Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 3A, March 23, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would like to hear the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Exodus 17.1-7; Psalm 95.1-11; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we enter the third full week of Lent, that 40-day season for self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial (how are you doing with these disciplines, BTW?), it is appropriate for us to read our OT lesson this morning with all its grumbling and rebellion against God because in this short passage we see the essence of the problem of the human condition and why Lent is so necessary for us. But we also see in our readings God’s response to all our grumbling and testing of him, and these are the themes I want us to look at briefly this morning.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” We can almost hear God’s people complaining and whining as they travel through the wilderness. God has rescued them in dramatic fashion from their slavery in Egypt and is now leading them to the land he promised to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, their ancient ancestors. But now they are wandering in the wilderness and the people are starting to get anxious because there is no water for them to drink. At first blush we want to ask the psalmist why he sees this as grumbling and testing God. After all, don’t we need water to survive?
Israel’s demand for water would indeed be reasonable if they were schlepping through the wilderness on their own with no help from God, or if God were absent in their wanderings. But that is not the case. Think about it. God has rescued his people from Egypt by bringing them through the Red Sea and destroying a much more powerful force in Pharaoh’s army that was pursuing them. Not only had God’s people witnessed God’s mighty intervention on their behalf, now God was leading them through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Exodus 13.17-22) and had graciously provided for their every need. So if God was so powerfully present to his people and had provided for them, why were they now grumbling against him and his ability to provide? Why were they asking if God was among them or not? After all, weren’t these the kind of spectacular signs and wonders that Jesus’ opponents frequently demanded of him (cf. Matthew 16.1-4; Mark 8.11-13; Luke 11.14-16; John 6.29-31)? I mean, how many of us wouldn’t like to see God’s presence leading us in a pillar of cloud and fire or be impressed with water gushing spontaneously from a rock in the desert?
And we notice God’s gracious response to his people’s rebellion. God does not zap them dead or let them die of thirst because they made him angry. He gives them water. But as the psalmist reflects back on this incident, he warns us not to harden our hearts as God’s people did in demanding water from Moses (and through Moses, God). It seems pretty harsh for God to loathe and consign his stubborn and rebellious people to the wilderness for 40 long years. But is it? Try to think about it from God’s perspective. God had created his people Israel and called them to be his people through Abraham to help God rescue his sin-sick world when they finally settled in the promised land. But to do that, they needed to become holy people, to imitate God’s holy love and reflect it out into the world. In other words, God called his people Israel into a special relationship with God, a relationship that had to necessarily be governed by the conditions God established in his wisdom, grace, and love for his people. But almost from the beginning God’s people did not want to play the game using the framework God had established. Oh sure, they wanted the benefits. They wanted to conquer their enemies and enjoy ruling over them, but not many of them were interested in doing it God’s way. They wanted to do it their way.
And as we think about this in relational terms, it would be like us raising our kids to represent our family’s good name and values well, only to have them thumb their nose at us as adults. So we reach out to them. We plead with them or threaten to cut them off, but they do not respond. They see all we do and have done for them. They know that we love them, but they are more like the prodigal son who says no to all we stand for and then goes off to live as he sees fit. Being in this boat myself I can tell you it is both heartbreaking and maddening. Heartbreak will inevitably produce anger and if we understand this, it helps us understand God’s anger toward his people at times. It is an anger that stems from his great and perfect love for his people and his faithfulness toward them (unlike human love and faithfulness), along with God’s desire for them to live life as he intends for all his human creatures, a fully human life that was so wonderfully lived by Jesus.
So here we have God’s people, witnessing first-hand God’s mighty power, presence, and gracious love for them, questioning whether God is really with them or not. Notice carefully that this kind of grumbling is radically different from God’s people crying out to him and asking him how long it will be before evil and suffering end (cf. Psalm 13.1, 35.17, 89.46; Habakkuk 1.2). The latter presumes that God has both the desire and the power to answer our cry, which of course means God is personally present to act on our behalf. The former complaint questions whether God even really cares or is capable of providing for us, let alone of alleviating our suffering.
This is the human condition in a nutshell and it is what caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from paradise. Instead of trusting God to provide for their every need and to guide them in their living so that they could indeed be his true image-bearers who wisely ruled over God’s good world on his behalf, they chose to live life their way and humans have been alienated and estranged from God ever since. And of course when we are alienated from God we cut ourselves off from our very Source of life because without God, there can be no real life.
Now before we get all uppity about God’s people Israel and their stubborn and hard-hearted rebellion against God, we would do well to remember that we are really no different from them in that regard because we constantly ask the same question they did: “Is the Lord among us or not?” Oh, we may not use these exact words, but we ask this question nevertheless. When our finances tank, when personal tragedy or illness strikes us or our loved ones, or when the pressures of living in a fallen world rise up to smack us right in the face, we often cry out, “Is the Lord among us or not?” We want to either blame God for all that is wrong with us and our world (what does that say about what we really think about God’s character?) or like God’s people wandering in the wilderness, we don’t believe that God is either present or really has the power or desire to help us, despite the signs and wonders God has given us in our own lives. And as long as we have these stubborn and hard hearts, we will always find ourselves alienated from God, ultimately cut off from any real hope or life.
But the god our hard-heartedness falsely creates and tries sadly to worship is not the God of the Bible as Paul vividly attests in our epistle lesson this morning. Paul tells us in this wonderfully joyous passage (a passage each one of us needs to read on a regular basis, especially during those times we are walking through the darkest valleys of our life) about the perfect love, tender mercy, and unwarranted grace God has for each of us. We must remember that this passage summarizes the first four chapters of Romans in which Paul has laid out a devastating indictment of the human condition and how without outside help every human being will ultimately face God’s terrible wrath and justice for our sin and rebellion (Romans 1.18-32, 2.5-6). This is our fate, not because God is an angry and vengeful God who is determined to smack us down at the every opportunity, but because our sin has helped corrupt God’s good world and its creatures, allowed evil another door to enter into God’s good world to further corrupt and destroy it, and dehumanized us and others in the process. None of us can be fully human as long as sin exists in us and this is not God’s good intention for any of us. God wants better for us than to live as fallen and broken creatures, even if we don’t want it ourselves. Put another way, we face God’s wrath because God is also a God of perfect justice and he is determined to right all the wrongs in his good but fallen world and restore it (and us) to our intended state.
But as we saw on Ash Wednesday, the cross for Christians is our “Day of the Lord,” the day when we must stand before the judgment throne of God. As Paul tells us in today’s lesson, we are justified by faith (or more accurately, we are justified by the blood of our Lord Jesus shed for us on the cross as Paul says later in the passage). But what does being justified by faith mean? Since this is a foundational doctrine on which the entire gospel stands, it is important that we are crystal clear about what justification by grace through faith means and how it works.
To be justified by God means that God finds us righteous or not guilty in his sight. This is a one-time declaration that we will receive in the future when we all stand before God’s judgment throne. But how can God declare us not guilty in light of what we have just said about human sin and God’s wrath it incurs? The answer is the cross of Jesus. On the cross, and in the person of Jesus (God become human), God took our guilty verdict on himself so that we would not have to hear that terrible verdict pronounced on us or bear its awful consequences (cf. Romans 8.3-4). This judgment will come in the future but when we believe it by faith, we are assured of hearing God’s not-guilty verdict right now.
Think of it this way. Imagine you have committed a capital crime and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that you are guilty. The evidence is so overwhelming that you don’t even try to fight the accusation. And so you await going before the judge at your trial to receive your death sentence, an appropriate and just verdict for your crime. But as you await your sentence in prison, you suddenly receive news that the judge has decided to have mercy on you and spare you from death. However, justice must be done and so the judge informs you that he will take your place in the death chamber and die for you, even though he is innocent of your crime! You still must await this unbelievable turn of events to be officially pronounced on you at your sentencing, but since the judge told you himself that he was going to do this for you, you are persuaded that what you have heard is true.
This illustrates, albeit imperfectly, the logic of justification by grace through faith. Our future sentence has been commuted and another person (Jesus) has served our just punishment instead of it being meted out on us. We did nothing to deserve this reprieve (that’s the grace part). It was offered us by the judge (God) who clearly loves us and out of his great mercy for us wants to spare us from the just consequences of our behavior while at the same time making sure that real justice is achieved. Not only have we been spared a future judgment, we know we have been spared it right now (that’s the faith part).
[Also watch the cute but very instructive video below titled, “The Good-O-Meter”]
Now of course we are free to reject the judge’s offer. We could insist on trying to mount a legal defense on our behalf after all so that we could earn a not-guilty verdict (let the reader understand), but that would be utterly futile. Or we could simply refuse to believe the offer, thinking it too unbelievable to be true. But who in their right mind would turn it down if it were true? Yet sadly there are lots of people who do just that. They refuse to accept the gift of life offered to them through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And when they do, for whatever reason, they have effectively rejected the mightiest sign and wonder God has ever demonstrated to his broken and sinful humanity. Like God’s hard-hearted people wandering in the desert waste of their lives, they cry out, “Is the Lord among us or not?” with the clear expectation that the answer will be, “he is not!”
But for those of us who have the faith to believe the Good News that Paul announces to us, we no longer have to worry about trying to save ourselves or earn God’s merit or love. We are already saved and we already have it! No wonder Paul urges us to boast in our hope of sharing in God’s glory! God has done something outrageously kind and merciful for us that is impossible for us to do on our own behalf! Here is the true character of God revealed clearly for all the world to see and embrace! Here is the love of God poured out for us in Jesus Christ, despite our hard hearts and stubborn rebellion against God! God has done this for us because he wants us to have life, beginning right here and now, the kind of life the Samaritan woman found at the well after her encounter with Jesus. She went from being an outcast in her own society to being given the honor of being the first apostle of Jesus to her people. Whenever we let Jesus into our lives to really touch us, whether then or now, we are changed, and for the better.
But, you protest, that woman saw Jesus face-to-face. The Israelites witnessed the pillars of cloud and fire. We have none of that. We only have our faith. Not so fast, says Paul. Not only is faith itself a gift from God but also the love of God and the person of Jesus are available to us in the power of the Spirit who testifies to us that God’s promises in Jesus are true. And the proof of this is in our ability to rejoice in our sufferings because when we suffer and really truly believe in God’s love for us as demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus so that we have real hope—the sure and certain expectation that God’s promises are true rather than wishful thinking—our faith enables the Spirit to use our sufferings to toughen us up and shape our character to become more Christlike (much like God did with Jesus, cf. Hebrews 5.8).
Much as we do not like to suffer, when this happens, we see that God is using even our sufferings to transform us and our transformation is demonstrable proof that God is true to his promises to redeem and be with us always. And if God is true to his present promises, how much more can we trust his future promise of being justified so that we can wait for our hope of future glory that will be part of God’s promised new creation with patient and eager longing and expectation? This eternal perspective also helps us further overcome our present sufferings. In other words, there is absolutely no good reason for us to ever cry out, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Of course he is and he has demonstrated it in the love of God the Father poured out for us in God the Son, and available to us in the presence of God the Holy Spirit!
But why are we saved? We are saved to be God’s healed and redeemed image-bearers to his broken and hurting world. God shares his truth with us, the truth of Jesus Christ, so that we can share it with others. We are given mercy so that we can offer it to others. We experience God’s grace so that we can be gracious to others. We are forgiven and redeemed people so that we can forgive others that they too might know God’s healing and redemption. And we experience God’s love so that we can love God in return and love others as God loves us.
So harden not your hearts, but embrace the hope and promise of eternal life that is made available to you only through the great love, grace, and tender mercy of God shown to you. Spend the rest of this Lenten season (and beyond) thinking about and working on putting to death the things in you that tempt you not to believe the Good News offered you in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s hard work but you will never regret it because you know you are not engaging in it alone. And when you really believe that you have peace with God through the blood of the Lamb and that you also have the Holy Spirit living in you to help you in all your weakness, oh what a relief and joy it is because you know you really do 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.