Sunday, September 12, 2010

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 24
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

I thank him that enabled me, even Christ Jesus our Lord, for that he counted me faithful, appointing me to his service; though I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: howbeit I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord abounded exceedingly with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.

Bruce and I play this game. When the kids are good, or when they accomplish something terrific, they are my kids. When the kids are bad or they do something that makes me mad, they are his. Of course, when Bruce plays the game, he plays it exactly the opposite: the good kids are his and the bad kids are mine. Since the kids are getting older, and our ‘children’ are now the cats, we do the same thing with them. When Bruce comes home after a hard day at work and I say, “Do you know what your cats did today?” he knows that they did something wrong. He’ll answer, “What did your cats do wrong today?” It is a fun little game, but we both know that the kids have inherited traits—good and bad—that belong to both of us. They are now, and always will be, our kids, not his or mine.

God is God, and while we can find human ways of describing Him, we know that there is nothing created that can compare to Him. That’s what makes it particularly astounding to see images of God in the scriptures that are so human, so like us. In today’s Old Testament lesson, God is dealing with a people who are much like a bunch of children, quick to follow their desires without thought to the consequences. In this case, the people of God were waiting at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses was long in coming back, and they became impatient. Some of the leaders took matters into their own hands, building golden idols for the people to worship and the people responded without reservation.

God could see what was happening far below His meeting with Moses. He suddenly says to Moses, “Go, get thee down; for thy people, that thou broughtest up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.” Do you see it? God says to Moses, “Your people, who you brought out of Egypt.” Just like Bruce and I, God does not want to take credit for these people who have turned from Him. If they want to worship other gods, then they can’t possibly be His people.

But Moses plays the game, too. “Jehovah, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, that thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” Moses reminds God that the people are His and that He was the one who brought them out of Egypt. He reminds God that if He abandons His people at this point, the world—especially the Egyptians—will see His salvation as something cruel and evil. “They will think you saved the people to destroy them!” he says.

I can understand God’s point of view. I never wanted to be identified with my kids when they were throwing a tantrum in a store or when they had said something embarrassing to a neighbor. Oh, we all like our kids when they’ve done something for which we can be proud, but the true test of parenthood is loving our kids when they don’t. If we love our kids anyway, how much more must God love us?

The gospel story shows us Jesus setting the example for us. He loves even the tax collectors and the sinners, so much so that He was willing to set aside societal expectations to have dinner with those who were set apart because they weren’t ‘good’ in the eyes of the Pharisees and the scribes. They thought they were the good kids, the ones God loved. They thought God did reject the kids that didn’t do what they should. They forgot all the times that God relented, despite His people’s unfaithfulness, including this moment at the mountain. They suffered the consequences of their disobedience, but He did not destroy them. He came back over and over and over again: every time they failed, He redeemed. He is a God of mercy and forgiveness.

We just have to recognize that we aren’t the good kids all the time. We need to realize that we are no different than the tax collectors and the sinners. We might not do the same things wrong, but we fail daily to live up to the expectations of this God who has chosen us to be His people. We sin by not doing the things we should do and by doing the things we shouldn’t do. We sin by saying the things we shouldn’t say and not saying the things we should. We may not be building and worshipping golden calves at the foot of Mt. Sinai, but we do chase after our own gods, putting them before God.

The Pharisees and the scribes chased their own gods, the worst of which was their self-righteousness. They lost touch with the God who loved them, missed Him when He came to them in Jesus Christ. But that doesn’t mean He rejected them, or wished to see them destroyed. Jesus loved them as He loved the tax collectors and the sinners. He ate with them. He sat in the Temple and discussed religion with them. He was blunt when they were wrong. He corrected their errors. But He longed for them to see Him as He is, to know Him and to love Him. Instead, they chose to reject Him and the work He was doing. They accused Him of doing what was wrong, but He showed them that the work He was doing was the Lord’s work, to bring home those who were lost.

Jesus does not question their righteousness; He focuses on those that truly needs God’s mercy—the lost sheep in the wilderness. What good is it for Jesus to sit around in the Temple chatting with the religiously mature believers when there are children of God who think they are worthless? The Pharisees do not understand that God is the God of mercy not sacrifice. He is the God of forgiveness not wrath. He is like the sheep owner that would leave the comfort of his warm home to go out in the wilderness to find the one lost sheep, not because there is any material value to the animal but out of love.

In the texts for this week, we are encouraged to see ourselves as God might see us: the good, the bad and the ugly. Jesus doesn’t tell the Pharisees that the tax collectors and sinners were good, only that they were in need and that they were willing to listen. It was their willingness that Jesus commended: they had been lost and now they were found. He was rejoicing with them that they saw the reality of their failure and had turned to the only one who could grant them true forgiveness.

Paul, who was once a Pharisee, realized his failure when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. In his letters, he repeatedly tells us about his sinfulness and the mercy received from Jesus. In today’s letter to Timothy, Paul says, “I am thankful that Jesus has given me so much despite my sinfulness.” He openly admits his failure and embraces God’s grace. God does not desert His people. While He might like to say, “Your child did this,” to no one in particular, He does not reject us. He forgives. He teaches. He does sometimes rebuke and correct us, but He does so that we will be all we can be. He wants to draw us further and further into His heart so that we will not fail the next time.

So, like the psalmist, we are encouraged to sing a confession the faith, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest.” This cry is a reminder to our Lord, like Moses did for the Israelites, that we are His. While we might hurt others, our sinfulness is truly against God. As our children might sometimes be a disappointment and embarrassment, so too are we a disappointment and embarrassment to our Father in heaven.

But we can humbly and prayerfully remind Him that we are His, beg His forgiveness and receive His grace. “Create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me.” These very familiar words are a cry to our God to make us new, to do for us as He did for the Israelites and Paul and those troublesome tax collectors and sinners. We can ask Him to change us, from the inside out so that we will be all that He wants us to be.

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