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Sunday, May 30, 2021

Judah Stepped Forward...

Genesis 44: 18-34

Charles J. Tomlin, May 30th, 2021

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership 

Series: The Roots of God’s Justice 8/20


Dear people of God,  there is a character among Charles Schulz's Peanut’s personalities,  called "Pig-pen." He is always dirty-- as dirty as a little boy can get.  In one cartoon series, Pig-pen is at the sink in a bathroom, washing, washing, and washing -- but to no avail.   

In the first frame, he says: "Well, I'll be." 

In the next frame, he is screaming this word, "I've been afraid this would happen someday!", and then he shouts, "Mom!".  

In the next frame,  Pig Pen says in a rather bewildered fashion, "I've scrubbed an' scrubbed an' scrubbed, but I can't get clean." 

In the final frame, he says, "I think I have reached the point of no return!"

Today we consider an Old Testament character who hoped he had not reached the point of no return.  He had to come clean in his life, no matter what it cost him.   In Jewish and the biblical tradition, Judah is considered a biblical hero because of his own transformation.   More than any other of the brothers to Joseph, Judah had the willingness to recognize his mistakes and take responsibility for his actions.   This is what lead to his most ‘shinning moment’ in the Biblical story.

We have been considering the Old Testament roots of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, as Micah described the human duty to God and to each other.   Today, we make a transition from doing justice to loving mercy, and our first example is this little known, unsung hero of the Hebrew Bible.   He was one of the Sons of Jacob and a brother to Joseph, named Judah.  You know the name because his tribe became the longest lasting tribe of Israel, where Jerusalem is located.  But do you know his story?



            Judah’s transformation into a person who loved mercy, didn’t come out of nowhere.   Genesis teaches that Judah’s leadership grew out painful lessons which ended with a sharp upward learning curve with far-ranging consequences.   Let’s briefly trace Judah’s growth, both as a leader and a learner in the school of mercy.

            Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and Leah.   We first meet him in Genesis 37, when he convinces his brothers to sell their loathed and most hated younger sibling, Joseph, rather than killing him.   Judah argued, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood...after all, he is our brother, our own flesh (Gen. 37: 26-27).  Judah must be credited at having saved Joseph’s life, although the eldest Ruben also tried to steer his brothers away from their murderous intent.   Judah knew the violent nature of his brothers, because they had slaughtered the men of Shechem after their sister Dinah was raped by them.   Judah may have participated in that killing and is now having some regrets.   He sees what can happen if this kind of rage is turned against one of their own.   So, Judah steps up and intervenes.   However, Judah still doesn’t walk away with a clear conscience.  He still colludes in the both the selling of Joseph into slavery, and then later lying about it to his father. 

Next, the book of Genesis interrupts the story of Joseph, to devote an entire chapter to an episode in Judah’s life (Gen. 38).   Tragedy strikes again, when Judah’s newly married firstborn son dies, and then not long afterwards, his second-born son, also dies.  Judah blames his daughter-in-law Tamar for the bad luck.  She had been married to both of them, as she was chosen also to marry the second son after the first son had died.  So, Judah asks her to remain a widow at her father’s house until his third son was married to someone else.   

While Tamar is unfairly put away at her father’s house, learning that Judah had arrived in town with the third son, She removed her widow’s clothes, making herself appear available to be married.   However, Judah mistook her as a temple prostitute, lay with her, and she ended up pregnant.   Rumor gets around that Tamar had ‘played the whore and this so outraged Judah, he threatened to have her burned.  When Tamar presented evidence that Judah is the father, he immediately admitted his wrongdoing, saying,  “she is more right than I“(Gen. 38:26).  

            This strange story is told to show us that Judah is on a journey.  But Judah’s true shinning moment came much later, right here in our text when he approaches the Egyptian official, who unbeknownst to him, is really is long lost brother.   The way Judah admits the responsibility of his brothers and then accepts his own, as he tries to protect his youngest brother Benjamin and his aged Father, expressing his regret for what has been done to Joseph.  This is what finally moves Joseph to tears.   It is Judah’s step forward that opened up the path to his whole family’s reconciliation.



            Notably, Judah is the first example of open and obvious repentance in the Bible.   While is true that Jacob was reconciled with his brother Esau, it was not made clear how he admitted his wrongdoing and sought forgiveness.  Judah’s personal transformation is unselfish and full of pathos and compassion.  He’s changing heart and stepping up for a father, a brother, just as he did earlier for a daughter-in-law, Tamar.    

Following this journey of transformation, the tribe of Judah will go on to play a pivotal role in Israel’s story and history.  It was from Judah’s own line that David was born, and the Davidic dynasty ruled Israel for over 500 years.   Judah is also the tribal line, from which Jesus was born.  Judah was not only the forerunner of Israel’s kings, but he was the forerunner of the king of kings.   It was also out of the line of Judah that kings were punished for their misdeeds and rewarded for their repentance.   It was also out of this line of Judah, that Jesus came preaching the message that the kingdom had come near, through preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.   What we see on display in Judah’ life in the earliest days of the biblical story,  is a person who was on a journey to learn how to love mercy by first accepting his own responsibility his wrong, challenging human brokenness with a growing love for mercy and reconciliation.  

“To err is human,” Alexander Pope, the famous British writer, reminded us.   When you read closely everything that was going on in the early stories of the Bible, from Adam to Judah, Genesis reveals just how deeply embedded our human flaws are.  Besides, Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden, in the very first story their sons, Cain and Abel, when Cain was filled with hate for his own brother, God warned him,  “Sin crouches at the door... it desires to have you, but you must be its master (4:7).   We have been given the power to overcome evil, but instead, we are too often overtaken by evil.   Even King David, the Lord’s most favored ‘anointed one’ in the Hebrew Bible, sinned grievously.   Time and time again, the prophets emphasize the need to return to the right path---a path that accepts our own individual responsibility for our own wrongs, so that our relationship with God and with others can be restored.   The way we are both reconciled and restored is the way of repentance, what today, seems to become the most ‘missed’ and ‘left out’ word in our own spiritual vocabularies.  

Actually, the word ‘repentance’, which means to ‘turn’ is never actually used to described Judah’s actions.   It’s a word that doesn’t appear in the Bible until the book of Deuteronomy.   Yet Judah’s corporate and personal confessions and admittance of wrongdoing, are perfect examples of how this great spiritual need is unfolding, which is later expanded upon.   This happens in a long speech Moses began in Deuteronomy 4 that continues to Deuteronomy 30, where Moses makes his most important point, saying: ‘When all these things befall you….and you return (Heb. shub) to the Lord your God...then God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love (Deut. 30: 1-3). 

How do we still understand the implications of accepting personal responsibility that is expressed in true repentance, which is literally, a way of ‘turning around’ or ‘returning’  to the Lord who loves us.   Here, we must remember that the actual Hebrew word doesn’t just mean having sorrowful feelings about what we’ve done wrong or haven’t done right, or realizing our spiritual need before God, but this word ‘shub’ includes an actual ‘turning’ that results in an real, visible, measurable change in human behavior.    As a noted Hebrew scholar, Jacob Milgroom has pointed out, ‘This word Shub combines both repentance to ‘turn from doing evil’ to begin to do good.   True repentance is the living proof that sin has not destroyed us, so we are now able to get back on the right path, so that with God’s help, even sinners are able to participate in God’s restoring and saving love.

Of all the prophets who follow in Judah’s legacy most closely,  is the prophet Jeremiah.  Over and over Jeremiah frames repentance as ‘a return to the true terms of the original promise  that was made with God, both acknowledging sin and agreeing to get back on the right path.  God speaks through the prophet, saying:   “If you return, O Israel, declares the LORD, if you return to Me; if you remove the abominations from my presence and do not sincerity, justice and righteousness, nations shall bless themselves because of you… (Jer. 4: 1-2).   Here, we’re reminded that true, inward, heart-felt repentance, not only makes a difference in our personal relationship with God, but should touch the world around us too.   But for this to happen, as Jeremiah has already said in chapter three, we must actually, ‘turn back...recognize (our) sin...against the LORD (Jer. 3: 12-14).   

The proof that God’s people have actually ‘turned back’ is that we ‘mend our ways and actions..., by executing justice between people; by taking responsibility not only for ourselves, but for reaching out to others too.  As Jeremiah continues, he says we show true repentance, ‘by not oppressing the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; by not shedding the blood of the innocent..., by not following other gods that only hurt us...,”  Then God says, if we truly ‘repent’ and do justice and love mercy by showing it, we can ‘continue to dwell in the land’ God has given to us (Jer. 7: 3-7).  Do you see both the requirement that comes with a requisition that lays claim on the land.  The land is the promise given, but is also provisional.  It’sonly kept in possession as long as the promise of justice, righteousness, and mercy are kept.  

Latter in his own ministry, Jeremiah employs a vivid artistic picture to put God’s involvement in our willingness to repent and return to the promise.   After visiting the Potter’s house,  Jeremiah likens God to a potter who can build up or tear down his creation at any time.  “At one moment,”  God says, “I may decree that a nation or a kingdom be uprooted, pulled down, and destroyed; but if that nation... turns back (repents) from its wickedness, I change My mind concerning the punishment I planned to bring upon it(Jer. 18: 7-8).   In all these various passages, the prophet, following the kind of spiritual growth on display in the life of Judah,  presents the power of repentance as the way to change the situation; both for the one who has sinned, and for the one who is sinned against.

Through the years, the emphasis of repentance has often been placed on the person who has sinned, rather than the one sinned against.   As a Rabbi once told his listeners, “Repent the day before you death.”   

His disciples then asked him, “But Rabbi, does a person know what day he or she is going to die?”    The Rabbi responded, ‘All the more reason to repent today, lest one die tomorrow without having repented.’ 

Yes, repentance is something we must do, as the movies say, before we  ‘prepare to meet our maker ‘.   However that’s something you more in the movies than you see in the Bible.  In the Bible, like in the story of Zacchaeus, where he asks forgiveness and offers restitution to those he’s harmed.  It’s also the primary focus in the preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul too.  The main emphasis of repentance is on how our change of heart influences the world around us, here and now.   Of course, we need to be ready to die, but we don’t want to miss what it means to live after we make peace with God, ourselves, those that we’ve sinned against.  

This is exactly what is so important to see in Judah’s life, as the first great biblical example of a repentant heart.  Judah’s repentance is not simply individual or personal, but it’s also relational and social.  The emphasis is on restoring his relationship with his brother which is what it meant for him to be reconciled in his relationship with God in this moment.   This is exactly the kind of repentance Jacob also observed as he embraced his brother, then looked into his brother’s face and commented,  ‘seeing you, and knowing you receive me favorably,  is like looking into the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).  How can we know what repentance looks like, until it shows up in how we live and relate to those others?


TAKE ME INSTEAD...  Ready to make a difference

This ‘outward’ nature of true repentance coming out of Judah’s heart is most clearly revealed to us in how he tries to look out for his ‘other’ little brother and his aged Father, rather than himself.   Do you see it?  The focus of true repentance can never be only self-oriented.   If repentance is only to save ourselves, we have failed to understand its full ramifications.  We missed how repentance relates to restoring our relationship with God in a way that also seeks reconciliation with others.  

This whole movement from the experience of mercy in our own hearts to

 showing mercy toward others goes all the way back to one the most important characteristics of human beings; our capacity to distinguish right from wrong.   In Genesis 3: 5, even the serpent knows that humans can know right from wrong (3:5).  This is who humans are, people who are like God, knowing good and bad (3:22).   This knowledge of good and evil means that we know how to choose to do ‘good’ rather than ‘evil’ too.   Making this choice is how true repentance is proven in the decisions we make in our relations with others.  The book of James says ‘faith’ in the heart, without good ‘works’ in our lives for others, is dead alone.  

            In his own repentant heart, Judah shows us how faith works, as he recognizes his duty to do justice (what is right) and then clarifies the aim of justice is to love mercy, by showing mercy, and here he begs for mercy regarding his little brother and aged Father.  Judah puts his own life on the line to do the right thing, asking for mercy for the sake of those he loves, not for his own sake, proving his true repentant heart.   

            There’s an very artistic movie made about the life of a Christian man, who lived in the Austrian Alps, during World War II, by the name of Franz Jaegerstaetter.   The movie is based upon the letters Franz wrote to his wife from prison, before he was executed for refusing to go to serve in Hitler’s army.  Franz’s courage to live and die for his convictions was heroic, but also tragic.  He suffered ridicule by his village, was mocked by fellow prisoners, and was beaten by the guards.  In the end, he left his wife to raise their two children all alone, after the Nazi’s beheaded him for treason against the state.  But in spite of everything it cost him personally, Franz was willing to give up his life.  

Today, Franz is remember as a modern ‘saint’ to his hometown people, because he was willing to speak and suffer for the truth as an example of righteousness and compassion toward others.  He spoke the truth, even though he looked like a pitiful, nonconforming fool at the time, much in the same way Christ looked to the Jewish and Roman leaders.    The questions people kept asking Franz over and over were,, ‘What difference are you really going to make in the world?  Who really knows why you are suffering?  Who really cares?  Aren’t you wasting your life for nothing?  Why don’t you swear an oath to Hitler, even if you don’t mean it, just like everyone else?

              In a certain way Judah was like Franz, willing to not to remain silent like his other brothers, but to step forward, face and and speak the truth the others remained silent.  Judah stepped up and spoke up, not knowing how it would turn out.   Fortunately, his actions touched Joseph’s heart.  Jospeh who was moved to tears and forgave all his brothers and was reconciled with them all because Judah’s risk to speak up for mercy.     


Sunday, May 23, 2021

You Are The Man!

2 Samuel 11:27 - 12: 15

Charles J. Tomlin, May 23rd,, 2021

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership 

Series: The Roots of God’s Justice 7/20



Dear People of God,   

Have you ever been surprised by your own reflection?    Maybe you are passing by a mirror, but don’t realize it’s a mirror until an image catches the corner of your eye. You jump. Then you realize the image was only you; you being reflected in the mirror you just walked by.

Or maybe one morning you get up, after a night of restless sleep, and then look into the bathroom mirror.  There you see a stranger with dark circles under the eyes, puffy face, tangled hair, and a hollow expression. You gasp. Who is that person? Surely not me!     

Have you experienced this, or am I the only one?   We all have times when we don’t recognize ourselves, don’t we?  Sometimes it has nothing to do with the physical image we see, but the ‘relational’ image others see!

Maybe you have had an interaction with someone, in which you acted completely different than you normally do?  Something someone said or did, pushed your buttons.   You found yourself saying or doing something other than your usual reaction.  This just wasn’t the ‘you’ you now think to yourself.  You can’t even think about it now without getting upset.  You still shake your head, asking yourself, ‘I can’t believe what I just did or said!’   Why on earth did I react that way? What got into me? That’s not like me at all!    Anyone identify with what I’m saying? 

In our Scripture reading today, the prophet Nathan confronts King David, the beloved King in Israel’s history, who also acted in a way that was ‘out of character’ for him.    He suffered from what counselors and psychologists call an emotional or moral blind spot which resulted in a ‘lapse of character’.   It is important that we consider this story as we reflect upon God’s justice because we are reminded that ‘doing justice’ is first and foremost, a matter of the heart.  In other words, we can’t ‘do’ God’s justice, unless or until we make things right with the world around us and inside our minds and our hearts.


‘YOU DID IT SECRETLY’  (12); Prophetic RECKONING:   

King David’s story is still important for us because we all do things we fail to recognize as unjust, or just plain wrong.  We may not realize it, but there are areas within our mind and actions in which we all have blinders on.   It’s like when you look through your camera on your phone and take a photo. Then afterward you discover that your thumb was in front of the lens!     

We all have “blind spots” in our lives that trip us up. But even if we know this, there are times when we get tripped up anyway!  That’s why it’s called a “blind spot”!   The best people have them.  Remember the Challenger disaster.  That was due to a blind spot.   Remember Bernie Madoff.   Blind spot.  Also think about the Financial collapse of 2008.  Blind spot.  

The most faithful, and loving people in the world have “blind spots” too.   Our Southern forefathers promoted slavery as good and right.  Good Germans and good Americans, along with most of Europe too, turned a ‘blind eye to Hitler at first.  Blind spot.  In the same way, King David was a ‘man after God’s own heart’ but he still had a blind spot in his behavior.   In fact, when you look at the stories of scripture, you see that they are filled to the brim with flawed and faulty people –people with blind spots. Good people.  God’s people too.  But also people who make mistakes and need God’s grace and God’s guidance to get them back on track again.

Let’s pause, and look at the story of David a little deeper, and consider the dangerous “blind spot in David’s life.  His “blind spot” had a name.  Anyone remember? His blind spot was called Bathsheba.

Bathsheba was the wife of a man named Uriah, who held an important position in King David’s army.  While Uriah was off fighting David’s battles, David’s eye wandered across the royal walls and upon Uriah’s wife –the beautiful Bathsheba.  David had a number of wives already, an entire harem of them in fact.  But when his eye caught Bathsheba, his heart jumped, and he just had to have her.  He watched her every day, and each day, he wanted her more.  The fact that she belonged to someone else soon became irrelevant.  In fact, he probably started rationalizing to himself, that he was after all King, and that he should be able to have whatever and whomever he wanted. He held an awful lot of power and prestige.  And of course, Bathsheba should be honored to be welcomed by the King.  That was part of what cause his blind spot. 

But what about Uriah?  Well, to David he was ‘out of sight, out of mind’.   That’s the other part of the blind spot.  All David saw was his desire growing greater, each and every day.  It obscured his vision like a big, fat thumb in front of his lens.  And here’s the thing about a Bathsheba kind of blind spot.  Pretty soon, things seem awfully simple. Forget complications. Forget integrity. It’s very easy. He wants her. He takes her.

And so, he did.

But that wasn’t the end of it, was it? Now David had a problem. Bathsheba was pregnant.  What’s he going to do?   First, he tries to get Uriah to sleep with his wife, so that he thinks the child is his. That doesn’t work.   Then he resorts to desperation to cover up the deed.  His blind spot has now cost him his dignity. And now all he can see is how to get himself out of the mess he got into!   Big time blinders!   So, what does he do? He has Uriah killed.  Now his fling has blossomed into a bigger, fatter, darker SIN!

Then, as a result of grave injustice God does what God usually does.  God sends in a prophet!  When things get rough, we send in the clowns and comedians.  But God sends in a prophet or a preacher.  In David’s case, it’s a prophet named Nathan.  Nathan was no stranger to David.  He was one of David’s closest advisors.   Still, this wasn’t an easy task.  This is a King we are talking about.  If the King didn’t like what you said, it could easily get you killed!  So, even as a preacher and prophet you had to be discreet about it.   Nathan is smart and gets creative.  He tells the King a story to test David’s moral compass and let him to confront his own blind spot.

The story Nathan told was this parable about the rich man who took his servants little ewe pet lamb to serve for supper to his visitor.  The poor man didn’t have much other than his family and this one lamb, but the rich man had many sheep and lambs of his own, decided to demand to take and eat the only lamb the poor man had.   Hearing this story incited David’s moral conscious.  He demand to know who this rich man was who would do such an immoral, cruel deed in his kingdom.  Gotcha.  This is when Nathan is ready to lower the boom.  David.  Look in the mirror!  That man is you!  Nathan turns the tables on the King.   Suddenly, David sees his own reflection.  Now, he is the man in the mirror.   And the person he sees, isn’t pretty.



So, now with the ‘blind spot’ exposed the question is what good is all this?   Recently, I went online to watch a video of a former Old Testament professors, Logan Carson.  He was a very unusual because he was born blind at birth.  He overcame all kinds of obstacles to learn Hebrew in Braille and become a professor.  I also recall him saying that, even if they found a medical way to restore his eyesight, he never wanted to see in this world, because he wanted his first image to be seeing the face of Jesus.  

Dr. Carson was a very powerful preacher, serving as a pastor even while he taught students.  In my mind and memory, I can still hear him preach his most famous sermon on David and BATHsheba!  Even as a blind man, he would turn and spin as he preached through the drama of David’s temptation step by step; with God saying ‘no!’, while choosing to listen to the devil’s ‘yes’!  ‘Yes’ to taking a second look.  ‘Yes’ to ordering a servant to fetch her to his palace.  ‘Yes’ to ordering her to lie with him.    ‘Yes’ to having an extended affair with her, and finally saying ‘yes’ to attempt to cover up the whole ordeal with murder.  And where did all those ‘yeses’ take David?   It was a dark place where a person never thought the would go,  by doing what they never thought they would you, and becoming who they never believed they would be.   

This is a sad story, not just of forbidden love, or ‘sin for a season’ which can destroy a reputation or a life, but this is the very tragic, human drama that reveals the kind of moral weakness or ethical ‘blind spot’ all of us have in one form or another.  It may not be the sin of lust, but it may be a will to power, a need to control,  the greed for more and more, or the pride to live only for self without regard for others.  In some way, because we are human, we all have an Achilles heel. We all have issues we must work on,  feelings we mustn’t give in to, or we have flaw that could be fatal.  And it not easy to face or think about these things.  We think it’s better to deny, lie or avoid confronting our own blind spots.

In our own recent history, most of us remember the very public ‘blind spot’ of President Bill Clinton, who not only had an inappropriate relationship with Monika Lewisky, but how he also lied about it under oath.   We can also think about the tragic downfall of Richard Nixon and Watergate.   What was he thinking?  Why did he allow it or attempt to cover it up?   And these are only the most public displays of power ‘blind spots’ that corrupt, and corrupt absolutely too.   

But what’s the point of revealing or confronting such moral flaws and failures?  Since we all have them, we all fail and make mistakes, and we all have blind spots and weaknesses, why confront them at all.  Like the Argument Bill Clinton’s lawyers made when he faced impeachment; adultery may be immoral, but it’s not illegal.  Then, with an argument that Nixon’s lawyers couldn’t make, it was one thing to lie about something that isn’t illegal, but it’s another thing to lie about something that is illegal.

What David did wasn’t necessarily against human laws, but it was against God’s law.  But what does this sin matter, or confronting or facing sin matter in a world that negate not only God’s laws, but has negated God?   What does morality or righteousness mean in a world that lives as if God doesn’t matter anymore?

  Perhaps the most important words in this ancient text is how this story begins in chapter 11, vs 27, saying ‘the thing David done displeased the Lord’.   Later on, in the confrontation by Nathan, the prophet expresses this idea again, asking David, ‘Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? (V. 9).  Do you see how personal this language is?   God is ‘displeased’ or his word has been ‘despised’.  God is taking the matter, not so much legally, but emotionally, relationally too.  The point the story is making is that human morality isn’t simply a choice humans have to make, but human morality is a responsibility.  The more privilege, power and freedom a person is granted and given, even if it is perceived to be self-made and earned, the more responsibility a person has to discover ones own blind spots, and to learn what it means to do what is moral and what is right.

But how can we learn, know or do what is just and right, when everything is relative to how we feel or what we want?   Well, the truth is we can’t.   I’ve told this story before, but here, we need to think about it again.   When I was working in Germany, in the prestigious German State of Brandenburg, I spoke to an ethics teacher who worked in the public education system in German schools.  That’s one thing very different in German schools, where there isn’t any absolute separation of church and state.  Those schools are mandated to give moral, ethical, and religious ideas in public education.  Of course, they don’t indoctrinate students, but the government does teach the basic religious and ethical moral values of the state, which is Christian.   

So, understanding what a great opportunity and difference this was in Europe, I asked this Religion-Ethics teacher, ‘Does it work?’  Does having the opportunity to teach basic morality or religion work?   His answer was no idea works alone, unless it become personal for the student.  The only way it works, and only students who take their moral or ethical responsibility seriously, in other words, are those who are either living to please God, or who fear that by not pleasing God they are despising the very words that give them life and hope.   

   This is exactly why justice and righteous are important and how they become important for a people and a society, isn’t it?   Somehow they must become more than ideas or teachings, but they must become real and personal.   For David, the words and confrontation by Nathan the prophet was real and personal, because He knew that he had a responsibility to God, who had blessed him, and had chosen him to lead and to serve.  Out of this great opportunity came a tremendous responsibility, not just to live as David wanted, but to do God’s will, God’s work, and to ‘please’ the Lord, rather than ‘displease’ Him.

It is this ‘personal’, inward, and relational ethical nature of human responsibility that inspires and calls human beings to their best and greatest sense of duty and moral purpose.  And this inward personal sense, when understood rightly,  isn’t personal in that we are selfish or self-centered or self-focused, but it’s this very personal sense that calls us to be relational, to treat others as we would want to be treated, as the prophets remind us, and as Jesus the greatest prophet, preached, it is out of this great relational and responsible love for God, with all our mind, strength, and soul, that we also learn what it means to love and be responsible to others as we become responsible to ourselves.   

This is where the true personal and responsible relationship with God should take us, and this is where David, in his own freedom and failure to be responsible with his freedom failed.   It is the great risk that always comes with love and with the freedom given to any human being.   We can choose to do right, or we can also choose to go against what is love and what is right.

During the Cold War, and long before, when Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto, once wrote that ‘religion was the opium of the people’, I think before we can best disagree with what he said, we must first agree that what Karl Marx said something that Jesus would have partially, at least, agreed with.   If ones religion is only about yourself, if it only wants to have riches and make money, or earn ‘capital’ for the sake of capital itself;  or if, in David’s selfish decision, we begin to wrongly think that everything in the world is for our own taking or having, without regard for what is right, just, or fair for others, then yes, religion and faith in God can be abused, misused, and be misconstrued to our own selfish ends.   

But in the same way, any belief, or human idea, no matter how noble or how just we think it is, can become corrupted, just like Marxism or communism did, and just like capitalism did, which cause the great financial collapse of 2008, and can cause more ‘blind spots’, and moral failures to come.  There simply no human system that remains incorruptible, unless we continue to believe that this moral and ethical responsibility comes from beyond us and continually beckons us beyond who we are today.  That’s why Marxism failed, and it’s a lesson to how Capitalism will fail too, if we take our hearts away from the moral responsibility to answer God’s call, which can only be known and answered in our moral responsibility to do justice for others, just as we would demand justice for ourselves.



            Where this text finally lands, is that none of this matters, without the right, honest, and sincere human response.   That what ‘responsibility’ means.   This is what God’s desire is about and why the prophet speaks God’s word.   The whole story brings us to this moment where David responds in a way that puts him back on the right track, so that he acknowledges his blind spot, and he finds his way back to God’s favor and grace.  When confronted with the truth, David doesn’t deny, hide, run away, nor put up his defenses, but David comes clean, saying before God and the prophet, who now becomes like a priest, hearing His confession, when David says sincerely, ‘I have sinned against the Lord!’.  

            The good news in this whole ordeal, is that God freely forgave David‘s sins, but God did not remove the accountability or the consequences of David’s sins.  The consequences will show up in his marriage to Bathsheba and in the fact that the child won’t live.  The consequences will also show up in the rest of David’s family, and eventually in his grandsons, who will end up splitting up the nation.  Sin can be forgiven, but the consequences for sin can’t be so easily undone.      

            This is why it’s so important for us, not only to find God’s grace in this story, but to find the personal and prophetic path toward justice and righteousness too.  It’s why we must always be willing to face our sins and short comings before God and to learn how we can live more just and righteously with and for and before others.   We need Jesus to open ‘blinded eyes’ still today so that our own flaws can we revealed, so that we can not only be forgiven, but so that we can be changed to do better and to avoid the consequences that take us into a life or a world, where there is no moral return.  For until we take doing right as personal to us, it won’t become a personal responsibility for us in learning how respond to both the call of God and the needs of our fellow humans  around us. 

             In announcing his ministry to the world, Jesus declared in his hometown, Nazareth, “I’ve come to give sight to the blind.”  Sometimes, we are the blind.  This is not always because there is something wrong with us, like it was withDavid.   Sometimes it’s just because we are human, and we can’t see, know, or realize everything we need to know because of our limits.  But recognizing our limits is how we come to realize our need for God, and our need for seeking and doing justice, that begins in out heart, but reaches out to others.   We need both the light and the love of Jesus to help us see how we can best do right for ourselves as we do what’s right for others.   This is what God’s justice has always been about.    

            When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died last fall, although she was a secular Jew and often decided cases that were more liberal than I consider myself to be,  I learned, in her passing, that a phrase out of the Bible guided her, her whole life.   It was a line framed on her wall from the Hebrew Bible, Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof, which comes straight from Jesus’ favorite book of the Bible, Deuteronomy.  This line is found in Chapter, 16, verse 20, where God challenged his people,  ‘Pursue Justice, and only Justice...’.   Then the Bible continues with this conditional promise, ‘ so that you may live long in the land the Lord, your God is giving you.’   What drove Justice Ginsburg was exactly this, to insure our country has a future because we pursue justice for everyone who lives in it.   I absolutely believe she was right about that.

  Our Lord commands his people, to be salt and light, and to continue being serious about ‘doing justice’ wherever we are,  so we and others can keep and receive  the blessings of life God continues to give.   That’s exactly why Nathan confronted David; to expose his moral blind spot and to open up his soul for moral growth and healing.   This wasn’t to take anything away from David, but to help David continue to receive God’s gifts and blessings.   Today, let us ask for the Light of Jesus to shine through us and among us, to reveal us in our own sins and blind spots, not to condemn us, but to cleanse us from our own unrighteousness and injustice, so that we can continue to have God’s grace upon and in us.  Amen .

Sunday, May 16, 2021

They Have Rejected Me...

 1 Sam. 8: 4-20

Charles J. Tomlin, May 16th, 2021

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Roots of God’s Justice 6/20



Dear People of God, 

Today, I continue preaching on God’s requirement of justice for all people.  Although next week is Pentecost Sunday, today we talk about a tongue of fire.   Sometimes the power to tell and live the truth, burns  ‘like a fire’.  

     Recently I watched a story about Irish resistance to British dominance, which reminded me of our own American desire for independence.  But the Irish weren’t as successful, and in this story an Irish resister was shot in his hunger and fight for freedom.  Like a cowboy movie, they attempted to remove the bullet with a knife, then after removing the bullet, they took a poker from a fire and burned the wound to cauterize it and stop the bleeding. 

     A fire poker is a fitting picture of our subject today in our human pursuit for justice; the fire of truth-telling which is the fire of rebuke.    Rebuke is sometimes the only way to try to correct one another in a broken world.   The hope is that words of truth can be a more peaceful and constructive way to bring change and address human needs than war and strife.  Rebuke can be painful, but a strong attempt to slow the bleeding and loss of life that comes through injustice. 

     An important precursor to our text, is an obscure passage in the book called Numbers.   After some unrecognized folks were prophesying and preaching without the proper credentials, leaders came to Moses asking him to stop them.  Moses refused, responding quite unexpectedly that he wished that all God’s people become prophets (Num. 11:23).   

      While it may not be realistic that everyone start preaching,  the point Moses was making is that we all need to constructively, compassionately and considerately,  tell each other the truth, even if it hurts.   That’s what Jesus was doing, when he rebuked Peter after Peter refused to accept the idea that Jesus would suffer on the cross.  Rebuke is also what Paul was doing in Galatians, when again Peter is being rebuked for going backward on the gospel that accepts the uncircumcised.  Poor Peter, but his own errors than required rebuke remind us that even the best need to be held accountable with the truth.

     Rebuke is what Samuel is doing in our text today.  Now, let’s look closer at how rebuke fits into the call to God’s people to be a prophetic people and truth-telling people who pursue and do justice in an unjust and broken world.



     In this story about Samuel the final Judge of Israel, who is also considered the first Prophet, we have a story about a religious figure rebuking the political wish of the people for a King.    Samuel is using rebuke as a way to challenge people to seek justice among God’s people.  Acting like a prophet, Samuel is speaking the truth to the people in a way that later on the prophets will speak the truth both to people and to Kings too.    In this story, we are reminded that Prophets were truth tellers, not future or fortune tellers.   Since the prophets told the truth, their words were not only true but often predictive of what would happen in days to come.  By telling the truth and helping people face the truth, God was not so much trying to tell the future, as to move the people into their future with their eyes wide open to what having a king really means.  That is at the heart of what biblical prophecy was and is about; opening the people’s eyes to the truth of what they need to see and know to have a future with true hope of justice for all.

      Interestingly, prophecy  was not unique to Israel.  We know that through an ancient letter that was discovered in the ancient Semitic city of Mari, located in today’s Syria.  In 1933, a Bedouin discovered over 3000 letters dating back to before 2000 BC, to a Semitic, pre-Hebrew society located on the Euphrates River.  These letters contained a political and religious prophecies, mixing religion and politics, suggesting how religion  was already questioning the use of human, political power in that world.   What became unique in Israel was how ‘one God’ questioned the human use of power.   The spin that Hebrews put on everything was that all truth, and human truth too, found its ultimate source and truth in the one and only true God. 

     The rise of biblical prophecy went hand in hand with the rise of politics in Israel.    It was the desire for a king, and the rise of the power of kings in Israel that required the need of prophecy.   Prophecy was a primary way to wisely guide and properly question the use, misuse and abuse of human power.   Even today, the best use of biblical truth is help guide and call into question human uses of power so that the use of powerful remains more helpful, than hurtful, constructive, rather than destructive, responsive to human need, rather than self-serving, corrupt or oppressive .

     Most all of you who are over 60 remember the Watergate trials that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.  Those you over 40 will remember the trials that rebuked President Clinton for the Monika Lewisky affair.   That too was a historical moment of ‘speaking truth to power’ .   In another, more positive moment President Ronald Reagan spoke truth to power when before the Berlin, he uttered those unforgettable words, ‘Mr Gorbachov, take down this wall!’    That too was powered , speaking truth to power.   More recently, speaking truth to power took on a different angle with the Harvey Weinstein trial and the rise of the Me Too Movement.    This was also a brave, prophetic example of women speaking truth to and about powerful men who have physically and verbally abused them.  

      Perhaps the greatest examples of truth speaking to power are when Moses stood before Pharaoh demanding that God’s people be set free;  or when Jesus stood before the Roman Governor, Pontus Pilate and even by hardly uttering a word, Jesus made it look like Pilate was the one who was on trial.  Finally, the other major historical moment was when  Martin Luther started the Great Reformation.  He was standing before the Pope’s tribunal in Worms, Germany and spoke straight to the power over him, refusing to give up his preaching on injustice practices of the Roman Church:  ‘Here I stand, I will not recant.’   Luther spoke the truth to power and exposed the abuse of the church that had veered too far from biblical teaching Luther saw as a better way of redeeming people.

           More recently, the truth about abusive Priests within the Catholic church has been exposed, as people spoke the truth to power.    As the old saying goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.    This constant potential for abuse of power and privilege is why rebuke and protest is a needed and necessary practice, especially in a democracy like ours which is ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’. 



     In this story before us, however, the rebuke and protest, spoken through Samuel, as it will be spoken by most of the prophets too, comes directly from God.   God informs Samuel that it isn’t Samuel, but God himself who the people have rejected. As the people request a King, both the power of the King and the politics that come with having a King, will bring God’s own power and agenda into question.   By having a king like other nations, Israel will be in danger of losing their God given mission in the world, and could lose their focus on the special and unique calling God has given them.  

This clarifying rebuke of the will of the people is necessary because the ramifications of any human having such access to ‘power’ is corruptible both to the king and to the people themselves.    We all know how the biblical story itself, begins with humans trying to assume ‘godlike qualities’, as Adam and Eve follow the devil’s temptation to reject what God has commanded and attempt to live life by their own rules.   In that story, the devil tempts Adam and Eve into believing that God is trying to withhold something from them, rather having given them necessary  boundaries to assure continual access to the tree of life.

This same kind of thing is depicted in an even more personal way, by the the great German writer, Goethe. Goethe wrote Faustus, the most popular play in the German language.   In that play the main character Faustus,  makes a deal with the devil to trade his own soul so that he can have all the pleasures and riches of this world.  When he finally realized what he’s done, Faustus speaks one of the most tragic, but revealing lines, as Dr. Faustus finally realizes his mistake.  He says: “Was glänzt ist für den Augenblick geboren; Das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren.”   Translated, Faustus has realized that ‘Shiny things are only for a moment, but what is real impacts the future forever.  In other words, as we say, all that glitters isn’t gold.  We need to live for what is real and eternal, not what lasts only for a moment.  That’s what Dr. Faustus learned, but it was too late.   His soul was lost by going after all the wrong things in life.

C.S. Lewis, in his life as one of England’s brightest and best scholars, also came to understand that the ‘power’ and ‘promise’ of this world is nothing compared with he God’s promise of the world that is still to come.  In his book, “Till We Have Faces,” Lewis wrote:I was the happiest when I longed the most...The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.”

              Perhaps this is at the heart of the rejection Samuel feels and is the most important insight into the rebuke God delivers to His people, through the first prophet.   In this world, we can go after fine things, better things, and bigger things, just like the people who wanted a king, and thought that all their problems would be answered, and all their dreams would come true.  But the real truth is not about having, but its more about being and doing what is right, fair and just.   As the saying goes, life isn’t at its best when we are getting something, but life at its best is to  bloom where we are planted’ and how to be the people God has called us to be, right now in who we are and the right we are called to do.

            Most of you recall the Backstreet Boys, who were one of the most successful ‘boy’ bands in popular American history.  One boy who seemed destined to be one of those ‘boys’ rejected his chance for fame and fortune, and decided to enter the ministry instead.   Through his previous friendship with the Backstreet Boy’s founder Lou Pearlman, Burk Parsons was invited to audition for the group and was selected as part of that band which that was poised to be a group as popular as the Beatles. 

     Many of Burk’s Christian friends told him it would be a great platform to witness to the world.  But for Burk, it all came down to answering within himself whether he could be really be faithful to the Lord while singing all the  ‘lust-filled’ music of show business.   So, after rejecting that invitation, he later turned down becoming a member of N’Sync as well.   Burk decided, not once, but twice that he would rather keep his ‘soul’ than have the ‘world’.  He says he never regretted his decision, not even once, especially since most of the members of Backstreet Boys and N’Sync too, eventually went into drug rehab.    



     Can you understand what God was warning the people about?   This prophetic way of rebuke was to warn the people of the truth about power, which now serves as a way for us to continue to warn and tell the truth to power.  It’s a way to remind them, and us too, that everything we go after in this world comes with its costs, it’s  risks, and our success or gains come with greater responsibilities too.  And if we also exchange God’s rule over our hearts with human desires for prestige and power,  we too will create a new distances and spaces between us and the God who loves us as we are.   When we do that, it can have all kinds of negative consequences that can threaten our own true sense of self and soul.   

     However, in spite of the warnings and knowing the consequences, haven’t we all made decisions or gone after things, that we wished, we didn’t?  Haven’t we all wished we listened to some wise counsel, or to our parents simple words of advice, but we were too busy ‘going our own way’.   Part of that is normal in growing up and find our own way.   It was part of Israel’s growth process too.  But sometimes we grow too fast, and we go too far, so that we stop listening to those who try to warn us, and we end up making mistakes we live to regret.

There is a great line of wisdom in the book of Proverbs, which says that ‘rebuke is better than flattery’ (28:23).    Of course, there is something wonderful with having people praise us, complement us, or say good, positive words of support to us.  We need that too.  But we also need constructive criticism and honest evaluations too.   The world is a dangerous place and there are many wrong turns.  Sometimes the best, most positive word we could ever have said to us can be a ‘no’, rather than a ‘yes’.   

            I recall in my first pastorate; the parsonage was located at an intersection about a mile from the river.   One year, they had to make repairs on the bridge and they put up a bridge out sign on the road near our house.  Although the sign was put there so people could avoid making the 2 mile ‘out of the way’ trip,  I couldn’t believe how many people ignored the sign and made the trip anyway, not believing the sign that was put before them in order to help, but many people didn’t seem to want to acknowledge the ‘no’ and receive the help.

This ‘no’ in order to find the ‘yes’ is what ‘rebuke’ is always about in the Bible too.  The Bible itself if a signpost of warning, and sometimes sounds a stern rebuke for our own good.  As Paul wrote to young Timothy: “Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, REBUKE, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching.  For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths (2 Tim. 4:2-4 RSV).  

The point here is that God is never trying to keep us from the joys and  good, healthy pleasures of life, but God tells us like it really is, as a warning, and as a guidance to help us avoid the worst missteps and wrong turns we might take in life; trying to prevent us from going down a ‘primrose path’ that will do us much more harm than good; not only bringing unnecessary hurt to ourselves, but possibly hurting others as well.  This is why the word and way of ‘rebuke’, which we might call  ‘protest’ today,  is so important for a  free democratic society.  Careful Rebuke and constructive protest, are an important part of pursuing and doing justice’ in our world.   

 Rebuke and Protest are still the necessary and needed ‘crosses’ to bear of living in a free and developing society.   When God gave his own people ‘freedom’ one of the first things God did was to warn about making or worshipping any kind of idol.  That is basically what ‘power’ means.  We gain power for ourselves by giving ourselves to another ‘power’ that promises to give you something in return.   You earn money to gain the power to spend.  You stay strong, in order live the best life you can.  You try to achieve some kind of success in life or in your job, so that you gain the power to make a living.  You start a family so you can have joy and purpose in life.   Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of these pursuits, until they become an idol of ‘power’ than gets between you and the most important pursuit, the pursuit of the truth and knowledge of God who is the only true source of life-giving power for all your life.

This is why we need all need friends who love us enough to tell us when we they see us on the wrong track.  This is why we need to allow our friends to be candid and tell us the truth, even when we don’t want to hear it.  This is also why we need parents, who aren’t simply friends with their children, but who actually guide are parents to their children, them, guiding and correcting them too.   It’s also why in a society like ours, we need to allow the dissenting voices, the rebuking protests, even when they sometimes get it wrong or get out of hand and have to be corrected too.   A society that isn’t free to speak the truth to each other, or who loses the ability to speak the truth to the power that is over them, is a society headed in direction that is dangerous and deadly.   We must always be free not only to speak out, but we must also be free enough to listen to everything that is being said, even if we don’t agree.  

  Once, the great scholar, who was also an expert in the teachings of the Hebrew prophets, wrote a letter about the American election back in 1972.   Abraham Heschel wrote this to his colleagues:

“The forthcoming election confronts everyone of us as American citizens ....  Our country is in a state of profound moral and political crisis.  In a free society, some are guilty---but all are responsible...  At this serious moment of American history, I feel a deep sense of responsibility for the moral decline and confusion in our sense of priorities.  If the prophets Isaiah and Amos were to appear in our midst, would they accept the corruption in high places, the indifferent way in which the sick, the poor, and the old are treated?  Would they condone the indifference ...that has allowed some of our finest…to be shot dead?   Surely it is the duty to help change a society that tolerates this.”

Isn’t this the Spirit of what Samuel and what all the prophets were doing, in the face of wrongdoing and injustice?   They spoke up, just like we too must sometimes speak up, not simply to give the world a piece of our minds, but to speak to the truth so that we can all come to see light and keep trying to get it right, to create a space of justice and righteousness for all of us, together.   Amen.