ in his life. We may even rejoice, as the apostles did, when we share the suffering for the sake of the name of Christ. Because He remembers us—because He has reconciled us to the Father by His blood—because in Him, we have overcome the world. We are the luckiest people alive.

Learn from the crook

Homily for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Oxford Lutheran Mission on 19 September 2010. (Audio from Oxford here)

Proper20
Text: Luke 16:1-15
The Parable of the Shrewd, or Dishonest, Manager.

The teaching of Jesus before us is undoubtedly one that has caused more headache among students of God’s Word than almost any other. According to scholar, preachers have tended to avoid it like the plague, because they don’t know what to do with it. One of the most learned scholars of the New Testament in the twentieth century, the German professor Rudolf Bultmann, declared that it was impossible for modern people to recover the meaning of this parable. Jesus clearly meant something by it, but what that was, we don’t know and will never find out.

The one thing that is straightforward about the parable is why it has caused so much trouble: it tells of a dishonest manager who attempts to save his skin by engaging in even more dishonesty―and at the climax of the parable is praised for his actions by the rich man whose money he has just signed away. Is Jesus really setting up a thief as an example for Christians to follow? No wonder Julian the Apostate, a pagan emperor of Rome held up this parable as one of his arguments against Christianity: it promotes immorality and dishonesty!

However, we do well to keep reminding ourselves that the difficulty with difficult Bible passages is with our understanding, not with God’s Word. The same is true here as well. With careful attention to Jesus’ teaching what we discover is not a promotion of dishonesty, or even an incomprehensible teaching, but a profound exposition of Gospel comfort.

The problem we have with understanding this parable is neatly summed up in the name it has been given. It is usually called the parable of the dishonest manager, or the parable of the shrewd manager, depending on which version of the Bible you are reading. However, not for the first time in this part of Luke’s Gospel, the common name of the parable leads us astray. We already learned last week that the parable of the Lost Sheep is really the parable about the crazy shepherd; the parable of the Lost Coin is really about the extravagance of a woman who found a lost coin; and the parable of the Prodigal Son is really the parable of the Prodigal Father. In other words, these parables are not fundamentally about us or about our dealings toward God, but about someone other than us, about God’s dealings toward us. And so it is with the so-called parable of the shrewd manager.

* * * * *

So we have this manager, in charge of the financial affairs of a rich landowner. Not untypically, the manager had abused his position to squander his master’s possessions. That word had got to the master about the manager’s dishonesty tells us something important about the master: he was clearly a man with friends in the community. Someone cared enough about him to report his manager’s dishonesty to him. So the rich man of the parable was clearly a well-known and well-regarded member of the community, a man with friends and a reputation.

No doubt there were countless such landowners in ancient Palestine, men of importance and means who were at the centres of their communities. However, there is something else about the master that makes him stand out as an unusual member of his class: he is strikingly generous and magnanimous. When he is confronted with the charges against his manager, he has a number of options. He could have the man imprisoned on the spot, placed in a debtors’ prison until he has repaid what has been squandered. Or he could have him and his family sold as slaves to recover the lost possessions. But instead of either of these options that were in his best interests, he is contented merely to sack the man and to bear the losses himself. No wonder he was well regarded in the community!

This is the first thing Jesus wants to teach us this morning about God: about His gratuitous goodness and kindness. It is gratuitous because it is undeserved and unexpected. We all have received countless gifts from God. We confess in the Small Catechism that, through the gift of creation, God

has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.

He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.

He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil.

All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.

This is most certainly true.

What have you done to deserve any of this? What has any sinner done to receive anything good from our holy God? All we have deserved is judgement and condemnation; yet He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5:45). Because our God is by nature a giving God. He gives from Himself good things because He Himself is good. The created gifts of the Father are obscured by our sin and our abuse of those gifts; but that anything good exists at all is so remarkable that if we truly understood the incongruity of such good things happening to such bad people as us, we would not need reminding that it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey such a generously giving God.

* * * * *

Having lost his job, the manager has to do some quick thinking. How is he going to keep body and soul together without an income? Given the cause of his sacking, he is not likely to get another job as manager. He is unfit for physical work, and has too much self-respect to beg. Besides, lacking any disability, his begging wouldn’t be seen as acceptable by others but taken for scrounging. In other words, he recognises that if he is to come out of this disaster with any hope for the future, he will need help from outside himself. He cannot help himself.

His only hope lies in the character of his master―of making best use of his famous magnanimity. And so he springs into action, calling the master’s debtors in and slashes their debts before the word gets out that in fact he no longer has the authority to act on behalf of the master. And when he acts, he does it with some style. The debt reductions he dished out were vast, worth tens of thousands of pounds in today’s money.

You can imagine the reaction of the debtors, the word they spread round the village the moment they left the manager’s office: have you heard what that wonderful landowner has done for me? He has just forgiven me a vast amount of my debt, just like that!

By the time the word about this surprising news gets to the master, he has two choices. He can either spoil the party that’s erupted around him―and by so doing, have the villagers grumble at him rather than admire his generosity. This way he would keep his money, but his reputation and good name would suffer serious harm. Or he can let the debts go, write off large chunks of money but have his already good reputation grow even greater. In the end, there is no choice. And so the dishonest manager wins both ways: he has lost his job, but has just found plenty of people who owe him a debt of gratitude and will look after him. While the master, though badly out of pocket, has his reputation enhanced and cannot but praise the manager for his shrewdness―but not for his dishonesty.

* * * * *

And so it turns out that neither Rudolf Bultmann nor Julian the Apostate had the true measure of Jesus’ teaching. The meaning of this parable is not so obscure after all―but it is not a parable about a dishonest manager. The manager may be dishonest, but he is above all shrewd. And his shrewdness consists in this: he knows the character of his master so well as to turn it to his own advantage, and by doing so he overcomes the fact that he is in a hopeless situation of his own making, lacking the ability to make a new life for himself.

What better example could Jesus have set before us? We are exactly like the devious fellow: dishonest stewards of God’s gifts, daily squandering His good gifts for our bodies and souls in a life of sin and unbelief. We take advantage of His goodness and kindness in providing us with undeserved good things by continually abusing them―or grumbling or despairing when we don’t have them in the measure or form we would like.

But unlike the dishonest manager, we naturally lack both the self-awareness and the shrewdness to realise that there is nothing we can do to make the situation better. There is nothing more natural for sinful humans to do than to try to either dig or beg our way out of the dead-ends of our sin, back into favour with man and God. It sometimes works with man, but with God it’s a hopeless enterprise. It’s only by the grace of God, when His law strikes us smack in the face, that we are confronted by the reality: too weak to dig, and begging won’t work either―for what sympathy could we possibly hoped for from a Holy God on the strength of our pleading!

The only solution lies outside ourselves, in the character of God. If we are to survive the shipwreck of our sin, we can only do so by making best use of ― by manipulating ― God’s incredible grace and mercy. This is the heart of Jesus’ rebuke to His disciples: the dishonest manager ― or to render Jesus’ words literally, the manager of unrighteousness ― knew how to take selfish advantage of the good nature of his master. Yet when it comes to our dealings with God, we either doubt His goodness, or decide to manage without it. How obtuse, how utterly self-defeating! Surely, if the crook in the parable knew what to do, surely God’s children should know much better.

For God has given us His Word, and He has packed His Word full of promise after gracious promise. He hasn’t contented Himself with giving us perishing, earthly gifts to use and abuse. He has given us His Son, in order to wipe away our sin and to undo its effects―to take us back to where He placed us in the first place: in a perfect world in His presence. He invites us today to admit the facts: that in ourselves we are doomed, that we will neither dig nor beg our way out of sin and the effects of sin. We are without hope in ourselves. But He does something far more wonderful still: He invites us to stop trying, to give up on ourselves, and to cast ourselves on His goodness and mercy.

For God so loved the world that He gave― gave me body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, land, animals, all I have, and all that I need to support this body and life, protection against all danger and from all evil. But this is small change and a vanishing joy compared to His greatest gift: that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him―trusts in His promises, relies on what He has done for us despite ourselves―should not perish but have eternal life.

He gave His only Son to the world in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, and 30 years later on the cross outside Jerusalem, and then three days later out of the empty tomb. And he gave His Son to you in your baptism. He gives His only Son to you in the Word of the Gospel. And He gives His only Son to you in the Sacrament of the Son’s body and blood at this altar, in this church, this morning. He gives Him to you so that you may believe and, believing, should not perish but have eternal life.

I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord,
who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death,

that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness,

just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.

This is most certainly true.

Amen.