Sermon delivered on Trinity 5A, Sunday, July 20, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 28.10-19a; Psalm 139.1-11, 22-23; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It has been an awful week, news-wise, hasn’t it? Renewed conflict in the Middle East, relentless acts of terrorism, the mass murder of innocent civilians shot out of the sky by an anti-aircraft missile, a police officer lured into an ambush and shot in the head by someone who wanted his moment of fame, and a makeshift memorial built for the officer’s murderer, to name just a few. Closer to home some of you are dealing with serious physical and emotional struggles and it all takes a toll on every one us, even if we are not directly afflicted. We are tempted to throw our hands up in fear and desperation and wonder where in the world (literally) God is in it all, and that is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.
Whether we are aware of it, we all have been infected to one degree or another by the Enlightenment bug with its deist teachings. Deism is the modern variation of an ancient teaching that God (if there is a God) is in his heaven and we are on earth and never the two shall meet. In this particular lie, God is portrayed at best as a distant (and by implication, an uncaring) cosmic landlord who only occasionally checks in on his tenants and then usually just to collect his payment and/or harass us by zapping us with some new catastrophe or affliction. And of course this notion of an absent and uncaring God gets reinforced almost every time we read about some new disaster or experience something bad in our lives or world. If God really were all powerful and loving, he’d intervene to stop all this stuff, we cry out indignantly. Let’s face it. When evil strikes and nothing seemingly is done about it, we are tempted to think the deists have probably gotten it about right concerning the nature of God.
And at first blush, the Bible offers frustratingly few answers to our “why does God allow evil to operate in his world” questions. In our gospel lesson, for example, we see in Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the weeds a typical biblical answer to our various why questions. Jesus observes that “an enemy” has sown the weeds among the good wheat but does not offer an explicit reason why God allowed the enemy (Satan) to do this in the first place.
But we have to learn to read and study scripture at a far deeper level than a superficial one if we are ever going to rid ourselves of our false and faith-destroying deist beliefs because the God of the Bible is emphatically not a deist God. Scripture in fact proclaims that God really is in charge of his good but infected world, even if at the same time it does not address directly our why questions. This can maddening to us to be sure. But think about it a minute. Even if we knew why God allows evil to operate in his world, would that knowledge make any difference in how evil afflicts us? Planes would still be shot down by hate-mongers and innocents will still suffer and die for various reasons, in part, because we all have some weeds in us. Make no mistake. As Jesus makes clear in his parable, God will judge the weeds. But given that we are all weeds to some extent do we really want the holy and just God issuing an immediate judgment on each of our actions? No, a far better question to ask is how God is addressing the problem of evil and scripture has plenty to say about that. If we learn to ask the right questions, God in his mercy and grace will help us to live faithfully and with joy in a world of wheat and weeds.
Take, for example, our OT lesson. Jacob is on the run. He has cheated his older brother Esau out of his rightful inheritance and Esau has vowed to kill Jacob because of it (who needs reality TV?). Now Jacob is literally running for his life and that is where our story picks up. It’s not hard for us to imagine what Jacob must have felt. He surely was terrified that he might not escape Esau’s hand. He might have been wondering why God was not doing more to protect him (never mind that he had deceived his own father and cheated his brother, where’s God in it all?).
But then a most remarkable thing happened. Stopping for the night, Jacob had a strange and wonderful dream. He saw a ladder reaching to heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending on it, powerful biblical symbolism reminding us that heaven and earth are not far away or separated realms but rather intricately linked together and under the active and sovereign rule of God. And there is no distant God in this story because God stands beside Jacob and reaffirms the promises he made to Abraham and Isaac, Jacob’s grandfather and father.
God says to Jacob, “It is through your family, Jacob, that I am going to restore my rule on earth and put to rights all that is wrong with my world that bedevils it. I know you are a deceiver. That’s why your name is Jacob. I know you’ve led a life that is not exactly exemplary. I know you fear for your life because of your evil and are running from your problems. But despite all that, don’t be afraid because I am good to my word and will not renege on my covenant promises to Abraham and Isaac. I know this is hard for you to believe and understand because your human perspective is limited and fallible. But I am not limited and do not make mistakes. I am the Creator and ruler of heaven and earth and things are unfolding exactly as I intend. So fight your instincts to be afraid because I am with you and through you and your family my promises to rid the world of evil will be fulfilled, despite the fact that you act more often than not like a weed instead of the wheat I intend you to be. I do this because I am loving and merciful and faithful and one day after you have wrestled with what appears to you to be my deeply ambiguous promises, you will learn to trust me and I will change your name to Israel. It certainly won’t be easy, but stay with me and you won’t be disappointed in the end.”
And of course the psalmist affirms God’s rule and care in our psalm lesson this morning. God is not far away. There is nowhere any of us can flee to escape God’s attention! God is so familiar with us he knows our very thoughts before we know or speak them, and God’s care starts when we are conceived in the womb. (If you are looking for a go-to passage that addresses why abortion is so desperately wrong, look no further than Psalm 139.) In other words, God is ever present to us in his creation, working to address the problem of evil through his chosen people Israel and ultimately through Jesus their Messiah, the one true and faithful Israelite. Listen if you have ears.
This storyline is what prompted Paul to write the magnificent chapter in Romans that we have been reading the last two weeks. In today’s epistle lesson, Paul reminds us that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we no longer experience enmity with God but are now God’s adopted children who possess his Spirit. As a result, we are no longer to live in fear. Just like God was present with his stubborn and rebellious people in the pillars of cloud and fire as they wandered in the wilderness after God delivered them from their slavery in Egypt, so God is present with his people who are followers of Jesus the Messiah in the person and presence of the Holy Spirit after God rescued us from sin and death. God’s victory over evil is not yet completed but it is accomplished and so Paul encourages us to live with the ambiguity of the already-not yet reality of God’s rescue of us.
And because God has defeated evil in the death and resurrection of Jesus and is present with his people in the person of the Spirit, all creation now rejoices as it eagerly anticipates its redemption from its suffering at the hands of God’s sinful image-bearers. In other words, when humans get rescued, creation gets rescued. What Paul is talking about here, of course, is new creation. Just as God told Jacob his covenant promises were a done deal, Paul is telling us that the promise of new creation is a done deal. As God promised Canaan to his people Israel, so God promises the world to his people Israel reconstituted around Jesus the Messiah. It may not be obvious to us at the moment. But as Paul told us in our epistle lesson a few weeks ago, we are to do the math. The God of the OT who is faithful to his promises and to his original creation is the same God of the NT who is faithful to his promises in and through Jesus and the operation of the Holy Spirit in and through his people. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, our rescue is a done deal and we can take it to the bank, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. This is why Paul had the sure and certain hope about which he speaks today despite the evil that existed in his life and world, and this is why we as Christians can have that same hope, even in the midst of a hellish week like this past one. Let the Church say: Amen!
So what are we to do? We are to take this hope out into the world and work patiently to help bring about God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven by embodying the love of Christ to those around us and in our lives. But to have that hope we are going to have to be people of the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Because our perspectives and knowledge are limited and fallible, and because we place such a premium on feelings these days, we are going to have to think soberly about God’s promises and recall all that God has done for his people, especially what he has done for us in our own lives. We are going to have to support and care for each other during the difficult times and always take the time to encourage each other, especially in tough times. Doing so will, by God’s grace and power, help us overcome the deist infection that has afflicted us so thoroughly.
I close by giving you a personal example of how God often works. I hope it will stimulate you to think about ways God works in your life as well. When Dondra and I were up at Mackinac Island we were sitting at an outdoor bar enjoying ourselves. I had ordered a beer with a really interesting name and when it came I took a picture of the can to send to my friend because I thought the name was so funny. As I was getting ready to send the picture, out of the blue, Dondra said to me, “Why don’t you send it to Don B. too. He collects unusual beer cans.” I had not thought of Don for awhile and her request struck me as a bit odd, but I sent it nevertheless. In a few minutes, back came a response from Don that his wife, Brenda, was about to undergo emergency surgery for a ruptured colon and could we keep her in our prayers? I immediately called Don and offered him some much-needed pastoral support. I also alerted our old small group and they too have been ministering to them. Trust me. They both needed it.
Coincidence? Hardly. And in responding to the Spirit’s prompting, please note the kingdom came a little nearer. The psalmist would have understood and so do countless other Christians across time and culture. How about you? And now we return to Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the weeds. It teaches us that the kingdom comes gradually and mysteriously, and we are to wait patiently for God to sort it all out in his wonderful providence, even has God uses us to help in that process. We obey God’s command to be his kingdom workers because we believe God’s promises. And because we believe God’s promises, we know we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.