Title: Dark sayings
Date: Sept 28, 2008
Author: Isaac Villegas
Texts: Ex 17:1-7; Ps 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matt 21:23-32
Psalm 78:2, “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.” Or as other translations put it, “I will speak secret saying, mysteries, dark sayings.”
What strange words? When I first read through the lectionary passages, these words captured my attention but I didn’t know what to do with them. But luckily I had some help. As we were waiting to get on our flight, Patty Shelly, a professor at Bethel College, asked me what I was going to preach about this week. I told her about this “dark sayings” stuff, and how I was at a loss for how to turn it into a sermon. So, she gave me a clue: she pointed out how Matthew quotes Psalm 78:2 to explain Jesus’ use of parables—that’s earlier in Matthew, chapter 13:34-35. As I thought through her insight, something clicked. There’s a sense in which Jesus is this mysterious speech of God, Jesus utters the things hidden since the foundation of the world. Jesus is God’s dark sayings. This evening I want to work out what this means for how we use Jesus’ name.
I’ll start with a phone call from a friend I received this past week. We haven’t talked in 9 months. He told me that he just resigned from his job as a pastor. He couldn’t work there any longer. The senior pastor (his boss) was involved in sketchy business practices and basically stole money from the church. The people were devastated. This was a church where many people found they could hear the name of Jesus again and not cringe and run away. My friend’s congregation was a place where the good news of Jesus could be heard as good, as life-giving, as gospel. This church was a place of healing for people who had been damaged from others who used Jesus’ name for selfish ends.
Not any more. Now even my friend is suspicious of what people do and say in the name of Jesus—and he used to work for the church. It seems that we make Christ’s name unholy by what we do. Our lives are the contexts that help us speak the name of Jesus so others can hear that name as good news. Yes, our words matter. But the name of Jesus is a word that takes your whole body to speak—not just your mouth. It takes arms and hands and legs to say the name of Jesus so that others can hear it as good news. Context matters. Our bodies matter. It takes every bit of our lives to speak the name of Jesus.
That’s why, in our passage from Philippians 2, Paul speaks the mysteries of Christ in the context of humility. We let God’s humility transform our lives so that, as he says in verse 10 and 11, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
The name of Jesus is spoken through our lives of humility and service. So, Paul says, Be united in love. Always be humble—“regard others as better than yourself.” Have the mind of Christ—let Jesus direct your lives. The life of Jesus reveals the purpose of our creation; Jesus shows us God’s hidden will for our lives. And in Jesus we find the one “who humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on the cross,” as Paul says in verse 9.
Our whole life speaks, whether we like it or not. The name of Jesus is so mysterious that it takes everything we have to speak it in such a way that others can hear it as good news, as hope, as love. These are secret sayings made public through the life of Jesus, who now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, speaks that same name through our lives. That’s why we are called Christians—people whose lives speak of Christ.
Let your life speak of Christ. Abide in the humility of Jesus, who doesn’t exalt himself over others, but lives as a slave—completely available to serve others. As Paul said in verse 3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”
From what I hear about Mennonite Central Committee, Nathan is going to give himself as a slave for the next 3 years. In a few minutes, we will commission him to go and live and serve and make friends in Bangladesh. His decision is somewhat absurd. He’s giving up a very good job at IBM. He’s leaving behind his friends. (I hope you won’t change your mind!) And he gives up all of this for what?
I bet he doesn’t really know. No one knows. His future there is mysterious. Sure, MCC lists some things they want him to do, and Nate may think he has a handle on what his next 3 years may look like. But everything changes on the ground; nothing goes as expected.
This isn’t just the case for Nathan and his unknown future in Bangladesh. All of us are called to jump into the same murky waters; to stop grasping at the future we want to make for ourselves, and let the current of our baptismal waters lead us further into the life that is truly life, an unimaginable life. You see, at our baptism we let go of our plans for our lives and opened ourselves to the Spirit’s leading. And the rest of our time on earth is how we live into those mysterious waters. As Paul says, we are working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
This is the shape of our salvation—to let go of our lives and let God lead us into the depths of his grace, a well of life so deep that we can’t see the bottom. It’s not a life that we can possess, hold onto, construct, or build with our own hands. That’s not the life of salvation. Like Paul says of Jesus, our place at God’s side is not something to be grasped or achieved or possessed or seized.
Instead, we let go of all our securities and jump into the depths of God’s grace, a well so deep that we can’t see the bottom. This is the darkness that brings unimaginable life.
God works in the darkness, when no future can be predicted. At the foundation of the world, God’s Spirit hovers over the waters of chaos, and there brings unimaginable life. When Pharaoh’s army traps Israel against the Red Sea, the people go straight through the waters to new life on the other side. When Israel is dying of thirst, the Lord “made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers” (Ps 78:16). When Pontius Pilate crucifies the hope of Israel on a cross, God moves in the darkness of the tomb and new life emerges.
These are the dark sayings of Psalm 78, the things hidden from the creation of the world. God is at work. That’s the good news of our Psalm. This is also the good news at the end of our passage from Philippians: “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13). We are entrusted with this message, to make it public. That’s what our Psalmist says: “We will not hide [these dark sayings]… Instead, we will tell of the glorious deeds of the Lord, the wonders God has done.”
But like I said earlier, some words are so mysterious, so profound, that they can only be spoken with our whole bodies, with our entire lives, not just our mouths. That’s what we hope to hear from Nathan’s life as he lets God’s Spirit take him into the hidden depths of God’s grace—that his life may speak the name of Jesus in strange and promising new ways. So, Nate, we hope to receive letters if you have the time.
But those of us who stick around here are not let off the hook. It’s easy to think that we can’t speak good news in profound ways unless we do something radical like Nate. That’s just not true. God speaks through us as well, even though we aren’t always aware of what our lives are saying to others. Our lives are God’s speech—that’s why we are called Christians. We speak of Christ, whether we like it or not.
Our lives have become the dark sayings of God; we are parables with hidden meanings—‘hidden’ because God’s words echo through our lives in ways that we cannot hear. We don’t belong to ourselves. We are like Christ—slaves not owners. God is speaking good news through our lives, and most of the time we are unaware of the meaning of it all, of what is communicated, of what others hear reverberating through out lives.
You have become dark sayings, hidden speech. So live in hope, knowing that, as Paul said, “it is God who is at work in you,” whether you see it or not. The Lord is among us. Look forward to the surprising movements of God’s grace, even in our ordinary stuff of life. Make known the things hidden since the foundation of the world—that God is in love with the world.
But this good news can only be spoken with your whole life, a life where, as Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”