Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119: 97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Justification, Redemption and the Hokey Pokey, preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
For some years now I’ve been musing on the theological implications of the Hokey Pokey. You remember the Hokey Pokey? How does it go…you put your right hand in, you put your right hand out, you put your right hand in, and you shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around; that’s what it’s all about.
Depending on who’s calling the song lyrics, this can go on for a LONG time. Elbows, knees, your backside, any and all body parts are eligible to be included in the dance.
I was thinking of the Hokey Pokey this week, because of all the body parts mentioned in the appointed scriptures. Jeremiah, still held captive in Jerusalem, writes to the exiles in Babylon and quotes a proverb: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” This seems to be another way of saying that the consequences of sin are multigenerational. But, says Jeremiah, this is about to change. “No longer shall that proverb be used…no longer shall they teach one another…but all shall know me, and all shall carry my teaching written on their hearts.” God is doing a new thing, and everyone—the tall and the small—shall be restored.
To carry God’s teaching written on the heart is not merely a mental exercise. For the people of Jeremiah’s time, and Jesus’s followers as well, the heart was the seat of the will and the intention. The whole self was symbolized by the heart—the emotional center was located further south, in the bowels. (Charles Wesley, the famous 18th century hymn writer, used that imagery when he wrote a lyric addressing God’s kindness: “To me, to all, thy bowels move.” We don’t sing that anymore. For good reason.)
Lift up your hearts! I will bid you in a few minutes. We lift them to the Lord! you will answer back. There too, the heart represents all that we are, our totality as individuals and as a community. Not just our emotional state at the moment.
When the psalmist sings this morning “How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth” he is using a metaphor (the mouth, eating, as the “consuming” of God’s teaching ) describing the antidote to that nerve-jangling sour experience Jeremiah mentions, of the children’s teeth set on edge. He describes his own behavior: “I restrain my feet from every evil way/ that I may keep your word.”
And yet in the second letter to Timothy we hear of feet that go wandering away to strange teachings. We hear of “itching ears” that want to hear comfortable and easy and soothing words, rather than the message that God intends to send. Never mind them Timothy; you have your work before you. And you have the tools with which to do it—from childhood, when Mother and Grandmother told you the stories of faith and prepared you for this ministry which you now have taken on. Never mind the scoffers; you know what to do. You know the message you are bringing.
Jesus and his friends are walking the way to Jerusalem. Their feet, and their hearts, are pointed in a particular direction. And it’s getting a little bit scary—they know it’s not going to be easy. Jesus tells them a parable which, Luke says, is “about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” But I’m not sure that’s really what it’s about at all. The story of the unjust judge, as it’s often called, is troublesome—mostly because it makes us reevaluate who we think God is. The language of judges and judgment is alarming to many of us, because we’ve been taught to believe, in our heart of hearts, that for whatever reason we’re going to come up short. That we are lacking something, somehow. That we are not good enough.
This judge in the story is apparently not very good either—he would be properly disbarred by the Jerusalem judicial review board. At the least, we know he’s not interested in proving himself to anyone—God or humanity. But he is an important person in the culture. Some Body.
A widow comes to him. We’ve been talking about Bodies—and here is the No Body to beat all. No husband, no children, no means of support…she is as good as dead in that time and place. She’s not quite as far over the edge as the ten lepers in Samaria, but pretty close. And she keeps bugging him, day in and day out. Give me a favorable ruling against my adversary.
She has no merit to her case, no real grounds for action—and the judge first refuses to have anything to do with it. But finally he’s so tired of listening to her, he throws up his hands and says “Okay, enough, you win!” I will give you justice—actually, I will JUSTIFY YOU—before your adversaries.
I will justify you. You have no merit to your case, you’re wearing me out talking, you’re as good as dead—I will justify you. The unjust judge doesn’t care to be known for his fairness in making judgments—he gives justification even to the unworthy, the frivolous, and the dead. He is indiscriminate in his awarding vindication to those who do not deserve it in the slightest.
Jesus is on his way to the cross. To the place of death, and destruction, and the loss of everything—and there he will justify us all. The tall and the small, the great and the miniscule, and especially the least, the last, the lost and the dead. Regardless of merit, regardless of deserving: his unjust death in a place of degradation and rejection will become the instrument of justification—rightwising, the restoration of right relationship—for all of us.
At the end of the Hokey Pokey, however long it has gone on, and however many strange body parts have been involved, the final verse of the song calls the dancers to “put your whole self in, and shake it all about, and turn yourself around…” All the testing and trying and half-attempts now come together—everyone in, all that you have to bring, now. Heart and mind and soul and body. Jesus comes to the cross in the fullness of his own self, and in that fullness he redeems the fullness of all that we are, or were, or ever will be. And it is this faithfulness—not our own belief, much or little as it may be—this faithfulness of Jesus, even unto death, to which we look in hope, at the coming of the Son of Man on the day of judgment and grace.