Saturday, August 23, 2014

Loving v. Smiting--a friendly debate (sermon)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Loving v. Smiting
Exodus 33.11, Numbers 21.4-9, Isaiah 55.8-9, Ezekiel 34.11-31, Mark 11.12-20, Luke 6.20-26, John 15.9-17, 2 Timothy 3.16-17
24 August 2014, Faith Questions 10

Have you ever noticed how sometimes it seems like God is mean in the Old Testament and all love and peace in the New Testament? I mean, just listen to this.

“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

I mean, sure the Israelites were whiny and obnoxious, but even when they said they were sorry, God didn’t take away the snakes—just made a magical statue!

We like to say that God is love, but it seems to me like God is also smiting.

Well, Mike, that’s a pretty great smiting story! It’s hard to believe that story is in our scripture. Aside from it showing God as really short-tempered and vengeful, it’s also pretty weird, don’t you think?
When I think about stories of God and Moses, I like to think of the burning bush, or the ten commandments, or even that part in the wilderness where it says that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” How great is it to think about speaking to God, face to face like a friend?

You know, the Old Testament doesn’t have the monopoly on weird or angry stories. There are some moments when Jesus got pretty upset too. For instance, there was the day…
“when the disciples and Jesus came from Bethany, and Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.
Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?
   But you have made it a den of robbers.’ 
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.”

Well, yes, Jesus got angry now and then—who doesn’t? When we see injustice, I hope we all get upset and try to do something to change it. Though withering a fig tree for not having any fruit when it’s not fig season does seem a little out of character…maybe Jesus was extra hangry.

But back to the idea that God is mean in the Old Testament—we have to be careful, because it’s a short leap from there to the idea that God and Jesus are different. Remember that God and Jesus are one, along with the Holy Spirit. We can’t separate them, and we know that “The Word was in the beginning with God, and the Word was God.”

I think the context matters. Remember that scripture was written over many years, by many different people listening to the Spirit. Perhaps what changed was not God, but rather the people and their circumstances. Sometimes they needed to hear more about God’s strength and power, and sometimes more about love and mercy. Sometimes they needed a way to understand terrible things happening in their community, and other times they needed comfort. Both the Old and New Testaments are full of God’s love—which is from everlasting to everlasting, as we heard in the psalm at the beginning of worship. It’s hard to imagine people saying that if God was always mean in those days!

There’s a passage of Ezekiel that seems to show God’s love and justice together—remember this was written to people in exile—far from home, they had lost everything.

“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
 As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
 I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. I will provide for them splendid vegetation, so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God.”

Ah, a covenant of peace, a promise of no more hunger, God is our God and we are God’s people.
I also noticed that in the middle there it seemed like God had some things to say about the people trampling on the gifts God gave them. Not only did they not say thank you, they also ruined it for others. Yet the judgment God mentions doesn’t seem to involve casting them out or taking away the green pastures and still waters—instead God renews the covenant, trying again and again to help us understand that God will bring us together, and there’s room in the pasture, plenty of green grass and clean water, plenty of peace and love to go around. God will be our God even when we get it wrong, even when we think we have to hoard rather than share. And when we wander off and get ourselves lost, God will find us and be with us.

That story from Ezekiel reminds me a little of when Jesus said “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

It seems like we’re supposed to come into the pasture and make room for everyone to know God’s friendship and love.

Yeah…but even Jesus had some things to say about when we don’t make room, when we shut people out and perpetuate injustice. We like to talk about God’s blessings, but when Jesus talks about blessing, he’s usually talking about people who don’t look very blessed to us.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. 

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 

But Luke goes on to tell us what Jesus said next, and it’s hard news:

‘Woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation. 

‘Woe to you who are full now,
 for you will be hungry.

‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

So basically what I’m hearing is that the Old Testament and the New Testament have both smiting and loving? Which is it, then? Is God loving, or will God smite us? Is God our friend, or an angry judge?

God is Love, and those who abide in Love abide in God.
Right now we are experiencing the danger of reading scripture without its context. It’s easy to make it say what we want. So we need to remember that the written word points us to the living Word. In Christ, we see God most perfectly revealed. When we look at the whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see a God who is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to show us what love really looks like—it’s more than just a warm fuzzy feeling we have for people we like. Jesus also shows us what true justice is, and it has nothing to do with vengeance. Jesus paints a picture of what community is supposed to mean, and the boundaries don’t leave anyone out.

The Bible is our record of life with God—people figuring out what it means to be God’s treasured possession, wondering how to follow God’s path, with both mistakes and successes along the way. Sometimes it feels like God is absent, and sometimes like God is against us, and sometimes like Love infuses the universe. Often God is speaking but the people aren’t paying much attention…much like we often neglect God’s word ourselves. All those experiences are reflected in the library we call the Bible, and they are, according to 1 Timothy, all useful for instruction and correction, so that we will all be equipped for every good work God has in mind for us.

Overall, through the whole library of scripture, the loving outweighs the smiting, for the record. In addition to simply smaller number of instances where God is talked about as smiting versus loving, eternally merciful and slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love…there’s also the part where God says that blessings endure to the thousandth generation, while anger lasts only two or three. Even if we take all the angry-God passages literally and out of their historical and literary contexts, we still will run out of anger long before running out of love.

But what about expectations? It seems like those smiting stories always come when the people have disappointed God, or not lived up to the covenant. What about when we don’t measure up?

Can anyone ever measure up? How would that be possible? Since we’re not God, it seems like we can try our hardest and do our best, but we’ll never be good enough.

Don’t you think God loves us even in our imperfection? Surely the God who made us knows we can’t be God ourselves, even though we try. Surely the loving shepherd wants to guide us gently, not beat us with the crook of his staff until we go the right way. Otherwise, why make all those covenants and promises at all? Why both with saying “you are my people and I am your God” if he’s just going to be disappointed all the time?

Friends disappoint each other too…can’t we assume that God is more patient than even our best friend, and more loving than even our best parents? It sounds a little like we’re expecting God to conform to our rules and expectations, to be disappointed by the same things we are, to have the same breaking point we do, to hate the same things we hate. Isn’t this supposed to go the other way—we read scripture and come to church and pray and learn so we can find out how to be more like God, not how to make God more like us.

Now we’ve stumbled right into the heart of the matter—that, as God said to the prophet Isaiah, “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts—for as high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” We’ve been talking all this time about how to bring God down to our level, when what God wants is to bring us up to Kingdom level. Perhaps what we see through the whole sweep of scripture is both people trying to make God more human and also God trying to make humans more Christ-like. It does seem like when we try to play God—insisting that God fit our expectations—that’s when we are most likely to be disappointed. How often do we call the result a punishment, a smiting, a sign of God’s displeasure?

I know there are some people sitting here who want me to dismiss all the smiting stories, and others who think we should read them more often so we can scare people into following the rules. Well, we have to take all of scripture seriously—it is God-breathed and useful. The word written and proclaimed is always supposed to point us to the Living Word, because Jesus reveals God to us, in the flesh. And Jesus said “I give you a new commandment—that you love one another as I have loved you.” Since he and the Father are one, starting from “and God saw it was very good” all the way through “I am your God and you are my people” on up to the cross and the empty tomb, then it seems we can trust that God is indeed Love. If we read something in scripture that does not seem to accord with Christ and his commandment, then we need to pray for understanding, for open hearts and minds that can hear the breath of God in the words. Sometimes that understanding comes through knowing the context, sometimes through looking at the bigger picture of God’s story, sometimes through new insight given by the Spirit. Sometimes we don’t get it, because in this life we see through a mirror, dimly, and we have to take a leap of faith until the day we see clearly, face to face.

From the first page to the last page, this is about God’s promise, God’s faithfulness, and God’s hope—seen through the eyes of men and women, poets and prophets, kings and servants, wanderers and builders, dunces and dreamers. In all these people, through all these years, in all these communities, on all these pages, we encounter the God who creates, redeems, and sustains, and who calls us to join in the work. We won’t always get it right, and sometimes we will disappoint each other, but God is in this partnership to the end and has promised to be faithful even when we fail, because there is a world that needs the good news of grace that finds us where we are and transforms us, and the whole world, on the journey.

May it be so. Amen.

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