True Religion

Psalm 32:1-7

Isaiah 1:10-18

 

“True Religion”

The message I have today could easily have been a sermon series. We’re going to be reflecting on five characteristics of true religion, as revealed in our scripture text and the psalm of our responsive reading. While I could spend a month going into depth with each of these, my hope is that the cursory presentation today leaves you hungering for more, and that you will read, pray, ask questions, and discover more as the seeds of this sermon bear fruit in your life and the life of this community of faith.

The scripture passage from Isaiah, like virtually every other text in the Bible, is spoken to deeply religious people. Though he calls them “rulers of Sodom,” Isaiah’s audience is in fact the Franklin Grahams and the James Dobsons and the Rick Warrens and the John MacArthurs of his world—those that the world looks up to as guides in the Christian life, those whose spiritual credentials most folk would say were impeccable, those whose version of religion is believed by many to be the only right way of faith.

The slanderous association with Sodom is purposeful—just as the sin of Sodom (made explicit in Ezekiel 16:49) involved participating in the oppression of the poor and needy, so God accuses these Israelite leaders of that same sin.

In doing so, what God suggests here in Isaiah 1 is the complete unraveling of virtually everything ancient Israel has ever known. In Christian terms, God’s scathing commentary might go like this:

Listen up, you friends of Satan!
God doesn’t want your prayers—God stopped listening a long time ago.
Your supposed worship is entirely self-serving, so God doesn’t pay it any attention.
Your songs grate on God’s ears; why would he listen to that?
You heap up words in sermons, yet without result.
All that bible reading is pointless, since you obviously don’t understand any of it.
Your “holy” buildings are monuments to your irrelevance; they stand for everything God hates.
Your sacrifice?—Ha! you don’t sacrifice a thing.

Look for God all you want, but you won’t find him—not while you have blood on your hands. They drip with the lives you have stolen and destroyed for your own selfish gain.

Repent, God says. Turn your life around.

As presented here in Isaiah, God’s remedy—as always—involves paying attention, wrestling with God and ourselves, changing our ways, and submitting to God’s transforming power.

Too often sermons do a good job of describing the wrong thing, but don’t present a very clear picture of the right thing. To rectify that, I want to take a few brief moments to suggest what true, real, life-giving religion and faith in God looks like.

1. Moral

First, there is a moral dimension—”cease to do evil, learn to do good,” as we read in vv. 16-17 of Isaiah 1. Every religion prescribes a system of morality—a way of knowing right from wrong. On top of that, every major religion has some version of the Golden Rule—”Do to others as you want them to do to you.” Even the seven tenants of the Satanic Temple begin with the instruction: “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason” (http://www.wakingtimes.com/2015/12/23/seven-satanic-precepts-beat-ten-commandments-as-moral-guide/).

This is not, of course, to say that everyone’s sense of morality is the same, or right. But it does suggest that most people of all religions struggle to live up to the moral requirements prescribed for them.

The only true God Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God most fully revealed in Jesus Christ—that God requires we practice a certain morality too. Here in Isaiah, that morality is summed up as “cease to do evil, learn to do good.”

In a similar text in Micah, the prophet likewise suggests an insufficiency in the outward practices of religion. And just like in Isaiah, Micah tells us that God expects us to do what is good. He says:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 ESV).

2. Actively pursues justice

The second characteristic of true religion is that it actively pursues justice—”seek justice, correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17). Now a lot of justice is tied to what God considers a moral life, something that is obvious from the Micah 6 text I cited a moment ago. Over and over again, God exhibits concern for the poor and needy, for the marginalized and powerless, and for all those who are vulnerable.

What I want to emphasize this morning is not what God’s justice looks like. I trust that we’ve spent enough time over the past weeks touching on that. Instead, I want us to consider how the pursuit of that justice as an intrinsic part of true religion.

In Isaiah’s presentation—and that found elsewhere in the bible—it is not enough to “join” a cause. We must instead be agents of transformation. It’s hard as a pastor to provide examples about injustice needing correction without someone believing that pastor is speaking politically. Many times, I feel I must hold my tongue and not speak the truth God reveals to me because the Enemy has so effectively sown seeds of dissension and division among our nation and our churches. It has gotten a lot worse these past 18 months or so.

So think about it yourself. Pray about it. Ask God to show you where and how people are not being treated justly. It won’t take very long for you to come up with quite a long list. Just make sure you get your information from real sources instead of political spin-machines. Otherwise, like the Pharisees of Isaiah’s day, you will find yourself on the wrong side of justice.

Once you discover how someone or a group of people are being unjustly harmed, silenced, or treated as less than divine-image-bearing humans—then comes the courage part where you step out of your comfort zone, step into the fray, and actively work with God to change their situation.

With God, we lift up the downtrodden.

With God, we fight against those taking advantage of the vulnerable.

With God, we pursue fair and equitable treatment of your fellow humans.

With God, we are to be a healing presence to those who are ill.

3. Relational

The third dimension of true religion is that it is relational. While a common element elsewhere, this characteristic is a bit oblique in the Isaiah text. There, it is best revealed in two places. First, there is the instruction to “plead the widow’s cause” in v.17. One cannot “plead the widow’s cause” without knowing the widow, without being involved with the widow, and without being trusted by the widow—in short, you can’t do it unless you have a relationship with the widow.

We have a responsibility to (and for) each other. The Law code of Exodus-(through)-Deuteronomy is littered with instructions about caring for each other and how our sin affects each other. The early stories of Israel in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles tell story after story of how the sin or failings of one person have consequences that affect the whole. As Paul says in 1Corinthians “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (12:26).

But in addition to the horizontal dimension of relationship, true religion also has a vertical dimension. As I addressed last week, God has created us to be God’s friends. It is out of love and a deep commitment to that relationship that God acts with mercy over and over again. Here in Isaiah 1, I believe this is revealed in the beginning of v.18: “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD.” The word usually translated as “reason together” more directly means “dispute.” Even though Israel has done such injustice, even though God is so upset as to not pay attention to their worship any longer, God is still trying to hold the relationship together. In more colloquial language, God is inviting us to “duke it out” with God when our relationship breaks down. It wouldn’t be that far off base to remember the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32, last week’s text.

There’s a popular notion in our era that one’s faith is private and can be lived out and practiced in isolation from others. I frequently hear folks claiming they can read their bible and pray on their own, listen to a TV preacher, and live their life for Christ. I frequently want to respond that sure, they can do that—but that’s not the Christian life we are called to live. Life in community is messy; just like life with God is messy. As God challenges us, so do our sisters and brothers in Christ; God pushes us and exposes the darkness in our own hearts; our sisters and brothers push us and force us to come to terms with our own humanity and sin. Both are required if we are going to be true followers of Jesus.

4. Confessional 

The fourth characteristic is that true religion is confessional. As I mentioned a week or two ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that confession is the foundation of real community. In his book Life Together, Bonhoeffer suggests that it is only confession that strips away our false pretenses and forces us to be truly honest with one another.

The Psalm of our responsive reading—Psalm 32—paints a graphic picture of the importance of confession. The author says:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

This is as cut-and-dry as it gets. When we withhold confessing our sins to God and do not acknowledge our failings to each other, it harms us—deeply, inwardly, and physically. Though Psalm 32 doesn’t say it, there are plenty of other passages (like those in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) that describe how individual sin—when concealed instead of confessed—affects others in dangerous and sometimes life-threatening ways.

But when sin is confessed—when our weaknesses and failings are acknowledged in community—we are bowled over with a wave of forgiveness and grace.

5. Trusts God to see us through

Lastly, true religion trusts God to see us through. God is, the Psalmist proclaims, “a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance” (Psalm 32:7)

Virtually all the early stories of the bible—and most of the rest of them—emphasize that God is a God who can be trusted; God is a God who is faithful. But the kind of faith this produces is not passive.

Unfortunately, many of our era think that confidence in God’s faithfulness means that we have no role to play in fulfilling God’s desires for creation. Of late, I have heard all sorts of Christians throw up their hands in passive surrender to the will of the world because they believe God will somehow force God’s will into being, even if faithful Christians do not participate at all. This is not, however, the way of faith presented in the bible. Most of the time, God acts through people to influence and affect the circumstances of our world. As St. Theresa of Avila is famous for writing,

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

We must participate in God’s kingdom-advancing mission of love, and we must rest in the God who is faithful. These things are not at odds with one another. We don’t have the full picture; we don’t know all the details. Maybe all we know is that God wants us to smile and look someone in the eye. But we trust God enough to know that God is working through others as well. We trust God enough to know that the decisive battle has already been won. We trust God enough to know that God’s will will eventually be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Pray

O God of mercy and love, revive us again.
Heal the divisions that we have so blindly created.
Forgive us for making our religion into an idol.
Bend our will to your own.
Open our eyes to injustice,
And move our feet and hearts toward compassion.
Teach us to find peace in your presence.
O God of mercy and love, revive us again. Amen.

Advertisements

Why Hope?

 

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 20-22

Sermon: “Why Hope?”

The last weeks, we’ve been reflecting quite a bit on faith, hope, and trust. I expect it has been a nice reprieve from all the banging on about God’s love that I tend to do.

In particular, last week involved looking into those dark places of our lives and those of our neighbors, entering into the places where we’re “just barely hanging on,” and discovering God’s presence and work.

Today, we take a step farther. We take a step farther because sometimes, our circumstances are certainly our own fault. Sometimes, we realize we have earned the consequences we face. Sometimes, we know we deserve God’s punishment.

And when we find ourselves in this place, hope is hard to come by.

Where then do we go?

What then do we do?

We could very easily fall into despair and depression, of the sort described by the Teacher in Ecclesiastes chapter 2.

But that is not God’s desire, as we see over and over again in the bible. The good news is good news most of all for those of us at the end of our rope, with no where to turn, and nothing to be done.

Or, put into more theological terms, it is precisely those of us who are most deeply sick with sin that most benefit from God’s redemptive attention. As Jesus reminded the Pharisees of his day and our own, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32 ESV).

Jeremiah 14

Today’s text in Jeremiah is one of the many, many places where God’s supposedly faithful people have failed to be faithful—and they know it.

And so, out of the desperation that all of us can relate to from our own experiences, the people of ancient Israel fall down on their knees, begging and pleading for the mercy they know they don’t deserve.

“Our guilt cries out against us…”
“Our betrayals are many”
“So much have we sinned against you…”
“God, do something!” (v.7, excerpts from The VOICE)

But even God seems against them. So they redouble their efforts, intensify their commitments, and Jeremiah himself makes “a case for grace,” much as did Moses in the Exodus 32 text we looked at about a month ago. This time, Israel’s plea is rooted firmly in who God is:

Forgive us……”for the sake of Your good name” (v.21)

Forgive us……on account of “Your covenant with us” (v.21)

Forgive us……because only you can do the impossible. “You alone.” (v.22)

This is not just spin. The Israelites are not manipulating God—tickling God’s ears, or pumping up God’s ego by telling him how great he is. This is actually what genuine repentance looks like.

The Israelites know they are lost without God. They know that without God they won’t be able to have any change in their situation. They know that without God they have no hope.

But they also know that with God, there is always hope. And there is always hope because of who God is and because of who God created us to be.

Friendship

This brings us to another level to our hope, and it has to do with relationship. According to Genesis, we are created in God’s image, and like our God who is three-in-one—continually in relationship—we are made for relationship too. The church—the body of Christ—provides an important avenue for developing one kind of relationship, as we (peer-to-peer) are Christ to each other.

But that is not all. As spiritual writer Trevor Hudson has recently reminded me: “the gospel invites us into friendship with God” (Beyond Loneliness, 16).

“We were created with the purpose of befriending God” (Beyond Loneliness, 27).

This is the reason for God’s mercy.

This is the reason God is long-suffering.

This is the reason that we cannot and will not ever run God off.

God wants to be our friend. God wants to be your friend.

Jesus Calls Us Friends

I——I’m not a very good friend. I find it hard to open up, even to those I am closest to. I don’t stay in touch very well. To be honest, quite often I have a hard time believing anyone wants to be my friend—so I doubt those who do.

It’s the same for me with God.

But God is the way every friendship should be.

With God, you get back together and it’s like you never missed a beat, no matter how many hours or years have passed.

With God, no presidential election is divisive enough to drive a wedge between you.

With God, you will get pestered over and over again until you finally tell him what’s bothering you.

With God, the friendship is always the most important thing.

In John 15, Jesus calls us his friends. He says,

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13–15 ESV).

Un-Manipulating the Gospel

Maybe this sounds strange. Maybe it’s too “touchy-feely” for you. Maybe it’s enough you want me to just go back to preaching on love. But this too testifies to the heart of God, revealed by Jesus Christ, who is the most complete picture of God that the world will ever know.

And it’s really important to remember that friendship with God is at the heart of the Gospel message. In a new book just released this month, author Tom Wright writes about how mixed up we’ve gotten the Gospel. He speaks to how some of the popular ways we have of talking about Jesus are dangerous, and they radically contradict important verses of the bible. To illustrate his point, he quotes one of the most famous verses in the Bible—which is also an important verse for the gospel of Jesus—John 3:16. He says:

“God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” Look at the two verbs: God so loved the world that he gave his son. The trouble with the popular version [of the Gospel that] I have described is that it can easily be heard as saying, instead, that God so hated the world, that he killed his only son. And that doesn’t sound like good news at all. If we arrive at that conclusion, we know that we have not just made a trivial blunder that could easily be corrected, but a major blunder. We have portrayed God not as the generous Creator, the loving Father, but as an angry despot. That idea belongs not in the biblical picture of God, but with pagan beliefs.

(NT Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, p.43).

God so loved the world that he gave his son.

This is the hope described as a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” in Hebrews 6:18.

This is the hope “set on the living God,” which Paul tells Timothy is “the end” for which “we toil and strive” (1Tim 4:10).

It is the “good hope” of 2Thess 2:16-17 which “comfort[s] [our] hearts and establish[es] them in every good work and word.”

This hope—Romans 5:5 reminds us—”does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5 ESV).

Wrap-Up

Hundreds of years before the resurrection of Jesus, Jeremiah paints a picture of this kind of resurrection hope. Since God is able to do what no one else can do, only God can do what Israel itself cannot do—bring about real change.

This is the root of hope throughout the bible—both Old and New Testaments. Through stories and teachings, we discover this pattern of forgiveness and reconciliation:

Over and over we fail and fall.

Over and over we experience forgiveness.

We cannot change.

But God can change us.

“What is impossible with man is possible with God,” to quote a famous Jewish rabbi (Mt 19:26; Mk 10:27; Lk 18:27).

God is our friend, and our Friend is able to help us do what we could never do on our own—be who we were created to be.

And that, sisters and brothers—Church of God—sounds like good news.

Prayer (inspired by Psalm 84)

O God,
How blessed are those who dwell in your presence,
Where even a swallow finds a home
With the least and greatest among us.

Grow in us a desire—a longing—
to be with you always.
Change our hearts
So our growing our friendship with you
Becomes the most important thing to us.

Teach us to devote ourselves to the continual practice
of remaining aware of your presence,
Finding our identity
Our purpose
And our fulfillment
In our relationship with you.

Amen.

Just Barely Hanging On

 

Genesis 32:22-31

 

Sermon: “Just Barely Hanging On”

I have spent the last couple days at Cross Wind, one of our American Baptist camping and conference centers. At our region’s annual gathering, I have heard some amazing testimonies from missionaries working near and far. I have learned of some of the creative ways other ABC churches are partnering in God’s mission in this world. I have witnessed folks stepping up in amazing ways as we challenged one another with this simple truth: “You can’t out-give God.”

And this morning, I am dog tired.

Nearly two months ago, as I sketched out the bones for this sermon, I had no idea how prophetic the sermon title was going to be today: “Just barely hanging on.”

Thankfully, we all have the promise of God expressed by the apostle Paul in 2Cor 12:10: “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

 

Jacob knows what it’s like to be just barely hanging on. This story falls in the middle of one of those times in his life. It’s one of those “when it rains it pours” kind of things, as life goes from bad to worse before we even realize what has happened.

The story I read a moment ago is also one of those rare stories in the bible that happen within other stories. It’s like in Luke 8, where Jesus is on the way to heal Jairus’ daughter, but is stopped in his tracks by a woman so desperate for healing and so full of faith that she is certain even touching the muddy hem of his clothes will bring her relief. There are several such interrupting stories, and they all demand our deep reflection and consideration of the ways God often interrupts our own lives and stories.

Prodigal Brother

Here in Genesis, the broader context of this morning’s reading is a bit like the OT version of the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Jacob is no role model; his life is one of conflict from beginning to end—much of it on account of his own doing. At the point where our story picks up in Genesis 32, Jacob has twice taken advantage of his slightly older twin brother, with the result of stealing his inheritance. He has connived with his mother, in order to deceive his own father, in order to take the only thing his brother really had left. This, of course, succeeds in further driving a wedge in the already-broken marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. In fact, this conspiracy of theirs so completely destroys the family that Jacob has had to go on the lam to prevent his brother from killing him in angry revenge.

But while in a land abroad, Jacob meets another trickster—Laban—whose beautiful daughter Jacob falls in love with. But Laban gets the best of Jacob, deceiving him into working many years and marrying not one but two of his daughters. Jacob—the master con man he sees himself—cannot bear to have been himself swindled, so he works up a bamboozle of massive proportions—one that pilfers almost all of Laban’s wealth. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with Laban’s own heirs, so once again Jacob is forced to run away in order to save his own skin.

But even back then, Murphy’s Law prevailed. For Jacob painted himself into a corner. He has burned so many bridges (perhaps even literally) that he has to pass through his brother Esau’s territory. Steeling himself, Jacob prepares for the immanent confrontation. He sends ahead gifts to soften Esau’s heart, signs of Jacob’s wealth to impress him, and Jacob’s own family members (perhaps to protect them)—leaving Jacob himself all alone by the River Jabbok.

I already told you this is sort of the OT version of the parable of the Prodigal Son. When in chapter 33 Esau sees his no-good scoundrel of a brother Jacob, he (like the father in the parable) runs “to meet him. He embraced Jacob, kissed his neck, and they both cried” (Gen 33:4 VOICE). Jacob (like the prodigal son) expresses the hope he will find favor in his relative’s eyes, and Esau (like the loving father) continues to insist that forgiveness existed long, long already.

Jacob’s Dark Night of the Soul

But today—this morning—right here and right now—we are not there yet. Before the sun rises and togetherness and forgiveness rule the day, Jacob must have his dark night of the soul. This story must be interrupted.

Jacob is alone, afraid, guilty, and realizes he may not live another day. He is expecting a fight, and when a figure suddenly appears out of the shadows, Jacob most certainly believes it to be Esau come to kill him. He lashes out at the figure in the dark, and when he too late realizes this is not his brother, he is locked in a battle he may not win.

Here too, Jacob exhibits tremendous strength, even in weakness. After some time, his opponent manages to dislocate Jacob’s hip—yet even with the excruciating pain of that injury, Jacob does not let go. The unearthly being with whom Jacob wrestles cannot break free.

And once again, when down and out, Jacob schemes a way to come out ahead. He may never walk right again, but by golly he’s going to ensure something good comes of this. A blessing is offered. A new name—a new life—is given. And Jacob and his family will never be the same.

That’s the way it always is when we wrestle with God. Wrestling with God always—always—leaves a mark. But it also brings about blessings and life we cannot conceive of.

You Should See the Other Guy

Even though it’s not recorded in the Bible, I imagine when Jacob and Esau finally meet again, once the tension is broken and tears begin to dry up at last; when Esau finally gets a good look at Jacob, he asks him: “What on earth happened to you?” And Jacob—in that Hollywood way that surrounds so much of his life—he almost has to respond: “You should see the other guy.”

I watch people, and I listen to stories; and there are so many around us right now who are just barely hanging on. Maybe we’ve gotten the raw end of the deal over and over again in life; or maybe we (like Jacob) just can’t stop sabotaging ourselves. Most of us who struggle have experienced a fair share of both. We’re down and out. We feel weak. Empty. Afraid. Ashamed.

One way or another we’ve been painted into this corner of existence and we just can’t find another way. Maybe we too are in the middle of a dark night. Maybe we too have (ourselves) been darkened by the long shadows of the valley of the shadow of death.

Sometimes, in these moments, when God comes to us, he seems like one more adversary. We’ve been kicked and beaten down so often that we instinctually swing and kick back when God grabs our arm to tend our wounds. We don’t know who we’re fighting or why we’re fighting—only that life has always been a fight.

Sometimes, in these moments, the ones we fight the hardest are the ones who love us the most.

A Better Man?

You know, one of the things I find interesting here is that if we just pulled our scripture reading out of context and showed it to the average, unfamiliar person, I don’t believe they would think Jacob was any better off at the end. He got the crap beaten out of him and he will now walk with a limp for the rest of his life, and all for what? A nickname and some kind words?

Of course, those of us familiar with these stories know the rest of the story, as the late great Paul Harvey would say. Jacob receives much more than a blessing and a nickname—he receives a destiny, and it’s one that Jacob successfully lives into.

This, I believe, is the moment where Jacob truly becomes a believer in God. This is the moment when the faith of his parents becomes his own, when the God he has worshipped becomes the God he trusts.

Even all these years later, this is still the way that many come to faith.

They find themselves down and out—just barely hanging on.

Some sort of someone emerges out of the shadows—perhaps even getting attacked themselves in the process—yet they also won’t give up: they love too much.

In the face of fear and shame is spoken the resurrection message of love and life, of blessing and destiny where none could have even been imagined.

A new day then dawns as yet another believer limps into the light, forever changed by this encounter with our persistent and transforming God.

Does Jacob end up better off? Oh yes! And so are we who follow in the way of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

There was a day—many years ago—when Jesus was himself just barely hanging on. He was barely hanging onto life as he was most certainly hanging on a cross.

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”—that is what he said, both about those present, and (I believe) about you and me (Lk 23:34). We too have been hopelessly deceived into sin, unable to break free from the bonds of death and the destruction around us.

But our God makes a way where there is no way—Jesus proves to be the key that opens every door—and we (even sinful, violent, selfish, lazy we) have the chance to emerge into the bright dawn of the new day of God’s Kingdom.

To God be the glory. Amen.

 

Faith Like a Child

2 Kings 5:1-5, 8-15c

 

Faith Like a Child

It’s easy to miss, but this story begins and ends with children. It begins with the daring testimony of a little girl, and it ends with Naʿaman becoming like a “little boy,” all over again.

This story reverberates with anticipatory echoes of those words of Jesus found in Matthew 18:3: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (NIV11).

There are (of course) many reasons we might easily overlook the fact that this story is really about the faith of a little girl.

Unlike the older, male characters, the young girl is not named.

Though named, Naʿaman is more foible than forte—he is desperate but proud, and his pride nearly prevents him from experiencing healing—as it so often does for many today. Whatever this story may be, it is not a story of Naʿaman’s faith.

The central feature of this story is likewise not the power of God wielded by Elisha—Elisha discerns and God acts, to be sure. Yet—as we read later on in Romans 10:14—”How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (ESV).

Without the testimony of this “little girl,” Naʿaman would have never heard of Elisha, never had an idea of the healing that was possible, never contacted Elisha, never been told how to be whole again, and never would he have come to testify that Yahweh God is the one true God—that “there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (2Kings 5:15).

Our Heroine

This girl is the true hero of the story. It is her testimony and faith that God moves most powerfully through. And if we stop to consider—even just a moment—what her life was like, then we will truly learn how the Psalmist can proclaim in Psalm 34:1: “I will praise the Lord no matter what happens” (TLB).

Aside from the boldness of her testimony, we know very little about this girl. The word used in Hebrew to identify her tells us that she was a young girl who was not yet married, but who was old enough to be betrothed. Given cultural realities, this probably places her between about 8 and 16 years old.

We are told she is a prisoner of war, carried off by “the Syrians on one of their raids” (2Kings 5:2). Due to issues of tact and our generationally diverse gathering this morning, I must avoid elaborating on the kinds of things that were done to the women of enemies in wartime. Suffice it to say that a woman in bible times who found herself in the hands of enemy soldiers was usually subjected to atrocities no human being should suffer.

This girl is enslaved in war, removed from her home and everything she has known, subjected to who knows what…… And ultimately made a slave—not unlike Hagar under Sarah, performing whatever menial household jobs or abuse Naʿaman ‘s own wife imposed upon her.

Whatever suffering I think I have endured pales in comparison to this girl. In our present time, many have been moved by the stories and images of the children today who have been victimized by war, rebellion, greed, power, and fear.

As a parent and as a follower of the Christ who said “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14), I shudder to consider how many of the displaced and victimized children of our world today may have experienced the same atrocities, witnessed the same depravity, and suffered the same conditions as they are treated as less-than-human——as we blatantly ignore and are even complicit in the destruction of the divine image that they bear. All these years later, it is still children—our children—our most vulnerable—who suffer the worst on account of our selfish and sinful decisions.

Hope to the Hopeless……

This is our hero this morning: a girl who has endured more than any human being should. A girl who is in the midst of circumstances where there is no possibility for improvement, for liberation, for life. Her reality involves being in this sub-human system of slavery until the day she finally and mercifully dies.

And yet.

And yet her voice is clear.

And yet her testimony sounds loud.

And yet her faith endures more solid and confident than my own.

“And a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6 ESV).

Suffering = TestimonyN

Among the instructions given by the apostle Paul to the Christian community at Thessaloniki, Paul offers this command: “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1Thessalonians 5:18 ESV).

Paul knows the context of the Thessalonians; he knows that the road ahead will not be smooth; he knows this will not be an easy instruction to follow. Earlier in the same chapter (5), Paul talks about global upheaval, darkness, and danger—he is telling them what to expect down the road. But he wants them to hold fast to the faith because a faithful testimony is even more powerful when offered in the context of such adversity.

In the case of the girl in our reading, it is precisely the context of her faithful testimony that makes it even more powerful. Hers is not the fair-weather faith (of then or now) that is so easily confused with nationalism. In fact, in the understanding of the day, the reality that the Syrians won the battle that resulted in her enslavement was a statement that their god defeated her God. Yet she knows her God is not defeated—her God lives! She knows that whatever they worship cannot be God and cannot have power because the only God is the God Yahweh, the God of Israel. No matter what has happened to her, she has faith that God’s way will work out in the end.

It’s a simple faith—the faith of a child. But by golly if it isn’t the most powerful and enduring sort of faith around. It’s the kind of faith of which Jesus says, “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20 ESV).

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 NIV11).

Amen.

Prayer

God,
Give us the gift of faith—
Faith like a Child.

Make ours a simple trust,
Knowing that you are able
Always and everywhere
To act for good in our lives.

When we get knocked down,
Give us strength to get up again.
For we know that with your help
Nothing can ever keep us down.

Help us see through the false religion
That deceives us into believing in anything
Other than you for our salvation:
Be it our nation, our church,
Ourselves, or any other thing.

Teach us to be, like Jesus,
A people who value life,
A people who value each other,
A people who looks for God’s image
In everyone, everywhere,
And in all circumstances.

Convict us of the ways
That we participate in the violence that is done
To children,
To women,
To minorities and the marginalized,
To those of other religions,
To those of other denominations,
And to our enemies—
All of whom are our neighbors.

Teach us, in Christ, the way of peace.

Amen.

 

Watching, Waiting, and Working

“Watching, Waiting, & Working”

In my college OT class, the professor would always open with prayer, and sometimes by reading a few verses he thought appropriate for the day or the circumstances of the world at large. He also had what is often called a “wicked sense of humor.”

One day, early in the course, when overzealous students were still trying to prove themselves through enthusiasm alone, he asked us to open our Bibles to Hezekiah chapter 3. There was a flurry of pages as many raced to be the first there. Dr. Crouch just sat with a smile on his face, waiting for his OT students to realize there is no book of Hezekiah in the Bible.

There is, however, a book of Habakkuk—though it may take nearly as much searching to find. Though obscure, Habakkuk is my kind of prophet. He has a lot of questions for God, and many of those questions have to do with injustice, religious hypocrites, and how on earth people of God are supposed to live in the midst of it all.

The message that I believe God wants me to offer today unfolds in three parts: watching, waiting, and working. I believe they flow in that direction, and I believe that in them Habakkuk and the Bible provide us with a model for living in a world where things are not as they should be.

But first: our scripture.

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

 

Act 1: Watching

A little context: The world as Habakkuk knew it was crumbling.

When the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to their Assyrian conquerers about a hundred years prior, those in the Southern Kingdom of Judah had patted themselves on the backs. Their survival, they believed, proved that they were right and Israel was wrong, and God would forever be on their side.

But everything had started going wrong again, Habakkuk noted as he looked around him. The Kingdom of Judah occupied a little strip of land that had long been the battleground of the larger states to the south and the east. Now Babylonia was expanding, conquering more land and peoples than ever, and Judah was a fly on the windshield as Egypt sent armies to resist.

His world was filled with what today would have been called terrorism, racial aggression, religious persecution, and crimes against humanity. Some of his questions are the same sort many are asking today:

Why do arrogant and predatory people prosper while benevolent and humble people are victimized by a violent, materialistic society?

Why do greedy businessmen and politicians fleece the underprivileged, rarely coming to justice?

Why do powerful nations oppress smaller nations for the sake of enslaving people and harvesting their natural resources?

(Questions from The VOICE Bible, p.1104).

The watching side of this is that Habakkuk is looking around—he is aware of what is going on. He is using his God-given reason and abilities to evaluate and assess the world at large. And that evaluation leads him to believe that God is not acting as God should.

Now maybe you’re uncomfortable with that idea, but this is what the Bible testifies. Almost all lament—in the Psalms, the prophets, and throughout scripture—finds its voice by calling God to account—to act in accordance with God’s nature of compassion and justice.

When Habakkuk cries out in chapter 1 verse 2: “How long must I cry, O LORD, and get no answer from You?”, he is squarely in the same tradition and place that led the psalmist to accuse God of sleeping on the job in Psalm 44:23, and (even more dramatically) sleeping the deep sleep of a drunken reveler in Psalm 78:65.

In the spirit of Habakkuk, many folks today (Christian and otherwise) are watching the world around us and crying out: “God, Don’t you hear my prayers? Are you listening? Are you there at all?”

Act 2: Waiting

Having watched the world, Habakkuk begins chapter 2 with the intention to now watch for God. He waits expectantly, confident that God will answer. We’ve no idea how long Habakkuk waits, but we only have to wait one verse; for at verse 2 of chapter 2 God is already responding, and in the next verse we read:

For the revelation awaits an appointed time…
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come and will not delay.

In other words: I’m paying attention; it’s just not yet time.

Timing is a tricky thing. Without knowing all the variables and being able to see the big picture, we might well screw the timing up. It’s hard not to hear echoes here of those famous verses from Ecclesiastes 3: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven” (Eccl 3:1, ASV). Later in that book, in chapter 9 (v.11), the author shares that timing and chance play a big role in how life turns out.

Sometimes we forget that God doesn’t get permission to be an unjust jerk just because God is God. God’s central characteristics are compassion and justice for the marginalized. God can’t just do something in creation without the timing being right.

A great example of this is in the story of Abraham, back in Genesis 15. There, Abraham is promised he will inherit all the land around him—farther than he can see in any direction. But he is also told that it won’t happen during his lifetime. Why won’t God just kick out the locals right away so Abraham can live into the promise? In Genesis 15:16, God says it is “because the sin of the Amorite people has not yet reached its full measure” (VOICE). In other words, God won’t kick them out because the timing isn’t right. There, in Genesis 15, they don’t deserve it; to eject the Amorites would involve God acting contrary to God’s nature. God is, after all, “ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Nehemiah 9:17 ESV; cf. Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 145:8, usw.). That is who God is, and that is why sometimes God has to wait too.

Act 3: Working

But Habakkuk doesn’t leave us there, nor do the other texts of the Bible. Our morning’s reading concludes with the statement that “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” (2:4). As people of faith in God, we do not merely watch and wait—we also work. We live out God’s faithfulness and characteristics in our lives—that’s what Habakkuk meant by being a “righteous person.”

As Jesus and the NT reveal to us, it is precisely those times it seems the world is coming apart that are the most important to live out and work in the Kingdom way. In several gospels, Jesus speaks on such things. He talks about about wars, natural disasters, ethnic conflict, famines, and the breakdown of the family unit. He says that “false liberators and prophets will pop up like weeds” (Mark 13:22 VOICE), inciting our fear by claiming the end is near. But he also tells us that all this stuff has nothing of significance to do with the end times (Mark 13:7; Matthew 24:6; Luke 21:9).

In his way, Jesus does tell us what to do about it—but he usually speaks through parables—a fig tree, a man returning from a journey, a persistent widow, a gaggle of bridesmaids. While the stories may vary, the lesson remains the same: double down—recommit yourself to practicing justice, doing right, paying attention to those around you, and working to advance God’s mission of love.

The NT letters of 2Peter and 1Thessalonians both emphasize the initiative we are to take when we sense the world needs more of God’s transforming power. As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he says that the day of God’s intervention—the “day of the Lord”—is going to surprise us all. But that only means, he says, that we need to “stay awake and in control [of ourselves]” (1Thessalonians 5:6 VOICE). What does that look like? Paul elaborates for us in v.11: “Support one another. Keep building each other up as you have been doing” (VOICE).

In 2Peter, we see the same challenge. Peter urges us to self-reflection and assessment: “think what sort of people you ought to be” (2Peter 3:11 VOICE). And then he lays it all out: “While we wait for the day of the Lord, work hard to live in peace” (2Peter 3:14). In fact, in what may be the only backhanded compliment recorded in scripture, Peter says that Paul has written all of this in his own letters, “although uneducated and unstable readers misinterpret difficult passages, just as they always misread Scripture, to their spiritual ruin” (2Peter 3:16 VOICE).

When we look around us and see the world as we know it crumbling, it is not time to back down or to huddle up in our religious fortresses. When the world needs more of God’s transforming power, it is time to double down on God’s mission, to recommit ourselves to following the path of Jesus, and to work toward God’s justice in the here and now.

As Peter reminds us in 2Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow about enacting His promise—slow is how some people want to characterize it—no, He is not slow but patient and merciful to you, not wanting anyone to be destroyed, but wanting everyone to turn away from following his own path and to turn towards God’s” (VOICE).

Wrap Up

Watching.

Waiting.

Working.

That is our reaction to the chaos of the world—at least if we are people of faith.

We watch—both attentive to the world around us, and anticipating the impossible when our redeeming God intervenes.

We wait—knowing that God will act as God is able, often intervening through very human hands and means.

And we work—reflectively, diligently, persistently, compassionately—just as did our Savior Jesus Christ. We work harder than we’ve ever worked in our life. Because no one knows how much time is left—for each of us or for any of us.

The world needs some good news right now. Good thing Jesus brought enough for everyone.

Amen.