Sunday, September 16, 2007

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

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: According to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

Today’s Old Testament lesson tells the story of God and His people. Throughout the scriptures we see this story happening over and over again. God saves His people, but they have to wait for the fulfillment of all His promises. The people grow impatient and are easily distracted from His purpose, so they turn to other gods. God grows angry and threatens His wrath, but one of His faithful reminds Him of His promises. He turns from His wrath and saves them again.

We are no different than those waiting for Moses at the foot of the mountain. We are not faithful people. We lose touch with God easily, especially when we think that He is not responding to our needs. We find solace in the things that we know, we react to our fears, we follow the ways of the world. We turn to other gods. Yet God is always faithful.

We remember St. Cyprian of Carthage on September 16. Cyprian lived in the third century, relatively early in the history of Christianity. The Romans were still in power, but it was a time when some of the emperors embraced Christianity and others tried to return Rome to the old ways. Cyprian was from Carthage, though far from Rome still under Roman dominion. It was a time of peace. The people were comfortable, happy and secure. Unfortunately, it is during peaceful times when we lose touch with our faith because we have no need to rely on God. We do not need deliverance. We do not need salvation. So, we forget all that He did and remember only our own accomplishments.

Cyprian was a late convert, not coming to faith until his forties, but as a learned man and a powerful speaker he quickly rose to the rank of Bishop in the church. He was unhappy with the state of the Church; there was a lack of discipline. Many of the Christians, including the clergy, were living like the pagans, no longer living as God had called the people of faith to live – separate even while living in the world. There were instances of fraud and swindling. The clergy was so ignorant of the Word of God that they could not properly instruct the new Christians. The line between heresy and orthodox belief was so shady that many could not recognize the difference. When the persecution under the emperor Decian began, the Christians had no firm foundation on which to stand and many turned to the old pagan ways.

It does not take much for us to turn away from God. The danger for third-century Christians in Rome was very real – martyrdom. It was not so for the people waiting at the foot of the mountain for Moses to return with God’s Law, but they had their own concerns. They thought that Moses was dead, that he was lost, and that he was never going to return. They had nowhere to go; they did not know what would happen to them without Moses. Everything that had been promised to them by this unknown God was worthless because the only spokesperson for Him was gone. They turned to their old ways.

The scribes and Pharisees had not turned to the Roman gods but they were drawn away from God by a much less obvious god – themselves. They relied on their self-righteousness, their obedience to a set of laws and their own interpretation of them. They looked down on Jesus because He willingly ate with sinners and tax collectors – to them, this was the sin. They had forgotten that God is the God of mercy and grace, that He loves all who seek Him. They missed that Jesus was the one whom God had sent to bring His people home. They did not understand His preaching. As they understood righteousness, the people represented by the lost sheep and the lost coin like the sinners and tax collectors Jesus welcomed were lost by their own sin, so they did not deserve such incredible mercy.

During the life of Cyprian, many Christians were persecuted and martyred for their faith. But a large number of Christians gave in to the societal pressures of Rome. When the emperor Decian decided to persecute the Christians, they willingly sacrificed to the Roman gods or renounced their faith in writing. However, many of them realized their mistake and they repented. They wished to be restored to the Church and were willing to stand against the persecution.

When they repented, some of the church leaders were unwilling to grant forgiveness. They believed the guilty were apostate and did not deserve mercy. Cyprian disagreed and fought to offer forgiveness to those who had fallen. Cyprian recognized the need for compassion and argued for reinstatement in the Church under certain conditions. The penance was a hard one until there was a new threat of persecution. Cyprian called a council who offered forgiveness to those who had lapsed so that they could receive Communion for strength against the trial. In the end, many Christians who had survived the persecution of Decian were martyred under later emperors.

When Moses was on the mountain with God being instructed in His ways, God told him that the people had turned and that He wanted to apply His wrath. Moses begged him to relent. Moses did not argue that the people were undeserving of wrath, but instead reminded God of His promises. Moses reminded God of what He had already done. “Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, saying, For evil did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?” God relented and the Hebrews were saved.

It is amazing how often history repeats itself. We don’t always recognize the similarities because the issues are much different, yet as I was reading through the life of Cyprian and this week’s scriptures I could not help but notice a parallel between these stories and our modern age. We have lived in a time of relative peace, without threat of martyrdom to keep our zeal and passion for Christ. The line between heresy and orthodoxy has become so hazy that most Christians can’t recognize the difference. In all too many ways the Church has willingly followed the ways of the world rather than standing up for Christ. For many, the easiest way to get through the difficulty of persecution is to just give in to the world around them. In Cyprian’s time they willingly sacrificed to the idols to save their lives. They were unwilling to be martyred for the sake of Christ.

The world might not be martyring Christians by cutting off their heads (at least not in our part of the world) but most Christians aren't even willing to stand up for Christ in their homes, workplaces – or sadly, in their church. I have heard it said that the era of the Church is over, that we are living in post-Christian times. Perhaps in some ways that is true, since there have been previous generations of people zealous for Christ in times when the Church was powerful and strong. Yet, there have also been times in the past when apostasy and heresy were rampant, times when it seemed like the Church might die. Through it all, the Church has survived, not by her own will but by the promises of God. We are not alone. It has happened before and God has been faithful. We can rest in the knowledge that God will be faithful again.

In the Old Testament lesson God did not change His mind because Moses said the right thing nor did the right thing. He was merciful because He promised to be merciful. He repented because mercy and love is His character. We can rest in this promise because we, like the people of God throughout history, will turn away from Him over and over again. Each time we fail God is reminded by our Lord Jesus Christ of His promise and He turns His wrath away from us for Jesus’ sake. He remains faithful, and by His grace we are saved.

In our Gospel lesson the sinners and tax collectors were drawing near to Jesus to hear Him preach and to experience whatever it was that He had to give. They knew they needed something and that Jesus could provide it for them. We normally expect that the faithful will be the ones to flock to a preacher and teacher, but in Jesus’ case the righteous – the self-righteous – were offended by Him. They saw Him as a threat. They saw Him as opposite of everything they expected in a Savior. They expected someone more righteous than even they – perfect in every way. But He did not appear more righteous than others because He did things that seemed counter to the Law of Moses. He had mercy on sinners. He ate with tax collectors. He touched the unclean and offered forgiveness to all who sought Him. The sinners came to Him because He had something to offer them, something they could not find anywhere else. The righteous – the self-righteous – did not need mercy or forgiveness. They did not need God’s grace.

The stories in our lesson almost seem contradictory to what was happening. The people were seeking God and drawing near Jesus, but Jesus told of a shepherd and woman seeking something. In those stories, God is represented by the shepherd and the woman. Specifically, Jesus was telling stories about Himself. He had come to find the lost sheep and the lost coin. The people who came to hear Him, to receive His grace, were the ones He came to find. Though the sinners and tax collectors are seen as coming to Jesus, Jesus actually came looking for them. The righteous – the self-righteous – grumbled about how this supposed rabbi was welcoming sinners and tax collectors and eating with them. Jesus called out to the lost and they heard His voice. The Pharisees and the scribes did not recognize the voice. They did not know Jesus.

Paul has a most extraordinary story to tell. He was passionate for God without even knowing Him, willingly accosting any who stood for the Way, the Christian faith. One day Christ came to him in a powerful and frightening way and he was changed forever. Few of us can tell a similar story. Most of us came to know about God and to have faith in Christ with the patient and persistent witness of those who came before us. I wonder how many times Paul heard the Gospel before that day on the road to Damascus, but he did not hear the voice. I wonder how many people he rejected and how many were harmed because he was zealous for the old way. I wonder how many people – like Ananias – thought Paul was beyond hope, choosing to give up on him rather than risk his wrath.

In this letter to Timothy, Paul recognizes his sinfulness, admitting to having been ignorant while he thought himself to be wise. We often see Paul as being strong, arrogant, self-centered because he talks about himself so much, even in letters of encouragement to others. In today’s passage he writes, “…for an ensample of them that should thereafter believe on him unto eternal life.” However, Paul was not holding himself up as an example of Christ-like living to follow, but as an example of a humble, repentant sinner receiving God’s amazing grace. Paul didn’t become the great evangelist by any power of his own, but by the power of God’s love and mercy. He calls himself the foremost sinner, not because he thinks himself greater than others but because he recognized that he never deserved God’s grace. He was the greatest sinner because he not only rejected Christ but he also fought against God’s people.

It is good to emulate the work of Paul, to share the Gospel as we are able and to serve in whatever manner and gift we have been given. But that is not the example he wants us to follow in this passage. Here we are called to see ourselves as sinners in need of a Savior, to recognize God’s grace in the world around us and to share it with others so that they too might come to faith. It takes time. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. However no one is outside of hope. We shouldn’t give up on any, no matter how much we are rejected. God did not give up on Paul. He never gave up on us. He hasn’t given up on those who are still lost and suffering in the darkness. He came to find the lost and will celebrate over every sinner who repents.

David writes in today’s Psalm, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: According to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” David was specially chosen by God to serve as king of the people of Israel. He loved the Lord and had a heart to serve Him. He was blessed by God, ruled over the people during a period of prosperity and growth and has been listed among God’s faithful and righteous people.

David was also a sinner. The second book of Samuel, chapters eleven and twelve, tell the story of David and the beautiful Bathsheba. He saw her bathing and fell for her. He sent for her and slept with her, causing a pregnancy. She was the wife of a soldier fighting against the enemies of Israel. David tried to hide the affair but Uriah refused to sleep with his wife out of respect for his fellow soldiers still on the battlefield. In the end David had Uriah killed and then he took Bathsheba as his own wife to hide the sin.

Nathan the prophet approached David about this sin. He told David the story about two men, one who was rich and the other who was poor. The rich man had plenty of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had just one. When a traveler visited the rich man, he took the sheep of the poor man to serve at the feast rather than one of the many sheep in his flock. When David heard this story he was outraged and ready to punish the rich man for his sin. Nathan told David that he was the sinner. “Thus saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; and I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added unto thee such and such things. Wherefore hast thou despised the word of Jehovah, to do that which is evil in his sight?” (2 Samuel 12:7b-9b, ASV)

The Psalm is David’s response to this revelation. He realized that he was a sinner in need of the grace and mercy of God. He sang his repentance in this hymn, coming before God with a sense of deep grief over his sin, earnestly seeking God’s help and forgiveness.

Now is the time for all of us to pray like David, in repentance and faith, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: According to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51) God hears and He answers the prayers of His children. If Cyprian could offer compassion to those who have turned away from God, how much more will God grant His grace and mercy to those who love Him and repent? Through it all, we are reminded that time after time God has come to His people in their sin, seeking the lost sheep and the lost coins. He remembers His promises and remains faithful, restoring His people to His heart and to one another

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