Sermon delivered on Trinity 17B, Sunday, September 26, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
Lectionary texts: Esther 7:1-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5.13-20; St. Mark 9.38-50.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What are we to make of the rather sordid but compelling story of Haman’s execution in our OT lesson? How about St. James’ example of God answering Elijah’s prayer only after Elijah had slaughtered the prophets of Baal? And how about Christ’s hyperbolic exhortation for us to rid ourselves of any source of sin? Our lessons this morning all remind us in their various ways that God hates evil of any kind and acts in judgment against it, both in this mortal life and at the Day of Judgment. What then should be our response as Christians to this rather unsettling reality? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
Let us start by acknowledging the terrifying truth that God is no doting old grandpa, willing to look the other way with a wink and a snicker at our sins. To the contrary, it is not too strong a statement to say that God hates evil and sin in all its variety. Why? Not because God is some angry bully waiting to come down hard on wrongdoers. If that were the case, why would God have made us in his image? Why are we still even here? It’s not because of our own virtue and righteousness! No, God hates evil and sin of any kind because sin corrupts us and dehumanizes us, i.e., it slowly erases God’s image in us so that we can no longer be his stewards called to run God’s world as God created us to do. And this should make sense to us because we all know how evil can evoke anger. Who in their right mind doesn’t hate that drug dealers destroy lives and bring ruin on others, all for the sake of money? Who among us doesn’t abhor child molesters and pedophiles for the same reasons? God created us to be fully human beings who bear his image and who have been given the awesome responsibility to rule God’s world on God’s behalf, reflecting God’s goodness out into creation and reflecting creation’s praises back to its Creator. Sin and the evil it creates corrupts and perverts our holy task as God’s image-bearers and God cannot countenance that forever, patient as God has demonstrated he is. God did not speak creation and us into existence to foster madness and loneliness and sickness and alienation, and because God loves us and wants us to live with him forever, God cannot look the other way on our sin forever. In our OT lesson, e.g., Haman plotted to destroy God’s people the Jews, in part to satisfy his megalomania. (I would encourage you to read the entire book of Esther as it is as compelling a story as you will ever read and God’s name is not mentioned in it once). But there God is, operating behind the scenes, judging Haman’s evil to bring justice to God’s people, wicked as they were, because of God’s love and faithfulness to them.
In our epistle lesson, St. James’ reference to Elijah points us to God’s relenting in his judgment on the land and its people only after the prophets of Baal had been slaughtered. As with the story of Esther, healing could not occur until God had decisively dealt with the sins of evildoers. Why? When we are beset continually by evil, we can never be fully healed, again reminding us why God will not let sin and evil reign forever—it sickens and kills us and God will not tolerate that massive disorder to his good creation and creatures forever. God loves us too much. In our gospel lesson, Christ essentially tells us the same thing. Be prepared to cut out anything in your life—even if the things you must cut out are inherently good and useful—if they cause you to continue to sin because God will one day judge you and you will find yourself in the flames of hell forever. Christ’s warning is a stark reminder that without outside help from a power stronger than the powers of Evil and Sin, none of us have any hope of ever enjoying life in God’s new world when it comes with our Lord’s return. None of us like to think about this and the thought of eternal separation from the healing and life-giving power of God is so terrifying that many of us spend our time living in denial and deflecting the truth, convincing ourselves that God would never do that because God is too loving and merciful. Yes God is loving and merciful. That we are here worshiping God this morning is living proof of that truth. God is not the problem here. We are the problem because we are all slaves to the power of Sin, and unless something is done about that, we are all doomed to eternal destruction. We see it in the story of Adam and Eve, who were expelled from paradise after the Fall. God cannot tolerate forever that which corrupts his beloved (that would be you and me in all our unloveliness). We see it in the story of God’s Tabernacle in the wilderness. God gave Moses strict rules about how sinful humans could approach God’s holy Presence and those who did not follow those rules found themselves destroyed. Whenever the profane tries to meet the holy on its own terms, it never turns out well for the profane! Our problem today is that most of us have persuaded ourselves that this simply can’t be true. We’ve become too used to living with and rationalizing sin, both ours and the sins of others. This is emphatically not the biblical witness on the subject, however, and by God’s grace we would be wise to take these warnings seriously.
But all is not lost, my beloved. Far from it. While it is true that none of us can extricate ourselves from the death grip of Sin’s power and all of us are evildoers, some worse than others, it is also true that the Father’s great love for us is greater than our slavery to Sin. As St. Paul proclaims in his letter to the Romans, God demonstrated his love for us by sending his Son to die for us (i.e. God became human in the man Jesus), even while we were God’s enemies, estranged from and hostile toward God, to bear his own right and just judgment on our sins, thereby clearing the way for us to have a future and a hope. The Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ was and is the turning point in human history where God the Father acted decisively for us to save us from eternal damnation and open the way for us to live in God’s holy Presence forever. But we don’t have to wait till the new heavens and earth arrive. We can enjoy sweet, albeit imperfect, communion with God right now, enjoying his presence when we worship him together and feed on Christ’s body and blood each week. To be sure, evil still runs rampant in God’s world and we all suffer from it. Everyone of us here today brings our sorrows and fears and brokenness to worship. But just like God’s power working invisibly to bring justice to the wicked Haman, God’s power in and through the Holy Spirit, through his word proclaimed and preached, through sweet fellowship with each other, and in and through the Holy Eucharist, God is at work in us now, both individually and collectively, to bring healing and hope as he makes his invisible Presence known to us, thanks be to God.
So what should be our response to God’s goodness, mercy, love, and truth? How are we to live faithfully in the midst of increasing chaos and disorder? We start by believing the promise that in Christ we are saved from our sins and God’s wrath and judgment on them. Just as God provided for our rebellious and frightened ancestors after he expelled them from paradise, just as God remained faithful to his stubborn and rebellious people despite sending them into exile, and just as God remains faithful to us by blessing us with his Holy Spirit, so we are reminded that God’s promise to free us from our slavery to sin and evil will be ultimately fulfilled, even if only partially now. We have Christ’s Death and Resurrection to remind us always that God’s will and purposes to heal and rescue us will be done fully when Christ returns to finish his saving work on our behalf. Come Lord Jesus. This must create in us thankful and grateful hearts. When we begin to recognize the enormity our sin and rebellion against God and what God has done to rescue and heal us from those sins, we cannot help but have grateful hearts, hearts (or will) to love and serve Christ and others for all that he has done for us. And when we really believe the promises and are persuaded that despite our sins and foolishness, God still loves us and wants us to be with him forever, forgiving us through Christ’s blood shed for us, we will experience new healing, healing that flows from a thankful heart.
Our healed hearts will also compel us to pray for others, especially our enemies—we may hate drug dealers and pedophiles, but we’d better be praying for their repentance and salvation—even as we long for real justice, not the phony kinds of justice that various groups try to foist on us today, but the kind of justice that flows from God’s holy heart. We pray ultimately with the realization that we too are evildoers who deserve God’s justice and so we pray for God to heal our enemies and the hearts of evildoers so that they will not suffer such a terrible fate, the fate we too would suffer without the healing love of Christ. Far from being ineffective, prayer is one of the most powerful weapons we Christians can bring to bear on evil and God’s good but sin-corrupted world. But we pray with eyes wide open, realizing that we are at war with the forces of evil who hate us and want to destroy us, and so we bring our fears and sorrows and needs to God, trusting that God is working invisibly as God always does to bring his world and its disordered creatures to rights. There’s more to all this, but there is certainly not less. Let us as God’s holy people bring our prayers to bear on this world and its people, repenting of our own sins and trusting our holy and loving Father to bring about his promise to heal and restore us according to his good will and purposes for us. And let us make sure we do this together as God’s people in Christ because the promise is for us together. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.