Pay attention


Pay attention

Lectionary blog for Aug. 18, 2013
Pentecost 13 — Proper 15
Texts: Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

By Delmer Chilton

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the ability to read the signs of the times. To look at obvious things, like dark clouds and south winds and know what they mean. Jesus wonders why people can interpret ordinary stuff, but don’t know how to look at the social world around them and see it for what it is.

When we read this section, we usually assume that Jesus is referring to a dark omen of evil times in the offing. But let me propose that that is not necessarily the case. There are many times when rain in the offing is good news, not bad. Jesus says here nothing about looking out for evil times; he merely suggests that we should pay as much attention to the times as we do the clouds.

In the Jewish tradition, clouds were a sign of God’s presence. When Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, he ascended up a mountain into the clouds where God was hidden from the view of those below. When the children of Israel were crossing the wilderness, they were led by God, by a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. The clouds were signs of God’s presence, God’s protection, God’s provision.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians. In it, the author uses the phrase “a great cloud of witnesses.” He is referring to the long list of folks he has named who trusted God throughout their problems and difficulties.

The first part of our text is about the exodus and coming into the promised land. The second part is about the history of the kingdom of Israel. The third part is about the great trials the Jews faced during the Maccabean period.

Then, in 12:1-2, the author makes his point: We are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses. A “cloud,” not a crowd; the witnesses are a sign to us of what God can do with and for us in the midst of difficulties and hard times.

12:2: “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, …” ties directly to the beginning of the Gospel lesson. Jesus here refers not to some future apocalypse, some deep punishment of the earth that an angry God holds in abeyance until it suits his whim and fancy to unleash it on us. Jesus is talking about himself, telling us that he came to bring good news, but not necessarily “pleasant news.” Jesus says he came to break in order to heal, to burn in order to purify, to tear down in order to build up.

Though the world frequently seeks pleasant news, it has often been the unpleasant duty of the church to bring good news that is sometimes neither gentle nor welcome. People want, in the midst of the misery that their sin and rebellion have brought upon them, to be told that God is love and forgives them. That is pleasant news.

They do not wish to be told that while God loves them as they are, God also loves them too much to let them stay that way. God will always seek to change and transform us more and more from sinners into saints.

It’s a different message than we’re used to hearing, but it is an important one. Jesus came into this world with a message and a mission, both of which were good, but neither of which was pleasant. His message was a message of love, and as we all know, love can be very, very unpleasant at times.

The opposite of love is not hate, not anger, not unpleasantness. The opposite of love is apathy, uncaring, uninvolved, which can often be very quiet and pleasant. Love is noisy and nosy and involved. Love will not let you slip away unchallenged into nice failure.

Jesus had a message of love, a message of love that disturbed families because it called upon people to get beyond roles and to get into relationships; real, messy, involved relationships, and that kind of love is disruptive. It broke what isn’t working in order to create a new family, a new community of truth and love.

Yes, Jesus came with a message and a mission, and his mission was to break the power of the evil one through the power of selfless love. That is the “baptism” he refers to, the thing that must be completed. Jesus came to complete what was begun many years ago in the parting of the Red Sea; Jesus came to rescue God’s people. Jesus came to fight the good fight of faith and to break us free from our bondage to sin, death and the devil. Jesus came to be the capstone, the final chapter, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

So, what is our sign today? What do the clouds hold for us? Life is difficult for many of us. We are living in the midst of tough times. But we are called upon to look to the “great cloud of witnesses” who went before us.

We are not alone, sisters and brothers, and we are not traveling down roads untrod. Where we are, for the most part, others have been before, and they held onto their faith and God held onto them. We are called to look to them as a sign, a seal and a promise of God’s presence, God’s protection and God’s provision; we are to look to them and trust in the hand of God to carry us through.

Amen and amen.

Talk back:

  • Can you remember a time when a “cloud” turned out to be a blessing?
  • What do the clouds hold for you today?

Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

You might also want to read:
Are we there yet?
Hope in God
Struggling to read the signs

Current Stories