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Sunday, March 25, 2018

“The Crucified God”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark, 15: 1-20, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Passion/Palm Sunday,  March 25th, 2018

Chris Keller tells of his Father’s slow death to Alzheimer ’s disease.  It was a dreadful end to a long, good life.  The worst part of it, Chris says, was two or three years into the decline, when his Dad realized something terrible was happening, but could no longer fathom what it was.  One night, as his son was visiting, his father paced back and forth from wall to wall, anxiously insisting that there was somewhere else that he was supposed to be; a forgotten meeting or appointment.  Desperately, he pleaded, "Can you help me?"   Chris responded, "Dad, I wish I could, but I don't know how."  “For the very first time,” Chris said, “my father looked at me with something like contempt.”  

At breakfast the next morning with my mother, just the two of us, I said, "We are living in a nightmare."  As the disease progressed, it became easier to live with--until death came, finally, as a friend.   

At his Father’s funeral, Chris said: "Alzheimer's slips in on cat feet.  Dad never quite knew what got him. This disease is as fully terrible as advertised.  Then Chris quoted Scripture, which comes from the cross, right after our text for today:  “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk. 15:33-34 NRS).

Here in the midst of this kind of darkness; the darkness of human suffering accompanied by feelings of forsakenness, we find the core of the Christian mystery, where darkness turns to light.   Hope comes from the man who suffers the nightmare of the cross.

Today, on this Passion/Palm Sunday we approach again the ‘nightmare’ of the cross once again.  The cross invites us into the divine mystery.   Here, in Mark’s gospel, we find the Jesus who could ‘rebuke the wind’ and ‘still’ the waves (4:39), being ‘bound, and led away and handed over’ to the Governor, Pilate.  
      “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks.  “You say so.”   This ambiguous answer makes religious leaders accuse him more.  But Jesus doesn’t defend himself with a single word.  
       “Have you no answer?” Pilate says.  “See how many charges they bring against you.”   We read that, “Jesus made no further replay.”  Pilate was amazed.   He knows what this means.  This man is signing his own death warrant.  

Everyone knows that Jesus was crucified on a cross.  The Romans crucified thousands.  This is a terrible fact of recorded history.  We know that of all the thousands who were cruelly crucified, only this one had gospels written about him, had a following that developed almost immediately, and has impacted human history more than any other person.  What is not recorded anywhere, except in the New Testament, is what this means.   What is it about this dying, suffering, and crucified Jesus that made his dying and death, the most significant religious symbols filled with meaning and redemptive hope?

Once a pastor asked a group of children what God looked like? The kids rounded up the usual visual images of God: old man with white beard, king on throne, etc. Then a shy little girl, almost too afraid to answer, slowly raised her hand. She said, "I think of God as the one who has a thorn in his head."     When we think of Jesus death, what kind of image pops up our heads?   How many of us think about God dying on the cross?    We think about Jesus, God’s Son dying for us, and we preach, as the Apostle Paul said, “Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2), but what about God dying for us?   Paul said: “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19), but a ‘crucified God’?  How can the eternal God die?   If you try to explain something like this to a child, you realize what it means to enter the deep, dark, and divine mystery of the cross. 

But let’s enter another way.   Back in 1966, when I was only nine years old, Time Magazine's Easter cover story posed a shocking question on its cover with red letters posted on black: "Is God Dead?" I was too young to read or understand the article, but I do remember hearing preachers talking and even joking about it in sermons.  They quipped: “If God is dead, then who was it I talked to when I prayed this morning!” 

At that time, most churches were alive, vibrant, and Spirit-filled.  Everyone laughed at the preacher’s joke.  Today, churches are not laughing so much.   As congregations face decline and challenges, some tottering on the edge of death themselves, this question invites sincere conversation: "Is God really dead?"  Was this just a bunch of ‘liberal’ mumbo-jumbo, or was it an attempt to have an honest discussion about this coming reality, which is now here?

Several years later, when I was in college, I learned that the term ‘death of God’ was first formulated by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.   Nietzsche’s father was a pastor in a small German village.   When Nietzsche became a philosopher, he wrote about what he observed taking place in modern culture, as the belief and thought of God had lost its power.  We should see his point.    Now, in universities, and even in lower education, talk about God has been banished from science and history, and is widely ignored in ethics and philosophy.  Secular knowledge rules the modern mind, leaving religion "to the priest, the pastor, or to personal opinion."  It may not be true to say that God has fully died, but as Chris Keller said, when Alzheimer’s, the disease of forgetfulness took over his father, we can see that in our society, ‘the death of God’ has also ‘slipped in on cat’s feet’.

These are not nice thoughts, just like the cross is not very pretty to look at.   What has happened in our world, and our public lives, is not that different from what happened when Mark’s gospel tells us how Jesus was ‘bound,’ ‘led away’ and ‘handed over to Pilate’.   Just as Jesus was betrayed, denied and accused, people today blame the world’s problems on religious faith, and demand that faith prove itself, defend itself, or make some convincing argument, but many too, hear no definite answer.   Just as people had enough of Jesus then, modern-minded folks have had enough of religion and church now.   Many walk away, busying themselves elsewhere, and some are downright anti-religious.  They see religion as just too dangerous or senseless.   They think the world will be better off without any belief that can’t be proven.   The only belief that matters now is only what I want or choose to believe. 

When the modern world first began to remove God from the center of western culture, way back in the 1800’s, there was an British Anglican Priest, who became a catholic Cardinal, named John Henry Newman, who first started to warn that when God is forgotten in public places, and not talked about or reverenced in schools, there would be an unwholesome trickledown effect everything else--- on education, on morality, on science, and also on economics.  "If there be Religious Truth at all,” he said, “we cannot shut our eyes to it without it having a bearing upon all truth….” What bearing might this be?   

Cardinal Newman’s warning came about the same, when Nietzsche also predicted the rise of the ‘mad man’ or the ‘supermench’; that is the prideful, power-hungry human who thinks they can replace God.   While Nietzsche himself was agnostic about God, he found no cause for celebration in announcing God’s death.   Nietzsche doubted that civilization would endure very long without God.  His thoughts about the ‘mad man’ practically predicted the rise of Hitler and Stalin, and the Nuclear Warhead, though no one saw it coming.   The Russian Dostoevsky also saw it, when he wrote that “without God, everything is permitted."   Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, one an atheist and the other Christian, agreed that God's death was dangerous for humanity.   If God does not matter, it will not be long until nothing else matters; nothing except what a hungry, hurting, evil human wants.   Nietzsche feared, it will only be the human with the most money, the most power, and the most madness, and who has lost all reverence for God, who will be the one who determines our future.     
This talk of God’s death in our culture is certainly heavy talk; perhaps too heavy for a sermon.  But folks, this is the week before Easter!   This is Passion Week when we remember, commemorate, and sometimes re-enact what the world did to Jesus, when Jesus was falsely accused and crucified.   And Jesus told his followers to ‘remember’ him and not to forget.  So, isn’t Passion Week an invitation for us to think about what the world does to Jesus now?   Even the book of Hebrews observed only a few years after Jesus was crucified, that people who were falling away from the faith,  were ‘crucifying again the Son of God and…holding him up to contempt’ (Heb. 6:6).  How do we keep practicing our faith in a world that keeps on killing God?   One thing must do is keep holding on to our faith.   Strangely enough, it is the cross and the death of Jesus that stands at the beginning, and remains at the center of our faith, not at the end of it.  In other words, the more the world betrays, denies, accuses and even crucifies Jesus again and again, the more we should realize how Jesus’ death is the key to understanding who God is and what faith and life should mean.    

In one of his very first letters, the apostle Paul called the cross ‘the wisdom of God’ that is ‘foolishness’ to the world, but that it is also ‘the power of God to us who are being saved’ (1 Cor. 1: 18ff).  This interpretation by Paul was original, incredible, and unique.   However, Peter was already on to it, only 50 days after Jesus crucifixion, when he preached: ‘…this man, (was) handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed….’ (Acts. 2:23).  This means that the very first disciples were already on to the saving and redemptive truth about the cross, even while Jesus’ own killers were still around and holding power.   

Today, and I mean this very week, on the same dark Friday commemorating when the crowd screamed out ‘Crucify Him!” and Pilate ‘handed him over to be crucified’, we will call this day, of all days---and I mean this dark and most depressing day---we will, in fact, call this Friday “Good Friday!”   Why in the world would anyone want to call the the day Jesus died, good?   Might the naming of Christ’s crucifixion as good, mean that something ‘good’ might still come out of a culture that wants God dead?   

Of course, Jesus’ death was not ‘good’, at least from face of it.   My very first book of Theology was written by the great Baptist theologian, Frank Stagg.  Dr. Stagg taught me that Jesus’ crucifixion and death always had two sides to it.   This is exactly what Peter was talking about in his sermon on Pentecost, when he says that Jesus was ‘crucified and killed’, but that this was also ‘according to the definite plan … of God’ (Acts 2:23).  Looking at it from one side, Dr. Stagg said, the cross was a ‘life taken’, but looking at it another way, the cross was ‘a life given’.   The bad way of looking at the cross will always be before us, as people still despise and reject the truth that Jesus spoke and lived, which includes the truth about Jesus himself.  But the good side of the cross is always before us too, that is, how Jesus lived and taught what is truth, just as he himself said ‘he was the way, the truth, and the life’, no matter what people did to him.  Jesus never gave up on the truth!   But what is this truth?   In other words, what is truth about Jesus’ crucifixion that gets better, even when people are at their worst?

Could the heart of the truth still be right here, not just at the cross, but also on the cross, since ‘God was in Christ…’, even there, even here, on this ugly cross?   Let me explain.   Long before Nietzsche, a very religious Martin Luther, the great German reformer, had also said that God was dead, but Luther meant something else entirely.  Luther meant that in Jesus Christ the Lord above had descended into history.  As a human being, God lived by history's rules.  One of those rules of life is that, in one way or another, everybody dies.  Jesus Christ was no exception.  But on the cross, it wasn’t just that Jesus the man died, but through Jesus Christ the man, God also died.  God gave himself up for us.   God himself pain for our sins.  God showed his love for us.   In other words, Jesus the revealing of  “The Crucified God.”  

So, rather than doom or gloom, Luther meant that the ‘death of God’ is gospel, which is ‘good news’.  Echoing the apostle Paul, Luther meant that in Jesus’s rejection and crucifixion, God suffers and dies, gives himself up for us, so that he can ‘reconcile us to himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19).  As Paul later explained it to the Romans, ‘God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.’ (Rom. 8.32).  But now, how does this ‘plan of God’ work out?  How can killing God in the flesh, or even our own ‘modern’ killing of God too, which God allows, also turn out to be the ‘wisdom of God’  which might give us ‘the power of salvation’, rather than the power to simply destroy ourselves?

I want to point you to the answer, by drawing your attention to a Jewish Rabbi.  But this is not the Jewish Rabbi named Jesus, but a present-day Jewish Rabbi, who today leads the oldest Synagogue in Los Angeles; a reformed Synagogue with over 10,000 active members.   Rabbi Stephen Leder recently appeared on the news because he wrote a book about human suffering entitled, “More Beautiful Than Before”.  The subject of that book is to explain that when we humans face our pains, our hurts, our suffering, and even our wrongs or innocence too---facing them with both honesty and courage,  Rabbi Leder claims that even the most negative experiences of pain and suffering could make us better people than we were before.  

Where did that Jewish Rabbi, get an idea like that?   We know, don’t we.  We all know that this can be true, don’t we?  This is the truth that was revealed in Jesus Christ, and in his redemptive suffering on the cross.   When we look at the cross, just like the Israelites were told to look at the ‘serpent in the wilderness’, we can find life.   When we look straight into the pain, the evil, and the ugliness, we not only see what people did to Jesus, but we might also see what God does, and how we can change, with God’s help.   For with God’s help, not only can our suffering be redeemed, but our sin can be redeemed too.   By looking straight at the ‘snake on the pole’ or at ‘the crucified on the cross’ we finally, and fully see what we can overcome, what we must learn, and how God can save.  We would never see what matters most or what we might more beautifully become, had we not gone through the wrong, endured the suffering, or even caused the pain.   At the cross, we still “see the light….”
For example, let's think for a moment about biology.  Many Christian still struggle with whether or not traditional Christian faith is compatible with evolution.  One of the great problems some evolutionary people have with faith is that God allows suffering.   One of the problems some Christians have with evolution is that it leaves us to suffer without hope.   But what if we could look this again, and see evolution pointing us to faith, and see faith discovering an evolving journey through pain and suffering that enables us to be ‘more beautiful than before’?   

In a book entitled Genes, Genesis and God, the philosopher Holmes Rolston studied Christian faith and evolution by side.  Rather than conflict, he found harmony.  In both faith and science, the problem of pain and suffering is important.  In both, we see that pain, while it can be terrible, can also be creative and redemptive.  As theologians have long known,  much of the good in the world would be lost, or have never come about, if all evil, suffering, pain had been prevented (Aquinas).  

Across the board, nature "uses pain for creative advance”, Rolston discovered.   Physical and emotional suffering are unexpected gifts in evolution, and perhaps the ability to suffer is a gift of God too, because they increased creatures' chances of survival in life.   If you didn’t feel pain, you would die quicker.  People who lose the ability to feel pain, whether it be emotional or physical, don’t thrive or survive very long.   Pain serves a ‘purpose’, as an evolutionary progress, and as a divine purpose,  giving us eventually the ability to think and to love.   In short, we can’t learn to love fully, unless we also suffer fully.   The person who learns to love, lives to love.   Or, as the Tennyson wrote: ‘It is better to have loved and to have lost, than to never have loved at all.’   We could not love at all, if evil and suffering had been prevented.   Even what the world did to Jesus, is what it took to fully release God’s love in the world.

All natural suffering in life is religious, and it can be creative.   In this way, all life is Christ-like; or "cruciform"—that is cross-like.   Human life has been given, through the natural processes, the ability to suffer evil; even the capacity to do evil, so that we also gain the ability to learn, to heal, to be saved, and most of all, the ability of love.  This also why, at the center of our faith, just like at the center of all life, is the suffering and painfully creative death of Jesus, who reveals God and his love to us as the center of the ‘good news’. As Isaiah wrote, it is ‘by his stripes, that we are healed."

The cross is exactly what it seems--terrible and evil, red and black--the nightmare. Nothing in the gospel dissipates the nightmare; rather, but this is also a nightmare that serves God's purpose as the way to reconciliation and redemption.  Without the evil of the cross, great good would have been prevented.  Without the rejection of truth at the cross, the truth of God would not have been fully revealed.  This is why Paul called the darkness of the cross the foolishness that is also wisdom and the weakness of the cross,  also its power’.  
By the light that shines in the darkness of God’s cross, that we find our way home.  In the suffering and rejected Jesus, we face our own pain, know our own sin, and we turn toward the God who loves and heals us, who can make us more ‘beautiful than before’.  As the scholar Rolston concludes, "the secret of life is that life is a passion play."

Isn’t this why Jesus allowed himself to be ‘handed over to be crucified?’ When Jesus submitted himself to the cross, by his suffering he revealed more fully, the loving, saving and redeeming God, who lives in Christ, dies in Christ, but still lives in Christ, because God raised Jesus from the dead.  "The mystery hidden throughout the ages has been revealed,” Paul told the Colossians (1.26).   A non-preacher said it better,  "Surely this man was God’s Son." 

So we, when we look again at Jesus on the cross,  we should also see a God who is so loving and strong, that he will allow himself to be crucified again and again,  so he can always return and we can see the ‘way, the truth, and the light’.   Because God’s love can be killed, but doesn’t stay dead, we still have choice.   We can either decide for the hopeless future, as Nietzsche imagined it, and live as if “God is dead”, or we can go with the gospel, which says, that ‘God was in Christ, (on the cross, and in the suffering too),  reconciling the world to himself… and proving his love for us. When we choose this Christ who reveals the loving, suffering, saving God, we choose good news, because we choose this God who will love us, through thick and thin, even if it kills him.   And it did.  He died, to show you his undying love.  Amen.  

Sunday, March 18, 2018

“God Tested…God Provided.

A Sermon Based Upon Genesis 22: 1-14,  NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
5th Sunday in Lent,  March 18th, 2018

If you were watching TV between 1963 and 1997, you may remember your favorite TV show being interrupted with a loud, long, alarming tone.  These words followed:   “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.  For the next sixty (or thirty) seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.  If this had not been a test, you would have been instructed...”   Now that I think about it, that was a big ‘if’.

 Our final story from the life of Abraham begins: “After these things God tested Abraham” (1).   It is the strangest, most outrageous test anyone could imagine.  No wonder the person writing this story had to clarify this right up front.  Even though God did not allow Abraham to actually carry out the sacrifice of his only son, why would a loving God demand such a thing as a test?

However you interpret this story, it is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful, profound, and disturbing stories in all of the Bible, and in all of literature, for that matter.   It doesn't fit even the lowest form of ethic in most any society, so how could such an outlandish ‘test’ like this point to how our own faith might also be tested?

One thing is clear.  This story will only be understood as it relates to Abraham’s story as a whole. Abraham’s story is about living toward a promise.  The original promise given to Abraham, and to Sarah, a childless couple, is that they would be given a child and that their descendants from this child would be as numerous as the stars.  Included in this promise was also that they would be given a land and the land would be inhabited by their descendants. That land came to be called, as we know, the Promised Land, because it was based on the promise first given to Abraham.

What's more, Abraham and Sarah, throughout their lives, were called to trust that God is able to give what he promises.  So, they were leave behind the life that they have been living, a prosperous life in Ur of Chaldees, and to start a new life as nomads, leaving everything behind, trusting only that God keeps the promise.  Their lives were all about God’s promise.

As children of Abraham, we are people who also are called to live by God’s promise.  We read the story of Abraham and Sarah as an example of our faith-story too.  Why do we do this?   Well, deep down, we know what living by God’s promise means.  Look at little children!   It is just wonderful how they greet each day with expectation.  They journey into this world with great anticipation.  They dream about who they will be, and what their life will be, in the wonderful world that is waiting for them. The world for them holds a great promise.   Can’t we all remember the ‘great expectations’ we have had as children, youth, or young adults?

We know that life gives us a promise of goodness.    Human sin can limit that promise, or as we grow older, we may narrow our expectations, but we still believe and live toward a promise.  We still believe that life is supposed to be good and that even in aging, suffering or death, it will be alright.  So when we read that Abraham received a promise that life would be good, for him, his people and the world, we know what that means.  The story of Abraham and Sarah is the story that mirrors the hopes, dreams, and promise of human life.

Interestingly, Abraham and Sarah went almost all their lives before they received the fulfillment of their promise.    Abraham was 75 years old and Sarah was 65 years old when the angel first visited them and told them they were going to have a baby.  They waited another twenty-five years for the angel to return and tell them, now is the time.  Isaac was finally born to Abraham when he was 100 years old.  Sarah was ninety years old, when she gave birth.   It was a miracle.  They could not possibly, through biological means, produce this child.  It was, beyond doubt, God’s ‘gift of grace’ to them.

Abraham’s story, as unique as it seems, is still our story too.  For, life hold great promise.  But the fulfillment of this promise is never automatic.   Even when ‘God is for us,’ there can still be much against us.   For many people, the promise will not come true without God’s help.  The fulfillment of the promise of our life, ultimately comes from God.   There are no guarantees in life, except that God will fulfill his promise.   Even when it seems that the promise remains unfulfilled, God is working ‘for us’ within and against our situation.  That's the point of this story.   Abraham and Sarah are called to trust their lives and their future to God.

When we have so many options, so many blessings, and much prosperity in our lives, it’s harder for us to see the value of God’s promise.  But when you face insurmountable problems, when you realize your own limits or failures, or if you or a family member in your home is up against something you cannot change, think how your own understanding would change.  What if you had a disease that you had to live with, or that there was little hope for?  Would God’s promise be less or more in your life?  At least for the child I saw on the news the other day, who had a rare skin disease, he seemed have a maturity most children don’t.  He seemed to understand better than most that his life belonged to God.   What could be the ‘test’ in your life that reminds you that the promise comes from God? 

It is wishful thinking that we gain the promise of our life, without the test?   Wouldn’t it be a nice ‘Hollywood Ending’, if the story of Abraham could end with an old childless couple finally having a baby?   Wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring the story to a happy end with the promise fulfilled, and with all the descendants, who are as numerous as the stars, all fulfilling God’s promise ‘in perfect harmony’?   But Abraham’s story doesn't end like that; no story does.   The promise of life that came to Abraham, also comes to us, but it also comes with challenges, detours, and tests of faith.  This is how we must understand what it meant, when God says, "Abraham, take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on a mountain of which I will tell you."  We are not to think of child sacrifice here, because the point here is ‘theological’ not ‘ethical’.    The point here is not God demanding that Abraham prove his devotion by giving God his child child!  No, the point here is that God is reminding Abraham that everything, even this precious child,  the child of promise, always belongs God.  Think of it this way, with this other biblical word: "The Lord has given. The Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord."

The command to sacrifice Isaac is a ‘test’ to whether or not Abraham really understands and trusts that his life is in God's hands, even after Abraham gets what he needs and wants.  God is the Creator and Giver of Life.   We may have children, but we do not ‘create life’.    This is what it means to say, "The Lord gives. The Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."  No matter what we have in life; all life, all gifts, even the most precious gifts of our children, including our life too---it all comes from, belongs to, and returns to God.  God is the source of life and God is our destiny.

This same message is underscored throughout the Bible, most beautifully expressed in the 90th psalm, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God”  (Psalm 90: 1-2).  Right after this comes more sobering insight: You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. (Ps. 90:5-6 NRS).   The Psalmist is saying that this is what the promise of life is like.  Even a life of promise has limits.  He continues, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  This wisdom always begins with this: "The Lord gives. The Lord takes away."   Life and Life’s promise belongs to God.  Even the gift of life, forever remains a gift.

The New Testament wisdom is not any different.  Jesus called the man a ‘fool’ who built barns and filled them to insure his future.  When he built his last barn, and thought his future was now secure, this is when God said to him, "Fool, Tonight your soul is required of you" (Luk3 12:20).  Or what about those words of First Peter, echoing both Jesus and the Psalmist: “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.  For ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’ That word is the good news that was announced to you (1 Pet. 1:23-25 NRS).    Here, throughout the Bible, the first and last lesson of biblical wisdom remains the same: "The Lord gives. The Lord takes away."  All that we are, all that we have, and all that we ever hope to be, comes from God and returns to God.    
When God tested Abraham, the ‘test’ was about the ultimate ‘ownership’ of the promise.  Like Abraham, we are given God’s promise, but the promise still belongs to God.   This means that even when we receive the promise of life, we still can’t own it.  We are stewards, managers, and custodians of the promise, but the promise still belongs to God.   

Like Abraham, you and I, are also be tested as to whether or not we know this, believe this, trust this, or live this: that all things come from God and ultimately depend on God.  That's the test.  That is the ultimate test for any one of us.  Are you able to let go of everything in the trust that the Lord owns and will continue to deliver on the promise?  That is the meaning of the offering of Isaac.  Do we trust this God who gives us the gift and promise of life?  Will we continue to trust that God gives us the promise, no matter what happens in this life?

Martin Luther rediscovered this radical, biblical understanding of faith, and coined the phrase, "We are saved by our trusting in God's grace alone." He also wrote a hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," where he spoke of complete, radical, unreserved faith in God:  Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also.    This is exactly what Abraham was called to do at the beginning of the story, to "let goods go." He was called to leave Ur of Chaldees, leave all his possessions, and travel the world as a nomad, trusting in God alone, that God would lead him to the fulfillment of the promise.  Now, at the age of 100, at the end of the story, Abraham is now being called to "let kindred go."   And when God asked Abraham to “take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you" (22:2), as any loving parent knows, God was then asking him to let ‘this mortal life’ go, even his own life.   

Of course, none of us would ever want to go there; where our own child is taken from us.  But it does happen in life.  As I said earlier, a child can be born with a terrible, incurable disease.  A child, your child too, can be, God forbid, killed tragically in an accident.   What about all those innocent children senselessly murdered at Sandy Hook, or at First Baptist Sutherland Springs, or those children who die unexpectedly, or suffer physical, emotional, or mental illnesses, and parents have to give them up and release them to God?  

My wife and I adopted a wonderful little girl, who had all sorts of promise in her.  She had such amazing energy and personality.  She traveled, experienced the world, before she could talk.  She spoke two languages, fluently.  She was smart, strong, with all kinds of promise, then, at the age of 11, her brain began to fall apart.  She struggled socially, then academically, and then her life was at risk.  She had to be put in a home for girls, for her own protection.  She spent time in counseling, mental evaluations, and then, there was medicine.  None of it worked.  She wouldn’t take it.  She finally got married.  Lost her three children (our grandchildren), and her husband too.  She doesn’t have contact with them, or with us.  “Mom, Dad, I’m not like you!  I can’t think like you, or be like you, she always said.”  She’s never been rebellious or mean to us.  She’s always polite, but she can’t be who she knows she’s supposed to be.  She’s the kindest, most caring, mixed up minded person.  Now that she’s almost thirty, all we can do, is give her back to the God who gave her to us.   It hurts, but we also find healing and hope, too, when we release her, and give her back to God.  “The Lord gives…The Lord takes away.  Blessed Be the Name of the Lord!  In other words: Thank God anyway.  Trust God anyway.  Hope in God, anyway!

Fortunately, putting our trust in God is intended to ‘give’ not ‘take’.  This is why Abraham’s test ends with life, not death.   As Isaac is laid on the altar, Abraham was fully prepared to carry out the command.  He trusted that he ‘Lord would provide’, but he did not know how.  But then, the voice of God intervenes, saying, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for NOW I KNOW THAT YOU FEAR GOD, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me...And behold, there was a ram standing by. Abraham took the ram, and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son (12-13)."

The last line in the story is most important.  It shows us what it means that Abraham ‘fears God’.  It does not mean that Abraham is afraid of God, but it means Abraham trusts, respects, and lives to follow and obey God for his life.   So, after Abraham ‘offers the ram’ as his sacrifice instead of his son,  Abraham then named that place, "The Lord will provide” (14).   This line is repeated to reflect the ‘trust’ that God demands and that life demands, if he (or we) would find hope and promise in life.  "The Lord will provide." The God who gives us life in the first place, is able to give it to us again. 

When I preach this story, I don’t preach it with great excitement.   It is not really a hero story.  It is such a difficult story.  It is a story which symbolizes the hard, overwhelming tests of faith that come to our own lives.   And I not only think of those who have been able to pass the tests, like Abraham, or like Jesus, but I also think and pray for those have failed test of faith, and may be going through the test right now, and don’t know whether or not, they can maintain trust and faith in God.  

I think of that young 17 year old girl, who committed suicide in a church on day I had preached my first sermon.  Some in the family came to get me after the service.  It was a painful and hard way to begin my ministry.   Later, learned that she pulled the trigger on her life, because she could not measure up to the successes of her younger sister.    The loss of hope, of faith, and even love was heartbreaking.  Her parents were devastated.    I also think of many others, who have been through the tests of life’s struggles, having bad parents, bad illnesses, or just plain ole bad luck in life.  Some of these get through by the ‘skin of their teeth’, but a lot of them loss faith altogether.   If you listen closely to the stories of people who don’t come to church, you’ll often hear expressions of hurt.   What does this story say to a person struggling with a life or a faith that does not turn out as we want, or even as it should?   Can still believe, no matter what happens, or whose fault it is, or isn’t, that the God who has given us life in the first place, can give it to us again?  If we lose all that we have, all the things which bring us hope or security---all the things that bring us pleasure, meaning, purpose, and beauty in our life, can we let them go?  Can we give them to God?

We constantly see pain and loss in this world.   It could be pain of refugees losing their homes,  the pain of immigrates trying to find a one, people losing their loved ones in wars, violence,  or natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, fires, or hurricanes.  Sometimes I also think of my own grandparents and parents, who also lived through the great depression.  Some of them kept faith, and others of them loss faith altogether.   I also think of some of you, who have been through loss yourself---who have lost those precious to you, or who are right now, dealing with the loss yourself, either loss of physical health, loss of children, spouses, or others who mean so much to you.   I am one of you.  I’m not immune to loss either.  In some ways, we are all facing the same ‘test’ Abraham faced.   And the question that comes to us, is will we be able to say and believe the same thing Abraham believed: “The Lord will provide!”

I have been privileged to know many of those people, those who have lost their future, everything that they worked for. It is just amazing. They say, "The Lord will provide." Have you observed someone like that?  Aren’t you amazed at people who keep faith, no matter what?  Mark Trotter, whom I owe credit for much of this sermon, tells of an article he once read by Paul O'Brien.  O’Brien once wrote an article reflecting about people who had experienced tremendous losses in their life.  He focused particularly on literary personalities, and how they coped with it.  He talked about William Thackery, once wrote a manuscript for a novel, which was accidently destroyed by a servant. Upon hearing the news, Thackery simply sat down and started writing again.  O’Brien also wrote about a Chinese scholar, Zhu Guangquan, who painstakingly translated Hegel's philosophical works into Chinese.  Then, during the "reign of terror", when communism took over China, his home was searched, and the manuscript was confiscated. He announced that he would simply start translating again.

O'Brien marveled at their resolve, concluding that what Thackery and Professor Zhu have in common is a belief, a trust, that their lives are not their own, but that they live for a larger, greater purpose.   And just like these men, while we are all responsible for what we do, we are not responsible for the outcomes of what we do.  We cannot control the future.  We cannot control the outcomes.  We cannot determine what happens.  The future belongs to an outcome that is greater than ‘me’, or ‘you’, and ‘us’.   Isn’t this why Jesus said,  “Whoever comes after me, must deny himself?”   That’s sounds a little like ‘sacrificing Isaac’, doesn’t it?  We give ourselves to God, and we trust that God can give us our lives back again. 

T. S. Eliot, the great poet, once wrote that half the harm in the world is done by people who want to feel important.  That's where the problem comes in.  We all want to feel important.   We want to be somebody.  We want to have something.  There is nothing wrong with that.  We are all born that way.  We want our lives to have meaning, purpose, and significance, but the problem comes in when fail to give ourselves to God’s greater purpose, which can only be given and received by grace.   We go after life.  We try to seize life. We try to control it.  We try to squeeze everything out of it.  We try to gain the lime light.   It becomes hard for us to imagine, especially in a culture with so much, that life is not finally about what we gain, have or want, but that life is about what we give, sacrifice, let go of, and devote to God’s greater purposes.   The models that are often held up to us in our culture, are the models of people with oversized egos who talk about me, me, me all the time, without apology and without embarrassment.  Who could believe that you could really have a life, or that this big world, or even this great universe, could ever have really just been about you?  How dumb is that?

Who doesn’t love the story about Muhammad Ali, who was on airplane. The flight attendant said to him before they took off, "Please fasten your seat belt." He said to the flight attendant, "Superman don't need no seat belt." The flight attendant said, "Superman don't need no airplane either.  Please, fasten your seatbelt."

The greatest disease of this world comes into play, not when we find ourselves up against losses, struggles, and tests of faith.  No, the greatest disease in this world is when we try to reduce life down to just what I have, what I feel, or what I want.   While there is a lot of psychology still be discovered about why a person would enter into a church and gun down innocent people, or why a man would randomly shoot people on a street, or why a person would get so hurt, so sick, or so angry, that they would lash out and take all kinds of people down with them,  what we need to know is that this is the kind of sickness that begins to surface, in a society bows down before the god of ‘me, me, me’!’ 

In a more positive note, think about a basketball game, a baseball game, soccer or football game, where after the game is over, the star player or players are being interviewed about their amazing feats, but he or she is constantly reminding the viewers, that after this win, it was never about just one play, or one or a couple of players,  but that it was always about the team or another player.   It was only when the players thought more about the ‘team’ than about themselves, that they were able to win the game.  Only when they gave up thinking about accolades, records, or self-achievements, were they able to gain what the game was about.  Once when Al McGuire was coach of Marquette University, they won the NCAA championship.    How did it happen?   McGuire said that one day he took their best player, Butch Lee aside.  Butch was an extraordinarily gifted player, who had difficulty sharing anything with anybody else, so Coach McGuire said, "Butch, the game is forty minutes long. If you divide that between two teams, it means that each team has the ball about twenty minutes. There are five players on each team. That means that each player has the ball about four minutes. Now Butch, I know what you can do with that ball for four minutes. But what I don't know is what you are going to do for the other thirty-six minutes.  CAN YOU LET SOMEBODY ELSE HAVE THE BALL?"

Whatever we say about Abraham’s test, or his life, or even his child, it was never about Abraham nor was it really about Isaac (Isaac never amounted to much in the biblical story).  No, this story is not about these people, but it was about faith and trust.  It was about giving everything to God, so that God can give you back what you could never gain for yourself
So, this is my final question for us today:  Can you let your life go? Can you decrease so that somebody else can increase?  Are you mature enough?  Are you trusting enough?  Can you let go, and go where God leads?  This is what the Bible means by faithful.  Are you mature enough realize that when you let your of your life, your ego, your opinion, or your will , you will still shine in God’s future?  If you sacrifice; if you give, do you believe the Lord will still provide?

The most difficult application of this kind of test is when we have to let go of someone we love.  It is no accident that the great task of grief work is called "letting go." It is only by letting go, that you can find life again.   You’ve got to give everything to this God who is the only one who can promise to give what you lose back again.   This is why Abraham called the name of the place of faith, "The Lord Will Provide."  "Not as the world gives do I give to you,” Jesus said.   Jesus assures us again, that in God’s way and in God’s time, “The Lord will provide,” even if it’s not in the way we expect or anticipate.  This is the ‘place’ of faith and trust, that is our only hope. 

James Angell, a Presbyterian minister, was awakened on Saturday night, in the middle of the night, with a phone call.  It was the Saturday before Easter. The phone call was the Highway Patrol telling him that his twenty-one year old daughter, Susan, has been killed in an automobile accident.  Susan was on her way home. She was going to spend Easter Sunday with her mother and father. She was killed on the way home.

With courage and with faith that should make us marvel, Jim Angell, just a few hours after receiving that news, entered his pulpit on that Sunday morning, and preached on the victory that Christ has given us over death through his Resurrection.  Later he wrote a book about those days, a beautiful little book called, O Susan!  In that book, he said there is a long period when the loss seems to be more than you can bear. It is like you are at the end of the rope, and you have to hold on while you tie a knot at the end, for something to keep holding on to.
Then, he said, in that dark moment, something happens.  It happens to people in in different ways and at different times.  But for him it happened this way. A dear and trusted friend came into his study one day, and talked bluntly to him. He said, "Jim, you've got to face this. For the rest of your life this is a fact that you just have to live with. You can do two things about it. You can use it, use your fresh depth of feeling to make life finer, or you can let it crush you, and go through the rest of your life whimpering.

Angell wrote that those words from his friend reminded him of the words of the hymn, "Shun not the struggle, face it. 'Tis God's gift."    This gift is not the accident. It’s not the tragedy and it’s not the sorrow.  These are not God's gift, but God’s gift is the grace, the power to use those events to find hope, and to learn how to trust.  This is what Abraham was doing when he told his servants, as he left the donkeys to go up on the mountain alone with his son.  He told them, in trust and faith: “We will worship, and then we will come back to you” (5).

What did Abraham meant is exactly what Jim Angell realized, when he had to let his daughter go.   When he found the grace and faith to let her go, this is when he found life again.   We know Abraham passed the test, just like we will know it too.  We know it when we walk through both life and death, and can still say, “The Lord gives….The Lords takes away… but whatever happens, "The Lord will provide."  Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

"Chosen But Messy"

A Sermon Based Upon Genesis 21: 8-21 NRSV

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
March 11, 2018

For the past few weeks, we have been preaching from the life of Abraham, the ancestor of all biblical faith.   Scripture sometimes speaks of Abraham as a ‘friend of God’ (Isa. 41:8; James 2:23).  Jesus called his own disciples, who were descendants of Abraham, his ‘friends’ (Jn. 15:15).    In a way, all people of faith can be named ‘friends of God’.  But what we are going to learn today is that just because we are God’s friends, this does not in any way mean that we are a privileged or superior people to everyone else.   God’s people do not have a monopoly on the goodness and grace of God. 

Besides this, what we will see in today’s text is that God’s people can be perfectly ‘imperfect’ friends of God; people who have faith, but who still have a long ways to go.   One writer explained today’s story of faith this way, saying, “the religious consciousness which was to have noble growth in Israel, had its subsoil in the same life and same ideas (and I might add same failures) as other peoples of ancient times (Bowie, IB).   In other words, Abraham was not perfect, he was a flawed human being.  But even as a flawed human being, Abraham did open his heart to God by faith, warts and all, so that his faith could be perfected by God’s grace.  

One of the most wonderful truths about biblical truth is that it tells us exactly this kind of truth; truth that comes with warts and all.   The Bible does not hide who Abraham was, just as it does not hide how faith was, before it was perfected in God’s love through Jesus Christ.   What we see, particularly in today’s text, is that Abraham was not always a great example of what a person of faith can be, but still, God ‘credited’ Abraham’s with “righteousness” because of his faith (Rom 4:3).   Abraham believed (or trusted) in God (Rom 4:6), as Paul put it, but, as Paul adds: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about---but not before God” (Rom. 4:2).   As we will see in today’s text, Abraham really had nothing to boast about.  Neither do we.

Paul reminds us, that also in this way, we are children of Abraham.   Yes, we are people of faith; having a faith that will also be ‘credited…as righteousness’, but , as Paul adds, faith is credited to us because ‘our transgressions are forgiven,…(and our) sins are covered’ (Rom. 4:7).  In this same way,  just like Abraham, as like Israel too, we Christians are also a ‘chosen’ (Eph. 1:11, 1 Pet. 2:9) people, who are chosen to be objects of God’s love and recipients of God’s grace.  But this in no way, means that we are any better than anyone else, nor does it mean that we are the only people God loves or saves.

Our text today begins on the ‘happy note’ of the fulfillment of God’s promise.   God had promised Abraham that he would be blessed with a child, and would become a great nation so his faith could bless the whole world (Gen. 12: 1-3).  “All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you”(Gen. 12:3.  It was made very clear from the beginning, that the ‘blessing’ Abraham received was never just about Abraham alone, but this was a blessing that was always intended for ‘all peoples on earth’.   Abraham’s blessing was for everyone.

It is exactly this ‘promise’ or ‘calling’ to ‘bless others’ that makes the second part of today’s story especially hard to think about.  This is one of those places in the Bible where faith gets messy, complicated, and can even appear to be down-right cruel.   It is one of those hard parts of the Bible that some believers quickly pass over, excuse, or explain away.   As one pastor put it, this is ‘one of those things that ought not to happen’ (James Killen).   The truth in this story is told twice in Genesis (see Gen. 16), perhaps just so that we don’t miss just how ‘messy’ and ‘imperfect’ Abraham’s faith was.   This reminds us that, even as ‘friends of God’, we are all on a journey to learn how to love like God loves.

The ‘messiness’ of this story focuses on what to do with Ishamel, Sarah’s other son.  Now that Isaac is born, what does the family and the future look like?   It was not ‘faith’, but Abraham and Sarah’s lack of faith that asked for this.   If you recall, when it didn’t look like she and Abraham could have children on their own,  Sarah decided to allow her Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar, to become Abraham’s surrogate wife  (Gen. 16:1ff).  This was a standard practice in world where family was business, as well as, family.  

Hagar quickly conceived, but this complicated the family arrangements.  Sarah became jealous of Hagar, and even before the child was born, earlier in Genesis 16, we read that with Abraham’s blessing Hagar was sent away, only to be sent back by the angel of the LORD.   Now that the promised child Isaac has been born,, the same jealousy and the same question arises again: “What happens to Hagar and Ishmael?”  Sadly, the problem arises in a most innocent moment when the two children were ‘playing’ together.  Sarah takes the scene as insult; perhaps it might have been a reminder of her own lack of faith.  In the next moment, Sarah demands that Abraham ‘cast out this slave woman with her son.’   Sarah’s reasoning: ‘This slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac’ (10).

It is always ‘sad’ when families, who have grown up together, experienced and shared life together, come to a point where they don’t want to travel through life together any longer.   Often, it happens because of some disagreement about ‘inheritance’, just like Sarah voices it here.  You and I know this happens, sometimes even to the best of families.  People get their feelings hurt, one makes unreasonable demands, the parents failed to make their last wishes clear, and now, after the parents are gone, the family relationship falls apart.  The world and the love they once shared, is gone forever.  Sometimes it can be reduced down to piece of furniture, a tract of land, or an amount of money.

But Sarah’s jealousy over Ishmael is not about monetary inheritance; it is about God’s promise, and it is about her own weakness of faith.   Sarah realizes that she has failed, and now she wants to protect her son.   Perhaps it even has a motherly motivation; maybe she didn’t really wish her servant-girl and child any harm.  However, what she does is wrong, and it proves that she, like Abraham, were not ‘justified by works’.  We also read, that this whole ordeal seemed so unfair and ugly that ‘the matter was very distressing to Abraham’.  Ishmael was Abraham’s  ‘son’ too (11). 

Perhaps this whole story occurs in the Bible’s story about faith, to remind us, that even people of great faith, sometimes ‘get it wrong’.  Sometimes we too have taken matters into our own hands, and have either made matters worse.  Sometimes we too have hurt some really good, innocent people, even by trying to bring God’s blessing into the world.  This whole story, being about the mistreatment of a ‘slave-girl’ should make us all take note of our own failures, flaws, and mistreatments of those around us.   Sometimes we have intentionally or unintentionally hurt others,  either actively by our own power, or because of our own passive participation in a culture, a people, or a nation, that has been less than perfect.

About a year and a half ago, it was announced that the prestigious, Georgetown University, was going to take steps to ‘atone’ for its past of profiting from having slaves and by participating in the slave trade that was once a part their own history, as it has been part of the history of our nation.   More than a dozen prestigious Universities, including Brown, Harvard, and the University of Virginia have publically recognized their own ties to slavery and the slave trade.   What Georgetown University decided to do, was to go beyond admitting their past or apologizing, but they are now planning on making restitution and reparations, by allow descendants of slaves to have preferential treatment and special scholarships, if they desire to study at their school.

When the “Black Lives Matter” movement started, sometimes misguided and othertimes misunderstood,  causing no small amount of controversy, I found it interesting that during the public discussion, that the conservative, evangelical magazine, Christianity Today---a magazine that was endorsed and started by Billy Graham---ran a ‘cover article’ about one how a Lynching Memorial is planned to be erected in Montgomery, Alabama, remembering how 4,000 African American were lynched between 1877 and the early 1950’s.   In the Bible and in American history too, memorials are a way, not just to remember the past, but they can also be a way to remember heal from the ‘sins of our past’, so we can all move to a better future.

What is most important this sordid story, is not just to revisit what was done wrong, but how, even in the midst of human sin and failure,  and just when this child was about to unjustly ‘die’ in the wilderness, God shows up.   God ‘hears the voice (or cry) of the boy’  (17).  God reminds ‘Hagar’ not ‘to be afraid.’  God shows up in the midst the ‘troubles’ of the forsaken and forgotten to make a promise of ‘greatness’ just for them (18).  God ‘provides’ for them in their own wilderness.  God quenches the thirst of this humble child, so that he not only survives, but he thrives in the wilderness he must make his home.

When I read this story, of God’s provision for Ishmael, I wonder how often people of color, who are descendants of slaves, or Indians, or poor forgotten, working-class peoples around the world, might read such a story.   Do they see God, also as their redeemer; even though have been part of a subjugated, persecuted, or enslaved people?   Interestingly, Christian faith is often more alive and vibrant among people who have been abused, mistreated, or maligned, than it is among those who are blessed, advantaged or privileged.   I have a book in my study, strangely entitled, “Reading the Bible with the Dammed”.   This book reminds me, that strangely enough, it is people who have been persecuted, who have suffered, and who started out as forgotten and forsaken by the powers of this world, who often best understand their own spiritual hunger and need of God.   

Through the years, some of the greatest ministry moments, were spent not in churches, but in prisons.  In Greensboro, a deacon there by the name of Sid Wrenn, ran a prison ministry.  When he took me with him one Thursday evening, he prepared me saying, “Pastor, I need to warn you that some of these guys are mixed up.  Some of them are going to say something you might not want to hear, but I also want to tell you, these are some of the most spiritually hungry and open people I’ve ever known.  I mean no offense to you or my church, but if I had to give up one, I give up my regular church over being here with these guys every Thursday night.  Their need and desire for God is the highlight of my week.”

What people like Hagar and Ishmael mean for the story of faith, is that sometimes any of our lives might feel more like them, than like Abraham and Sarah.   Most of us don’t live lives with Hollywood endings, where the hero comes returns, and sweeps us off our feet and rides off into the sunset.  Most people have to learn to live ‘beyond happily ever after’, because somewhere in life, we realize that most heroes, like John Wayne, or Captain America, are just myth. A person of faith learns to live life ‘beyond happily ever after’ because in reality, few lives really turn out like that.    For most of us, our spiritual journey can seem much more like Hagar and Ishmael, than Abraham and Sarah.  Life can seem like the promise has completely skipped over us.  When this happens, we know that if is wasn’t for our faith in God, we know, that in this life, that we wouldn’t have a prayer.

To be true winners in this life, we must learn to ourselves in the shoes of the losers, not just the winners.  This is not easy to do.  Most of our hero stories, in fiction or in history,  try to focus on the successes, not the feelings of failure forsakenness.  Most of us don’t dare try to imagine ourselves as descendants of Hagar and Ishmael.  Even the Bible, which pictures God’s promise coming through Isaac, could lead us to think that nothing good could come from Ishmael, just like Nathaniel once wondered: ‘what good could come from Nazareth’ (Jn. 1:46), especially from a forsaken Jew who was crucified on a cross.    

In our own time, with heightened tensions between Muslims and Jews, and now, also between Christians and the Radical State of Islam, need to consider something else very important from this story about Ishmael.  

Modern day Muslims, are Arabs who consider themselves descendants of Abraham, just as much, or even more so, than many secular Jews do.  If you go to Jerusalem, you will see that the large Dom of the Rock sanctuary, marking the skyline of Jerusalem is a Muslim sanctuary, not a Jewish or Christian one.   And the continued ‘hot’ question of our world is how can both Jews and Muslims co-exist in the Holy Land, and the great city of Jerusalem, which is today anything but its own namesake; a city of peace?

What could be a way forward could begin with an honest interpretation of what is happening at the end of this story.  When God comes to save Ishmael, and his mother Hagar, we are simply told that ‘God was with the boy’ (20).   Think about these words, they almost sound the same as the name found in both the Old and New Testament, child of promise who is ‘Immanuel, God with us’ (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23).  The only difference is that long before God was revealed in the child known in Isaiah’s day, or the even more completely in the child Jesus, of Matthew’s day, God was already there ‘with the boy’ we know as Ishmael.  

What we need to understand that although Ishmael isn’t the child of promise, Ishmael isn’t the child without a promise either.   God had a unique purpose in blessing Abraham’s seed through Isaac, not because they are better than Ishmael’s, but because they were blessed to reveal God’s love to ‘all people’s’ including Ishmael’s people, and the rest of us too.   God loves Arab peoples, just like he loves Jews, and just like God loves Christians, and just like he loves other religious people, and even secular people too.   

There is an interesting little story in Gerald McDermott little book entitled, “Israel Still Matters”.  In that book Dr. McDermott argues that Israel has a right to the promised-land, and that Christians and Arabs should respect that.  I don’t have time to go through all his arguments, nor do I want to, but there is one story he tells that especially caught my attention.   McDermott says that when he lived in Israel, he talked to a lot of people who actually lived there and didn’t care too much about the politics.  He said that there were even many Arabs there, who would rather live under the rule of Israel, than under any government of Palestinian Arabs.   Their reasoning was simple.  They would much rather be ‘Arabs’ under Jews who govern the land with democracy and freedom, than live under Palestinian rule that would rule with the restrictions or forced or extreme Islamic religion.   They wanted to believe in God through the lens of their Muslim culture, but they didn’t want all the negatives that came with it.  They wanted the freedom and democracy only Israel could give.

If we want to be the people who bring God’s peace (Shalom) in the world, we must work to undo sin of Sarah and Abraham, who kicked Hagar out, so that all can rediscover the grace which God revealed that could save Abraham, and us too.   It is not in Jerusalem, but at Golgatha, just outside the walls of the great city, where Jesus died on the cross, that God’s love was fully revealed.  This is not because Jesus was Jewish, nor because Jesus established the Christian Church.  No, the reason God’s love and grace was revealed fully in Jesus, was because “God was in Christ reconciling the whole world unto himself’.   It is in the pain, in the suffering, and in the death this Son of God, Jesus the Christ, that God reveals the only kind of love that will ‘provide’ the ‘saving grace’ God has always intended for the whole world.  Amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Love with Questions

A Sermon Based Upon Genesis 18: 16-33, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
March, 4th 2018

Unique to human life is our ability to raise questions.  While Science has been able to determine how certain animals feel, love, think, and have similar human-like behaviors, only humans ask questions.  The ability to ask: Why should I live?  Why should I live rightly?  Why should I love?  These are the most necessary questions to keep us human.  Even though we don’t always agree on the specifics, our ability to ask is part of what makes us human.

We see human questioning arise almost immediately in the Genesis story.   When the Serpent came to Eve in the Garden, it used the human capability to pose questions to lure humanity into to doubt and disobedience:  “Did God really say, when you eat of this fruit, you will die?  Continuing with his twisted logic he suggested the wrong answer: “You won’t surely die, but your eyes will be open, and you will be like God.”  

The lesson Adam and Eve learned the hard way, which is a lesson we all learn, was that the human capability to question anything could lead us to question everything.   This could be a step too far; such as when a teenager while developing their own identity, questions the sincerity of their parent’s love.  Perhaps the most important safeguard we have to keep us from losing our head is our heart.  When we love, questions can remain constructive, healthy, and part of human maturity, rather than turn unhealthy and destructive. 

The personal and loving relationship Abraham and God had with each other should help us understand the strange story before us today.   Here, it seems that Abraham is raising some serious questions about God’s own personal judgment. 

How can we understand a mere mortal questioning the ways of an eternal God?    Well, for one thing, we need to understand just how close God and Abraham were to each other.   A couple of times in the Bible, once in the OT book of Isaiah, and another time in the NT book of James,  Abraham is referred to as ‘a friend of God’.  The whole idea of ‘friendship’ implies intimacy, transparency and relationship. As you study Abraham’s life, you will find some of the most personal and revealing stories in the entire Bible.   So, rather than jump conclusions, we need to consider that in the first place, God was allowing Abraham to enter the most intimate thoughts of God.   God is allowing Abraham deep into God’s own heart.   But why?
Jewish scholar James Kugel observed that the way Abraham, and other patriarchs related to God is very different from how God is viewed later in the Bible.   This “God of Old”, as Kugel described him, is a much more human like.  Abraham’s God is relatable, relational; maybe even touchable.  This God of Abraham thinks out loud, reasons and talks to himself, appears on earth like any other human being, he wrestles with people, becomes disappointed, angry, shows up unannounced, then walks away like any other person.   This God shows up just when you need him, and sometimes even when you don’t.  But before you people can get too close to him to make him a ‘special buddy’, this God is gone, as mysteriously as he came.  

The conversation going on here is perhaps one of the most fascinating of all.  It just doesn’t fit our normal understanding of God.  The text tells us that after Abraham’s three male visitors revealed Sarah’s pregnancy test, Abraham walks with them along the way.  They were looking in the direction ‘toward Sodom’, the home of Abraham’s nephew lot.  As you recall, Abraham had fought a war against 5 kings who had once threatened Sodom.  Abraham won the war and rescued Lot and his family.  In doing so, Abraham became the king of Sodom’s protector.  But now, something has drastically changed.   God reasons within himself: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do” (17)?

We are told that God has heard the ‘outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah (20).’   This ‘outcry’ pointed to the seriousness of ‘their sin.’   God figures he must let Abraham in on his divine intentions.   It’s a good idea to inform Abraham since someday ‘Abraham will become a great nation’‘all the nations will be blessed in him’ (18) and Abraham has been chosen to ‘keep the way of the LORD’ by ‘doing righteousness and justice (19).’ In other words, God wants Abraham to know that righteousness and justice are not happening in Sodom and Gomorrah. 

God’s openness with Abraham is something we just don’t see that often, even in the Bible.   God is treating Abraham like a prophet, though even the great prophet Isaiah described Israel’s God as one whose ‘ways are higher…, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts’ (Isa. 55:9) and also, he declares that He is  ‘the God who hides himself’ (Isa. 45:15).  But contrary to Isaiah’s vision, Abraham is having face to face conversations with ‘the LORD’.   Not much later in the Bible, Moses was told that he can’t see God’s face and live (Exodus 33:20).  Even during the time of King David, God has become even more distant, and  unapproachable, so that when someone accidently touched God’s holy furniture, they are struck dead (2 Sam. 6:7).  Even in New Testament times, it is still said that “It can be a fearful and terrible thing, to fall into the hands of a living God” (Heb 10:31).

So, what changes all this?  Why do we move from a God who appears as a human visitor, having face to face, intimate conversations, to having a more distant vision of an eternal God who seems distant, aloof, far away, and we can’t see or directly talk to, unless we are dead.  You might think it should be the other way around---with God getting easier to relate to than harder. Christians also, only approach Israel’s God through the ‘name’ of Jesus?  Why?

When I was growing up, we had an interim pastor who told us how he used to walk in the woods and having real, verbal, audible, conversations with God, like Abraham did.   He said that God was so real to him, that he could actually hear his voice.   Now, I was a teenager at the time, and this bothered me quite a bit.  I was learning how to pray and talk to God myself, and was trying to take prayer more seriously, but I never had heard God’s voice.   Was there something wrong with me?  Was my faith not strong enough?   Had I not really learned all the right ways to pray?   It seemed that all my conversations with God were one sided.  The preacher went on to say when we got the sin out of our lives, we too could hear God’s voice.

Perhaps the Preacher had good intentions, and was partially right.  But I think his very literal explanation of what it means to relate to God took me down a ‘primrose path’.  Most people who say they actually hear God’s voice today are in mental institutions   I don’t think that that preacher meant that kind of ‘voice’, but perhaps we sell both the Bible and the human mind short, and this story too, if we only look at this as a normal human-like conversation.   The conversation and relationship between God and Abraham just may not be that different from our own capability to relate to God today.   

We don’t have to take this conversation of Abraham in a strictly literal sense, to appreciate it, or take it seriously.  The story is told in a very simple way, with ideas, we all can understand: even children too.   When adults read ‘Bible stories’ to children, they seldom look at them the same way our children do.  Children listen to the story just for the story, but adults listen for the truth in the story.  We don’t get stuck with whether Jonah was swallowed by a whale or big fish---because the story is about prejudice, not fish.  We don’t get stuck on God making a deal with Satan to tempt Job, because the story is about the suffering of the righteous, not God making a deal bet with the devil.  We also don’t get stuck on Adam and Eve talking to a snake or about Balaam’s talking donkey either.  Mature adults don’t get stuck on arguing about where the ark is parked, or where empty tomb was, or whether this or that cave in Bethlehem actually is where Jesus was born.  It’s the truth of the story we are after.  

Whether or not we prove everything in life will never be as important as living the truth we already know.  I once knew a mentally handicapped lady in my home church.  She was a sweet adult lady who had the emotional intelligence, but the rational intelligence of a scientist.  She could figure out anything and everything.  But people often felt uncomfortable around her.  By always analyzing, figuring, and thinking through everything literally, you couldn’t have a normal conversation with her.   You didn’t want to hurt her or her parent’s feelings, but when she came up to you, arguing some point, you wanted to run.   That’s how it is when people always read the Bible with strict literalism, always trying to prove this or that happen, betting their life on proving all the details, rather than trying to live what we know is true.   Reading the Bible should be like fish; we eat the meat and leave the bones for scholars to chew on and pray they don’t choke.     

Still, even if we take this conversation between Abraham and God seriously rather than literally, it raises questions raised all through the Bible, which are never fully answered.  These are the kinds of questions all people of faith still live with, if they take God seriously.  In this story, the truth is that Abraham takes some of his deepest questions about God, to God.  This question is not, does God exist.  No, the even greater question is rather, is God fair?  How is it that this God who has been revealed as compassionate, merciful, redemptive, and righteous, is also a God who judges, condemns, and punishes sin with death?   In the biblical revelation, you can’t have a true God worth anything that really matters, unless God has both angles of divine and human truth.   Biblical revelation declares that God is kind and loving, but it also declares that God is holy and just.  “…I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy…”  The problem with a merciful God, is that because God is God, he reserves the right to choose ‘to whom’ he will be gracious and merciful.   That’s the question. 

The heart of Abraham’s questioning is where most of our great questions arise.   Our problem is seldom ‘what will happen to the unrighteous, the evil or undeserving people’ like Hitler, Stalin, Osama Bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein.  Remember the play about the Baptist president, Harry Truman: “Give’em Hell, Harry!”  We think some deserve it.   But other times we wonder what will happen to the ‘good’, ‘righteous’ and innocent people when God finally brings his justice, judgement and conclusion to life in the world.   What about the good people who’ve never heard the gospel?  What about the good Hindu, the good Buddhist, the good Muslin, or the good Agnostic or Atheists?  When people really don’t understand, grew up differently, or failed to understand what we understand, does this mean they are condemned forever?  This line of questioning was already there in Abraham’s mind way back then.

What I find most interesting about Abraham’s questioning, is that Abraham does not question God because he doesn’t trust God, but Abraham’s appears to be questioning God because he does trust and have faith in God, but still he is worried about people.  Abraham questions, because he is God’s friend.   He questions because he has faith, not because of any lack of faith.   God has called Abraham to ‘be a blessing’ to others, so why would God destroy a city if there are still ‘righteous’ people living there?   Again, Abraham’s question arises out of God’s blessings in the world, not because he is finding fault with God, or not finding fault in Sodom.

The ‘grave’ or serious ‘sin’ of Sodom and Gomorrah is not explained to Abraham, but later in the story (Gen. 19: 1-38), the things that went on at ‘night in the square’ (19:2) is presented in a very sordid event.   The angels wanted to sleep there and see for themselves, but Lot invites them to his house to distract them.   Before going to bed, we are told that the ‘men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man’ (19: 4), surround the house, demanding that Lot ‘bring his visitors out’ so that they can ‘know them’ (rape them).   Lot stands outside the door and ‘begs’ them ‘not to act so wickedly,’ even offering his own two virgin ‘daughters’ to them.   When the wicked men try to force themselves in, the angels grab Lot and strike the intruders with ‘blindness’.   Now the angels reveal to Lot that they are about ‘to destroy this place’ so Lot and his family had better ‘get out’ (14)
Most of us know that popular preaching has tended to focus primarily on the sexual sin that appears in the text, as the ‘men of Sodom’ attempted to ‘gang rape’ the angels while ‘all the people’ watched (19:4).   Interestingly, however, the ‘sexual sin’ was listed last on the list of serious sins the prophet Ezekiel made.  Ezekiel wrote that the ‘guilt’ of Sodom was more about ‘pride’, ‘excess food’, ‘prosperous ease’, and that they did not ‘aid the poor and needy’.  It appears to be the overflow of this kind of ‘materialistic’ lifestyle that Ezekiel says that ‘they were haughty, and did abominable things...’ (Ezek. 16:49-50).   While God didn’t approve of the sexual sins of Sodom, I don’t think any of these sins by themselves, brought judgement and destruction.  It was the combined sins of pride, excess, ease, lack of concern and arrogance that resulted in the abominable ‘crowd’ behaviors which was displayed as an act of sexual violence against the two angels, which was most offensive to God.  Thus, the men of Sodom are on the exact opposite side of God’s dealing with Abraham; displaying violence, aggression, and complete disregard for the ‘strangers’ in their midst, rather than displaying kindness and respect with the intent to bless.    

It was because of the ‘outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah’ that God informed Abraham that he was going to take a look.  But what does Abraham have to do with this?  Is it just because of Abraham’s nephew, or because Abraham had become ‘Sodom’s protector?  We are not sure whether or not Abraham knew anything about what was going on in Sodom, but we do know that Abraham knows God as just and righteous.   So, Abraham asks over and over, starting with a large number, to an ever smaller number, addressing the same concern to God: ‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?’    Suppose some ‘righteous’ people are found there, won’t ‘the God of the earth do right’ and spare them, or the city?   Besides Abraham’s own ties to Sodom, was Abraham only trying to ‘pray’ God out of it, so that Abraham look more ‘righteous’ than the God he worships?

But before you get all ‘stressed out’ over Abraham’s questions, we need to see the ‘truth’ in this story.   You can only understand a story like this through the whole story of Israel, through story of the gospel.   This is already hinted at in how God already answered his own decision to inform Abraham about all this in the first place.   Notice how God answers, “Shall I hide this from Abraham….” with “No, for I have chosen him….” (18:19).   God is letting Abraham question him exactly because God ‘chose’ Abraham for the sake of blessing, even eventually blessing ‘all the nations’ which ultimately will be bring salvation to whole human race.  Abraham’s desire for God to find a few ‘righteous’ points us right back to Abraham’s people, which includes Jesus’ people too.  By finding only a few righteous who are ‘the salt of the earth’, the whole outcome can shift.  

Thus, the story here is not really about whether God is righteous, but how God’s faithful, righteous, and caring God’s people can invite God’s redemption, reconciliation, and salvation to come into the world.  The drama going on here is indeed bigger than Abraham and Sodom, because what was happening within both of them, points us to the great saving purposes of God.  It is Abraham’s concern that helps us see, early on, God’s hidden desire to save. 
This whole ‘strange’ story can only be rightly interpreted with an eye on and a heart full of God’s compassion.   This is what the ‘promise’ to Abraham has always been about.  God did not choose Abraham for the sake of only choosing Abraham; but it was about choosing Abraham so that the ‘all the nations’ could be blessed.   In the same way, God did not just choose Israel because Israel was better than anyone, but God choose Israel because God’s wants his grace, mercy and love to spread to everyone.   In the same way,  God did not send Jesus in the world only to save the church, or to save an elite few, but God sent Jesus because “God so love the worldso that whosever believes him will not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).   Even that great text which says that ‘there is salvation in no other name’ or the one which says ‘no comes to the Father except through me’, does not mean that God excludes everybody else, but it means that God sent his son ‘to save’whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord.’ 

To use the Christian faith as a ‘bully stick’ is like thinking that Abraham is questioning a God who doesn’t know what he is doing.  This story is not about questioning God, but it’s about God allowing Abraham to learn about God’s love through his questions.  As strange and unobvious as it might seem, this story, even the one about Sodom’s destruction, is also preparing us to understand God’s love.   As the New Testament letter understood, even in  judgement God ‘is not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance’ (2 Pet. 2:9).   Just like the cross of Jesus was not merely about human sin (which is true), but was mainly to point to God’s compassion and forgiveness, this story about Abraham questions and Sodom’s sin is about to show us God’s desire to save.

“And the LORD went his way….Abraham returned to his place….”
Now that we understand what Abraham’s relationship with God was about, maybe we can learn what our own relationship with is about.   It’s not really just about you.   It’s about God calling us to be His partners to make a difference as ‘salt and light’.    And the surprise of this text is that we begin this ‘difference’ not by changing the world, which we can’t do, but by being in honest prayer and conversation with God. 

There used to preaching professor at Fruitland Bible Institute, who was much beloved among preachers in western North Carolina.  Dr. Kenneth Riddings, taught a couple of my childhood friends, and a couple of Teresa’s uncles.   He didn’t teach me, but I did get to meet with him in several meetings.  To many ‘Brother Kenneth was the ‘prince of preachers’ who taught them not just how to be a good preacher, but also how to take care of themselves.  Once Dr. Riddings told how he used to work so hard trying to save the world, until he finally noticed  that as he tried to save it, it was getting worse, rather than better.  Finally, he told his young preachers that they’d better preach the word, and let God take care of saving the world.

Perhaps that’s what happens at the end of this story, when we read that ‘the Lord went his way’ and ‘Abraham returned to his place’ without all the answers.  What Abraham is being called to do is to trust God keep ‘doing righteousness and justice’, no matter what is happening around him.    Perhaps this is still the sign of true faith; when we can come to God with our questions and remain faithful, when they are, and even when they are not answered, as we wish.  Years ago, a lady came once came to a Baptist professor who was her pastor at the time.   She had questions about God along with some anger, and she felt guilty about it.  “What should I do with all these feelings?” She asked her professor pastor.  He responded “Go ahead and tell God about it, he can take it!” 

Can you understand a God big enough to ‘take it?’  When I used to talk to my Dad about the War, he would tell me how he fought in a special battalion attached to General Patton.  Then he told me that while the troops respected General Patton, but they loved and trusted most in General Bradley.   He was the soldier’s general.   

In his autobiography, General Bradley tells about boarding a commercial plane one day, wearing a business suit.   He began working on some important papers. It so happened that his seat-mate was a private in the U.S. Army, who was rather expressive. This private, who didn’t recognize the General, said, “Sir, we are going to be traveling together for quite a while, so it would be nice if we got to know one another. I’m guessing that you are a banker.” Bradley, not wanting to be rude, but wanting to get some work done, replied, “No, I am not a banker. I am General Bradley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.” After a slight pause, the young soldier said, “Wow, sir, that is a very important job. I sure hope you don’t blow it.” It is an understatement to say that we Christians have a vital role to play in America’s future and we dare not blow it.  (From James Moore, When All Else Fails…Read the Instructions, (Dimensions for Living: Nashville, 1993, p. 142, as quoted by Bill Bouknight at

Perhaps the greatest thing we can do for the hope of the world is ‘let God be God’ and not try to worry about God ‘blowing it’.   Like Abraham, we need to be praying, caring for each other, and even praying for and caring for strangers too, then we need to leave the rest to God.    Fred Craddock used to end some of his sermons with a line that reflects what Abraham did, after he left all this questions with God:   “Live simply, love generously, speak truthfully, serve faithfully, and leave everything else to God.”   Amen.