Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Provoked to love?"

Message preached November 16, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Hebrews 10:19-25

Order of Worship

"And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works..." (Hebrews 10:24)

            Jonathan Hullís recent novel, The Distance from Normandy, tells the story of an elderly widower who decides to take responsibility for his troubled teenage grandson. Expelled from school for pulling a knife on a bully, "Andrew" travels from Chicago to San Diego to spend three agonizing weeks with "Mead," a World War II veteran whoíd lost his wife three years previously. Everything about this young man provokes anything but love in his grandfather, from the baggy jeans hanging almost down to his knees, to his dirty, unlaced sneakers; from his rumpled black t-shirt, to the earring in his left earlobe; from his messy hair streaked with yellow along the top, to his attitude which is part "scared little kid" and part "rebel without a cause."

            Of course, the feelings are mutual. Andrew is a misfit dealing with many inner demons, an outcast who is at the bottom of his high school pecking order. Even so, his grandfather is just a stodgy, old man to him, long on rules and order, and short on anything else that matters to a teen. As young as he may be, however, Andrew can see that Mead is himself struggling with his own demons, some of which go back to his days in the Army. As they stumble through this misbegotten visit, they constantly provoke the worst in each other, not the best. And yet, this is a story of how, eventually, as the book jacket says, "both of them confront the secrets they have been trying to forget." In many ways, they provoke one another into doing so...

"And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works..." (Hebrews 10:24)

            What a strange way of speaking about the how-toís of Christian love! "Provoke," indeed! That word doesnít seem to fit the bill, does it? Look in the dictionary and everything about this word seems to point in a negative direction. Provocateurs are people who incite riots or other bad things. To provoke is to incense, arouse, stir up on purpose, excite, stimulate. We live in a provocative age, where clothing is worn not just to cover the body, but to arouse a reaction.

            Certainly, one can provoke lust, but can one also provoke love - especially the God kind of love, agape love? Perhaps "provoke" is not the best choice for translating the original word in Greek, "paroxymos." Where this word is used elsewhere, however, "paroxymos" often also has a negative aura about it. It refers to something that irritates, to sharp disagreement, even to the attack of a fever, especially a fever at its highest point. For those who work in medicine, the English word "paroxysm" is a sudden attack (like of a disease), or a sharp recurrence or increase of symptoms. A convulsion, for instance, is a "paroxysm." For those who deal in mental health, a "paroxysm" is a sudden, violent emotion or action. Interesting!

            So, tell me, how then do we mix this word in with Godís love, as we have come to understand Godís agape love? I mean, can real love be provoked? After all, we only have to turn to a favorite chapter in the Bible, and find in 1 Corinthians 13:5 that agape love "does not act unbecomingly, does not insist on its own way, is not provoked..." (or isnít "irritable," as the same Greek word here is often translated). Is the author of the letter to the Hebrews disagreeing with the apostle Paul, that love can indeed be provoked, and that "provoking one another to love" is something we should be about doing?

            Certainly, Christians have a long history of provocation. We take seriously, as we should, the call of this very scripture passage from Hebrews, to "hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering" (10:23), so much so that when we disagree as to the details of that confession, we often provoke a battle which may lead to a division within the body of Christ. Witness how many denominations there are in this country, each provoked to be different - our own included. Of course, many of our disagreements have little to do with "the confession of our hope," and more to do with lesser things. Often, itís our personalities which clash, as we provoke one another to anything but love.

            You know, while the "Love chapter" in 1 Corinthians is one of my favorite pieces of scripture, it also feels so much bigger than me. At times it seems an impossible ideal. Itís the "still more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31), which is far beyond my ability much of the time. This is as it should be, for agape love is a spiritual gift, it comes from God. Itís Godís kind of love. I pray to be more loving, but Iíve got to tell you, a lot of the time I am anything but patient or kind. I can be envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, insisting on my own way, irritable, or resentful. Yup, thatís me. Ask my family.

            I say this not to give ammunition to those who are looking for ways of provoking my lesser qualities. I say it, in the form of a confession (not a confession of faith, but a confession of sin - both of which depend upon the faithfulness of God more than upon my own faithfulness), to provoke in you the kind of love that God wants to be a part of your life, that God wants to be a part of our life together.

            In that novel I mentioned earlier, young Andrew needed to see the very human side of his grandfather before anything could happen for good in his own life, and in his relationship with this old man. Likewise, Mead needed to open himself and see his grandson as he was, and not as the young "punk" who defied everything this grandfather held dear... Isnít that something that needs to happen among Godís people?

            When it says "let us consider how to provoke one another to love," that can also be translated as "let us notice each other," (Jewett, p. 177). In order to provoke one another to Godís kind of love and to the "doing" of what we say we believe, we need to pay attention to each other. We need to see one another as we really are, not as what we think we are. Often we project upon other people our own fears or anxieties, or we place them on a pedestal which separates them from us. Either way, weíre not really seeing them as they are. Weíre seeing what we want or need to see them as being.

            Mind you, itís hard to see others (and to see ourselves) as we really are, not as our wants or needs demand. Sometimes it involves something sharp poking us out of our illusions, popping our protective balloons - so to speak - so that we stop daydreaming and start trying to see what is really real - that is, what God is already doing in this person. That Greek word "paroxymos," by the way, literally means "with" (para) "sharp" (oxys). Think of it as a poke in the ribs to wake us up to love.

"And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works..." (Hebrews 10:24)

            Can love be provoked? Well, the story of Jesus is nothing if not a provocative account of Godís human side. The Lord took on human form. This is what that big word, "incarnation," means - in "carnal" form, "carne" being "flesh," as in "flesh and bones and blood," just like us. Talk about a poke in the ribs, or popping a balloon! God isnít just some lofty idea, a mirror of our own dreams or wishes. God is real, something the great "I am" has been trying to get across since day one. "Donít fashion some object out of clay and say, Ďthatís God,í and worship it. No, I am your God," says the Lord. "Deal with the real me!" (Deuteronomy 5:6-10, my loose paraphrase).

            Okay, speaking of "real," here is real. Jesus - born of a woman; raised in Nazareth. A real, honest-to-God human being. A guy in the same mold as Adam, only he breaks the mold. Take notice. See him as he is. Can love be provoked? you ask. Well, look and see. This is real love in action. Isnít that what we believe? Especially when it comes to the part where he died. Jesus was and is more real than all those religious guys who went before him. What they only talked about, he did - in living and in dying ... and in rising from death. He is the "new and living way."

            This is what we hold onto, especially in uncertain times, not some theological statement of the fact, as worthwhile as it is to speak our creed, to say what we believe. No, "the confession of our hope," which the author of this letter to the Hebrews calls us "to hold fast without wavering," involves more than just affirming some words written upon a piece of paper. It means being so bold as to relate with God as God really is, because Jesus made it possible for us to do so. "Just as I am," we sing in that old gospel song, "I come." And the Lord God responds, "Iíve been waiting. Welcome."

So, "let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works..." (Hebrews 10:24)

            Can love be provoked? Certainly we try. Many of our actions are really cries for love. "Pay attention to me," screams the provocative outfit. "Listen to me," is the message behind words perceived as nagging. "I am somebody," the person is really saying, who is labeled as "acting out." So it goes. Too often we see only the clothes, we hear only the words, we react only to the misbehavior, without recognizing the cry behind them all. But is this cry, however it is expressed, what it means "to provoke one another to love?" The word, "provoke," after all, literally means "to call" (vocare) "forth" (pro). Is this how we call forth love? ... No. The ways in which we respond to this cry, however, may be.

            Itís here that I, personally, link the word "provoke" to the word "vocation." From a faith standpoint, our "vocation" is our "calling" (vocare) from God. Each of us has a vocation. It may not be the job which pays our bills, but it is the way in which we are responding to Godís love, putting that love into action in this world. Everyone of us here has a calling, a vocation. A significant task of the church of Jesus Christ involves helping each other to discover and live out our vocation, what God is calling us to do and to be - the good work that is uniquely ours.

            Therefore, "to provoke one another to love and good works" is to call forth what God is already about in our lives. Sometimes we do so with a poke in the ribs, or a sharp word, but more often itís through good-old encouragement, something you or I can never get enough of. That, my friends, is another way of translating this word. As J.B. Phillips in his paraphrase put it, "let us think of one another and how we can encourage one another to love and do good deeds."

            Of course, we can always provoke one another in the negative sense of the word. But donít you think there is too much of that already in this world? As we boldly draw near to God, and hold fast to the confession of our hope, letís also call forth the best, not the worst, in one another. After all, itís God doing the calling, not us.

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Hebrews.

©2003 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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