This blog is mostly sermons of a pastor serving Riverside Community Church, Mattawa/Desert Aire, Washington. An eremite is someone who lives in a wilderness or desert of some kind. I have often lived in remote places. Early Christian eremites lived under the discipline of solitude within the discipline of community. I try to be involved in worshiping, studying, and praying with others; and serving others wherever I find myself. I try to keep up with my correspondence in the electronic desert.
Monday, January 21, 2013
A New World: A Retriever Instinct
Jennie the Non Retrieving Labrador Retriever
Preached on Sunday, January 20, 2013
Scripture readings: Jeremiah
33:4-11; Mark 2:1-17
About twelve years ago, my parents bought a Labrador
retriever from the county animal shelter, and they named her Jenny. My mom
claims that Jenny doesn’t know that she is a dog. My mom claims that Jenny
thinks of herself as a person. My counterclaim is that Jenny knows that she is
a dog; but that she thinks the rest of us are dogs too; only very strange, and
confused, and puzzling dogs.
One thing that Jenny definitely does not know is that
she is a retriever. Jenny doesn’t know how to fetch. She knows how to run. She
knows how to chase things, like the strange cats that shouldn’t be in her yard,
that are not extensions of the pack.
But if you throw a ball, or a Frisbee, or a stick, or
anything, Jenny is completely clueless. She looks at you and wonders why you
threw that thing away. She tilts her head, in that doggy way, and asks, “What
on earth is wrong with you?”
Jenny being manipulated by "Kit"
Jenny doesn’t know that she is a retriever. If the
instinct is there, she doesn’t recognize it or know what to do with it.
God is, by nature, a retriever. God shows us this all
the way through the story of the Bible, which is the story of God’s retrieval
of a fallen world.
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah shows us God’s
instinct for faithfulness, which is part of his holiness; and the anger of God
which is God’s instinctive response to the betrayal of faithfulness, which is
also a part of his holiness. In both of these ways Jeremiah shows us God’s
instinctive love because, in the presence of both betrayal and anger, God is
faithful, still, and God can be trusted to remain a retriever.
God is a retriever. He responds to our betrayals (which
is what all of our sins are) and even to his own anger, through healing,
forgiving, transforming, and restoring. “Nevertheless I will bring health and
healing…. I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and
security…. I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me
and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me. Then this city will
bring me renown, joy, praise, and honor before all nations on earth….”
God came in Jesus to bring healing, forgiveness,
transformation, and restoration to his people, and to all people so that they
might become his people. This is the new world of Jesus. This is the new world that
the good news of the gospel is about.
In the most powerful way, this new world has been
created by the life, and the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. But Jesus
lived his mission all through his life, just as we are to live his mission
through our own lives.
Jesus directed his life, his words, his action, and
his passion toward healing, forgiving, transforming, and restoring the world
around him, and the people in it. His instinct for doing this stank in the
minds of religious and self-righteous people. They detested the thought of
forgiving and healing others.
They had sought their own value in a God which they
had made in their own image, who did not require them to be healers and
forgivers. In that frame of mind, they could not approve of what Jesus did, or
what he stood for. They would never help him. They would try to stop him, and
they would do all that they could to undo his work.
They did believe in goodness. They even believed that
they loved goodness. But they made goodness itself unlovely. They were good
people in the very worst possible sense of the word. They had exchanged a love
of goodness for a love of status without changing its name.
They had lost their instinct for genuine goodness and
they didn’t know what they had lost. Their goodness was diseased, and they were
contagious, and they did not know it. Jesus insisted on rubbing the spiritual
noses of those people, who did not share his passion for the healing and
forgiving of others, in the smell of his unwelcomed faithfulness.
This was for the sake of their healing, and it was for
their own good. These times were Jesus’ own wars of judgment against the rebellious
people whom he loved; whom he had come to transform and restore. He laid siege
to the fortified cities of their self righteousness. And he chose his moments
carefully, as you must carefully choose the right moments to discipline a dog
who is not clear on the issues at stake.
Jesus chose his moments. He made the healing of a
paralyzed man into an x-ray of his critic’s brains. He did this so that the dye
of his forgiveness would appear on the monitor of their thoughts, and show the dangerous
blockage that had to be dissolved or surgically removed.
He could have healed the paralyzed man without saying
anything about forgiveness. Everyone who comes to Jesus, for any reason, needs
forgiveness. But here was an opportunity for a fresh teachable moment, and he
had to rub their noses in his mercy while it was fresh. Maybe this teaching
moment would reawaken their lost instinct to be retrievers like God: like Jesus.
The calling of Levi (who is also named Matthew, and
who gave us the Gospel of Matthew) is another case in point.
The land of Galilee, where Jesus and the disciples lived, was a
puppet kingdom within a province of the Roman Empire.
It was ruled by one of the members of the Herod family. The first king Herod
was the king who killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem when Jesus was a baby there,
because Herod had heard, from the wise men, about the birth of a rival king in
that little town.
Levi collected taxes to support the government of
that little kingdom approved by Rome.
Everyone knew that the little kingdom of the Herod family in Galilee
worked for the Roman invaders and occupiers. Anyone who worked for them was
considered a traitor.
The fact that Levi was willing to work for the Herod
family, and for the Romans, meant that he probably didn’t care much what other
people thought of him. His purpose in life was not getting the respect of
others, but getting money; getting his cut of the taxes he collected.
As long as his bosses could trust him to deliver the
goods, Levi could get away getting a lot for himself. There was no other reason
for doing what he did. Levi was not a good person. There is no reason to expect
that Levi was even a nice person, not even under the surface.
Just as Jesus could forgive and heal the paralyzed
man, he could do the same for Levi; and he did it. Jesus transformed and
restored Levi to a lost image and gave him a lost instinct.
Levi, or Matthew, was going to be a retriever sooner
than he thought. Jesus had a plan for a teachable moment. He set it in motion
by inviting himself to a party that Levi had not known he was going to give, in
his own house, for the work of retrieving others, whether they knew they needed
this or not.
We can speculate on what kind of prior knowledge and
preparation Levi had had for following Jesus, but Mark gives us none of that.
He only tells us that Jesus could walk up to a person and say, “Follow me.” And
that person would follow him. That is the point.
The critics of Jesus were right, that no one but God
could forgive sins. They would also have believed that only God could give a
person a new heart and mind. This tells us who Jesus is, because Jesus could do
The critics did not believe that Jesus could
inherently do what only God can do. They did not believe that Levi and his
friends could be truly changed by Jesus and become, through Jesus, anything but
sinners. But they were wrong.
Levi had definitely been a sinner, and Levi was still
a sinner, just as we all are. But Levi was no longer owned by his sins. They
were not his goal, and he was no longer led by them.
Levi was now owned by Jesus. Jesus became his goal,
and Jesus led him. And so, Levi was healed, forgiven, transformed, and restored
to the image of God through Jesus.
The heart of this new life would be in the cross and the
resurrection of Jesus. It is through the cross and the resurrection that we all
die to ourselves and are reborn in Jesus. But the cross and the resurrection,
just over the horizon, already lived in the heart of Jesus as he walked this
earth in Galilee. They were his essence and
this was his power to give to the paralyzed man, and to Levi and his friends,
new hearts and minds.
Jeremiah tells us, in the thirty-first chapter of his
book, what only God can do. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on
their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah
This is what Jesus was doing. This is what he still
does. God’s forgiveness is not a word, or a gesture, or an idea, it is a living,
powerful thing, a living power that changes minds and hearts. In the cross and
the resurrection there is a new life; a whole new world, that becomes ours when
we come into the world of Jesus by faith; when Jesus brings his new world into
our hearts and minds by faith.
We need to know that our faith is not the power that
makes this happen. It is the power of God. The Holy Spirit brings the
faithfulness of God, in Jesus, into us.
Our faith is trust in what the Lord offers us and
promises us. Our faith is a trust that is willing to open itself and consent to
his will and his work within us and through us.
The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God’s forgiveness
retrieves his people from their rebellion. There is a conflict when God’s own
people do not consent to God’s rule, God’s kingdom over them.
We see the same rebellion, and the same lack of willing
consent, in Mark’s telling of the story of the healing and forgiving of the
paralyzed man and the calling of Levi and his friends. There is a conflict
between even God’s own people and the instinct of God to be a retriever.
Mark puts us into the scene of this conflict to
create a teachable moment for us; to show us the real face of God in Christ,
and to hold a mirror to our own hearts and minds. Do we willingly consent to
join the kingdom
of God, which is a kingdom
of retrievers? Is there an obstacle within us, so that we see the sin in others
and yet we do not see the passion of God for the healing of their sins? Or do
we see the whole picture and give to God our consent?
The critics of Jesus were right, because no one but
God can forgive sins. Nor can anyone but God give to people a new mind and a
We would sometimes dearly love to have the power to
do this (to reach into someone’s mind and heart and make them new, and make
them over). But that is not in our power. Our real power is to pray for them;
to pray to the God we meet in Jesus; who faithfully loves us and who also
faithfully loves those for whom we pray.
Levi consented by giving the party that Jesus wanted
and inviting his friends to meet Jesus. Levi consented and cooperated with the
king of the retrievers, and so he became a retriever too. So should we.