Thursday, October 18, 2018

Luke's Legacy

Luke may be the most gifted gospel writer. Sure, people love John and for good reason, but John's gospel account is in a category by itself. There's far less of an attempt by John to recapitulate the same gospel tradition that Mark, Matthew, and Luke all share. Luke, on the other hand, takes what is familiar in Mark and Matthew and still gives us breakthrough passages that can't be found anywhere else: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the rivalry between Mary and Martha, Zachaeus, Emmaus, Bethlehem and the Birth Narrative! Like Matthew and Mark, Luke is a synoptic account, but it's so, so different. There's an artistic flair and a social sympathy that Luke has that comes through in his text.

On Luke's feast day, we read the encounter of Jesus' teaching at the synagogue in his hometown, Luke 4:14-21. In the place where he was brought up, Luke tells us, Jesus stood up to read and was handed the scroll of Isaiah and read, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." Then Jesus sat down, but the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were upon him. Luke tells us that Jesus began to proclaim, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

We know that passage. It's familiar to us. It's familiar enough to have been included in the other synoptic accounts (Matthew 13:53-58; Mark 6:1-6). But Luke is the only one who tells us what Jesus taught. Matthew and Mark recall for us that Jesus taught in the synagogue and that the people were astounded at his teaching because he was Mary and Joseph's son, just a carpenter's boy. Neither mentions Isaiah or the scroll or the message. Neither recalls the fulfillment of God's promise to Israel being completed in the words, life, or ministry of Jesus. But Luke does. Luke wants us to see it. He gives specific content to Jesus' teaching, and he fills out for us a Jesus whose teaching is the upside-down reversal of power in this world.

On St. Luke's day, we could have read the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. We could have heard some of the birth or infancy narrative. But we start here. It's as if the lectionary authors want us to know this particularity of Luke's account. What does that tell us about how the Holy Spirit used Luke to proclaim the good news?

I wonder about us and how the Holy Spirit uses each of us to proclaim the good news. You may not write or preach or teach, so what you proclaim may not be as easy to quote as a blogger or a preacher, but you tell a story of good news. You are a participant in the saving, death-to-life, dark-to-light, despair-to-hope work that God is doing in the world. How is God using you to proclaim that good news in your own particular way? On your feast day, when the community of faith celebrates your life and witness to God's love in Jesus Christ, what passage will we remember? The fundamental story of good news is the same for all of us, but each of us is used by God to tell it in a peculiar way. What's yours? Is yours a story of lost and found? Of rags to riches? Of confusion to clarity? How have you seen what God is doing in your own life, and how does your life tell the story of God's work?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Slow Reading

The problem with Job is that it's sooooo long. Of course, the same thing can be said about Lonesome Dove or a five-day cricket match, both of which are absolutely worth the investment. The Book of Job is a patient, deliberate, poetic exploration of one of life's biggest unanswered questions: why do bad things happen to good people? In short, the answer it gives is three-fold: 1) we don't know, 2) we can't know, and 3) faith means remaining in relationship with God despite not knowing. But we shouldn't take my word for it. We should read the text.

This Sunday is the third week in a row when the RCL Track 1 lesson is from Job. First, we heard part of the story of Job's calamity: the righteous man who lost his children, property, and health because God allowed Satan to attack him to test his faith. Then, we heard Job's bitter response: the demand for an audience with God who eluded him on every side. This week, we hear God's rejection of Job's request: the reminder that God is God and that we are not. Next week, as we finish a four-week lectionary dip into Job, we will hear Job repent of his demand to hold God accountable, acceptance that he cannot know God's ways, and God's restoration of Job's fortune in what must be the most unsatisfying conclusion to a story ever.

This is one of those lectionary escapades that seems doomed to fail from the start. None of these lessons is the whole story. None of them gives us the entire progression that would allow a preacher to lead the congregation into the unanswerable question of why. The first week left us with the sense that God is capricious, and the preacher would need the rest of the story to make sense of it. The following week was the unanswered and seemingly unanswerable cry of a desperate man. That's often true to our experience, but it's hard to preach on that without at least anticipating God's response. This week is God's rejection of Job's questioning, which might allow for a sermon if we build on the last three week, but who's been in church every Sunday this month? It's football season.

This series from Job isn't useless, of course, and a preacher could absolutely tackle it. It's important for a congregation to be reminded that we don't have answers and if our hope depends on getting them we will always come up short. From that, Job will repent--change direction--next week. There's a contemplative acceptance in this process--a welcoming of everything that God will bring our way today, trusting that in God it will be good, remaining with God in the present, in today. Not too long ago, I offered a Bible study on Job, and we read long, long, long passages from the book, but we still didn't get to the whole thing. Otherwise, we would have spent three weeks in a row reading the same poetic part of the story. Sunday's lectionary cuts it up as best it can, but Job is a book to place on your nightstand or take to the beach and pour yourself into. It's hard to read it without interruption, but it's impossible to read it and appreciate it without some sense of continuity. As we listen to it on Sunday, I hope we'll listen with our ears open for the other parts of the story. You can get a sense of Saving Private Ryan by watching the last scene, when Ryan is standing in the cemetery in France, mourning the sacrifice of the colleagues who saved his life, but that's not enough. So, too, with Job.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Be Careful What You Ask For

I have always found it easy to criticize James and John for their raw, unfiltered request for prominence, which we read about in Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:35-45). They were on the road with Jesus and the other disciples. Jesus had just predicted his death and resurrection for the third time, and, as soon as the words got out of the rabbi's mouth, "James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward and said to him, 'Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.'" It's the combination of Jesus having just predicted his death, the disciples ignorance of their master's repeated instruction to receive the kingdom like a child, and the sneaky way that they introduce their request that make me especially dismissive of their brash grasp for power: "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But I suspect this passage isn't given to us merely to teach me not to be like James or John. There's more to learn here than that.

After Jesus engaged the brothers about their willingness to walk the path that Jesus would lead them on, we read about the other disciples' reaction: "When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John." Their reaction is understandable. Like a child stepping away from his siblings to secretly ask a parent for the last cupcake, the action of James and John was galling. It felt like they were trying to secure for themselves the most important, prominent seats in Jesus' glorious reign. But Jesus' reaction to the disciples' anger isn't to chastise the brothers Zebedee in front of their ten companions, thus siding with the complainers, but to use this as a teaching opportunity for them. The text shows us that Jesus called the ten to himself and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you..."

Aren't those who are quick to criticize James and John just as guilty of misunderstanding the way Jesus' reign works? This is where the cupcake-sibling analogy falls apart. Jesus' reign isn't a limited resource, a prize at the end of the journey. Sitting at Jesus' right and left is not a reward reserved for the best disciples. It is a concept that doesn't fit Jesus' reign. If Jesus, the Son of God, will journey to suffering and death, those who follow him do not journey toward a victory seat. They join him in accepting the cup of suffering and baptism into death. If someone wants to sit and Jesus' left and right in God's kingdom, let them want it. Jesus says, "Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all."

So what does Jesus mean when he says, "To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared?" Perhaps this is a foreshadowing of his crucifixion, when, as Mark recalls, "with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left." The word translated for us as "sit" is the Greek word "καθίσαι," which does mean sit but also, in the figurative sense, means to appoint or to fix one's abode or to settle. That means Jesus could have been saying to James and John, "To be situated at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." In one sense, this is an appropriate continuation of his question to the brothers: "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?"

I like that reading, but it's probably not correct. Usually the simpler understanding is the right one, and it's a lot easier to read "sit" as "sit." Regardless, I'm drawn into this text in a fuller way by letting go of my quick criticism of James and John and the resentment and ego that instinctive reaction represents. Why should I care who sits/dwells/is fixed at Jesus' right or left? My place is behind him, following, serving. That's Jesus' invitation.

Monday, October 15, 2018

First and Last

Over the last several weeks, our gospel lessons from Mark have included many references to children. On Sep. 23 (Proper 20), after learning that the disciples had been arguing over which one of them was the greatest, he put a child in their midst and told them that welcoming a child means welcoming him and the one who sent him. The following week, Sep. 30 (Proper 21), still holding a child in his arms, he said, "If you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea." Two Sundays ago, Oct. 7 (Proper 22), after offering a harsh teaching on divorce, Jesus rebukes his disciples for not allowing children to come to him, reminding them that one must receive God's kingdom like a child or else not enter it at all. Yesterday, Oct. 14 (Proper 23), when the disciples were perplexed and astounded at Jesus' teaching on wealth, he affectionately called them children to add a tender, loving tone to his challenging words.

There's more. On Sep. 9 (Proper 18), Jesus said to the Gentile woman, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs," but the woman, undeterred, accepted the framework she had been presented and adopted a posture of deep humility in order to get what she needed. Then, on Sep. 16 (Proper 19), after Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus told his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross in order to follow him. This coming Sunday, Oct. 21 (Proper 24), seemingly having learned nothing over the past several chapters of Mark, James and John will approach Jesus and ask if they can sit at his right and left in his kingdom. Again, Jesus teaches them the upside-down nature of God's reign: "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

I don't recall noticing before how persistent Mark is in showing us that following Jesus means becoming like a child, like a servant, like one who is last among us. I recognize that theme throughout the four-fold gospel, but I don't think the repetition in the lectionary has ever stuck out to me like this. What does that mean?

It means that, in one way or another, we've had two months to hear Jesus inviting us to become like him by becoming servant of all. It means we've had plenty of chances to see that entering the reign of God requires child-like wonder and humility. It means we're getting closer and closer to Jerusalem and won't have many more chances to learn how to follow Jesus before he is taken from us. It means that some counter-cultural, counter-instinctive lessons are harder to learn than others. It means that God is gracious and recognizes that we need to be taught some things again and again and again.

I'm not preaching this week, but I'm in awe of how clear the call to become a servant has resonated in our lessons for the last seven weeks. I'm asking God to open my heart to receive that invitation as fully as it has been presented to me.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What Must I Do?

October 14, 2018 – The 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service is available on St. Paul's YouTube page

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the rich man asked when he came to Jesus and knelt down at his feet. There was something about Jesus—the way he spoke about God and God’s reign, the life of faithfulness that he exhibited—that let the man know that Jesus was someone who could give him the answer he was looking for. Jesus was on his way out of town, and the man wanted to catch him before he was gone, so he ran up and knelt before him and asked, “What must I do?” But, when Jesus looked at the man, he could tell that the man already knew what the answer was.

“You know the commandments,” Jesus said to him: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” This was the sort of list that any rabbi might give. These were the big commandments, the foundational teachings of how God’s people were to live a faithful life. If you will do all of those things, if you will live in peace and charity with other people, you will know what it means to inherit the full and unending life that God bestows upon God’s people. But this man wasn’t asking because he needed a primer in Judaism. He wanted to go further in faithfulness. That’s why he had approached Jesus, the radical rabbi who preached about the immediacy, the nearness, of God’s reign. “Teacher,” the man went on, “I have kept all of these commandments—I have guarded and observed all of them—since I was a child.” The man was desperate for more. God had blessed him. God had made him rich. His faithfulness had led to prosperity, and we wanted to use his wealth to make God’s kingdom come. He just needed to know how.

“Jesus looked at him and loved him,” Mark tells us. That’s crucial. It is essential that we look upon the man with the same loving gaze with which Jesus beheld him. This was agape love, divine love, unconditional love. Jesus looked at him and loved him right where he was, in the midst of his quest for deep faith, and Jesus said to him, “You lack one thing. There’s just one thing that is keeping you out of God’s kingdom, holding you at arm’s length from God’s reign, and it’s your money. Sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor so that you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come and follow me.” The man was “shocked” and filled with grief, Mark tells us, because he had many possessions. He thought his wealth would help God’s kingdom come, but Jesus told him that he had to give it away completely.

Throughout the millennia, God has revealed God’s self as the God of the poor, the God of the powerless, the God of the vulnerable. Our God—the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Rahab and Ruth, of Mary and Joseph and the carpenter’s son Jesus—is revealed not in the wealth of kings or in the power of armies but in the faith of the poor and the gentleness of the meek. In every generation, human beings reject that understanding of who God is and replace God with an idol of their own creation—something shiny, something strong, something impressive. It is easier to believe that God rewards the prosperous and blesses the powerful and prefers those who can make a good life for themselves. It takes deep faith to believe that God prefers the disenfranchised, the destitute, and the despised, but they are the ones to whom and through whom God’s reign has been revealed. We are the ones who pursue a relationship with God by following Jesus, the Crucified One, which means that we proclaim that enduring truth about God, but how will we make that truth known? How will we show a world that is obsessed with power and prosperity who God really is? Jesus gives us the answer: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.”

I spent the first two years of seminary at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, England. When that second year drew to a close, it was time for me to make plans to come back and finish my studies at an American seminary. At the time, Elizabeth and I were engaged to be married, and, as sad as I was to be leaving my friends and colleagues in England, the thought of sharing that last year with my beloved filled me with joy. It also filled me with great fear. How were we going to make it financially? We would be living in northern Virginia, where the cost of living is outrageous. Although Elizabeth would (hopefully) be working as a nurse, I would still be a full-time student, racking up more student loans. In the years ahead of us, how long would it take a newly-ordained preacher and a nurse to get far enough out from underneath that debt to buy a house and start a family? I began to fill out the financial aid application for the coming year, and, when I saw the numbers, things only got worse.

I felt awkward calling the priest at my sending parish to ask him whether our church would be able to provide any financial support in the coming year. I explained that I was filling out the financial aid form and needed to put something in the blank for “parish support.” He was confused. I told him that I was applying for need-based aid and that I needed to provide all of my financial information—projected income, parish and diocesan support, family assets, student debt—and he interrupted me: “What debt? I thought you went to college on a full scholarship.” he said. I told him that I had but explained that seminary in England, where he had encouraged me to go, was very expensive. “Didn’t your parents help you out?” he asked, remembering an earlier conversation that we had had. “Yes,” I told him, “they helped me with part of it, but I had to pay for the rest with student loans.” “How much?” he asked.

I stopped, not knowing how to respond. The silence went on long enough for him to repeat the question: “How much?” I could tell what he had in mind by the tone of his voice. “Did he really mean it?” I asked myself. I told him the number, and he told me that he would call me in a week. Sure enough, a week later, he called to let me know that he had found some members of the parish who had decided to pay the whole amount. “Where should I send the check?” he asked.

In that moment, we instantly became tithers. You’d better believe that when it was time to fill out a pledge card later that fall we didn’t think twice: the first ten percent of our income went right on the card. And, with that overwhelmingly generous gesture, our priest actually gave us two important gifts. First, he gave us the gift of beginning our marriage without financial fear. We didn’t have to wonder how long it would take us to afford having family, to show our parents that we would make it, and for me to prove to Elizabeth that being a preacher’s wife wouldn’t be a life-long financial struggle. But the second gift was far more important and more enduring: by making us intentional stewards of our resources, he set us free from an attitude of scarcity and gave us confidence in God’s abundance. We learned in an instant a lesson that has been repeated every year when we fill out our giving card. Our possessions are not the source of our power, of our security, or of our blessedness. Our strength comes from God. God’s limitless love governs our lives, and stewardship enables us to give ourselves over to God’s work in the world with no strings attached.

Stewardship isn’t about raising money for our church. It isn’t even about funding the ministries that carry out God’s work in the world. Stewardship is about making God’s reign—God’s power, God’s blessing, God’s love—flourish in our lives by freeing ourselves from the tyranny of money, from the idol of scarcity that it creates. Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” At these words, the disciples were astonished and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus said to them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” When we set aside the first ten percent of our income and give it back to God, we reject the belief that we are responsible for our own salvation. When we become good stewards, we sever the crippling bonds that wealth has on our hearts and minds and souls. We reject the false theology of blessedness through riches and faithfulness through prosperity and teach ourselves that God’s reign comes through those who are not imprisoned by money.

This year, when it is time for you to make a commitment to God’s work in the world, don’t write down what you can afford or decide to give a little bit more than you gave last year. Yes, every penny you give will support the transformational work that God is doing in this place. But this is an opportunity to set yourself free from the fruitless belief that what you own is the measure of your true value, that what you have is what matters. What must you do to inherit eternal life? Like the rich man, you must find the path that enables God to reign in your life completely. You cannot be a vessel for God’s power if wealth still has power over you. So sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and following Jesus will lead you to it.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Rich Man: Word Study

My friend and colleague, Seth Olson, had a great post on Monday of ten different ways a preacher might tackle Mark 10:17-31, and I hope you'll take a minute to read it. His post and a careful reading and discussion of Sunday's gospel lesson during our parish's staff meeting have drawn me to a more deliberate study of the words in this passage. Here are some of the things that caught my eye.

Inherit. According to the NRSV, the man asks Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" and the word "inherit" grabbed my attention. Since money will prove to be the thing that gets in the way of this man's participation in God's reign, I found the use of the word "inherit" to be provocative. The Greek verb "κληρονομέω" means to obtain or acquire through inheritance, so it's exactly what it sounds like it means. The interlinear Bible I use reckons it as "I should be tenanting" or "I should be enjoying the allotment of." There's clear language of entitlement and ownership buried in the man's question, which Mark may use to foreshadow the problem that arises later.

Kept. According to the NRSV, after Jesus lists the commandments, the man responds, "I have kept all these since my youth." I wondered what "kept" really means. The Greek word is "φυλάσσω," which, in addition to "keep," means "guard" or "protect" or "observe." Yes, the connotation is the same, but I wonder whether there is something to be said for one who guards the commandments--not fulfills but observes, watches, holds attention to. Does that shift our sometimes presumed understanding of the man as boastful? Maybe his response is merely to say, "I've been shaping my life around these commandments my whole life as fully as my heart and mind will allow." That's faithfulness, isn't it? But, still, something was missing.

Loved. As I wrote about on Monday, Jesus' response to the man is to "love" him, and the word for love in this case is a form of "ἀγαπάω," which is the verb for "agape" or divine love. We cannot miss that Jesus had more than fondness or affection for this man. Jesus looked at him the way God looks at us and loves us, despite our failures, yet always inviting us into transformation. That leaves open the possibility for transformation despite our reluctance to answer God's call completely.

Sell, Own, Money, Possessions, Wealth, Rich, and Treasure. Jesus invites the man, "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," so that he might have "treasure in heaven." Then, after the man goes away grieved "because he had many possessions," Jesus announces to the disciples (and anyone else who will listen), "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" Notice, of course, all of the language of economics. Although one word (NRSV = "money") is actually a Greek preposition ("this"), there is still a strong concentration of the language of money and transaction in this passage. Of particular note is the word for "treasure," which in the Greek is "θησαυρός," which implies a place to store one's future possessions. Where are we storing our future--on earth on in heaven? One cannot miss the focus on money in this passage.

Left. When Peter responds to Jesus, he uses a form of the Greek word "ἀφίημι" to describe what he and the other disciples have done in order to follow Jesus. The English "left" is a good translation, but the implication isn't just a physical or geographic journey but a letting go of, a forsaking of, or a releasing of something. They have let go of their claim on earthly possessions in order to have their sight fixed on Jesus and the coming reign of God, and they, Jesus tells us, will be rewarded.

Persecutions. In the oddest sort of way, Jesus predicts for Peter and the other followers an earthly reward. Those who have left everything for Jesus's sake will "receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields..." but then there's a qualifier: "...fields with persecutions." What does that mean? Literally, the Greek word "διωγμός," which is always translated by the NRSV as "persecution" means "chasing down" as in "hunted." So these riches that the disciples will receive in this life, in this age, will come with a sense of being hunted down, perhaps, as Jesus goes on to say, until "eternal life" is given in the next age.

It's a lot. It's rich. There's much to hear. As Seth wrote, there is an "embarrassment of riches" in this passage, and it makes me want to preach two sermons on it. Hopefully, this kind of careful reading will shape what I write into one sermon because no one wants to hear two.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Governing Principles

When I was a child, a popular offering of prepackaged chicken in the grocery store was the whole fryer. The butchers behind the counter would take a chicken, cut it up into wings, breasts, thighs, and legs and place it in the foam tray and wrap it in plastic wrap. My mother liked the whole fryer because it provided both the right amount of food and the right diversity of offerings for our family. My parents each got a breast, and my brothers and I split up the thighs and legs. Nowadays, my family of six needs a whole fryer with an extra leg or two, but it's harder to find a chicken already cut up. One can easily find split breasts in one package, wings in another, and leg quarters or separated legs and thighs in separate packages, but the eight-piece-in-one isn't as popular as it was. And that's ok with me because I love cutting up my own chicken.

There's something satisfying about placing the edge of a chef's knife right on the joint of leg and thigh and feeling the pieces separate as if an orthopedic surgeon had done the work. More times than not, however, I miss the mark slightly, and I end up hitting bone or cutting into the cartilage. I don't cut up chickens very often, which is probably why I enjoy it so much. When I first met Elizabeth, my father-in-law owned a grocery store. He was a member of the third generation to own the store, and among the many duties he shared with his brother and cousins was to work behind the meat counter. When it's his turn to cut up chicken, he doesn't miss.

The word of God doesn't miss either, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us in Sunday's epistle lesson: "The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow." It's a scary image--God's word piercing, cutting, dividing, separating. I don't know what it means to have a soul separated from spirit, but I can imagine what it is like to separate joints from marrow. To not only divide at the joint but to reach into the marrow one must have a sharp edge--perhaps a band saw. But that's the image the author uses as he invites us to imagine what God's word does. Unfortunately, as it is presented to us in Sunday's reading, we are left with an out-of-context quotation, a verse of scripture that sounds like it belongs on a billboard or in a preacher's wide-ranging sermon about judgment. But that's not what this author has in mind. To see the context, we need to go all the way back and read Hebrews 3 and the first half of Hebrews 4.

After making an argument in last Sunday's lesson that spanned Hebrews 1 & 2 that the Son of God is greater even than the angels and, therefore, must be obeyed, the author extends that point in Hebrews 3 to show that the Son of God is greater even than Moses, the giver of the Law, because, God speaks directly through the Son while God's word is mediated when delivered (through angels, as the tradition goes) to Moses. Using the struggle of Israel in the wilderness as a point of comparison, the author encourages his readers to cling faithfully to the witness and word of God's Son so that, unlike God's people who wandered through the desert on their way from Egypt to Canaan, we might enter directly into God's rest--his way of describing the "Promised Land." At the end of chapter 3, he writes, "For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief."

The author's wish is for the reader to enter straightaway into God's rest. Chapter 4 opens with a rejoinder to hold fast to God's word: "Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest..." The same good and godly opportunity is being presented to God's people. God has promised to bring God's people into God's rest, but, whether that happens now or after an extended period of struggle and distraction, depends on our obedience to God's word. Right before our lesson for Sunday picks up, we see that connection most clearly: "Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs. Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow..." In the ESV, verse 11 and verse 12 are set in the same paragraph as if to imply an even stronger connection between the hope of entering God's rest and the call to obedience to God's word.

That's a long way of saying that Sunday's reading from Hebrews isn't just about the sharp word of God piercing our hearts, exposing our thoughts and intentions. It's about respecting, revering, and obeying the word of God so that we might inherit the promise of rest that God has given us. If you don't respect a sharp knife, it will cut you. The word of God, delivered to Moses and spoken directly to us through God's Son, must govern our lives. It is good news. It offers promise and hope and guidance, but it is more than that, as verse 12 reminds us. It is sharp and discerning and quickening (think Highlander). The sharp power of God's word isn't designed merely to wound us, cut us, or pierce us. It's spoken to us in order that we might enter God's rest. It has the power to cut away fat and leave only what is desired. When we hear this reading on Sunday, I hope we hear the hope that they were designed to convey--not a sappy hope but the sometimes challenging hope of truth.