Sermon delivered on Trinity 3C, June 16, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 21.1-21a; Psalm 5.1-8; Galatians 2.15-21; Luke 7.36-8.3.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The past two weeks we have looked, in part, at Jesus’ amazing power to heal and the role faith plays in that. Two weeks ago we saw Jesus healing the centurion’s slave through a great demonstration of faith on the centurion’s part, while last week we saw him raise the widow of Nain’s dead son without asking for a demonstration of faith. In today’s gospel lesson we see how grace and forgiveness work and this is what I want us to look at briefly this morning because I think this is a real problem and ongoing issue for many of us. I want to do this by way of contrast, first by looking at the story of King Ahab in our OT lesson and then by looking at the actual dynamics of the story as it unfolds in our gospel lesson.
If we are looking for how not to interact with God, we need look no further than King Ahab in our OT lesson. We first met Ahab two weeks ago and learned that he married a Gentile woman who promptly introduced Baal worship into Israel’s religious life by way of her husband the king. And we saw this provoked an immediate response from God because God is always jealous for his people and wants the best for us.
Now in today’s lesson, we see Ahab and Jezebel acting very badly again. In a story that would be outright comical if it didn’t turn out so badly, Ahab asks one of his subjects, Naboth the Jezreelite, to sell Ahab his vineyard. At first blush we see nothing wrong with Ahab’s request and are puzzled at Naboth’s vigorous rejection of Ahab’s offer. But closer examination exposes the root of the problem underlying Ahab’s request. Naboth refused to sell Ahab his vineyard because he knew what the law said about who was the rightful owner of the promised land (God) and that Naboth had no right to sell Ahab his land permanently because that was expressly forbidden (Leviticus 25.23). Ahab is so upset by Naboth’s rejection that he literally takes to the bed in utter depression. This causes Jezebel to call Ahab’s manhood into question. She tells him to man up and start acting like a real king. She also informs him she will fix his problem, Sidonian style. Jezebel promptly arranges to have Naboth murdered and this invokes God’s judgment on Ahab and his house through the prophet Elijah because Ahab and Jezebel have acted evilly to get what he should not have desired in the first place.
In this sad story we see very clearly why there could be no forgiveness of Ahab and Jezebel. In the first place, to understand the severity of God’s judgment on Ahab and his house (in addition to the fact that God hates all evil), we must understand that Ahab was king of Israel and as such should have been an example to God’s people. We remember that God had called his people to bring God’s healing love and salvation to the world and Israel’s kings were supposed to act accordingly. Ahab clearly did not do so (contrast his heart to God’s heart seen on the cross) and the very fact that he was either ignorant of the law regarding property ownership or simply ignored it, alerts us to the fact that Ahab, like many of us, was willing to take matters into his own hands to secure his own selfish ends. Perhaps there was a place for God in Ahab’s economy, but that place was not of the first order and as a result Ahab acted predictably badly.
To make matters worse, when confronted with the wickedness of his deeds, instead of repenting and asking for forgiveness the way David did when Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba, Ahab got belligerent toward Elijah, a sure sign of sinful pride, the root cause of the other evil deeds he committed. (Although it is worth noting that after hearing God’s judgment pronounced on him, Ahab did apparently repent, at least temporarily, which earned him a reprieve; God’s judgment would come, but on Ahab’s descendants [1 Kings 21.27-29]. Apparently God holds those whom he calls to lead to higher standards than the average bear, a sobering thought for any Christian leader in any position of authority). All this helps us understand why God would not and could not forgive Ahab without Ahab first acknowledging his evil (confession) and turning away from it (repentance). For God to do so would be condoning evil and consigning Ahab to an eventual permanent separation from God, and God’s heart and mercy are too deep and wide for God to act in such an unloving manner. Just so with us.
We see a similar dynamic in the Pharisee in our gospel lesson today, although certainly not to the degree we see it in Ahab. Like Ahab, sinful pride seems to be the root problem for Simon. He too had apparently forgotten that God had called him and the rest of God’s people to be the means to bring healing and reconciliation to God’s sin-sick and broken world. But this mission had gotten very badly distorted and many of God’s people (us included) seem to have confused the means versus the ends. As a Pharisee, Simon surely went to great lengths to be properly “religious” so as not to become unclean and incur God’s wrath. But of course his emphasis was on following the rules rather than developing a healthy relationship with God and others. It is difficult to see how one can bring the healing and redeeming love of God to others by resolutely ignoring them or looking down one’s nose at them, but this is precisely what Simon was doing in our story today. Although he apparently was not as outright hostile toward Jesus as some of his brethren were, when push came to shove, he wanted nothing to do with this woman whom Luke only calls a sinner. We don’t know the exact nature of this woman’s sin. She might have been a prostitute or an adulteress or even the wife of a disreputable businessman. The sin is not important in this case. The point is, Simon, the good and zealous religious person, wanted nothing to do with this woman. Like Ahab, this was another sure sign that Simon’s pride was showing. Accordingly, Jesus indicated there was more work to be done on Simon’s part if he ever hoped to receive the kind of forgiveness and healing the sinful woman received, namely recognizing his sin and believing that Jesus has the power to save.
So what is the difference between Ahab, Simon, and the woman? Why did she receive salvation (the term for salvation, sozo, also means healing) where the other two did not? Is this just another indication that God is capricious and unpredictable? Hardly. God’s heart is tender and merciful and kind, and God’s desire is that everyone receive his healing love and forgiveness. Instead the answer lies in how the woman responded to Jesus. The first thing we notice is that there is not the hubris and pride in the woman as there was with Ahab and Simon. The woman knew she was a sinner and her sin weighed her down as all sin does. Luke doesn’t tell us how this woman met Jesus or what prompted her to seek him out so that she could experience real forgiveness and healing. But something in Jesus was so compelling that she desperately sought him out. She risked scandal and accompanying scorn by letting down her hair in public and kissing and anointing Jesus’ feet, a courageous act in addition to showing great faith in Jesus. When we truly find healing in Jesus’ great love for us, we are usually willing to take great risks for him!
The second thing we notice about the woman is her tears as she tends to Jesus. As Luke implies, these were surely tears of sorrow over her many sins (and the terrible burden they produced) mixed with tears of joy after receiving God’s gracious forgiveness. The term Luke uses to describe her tears is also used to describe rain showers and this alerts us to the depth of the woman’s sorrow and her desperate need to receive God’s forgiveness. Both these things illustrate the woman’s great humility and faith in Jesus, and this is the key to our understanding why she received forgiveness while Ahab and Simon did not. Simply put, the woman had the kind of heart the psalmist praises in today’s psalm. Her faith and the needed humility to acknowledge her desperate need for God’s forgiveness were all it took to receive it, and with it salvation. As we have seen, the term for salvation, sozo, also means healing. This is a powerful reminder that if we want to be ultimately healed, we must first seek and accept God’s great love and forgiveness for our many sins. As the psalmist reminds us, God never despises a humble and contrite heart and we see this powerfully illustrated in today’s story. And as Jesus points out to Simon, the great love that drove her acts was indicative that her many sins had indeed been forgiven. Receiving God’s forgiveness allows us to love and the extent of our love for Jesus and others is the true measure of how forgiven and healed we really are.
All this confronts us as Christians with the need to make fundamental decisions about who Jesus is and our relationship with him. As Luke makes very clear, we cannot remain neutral about Jesus. So to help us decide who Jesus is, we can ask a series of questions that require honest answers. First, do we believe that these stories are true and that they actually happened, i.e., do we believe that Jesus really healed the sick, raised the dead, and offered God’s healing love and forgiveness to those who eagerly and humbly sought it? If we do, we must then decide whether we believe God raised Jesus from the dead and whether he is alive and well and interacting with us through the Spirit and his people. If we believe this, then we must ask why Jesus would not do the same for us today if we seek him out and ask him to forgive us, just like the woman did, albeit through her actions, not words. And if we conclude Jesus is indeed capable of healing us today, why would we not confess him as Lord and give our entire life to him once he does so that he can thoroughly transform us into his likeness?
I raise this issue because it seems to me that many Christians go through life acting like none of this is true! Every one of us, if we are honest with ourselves, knows deep down how burdensome and deadly unforgiven sin can be. It is literally killing us. Likewise, many of us are in need of all kinds of healing but here again we act like there is no effective cure for what ails us. Oh sure, we might go see a doctor or psychologist or family counselor (or worse yet, seek to alleviate our pain through booze or drugs or what have you). But how often do we first and foremost pray to our risen Lord to really forgive and thereby heal us, and expect him to do so? In some cases, we don’t pray because we are too proud. In other cases we don’t pray because we really don’t believe these stories or believe that Jesus is alive and available to us today in the power of the Spirit and through his people. But some of us really don’t believe we are worthy of God’s healing and forgiveness because, well, we think our sins are just too awful or we are convinced that when push comes to shove, God really cannot love someone the likes of us.
Of course this latter excuse flies in the face of consistent biblical witness to the contrary (remember God even forgave Ahab when he repented, even though Ahab was a murderer and unfaithful king of God’s people, who led them to Baal worship as well)! And so for those of us who are in this boat, we are confronted with this fundamental question: Do we really believe the Good News or not? If we do, we cannot help but act like the sinful woman. Tears of remorse will inevitably flow when we bring our filthy rags to our holy Jesus because we know we are not worthy to stand before him. But when we decide that Jesus really is the only way to deal with God and receive his tender love and saving forgiveness, those tears of sorrow will immediately turn into tears of joy as we accept his tender love and are healed. This healing may be instantaneous or it may take a lifetime. Whatever the timeline, the important thing is that Jesus has the power to heal and no one is beyond help if they truly seek it!
And like the sinful woman who found forgiveness in the Lord who loved her and gave himself for her, just as Paul tells us he knew Jesus in today’s epistle lesson, we too will show the proof of that forgiveness by how well we offer the same love and forgiveness to others that Jesus offers us. This is why it is possible to love the sinner without loving the sin. Jesus abhorred sin but hung around sinners, not to condone their sin but to show them the wonderful healing power of God’s love and forgiveness that always comes when we confess our sins and repent of them, giving our whole life and being to Jesus our great Lord and healing Savior. All this, of course, requires a faith that Jesus has the power and desire to forgive our sins and save and heal us.
So today, as you come to the Table, if you are in need of experiencing Jesus’ healing love in your life, ask him for that and then come in faith and with a joyful heart that your prayer has been granted as you feed on Jesus’ body and blood. After all, being invited to Jesus’ Table is a tangible reminder of the very forgiveness you seek! Then this week, if you know the healing love and power of Jesus in your life, stop and give thanks each day, making sure to share his love with others! But if you are one who is still struggling with the need to be healed or forgiven, then reread today’s gospel lesson and see yourself in the sinful woman’s shoes. As you come with her humbly and reverently to Jesus, weep over his feet with her and acknowledge your unworthiness to come to him. But by all means, don’t stop there! Instead, accept his forgiveness and accompanying healing/salvation, just like she did. Then go and make a difference for Jesus in his world by offering that same healing love to others who, like you, desperately need it. As you do, you will surely know what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.