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….” (Jeremiah 33:6-9)

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 it all.

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 31:33)

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 new heart.

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.

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