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.

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