Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 10C, July 31, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Hosea 11.1-11; Psalm 107.1-9, 43; Colossians 3.1-11; Luke 12.13-21.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Who is the God you worship? By that, I am not asking if you worship the God of our Christian faith: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, three in one and one in three. I am talking instead about the character and nature of God. So, for example, do you worship the God of perpetual anger, one who is always snarky and on the lookout to punish you every time you slip up? Do you worship the God who is a perpetual grandfather, you know, a rather doting old fellow who takes a hands-off approach with us because, well, he’s really chilled out over the years and everything will turn out all right in the end anyway? Or do you worship a God somewhere in between? How we answer this question about the nature and character of God is more than just an intellectual exercise. It has serious and profound implications for how we relate to God and each other as well as what it means for us to be God’s image-bearing creatures. Our lessons this morning each have something to say about who God is and this is what I want us to look at.
We start with our OT lesson and the essential question it raises. What will be the final factor that determines the outcome of human history? Certainly, the biblical answer to this question is God, because God is Lord over all creation, history included. With that in mind, we can put the question another way. Is God going to right all the wrongs in his world so as to restore it to its original “very good” state (Genesis 1.31), or is God going to eventually destroy his sin-corrupted creation and creatures?
Here is where the God we worship comes into play. If we worship the God of fire and brimstone, the God who hates his creatures and creation, and who is very eager to consign most of us to hell, we are likely to answer that God is going to destroy this sin-corrupted world because it’s bad. We point to passages like the ones in our epistle lesson where Paul tells us to set our minds on things in heaven, not things on earth, because the wrath of God is coming. The implication, of course, is that as Christians we are heaven-bound so as to escape the final wrath of God that will consume this wicked world and all the evil-doers in it. But is this what our lessons this morning really teach? The short answer is no, and it points us to the dangers of pulling texts out of the broader contexts in which they were written to either form incorrect notions about God or bolster the preconceived (and often incorrect) ones we already have. If you are doing this, STOP IT!
Getting back to our question as to what God is going to do about the problem of his good creation gone bad, we hear a very clear answer in our OT lesson. Earlier in Hosea 1.2, God had commanded his prophet to marry a whore because his wife would symbolically represent God’s faithless people Israel. If the God we worship is an angry, unforgiving God, we would expect God to destroy his people because they had chased after the native gods of the original folks who lived in the promised land. After all, God hates all sinners and is a jealous God who cannot tolerate any competition from false and unreal gods for his people’s ultimate loyalty. Right?
But now in today’s lesson, we read something quite astonishing. Here is God telling his prophet how he, God, has been like a mother to his people. God has freed them from their slavery in Egypt and taught them how to be his people so they could be God’s light to the world. And God’s people’s response? They consistently thumbed their noses at God and walked away from him, rejecting his love and tender nurturing care so that there was no way they could possibly be God’s light to the world to heal the nations.
Not unsurprisingly, God gave them up to their own desires and eventually sent his people into exile. In other words, God’s holy and just wrath fell on his stubborn and rebellious people, proving once again that God really is an angry God, bent on punishing his people when we screw up, right? Not so fast, my friends. Punishment there was. God’s people did go into exile for their rebellion, but this was not the last word. After God laments his people’s rebellion, God makes this astonishing declaration:
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath (Hosea 11.8-9).
Notice the repetition of the phrase, “I will not,” which underscores God’s refusal to surrender his people to everlasting destruction. Despite their sin and rebellion against him, God cannot ultimately give up his people because God loves them. God cannot ultimately destroy his people like God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, here represented by the cities of Admah and Zeboiim. Yes, God had to send his people into exile to wake them up to the fact that he is God and has called them to be his people so that they could be God’s light to the world. And sadly, Israel did not repent. But despite this, God could not destroy them because God is a God of holy and sovereign love who will not treat his people according to their wayward and stubborn rebellion (cf. 1 John 4.8,16; 2 Timothy 2.13). Here we see Hosea answering the cosmic questions of history that we asked earlier by showing us how God has chosen to deal with a particular people, his people Israel whom God called through the patriarch Abraham. We hear the astonishing news that no sinfulness, no apostasy, no stubborn refusal to repent, can finally overcome the love of God who wills to save his people and give them new life in the future. God’s loving grace rules the day. Punishment for sin (exile) there would be, but new life would be the ultimate rule of the day, thanks be to God!
We see this same hope expressed in our psalm lesson this morning. The psalmist speaks of the love of God who rescues his people from their distress and who will ultimately restore us to be the kind of image-bearing creatures he created us to be in the first place. This is what it means for God to be sovereign. God is going to do what God is going to do, and whatever that looks like, it will ultimately be done in love, because God is holy and sovereign love. Are there consequences for sin? Of course, but God’s love and sovereignty will not allow for the ultimate destruction of God’s people and we can all breathe a sigh of relief because of it.
So what does that new life and new future look like? The NT answer is Jesus, and we see the answer playing itself out in our epistle lesson this morning. Last week, Paul talked about dying and rising with Christ in baptism. We share in a death like Jesus’ so that we can also share in a resurrection like his. In other words, Paul is reminding us about a central truth of our faith. We were once dead people walking who had no future because we were alienated and hostile to God. But on the cross, God took care of that alienation as well as the sin and evil behind it, so that we are transferred from the power of darkness (death, the ultimate exile) to the kingdom of his beloved Son (life, the ultimate rescue). Just as God raised Jesus from the dead and so destroyed death, so God will do for us who put our hope and trust in Jesus. God has rescued us so that we can be God’s light to the world and thus bring God’s healing love to the nations, i.e., to those around us, thereby giving glory to God’s holy name. This is the hope and future for God’s people that Hosea pointed to, only now it didn’t apply just to Jews but to non-Jews as well.
Now in today’s lesson, Paul reminds us of who we are—Jesus’ people, who are part of the reconstituted family of God that includes Jews and gentiles. Because we are going to share in Jesus’ resurrected future, we are to set our minds on becoming like Jesus, who is currently hidden from us in heaven, God’s space. And while Jesus may be out of sight, he certainly isn’t out of mind because as Paul reminds us, he is going to return one day to execute God’s wrath on those who simply refuse to be the fully human beings God created them to be. That day’s in the future, however, and what that looks like remains to be seen. In the meantime, Jesus remains with us in power of the Spirit, and because of our union with him, we are enabled to live our lives in ways that are pleasing to God. Paul isn’t talking about individualistic lifestyles (it’s all about God and me). He’s talking about living life together as members of Christ’s body, the Church. That’s why we are to put aways things that can destroy relationships like anger, wrath, malice, slander, and greed. Paul doesn’t intend for this to be a comprehensive list of things for us to avoid. In fact, compared with Jewish lists of rules, his lists are very circumspect. No, Paul is reminding us of the truth that is ours when we give ourselves to Jesus. He gives us the power to become like him so that our lives are aligned with our Creator’s original intentions. When that happens, we become Jesus’ light to the world and in the process find our own happiness.
But we want to argue with Paul. You are crazy, Paul! It doesn’t feel like anything’s changed! We are still messy folks who get it wrong as much as we get it right. How can you say we have been raised with Jesus? Paul would surely answer that part of being a Christian is learning to believe what doesn’t feel true at the moment. We do that by grasping the truth that we have died and our lives are hidden with Christ, i.e., we are united with Christ in the power of the Spirit and that union helps us become the kind of people God calls us to be despite our messiness and serious flaws. This is what Paul means when he talks about the renewal of our mind. As a result, we are no longer our own, but Christ’s. And because Christ lives, so will we, even though our bodies will die (cf. John 11.25-26). This is the God we worship, the God who became human to die for us so that we could ultimately live, despite who we can sometimes be. Is this the God you worship?
We see the same emphasis on us being God’s in our gospel lesson, only with a negative twist. Jesus was not railing against having plenty. That wasn’t the man’s sin. It was perfectly reasonable for him to build a barn for his bumper crop. His sin was that he never thought about giving any of his bounty away. To be sure, the man had worked his fields. But at the end of the day, his crops were the result of God’s gracious generosity to him, and God expects us as his image-bearers to be generous to a fault, i.e., to reflect God’s gracious generosity and love out into his world. But when we choose to live for ourselves, we cease to be God’s image-bearers, and that’s a problem. You want to find life, God asks us? Give yourself and your wealth away because only when you lose your life will you save it. The great lie of wealth is that it deceives us into thinking we can control our own destiny. But as the parable reminds us, we are not guaranteed another day, and our wealth can never change that fact. Our lives our God’s, not our own, and we had better not let ourselves worship a false idol like money and so give away our only certainty: God himself, who is also our only hope and life and future.
So what do we do with all this? First, we use today’s lessons along with the rest of Scripture to remind us that the God we worship is a holy God, the God who is love. We must use passages like the ones we read today to put to death the false gods we construct and which are destructive. We must be clear in our thinking about who God is because living faithful lives is not for the faint of heart. We try to live faithfully and find that we are at war with forces within us that don’t want to die and a world that is fundamentally hostile to God and his ways, not to mention God’s people. As a result, we can find ourselves to be frustrated morally because we know what to do but are often unable or unwilling to do what is right, and when we do what is right we find ourselves mocked and despised. This is because our final triumph will only come with Christ’s return. But we mustn’t let that discourage us because we have died and our life is hidden with Christ who is in heaven, and who is immortal. The fact that we cannot currently see Jesus does not change the reality of our situation as his people. We belong to Jesus, who has overcome evil, sin, and death on the cross for us. And we are being transformed into his image because we are his, even with our desperate flaws, even when our transformation is not apparent to us. We must believe this, my beloved, not because we are called to whistle through the graveyard, but because it is true. It is the very promise of God to us. When we believe God’s promises, it gives us hope, not only for our future but for the here and now. So the next time you are confronted with moral failure, big or small, or opposition from those who hate you because you belong to Jesus, or just overwhelmed by life in general, remember these words from the sovereign Lord who has chosen to love you, and who died for you so that you can live.
How can I give you up, [your name]? How can I hand you over, O my people? How can I destroy you? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not destroy [you]; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. Take heart and hope, [your name], for you are mine (cf. Hosea 11.8-9; Isaiah 43.1).
When by God’s grace this truth becomes a living part of you, you will surely know you 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.