Big Words: But
Fourth in a series of five
Genesis 3:8-15 // 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 // Mark 3:31-35 // Romans 5:8
Dear friends in Christ,
We are exploring a sermon series in these days called “Big Words.” So very often in the English language the words that have the greatest depth of meaning aren’t the longest and the most complicated but instead are the simplest. Little words, like go, be, with, but, and for. It’s tough to start a sentence without them. In this sermon series, we examine five little words, we ask what they mean and how they help us to express the depth of our theology. Three weeks ago, as we celebrated Pentecost, and we focused on the word “Go,” remembering the mission of God is both near and far. After that, we celebrated Holy Trinity Sunday, remembering the great mystery of who are God is, we focused on the word, “Be.” Last week, we moved into the great green season of Pentecost, the season of growth, as we looked at the word with.
Next week, during Hay Daze weekend, Pastor Griffin will lead us through “For.” Today, we meditate on the word “But.” What does that word mean?
I’ll tell you this: it is unlike the other words that we have encountered. Other words have a great variety of meaning, 10 or more definitions on how you can use a little word. But only really has one meaning.
It is adversative. It contrasts one thing against another. Yet, Nevertheless, however, still, despite that, in spite of, although. That is to say, things have followed a different course than the way your sentence started.
I woke up today happy, but – on the other hand -- Benjamin woke up sad.
I thought I would get to eat a piece of cake, but it was all gone.
I think my sermons are pretty short, but… some people would like them longer.
But again, this word is everywhere. You can’t talk for too long without running into this word again and again. You can’t go more than a few sentences before you have to use it. There is no substitute for the word, “But,” for the concept of reversal.
And dear friends, as many of my confirmands might know, everyone in the Bible has a big but. Adam has a big but. Moses had a big but. David has a big but. You and I have big buts.
Or, to say it in a different way, our Bible is full of reversals. Adam was created perfect, BUT he fell into sin. Moses led the people Israel out of slavery, BUT never got to set foot in the Promised Land. David was a man after God’s own heart, BUT he fell to adultery. Solomon had all the wisdom of the whole world, BUT he erred into foolishness. Gideon was cowardly, BUT God still worked through him to save his people.
And then, we see the greatest reversal of all: Jesus had no sin, but he took on the sin of the whole world. We were dead in our trespasses, but our God sent his son.
Reversal. It happens in each and every one of our stories – yours and mine -- and it happens in different ways. One story for today, three reversals, all three reversals found in our Scripture as well. First, a reversal the way we see our sin, second a real reversal of the course of human history, and third a reversal of the way we see our story.
There is a woman, connected to this congregation, living in Janesville, years before I got here. She looked like she had it all together: a family, a husband, a house, a job, but underneath the surface, things were not what they seemed.
She was addicted to meth. Her husband was addicted too. I don’t know who bit that apple first, but it didn’t take long before the life that they lived was a sham. She would sneak out of the house. He would cover. They started selling things to feed their habit. Things were not as they seemed. As her life, her health, her marriage started falling apart, no one really knew how to help her, and she didn’t even really want help herself, until one day when it all came crashing down. She had a warrant out for her arrest. She had our police chief knocking at her door.
And she said to me, “The day when Chief Ulmen arrested me, he was being my best friend. I didn’t think it at the time, but I look back, and I know.”
Reversal number one is, sometimes the But, the reversal, is in the way we see our sin. This is the reversal we see in our Old Testament reading; that moment when our perception catches up with our reality. That moment when the consequences catch up with our actions. That moment when Adam and Eve, who were absolutely perfect in every way eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they run away from reality. They react by thinking, “If we get away from what we had done, everything would be fine.” Have you ever thought that?
But the kindest thing that their God could do for them – the absolute kindest thing…. Is to be their best friend, to confront their sin, to draw near to them, to be WITH them, as we said last week and to let Adam and Eve see reality.
This gal, her world came crashing down. She saw how low she had gotten. Our church, we helped her out as she limped along. We helped her keep her house for a little bit longer. We helped to do some things, but eventually she left. She went through hard times. She hit rock bottom. She realized that she needed help. She realized she couldn’t do it alone. And her faith was the key to her change.
Point number two is that the reversal, the But, is that God changes reality. We find our Epistle reading. Our God doesn’t just help us see clearly; he changes the course of history. He doesn’t just let us look positively; he makes dead things alive. He brings to nothing the things that are. He uses the things that are not. He loves the unlovable and by his miracle they love him back. He pursues the faithless and by his miracle makes them faithful. He takes the universe on the crash course to annihilation and destruction, and by the most unlikely of means, by the death of the author of life, he brings eternal life and forgiveness to his enemies.
By your baptism, you are born into the story that changes human history. By the Supper, you are eating and drinking the body and blood that stem the tide of hatred and bloodshed, that bring forgiveness that only God can give. By his Word he feeds you that which is of more substance than any other word you could hear.
How do I know this story that started so long before my time here? Well, that gets us to reversal number three. I can tell you, I wouldn’t know it. I wouldn’t know our part in it, except for last year this young woman came on into the office and Pastor Griffin was out – he might’ve been on vacation... She stepped into my office to say thank you. Thank you for the part that Trinity played in her life, whether we knew how things would end or not. Thank you for the part we played as her Lord grabbed ahold of her time and time again.
Thank you. How can a person say thank you after a life of felonies, of jail time, of struggle, of loss? I would submit to you that for the Christian, this question leads us to the final reversal for today, from the Gospel reading. Sometimes, the But is that God bids us look back at the sin and brokenness and failure of our past, and he bids us see it through his eyes.
It’s not that what she had done had changed; it’s that her values changed. It is not that the facts changed; it is that her perspective has become a heavenly perspective. The curse of the serpent in the Garden becomes the first reading of the Gospel. The death of God leads to his resurrection and the resurrection of all flesh.
In the Gospel reading, we hear some hard words, but I’ll tell you this: Jesus’ mother was still his mother, his brothers were still his brothers. That doesn’t change. Think to the end of John’s Gospel, one of Jesus’s last seven words on the cross is to John and to his mother. Woman, this is your son. This is your mother. He says, in overwhelming love, “John, take care of my mom.” He still loved his mom and his brothers – one of his brothers went on to become (traditionally) the writer of the book of James.
But in Mark 3, Jesus is inviting a different perspective. He is reminding us that the kingdom of heaven binds us more deeply than our ties of blood. He is reminding us that the most meaningful connection we have with anyone is that we are sons and daughters of the same Heavenly Father. That all of our life, the good and the bad and everything in between, is ordered to that point, so that men might see our good deeds – and the confession of our faults – and give glory to our Father who is in heaven.
In counseling, as men and women come into our offices, broken by their own sin and broken by the sin of others, the comforting prayer that we can offer them is that it is your God’s firm desire that all the brokenness and emptiness and flaw and failure of our lives can and will in his time be used in your witness to those around you. All of the pain and bitterness and tears that you have now can and will be part of the great backdrop of God’s grace and his mercy through the pain and the storm. We are firm believers that these stories will one day allow you to speak when someone really needs to hear that you’ve been there, and you’ve come out the other side.
The kingdom of heaven is like a large church in a small town, trusting that God is writing their story every week -- in his word, with his sacraments. They mess up just about as much as anyone else messes up, but they have this curious habit of asking for forgiveness and giving, this curious habit of holding onto the hope held out to them in the face of all that would cause them to mourn and doubt, this curious habit of remembering again and again that their savior has conquered all that needs to be conquered, and their lives are in his hands.
Amen and Amen.
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