Sermon delivered on Trinity 14C, Sunday, September 22, 2019 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: Jeremiah 8.18-9.1; Psalm 79.1-9; 1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Every once in awhile, the preacher is confronted with lectionary readings that make him wonder how many drugs the selection committee did before choosing them. For me, today’s readings is one of those times. As I read over them initially, I scratched my head and muttered, What were they thinking? Where is there a unifying theme on which to preach? Why didn’t I make Father Bowser preach today? Is there no balm in Gilead for me? No mercy? Fortunately for me (and you), the Holy Spirit is much smarter than I am and by God’s mercy, he finally showed me a theme on which to preach, and that theme is God to the rescue. This is what I want us to look at this morning.
The whole story of the Bible is about how God has come to rescue his sin-sick and evil-corrupted world, a world and its creatures God never intended to create. God, the writer of Genesis tells us, created all of creation good and pronounced his human image-bearing creatures and the world over which they ruled to be very good (Genesis 1.31). But then we turn to our OT and psalm lessons, more hard-to-hear lessons like last week’s, and there’s not much good to be found in them, let alone very good. So what happened? Two words: Human sin. Our rebellion against God and his good will for us got our first ancestors booted out of paradise and by Jeremiah’s day in the sixth-century BC, the situation had become truly desperate. We see anguish from all parties concerned: from the prophet, from God, and from God’s people. God’s people living in Jerusalem, the place where they believed heaven and earth intersected at God’s Temple located there, desperately wondered where God was as the Babylonians besieged their city. Why was God not coming to their rescue? Had the Lord abandoned them? Yes I have, said the Lord. You have chased after other gods, i.e., you have chased after unreality, and in doing so you have provoked me to anger. You have provoked me to anger because I love you and I am jealous that you are pursuing other lovers even though you are married to me. When you chase unreal things, you don’t even realize how desperately sick they make you and how wickedly you behave. And now, you must pay for your sins of idolatry and social injustice. God’s condemnation of his people Israel’s sins was to send an invading army to utterly destroy Judah and its chief city Jerusalem. Think how we would feel if we knew God planned to destroy Washington, DC, then multiply that fear and horror by a thousand-fold, and we can begin to understand what is going on in our OT and psalm lessons (the latter is a lament after the fact while the former gives us a glimpse into the people’s reality before Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple burnt to the ground, a sure indication that God had abandoned his people there).
Jeremiah saw all this and was as appalled as God’s people were. Being a prophet is not easy (none of us want to hear our desperate plight before God that our sins cause) nor are prophets immune to having their hearts broken. Jeremiah grieved for his people because like the God who sent him, he loved his people, even though he had to say hard things to them. Jeremiah also grieved for his people because many of them were oblivious to the dire straights they were in. Their worship of all things false in this world had numbed their spiritual senses and this compounded the problem of their sins. Think about it. What kind of people besides me irritate you the most? Are they not those who are in trouble but who steadfastly refuse to see their predicament and admit they are in error? Folks like this tend to blow up relationships of all kinds because they refuse to acknowledge that perhaps they are wrong about some very important matters and this creates a sense of arrogance and proud self-righteousness. They are quick to judge and condemn others while refusing to acknowledge their own sins and they make it extremely difficult for others to forgive them. They exist in families, in churches, in government, in businesses, and elsewhere. Their denial of the reality of their predicament or the evil of their thinking/speaking/behavior makes them insufferable and as long as they steadfastly refuse to see the reality of their condition, repentance is never possible. Why repent of something when you are convinced you are doing nothing wrong? This is part of what was going on in Jeremiah’s day and it continues to plague us in our own.
Jeremiah in his wisdom realized that living like fools did not protect his people from God’s judgment on their sins. We can live in La-La Land all we want. We can fool ourselves into thinking that we are the arbiter of truth, that there really is no objective Truth or right or wrong. It’s all a social construct, it’s all what we think truth and right and wrong are. We couldn’t be more mistaken. The prophet was also wise enough and humble enough to realize he was not immune to the human race’s slavery to the twin powers of Evil and Sin and because he loved his people as God loved them, the prophet wept for himself and for his people because judgment was coming and most were going to their destruction, clueless about what caused their fate. That’s why they cried out in terror asking where God was and why God had apparently abandoned them. They couldn’t possibly imagine their sins were the cause. Hard as it is to hear our OT and psalm lessons these last two weeks, there is a reason we must: They, like all the other biblical warnings, are there to remind us that unless we repent of our proud and wicked ways and stop pursuing false gods like money, security, fame, power, sex (insert your favorite idol here), and turn to Christ, we all face the awful judgment of a righteous God who will ultimately tolerate no evil to corrupt his good world. God created us to represent him and run his world. When we act evilly, we in no way reflect our Creator and that’s a problem. So if we are wise, we will thank God for loving us enough to warn us about our desperate plight before him so that we have time and opportunity to do something about it (turn to Christ).
But here’s the problem with the OT. Jeremiah asked in desperation if there was no balm in Gilead for the healing of his people? Was there no physician? No medicine for the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health of God’s people? Sadly, Jeremiah would probably have answered no to his desperate questions. God had promised a Messiah to heal and rescue God’s people, but no Messiah was in sight. What a terrible predicament to be in! Many of his people were ignorant of their sins and to make matters worse there was no rescue in sight.
That is why we Christians are not exclusively OT people. We are old and NT people. We no longer have to wait for a solution because it (or rather he) has already arrived. Hear what St. Paul has to say in Romans 11.32. Talking about why many in Israel refused to believe that Jesus was and is the Messiah, and what a problem that was for the veracity of God’s promises to Israel, St. Paul makes the astonishing statement that, “…God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone.” Now if we don’t understand clearly our desperate need for God’s redemption, we will forever be ignorant of what great and wonderful things the living God has done for us in Jesus Christ and this statement will make no sense at all. Why would God imprison us in disobedience so that God could have mercy on us? Because without the blood of Christ shed for us to cleanse us from our sins and reconcile us to God, our only Source of life, there is no hope for us. None. What St. Paul is getting at is that God can and will use our disobedience to accomplish our rescue from his terrible judgment and an eternity in hell. When by God’s grace we become painfully aware of our sins and how they separate and alienate us from God so that death and destruction are our only lot, we are ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead for our sake. Here is God to the rescue. It is literally in Jesus’ name (the Lord saves), and it is by God’s power, mercy, and grace that we are rescued. Should we mourn our sins? Absolutely. But if we stop there we are no better off than Jeremiah! To the contrary, our mourning should lead to our rejoicing because of what God has done for us in Christ. He imprisoned us in disobedience so that he could use it rescue us and restore us to life and health, i.e., God turned an utterly hopeless situation into good! As St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, this is God’s will for us, that everyone should be saved! God takes no pleasure in the death of sinners, and we who believe that God rescued us from his terrible judgment by taking on our flesh and bearing his right judgment on our sins to spare us, must now align our desires with God’s. That’s why we are to pray for leaders, even when they are pagans and vehemently oppose us. Think it through. God called Israel through Abraham to be God’s light to the world. God continues to call Israel—God’s reconstituted people in Christ—to reflect his goodness, mercy, truth, justice, and righteousness out into the world. It’s hard to do that when we are cursing our enemies and acting just as badly as they are instead of praying for them and bearing patiently with them because we want them to know Christ like we do. How different our political arena would look today if even a majority of Christians took this charge seriously. There would be a lot less vitriol and condemnation. There would be more focusing on issues and less on ad hominem attacks. God wants all to be saved and so should we, especially because God rescued us when we too were God’s enemies and as undeserving as our enemies (picture in your mind the political leader you detest most and apply St. Paul’s teaching to that person from now on).
This is what is also going on in our gospel lesson. Remember that Jesus was telling a parable. He wasn’t giving us financial advice or telling us to cheat our enemies. As we’ve just seen, Israel was called to be the light of the world to bring God’s healing love to all people. But Israel had perverted her call. Instead of praying for her enemies and asking God to heal and forgive them, many in Israel prayed that God would execute his judgment on the nations who were hostile to God’s people. This ran contrary to God’s purpose and charge to them. Likewise with us. It is perfectly acceptable to pray for God’s justice to be done. But we must always do so with the realization that we are no different from our enemies, that all have sinned and stand under God’s just judgment without the intervention and mercy of Christ. The outside world matters to God, just like we do, and God wants us to use all our resources, especially spiritual resources like prayer, to demonstrate God’s concern for all humans, not just the ones we happen to like. This is a tall order for us, my beloved, but we do it in the power of the Spirit who strengthens us to do the work he calls us to do.
There are many applications to this dynamic, but I focus on just one today. This discussion reminds us why the forty day period of prayer and fasting is so important for the life of this parish. God calls us to be his light to the world and we do that now. But our homelessness is not something that pleases God because it diminishes our capacity to do God’s will and to be God’s people. God has rescued us from eternal death and destruction through the blood of Christ and he expects us to call on him in our troubles as well as when the good times are rolling. We are called to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ boldly and we are not to be ashamed of doing so. Our culture tries to beat us down and silence us, mostly in the name of “freedom,” in this context, a euphemism for doing the evil our fallen and disordered hearts desire. But true freedom always comes from being obedient to God our Savior, not following our own distorted and selfish desires. Only then can we be truly human. God has rescued us from that predicament and given us hearts and minds to worship him and proclaim the Good News to others. Can God use a homeless people to do that work? Yes he can. We are living proof of that. But that falls short of the goodness and glory of God who desires the very best for all people, especially those who love him. Let us therefore resolve in the power of the Spirit, to be good stewards of God’s goodness, mercy, and grace, and to live and work and be the people God calls us to be. Let us call on the Lord to end our homelessness and then do our part in cooperation with God. Let us do so always with a thankful heart and spirit because we no longer have to worry about God’s judgment and can eagerly look forward to the day we will get to live in his presence and see him face-to-Face. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.