On a dare, I preached on Genesis 29:15-28 last go round – and surprised myself by how well it went. “In the morning, behold, it was Leah!” It’s all about how disappointment works – in marriage, friendship, life, with the church, yourself, God even. Jonathan Sacks notices how Jacob’s trickery earlier in the story boomeranged on him; the medieval rabbis imagined Jacob chiding Leah: “Why did you deceive me, daughter of a deceiver? Didn’t I call out Rachel in the night, and you answered me!” He blunt reply? “Isn’t this how your father cried out Esau, and you answered him?” There’s also the rich irony of Laban’s assertion that “this is not done in our country,” giving the younger before the firstborn – which is exactly how it does wind up happening in the strange world of the Bible.
Romans 8:26-39 is one of the most pastoral, and personally moving texts in all of Scripture. Again, I imagine Paul pacing the room, blurting out his latest thoughts, the scribe scrambling to get it down on parchment, thinking “Wow, this guy is on fire today!” So much here: “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” which is an understatement. So often parishoners in crisis say they don’t know what to pray, or feel they can’t pray. I ask if they’ve done any sighing. Of course they have – and we note how Paul dares to suggest that our “sighs too deep for words” are really the Spirit praying in us. Wow – so encouraging for me as a pastor, and as a guy who sighs a lot. Preaching this requires no illustration, except the shared bonds of humanity.
Verse 28 is one of those verses people love to cite, thinking it means that God is orchestrating everything in your life so you have a happy ending and all goes swimmingly well. But those who quote this aren’t attentive to context. It’s not that God causes everything to work together for my enjoyment. The panta, “all things,” pretty clearly refers to the sufferings of the present time (verse 18). And sunergein, “works together,” more likely connotes “assists,” or “are profitable.” John Calvin explains: “Paul does not mean that all things serve the comfort or convenience or worldly interests of believers; it is obvious that they do not. What he means is that they ‘assist our salvation.’” It’s about the assurance of a future with God, and how present sufferings can’t unravel that relationship with God and with others in the Body of Christ. Scripture does of course have the Genesis 45 and 50 belief – that God uses evil for good. But this is a far cry from God using little circumstances and happenings to make my life fun.
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. In v. 51 Jesus asks, “Have you understood all this?” They answer, “Yes” – but I’m a little puzzled. I’m not sure Jesus’ stories are really supposed to be translatable into some logical proposition. He told stories with vivid images because that was the way he wanted to communicate what he had to say. The vivid image is his message. It’s all mind-boggling. A tee-tiny mustard seed burgeons into a big shrub which can accommodate birds. Treasure hidden: how often do you find such a thing? What’s the nuance? The joy? The finding? That it’s hidden? That it’s precious? That sacrifice is required? The answer is Yes – and more. Pearls, and then the pearl; I love it that the Greek word for pearl is margarita – although I may not share that.
If I make a connection for people, it might be revisiting the ending of the film Good Will Hunting. On the advice of his therapist, Will drops his new job and his settled life and drives off to find the girl. He’s full of joy and hope – but even those he abandons are filled with joy that he’s gone.
And then Rick Lischer, in his great book on the parables, passes along a quirky reading of the hidden treasure from a sermon he stumbled upon:“‘When Jesus was taken from the cross, they hid his body in a tomb and then sealed it lest someone find him. For 3 days, Jesus himself was the Treasure hidden in the field; for 3 days he was the seed lying dormant in the ground. He was a human parable of God’s love and power.’ It is fair to say that neither Jesus nor the author of Matthew’s Gospel intended that to be the meaning of the parable. Nevertheless, the preacher, not schooled in the church’s rich tradition of theological interpretation, has managed to speak in perfect continuity with the tradition and declare something ‘new.’”
My newest book is my favorite (among 20 I've written now!) , fun to have researched, to have written, and to find in print. I hope you might enjoy it - part of the Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Minstering Well series from Baker: Birth: The Mystery of Being Born. Check it out - and thanks in advance for doing so!