Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Wise Man

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 2:1-2

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him."

Here is an excerpt from “The Birth”, which was first published in The Magnificent Defeat and later in Secrets in the Dark.

 "'Beware of beautiful strangers,'" said one of the magi-astrologers, the wise men, "'and on Friday avoid travel by water. The sun is moving into the house of Venus, so affairs of the heart will prosper.' We said this to Herod, or something along those lines, and of course it meant next to nothing. To have told him anything of real value, we would have had to spend weeks of study, months, calculating the conjunction of the planets at the precise moment of his birth and at the births of his parents and their parents back to the fourth generation. But Herod knew nothing of this, and he jumped at the nonsense we threw him like a hungry dog and thanked us for it. A lost man, you see, even though he was a king. Neither really a Jew nor really a Roman, he was at home nowhere. And he believed in nothing, neither Olympian Zeus nor the Holy One of Israel, who cannot be named. So he was ready to jump at anything, and he swallowed our little jingle whole. But it could hardly have been more obvious that jingles were the least of what he wanted from us.

'''Go and find me the child,' the king told us, and as he spoke, his fingers trembled so that the emeralds rattled together like teeth. 'Because I want to come and worship him,' he said, and when he said that, his hands were still as death. Death. I ask you, does a man need the stars to tell him that no king has ever yet bowed down to another king? He took us for children, that sly, lost old fox, and so it was like children that we answered him. 'Yes, of course,' we said, and went our way. His hands fluttered to his throat like moths.

"Why did we travel so far to be there when it happened? Why was it not enough just to know the secret without having to be there ourselves to behold it? To this, not even the stars had an answer. The stars said simply that he would be born. It was another voice altogether that said to go—a voice as deep within ourselves as the stars are deep within the sky.

"But why did we go? I could not tell you now, and I could not have told you then, not even as we were in the very process of going. Not that we had no motive, but that we had so many. Curiosity, I suppose: to be wise is to be eternally curious, and we were very wise. We wanted to see for ourselves this One before whom even the stars are said to bow down—to see perhaps if it was really true because even the wise have their doubts. And longing. Longing. Why will a man who is dying of thirst crawl miles across sands as hot as fire at simply the possibility of water? But if we longed to receive, we longed also to give. Why will a man labor and struggle all the days of his life so that in the end he has something to give the one he loves?

 "So finally we got to the place where the star pointed us. It was at night. Very cold. The Innkeeper showed us the way that we did not need to be shown. A harebrained, busy man. The odor of the hay was sweet, and the cattle's breath came out in little puffs of mist. The man and the woman. Between them the king. We did not stay long. Only a few minutes as the dock goes, ten thousand, thousand years. We set our foolish gifts down on the straw and left.

"I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the newborn child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left—giving only our gifts, withholding the rest.

''And now, brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him is the only life?"

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Fullness of Time

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Second Sunday after Christmas Day. Here is today's reading from the book of Ephesians:

Ephesians 1:7-10

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

The following excerpt was originally published in Love Feast and later in The Book of Bebb.

The week after I got back from Princeton was the last one before vacation, and I spent the afternoon of the final day of classes helping straighten up the gym after the Christmas book fair. In the overheated world of Sutton High it is always mid-August and under the bright overhead lights of the gym in their wire cages it is always high noon so that during the hours I spent packing the unsold books back into cartons and lending a hand with the tables, I lost all track of what the weather was up to outside. It was only when I stepped out into the parking lot around five that I discovered that about four inches of snow had fallen, and it was still coming down hard.

The damp linen smell and coarse-woven silence of the snow. The fan-shapes of light from the gym windows and the sight of my car almost unrecognizable as it crouched there lonely and white. To teach school is to catch from the children you teach not only their colds but a little of their childhood too, and I stood there at the gym door with a panic in my stomach no less sweet and wild than Stephen Kulak's, say, at the thought that school was out and vacation had begun, at the unexpected sight of the snow. In the fullness of time, the Scriptural phrase goes, and for a moment or two it was as if, filled to bursting, time had split apart at last, and there at the heart of it was the mystery laid bare. It was time to go home, or the heart of time was home, and I had been there all along without knowing it just the way all that hot, bright afternoon of dismantling the book fair I had been part of a snowfall without knowing it.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Compassion

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the First Sunday after Christmas. Here is this week's reading from the book of Colossians:

Colossians 3:12-15

As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

The following excerpt was originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words.

Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it's like to live inside somebody else's skin.

It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: The Innkeeper

The following Christmas monologue comes from “The Birth”, one of Frederick Buechner’s sermons at the Philip Exeter School and published in Secrets in the Dark.

 THE INNKEEPER

And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke 2:7

"That was a long, long time ago," said the Innkeeper, "and a long, long way away. But the memories of men are also long, and nobody has forgotten anything about my own sad, queer part in it all unless maybe they have forgotten the truth about it. But you can never blame people for forgetting the truth because it is, after all, such a subtle and evasive commodity. In fact, all that distinguishes a truth from a lie may finally be no more than just the flutter of an eyelid or the tone of a voice. If I were to say, 'I BELIEVE!' that would be a lie, but if I were to say, 'I believe...,' that might be the truth. So I do not blame posterity for forgetting the subtleties and making me out to be the black villain of the piece—the heartless one who said, 'No room! No room!' I'll even grant you that a kind of villainy may be part of the truth. But if you want to speak the whole truth, then you will have to call me a villain with a catch in your voice, at least a tremor, a hesitation maybe, with even the glitter of almost a tear in your eye. Because nothing is entirely black, you know. Not even the human heart.

"I speak to you as men of the world," said the Innkeeper. "Not as idealists, but as realists. Do you know what it is like to run an inn—to run a business, a family, to run anything in this world for that matter, even your own life? It is like being lost in a forest of a million trees," said the Innkeeper, "and each tree is a thing to be done. Is there fresh linen on all the beds? Did the children put on their coats before they went out? Has the letter been written, the book read? Is there money enough left in the bank? Today we have food in our bellies and clothes on our backs, but what can we do to make sure that we will have them still tomorrow? A million trees. A million things.

"Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet—just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window—just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle of them all. That whispering in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere—only the wind, the wind...

"Of course I remember very well the evening they arrived. I was working on my accounts and looked up just in time to see the woman coming through the door. She walked in that slow, heavy-footed way that women have in the last months, as though they are walking in a dream or at the bottom of the sea. Her husband stood a little behind her - a tongue-tied, helpless kind of man, I thought. I cannot remember either of them saying anything, although I suppose some words must have passed. But at least it was mostly silence. The clumsy silence of the poor. You know what I mean. It was clear enough what they wanted.

”The stars had come out. I remember the stars perfectly though I don't know why I should, sitting inside as I was. And my wife's cat jumped up onto the table where I was sitting. I had not stood up, of course. There was mainly just silence. Then it happened much in the way that you have heard. I did not lie about there being no room left - there really was none - though perhaps if there had been a room, I might have lied. As much for their sakes as for the sake of the inn. Their kind would have felt more at home in a stable, that's all, and I do not mean that unkindly either. God knows.

"Later that night, when the baby came, I was not there," the Innkeeper said. "I was lost in the forest somewhere, the unenchanted forest of a million trees. Fifteen steps to the cellar, and watch out for your head going down. Firewood to the left. If the fire goes out, the heart freezes. Only the wind, the wind. I speak to you as men of the world. So when the baby came, I was not around, and I saw none of it. As for what I heard—just at that moment itself of birth when nobody turns into somebody—I do not rightly know what I heard.

"But this I do know. My own true love. All your life long, you wait for your own true love to come—we all of us do—our destiny, our joy, our heart's desire. So how am I to say it, gentlemen? When he came, I missed him.

"Pray for me, brothers and sisters. Pray for the Innkeeper. Pray for me, and for us all, my own true love."

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Sacrifice

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Here is this week's reading from the book of Hebrews:

Hebrews 10:1-10 (from The Message)

The old plan was only a hint of the good things in the new plan. Since that old "law plan" wasn't complete in itself, it couldn't complete those who followed it. No matter how many sacrifices were offered year after year, they never added up to a complete solution. If they had, the worshipers would have gone merrily on their way, no longer dragged down by their sins. But instead of removing awareness of sin, when those animal sacrifices were repeated over and over they actually heightened awareness and guilt. The plain fact is that bull and goat blood can't get rid of sin. That is what is meant by this prophecy, put in the mouth of Christ.

You don't want sacrifices and offerings year after year; you've prepared a body for me for a sacrifice.

It's not fragrance and smoke from the altar that whet your appetite.

So I said, "I'm here to do it your way, O God, the way it's described in your Book."
When he said, "You don't want sacrifices and offerings," he was referring to practices according to the old plan. When he added, "I'm here to do it your way," he set aside the first in order to enact the new plan—God's way—by which we are made fit for God by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus.

The following excerpt was originally published in The Faces of Jesus and later in Listening to Your Life.

Throughout all these centuries there were always the prophets thundering out at king and people to remember their ancient mission to be the kingdom of priests that God had called them to be, but each time the prophetic cry went largely unheeded, and each time Israel went down to another defeat with only a remnant of the pious left to be, as Isaiah put it, a green branch growing out of a hewn stump. Remnant led to remnant until finally, in terms of New Testament faith, the remnant became just Jesus and his twelve disciples. When the last of the disciples abandoned him, the remnant became just Jesus himself.

The kingdom of priests was reduced at last to this One, who was both priest and sacrifice, and so it is Israel itself that hangs there on the cross, the suffering one who was "bruised for our iniquities and upon whom was the chastisement that made us whole." Jesus is all Jews and in a sense also the only Jew as he hovers there in the purple sky. It is out of his passion that the Church will be born as the new Israel, a kingdom of priests at last. It is through his intercession that at the end of history the holy city, New Jerusalem, will come down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Trust

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Third Sunday of Advent. Here are this week's readings from Isaiah and Philippians:

Isaiah 12:2

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The following excerpt was originally published in Telling Secrets and later in Listening to Your Life.

Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you—your children's lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends—because that is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are not your business. They are their business. They are God's business because they all have God whether they use the word God or not. Even your own life is not your business. It also is God's business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Where Your Feet Take You, That Is Who You Are

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Luke:

Luke 1:78-79

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The following excerpt is from Buechner's book The Alphabet of Grace:

"The way I understood it," my grandmother says, "you were supposed to devote these talks to religious matters. Incarnation and Grace and Salvation were some of the noble words you used."

I say that feet are very religious too. She says that's what you think.  I say that if you want to know who you are, if you are more than academically interested in that particular mystery, you could do a lot worse than look to your feet for an answer. Introspection in the long run doesn't get you very far because every time you draw back to look at yourself, you are seeing everything except for the part that drew back, and when you draw back to look at the part that drew back to look at yourself, you see again everything except for what you are really looking for. And so on. Since the possibilities for drawing back seem to be infinite, you are, in your quest to see yourself whole, doomed always to see infinitely less than what there will always remain to see. Thus, when you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Waiting

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the First Sunday of Advent. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of Luke:

Luke 21:25-31

Jesus said, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near."

Here are excerpts from Buechner’s sermon on this passage from Secrets in the Dark.

I don't know any other passage in the Gospels that is harder to understand, to feel our way into, to know how to respond to, than these words of Jesus about the Second Coming. He is speaking about the end of the world and about the coming of the Kingdom of God as the climactic last act of history, and he is speaking in words and images as foreign to our whole way of thinking as his subject itself. As the day approaches, there will be a great cosmic upheaval, he says, with signs in the sun and moon and stars, and the powers of the heavens themselves shaken. Is he speaking literally or simply in poetic hyperbole? Does he mean there will be real eclipses and strange comets that have never been seen before, maybe a reordering of the constellations themselves to scrawl some fateful starlit message across the night sky? Or is he speaking symbolically of some upheaval not of the world without but of the world within—an upheaval of the hearts and minds and spirits of the human race? The seas will go wild, he says, and at their roaring the nations will be terrified by whatever it is that is happening or about to happen, and then, most extraordinary of all—as the cause and climax of everything that has preceded it—the Son of Man will appear, he says, in a cloud, "with power and great glory."

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I think we are waiting. That is what is at the heart of it. Even when we don't know that we are waiting, I think we are waiting. Even when we can't find words for what we are waiting for, I think we are waiting. An ancient Advent prayer supplies us with the words. "Give us grace," it says, "that we may cast off the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light." We who live much of the time in the darkness are waiting not just at Advent, but at all times for the advent of light, of that ultimate light that is redemptive and terrifying at the same time. It is redemptive because it puts an end to the darkness, and that is also why it is terrifying, because for so long, for all our lives, the darkness has been home, and because to leave home is always cause for terror.

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So to wait for Christ to come in his fullness is not just a passive thing, a pious, prayerful, churchly thing. On the contrary, to wait for Christ to come in his fullness is above all else to act in Christ's stead as fully as we know how. To wait for Christ is as best we can to be Christ to those who need us to be Christ to them most and to bring them the most we have of Christ's healing and hope because unless we bring it, it may never be brought at all.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Truth

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next we will celebrate The Reign of Christ. Here is this week’s reading from the gospel of John:

John 18:33-38

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

 This week we include two different excerpts relating to this passage. The first is called “Truth”, first published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words.

WHEN JESUS SAYS that he has come to bear witness to the truth, Pilate asks, "What is truth?" (John 18:38). Contrary to the traditional view that his question is cynical, it is possible that he asks it with a lump in his throat. Instead of truth, Pilate has only expedience. His decision to throw Jesus to the wolves is expedient. Pilate views humankind as alone in the universe with nothing but its own courage and ingenuity to see it through. That is enough to choke up anybody.

Pilate asks "What is truth?" and for years there have been politicians, scientists, theologians, philosophers, poets, and so on to tell him. The sound they make is like the sound of crickets chirping.

Jesus doesn't answer Pilate's question. He just stands there. Stands, and stands there.

 Our second excerpt is from Buechner’s sermon called “The Truth of Stories” which first appeared in The Clown in the Belfry and again in Secrets in the Dark.

 Somebody should write a book someday about the silences in Scripture. Maybe somebody already has. "For God alone my soul waits in silence," the psalmist says (62:1), which is the silence of waiting. Or "Be not silent, O God of my praise," which is the silence of the God we wait for (109:1). "And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal," says the book of Revelation, "there was silence in heaven" (8: I)—the silence of creation itself coming to an end and of a new creation about to begin. But the silence that has always most haunted me is the silence of Jesus before Pilate. Pilate asks his famous question, "What is truth?" (John 18:38), and Jesus answers him with a silence that is overwhelming in its eloquence. In case there should be any question as to what that silence meant, on another occasion Jesus put it into words for his disciple Thomas. "I," he said, "I am the truth" (14:6).

Jesus did not say that religion was the truth, or that his own teachings were the truth, or that what people taught about him was the truth, or that the Bible was the truth, or the church, or any system of ethics or theological doctrine. There are individual truths in all of them, we hope and believe, but individual truths were not what Pilate was after, or what you and I are after either, unless I miss my guess. Truths about this or that are a dime a dozen, including religious truths. THE truth is what Pilate is after: the truth about who we are and who God is if there is a God, the truth about life, the truth about death, the truth about truth itself. That is the truth we are all of us after.

It is a truth that can never be put into words because no words can contain it. It is a truth that can never be caught in any doctrine or creed including our own because it will never stay still long enough but is always moving and shifting like air. It is a truth that is always beckoning us in different ways and coming at us from different directions. And I think that is precisely why whenever Jesus tries to put that ultimate and inexpressible truth into words (instead of into silence as he did with Pilate), the form of words he uses is a form that itself moves and shifts and beckons us in different ways and comes at us from different directions. That is to say he tells stories.

Weekly Sermon Illustration: Covenant

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate The Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week’s reading from the book of Hebrews:

Hebrews 10:11-22

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

“This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”

Then he adds:

“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”

And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary. Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

 Here are Buechner’s thoughts about the Old and New Covenants, first published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words.

 OLD TESTAMENT means "Old Covenant,” which means the old agreement that was arrived at between God and Israel at Mt. Sinai with Moses presiding. "I shall be your God and you shall be my people" (Leviticus 26:12) sums it up—that is, if you obey God's commandments, God will love you.

New Testament means "New Covenant,” which means the new agreement that was arrived at by God alone in an upstairs room in Jerusalem with Jesus presiding. Jesus sums it up by raising his wine and saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (1 Corinthians 11:25).

Like Moses, Jesus believed that if you obey God, God will love you, but here he is saying something beyond that. He is saying if you don't obey God, that doesn't mean that God won't love you. It means simply that God's love becomes a suffering love: a love that suffers because it is not reciprocated, a love that suffers because we who are loved suffer and suffer precisely in our failure to reciprocate. By giving us the cup to drink, Jesus is saying that in loving us God "bleeds" for us—not "even though" we don't give a damn, but precisely because we don't. God keeps his part of the covenant whether we keep our part or not; it's just that one way costs him more.

This idea that God loves people whether or not they give a damn isn't new. In the Old Testament book of Hosea, for instance, the prophet portrays God as lashing out at the Israelites for their disobedience and saying that by all rights they should be wiped off the face of the earth, but then adding, "How can I hand you over, O Israel? ... My heart recoils within me.... I will not execute my fierce anger ... for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy" (Hosea 11:8-9).

What is new about the New Covenant, therefore, is not the idea that God loves the world enough to bleed for it, but the claim that here he is actually putting his money where his mouth is. Like a father saying about his sick child, ''I'd do anything to make you well,” God finally calls his own bluff and does it. Jesus Christ is what God does, and the cross where God did it is the central symbol of New Covenant faith.

So what? Does the suffering of the father for the sick child make the sick child well? In the last analysis, we each have to answer for ourselves.

Like the elderly Christ Church don who was heard muttering over his chop at high table, "This mutton is as hard to swallow as the Lamb of God;' there are some who find the whole idea simply unswallowable—just the idea of God, let alone the idea of God in Christ submitting to the cross for love's sake. Yet down through the centuries there have been others—good ones and bad ones, bright ones and stupid ones—who with varying degrees of difficulty have been able to swallow it and have claimed that what they swallowed made the difference between life and death.

Such people would also tend to claim that, whereas to respond to the Old Covenant is to become righteous, to respond to the New Covenant is to become new. The proof, they might add, is in the pudding.