FIRST LESSON Mark 14:1-11
SECOND LESSON Romans 5:6-11
TIME FOR CHILDREN Exodus 20:1-17 and 32:1-14
Sunday, February 28, 2016
There are two basic questions which the Christian Church has been wrestling with ever since the days of Adam and Eve. The first is the question of good and evil – why do bad things happen to good people? Or, how can a kind, loving God let so many bad things happen to good people? We’ve struggled with that question for thousands of years. Sometimes we have reasonably good answers and sometimes we have bad answers, and we never really have answers that satisfy completely.
The second question is also a question of good and evil: how can sinful people live with a perfect God? For all the years of human history, people have faced that very tough question, too. We don’t always have words for that, or at least very good words, so over the years we’ve developed all kinds of pictures and stories to help us understand the relationship between a perfect God and very imperfect people. And the Bible is full of these pictures and stories.
When Paul thinks about how a perfect God relates to imperfect people, the answer is always Jesus. Paul wrote this letter to the church in Rome to people who lived about twenty or thirty years after Jesus had died. And when Paul wanted to write to these Romans about Jesus and what his death meant, he used language that the Romans in those years would have easily understood. The Romans were great law makers. They had carefully constructed, complex, detailed laws about this and that and everything else and their legal system stretched all over the Mediterranean world. They understood all about penalties for crimes. They knew very well that when people do something wrong, they have to pay for it. They all had slaves and they understood that when slaves disobey, there are strong consequences for that. They knew all about people being crucified when they committed offenses against the Roman government. So when Paul wants to talk with them about how it is that sinful people live with a holy and perfect God, he calls on those images. He talks about God’s anger, and he talks about laws and disobedience and penalties and slavery and death. Those are Paul’s pictures.
Just a minute ago we read from the Confession of 1967. In a part of that confession which we didn’t read, the writers mention some of those pictures and stories about a perfect God and imperfect people: They say that Jesus is like a good shepherd who dies protecting his sheep. They say that Jesus is like that lamb in the Old Testament stories who was sent off far into the wilderness to disappear forever, carrying all the peoples’ sins on his back. They say that Jesus pays a debt for sinful people. They say that Jesus is victorious over the powers of evil in his death and resurrection. We’ll read those parts of the confession in a couple of weeks. Sometimes we say that Jesus is the bridge between God and people. Because of Jesus, we can walk on a bridge over the deep chasm between ourselves and God. And of course there are other images as well.
The central theme of the Confession of 1967 is reconciliation. In 1967, if you remember the Viet Nam war was at its height. There was a real threat of worldwide nuclear disaster. There was tension between the races, and those were the years of what we called the “race riots.” Men and women were fighting it out and women were battling for equality. (Those were actually the words we used.) It was a painful, distressing time – full of tensions. And to our great credit, the Presbyterian Church in those years said, “There needs to be a word from God in the middle of all this. And,” they said, “the word is ‘reconciliation.’ People are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, and it is now the task of the church to be reconcilers and peacemakers in the world.” Those were the pictures in the Confession of 1967.
So let me give you one picture of what this reconciliation looks like, drawn from the entire story of God’s relationship with people.
Starting with Adam and Eve. God put Adam and Eve into a gorgeous garden. And before they could even begin to dig up any carrots or and smell all the roses, God said to them, “I’m your God. I love you. I have made you and named you and you belong to me. And here’s how it’s going to be between us: I’m going to care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of and you’re going to follow my instructions.” And before you know it, Adam and Eve had done precisely what God had told them not to do. God had said, “Don’t eat that. If you eat it you’ll die.” And they ate it. So God said “I am deeply disappointed. I am hurt to my very core. I am furious with you. But I can’t let you die. You’re mine and I love you. I made you and I named you and I can’t let you die.” So instead, God had another punishment for Adam and Eve.
And all through human history it’s been that way. God comes to almost every Biblical character and says pretty much the same thing. “I am your God. I love you. I have made you and named you and you belong to me. I will care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of. And in return, you’re going to follow my instructions.” But before very long at all, the whole world had disobeyed and God would have been justified in killing them all. And then came Noah. And God said, “I’m deeply disappointed. I’m hurt to my very core, I’m furious with the whole lot of you. But I can’t let you all die.” So Noah and his family were saved.
Pretty soon, God gave the Ten Commandments, and it was the same story. (the story I told the children just now) God said to that motley band of former slaves, “I am your God. I love you. I have named you and claimed you and rescued you and I have made you my very own people. I will care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of and here are my instructions for you.” And God gave them the ten commandments. And the very first thing they did was make a gold cow to worship instead of God - which God had made a point of telling them precisely not to do. And for centuries, they disobeyed God’s very explicit instructions, and they didn’t care a bean that God loved them and had named them and claimed them and cared for them exquisitely.
So God said, “Maybe you’re a little hard of hearing. Maybe you can’t hear me. I’ll send prophets. They’ll get right into your face and talk loudly at you and they’ll speak the words I tell them to say.” And the prophets did. They stormed into palaces and shouted on the street corners for centuries and threatened horrible things, and still people didn’t respond. The prophets said, “You’re not doing what God asks you to do, and the consequences are going to be drastic.” And they were. The best and the brightest of them were marched off to Babylon for years and years. But they didn’t all die. And some of them came back to their homeland. And after centuries and centuries of that, and after centuries and centuries of chances upon chances and prophets upon prophets upon prophets, God finally said, “I love you. I made you and I named you and I claimed you and I care for you exquisitely in every way you could possibly think of. And I can see that you can’t follow my instructions. You simply don’t have it in you. You didn’t hear me when I spoke. And you didn’t listen to the prophets when they spoke. You turned your backs on me time and time again over centuries and centuries and you ignored my love and you didn’t care that I had named you and claimed you, and you didn’t do as I asked you to. So now my son and I are going to do this. He’s going to follow my instructions and it won’t matter that you can’t and you don’t have to do anything at all. He’ll show you what I have in mind for the world. He’ll do as I want you all to do. And when I look at your sorry little selves, all I’ll see is my perfect son Jesus.”
And that’s how it happened, my beloved. And that’s why I say to you all the time that has God has made us and named us and claimed us and that God loves us exquisitely. And I say it to you so often because I want so much for you to hear it and know it in the time I am with you.