Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Priests and battles: Yahweh war

This past Sunday June 7, we sat under God's word from Numbers 31, Israel's war against Midian. I mentioned how difficult this text is for multiple reasons, but perhaps most difficult of all is the practical application of how this might (need to) strike our hearts in compassion and move our hands to action. Just a few reasons that this story is difficult:

1) The cultural and temporal distance from its mileu to ours (we are children of the new covenant of grace, fully expressed in Christ; the Israelites were children of the covenant, too, but there Mediator was Moses the Law-giver, and grace was given, but in more shadows, types, and figures)

2) The sheer complexity of interpreting, much less understanding the passage that calls Israel to not only destroy Midianite soldiers, but also the young males, and also the Midianite women who seduced Israel into sin in Numbers 25. I mentioned that one of the hardest parts of the text for me was the call to take captive the virgin women of Midian for marriage, an order given by Moses, but not contradicted by God, and actually, when God specifies how to divide the war booty, the Midianite virgins are listed with all the other spoils. It is true that entry of these young women of Midian into the Israelite community and the privilege of learning the ways of the God of Israel would be an improvement over being put to the edge of the sword or maybe even continuing in dark idolatry, but it is a difficult episode for modern Western ears to hear.

3) The difference in interpretation among Christians. Some commentators want to distance themselves from even saying (like the text does in v3 and v7) that this was Yahweh's vengeance and Yahweh's voice ordering the destruction, but rather Moses or a later editor attributing to Yahweh what vengeance and damage the Israelites did on their own initiative. I would say that is reversing the order of how we should sit under the authoritative Word of God: not reading, reacting, and rewriting it according to our theory of textual origin, but rather, reading and wrestling with the challenges as the text presents them. Not us changing the text (or its implications) but letting the text change us.

4) I opened with an illustration of Dr. George Tiller, the naionally-known late-term abortion provider, whose funeral was Saturday, and his death just a week ago in his home church by a shooter. I referred to the tragedy of such murders of abortionists being committed over the past 15 years or so in the name of religion. We are a people called to lay down our lives for our enemies, not take the lives of those with whom we disagree, even diametrically disagree. But there's the other tragedy, of the 60,000 unborn children, many as fully developed as my wife who is due for delivery in August, fetuses that Dr. Tiller personally boasts of terminating. His motto was, "The woman is the patient, the fetus is the problem."

My question of application is this: how do we respond to a text like Numbers 31 in relation to how we respond to an event like the murder of George Tiller? Are we appalled at the death of young Midianite males at the swords of Israelite warriors? That's understandable given our Western context and Christ-transformed ethics. But do we respond with equal, if not greater, horror at the death of 60,000 unborn children? Do we notice when the news articles or pundits don't mention them in the story of Tiller's death and funeral? If we do not register the same shock and disgust, why not? What's wrong with our hearts? What's wrong with our view of the world and God and Scripture and reality?

Do we react with compassion, brokenness, and a resolve to act, to reach out, to build relationships with children and families from our neighborhoods where homicide is a daily reality? Dare we judge God for his harsh response to sin without seeing the sin of our own complacency and contentment when 60,000s are voiceless victims, harldly noticed, when children all around us are looking for safety, guidance, and love in a world of danger, foolishness, and revenge? May we see the mercy of God in Christ, who took the vengeance of God's wrath on sin in His own body, who triumphed in cosmic battle on the Cross, and who offers that mercy to sinners like us, like Midianites, like Israelites, and may we rise up in merciful response to our friends, neighbors, and even enemies.

Priests and killers

May 31, we looked at Numbers 27 (the daughters of who? Zelophehad) and 35 (the cities of refuge). Just a few follow up questions for us as a church regarding how we as a community can reflect the city of refuge, how we can be a city of refuge:
Since 1 Peter 2:5 says that Christians are "to be a holy priesthood" and 2:9 goes on to say "you are a royal priesthood," we should give special attention to a text like Numbers 35.

1) Are the priestly Levites in these six cities of refuge inherently different from the murderers who were finding asylum in these towns? Remember the story of Levi and Simeon who murdered a whole town of men to avenge his sister's rape (Genesis 34)? 1 Peter 2:9-10 reminds the Christian who is a priest of God that we are now in the marvelous light, but we were called out of darkness. "Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." A Levite could be ritually unclean by touching a corpse. A murderer would be unclean by making a corpse. All of us are unclean and in need of mercy and a place of refuge, whether we seem more priestly or more beastly.

2) Numbers 35:25 describes how the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the avenger of blood and that there will be a fair trial so that justice, not revenge, prevails. How can we as a congregation both provide wise counsel and embody justice to those who may have done truly terrible things or those who are at least accused of embarrassing or even illegal activity? How can we be a place of rescue for the running refugee?

3) The priesthood of believers was an important doctrine that Martin Luther proclaimed from Scripture (such as 1 Peter 2). Are we each taking initiative to evaluate and improve and employ our gifts to embody the city of refuge? We are not to expect one or two professional priests to shoulder all the work of compassion, rescue, and wise administration, but we are all as the congregation, to participate in the rescue mission of mercy. Who comes into our midst now to whom you can be a minister of mercy? Who could or should be coming that we could compel, by mercy and our openness, to come in?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Grumbling and grace in the wilderness

In my sermon March 1 on Numbers 11, we saw a people redeemed from 400 years of bondage and suffering now only 3 days on the march into wilderness, en route to the promised land, already (!) complaining about...guess what? The menu. "Day after day, all we have to eat is this manna!" How ironic. Day after day, God was miraculously providing manna, the bread from heaven, food of angels, in abundance, but the people were so short-sighted and ungrateful, that they actually wanted to go back to Egypt "where the food was free" they said. 400 years of slave labor is equivalent to a free meal? I would imagine that Pharaoh's pantry was better stocked than the Israelites' stomachs on any given day.

And how does God describe their grumbling? "They have rejected me," said Yahweh. How do we hear that? A little grumble and now God is accusing us of losing our religion? Well, how else should we describe a relationship in which one all-powerful King full of grace and compassion, mightily and decisively delivers a totally helpless and enslaved people, provides for all their needs and then some, and does it with special effects (water to blood, parting seas, thunder, lightning, levitating pillar of cloud and fire, water from desert rock). And after all that He's done, and while He's still doing it, all they can say is, "It was better in slavery when we had onion rings and watermelon!" ? You don't have to call it rejection (though since God calls it that, it might be wise to not deny that label for their libel), but what shall we say? At least this is temporary insanity. At minimum, a yawn of indifference in the face of sheer gracious provision, unmatched and unbound power, and the very and personal presence of the Most High and Holy One.

We saw from the text just what grumbling is, why it's so unreasonable, and that we probably shouldn't ever ask God to give us just whatever we want. Because they asked for meat, and when their quail came home to roost, they ended up getting just what they wanted: their own way, without God getting in the way. They craved all the way to the grave. God gave them over (have it your way!) to their sinful desires, as Romans 1 and Ephesians 4 describe of so many of us before we receive new hearts and a new start by God's Son and Spirit.

But by the pardoning power of the Redeemer from our slavery to sin who is called the manna from heaven, the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, and by His Spirit filling us in a more permanent and precious way than Moses and his seventy elders in the desert, we are able to turn away from grumbling and lift up our lives in thanksgiving to the Lord.

Philippians 2:12-16 is Paul's instruction "to work out your own salvation [i.e., live out our liberation; be what we are, unshackled and unashamed children of God; sober servants of the King] with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning [all things? Yes, that's what it says in the Greek, but stop questioning], that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world, holding fast to the word of life..."

A life of humility (like Christ himself in Philippians 2:1-11) and integrity, a life that holds on for dear life to the word of life. That life will shine brightly like a supernova in a universe of black holes that suck God's resources and demand more, it will shine like a spot light in a world of dark alleys where thieves and thugs ruthlessly take what was never rightfully theirs in the first place (God's undeserved blessings) and then complain that it's not enough. A life that shines that bright and that complains that little is only possible if God is working in us to work and even to will, to act and even think, thankful and fruitful lives.

While I was in seminary, I worked at an Italian restaurant with a few ballerinas from a Christian dance company, Ballet Magnificat. As Christians, we were in the minority. In the restaurant business, like most other places, complaining is cool, status quo, and contagious. The back of the house (in the kitchen and in the server station) reeked of grumbling about measely tips, sleezey etiquette, and (yes,) grumbling patrons. We conjectured one night that if as Christians, we stopped complaining, we would stand out in an unmistakable way. Not in self-righteousness or superficial piety, but in genuine self-restraint and deep compassion for the frustration of others. We agreed to not complain, with God's help and the comraderie of each other, and I believe that we fulfilled our calling--to shine like stars in a dark world.

We complain about having too little, and we aren't happy when we have too much.
Anne Lamott writes in her memoir "Traveling Mercies" about her life in addiction:
"I was either always hungry, or always stuffed, but never full."

Will we take St. Paul's advice in 1 Corinthians 10, take the warning of the Israelites who went to their graves grumbling, and instead, learn to be content in whatever the circumstance, whether well-fed or hungry, naked or clothed? For we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4). His Word is Spirit and life (John 6).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Are we burning with the right fire?

In light of last week's sermon on Numbers 9 and 10 "Guidance in the Wilderness," a few thoughts of application:

1) God's presence in the cloud and fire that the wandering Israelites followed in the wilderness wasn't enough to keep them from sin (grumbling, idolatry, usurping leadership, sexual immorality, faithless fear), but
AS BELIEVERS, WE have the fire of God's own Spirit burning in our hearts. Not hovering above us, levitating in front of us, but God personally dwelling IN us, the Holy One inhabiting us with power and patience, illuminating light and transforming heat.

I read in the Tribune last night that Steve Wu, planting pastor of Willow Creek's City of Chicago congregation (1,200 people, started in 2005) just resigned after admitting sexual impurity. A missionary friend emailed this morning asking for prayer and comraderie to fight strong waves of temptation that mounted up against him this morning to seek out sexual pleasures for his eyes.

There are beautiful sirens calling us, mirages of glimmering images that promise to slake our thirsty desires, but let the truth be told: sailors who are serenaded by such deliciously sexually enticing songs return home by the tide washing their mangled bodies ashore, not by sea-worthy vessels in a happy homecoming. Sojourners who dig for themselves cisterns in the desert of illicit pleasures are soon crawling in the blistering sand, disoriented, and tasting only mouthfuls of grit. The only monument to their folly is a carcass in the wilderness.

2) Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, BELOVED, we feel sure of BETTER things--things that belong to salvation...And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises...But we are not those who shrink back and are destroyed, but those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Hebrews 6:9-12; 10:39)

We have the fire of God within us. We have a cloud of witnesses (Heb 12) surrounding us, saints past and present, to teach us, warn us, encourage us, smack us around in love, pick us up when we've fallen, and speak some sense and truth into our delusions. Like Moses called on Hobab his brother in Law (Num 10), we should call on one another to run the race well, to trudge through the wilderness with soberness.

We have the trumpet call of God (Numbers 10), sounding the clarion call for us to keep first things first.
Why do we "fall" into temptation and "find" ourselves "led astray" (such passive phrases might need to be balanced with language of personal responsibility like "jump" or "plunge" into temptation and "seek out" sin as our eyes lead our hearts, our desires drag us away from our duty and true delight in God).
But why do we give in to sin? One reason is that we are not diligently pursuing primary things, things that have been sounded like a long blast on a long silver trumpet. The call to worship. The call to war.
Are we excusing ourselves from worship? Even if we show up, are we showing up prepared, rested, "prayed-up" and ready to be filled up? Are we excusing ourselves from the regular rhythm of weekly worship, yes, weekly, not "most of the time."
Are we excusing ourselves from the war-time call to go and be witnesses, to raise our voices like a trumpet on behalf of the poor and forsaken? Are we speaking and living lives that sound the Jubilee trumpet, that set captives free with the word of life and deeds of justice?

We often sin, because we are playing the Christian game instead of fighting the fight of faith. We are not doing due diligence in worshiping God and witnessing in this world with word and deeds. How hard it should be for us to even FIND THE TIME to sin, even to make room in our thoughts for how we could manage to fit it into our schedules, because we're busy with things that REALLY MATTER, not things that tickle our fancy.

When I'm busy, I often hear sin's call, "Come, rest in my bosom! Enjoy yourself and reward yourself for all your hard work."
But when I'm busy with worship and witness and the good work with which God has entrusted me, I still see sin's mirage, and I hear the sirens calls, but brighter and clearer and louder is the cloud and fire and trumpet that His Word and Son and Spirit are for me.

And though Moses had the very and visible presence of God to tell Israel where to camp and when to break camp, like Moses needed Hobab, we need each other as eyes in the wilderness, to tell us where danger is and where the oases are.
Let me know if you need prayer, and pray for me as well.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Purity in the wilderness

This past Sunday Feb 1 I preached on Numbers 5 and we looked at the theme of purity in the wilderness. The recorder didn't live up to its name, so there is no audio sermon on-line, but here are some notes AND EXTRA commentary that was not mentioned on Sunday.

1.Dirty people are not fit to dwell where God is, but He chooses to move towards them in antiseptic love
2.Sin is never hypothetical – Real sin against real people (and even if YOU can't strain to find the victim, God is always offended, even by the most secret sins)
3.God sees, judges, and heals the deepest sins in the most personal of relationships: the home

Num 5:1-5
1. Dirty people are not fit to dwell where God is, but He chooses to move towards them in antiseptic love
Point of isolation law here can be seen from Lev 14 – not simply isolation from contagions, quarantine from an epidemic spreading (though this is a good idea and true!). But elaborate ritual cleansing is sign of sin in need of atonement. The rituals don’t actually wash away skin disease, but picture spiritual cleansing.

Uncleanness: Mary Douglas’ work : In ancient Israel, unlike in other neighboring cultures, impurity is not based on social classes or castes (who you are); rather, you become unclean by what you DO. Moral, not racial or gender or socio-economic, or power or class or culture.

We are all equally susceptible and all equally naturally unclean in sin
From birth ("discharges" were semen and menstrual uncleaness)
to death (touching a dead corpse),
all of life is short of God’s holiness, and all of us are equally in need of God’s cleansing and holiness to be rubbed into our lives.

Isa 64:6 “We all have become like one who is unclean and all our righteous acts are like a polluted garment”
-stained from oozing sores, emissions, menstrual discharge– even our religious, righteous deeds are stained with sin because we do them to impress God and justify ourselves before him. We do “good deeds” to cover our “bad deeds and bad nature” and the wet, dirty sin soaks through our religious clothes and shows through

But there’s hope for ANYONE who was outside the holy camp, whether because they were the Jewish equivalent of Joe the Plumber or a social outcast leper or even a foreigner.

Even foreigners (aliens) were able to enjoy the Passover meal with God’s people. “Unclean Gentiles” were not unclean if they approached God as every Israelite was required, receiving the atoning work of God.

The point is, everyone is unfit, but everyone has an opportunity to be made right.
First, YOU must recognize your impurity. DO YOU?
These conditions of bodily fluid discharges would be self-imposed, private matters, likely no one else would know about. Do you sense how deep your sin runs, from birth to death, in your most personal thoughts and unnoticed habits and secret pleasures?
None of us deserve to dwell with God, but God has gone amazing lengths to dwell with us anyway.
The only thing that keeps one outside the camp is an unwillingness to receive and obey God’s Word and grace.

The trajectory is not to create distance between God and the worshipper, but to render sinful man right to worship God rightly and with nearness. The point is not to exclude, but to include all who will come and be made pure by God’s provision. His love is antiseptic. Holy and pure, but cleansing and renewing.

The progression of ch 5: the unclean must be removed, but they must be made right (cleansing periods and rituals) so that they can enter again the holy camp.

Hopefully, we recognize our own dirt.
But how do we relate to other people who are dirty?
Who is put out of the camp? NT analogy: 1 Cor 5 – who is put out of the church? Not all sinners, but all hardened and unrepentant “Christians”. Those who’ve hidden and ignored their sin.
Paul says: Don’t associate with them. Lit: don’t get mixed up with them. Don’t eat with them or allow them to take the Lord’s Supper. Don’t encourage saints to stay in sin by never saying anything. Casual, cool, peace-faking relationships are not what hypocrites need. They need truth and distance from the holy people to come to their senses. To wake up and smell the gospel.

What about unbelievers? outside of the church? Don’t judge them, don’t avoid them, don’t ignore them.

Look at Jesus: He went TO prostitutes and tax collectors. Sexual immoral and socially questionable. He ate WITH them, not in a separate restaurant, on a separate block, in a separate suburb, in separate social circles

Luke the physician describes three accounts of Jesus coming in contact with dirty “unclean” people
The movement of the gospel texts points us to the movement of Jesus Christ towards unclean sinners.
He draws near to contagious sinners. Those who would contaminate every object and every person that they touch, Jesus comes close and touches them. Rather than him becoming dirty, they become clean.

Luke 5 A leper to Jesus, “Lord if you are willing you can make me clean” Does Jesus say, wash with water, kill a bird, go outside the city for 7 days? No, Jesus touches the leper, and immed the leprosy is GONE

Luke 8 Jesus TOUCHES and HEALS both a woman with a menstrual discharge (of 12 years) and a 12 year old dead girl.

The pure one touching the impure, but rather than being contaminated, Jesus spreads healing and life to all.
Compassionate and contagious cleanliness. Holy healing.

Do we receive, go TO the sexually impure, the AIDS victims, the social outcasts, the hurting and wounded, the pariahs and problem-people?
So many young women who say the church “burned me” or “kicked me out” if they became pregnant.
So many young men who never even stepped inside, never wanted to risk being judged or condemned.

Where are all the "dirty" people in our church. We have a few! But where are the rest of the social oucasts, the promiscuous, pierced friends?
Why aren’t they coming to church?
Probably not because we preach down to them—maybe because we don’t have any OR they don’t sense us moving TO them as much as we expect them to move TO US.

He meets us where we are, healing our impurity. But He does not leave us there.
He tells the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.”
Then He challenges the entire self-righteous crowd, especially men, let him without sin cast the first stone.

2. Sin is never hypothetical

Point of 5:5-10 Sin is never hypothetical. Sin is always specific against specific people, and specifically, against GOD

There is no private sin. It always has a communal consequence.

Even sins that stay within our heads and hearts distract us from loving and serving people, being fully devoted and attentive to God’s work, they weaken us and dilute our passion. We lose drive and discipline. Guilt cripples us. Lust distracts us. Sin is called yeast in the Bible. It is barely perceptible, invisible, working its way into your heart, spreading through your schedule, your best efforts, into your future. The sinful thoughts you cherish today might grow into sinful habits tomorrow and one day become enslaving patterns that affect anyone that you become close with or even come in contact with. What we think are secret sins shorten our patience, chip away at our kindness, change our tone of voice and choice of words.

V6 Even if you try to say, Hey Pastor, let me think of some rare example where no one is sinned against...
“Any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith WITH THE LORD.” All sins are against GOD.

Psa 51 – After David slept with another man’s wife in adultery then killed her husband in murder, he confessed to God, knowing full well that his sin definitely affected people, David said, “Against you alone, LORD, have I sinned.” Hebrew hyperbole—the greatest one sinned against (God) eclipses the terrible sins against the others.
Not diminishing the sin against the people, but magnifying the absolute horrifying act of sin against God.

When we sin against another person, whatever the sin, there’s a pattern that we must follow to get right:
Repentance (through the Ram of Atonement), Restitution, and Restoration

confession must be specific. Not just like a child who’s forced to say “Sorry”
But grace leads us to be specific: I’m sorry …for what? …for being selfish and saying cruel things to you.
Grace leads us to restitution: Will you forgive me? And how can I make things right?
Grace leads to restoration: I’d like to regain your trust, even if it takes months or years.
What wrongs have you done that you’ve never made right? Do you need to write a letter, pick up the phone, take someone to lunch? It won’t do to say, “I’ll never do it again.” I’ve asked God to forgive me.

3. God sees, judges, and heals the deepest sins in the most personal of relationships: the home

As a final example, we move to the application of sin against another person, in the closest of relationships, marriage.
5:11ff The jealousy meal. If a man accuses his wife of adultery.
An elaborate ritual involving a trip to the tabernacle. The husband brings an offering of barley flour, pours oil and incense on it, and it is called an offering of jealousy.
The wife unbinds her hair so that it hangs loose, to express uncovering her thoughts and heart, and then the priest places the grain offering of remembrance into the woman’s hand which is to represent an act which brings any sin to “remembrance.” In essence, she’s holding her life, her purity in her own hands.
And all this is happening, the text repeats over and over “before the Lord” He sees and knows all.
Then The priest puts water in a clay vessel, scrapes up dust from the floor, sprinkles it in the water, writes a curse on a scroll, washes off the curse into the water, then the woman drinks the water.
If she is innocent, she will be free from any harm.
If she is guilty, then the LORD will cause problems in the reproductive department, if not straight-up infertility.

Chauvinist text? Both 5:3 and 5:6 point out male and female sin/uncleanness
But ultimately, this is not talking just about husbands and wives, but about God and the Church.

"Break faith" in 5:6 and 5:11– only ref in whole Bible to man and woman. Every other use is spiritual adultery/treason against God. Prophets use the adulterous wife image to speak of Israel’s spiritual adultery against Yahweh with foreign gods and idols (Hos 1-3; Isa 50:1; 51:17-23; 57:3-14; Jer 3; Ezek 16; 23)

So idolatry is seen as adultery in the OT
But here, we see also that adultery is idolatry. Breaking trust with your spouse is treason against God

So this text isn’t to bash women and give men a free license to shame their wives, over a hunch, with no evidence. The text is to point us to how we the bride of Christ, are like an adulterous woman to her husband.

The Rabbis point out that this was a rare ritual, and you can imagine, if a husband got up to the plate to bat, accused his wife, and if she was innocent, if he struck out, where do you think he’d be sleeping for the next few years? Outside the tent, maybe even outside the camps!

Consider ancient Trials by ordeal:
this adultery test does not harm anyone or cause death. No walking on coals, holding your hand in the fire, or tossed into a lake with concrete shoes. It leaves judgment to God, not assumes the death of the accused UNLESS God intervenes.
This is just a picture, a means by which God shows the sinfulness of sin, that sin cannot be hidden from God, that God can and will judge sinners. There is no physical pain, no forced confession resulting in false confessions. Neither the husband nor the priest take any direct action, but God alone can and will.

The Israelites would’ve just experienced a similar ordeal only months before at Mt. Sinai.
Exodus 32:20 Golden Calf – people drink the burned and ground dust from the golden calf, as curse
Gen 3 – the serpent eats the dust of the earth as a curse

The final word of the adultery test:
John 4 – Jesus comes and offers an adulterous and abused woman NOT bitter water, but water of life.
The living water (Jesus) discerns sin and reveals truth (I know you’ve been with 5 men and now live with another not your husband), but the living water provides forgiveness, renewal, and THIS is the final word to the bitter water theme. Because Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath, because Jesus took the written code, the curses of the law and in his flesh, nailed them to the cross, we are set free. We are cleansed. Jesus the Holy One went OUTSIDE the City, OUTSIDE the camp, to be crucified in shame, so that we might draw NEAR to God in confidence and peace.

No matter how private your sin against someone else, God knows all. The one who searches hearts and minds.
No matter how shameful and painful and private someone’s sin against you, God sees, He knows. I may not know the pain you’ve been through, but Jesus the Righteous One knows. Jesus the Healer sees. He can set you free, even if no one else knows that you’ve been a captive to shame and pain and if all your scars are hidden.

The Lord’s Supper is like a jealousy meal. We are the bride of Christ, and we surely sin against our faithful spouse. When we drink the cup and eat the bread, we drink condemnation on ourselves if we are unrepentant.
This meal discerns and reveals truth (are we "in Christ")
But it also heals and cleanses our impurity that is uncovered.
But if we have faith and honest confession of sin, and openly receive his mercy, he says we have fellowship with the body and blood of Christ. He unites our bodies to Jesus’ body and spreads to our unclean hearts and bodies the cleansing and holy power of God Himself.

Read for communion: 1 Corinthians 10:23-32

Friday, October 10, 2008

God's mandate and measure of maturity

I preached this past week on Micah 6:8, justice and mercy as God's mandate and measure of our maturity. We had a follow-up discussion on the sermon in which someone asked, "Are you equating justice with fairness, that is, equal distribution of resources?" Not really. Justice is more "right(eous) judgment." When King Solomon met 2 mothers in his hall of justice, one lost her child to death's cold grip as she accidentally smothered or crushed the baby in the night during sleep, but she tried to claim the other woman's child as her own. Solomon did NOT say, well, life has been cruel and unfair, let's give this grieving woman this healthy and living child. Nor did he cut the baby in half so that everyone received an equal portion (though he wisely presented that as the way of finding out the true mother of the living child). He made a right judgment, finding out and then finding favor on the real mother. We don't necessarily divide our paycheck in half and share it with the first person who stretches their hand out. But we make a righteous judgment. That might be that we give food or a listening ear and prayer.

That being said, the Bible does say that the poor have a claim upon the time, favor, and resources of the wealthy. That might be that we give them our whole paycheck. The ancient church father John Chrysostom the golden tongue said (paraphrase) that if we withold help from the poor, when we have enough for ourselves, then we are essentially robbing them. The reason is two-fold. One is that we are all made in God's image and God's example and command to us is to open our hands to satisfy the needs of every living creature. Our money, time, etc is His money which means it is at His disposal to help someone else. The second is that anyone we meet who is in need of mercy is a reflection of us, the redeemed. For we were and always are in need of the mercy of Christ, so we who have been shown matchless and mighty mercy from God's throne of grace are compelled to show mercy to others. I was the homeless man. I was the prostitute. I was the orphan. I was the impoverished and imprisoned. God clothed me, fed me, forgave me, released me, and welcomed me into his home. Mercy begets mercy.

We will not ever be "good Samaritans" (Luke 10) if we don't first see ourselves as first needing a "good Samaritan" to first heal us, bind up our wounds, pay for our way and stay. Only if we see ourselves as the wounded, beaten, and bloodied man in the ditch, the one in NEED of mercy from Christ, the good Samaritan, will we ever and always be willing to extend our hand and heart to others in need.

We are not called to just give out money to any who asks, but we are bound to give mercy to all who need. We give and we live wisely, not miserly. We let mercy limit mercy. We do not withhold help because it is undeserved or would eat into our comfort or safety or happiness. We only withold help if it is the wisest and most merciful thing to do in a given situation.

My closing thought is this: God loves justice, delights in justice, does justice daily. We are called to act justly and love mercy. Do we love justice and mercy? Do we even do either? Surely believers and unbelievers alike THINK about justice and mercy. We can't escape the needs all around us that confront us and interrogate us: will you help the helpless or hopeless, the down-and-out and undeserving? Surely we think about justice and mercy, and probably, we think that we're pretty good people, doing our part? But do we truly DO justice and mercy? Is that characteristic of us any given week? At all this past year? And beyond doing, do we delight, do we love mercy? Paul taught us that if we show mercy, we must do it cheerfully.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Wrath and tears

I mentioned in my sermon this past week that Paul calls imitations, imposters "children of disobedience" rather than children of God, and that God's wrath is on them and they will have no inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and of God.

Our betraying each other and God is not something he will allow to fester and spread against His good creation and against people made in His image and against His own throne. His wrath is the settled, consistent, and righteous opposition to the absurd arrogance and atrocious apathy that we assume when we thoughtlessly trample God's name, his ways, and his people.

It is a hard word, but I spoke it with tears.

A good sermon by Jonathan Edwards that I've condensed and modernized into brief headings and paragraphs: visit www.BethelCC.net, Bethel UC, Resources, and scroll to the bottom, "God Just in Punishing Sinners." (sorry, hyperlink function not working today)