“God in Control;” Psalm 127:1-5 and Mark 12:38-44; November 11, 2012; FPC Jesup

“God in Control”
Psalm 127:1-5 and Mark 12:38-44
November 11, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Our New Testament passage today is situated on Tuesday of Holy Week. I know that when I read accounts from Holy Week I have a hard time imagining how so much was condensed into this one week of Jesus’ life. I also wonder how he could have concentrated on the every day activities of this week, knowing what was coming. But Jesus knew his life was coming to an end and didn’t want people to have any doubt about God’s will for the current state of things in the country and in the religious community. Standing here on the precipice of joining God in heaven, he had no interest in seeming rationale or being likeable, just in being heard.

Though he had roused the suspicions and anger of the established religious community throughout his ministry, in this final week of his life, his actions became more and more impossible to ignore. On Sunday he rides into town on a donkey, surrounded by crowds, palm branches waving. On Monday he comes into the temple, and turns over tables in anger with the shady commerce happening there. And now it’s Tuesday. Jesus comes to the temple and speaks to a crowd gathered there. In a subversive move, he says to them “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”[1]

I can imagine the scribes of the temple, gathered around the treasury, overhearing this critique of them, their faces red from the anger and embarrassment of being called out by Jesus in this way. How dare Jesus come into this space and slander them?

As if on cue one of these very widows whose houses was being devoured by the scribes enters the scene. And scripture tells us, “She put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”[2] We’re not told much about this woman, just that she is poor, she is and widow, and she came into this temple and gave all that she could, all that she had. In this time a scribe keeping track of each person’s contribution observed the temple treasury. It’s likely that names and monetary amounts were called out at each contribution. Surely her meager offering of two coins was given some strange looks as she offered it up. She might have been giving solely as an offering to God, but chances are good that she was giving due to a debt assessed by a scribe.

I really wish that we were given a follow up report about this woman, because with this gift of everything, I worry about what comes next for her. This painting by James C. Christensen captures the expression I can imagine her having. Light shines on her face, and we can see worry in her eyes. She does not give happily, but she does give obediently. She is at the end of the line, she’s given everything and has nothing left to lose. She is in a frightening position both socially and economically. What will become of her? Scripture never gives us that answer.

This passage is often lauded as an example of sacrificial giving. In stewardship sermons it is often offered as a reason for us to increase our giving. For surely we should increase the percentage we are giving if this woman if giving all that she has. I don’t think that is necessarily the message of our text. Right before Jesus points out the relative enormity of her gift he is admonishing the scribes for their abuse of widows. It is very possible that this text is not a commendation of the widow’s gift, but a condemnation of a system that so brutally oppresses those already oppressed. And in the temple, no less!

In this time, the scribes of the temple were also scribes of the community. They were literate individuals among a largely illiterate population. They charged high fees to help people to write to family members far away, decipher legal contracts, and to manage their estates. Since most everyone else was unable to tell what they were really reading, the actions of the scribes would go unchecked. While they would help widows with their estates, they could also help themselves, creating wealth for themselves and bankruptcy for their clients.[3] Though they read and preached texts of God’s power and might, they had moved farther and farther from acknowledging God’s control of their lives and even the temple itself.

This was directly contradictory with the message of the Hebrew Bible, which has numerous appeals for people to take care of widows in their community. Exodus 22:22 says, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.” Deuteronomy 10:17-18 offers God up as the one who takes care of widows saying, “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome…executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” In Deuteronomy 24:19-21, an command is given for farmers to offer the access of their crops to widows and others in need, “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.” Isaiah 1:17 commands us to,” learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

If you were here in worship last week, you may also notice that these scribes are working in ways opposite to the example of Ruth and Naomi. Ruth disavows the stability of her community in order to support a widow, her mother in law, Naomi, even though there is no foreseeable gain. Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi was an example of sacrificial trust in God’s will and design for her life. The scribes do not trust in God’s ability to take control of their lives and financial situation. They seek to create their own financial stability by taking from the already vulnerable widows.

Reading about the injustices of this community makes me want to turn over some tables too. This was the temple, a place where people could come and be in God’s presence. Religious leaders were still strongly enforcing dietary restrictions and protocol for sacrifices, but when it came to showing love and care for one another, they were falling short. They were concerned about themselves, worried about their own well-being with God, their own financial well-being, but entirely uninterested in caring for the most vulnerable in their community. They had lost focus of God’s heart for God’s people. This is the sort of corruption that makes a bad name for all religious institutions.

In the two verses following our passage we are told: “As he came out of the temple, one of [Jesus’] disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”[4]

All will be thrown down. This makes the situation even less stable for the widow in our story. She comes to this temple and gives all she has to an institution that Jesus says will not last, will be thrown down. “She gives her whole life to something that is corrupt and condemned.”[5]

This seems like a terrible investment. That is until we remember the week that surrounds her actions. This story of Jesus in the temple rabble-rousing and scribe-annoying is the last scene in Jesus’ public ministry. This quick, three-verse mention of a disenfranchised woman, is a preview of what is to come. Jesus is making his way to the cross. He is about to offer his whole life, for something corrupt and condemned: the whole of humanity. [6]

She gives, even though she is giving to an unjust system. She gives, even as her gift is taking away her own life. I’d like to think that she gives with faith that God will see her through to tomorrow, but we simply can’t know the intentions of her heart.

Our Hebrew Bible passage says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”

The temple was built initially as a place for people to worship God, but it became corrupt as rules became more important than grace, and self-promotion became more important than the well being of all.

The entire world was created as a place for all of humankind to be in relationship with God, but it became corrupt as humanity chose knowledge over love, and chose to build high towers rather than reach out to those beside us.

Relationship with God is a choice we make every day. If we truly want to be people of God, we must invite God into our hearts and our intentions as both individuals and as a Christian community. God must be the builder of our relationships and of our churches.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise here, but we are not Jesus, and this church is not in and of itself a means of salvation. Any human institution will inevitably be fallible. But Christ came for the broken, for the fallible. If we remember that God is in control our future is teeming with hope and possibility. Amen.


[1] Mark 12:38-40

[2] Mark 12:44c

[4] Mark 13:1-2

[5] “Mark 12:38-44 Homeletical Perspective.” by Pete Peery in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, Season after Pentecost 2

[6] “Mark 12:38-44 Homeletical Perspective.” by Pete Peery in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4, Season after Pentecost 2

“Saints and Sinners”; John 11:1-45; October 28, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Saints and Sinners”
John 11:1-45
October 28, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Mary and Martha. These two famous sisters are in several stories throughout the Bible. Our first introduction to Mary is when she comes to Jesus gathered together with his disciples, breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint his feet. At this time she is simply introduced as “a woman who was a sinner”. The disciples criticize her for her wastefulness, but Jesus comes to her defense praising Mary for the love that she showed him, and saying, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”[1]

Then there is the story of Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus into their home. Martha buzzes about the kitchen, going about the work of welcoming Jesus. To Martha’s chagrin, Mary sits with Jesus, simply being with him. When Martha comes to Jesus to complain that Mary’s not doing her share, Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part.”[2]

Today we have another account of these sisters. Their brother, Lazarus is ill, and so they send word to Jesus to let him know. Jesus dismisses this news saying, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” We are told in our passage that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but still Jesus stays two days longer where he was.

What sort of love is this showing? Saying that God will be glorified through their brother’s illness? God’s goodness and grace is present in all circumstances, but Jesus’ summation of God’s glory in this situation rings of all of those aphorisms that we tell to grieving people when we’re not sure what to say. “It’s God’s will,” “everything happens for a reason,” and “no use dwelling on it,” can ring hollow to someone in the depth of grief and sadness. The emotions of a grieving person are not to be assumed and can only be truly understood by the person experiencing the grief. I think my seminary professors would say that Jesus is offering terrible pastoral care.

Mary and Martha know that things are not well with their brother and send a message expecting a reply, but Jesus stays away. And then, it’s too late. Lazarus is dead.

Jesus does not show up to support Mary and Martha until Lazarus has been dead for four days. Four days. Throughout scripture God acts on the third day. The third day is the day of redemption, heroic recoveries, second chances. But even that day is past. Hebrew beliefs of death say that the spirit hovers near the body after someone has died for three days. On the fourth day, when the spirit sees the face of the deceased turn color, the spirit leaves, never to return. At that point this existence ended and life was no more.[3] Jesus shows up on the fourth day, the day beyond hope, beyond existence. [4]

Jesus shows up and by all signs of logical reason it is too late.

Martha leaves her home full of mourners and goes out to meet Jesus. She is beside herself, crying out to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”[5]

Later Martha goes to get Mary and Mary echoes the same refrain, kneeling at Jesus’ feet she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”[6]

Mary is weeping, the other Jews with Lazarus’ sisters are weeping, and then we are told that Jesus himself is weeping. Lazarus’ sisters are angry, upset, deeply grieving, but still, they do not lose hope. Martha says, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She affirms Jesus as the Messiah with confidence in his ability to work out God’s will even in the shadow of their brother’s death. Even on this fourth day. Even beyond any logical reason for hope.

It is this hope in the face of hopelessness that creates saints from sinners.

Robert Louis Stevenson is attributed as saying,

“The saints are the sinners who keep on going.”

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. This is a day of acknowledging those Christian brothers and sisters who have come before us. We remember them, we honor their legacy, and we look to their examples as we also seek to follow Christ. In doing so, it’s tempting to look only to their saintliness. We look to the examples of Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and our own saintly family and church members, and we see all the good that they accomplished. We marvel at great legacies of lives well lived. It may be overwhelming to think of all the good that people have done in the name of Christ. As we revere the past, we should be also be aware of the humanness of each of these Christians. Only Christ is sinless, and so we are to remember that each of these people had moments of sinfulness. We acknowledge this not to degrade the legacy of these great Christians, but rather to recognize the possibility in each of our lives. You, too, are called to be a saint.

In the New Testament there are 62 references to “saints.” The Apostle Paul used the word “saints,” used 44 times in reference to the Church on earth. We become saints through our baptism, our acceptance of God’s claim on our lives. We become saintly only through Christ’s power in us. God continues to be incarnate in this world as God works through us. We as God’s people are made holy not because of our behavior, but because of God’s presence among and within us. God desires to be embodied in our lives. God wants us to be saints on this earth. God is not done with us yet. Each step that we take towards this great hope, even in our sinfulness, is a step towards saintliness.

In their grief, Mary and Martha bring Jesus to the tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. Jesus says, “take away the stone.” Martha is hesitant, saying, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Martha asked Jesus to come, practically demanded a miracle and then when he was on the cusp of something great, Martha is afraid of the smell.

“Come out” Jesus says, and Lazarus emerges. In the hopelessness of the tomb, on this hopeless fourth day, Jesus calls out, and life is restored. Hope is restored.

This is such a strange story.

With all of the believers in the history of time, why is Lazarus selected out to be the one revived from death? His story is not a very long one. He is acknowledged as a man of poverty, a man in need of God’s grace, but aside from that, what is his legacy? Why does he get to come back? Why do Mary and Martha get to continue to have their brother in their lives? We are told explicitly that Mary is a sinner. Martha’s voice throughout her stories is loudest when she’s complaining. What have they done to deserve this?

Simply, they had hope that God wasn’t done with them yet. They had hope that God could work beyond their sinfulness, beyond their complaining.

In this strange story of Lazarus we hear a preview of our own fate. Resuscitation from death is not promised, but we are given a different promise, the promise of eternal life beyond this world.

We affirm in the Apostles Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the body. After our own death we, like Lazarus will be called out of the doom and gloom of the grave and called to “come out,” into life everlasting.

This call is not one only to be heard after we are gone from this world. When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we are also being called to “come out,” of the smell of our lives of sinfulness. We are called to live a new life in the world surrounding us, in the bodies we are currently inhabiting, in the lives we are currently living. We are people of second chances. We are people of the resurrection. We are called out of the stench of sin, into a life of everyday sainthood.

I heard that this congregation had programming and sermons a little while back themed around the song, “Live Like You Were Dying.” It is great to hear about how that theme transformed this church, invigorated the mission and the call of each of you. We are indeed called to live a life in the now, a life in perspective of God’s greater call on our lives, lives in constant attention to how God’s will may be enacted through us.

We are also called to live like we have already died. When we accept Christ into our lives we are called to die to sin, so that Christ may be alive in us.

In Romans 6:4-11 we read,

“We have been buried with [Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Lazarus was dead. Martha could smell it. Those mourning with Martha and Mary wept at the reality of it. Lazarus was dead. But then, he wasn’t. This is the great hope we have in Jesus Christ: There is life beyond the sin that contains us. There is life beyond this world that constrains us.

There’s a poem by Victor Hugo that speaks beautifully to this hope. He writes:

Be like the bird, who
Halting in his flight
On limb to slight
Feels it give way beneath him,
Yet sings
Knowing he hath wings

God is not through with us yet. Through Christ, though we are all sinners, we are also still saints. Amen.


[1] Luke 7:36-50, There is debate about the identity of the woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her hair, with many claiming it was Mary Magdalene. John 11:2 identifies Mary as “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.”

[2] Luke 10:38-42

[5] John 11:21

[6] John 11:32