Tag Archives: forgiveness

Faith Enough to Forgive

Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”

“Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

So the Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this black mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled out by the roots and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Luke 17:1-6 (NET)

I came across this passage from Luke during my devotional time this weekend. I’ve read it and heard it so many times before, the temptation is to let my eyes glaze over it without really listening. But I did listen, and I heard something I have missed all those times before in my haste to move through the book and get on to something fresh.

Normally, my mind is drawn to the serious warning Jesus gives to anyone who might lead another into sin. This business about the millstone around the neck is tough stuff; it’s hard to get past that.

“Could Jesus be talking to me about this?” I’ll think to myself. “What if I don’t mean to lead anyone else to sin, but it happens anyways? Am I still responsible? This is kind of a scary lesson. Maybe following Jesus isn’t really for me after all; it sounds pretty risky.”

This is where my mind usually stops, but for the Christ, this is only the beginning. As if this grim admonition wasn’t enough for one day of contemplation, the lesson moves on to another tough subject — forgiveness.

Offering true forgiveness is rarely an easy thing to do, but here Jesus is making it the explicit responsibility of his disciples to hold one another accountable, and, when the time is right, to eagerly offer a warm embrace and a full measure of forgiveness. It’s as if failing in these two charges could push us down the dangerous path the Teacher first alluded to. Repentance, and then forgiveness, are the markers believers must use not only in their own quests after God, but also in any efforts to lead others to Christ as well.

Then, before anybody (I’m looking at you, Peter) can second guess what Jesus means by forgiveness, the Master tells his disciples: “Even if a man wrongs you seven times — that’s seven times in a single day — you must be ready to offer him forgiveness as soon as he comes to you. Don’t put it off! Forgive him, just as your Father has forgiven you.”

Forgiving an abstract sin in the name of Christ to help your brother or sister move forward in faith can be a great joy, but forgiving another person who has seriously wronged you personally is much harder to do. Forgiving someone time and time again, over the course of a lifelong relationship that just never seems to fall into sync is one of the most difficult tasks we can deal with — one that never gets any easier as we get more and more opportunities to practice it — but still, it can be done. But forgiving someone for a serious wrong, and then to be injured again by the same person a moment later, only to forgive him again, and then to have the cycle repeat itself seven times in one day? How can I possibly do that? The best effort I think I could muster would be to just stay away from the offending party so that I don’t lose it altogether and go off the deep end.

But that’s not the action Jesus has called us to. We can’t just sit idly by while another person flounders in a sea of ever increasing sin. We have a responsibility to reach out a steady hand and offer quick forgiveness.

I’m sure my feeble response would echo that of the other disciples: “Lord, increase my faith! I know I can’t do this without you.”

Increase my faith!

That is a prayer I have voiced many times before, though not usually in this context. Typically it is connected with another clause, such as “Increase my faith so that I can be patient and trust you, God, to show me the job opportunity you have for me.” Or “Increase my faith so that I can stop stressing over my financial situation and believe in your promise to meet my needs.” Or even “Jesus, please increase my faith so that I can step into this ministry opportunity you’ve set before me; give me the words to say, and the courage to say them, so that you may be glorified. Increase my faith!”

I’m not sure that my prayers have ever been in line with this teaching. I don’t think I’ve ever said, “God, increase my faith so that I can learn to forgive as you do. Increase my faith so that I might know, as you do, that my brother isn’t going to be a slave to this cycle of sin forever. Increase my faith so that I can understand how each small act of love chisels away a piece of the chain that’s keeping him, and me, from living in the fullness of your kingdom. Please, Lord, increase my faith.”

I have often prayed for a stronger faith to help me climb the mountains I have set my sights on. Perhaps a better place to start, if I’m really serious about growing in my faith, is here, at the place where Jesus has pointed me to. Maybe it’s best to start here, with the faith necessary to forgive; or maybe, as far as faith goes, forgiveness takes everything we have.

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Preaching Brimstone and…. Water?

Out of the Depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

Psalm 130:1-4 (NRSV)

Do you ever hear something that just makes you cringe?

Maybe it’s simply a word that seems vile to your ears. Maybe it’s a harsh truth that stirs up strong feelings when you hear it brought up in casual conversation. Or maybe its a lie; you just get sick at the thought of dangerous untruths digging deeper and deeper into the social consciousness of the people you care about.

I’m not sure which category of cringe-inducing remarks this fits into, but the end result is the same: I can’t help but wince whenever I hear people, especially Christians, talk about the “Old-Testament-god of wrath and vengeance, of fire and brimstone.”

Some people I know who identify God this way are individuals with no real interest in the Lord. They have an image of a God that is cruel and vindictive — often because that is how he has been portrayed by their Christian friends — and they have made up their minds that they want nothing to do with that type of God, so they give up on him all together. My heart breaks for these people. I pray for them, and I hope that I can find a way to show them some portion of the true love that God has for them.

What is more confusing to me is how some Christians talk this way as well. They speak of one god who was legalistic, rigid, demanding and dangerous — an old god who brought down fire from heaven to consume those who displeased him — and another god who is welcoming, compassionate, forgiving and full of love — a Good Shepherd who will leave everything behind to rescue one lost sheep. It’s as if all of a sudden, God changed his mind about how he was going to run things; he changed his mind about how he wanted creation to be ordered; he changed his mind about what kind of relationship he wanted to have with his people, and so he sent Jesus to Earth to give us an update and let us in on the new plan.

This kind of thinking doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t believe God changed his mind. He has always wanted people everywhere to seek him out, to know him, to live in relationship with him and to build healthy relationships with others in order to honor him. When God revealed himself in the person of Jesus, he gave humanity its clearest and most direct glimpse at himself as part of the ongoing revelation that began at the beginning and is still unfolding to this day. In Jesus, men and women saw better than ever the love, compassion, wisdom and grace that God has for all people. That same love Jesus lavished on those he came in contact with, and the same desire he showed to live in intimate relationship with his followers, was not anything new — it had been God’s will all along, but somehow the message kept getting misunderstood; it still does today.

To be honest, not that long ago I had conflicting images of God’s judgment and God’s grace. I had a hard time reconciling the God that created the universe, that preserved Noah’s line in the flood, that lead his people on an exodus out of Egypt and established a line of priests, prophets and kings in Israel with the God who was born in a manager, lived as a homeless wanderer, built relationships with people that crossed all racial, economic, social and religious lines, and then died on a cross to demonstrate his own steadfast love for mankind. The Yahweh of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament seemed so far apart in my eyes.

Then I decided to read the Old Testament; Not just the stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses, but the sacred writings of God’s prophets and priests. Imagine my surprise when I saw the love of Christ embodied in these ancient scriptures.

If any preacher epitomizes the “Fire and Brimstone” style of homiletics, Amos is the man. The book of Amos begins with harsh words for Israel’s neighbors, who have attacked their distant cousins living across the border and pillaged cities that were living in peace. Amos declares God’s judgment will literally be demonstrated by fire raining down from heaven and consuming these people. Then he turns his sight on Israel. Because God’s people have traded in real justice and loving relationships for hypocritical religion and shrewdly-amassed wealth, they also will reap their just rewards. Yet the book of Amos isn’t all doom and gloom. It is a desperate plea to the people. Amos, again and again, calls for his listeners to turn back to Yahweh, to repent, to denounce their greedy lifestyles, to stop paying lip service to God and start living in community with one another as God intends.

The first several chapters of Amos seem to be all judgment with no hope, but don’t give up! Keep reading, and you’ll learn that even when God’s people have utterly disregarded his word and turned their backs on the needs of their neighbors, the Lord is still waiting with open arms to take them back, to call them his own children again, to forgive their sins and guide them into a better life.

Listen to this funeral song I am ready to sing about you, family of Israel:
“The virgin Israel has fallen down and will not get up again.
She is abandoned on her own land
with no one to help her get up.”
The sovereign Lord says this:
“The city that marches out with a thousand soldiers will have only a hundred left;
the town that marches out with a hundred soldiers will have only ten left for the family of Israel.”

The Lord says this to the family of Israel:
“Seek me so you can live!
Do not seek Bethel!
Do not visit Gilgal!
Do not journey down to Beer Sheba!
For the people of Gilgal will certainly be carried into exile;
and Bethel will become a place where disaster abounds.”

Seek the Lord so you can live!
Otherwise he will break out like fire against Joseph’s family;
the fire will consume
and no one will be able to quench it and save Bethel.

The Israelites turn justice into bitterness;
they throw what is fair and right to the ground.

(But there is one who made the constellations Pleiades and Orion;
he can turn the darkness into morning
and daylight into night.
He summons the water of the seas
and pours it out on the earth’s surface.
The Lord is his name!
He flashes destruction down upon the strong
so that destruction overwhelms the fortified places.)

The Israelites hate anyone who arbitrates at the city gate;
they despise anyone who speaks honestly.
Therefore, because you make the poor pay taxes on their crops
and exact a grain tax from them,
you will not live in the houses you built with chiseled stone,
nor will you drink the wine from the fine vineyards you planted.
Certainly I am aware of your many rebellious acts
and your numerous sins.
You torment the innocent, you take bribes,
and you deny justice to the needy at the city gate.
For this reason whoever is smart keeps quiet in such a time,
for it is an evil time.

Seek good and not evil so you can live!
Then the Lord, the God who commands armies, just might be with you,
as you claim he is.
Hate what is wrong, love what is right!
Promote justice at the city gate!
Maybe the Lord, the God who commands armies, will have mercy on those who are left from Joseph.

Because of Israel’s sins this is what the Lord, the God who commands armies, the sovereign One, says:
“In all the squares there will be wailing,
in all the streets they will mourn the dead.
They will tell the field workers to lament
and the professional mourners to wail.
In all the vineyards there will be wailing,
for I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord.

Woe to those who wish for the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the Lord’s day of judgment to come?
It will bring darkness, not light.
Disaster will be inescapable,
as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear,
then escaped into a house,
leaned his hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a poisonous snake.
Don’t you realize the Lord’s day of judgment will bring darkness, not light —
gloomy blackness, not bright light?

“I absolutely despise your festivals!
I get no pleasure from your religious assemblies!
Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied;
I will not look with favor on your peace offerings of fattened calves.
Take away from me your noisy songs;
I don’t want to hear the music of your stringed instruments.
Justice must flow like torrents of water,
righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.”

Amos 5:1-24 (NET)

What do you read there?

Amos reminds me, first of all, that God is inescapable. Whether we acknowledge him or not, trying to hide ourselves from God is as futile “as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear, then escaped into a house, leaned his hand against the wall, and was bitten by a poisonous snake.” Sounds like a scene from a movie, doesn’t it? We cannot hide our actions, or even our motives, from the one who made the stars in the sky and the hairs on our heads. This brings us to the next point, that even if God’s big plan for the world, and for my life, seems hard to decipher, it’s important to remember that the most important task he has called us to is to live honest lives, to practice social justice, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in so doing, honor and worship him with our lives — not just with our organized religious services. “Seek good and not evil so you can live! Hate what is wrong, love what is right. … Justice must flow like torrents of water; righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.” This is the faithfulness God demands from us! This is the type of faithfulness he tried to communicate to his people through the law given to Moses, it is the type of faithfulness the ancient prophets tried to call the Israelites back to, and it is the type of faithfulness perfectly embodied in the person of Jesus.

Then there is the prophet Hosea. Working through Hosea, God took another unique approach to getting his message across to the people. While Amos courageously proclaimed God’s truth to the people until they couldn’t hear it anymore, Hosea modeled the steadfast love and forgiveness God shares with us in his own family relationships. Apparently, at the Spirit’s guidance, Hosea was lead to marry a local prostitute. After the honeymoon period, he continued preaching, and she continued plying her trade; yet Hosea was more than ready to take her back, never hesitated in forgiving her infidelity and always offered unfailing love — even to one who spurned him again and again! When the prostitute is so buried in her life of sin that she is taken into slavery, Hosea goes into town and buys her back. He pays for his own wife, like any other man in the street could, so that he can take her back home with him, forgive her once again, and try, one more time, to begin building an intimate relationship based on love, not selfish pleasure.

This is the type of enduring love the God of the Old Testament has for his people — for all people — even in the darkest of times. The writings of Amos, Hosea, Jonah and the other prophets speak of painful things — suffering, poverty, slavery and death. These hard things are a part of life, often brought into being by our own hands. These things are not God’s will for our lives, but he is committed to finding a way to work through them for the good of creation.

When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt. But the more I summoned them, the farther they departed from me. They sacrificed to the Baal idols and burned incense to images. Yet it was I who led Ephraim, I took them by the arm; but they did not acknowledge that I had healed them. I led them with leather cords, with leather ropes; I lifted the yoke from their neck, and gently fed them.

They will return to Egypt! Assyria will rule over them because they refuse to repent! A sword will flash in their cities, it will destroy the bars of their city gates, and will devour them in their fortresses. My people are obsessed with turning away from me; they call to Baal, but he will never exalt them!

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I surrender you, O Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
I have had a change of heart!
All my tender compassions are aroused!
I cannot carry out my fierce anger!
I cannot totally destroy Ephraim!

Because I am God, and not man — the Holy One among you — I will not come in wrath!

Hosea 11:1-9 (NET)

The way I see it, God hasn’t changed at all.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that we have changed much either.


A Tale of Two Kings

This is a manuscript of the sermon I preached earlier tonight. As I said in an earlier post, one of my great challenges in sermon writing has been seeing the sermon as more of a conversation than an essay. With this goal in mind, most of my sermons have ended up being perhaps too colloquial in order to break away from the routine of essay recital. While I don’t want to tout this sermon as a wonderful example of homiletics, I do feel like it represents the best balance between the colloquial and the reverent that I have yet come up with.

Let me know what you think.


First Scripture Reading:

Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.”

But Naboth replied, “The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”
So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.

His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?”
He answered her, “Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’ ”
Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him. In those letters she wrote: “Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them testify that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”

So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them. They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people. Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, “Naboth has cursed both God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. Then they sent word to Jezebel: “Naboth has been stoned and is dead.”

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.” When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’ ”

Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!”

“I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD. ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. …’”

I Kings 21:1-21a (NIV)


Second Scripture Reading:

When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.”

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'”

Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the LORD, the son born to you will die.”

After Nathan had gone home, the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill.

II Samuel 11:26-12:10, 12:13-15 (NIV)


A Tale of Two Kings

We all love heroes. As children, our heroes are always the clear good guys — Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman. We look to our heroes to see what we like best about ourselves. Our fictional heroes often personify this goodness. When we see them on the streets fighting the good fight, living honest lives and helping others, it makes us feel better about ourselves because we see a little bit of our own desire in them.

From time to time, though, even the strongest heroes stumble. Every other movie or so, Spiderman seems to stray off the straight and narrow path for a bit, only to recognize he’s not really himself unless he’s there, fighting on the side of good. Every now and then the egotistical, slightly conceited Bruce Wayne leaks through into Batman’s persona.

We turn a blind eye to these flaws in our childhood heroes. Maybe it’s because we’re still so pleased with the overwhelming number of good things they do that we let them off the hook. Or maybe it’s because we see ourselves in their failures too; we understand what it’s like to be human.

Of all the shining heroes of the Bible, perhaps David is the brightest.

David, Israel’s best king, established the temple at Jerusalem, led the people to live within God’s law and brought prosperity to the nation. He would forever be known as “A man after God’s own heart.”

In contrast, Ahab, Israel’s worst king, disregarded the Lord and condoned the worship of Canaanite gods. Ahab ignored the law Yahweh had given to the people of Israel and oppressed the nation. “Indeed,” scripture says, “there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

At first glance, David and Ahab are polar opposites. Yet both of these men have committed grave sins — conspiracy to murder and steal

David’s story is a familiar Sunday school lesson. He has fallen into a trap of ever-increasing sin, beginning with his lust for Bathsheba and ending with the conspiracy to murder her husband, one of David’s own top warriors. The prophet Nathan tells David a story about a rich man who takes something that doesn’t belong to him. David regains his moral compass, his sense of what is right and what is wrong. He repents, and God forgives his sins. There are still consequences to his actions, but David’s humble confession allows the Lord’s grace to move into his life, washing away the sin. He will go on to be Israel’s greatest king.

Ahab’s plot to steal Naboth’s vineyard is the final episode in a long series of bad decisions and sinful acts. Honoring God was never a priority for Ahab. At the beginning of his reign, Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of a rival king. He built temples and altars to honor Baal, the god of Jezebel’s homeland, while neglecting the altar of Yahweh. He oppressed his people. Ahab valued building projects more than the lives of his citizens. At the request of the queen, he had the prophets of God murdered. Even when the Lord continued to bless Ahab, giving him a military victory in what seemed to be a hopeless situation, Ahab disregards God’s instructions about dealing with the enemy king in order to gain a little praise and flattery for himself. We have no trouble understanding how this corrupt king could stoop so low as to plot against an innocent man for a few acres of choice farmland — land the king doesn’t really need at all. It’s simply in his nature. He’s that kind of guy, and Elijah is ready to give him what he deserves.

In “The Message” Eugene Peterson provides a little bit of color in the dialogue between the corrupt king and faithful prophet. Ahab’s “greeting” — if it can be called that — is characteristic of his relationship with the prophet. “My enemy! So, you’ve run me down!” “Yes, I’ve found you out,” said Elijah. “And because you’ve bought into the business of evil, defying God. ‘I will most certainly bring doom upon you, make mincemeat of your descendants, kill off every sorry male wretch who’s even remotely connected with the name Ahab. And I’ll bring down on you the same fate that fell on Jeroboam and Baasha — you’ve made me that angry by making Israel sin.’”

Confronted with the harsh reality of his sin, of what his life has become, David says “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Ahab says “So you have found me, my enemy!”

David confesses his sins because he comes to recognize them as evil.

Ahab admits his sins because he knows he has been caught.

Without hesitation, Nathan offers history’s great king a word straight from heaven: “Your sins are forgiven. The Lord has taken them away.”

Your sins are forgiven.” Is it really that easy? For God it is. For Nathan it was. For David, it had to be.

Elijah’s answer to Ahab’s confession is just as quick, but not quite as comforting. “’I will destroy you,’ says the Lord. ‘I will bring disaster on you. I will consume you.’”

On second thought, maybe Elijah’s judgment is just as comforting as Nathan’s. Don’t we want a God who delivers swift justice to the evil ones? Don’t we want a God who can look into the hearts of men and separate the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the rebellious, the penitent from the insolent? Don’t men like Ahab — men who let selfish ambition and reckless greed — need to get what they have coming to them? It’s only fair.

David understood this. He knew what was fair and what wasn’t. His strong sense of right and wrong is what ushered Israel into its greatest period of prosperity.

David also understood that he couldn’t do it alone. David’s relationship to Nathan is one of the best prophet-king partnerships in scripture. David appreciates having someone he can trust hold him accountable. He is always willing to listen to what Nathan has to say and considers his advice.

Ahab’s relationship with Elijah is likely the worst prophet-king relationship in Israel’s history. Elijah’s confrontations with Ahab get more and more heated as time goes on, to the point that Ahab seeks to have the prophet killed. Why is it so hard for some people to take good advice, or even to listen to someone who may come from a different perspective?

David also understood that he needed God. Hear the good king’s own words, recorded in Psalm 5:1-8:

        Give ear to my words, O Lord;
                Give heed to my sighing.
        Listen to the sounds of my cry,
                my King and my God,
                for to you I pray.
        O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
                In the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.

        For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
                Evil will not sojourn with you.
        The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
                you hate all evildoers.
        You destroy those who speak lies;
                The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty, and deceitful.

        But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
                will enter your house,
        I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.
        Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
                because of my enemies;
                make your way straight before me.

NRSV

We may say we want a god of justice; a god who punishes evil and destroys liars. It’s true that God hates evil. David told us “The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.” But thank goodness he didn’t stop there. Our God is not a simple God.

In 1787, the Constitution of the United States marked the beginning of a new era in human society. It set a precedent for how government should be run and how justice should be administered. It has been replicated throughout the world and has withstood the test of time largely because of its revolutionary simplicity. For many people, justice and government, right and wrong, evil and righteousness, are simple things.

Fortunately for David, and for us, our God is not quite that simple. If he was, David would be right there with the worst of them. David’s sins put him in the same class as Ahab. Ahab conspired to murder a man because he wanted to steal his family farm. David conspired to murder a man because he wanted to steal his wife.

“The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.”

“But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
        will enter your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.”

History might record David as the great king, the righteous ruler of Israel, but David wasn’t quite so proud of himself. He knew that no matter how good he was, no matter how bad he was, it was ultimately God who had the power to save, and it was only through God that he, the king of Israel, could be redeemed.

From time to time, we may ask God for justice, but I for one am glad that what he offers is not justice, but grace; not judgment, but an abundance of steadfast love.

What, then, is to become of our friend King Ahab? How does he fit into God’s order of things? If there is a limit to this abundant love David spoke of, surely Ahab found it. Let’s go back and listen in a little more on this scene between Ahab and his “enemy,” the prophet Elijah. Elijah has pronounced his sentence on Ahab: total destruction. This is the justice man seeks. This is the justice Elijah cries out for with every ounce of mortal passion within him. This is the justice Ahab deserves.

“When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days, but in his son’s days I will bring disaster on his house.”

I Kings 21:27-29 (NRSV)

This business of the son being doomed for the father’s sin is confusing at first, but rest assured that Ahab’s son gets a fair chance as well. This line tells us more about how each person is responsible for their own choices before God, that is, each child has to seek out God’s grace on his own, not ride into heaven on the coattails of his parents. But that’s another sermon for another day.

What’s important here, is Ahab doesn’t get what he deserves any more than David got what he deserved. They are both helpless victims of God’s abundant, steadfast love. They are two of Israel’s most notorious kings — David is notorious for his general goodwill, his desire to serve his people and to please the Lord; Ahab is notorious for the way he oppressed his people and spent most of his life scorning Yahweh and all those who called on him. They are both great sinners. They are both helpless to save themselves, and, in the end, they both turn to the God of Creation, the God of Love, the God of Mercy, the God of Grace, to redeem them. And he does.

God is still able to redeem us today. He sent his son, Jesus Christ, to demonstrate his love for humanity. Confronted with this desperate need for salvation above and beyond the power of men, the world responded in much the same way Ahab responds to Elijah. “So, Jesus, you have found us out. “

Jesus was scorned, attacked and brutally murdered so that shameful men might not have to deal with their own shortcomings, with their own sins. Even this was not enough to test the limits of God’s abundant, steadfast love. To make his point once and for all, the Lord Jesus rose from the grave. He went back into the world of men — the world that had beaten him away in an effort to beat back it’s own sin. Jesus’ message to us is the same message Nathan took to David, the same message Elijah took to Ahab. “You can’t do it on your own. Admit it. Believe it. And then, once you’ve found your limit, believe in me. Believe in the God of all Creation. Believe in my power to save you. To wash away your sin and give you new life, abundant life, in me.”

This is the message everyone — humble fishermen, sun-burnt farmers toiling away at the family vineyard, and even the world’s mightiest kings — everyone, needs to understand.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes:

We ourselves are Jews by birth [you and I, we are already members of God’s family]¹ and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. … For through the law I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Galatians 2:15-16,19-21 (NRSV)

1. My interpretative addition.


Radically Simple

If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more. … But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ.

More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things — indeed, I regard them as dung! — that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness — a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians — 3:4, 7-11 (NET)

We have talked a lot about “call” during my first semester at Divinity School. At the beginning of my course with Dr. Michael Cogdill, we focused on the call of Paul, also called Saul.¹ Paul is often used as an example of a person who made a radical change of direction — a complete 180º — in his decision to follow Christ. The phrase “she had a ‘Damascus Road experience,'” referencing Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Messiah on his way to Syria, is common vernacular today. Indeed, considering Paul’s position when he left Jerusalem — “I do not believe Jesus is the Christ” — compared with his stance once he arrived in Damascus — “I do believe Jesus is the Christ” — it is fair to say that he made a total change.

A broader look at Paul’s life, however, shows that perhaps this change wasn’t as sharp as it initially appears to be. Paul had always had a deep desire to know more about God. Although he worked as a tent maker (Acts 18:1-3), not a religious professional, Paul devoted his time to studying the faith and the ancient scriptures. He became a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:1-3), the most accomplished teacher of his day. Saul wanted to do all he could to please God and serve him, so he joined the Pharisees — a religious-political sect of Jews that followed the rules of their faith, as they understood them, in the strictest sense possible, holding each other accountable along the way. Even among the Pharisees, Saul’s desire to follow the will of God and serve him was unsurpassed (Galatians 1:13-24).

Saul had spent his life studying the scriptures and prophets and knew them as well, or better, than anyone else of his generation. He was a Roman citizen² (Acts 22:22-29), but he had already decided that following God and serving him was more important than focusing on building a career and amassing money. He valued education, he paid attention to the secular philosophies of his day (Acts 17:16-31) and he valued a hard days work. Above all else, however, Saul was committed to serving God, although his understanding of God had been skewed by his narrow focus (Acts 7:51-8:3).

Clearly, Saul was the perfect person to lead the effort of spreading the message of Christ to the world. He had the knowledge, he had the credibility, he had the resources, and above all, his zeal for serving the Lord was unmatched. He just didn’t quite understand what it was God wanted from him.³ Meeting Christ has a way of bringing clarity to things.

In the same way, whenever we find ourselves at a point of conflicting values — when a dilemma of ethics seems to permeate a decision — studying the life of Christ is the best method for clearly judging a right course of action.

Understanding Paul’s life in this way — recognizing the fact that his love of God and his desire to live a life of service did not begin on the Damascus Road — poses a tough question for Christians today. How do we deal with fundamentalists from other faiths? Can we condemn them for holding fast to what they “know” to be true?

Caught in this situation, even as he was being stoned, “Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!'” (Acts 7:59-60).

Maybe Stephen was just as confused as Saul was. He seems pretty extreme himself. Again, for clarity, I turn to Jesus:

So when they came to the place that is called “The Skull,” they crucified him there, along with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. But Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Luke 23:33-34 (NET)

Following Jesus isn’t easy, but as Paul found out, it’s worth the cost.

Notes:

1. Contrary to tradition, Saul’s name was not changed following his encounter with Christ. The biblical record shows that he continued to be called by both names after his profession of faith. Like many Jews at that time, Paul kept his Hebrew name (Saul) but used a Greco-Roman name (Paul) in common circles. Considering his zeal for Judaism, and the fact that accounts of his early life are generally concerned with his involvement in the faith, before his conversion to Christianity his Hebrew name was used most frequently.

2. Paul received his citizenship through inheritance, which was an unusual thing at a time when most people living under the rule of Caesar were not considered citizens. This indicates that Paul was likely from a wealthy family of considerable influence.

3. The fact that Paul condoned the killing of an innocent man is not lost on me. Clearly, this is not the kind of behavior God desires from anyone, but this gross misunderstanding of God’s very clear instructions (“Don’t kill. Period.”) has been a recurring issue among people throughout history who have thought they were enacting the will of God. Thankfully, Paul eventually came to recognize the wisdom in putting Christ first. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)


The Problem of Freedom

The most often voiced complaint against God that I hear among people sounds something like this:

“How can a loving, compassionate God allow such awful suffering to exist in our world? How can he support the murder of children? How can he condone the genocide of those people? Why would God let such a good, generous woman live in such hardship?”

These are difficult questions to be sure; questions that have led people to hate God — or in some cases to give up on him completely — since the beginning.

For me, the answer to this hardship lies not in examining God’s indifference to human suffering, but in God’s love of the entire human creature. Of all the wonderful talents, skills and gifts God has given the human race, the greatest one of all — the crux that everything else rest on — is freedom.

William Sloane Coffin, who died in 2006 after a long career of championing social justice for humans everywhere, answered this question better than I could ever hope to. Coffin uses a well-known teaching of Jesus to explain the problem of free will, and why God thinks it is so important in our lives.

The teaching is commonly called The Parable of the Prodigal Son; the NET Bible calls it The Parable of the Compassionate Father, which I think is a better fit. The entire text of this lesson can be read here if you are not familiar with it. In a nutshell, it is a story about two sons. One asks his father for an early inheritance, takes his father’s wealth and runs off to have a good time. When the money runs out, he comes back home, broken and ashamed; Yet his father greets him with a hug and a shout of rejoicing. The other son stayed at home the whole time, lived a responsible life and tried to follow the letter of the law. When his brother returned, this hard-working lad was furious that his father would even accept him back into the household.
      *It’s important to note the father’s forgiveness does not include re-dividing the responsible brother’s share of the estate to make up for the folly of the prodigal; He simply showered his lost son with generous love, just as he always had.*

But now on to Coffin:

The word of the Lord hits the world with the force of a hint. Could anything be more frustrating? We want God to be God; but he wants to be a still small voice, a babe in a manger. We want God to be all-powerful, so that we can be weak and dependent; but he wants to be all-loving, so that we can be strong. We want God to prove his existence; but he wants us to prove our freedom, to be able to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty. “God is love” means God is known devotionally, not dogmatically. So the word of the Lord has to hit the world with the force only of a hint.

The story of the prodigal son is a parable about all this, about an all-loving father who precisely because he is all-loving has to restrict his power, for love is self-restricting when it comes to power. As the story has a happy ending we cheer the father. But suppose the boy had gotten knifed in a brothel, had died of hunger; or, on the contrary, had become a powerful ruler dictating the deaths of hundreds of his fellow citizens. Wouldn’t we then have complained! “How could you let it happen?”

But that’s the risk. The father could have said “nix” to any dividing of any estate and kept the boy at home; But he could not have kept him filial. God, I suppose, could keep us all “at home,” in the brute calm of servitude. But because love is the name of the game, he releases us into the storms of freedom, and then stands on the road, trembling with concern.

Excerpt from “A Certain Man Had Two Sons,” by William Sloane Coffin.
Delivered at Riverside Church in New York City, May 7, 1978.

We can use this freedom God has afforded us in many ways. We have the freedom to escape from the world; to ignore suffering, ignore the pain that inevitably follows when we pour ourselves out to others in relationship. We can live in isolation, comforting ourselves with the knowledge that God has redeemed us already. We have the freedom to make our own way. To carve out our own vision of success and pleasure in creation, bending the world to our will. Or, as Coffin concludes, perhaps we have been given freedom not to throw our lives away, but to give them away to one another. To give them away to reconciliation, to forgiveness and to love, just as Christ gave his.

How will you spend your freedom today?