Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - The Long View of Hope

Preached on Sunday, September 17, 2017

Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 32:36-47; Romans 15:1-13

Around Tall Timber Ranch (Camp), Cascade Mountains
Above Leavenworth, WA
Between the White and Napeequa Rivers
When I was little, when I would do something wrong and absolutely no one was there to see it, my mother would immediately know about it. She would say to me, “I can read you like a book.”
I don’t know what scared me most about this. Was it her ability to read me? Or, was it my frightening ability to be read by anyone who took one look at me?
The Book of Deuteronomy tells us that God can read his people like a book. God tells Moses to finish his book by writing into it what God reads in his people. God gave it to Moses in the form of a song.
It’s a very long song. As a whole, it isn’t pretty, but it is beautiful. The song is the story of God and his people from beginning to end; or from the first beginning to the new beginning, in the kingdom of God. The song tells us the long, long story of God’s plan to make a new world out of the one that causes us, and him, so much distress.
The song tells Israel the long story of what their history was going to be, and their part in God’s plan to include the whole world in the joy of his good news. The song teaches them that their part in the story does no credit to them.
It also speaks to us about what our own long history consists of, and our part in that same plan. Those who come to the God of Israel, though Jesus, the King, Son of David, Son of God, from all the nations, also become part of “The Israel of God”, as Paul tells us in the New Testament. (Galatians 6:16 - see also Gal. 3:39; Rom. 9:6; and Phil. 3;3))
So, the long song is our story as well. Because of this, the song tells us that we share the same credit in the story as Israel.
The song has its beauties. The Lord is like rain, and showers, and dew on new grass. The implication is that we definitely need the Lord to be rain for us. It also makes us think about the real rain we need at the end of this year’s fire season.
The Lord is like a rock, everybody loves a rock. In Desert Aire, there are never enough rocks on the ground, but people building a new house always have to bring in more rocks, the bigger the better.
The Lord is our creator and, more than that, the Lord is our Father.
The Lord is like a mother eagle, who catches us (her eaglets) when we fall out of the nest. The Lord carries us on his wings, so that we can learn to fly with him.
So, our place in the song, on the wings of God, is beautiful, but we’re not pretty. God finds us in the middle of a desert. God has to bring us out of the barrenness, and out of the lonely wasteland.
Perhaps you can remember something like that, yourselves. Could the desert mean a fruitless life, a lonely life, a howling angry life? Could the desert mean lovelessness, helplessness, emptiness, failure, or blame?
But there’s grace in the desert: the grace of God. Even a single life can make a long, long song with grace at the beginning and at the end, and grace is there to set right all that goes wrong in between. For all of us, this is a long song of the life of every soul, through all the ages of time, in this world as we know it. (32:1-43)
The song is a picture of all time, and it doesn’t have a lot of concrete, definable events. The desert in the song is Egypt, where the Lord found Israel in slavery. The heights are the high country of The Promised Land with its walled cities on the hilltops. The honey, and milk, and curds, and oil, and wheat are the abundance of the new land which the Lord gives to them. It’s a land that makes them fat. (32:10-14)
Even in the Bible, being fat can be bad. When Jeshurun (which is God’s pet name, or love name, for his people, and it means “My Upright One”). When the upright one gets fat, he kicks and abandons God. (32:15)
This lesson goes all through the Bible: of being so close and blessed by God that you forget who he is. You worship what God gives you, instead of worshiping God. You don’t think you’ve changed, but you have.
To say, as the song says it, “They are a nation without sense,” could happen to us, in our own way. We could worship our work or our retirement. We could worship our freedom or our commitment. We could worship church instead of Jesus.
Even when we come into God’s country, with God’s help, God often has this new work to do. His job becomes getting rid of our new false gods, showing them up for what they are. When God takes those new false gods down, the Lord will say (in the words of the song): “Now where are their gods?”
This long song is, for Israel and for us, sort of a long view of our history: past, present, and future. Long as it is, it’s too short to tell us everything. Even the Bible, long as it is, is too short to tell us everything. It’s designed to tell us not what we want to know, but what God believes we need to know, and God does not think like us.
This shouldn’t be that hard to see. God has a plan, and he’s planned it to be good to Israel, and the same plan is planned to be good to everyone else, as well. Israel goes wrong and gets disciplined, to say the least. All the nations go wrong in their relationship with God’s people, and with each other, and they all get disciplined, to say the least. All of this happens in this one song.
Songs are poetry, and Hebrew poetry often works by repeating the same idea over, at least twice, in adjacent phrases, or a progression of phrases. The mystery of the way God works can be seen in one pair of phrases: “The Lord will judge his people and have compassion on his servants.” (32:36) The poetry of this half sentence is an equation of judgment and compassion. Judgement and compassion are not two separate things. They are two measurements of the same thing.
They aren’t two stages of the same thing. They aren’t a process, as we might think. Judgment and compassion are two expressions of God’s love, or God’s faithfulness. Any good parent can understand this.
Preachers can get this wrong. We are warned about the dangers of judging because it’s so easy to get it wrong, even though we have to do it.
Preachers can get this wrong. For instance, some preachers blamed the sinfulness of the city of New Orleans for bringing on the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, but I didn’t hear any preachers blaming the sinfulness of the city of Houston for bringing on the destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey. When preachers do this, they create many of the unnecessary problems that the world has with the Bible.
I’m just saying that when we are confused about (and when we misapply) God’s judgment and compassion, we can misunderstand everything that happens in this world.
The song is really about the Lord’s unchanging love. It tells us that, in the end, the Lord will bless all the nations and bring them together in joy and praise. This comes out right at the very end of the song. “Rejoice, O nations, with his people, for he will avenge the blood of his servants; he will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people.” (32:43) And so it’s all good.
Paul says that this verse is about bringing Israel and all the nations together, and it’s about a gracious acceptance of other people who are different from you. He says that this verse is about the gentiles, but the word “gentiles” means “nations”, not merely non-Jews. Paul’s quote is the same as the verse in Deuteronomy. “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” (Romans 15:10) “Rejoice O Nations.”
Paul means us to know that this whole long view of the history of humanity is about the mercy of God. It’s all about hope.
We don’t often look at the world around us with hope, or thoughts of mercy. Mw might not even look at our own lives with thoughts of God’s mercy. Because of this, the long song of God and his people is God’s loving provision for us. Our life needs hope.
The song was written into God’s law, and God’s law isn’t only a matter of rules. The law of gravity isn’t about a rule like “what goes up comes down”. That often shows up, with gravity, but it’s about much more.
Any truly important law is more about the nature of a thing: like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are more than rules. They define the nature of what we are as a nation. God’s law presents us with a picture of the nature of God and the nature of God’s ways.
The song is about God’s ways of judgment and compassion working as one. Paul makes the two one in the gospel: the gospel is the good news of the righteousness of God given to us in Jesus (the King of the Jews), crucified for the sins of the world (and for our sins), and risen from the dead.
The song in Deuteronomy tells us that the hope and joy of Israel and the nations will be complete because of God’s atonement of his people’s sins. But the song has the nations joining Israel in their joy, praising God with one voice. God’s atonement doesn’t only work for Israel. It works for everyone.
Atonement is a solution to a problem. Atonement, heals a conflict or a division. You could say that (by happy chance) atonement means “at-one-ment”. The problem that atonement solves is the conflict and division between the human race and God because of human pride, self-worship, missing the mark, and sin.
Jesus is God becoming human and (by dying and rising from the dead) bridging the gap between God and his fallen children, who have been caught by the power of sin and death. The atonement that changes the world, and all people, is a bridge built by God, in Jesus.
In another way, atonement means “covering”. It refers to the blood of a sacrifice covering the wrong, and the sickness, and the sin that divides us. God provides the covering blood, in Jesus.
I know this can sound yucky. It works in such a strange way, as if God, looking at us covered with the blood of Jesus, sees his Son in us, and upon us. We have peace with God through the blood which God, himself, provided for us to give us a new identity in Jesus.
In the song, and in Paul, we see the long view of history: the wars, the brutality, the pride, the wrong, and the injustice of it all. The long view, without answering all our questions about how and why, tells us that the long view is about the hope which God, in his love, has worked out for us.
I saw a post on Facebook that said this: “The hardest part of being a parent is watching a child go through something really tough and not being able to fix it for them.”
This is true on a human level. But “we live, and move, and have our being” in God. (Acts 17:28) God has the power, and the judgment, and the compassion to fix us, and to fix this world as we know it.
All of us, as God’s people, like those who traveled with Moses to the promised land, have a long view held up to us for our learning and for our encouragement. Our part is often not very pretty, but God’s part makes it beautiful.
We are told to learn God’s song. We are told that: “They are not idle words for you – they are your life.” (32:47)
In Moses’ song, we can read ourselves like a book. Our life depends on being able to read ourselves, and our part in this long journey, in this long song.
Our life depends on receiving the gift that comes from God’s good judgment and compassion: his infinite love for us, and for the whole world, in Christ. In Christ, God covers us with compassion and with faithfulness. We need that if we want to make our journey of faith with hope.

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