Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In a World Adrift: God's Strategy of Surpise

Preached Sunday, August 28, 2011
Scripture readings: Judges 4:1-24; 1 Corinthians 2:6-16

In the summer I walk around my yard every day to watch the weeds grow. The other day I saw this weed in one of my flower beds. It was as tall as I am. At first I was surprised. Truth is (knowing me) it’s no surprise that I missed it so long.

It’s easy for me to get used to some thing that is not as it should be. Patience usually has nothing to do with it. Some things are just easier to ignore. And then they jump out at you and you see what was right under your nose all along.

And there are times when I pass by a mirror and get a big surprise to see that my hair has turned grey. When did that happen? Maybe God has designed us for surprises like that. I think God has designed us to often experience life by surprise.

Sometimes the surprise is God’s gift. Sometimes the surprise is our fault. When God’s people in the Old Testament turned away from God, when they tried to blend in with others, when they tried to exchange God’s priorities for the priorities of their neighbors, things went wrong and this surprised them. But this surprise was their fault, or maybe it was God’s gift.

Their mistakes, and their calling the shots for themselves, hurt in ways they couldn’t have imagined, and they were shocked. At such times of surprise, we read that they would, “call to the Lord for help.” (Judges 4:3) That is God’s gift.

When the people of Israel turned back to God, they drew a new faith and determination to face their enemies and their problems. The surprise that came from being on the right track was that, now, they found themselves facing an enemy that was way too big for them. It seemed impossible.

The count of the two armies (as we read it) makes it sound like the Israelites had the bigger numbers, but the writer of Judges only counted the enemy’s iron chariots. On that count the Canaanites scored 900 to zero.

In ancient warfare the chariots, if you had them, were always just a small part of much greater forces. And if you had chariots it was the equivalent of having tanks. Each chariot would hold at least a couple soldiers beside the driver, and each chariot held a small arsenal of the weapons of the day: arrows, spears, javelins, clubs. Often each chariot had a group of lightly armed soldiers running on foot beside it.

The Canaanites’ possessed a superior military technology that the Israelites could not match. The Israelites had never fought such an army before.

The day of the battle was a day of surprises. The Israelites came to that day with a set of expectations. They expected the sort of surprise you get from fighting a problem or an enemy much bigger than you are.

We all expect such surprises. None of us do very well in the face of them. But that day of battle brought the completely unexpected. And this is what won the day for God’s people.

God’s people began the day of battle with expectations and they ended it in surprises. God’s people faced an enemy army that was bigger, more disciplined, and much better armed than they were. The surprise was one that they did not deserve to expect: the Lord fought for them.

The song that follows, in chapter five, expresses wonder at the surprises of God. It is a truly great ancient poem because it expresses the sense of wonder so well and communicates that wonder to us.

The two armies waited to advance. While they waited, they saw a surprise forming overhead and wondered what it would mean for them. It was dark and ominous. A huge thunderstorm rolled in from the northwest, from the sea, and then it seemed to skirt around them (as thunderstorms can), almost as if it would blow over. Then it came back around upon them from the east, from the land of Edom, the land of Seir, and it lodged firmly over the high hills of the upper Galilee.

Lightening flashed and thunder pounded, and the world seemed to shake with it. Their innards flipped when the thunder boomed. Have you ever felt thunder like that? I have.

Then rain poured, or the air turned to water and hit the ground! It was a cloudburst.

The two armies joined battle at the Kishon River that drains the valleys around the base of Mount Tabor. When the two armies met, they were overtaken by a flash flood sweeping down the river basin. The sheet of mud and water disabled the iron chariots and their crews.

The Canaanites worshiped the god Baal who was god of the storms. Suddenly it seemed that Baal fought against them, but it was the Lord who fought.

The poetic telling of the battle sounds like this. “O Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel….From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon. March on my soul; be strong!” (Judges 5:4-5, 5:20-21)

General Sisera fled the battlefield. He found his way to the nearest safe place. It was the camp of a tribe of nomadic metal workers whose chief was named Heber. Heber was an ally of the king of the Canaanites. Perhaps his tribe did the contracting to build those nine hundred chariots in the first place.

Sisera did not go to Heber, the chief, but to the tent of Jael, Heber’s wife. She was alone.

She found the armed man at the door of her tent and she invited him to come inside. She knew him, but she did not feel safe.

Even though Sisera was a defeated general, he remained what some people call a great man, in the sense of being a so-called “big-man”. He was a trained warrior, and he remained important enough, even in defeat, to make big things happen.

Such a man, dealing with an ally like Heber, would never go alone into his ally’s wife’s tent. It was a completely inappropriate act. A woman would have interpreted his request with an unspoken twist, “You better help me, or you may regret it.” This is real.

In the song version of the telling, Sisera’s mother worried about why her son was delayed so long in returning from the battle, and one of her ladies-in-waiting guesses that, perhaps, there is a lot of looting to do, and Sisera is looking for some especially nice things to bring home for them and, beside that, perhaps he is finding a girl or two for himself.

But the ancient language has been cleaned up for us by the translators. It is not a girl or two, but a part of the female anatomy that their men were taking. This is talk about rape. This is the kind of thing that those who knew him best would think of, when they thought of Sisera in action.

The truth is that Sisera might have done what the women at home were thinking, but the discipline of war was wearing off. In battle Sisera had learned to convert all his strongest emotions (even fear) into a kind of fighting drug. Even though he was still very much in survival mode, he was coming down from the high that had driven him. He was exhausted. (He felt much worse than a high school kid after the first few days of football practice.) He looked big and tough, but secretly he was overcome.

Jael gave him a nice cup of yogurt, and yogurt is a sleepy-time food. Sisera drank and slept. Then Jael crept up and killed him with a tent peg through the skull.

That was a surprise. Jael was as surprised as anyone. The word spread. The war was over. Sisera was the military genius behind the power of the Canaanite kingdom, and a frightened woman killed him.

We seem to live in a society and a nation that is spiritually and morally adrift. The whole world seems to have lost its moorings. The planet itself is shaking all over.

Yet a world like ours can still hold surprises. The people of Israel were drifting from God in a downward spiral. The Book of Judges is clear about this.

But the writers of Judges also knew that the greatest days of God’s people lay ahead. The kingdom of David still laid ahead, and all of the promises that would be attached to his family. The family of David would become the family of the Messiah, and the Messiah would bring a whole new kingdom into being; a whole new life.

Even the writers of Judges may have been surprised to realize that they were telling the story of a God who would come down from heaven as a member of the family of David. He would become a man named Jesus, in order to live and die and rise as a representative of the human race; to do battle, as a man, against all the forces of sin and death. This would have surprised them; and yet, maybe, not.

For them the surprise, in the middle of the downward spiral, was the work of God among his people. And God’s work for his fallen people centered upon a woman sitting under a palm tree, in some in-between place. She was a person full of the Holy Spirit because she could see and speak for the Lord.

God’s people came to her with their problems, instead of going to the priests and idols of the Canaanites and the other tribes around them the way they used to do. The woman under the palm tree was a sign of the presence of God. She was a sign of the readiness of God to work among them. She was no warrior at a time when they needed warriors. But she was a warrior of the Spirit of the Lord.

If you are aware that the world seems to be adrift and especially the world around you, are you aware that the Lord makes his Spirit available to you through the cross and through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead? Are you aware that God’s word is telling you that unlikely people, even unequipped people like Deborah, can be at the center of what God wants to do, and be a partner in God’s work? Are you aware that God came in Jesus to make it possible for all his people to be at the heart of the surprising work of God, right where they are?

What Paul calls God’s secret wisdom, is what I mean by God’s strategy of surprise. The gods and goddess of the Canaanites were all about power; the power to get what you wanted and to do what you wanted.

That is what a fallen world wants. It is what Adam and Eve decided they wanted. They wanted this power more than they wanted to be creatures in fellowship with God. They wanted the power of knowledge to gain their independence, which is a kind of power. They wanted knowledge and we often think of knowledge as power.

The secret wisdom of God is not about power or knowledge. It is about love and faithfulness. So Deborah and her people could be at the heart of what God was doing in a way that Sisera, and his king, and his army could never understand.

This is the wisdom that runs through God’s work from beginning to end. The very center of this wisdom is Jesus. Through the surprising strategy of becoming one of us, it is what God has done through weakness and through what seems foolish to the world. It seems weak and foolish because the world is always looking for power and knowledge instead of love and faithfulness.

The secret wisdom of God was so surprising that it tricked the world into accomplishing the plan of God in spite of their best efforts of resistance. As Paul says, the powers and authorities of this world crucified God when he entered this world in love, and faithfulness, and weakness, and foolishness. God in Christ made himself into the bait for a trap in which sin and death would be caught. They took the bait thinking that they could swallow it, but that dead meat of Jesus on the cross suddenly rose and defeated the powers of evil. It was God’s gift of surprise.

Paul says, ‘None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:8-9)

God has prepared a kingdom for us. It is a spiritual environment that will change heaven and earth so that God will rule everywhere and in every life. It is all based on a mission that seems weak and foolish. It is built on the life of a baby in a manger, who grew up to work with his hands in a carpenter’s shop, who gathered a circle of friends, and who got himself executed on a cross.

The courage of Deborah, and Barak, and Jael, to face enemies stronger than they were, came from the kind of faith that requires you to die to yourself, and to your limitations, and fears and pride; and to live for God. It is the power that works through the weakness and foolishness of the cross. It is a surprising strategy, but it runs clearly all through the scriptures.

The Book of Judges is about human weakness and our failure to be faithful, but it is not about the resulting absence of God. It is not about how inadequate and imperfect our repentance is. It is not about how limited our faith is. It is about the faithfulness of God to such people as the Israelites and to us.

It is God’s strategy for you. Your value is not based on the power of what you can do on your own, or on the power of what you know. Your value is not even based on the quality of your faith. It is based on faith as a trusting awareness of your weakness and of the faithfulness of God to you in your weakness.

Faith is a kind of courage that is based on dependence and trust in God. To a fallen world this seems foolish and weak. Paul, in the first chapter of First Corinthians wrote, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)

Faith sometimes seems like weakness, because we do not know what it will lead to or where it will take us. (But there, again we want the power of knowledge.) The whole point is that power and knowledge are not the way.

Faith means to trust the God of surprises, and such faith is well placed. The God who came in Christ is the focus of our faith. Faith is built on the weakness of living by faith in the one who died for you, and who did this to make you a person who can live your life, each day, in the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

In a World Adrift: An Invasive God

Preached Sunday 21, 2011
Scripture readings: Judges 3:7-14; Acts 2:22-39

There is a term that you hear, sometimes on the news, to describe a nation that is falling into chaos and ceasing to function as a nation. The term is “a failed state.” In world affairs, at the present time, Somalia, on the Horn of Africa, is a failed state. It was feared, at one time, that Iraq and Afghanistan would become failed states and that America could do nothing there but make things worse.

In the Book of Judges, the Israelites often seemed to be on the verge of becoming a failed state. They had been secure and strong enough, under the leadership of Moses and Joshua. They had been able to hold together in their journey through the desert and their move into the Promised Land.

It was when they settled down that things began to go wrong. The people of Israel, the people of God, lost their focus. They broke their relationship with God. They didn’t forget the Lord, but the people who already lived in the land worshiped many gods, and Israel tried to do the same.

They tried to have things both ways. They tried to keep the Lord and to spiritually blend in with the people around them at the same time. They pretended, and they wishfully thought, that their God would be OK with this. But God wasn’t OK with it. God got mad, and God did everything he could to make his people stop. God did not stop at violence to keep his people from blending in.

This violence, that is so common in the Old Testament, bothers us. If we are correct to consider our God as a God of love, why would this God of love resort to violence, over and over again to keep his people from blending in?

But think of this. The people of Israel are with us to this very day, and all of the little nations in the Book of Judges (with those names that are so hard to pronounce), and all the great empires of that day are gone and buried in the sand.

And think some more. If the people of Israel had blended in, there would have been no ancient kingdom of Israel. There would have been no King David. And there would have been no Jesus, who was a descendent of David.

The Book of Judges tells us part of the history and heritage that shaped the Jesus we know in the gospels. It forms the history and heritage that God identified with in coming into the world in Jesus.
Jesus is how God became a human, just like us, so that he could die in our place for our sins on the cross. If the people of Israel had successfully blended in with their neighbors, there would have been no manger in Bethlehem to lay a homeless baby. There would have been no Roman cross to die on in Jerusalem. There would have been no garden tomb nearby for the resurrection; and so there would have been no victory over sin and death.

The history of God’s people is full of violence because the world is violent. The cross, itself, is an act of violence in which God engages in mortal combat and dies to defeat Satan and all the powers of evil. The cross is the greatest battle and the most unimaginable slaughter that has ever happened in the world; even though there was only one casualty. Without the cross, the whole creation would have become a failed state, or a state of endless war; or a state to be erased and wiped out of existence, by a God who throws up his hands at a challenge.

In a sense all the wars and disasters of the Old Testament are part of the battle of the cross; as are all of the wars and disasters ever since. There has always been, and there can only be, one war in heaven and earth: and we are a part of it. When artillery shells burst and bullets fly; or when people grow hungry, and they sicken and die; or when tyrants rule and torture their own people; or when families and communities fight, or use others, or abuse others; or when anxious loved ones sit around a hospital bed; or when mourners stand beside a grave: it is all part of the same war. And the struggle on the cross is a part of that war; waged by a God who refuses to blend in.

Why, again, does the blending in matter? It matters because the gods and goddesses of the land where the Israelites settled could be called the service gods. They were gods of weather, and harvest, and fertility. They were gods of success, and sex, and money, and power.

They were gods of the deal. They made deals, and trades, and exchanges. If you did something for them, they would do something for you. The more you offered the more you got. The extreme price for their top of the line service was human sacrifice, or even infant sacrifice.

You could say that the service gods were user gods. They would let you use them if they could use you.

The problem is that if your spiritual life, or the center of what you are on the inside, is into using and being used, then you are creating an awful life for yourself, and you are making possible an awful world around you. The more people that go along with this, the worse the world becomes.

Those who are users treat other people as mere things to be used. Those who are users allow themselves to be used like mere things themselves. The user gods, and those who worship them, create a world where no one is treated as a human in God’s image, where no one is treated as if they had a soul. God himself must make this stop; and so this, too, is part of the battle of the cross.

The Lord, you see, is not a user, though there are some who accuse him of it. The Lord is a God of promises and blessings, but not the God of deals. God does not bargain. He does not make transactions because his covenants, and his promises, and his relationships come from no other motive but his steadfast, faithful love.

God loves humans. God made humans in his image, so that each and every life is holy, and God treats each one of us accordingly. I think that, because only God knows himself, so only God knows the worth and the purpose of his image in every human being. Only God knows the nature of each person’s life, and he will not let it be ignored.

God loves human beings to the depth of their being. God loves their immortal souls. God is so radical about his relationship with fallen humans, and a fallen world, that he became human and entered our world as a human baby, as a child, as a man on a cross dying for the sin of the world, engaged in mortal combat for the world and for us.

The people of Israel wanted to be users so that they would have good crops and strong walls and thrive. They wanted to be users and, so, we read that the Lord “sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim.” (Judges 3:8) They wanted to be users and so the Lord let them know what it was like to be owned and used, royally. They found that they didn’t like it, and so “they cried out to the Lord.” (Judges 3:9)

The most important thing God did at the time of our reading in the Book of Judges was this. “”But when they cried out to the Lord, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, who saved them. The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war.” (Judges 3:9-10)

We know almost nothing about Othniel. The first chapter of Judges has a few sentences which tell us that he won his wife as a prize in battle. (Judges 1:11-13) But Othniel represents a pattern that we see all through the Bible. It is a pattern that our very lives depend on. It has become the pattern for our life with God.

The pattern is very simple at the core. The Lord does this thing called, “raising up a deliverer”. The deliverer can do his job because the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him or her. And we can say “her” with confidence because there was a woman judge. There was a woman deliverer in Judges, and her name was Deborah. It is not always stated, but this coming of the Spirit of the Lord upon those who are called by the Lord is a clear pattern.

Through Moses, through the judges, through David, through the prophets, through Jesus himself, through the disciples and apostles, there is this pattern in which God calls a person or “raises him up” and empowers this person for their work, through the Spirit of the Lord coming upon them.

This power is not mere power, like electricity. It doesn’t make us like Superman or Wonder Woman. This power is the Holy Spirit.

The Old Testament calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of God and the Spirit of the Lord. These two titles mean almost the same thing, except that the words God and Lord are like different sides of the same Source and Creator of all things. “God” is a word that means being and power. “Lord” is the word we use for a name that, by tradition, is almost never spoken aloud.

Almost all translations use the word “Lord” as a substitute for this unspoken name. The Lord explained Moses, when Moses asked what name to give him. The Lord said that he is “something” that means “I am who I am”, or “I will be what I will be”, or just “I am” for short. (Exodus 3:14) “I am” meant that the people he loved would know him by what he proved himself to be. “I am” meant they would know him by his personal relationship with them.

So, strictly speaking “the Lord” is not a name, nor is “I am” a name either. The Lord is the word we use to speak of God when God is especially concerned about his covenant, his commitment, and his personal relationship with us. In a strange way, “Lord” means his steadfast love and friendship.

So “the Spirit of the Lord” coming upon someone is not the power of the Holy Spirit, as if it were nothing more than electricity, or wind, or fire (although wind and fire have often been a picture of his power). The real power is the personal relationship of God working through the Holy Spirit, proving himself to be just who he is.

The power that came upon the judges was their relationship with the living God. God’s power and authority, working through us, never belongs to us because we cannot own and use a personal relationship. The relationship always comes first, not what we do through that relationship.

The Holy Spirit, weaving the relationship of the Living God into the life of the person, enabled that person to face great dangers and temptations. The Holy Spirit enabled the person to work for the Lord as a very flawed and imperfect person among other very flawed and imperfect people.

We will see this again and again in the Book of Judges. We don’t like the imperfection that we see there, and we don’t like the thought of God working through such people as though they were something special: but this is, after all, the God of relationships and grace, and not the God of deals and transactions.

God does not get a bargain when he works with us, and he doesn’t give us bargains. He just gives us himself completely and without holding back. And this is what we depend on.

If we knew how close we were to the people in the Book of Judges and how much like them we were, we would be, at first, totally humiliated, and then we would be amazed and truly thankful. We are his creatures and he loves us.

God has made us in his image and, therefore, we are holy, even as we are. So what is God to do with us?

C. S. Lewis wrote this. “For He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence….We are not mere recipients or spectators. We are either privileged to share in the game or compelled to collaborate in the work.” (C. S. Lewis in “The Efficacy of Prayer”)

The Book of Judges is comprehensible when we see that God the Creator gives his creatures the dignity of being his children. What does a parent do?

Parents let their children share in the work. You give your child a hammer and nails and a piece of wood to play with. My dad did this with me to see what I would do. I remember, when I was four, my dad letting me carve a bar of soap with his pocket knife, but he watched me like a hawk.

You give your child a paint brush or a roller when you are painting a room. I got to do this when I was six or seven. You don’t get good work done when you do this. You get a mess. You get a headache. You make more work for yourself than necessary. And when it is done, you have to praise what your child does and not judge your child or say, “You are obviously not designed to do that. See if I trust you again.”

And we see, in the pattern of Othniel, and all the judges, that their work was very messy and it never lasted. It had to be done over and over and over again. It was like housework or doing the dishes. Letting people do his work, even in relationship with the Holy Spirit, was the least efficient, and the least effective, and the least attractive way for God to do his work. Why does this surprise us?

And yet it seems to be God’s favorite way to work. Did you know he still works that way, and that you are supposed to be part of it?

The so called “secret” of the Bible is that God loved this way of working so well that he became a part of it. In Jesus, God became a human being upon whom the Holy Spirit came; and so Jesus went to be baptized, and the Holy Spirit came upon him like a dove, and he went into the desert to fast and pray and be tempted, just as we are. God did this as a particular man named Jesus, needing God’s help. (Matthew 3:13-4:11)

In the power of the Holy Spirit, God in Jesus went forth to heal the sick and cast out devils, and to teach and feed the crowds. God in Jesus went forth to be condemned as a criminal, and die a painful death in the great battle, the mortal combat, waged to take away the sin of the world, and our sins, and to give us abundant life and eternal life.

The Gospel of John tells us that, after Jesus rose from the dead, he came to his disciples. ‘Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”’ (John 20:21-22)

In the Book of Acts, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples to enable them to go out into the whole world as his witnesses, Peter told the crowd this about Jesus: “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:33)

Jesus died for you, and rose from the dead for you, to pour out the Holy Spirit upon you and send you out just as he was sent.

The word “deliverer”, which is used in the Book of Judges to describe Othniel, is a word that can be changed into a name. The word “deliverer” is “shua” to which we add the prefix of the Lord’s name, which is where we get the name Joshua, which means, “the Lord delivers”, “the Lord saves”.

Jesus is just a New Testament Greek version of the name Joshua. Jesus is the real deliverer. He is the Lord in the flesh, and so he is literally the fulfillment of the name “The Lord Saves”.

The Lord saves, but you are sent out as he was to share in the work. Jesus sends you to be deliverers in this world: little Joshuas, little Othniels, little Jesuses.

The church is called the Body of Christ, because we are called together to be Christ in this world. The Holy Spirit comes upon his church, as a whole, to make the whole church his living presence in the world. The Holy Spirit gives us a relationship with the Living God through Jesus to bring God’s deliverance to people in need.

It is God’s favorite way to work in a world that is adrift. It is part of his plan for a new creation. It is his way and his plan for every one of us. It is at the heart of what it means to be “saved”.

There is one great battle of the ages going on, and there are casualties all around us, and we are casualties too. The world that has gone so far adrift has chosen the religion of using and being used. That is the way of this world.

The image of God, which is so deeply hidden in the world and in human lives, has been cheapened and damaged by the false worship of the user gods. Those who have been cheapened and those who have been damaged need to be lifted up and healed. And they need to hear the good news that God has come in Jesus to make us new people through the battle of the cross; so that we can become the people of Jesus, and the people of the Holy Spirit through him.

It is God’s favorite way, to work through people like us. If we belong to God, we have no choice but to be a part of this same way. And God will not leave us alone. He will raise us up and his Spirit will come upon us.

Monday, August 15, 2011

In a World Adrift: The Unblendable God

Preached Sunday, August 14, 2011

Scripture readings: Judges 2:6-3:6; 1 Peter 2:1-12

There is an old saying called Murphy’s Law, and it goes like this: If anything can go wrong, it will. On a wall in our garage, my dad had a plaque with the motto, “Murphy was an optimist.”

Whoever came up with that motto had something in common with the author of the Book of Judges where everything that could go wrong did. The people of Israel moved into what was supposed to become the land of Israel and it didn’t.

It was supposed to be theirs by conquest, but conquest turned out to be hard, and so they failed to do it. Well, they almost failed. The land became a checker board of tribal territories held by the Israelites, the Canaanites, and the many other tribes, whose names are so difficult to pronounce. The people of Israel, the people set apart for a purpose by God, began to blend into the people around them.

They began to lose their identity. They began to lose the qualities that gave them value in God’s world. They began to forget the lessons their families had learned by walking with God in the desert by faith. As they began to blend in, they wanted their faith to blend in. But the Lord refused to blend in. And the Lord refused to stand by and let them blend in, themselves.

Now some people may wonder why it would be of any importance for some people to stand apart from others. Some people might even wonder why there should be a special people of God at all. Wouldn’t that be like saying “Some people are better than others and we are better than you”? For instance; wouldn’t a loving God want his people to blend in with everyone else so as to show his love for all people?

Toward the end of the Gospel of John, before Jesus got arrested and crucified, Jesus prayed for his disciples, and for us, and spoke of us as being “in the world” but “not of the world”. (John 17:11-19) This is what Israel was supposed to be.

It turned out that, even though Israel was supposed to have a land of its own and learn how to be separate from the people around them, it was never intended to be the sort of separation that enabled them to escape from the world. It was not supposed to be a statement about them being better than others.

Never does the Old Testament show God’s people escaping from the world. Never does the Bible show God’s people being better than others. The people of Israel proved this, from the start, by their behavior. This applies to the disciples of Jesus just as much as it applied to the people of Israel.

Sometimes we get confused about this because we think it is supposed to be different. So it is hard to reconcile what the Bible says with what we think the Bible is supposed to say.

We think the Bible is supposed to say that God’s people are able to escape from the world and be better than others. We think the Bible is saying this in places like the Book of Exodus, where the Lord said to Moses and to Israel: “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)

Now in the Old Testament, and even in the New, the word “holy” does not mean “better”. “Holy” definitely doesn’t mean “perfect”. “Holy” simply means “different”.

The Temple of the Lord, when it was finally built in Jerusalem, was holy; but not because it was better or more perfect than other buildings. It was a remarkable building, but it was holy because it served a purpose that was different from the purpose of any other building.

The purpose of the Temple was to direct people’s thoughts and faith toward God. The purpose of the Temple was to be a place where people could hear the stories of a faithful God who saved his people from slavery and exile, and even from their sin. It was the place to see that story acted out in the sacrifices, and sung about in the Psalms.

The priests were holy, not because they were better people than others (because they weren’t), but because they acted out the story of God’s faithful love and saving work, and because they sang the songs that praised him. They led those who came to them to confess their sins, and to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. They led those who came to them to thank and praise God for his steadfast love which endures forever.

The word “priest” means someone who stands. The priest stands in the presence of people in order to speak, and act, and live on behalf of God, and on behalf of the grace of God, for their sakes. The priest stands in the presence of God in order to pray for God’s compassion and saving work for all the people.

A kingdom of priests, in a world that belongs to God, stands before the whole world and faces the whole world with the offer of the faithful love and grace of a holy God. A kingdom of priests in a world that belongs to God, stands before God and prays for everyone in that world to be the object of the grace of God.

We see what a real priest does in Jesus. Jesus is God made flesh, and when Jesus comes to us, and shows himself to us, we see the face of God. We can look at Jesus, and watch him and listen to him in the scriptures, and know who God really is. And God became human in Christ so that Christ, the everlasting Son of God, could stand before his everlasting Father and show the Father our human face.

The Father looks at the Son and sees the cross. The Father sees the whole world of sin that died on the cross through the Son. The Father looks into the face of his Son and sees the penalty paid, and the Father sees us alive in the Son who rose from the dead.

In his letter Peter tells us to be like new born babies who can grow up in God’s saving grace because we have tasted the goodness of the Lord. (1 Peter 2: 2) And that makes us a kingdom of priests. We know what it is to receive mercy, so we can offer spiritual sacrifices to the Lord. (1 Peter 2:5) We can make offerings of mercy and grace.

Just as the Old Testament sacrifices in the Temple showed the saving work of the Lord, our lives are to act out this saving work of the Lord. Our lives are holy, not because we are better, but because we have the purpose of living out the saving work of God in how we speak and how we live our lives toward others.

Others are suppose to be able to hear us and see us, and hear and see Jesus. We know we are not better than anyone else because we know how deep our need for grace is.

We have not tasted how good we are. We have tasted how good the Lord is. We know from the depth of our hearts that the Lord, “called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:2; 2:10)

We can never fool ourselves if we are faithful. But we can stand before God in prayer for the sake of our world, our neighbors, and our families. And we can stand before our world, our neighbors, and our families for God, if we remember where we have come from.

If the people of Israel had been able to conquer all the land, they would have been a nation among other nations, and yet (within their borders) they would have been a nation where the real nature of God was visible. But that was not to be.

The test, in the Book of Judges, was for God’s people (mixed up with everyone else) to be the people they had learned to be in the wilderness. They were to be people who had learned the lessons of God’s delivering grace, and how to live as people who have been given mercy, and how to live as people of faith. And they were to do this scattered among all the other people. That was the test, and they would meet the test if they obeyed the Lord’s commandments. (Judges 2:22)

These commandments would not make them better than the people around them. The commandments would only allow them to be different, and serve a purpose, and tell the Lord’s story right, wherever they lived.

Instead, they blended in. They didn’t care about their children forgetting who God is. They got interested in the spiritual methods and attitudes of the people around them.

They didn’t stop believing in the Lord, but simple belief, alone, is never enough. They were people of belief without the ingredient of faith. They were people who did not allow God, as he really proved himself to be in their history, to shape and direct the pattern of their lives. This was their defeat in the war to be what God called them to be.

God called them to continue the fight and not blend in. But they fought a losing battle. They lost when they fought the people around them, and they lost when the battle front was in their own hearts. And the battle in their heart was the test.

In the checker board of the occupation of the Holy Land the farmlands of an Israelite village would reach the borders of the farmlands of a Canaanite village. And the farmers of one village would watch the farmers of the other village. They watched what they did and how it seemed to work for them.

You might say that one thing they all noticed was that the Israelite God was the creator and owner of all things. “All the earth is mine,” he said. And the Israelites would offer their creator and owner an offering of the first fruits of their harvest as a thank-offering, when the harvest came. But they had no offerings or sacrifices that were designed to make that harvest come in.

The Canaanites had sacrifices that were designed to make the harvest come in and be a good harvest. The God of Israel rode on the storm. But the Baal gods were the storms that brought the rain.

During the dry season, it was thought that the Baals died. When it was time for the rainy season to begin, the priests of the Baals would offer sacrifices to bring them back to life. Astarte and the Ashtoreths were the fertility goddesses: and there were sacrifices and offerings (which included the farmers having sex with the priestesses) which were designed to make the planted seeds fertile and grow a good crop. The gods and goddesses of the Canaanites were supernatural service providers.

A good farmer wants to give himself as much of an edge as he can get. The Israelite farmers thought they would try the Canaanite edge.

After all, they had grown up in the desert. The Lord had taken care of them in the desert, but wheat and barley seemed to belong to the world of Baal and Astarte. Maybe there was no harm from a little blending in spiritually.

They couldn’t figure out how to make the Lord give them the edge they wanted in their farming. The Canaanite gods and goddesses made deals and put themselves to use. The Canaanite gods and goddesses, in fact, needed people to do things for them. Sacrifices made them stronger. The bigger the sacrifice the more weight and influence it had with the gods. There were even human sacrifices and infant sacrifices made by the Canaanites when they were really desperate for the help of the gods and wanted to force their hand. (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2)

The Lord of Israel didn’t need anyone’s help and didn’t need their sacrifices. The Lord didn’t even need them. The Lord only wanted them. The Lord was very arbitrary and stubborn about insisting on a covenant, a relation of promise, to bind the people of Israel to himself and make them into the people of God, and to make himself their God. But, on God’s half of the promise, there was no need and no usefulness involved. There was blessing promised, but no usefulness.

What God offered them was a life of relationship more than a life of use. It is important and good to be of use. But use is not the ultimate issue. Relationship is the ultimate issue; according to the God of Israel who came into our world in history as Jesus.

The human world does not work that way. Usefulness is the ultimate value. When people feel useless they think their life has lost its value. People who felt useful in the prime of their life feel that they have lost their purpose in life when they are no longer of much use.

Those who truly love them face the continual challenge of giving them a sense of worth. True love knows that worth is not based on usefulness. True love knows that love and faithfulness are the ultimate value.

We live in a world dominated by usefulness. We sometimes call it efficiency. In the modern world economy, if you are not efficient, if you don’t produce results and profit, you will fail; you will be a loser, and there is nothing more disastrous than being a loser.

The kingdom of God and the kingdom of priests that we are a part of, is a different world. It is holy, and those who live the life of the kingdom are holy, not because they are better, and not because they are efficient and productive, but because they are different, and the world needs something different. This world as we know it does not work very well.

When the people of Israel worshiped the gods and goddesses of usefulness, and productivity, and results, they became just like everyone else. They had nothing to show, nothing to give. They lost the most important purpose anyone could serve, to live as a contradiction to the world in the name of love.

In the world as it is, people use each other. In the kingdom of God and the kingdom of priests we do not use each other, or anybody else.

The church denies the gospel when its people become users. My mom felt hurt by the church because its people seemed more interested in what she could do for them than being simply interested in her, for her own sake. I get almost sick to my stomach when I fear that someone may feel used by the church.

We are so prone to being indispensible in our small churches. I hate that. I know it can be a blessing to feel needed. But it is much, much, much better to be wanted.

In our modern world we are more tempted than ever to treat God himself as someone who is of use to us. We are tempted to make getting what we want, the way we want it, more important than getting to know what God wants, the way God wants it, which is what prayer is about. This is what we were created for. This is the whole purpose of our life because the real God, who is the source of our life, is the god of relationships.

Prayer is not at all about getting answers. Prayer is about a relationship. Prayer is about us learning to be God’s people, and learning to let God be God.

The cross is all about this. God came down from heaven in Jesus to end the division created by our wanting to be in control and wanting to be users of others, and users of God. God came in Christ to reconcile us to himself in a relationship that is an end in itself.

The Book of Judges is about the vicious circle of God’s own people cutting themselves off from their source of life because they wanted to be users, and crying out to the Lord in their need when they suffered the harm they did to themselves by being users. God had compassion on them, and came to their rescue, and they would be faithful for awhile, and then they would forget and go wrong, worse than ever. Around and around the vicious circle went; just as the world has always gone.

Jesus is the end of the vicious circle. The Lord’s Supper is a symbol of this. Here is a meal that the Lord sets before us. It is a bit of bread and wine (or juice). It doesn’t feed our bodies. It is just what it is. But it is the meal of relationship.

In a family with little kids, parents and children often share the same glass and the same spoon or fork. They share the same germs, too. No one’s life depends on sharing in this way, but it is the bond of a relationship.

This is our bond with Jesus, and with each other; a little morsel shared together. There was a political prison (I think in South Africa) decades ago. The prisoners wanted to have a communion service and the guards wouldn’t let them have bread or grape juice for it. What could they do?

They had the Lord’s Supper anyway. They passed an invisible loaf of bread, and they broke it among themselves, and they passed an invisible cup, and they all drank from it. There was nothing to take between their teeth, nothing to moisten their tongues and throats. But they shared the Lord’s Supper together and they had fellowship with Jesus. And they experienced each other as sharers of Jesus.

It was nothing; nothing of any use. But it was the work of the Lord among them. And it made them part of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of priests to each other. Together, as they ate the invisible food and drank the invisible drink, they showed the power of Jesus to each other, to their guards, and to those who would hear their story.

In a sense, we are most useful to the world and to each other by being of very little use at all, but by being there with those who need us; being there with those among whom God has placed us in life; being something different, something holy in this world by being the faithful people of a faithful God. In this we cannot blend in.

In a world that sees no use in this, in a world that laughs at this, in a world where the only thing that matters is our capacity to use and be used and to get what we want, this is holy; to show steadiness and faithfulness. In this matter God does not allow us to blend in. This is what we are fighting for, to be true to this purpose and to bring something different and holy into the world.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Believe and Live: The Humble Remedy

Preached Sunday, August 7, 2011

Scripture readings:Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:1-21

“What a Wonderful World”
I see trees of green........ red roses too
I see them bloom..... for me and for you
And I think to myself.... what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue..... clouds of white
Bright blessed days....dark sacred nights
And I think to myself .....what a wonderful world.

The colors of a rainbow.....so pretty ..in the sky
Are also on the faces.....of people ..going by
I see friends shaking hands.....sayin’.. how do you do?
They’re really sayin’......I love you.

I hear babies cry...... I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more.....than I’ll never know
And I think to myself .....what a wonderful world
George David Weiss/Bob Thiele) Herald Square Music, Inc. on behalf of Range Road Music, Inc. and Quartet Music, Inc. ASCAP

I can’t think of any better way to put into words the meaning of the verse, “For God so loved the world.”

What kind of world do we live in? How would you describe it? Does the world fit the song, or is the song inadequate? Is the song unbiblical and blasphemous? Could God sing this song?

I think we can understand what kind of world we live in, and God’s purpose for us in this world, if we can understand these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

I will tell you my answers right now. About the song: I love that song. Do I think the song is adequate? Do I think it tells the truth? I think it tells the truth, but not the whole truth. Who could think it did? And yet I believe that God himself could sing it, because God so loves the world.


What kind of world do I think we live in? John 3:16 says it. We live in a beloved world, a truly wonderful world. And we live in a perishing world. These must be truly seen together and not forgotten. Unless we understand the absolute depth of its belovedness and the depth of its perishing we won’t know who we are, or where we are, or what to do.

John 3:16 makes us very wise, because it tells us that there is good news, and that the good news is important. The good news is the beginning and ending of all things. But it is especially important because there is also bad news, and we will never get through the bad news unless we know the good news.

I once knew a denominational official who, at meetings, would sometimes say: “I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” I usually told him, “We’re all Christians here, and we all believe in the happy ending. So let’s have the bad news first.”

But that’s not quite biblical, either, because (biblically) you start with the good news, get faced with the bad news, and then you get great news as the final word.

John 3:16 tells us about the good news of the love God has for the world. There is great news in seeing how far the love of God for the world will go when bad news raises its ugly head. But we must remember that the love of God for the world came first. God’s love for the world is the final, final word. But the love of God for the world is also God’s first word on everything.

The word “world” in this passage means, mostly, the human world. It is the world of individuals, and neighbors, and friends, and enemies, and families, and relationships, and communities, and nations, and laws, and politics, and economics, and international relations, and social issues, and culture wars, and wars of blood and carnage.

I also think that Jesus’ use of the word “world” here includes the world of nature and the environment that we are all a part of. It means the creation that surrounds us, as we are a part of it. There is nothing wrong with the world of nature, except as far as we have gone wrong right in the middle of it. Our perishing ways have blighted the natural world; but that is our fault, and not nature’s.

You see the bad news most clearly in the human world. That is where you can see the “perishing” part. That is where you see darkness and the hiding from the light. That is where you see evil, and ugliness, and condemnation. Where life has gone wrong, you see perishing take the place of life.

Jesus mentions a snake, on a pole, in the desert. It comes from that story in the Book of Numbers, where the people of Israel have won some great victories, and then they sit down and complain.

In the story of the journey of God’s people through the wilderness to the Promised Land, the Lord has been making sure that his people have enough food and water along the way, but they complain about it anyway. And they run into a plague of snakes, really aggressive, deadly snakes. When they confess their guilt to Moses, Moses prays, and the Lord tells him to make a bronze copy of the snakes, and put it on a pole, and the people who look at the bronze snake will be healed.

Moses does, and the people do. The people are healed. The bronze snake is a picture of the people’s sins and it is also, strangely, the picture of God’s holiness, and God’s faithful love.

When the people looked at the bronze snake they saw these two things; and both of them were both true: they saw their sins and they saw God’s love.

That is the good news; but, for now, we are looking at the bad news. Their stubborn habit of complaining tells me of a strange desire that humans have to live outside the love of God. We want to be in charge. We want to do, and say, and think, and feel just what we want, whether it is good or not; whether it is healthy, or helpful, or not; whether it is life-giving or not.

There is nothing wrong with a snake being a snake, but there is a lot wrong with people being like snakes. That is what those people were. They were bitten with their own medicine.

We are the same. The human world, in the way that it is divorced from God, is a snake-bitten world. It has venom running in its veins, and the venom is contagious. It needs a remedy, but it cannot heal itself. We cannot heal ourselves.

The temptation is to think that those people of Israel (the ones who were bitten by the snakes) were bad people. They weren’t bad people. They were ordinary people. They were just ordinary sinners; and they were scared and crabby.

They were tired of always, constantly, having to live by faith. They felt that living by faith didn’t give them enough attention. Living by faith didn’t give them their due. And so they did their share of biting, and they got bit back.

It is the same with us; decent, sincere people that we are: in other words, decent ordinary sinners. Nicodemus was also a decent, sincere man who was capable of seeing God at work in the world around him. He showed that he was capable of seeing God at work in Jesus, and he was capable of wanting to know more about it. And so it was quite a shock to him, as it is to us, to hear these words: “You must be born again.” (John 3:7)

Nicodemus was very wise to see and suggest that this was not possible, because he really almost understood what Jesus meant. He knew that Jesus mean a completely new life; and he himself had probably tried being a new person a thousand times. It hadn’t worked. It was all in vain.

It was so impossible that Nicodemus could do nothing but make a crude joke about it. “Shall I go find my old mother and climb inside her?”

The Greek word that is often used in the New Testament for being born makes us see birth in a way that is different from our normal way of seeing it. It is related to the word for Genesis, as in the creation of the universe. Jesus told Nicodemus, and us, that we have to become a new creation.

What Jesus says must be done is something that it is impossible for us to do. It has nothing to do with the things we can do. It has nothing to do with starting a new chapter in your life, or turning over a new leaf. It has nothing to do with growing or evolving. It has nothing to do with stopping being yourself, or with finding yourself. It has nothing to do with a makeover. (Sometimes kids set out to recreate themselves, but that has nothing to do with being born again.) It has nothing to do with a new attitude, or a new discipline, or a new spirituality.

Back in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, there is a picture of the Holy Spirit of God hovering over the shapeless creation. The shapelessness is described as “the waters” or “the deep”.

The “water and the spirit” are Jesus’ way of describing the new creation of a human being in the miracle of being born again. When he says, “The Spirit gives birth to spirit,” he means that the new life is spirit-centered, he means God-centered. Being born again means being recreated in the power, and the holiness, and the image of God, through the Holy Spirit.

When we are born again, we are no longer purely children of a perishing world, living in perishing ways. Through Jesus, our perishing life has perished. We have come to an end of ourselves. In our heart, we are children of God who will not perish, and we will live in life-giving ways.

It is very important to understand how God does this thing that is impossible for us. We come back to John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“He gave his only begotten son.” That is the key. God gave his son.

Jesus told Nicodemus that the Christ, the Son of God, would be like the snake on the pole that brought healing to those who saw him. Nicodemus knew the story well, but he had never thought of it before as relating to the Messiah. He couldn’t imagine it at all; although, later on, he would see it for himself. Nicodemus would stand at the foot of the cross, and help to take Jesus down from the cross, and bury him.

Crucifixion was considered to be a cursed death (especially by the Jews), because of its bloodiness, its ugliness, its monstrosity. It revealed the reality of evil and sin. It was like visible darkness.

Only the worst and lowest people were crucified. Jesus came to identify himself with this world of evil and darkness. He allowed himself to be treated as if he were the worst and the lowest, by taking it upon himself; by becoming the very picture of this perishing world that is so loved by God.

But Jesus’ plan was for this to bring us life and make us a part of a wonderful world. He died in place of us. He was like the snake on the pole. Those who looked at him would see their own sin. And they would see the faithful love of God. In seeing both they would be healed and they would live. They would do more than live. They would be reborn.

Having faith in what we see on the cross (having faith in who we see on the cross) is a self emptying thing. We die to ourselves when we accept it as God’s gift to us. And the Holy Spirit gives us a new birth into a new life. This is what believing is about.

Sometimes we feel the perishing life closing in on us, holding us like a tightening clamp; but God gives us everlasting life, life that never runs out, life that never ends. God gives us a life where the lights are turned on. In that light we can see the mess better much better than we could before (when we were blind in the darkness), and we can also see the disappearance of so much that we were afraid of.

This is not a thing that we can make happen. But it does happen to us, because God so loves us, and so loves the world to which we belong. When we know this, then we understand the kind of world we live in, and our place in it. We know we live in a perishing world. But, most of all, we know we live in a beloved world, made wonderful by the love of God. And we can go on out, into God’s world, and live out the truth and power of God’s love.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Powers and Hazards of Forgiveness

Preached Sunday, July 31, 2011

Scripture readings: Matthew 6:5-15; 18:21-35

Q&A: If you forgive someone who hasn’t asked for forgiveness, does God forgive them?

One of those reader-board signs in front of a church gave this advice to passers-by. It said: “Forgive your enemies, it messes with their heads.”

I am sure this would be true; just as I am sure that the very thought of forgiving my enemies messes with my own head. The truth is we all need our heads messed with by God. How we receive and give forgiveness shows the mess in our heads that God needs to mess with.

The mess in our heads harks back to the Garden of Eden where we first judged the guilt of others and where we first needed and received forgiveness. The heart of the sin of Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden was that they wanted to be in charge of their own lives. And, obviously, they wanted to be in charge of other people’s lives, too.

The serpent in the garden offered them the forbidden fruit as a way to acquire knowledge, and (through knowledge) power. Adam and Eve wanted the knowledge that would let them chart out their own course as free agents. If they had the knowledge to set up as free agents, they would not have to depend on God, and they would not have to live by faith.

They ate the forbidden fruit because they wanted to know everything from good to evil so they could make their own choices. They wanted to be like God in their wisdom. (Genesis 3:5-6) They wanted to be their own little gods; and they acted on what they wanted.

Their actions changed the nature of the human race to its very heart and core. We became blamers and judgers of others in Adam and Eve. When they were caught, Adam judged Eve, and blamed her. Eve judged and blamed the serpent, the Devil. Whatever knowledge the forbidden fruit gave them did not include the knowledge of faithfulness, or mercy, or forgiveness. And that is why the world is the way it is today.

Jesus said it is important to forgive from our very heart; the very center and core of all our emotions, and our wants, and our impulses. This would show the reversal of the corruption of our human hearts and minds that began in Eden.

Forgiveness from the heart would show the rebirth of faith. It would show our rebirth as creatures who live in relationship with God. This forgiveness would show whether we were allowing the grace of God to transform us into the image of God’s own graciousness. It would show our willingness to let God mess with our heads.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons [and daughters] of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

When we forgive those who wrong us we act in faith. We act out our faith in the kind of God in whom we trust. When we forgive others, we act out our faith that God has forgiven us in Christ.

Paul says: “be kind and compassionate toward one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore as dearly beloved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)

The new life in Christ plants the cross in our hearts. We begin to live as the people of forgiveness. We are commanded to forgive from the heart, because nothing else will prove the living presence of Jesus in us, who forgave our sins.

Peter wanted rules from Jesus about forgiving. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21) Peter wanted to collect the information he needed to be in charge of his brother’s forgiveness or judgment. Peter wanted to be his own agent; his own little god on the judgment throne. It was the sin of the Garden of Eden at work, all over again.

His heart and his head were still messed up with the sin of Adam and Eve, and so Jesus messed with him in the matter of forgiveness. Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22) It was Jesus’ way of saying, “I want you to forgive until you lose count. I want you to stop counting and stop sitting in judgment. Let me be in charge. Let me judge, and let me die for your brother’s sins, and for your sins, and for the sins of the world.”

One of the rules of the ancient rabbis says that you don’t have to forgive the wrongs that someone has done to you unless they are truly repentant, and attempt restitution for their sins. A brother, or a neighbor, or a stranger, or even a rival or enemy who has sinned against you seventy times seven times obviously is not truly sorry and is not making restitution.

Jesus was abolishing the rules about forgiveness, and taking the task of forgiveness upon himself. Forgiving another person seventy times seven times was an act of faith in the forgiveness of Jesus.

If Peter knew this, his heart would be changed. He would forgive till he was sick of it. Then he might act like a follower of Jesus and talk to Jesus about it. Then he would pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

Now there is one important point about what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness does not minimize sin. Forgiveness does not condone sin. Forgiveness does not explain away sin. Forgiveness does not find excuses for sin. Forgiveness requires that sin, hurt, injustice, injury, malice, and evil have to be confronted for what they are.

They have to be faced by the doer, as well as by the one on the receiving end. They have to be faced and dealt with.

Only God can truly deal with sin. And God did this in Christ. The followers of Jesus face the sinfulness of sin and the evilness of evil with the certain knowledge that God himself has died for the sin and evil of the world. It is God, the maker and ruler of the universe, who has faced, and received, and suffered the total weight of the sin, and the evil, and the death of the world on the cross. That is the work that messes with the real issue in our heads and hearts.

Real forgiveness deals with sin. The word forgiveness, in biblical thinking, has its roots in the idea of sending something away or setting something free. Forgiveness of sin is the sending away of sin. Forgiveness of a sinner is the setting of that person free. Only God’s recreation of us through the cross and the resurrection sends sin away and sets us free from its power.

Human forgiveness finds it hard to get wrongdoing out of a person and send it away. It can be done but it is hard, and long, and serious work. It is a parent’s work. How do you teach a child not to covet (not to be jealous or envious)? How do you teach a child not to lie?

My parents tried to teach me to tell the truth. If the truth be told, they worked at this very hard, but they also explained to me the mystery of the white lie.

There’s another thing they did that shows how it is long, hard, difficult work for human beings to send sin away from other people’s lives and set them free. When I was a kid we would go as a family to see movies at the drive-in theater. When I was twelve I was instructed to pretend that I was ten, and my sisters hid under a blanket, so our family could drive in for cheap. This was an interesting twist in my training in honesty. Teaching honesty is hard work. A totally honest and life-changing forgiveness is hard work.

Forgiveness has a great power to change people. I am thankful for the chances that I have been given through others forgiving me. I am always amazed at being forgiven. It always strikes me as being a kind of miracle, because I know it doesn’t come easy.

We are wounded by the wrongdoing of others, and these wounds sometimes accumulate over life. Forgiving others is like an act of heroism or like an award-winning athletic achievement. Such great work is hard to do when you are wounded. And I think our need for forgiveness, in our heart, is like a self-inflicted wound.

When we grant forgiveness, from our heart, in the hopes of sending the wrong-doing away and out of the life of the person who has done us wrong, it is hard. It has no guarantees. Granting them forgiveness from the heart in order to free them from the wrong they did to you (and may yet do again to you and to others) is hard because you may not want to set them free. And you can never be sure how much the difficulty owes to the fact that each one of us is (in some sense) just as much in need of forgiveness as those who wrong us.

But Jesus sets the priorities like this. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

The Lord’s Prayer helps us to understand our mission as forgivers. The Lord’s Prayer is not a set of miniature prayers for us to learn by heart and repeat from memory. This prayer is to be the portrait of our heart in the presence of God, and it is to be the portrait of God to us when we pray. It is not a bunch of separate bits and pieces. The phrases of this prayer belong together to make up the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth of a face. It is a portrait.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” is a part of the same portrait “Hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The hallowing, the lifting up and glorifying of the name of the Lord, is wrapped up in being forgiven as we have forgiven others. They cannot be separated.

Forgiveness is God’s work. Forgiveness is his name. Forgiveness is his kingdom. It is his power and glory forever. It is God in Christ, crucified for us. It is his nature as “the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)

When we forgive, we are agents of the kingdom of God. We are agents of Jesus, and we have been sent by Jesus to do his work and speak his words. We have to learn the meaning of forgiveness from our heart. We have to drown the desire of our heart to be in charge of the judgment and forgiveness of others by forgiving until we lose count.

But this is also the truth: we forgive others with the very will of God for their forgiveness. Paul says as much, when he writes: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19)

Now this sermon is meant to answer a question that was given to me. The question is: “If you forgive someone who hasn’t asked forgiveness, does God forgive them?

The simple answer is “yes”. Yes, God forgives them. But there is the question of how a person receives a gift they haven’t asked for and that they do not want.

How do you handle being given a gift you do not want? Do you say, “No, thank you,” and hand it back to the giver? Do you throw the gift away when the giver is out of sight? Do you turn around and give it to someone else who may not want it any more than you do?

To be reconciled to God, and to be a new creation in Christ through his work of making us creatures of peace through the cross, is a wonderful thing. Who wouldn’t want it? Who wouldn’t want peace with God? Who wouldn’t want peace with their family or with a member of their family? Who wouldn’t want peace in their church? Who wouldn’t want to forgive their enemies? Who wouldn’t want to be an agent of God's peace in the world? Everyone wants peace and does everything in their power to make the peace of Christ a living reality around them; or do they?

God’s gift of forgiveness is God’s way of saying “yes” to us. What if we say “no” to God’s “yes”?

I said “yes” to Jesus when I was a child. As time when by, and I became a teenager, I devised my own way of relating to him; wanting to love him, and wanting to go my own way at the same time. And I wanted to protect myself from Jesus’ wants and desires for my life. I tried to hold onto him and to hold him off at the same time.

And someone said some things about Jesus’ love for me and his dying for me that were so touching and beautiful that it seemed like a crime to keep wanting to have things my own way. Jesus said “yes” to my forgiveness. He said “yes” to my identity as his child. It seemed like a crime to not say “yes” to his “yes”. I felt that I could hardly face myself again if I said “no” to his “yes”; so I said “yes” to his “yes”, and a new life began for me; a new life that I had interrupted. And Jesus began it all over again, as if I had nothing to be ashamed of.

But I have to confess it was hard to say “yes” to his “yes”. I had resisted it for what seemed like forever.

You and I are called to forgive others, whatever they may say or do. You and I are called to be agents of the beauty of the love of God in Christ that shows its greatest beauty and power in forgiveness.

We are not the gods we want to be. Only God is God and we are his agents, and we speak and live out our obedience by faith. We are called to know, from our heart, how strong, how powerful, the “yes” of God is. We are not called to be afraid of others saying “no”.

People do say “no” but we are not to listen to them when they say it. We are not to doubt the power of God.

We are to drown our fears in a forgiveness that is so big that we lose count of how many times forgiveness has been required of us. We are to drown our fears for others in a forgiveness that is so big that we cannot imagine anyone being capable of escaping it.

Some people may keep saying “no” to the very end, but we are called to faith, and not to doubt. We are called to hope and not give up.

The children of God do not lose confidence. We are called to have faith and hope in the power of the forgiveness of God so that we can pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”