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.

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