Summary: Hebrews turns the notion of provocation upside-down by imploring us to provoke one another to love and good deeds.
Provoke One Another
Rev. David J. Clark
While reading the scripture lesson, I stumbled across this phrase that just seemed odd. “Beloved, let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Provoke to love and good deeds? I always associated the word provoke with fights and disputes. We most often hear the word when one nation provokes another nation into war; one party provokes the other into retaliation.
Provoke makes me think about vacation trips with my family. Mom and Dad in the front seat, my brother and me in the back. Long before DVD’s and Gameboys, my brother and I argued and fought in the back seat. After so much sniping, we eventually drew the invisible line down the center of the seat. This is my side; that is yours. Not long after the line was drawn, Rick would reach a finger onto my side, firmly press it into my territory and smirk, then reach out with two fingers, smirk. Provocation. Boom, I’d strike. That’s what I think of with provocation—and that’s the way the word is usually used. One person does something to elicit a negative reaction out of someone else.
When I first saw the Bible turn this phrase around, Beloved let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, I thought, “That’s just like the Bible. Take a perfectly nasty word like provoke and totally change the way we think about it.” The Bible is constantly offering us opportunities to get out of the old patterns of retaliation so that something good may emerge even in a bad situation. When someone does something negative, we respond with positive. It’s sometimes difficult when someone is provoking you to react in negative ways. Smirking brothers will come into our lives.
Beloved let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.
Provoke. The original meaning is to call out. When we provoke, we call out something within another. Each of us has some bad stuff within, but the Bible urges us to call out the good—our best desires, hopes and dreams and behaviors out of each other instead. The context of the passage is that because we know we are loved and forgiven by God, we can be God’s agents of love and transformation in the world. When you are reminded about how much you have been forgiven for so much, no amount of pettiness, selfishness and cruelty can touch you. When you’ve been forgiven so much, then you extend it to others.
I can still see one of the great provokers in my life. I met her on a work trip to Kentucky. Our youth group was working on a woman’s house, but it wasn’t very much fun. We hated where we were. Porches and front yards littered with old cars, sofas and garbage. We hated it and we began to make fun of the way those people lived and we began to act like a group who would rather be doing something else. We picked on each other. We argued, we made sarcastic jabs every chance we got. In other words we acted just like the older people in our church when they lost sight of who they were.
Eventually the woman who owned the house we were working on came out with tears streaming down her face. She sat us down in the grass in front the house and she stood there, shaking her stubby finger at us and speaking through the few teeth she had left. I mean to tell you she laid into us like I’ve never seen before or since. She railed at us, “What’s wrong with you kids? Don’t you know? Don’t you know I’ve been praying for a long time for someone to show up and help me? Don’t you know how badly my kids need to have bedrooms and a bathroom that works? I’ve been praying for a long time. Don’t you know you are the answer to my prayers? Why don’t you treat each other like the answer to prayer?
From that moment on, everything changed. Instead of obligation, the work became true mission. Instead of tearing each other down, we built each other up. It was amazing. When someone tells you that you are the answer to a prayer, everything changes. It provokes you.
I came here today to tell you that you are the answer to prayer. You are the answer to the prayers of so many who dreamed of a community of faith that would really do something special. Many have prayed for a church built not on the latest gimmicks and flashy signs, but on being people of amazing grace, people who welcome the stranger and don’t feel they have to pretend that they don’t struggle and that they have it all together. Let’s be real and help each other, support each other on this journey of life.