O Jerusalem–sermon on Luke 13:34-35 (shared with permission)

              “It’s all God’s fault.” That’s been part of the temptation from the very beginning. When things go wrong, we look for someone to blame, and who is easier to blame than God, the One who started it all? When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he pointed the finger of blame at Eve, at “the woman you gave to me,” as Adam said to God. Since that time, many other people have asked why God put that tree in the Garden. He knows everything—didn’t he know that the tree would cause a lot of trouble? God created everything that exists; if things go wrong in creation, it must be his fault. God has the power to do whatever he wants; if he wanted to help us and protect us from harm, he certainly could do it. When Jesus said that there would be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other disasters, he showed his knowledge of the future. Why didn’t Jesus do something about these problems? Why didn’t he offer us a better future?

              One conclusion that people reach is that God must want things to be this way. He must want human history to consist of war after war, complete with death and destruction and all the trauma of war. He must want diseases to spread and limit the growth of the human race. He must want people to starve in some parts of the world, even as people in the rest of the world are throwing their extra food into the garbage. Most of all, he must want to send sinners into the fire of eternal punishment. If God did not want to condemn anyone to hell, he didn’t have to make hell. If God wants everyone to be forgiven for their sins and to live with him in heaven, all he has to do is forgive us our sins and welcome us into heaven. He has the power to do whatever he wants; therefore, whatever happens, that must be what God wants.

              This is what some people say. But the God they blame—the God they hate—is not the God of the Bible. They have created an imaginary God, a God they can reject, so they do not have to deal with the real God. Ask a group of atheists about the God in whom they do not believe, and you will receive a full description of God—a God who makes lots of rules just so he can catch people breaking the rules, a God who invents cruel punishments just to watch people suffer, a God who watches the problems and struggles of this world and refuses even to lift a finger to help people. This is the God they reject. This is why they do not believe in God. But we Christians can honestly say to those people that we do not believe in that God either.

              Instead, we worship a God who became one of us and lived among us to rescue us. We believe in a God who loves the world so much that he gave his Son to redeem sinners. We believe in a Savior who saw the sins of Jerusalem and who saw the punishment that would fall upon Jerusalem, and who wept over the city and its problems. Jesus cares. He cares so much that he sacrificed everything he had to rescue sinners. When he must turn away the people who reject his forgiveness, Jesus weeps. He does not want to punish and destroy any sinner; he wants all to believe in him and to receive the benefits of faith, the rewards that he earned for every sinner. When people blame God for the problems in this world, they ignore his love. They ignore his compassion. They ignore the work God has done to rescue sinners. When people blame God, they ignore the love that God has for them and the genuine sorrow that God has because they refuse to be rescued. They refuse to be forgiven. They refuse to let God do what he wants to do, lifting them out of sin and evil and carrying them to everlasting life.

              These enemies of God confront us with the things we say about God. We say that God is good. We say that he loves all people. We say that God knows everything. We say that he is almighty; He can do anything he wants. Having quoted those things to us, the enemies of God say that they cannot all be true. If God is good and he lets bad things happen, then perhaps he is not almighty. Or if he can do anything he wants, perhaps he is not truly good. Either God is not good enough to help us, or God is not strong enough to help us. Maybe he is good enough and strong enough, but he simply does not love us. Either way, it is all God’s fault. By saying these things, the enemies of God think that they have defeated God. They have removed God from their lives; they have put themselves in charge, because they have judged God and have found him lacking. From now on, they will be their own gods, because the God you and I know is not good enough for them.

              Sometimes you and I fall into the trap of God’s enemies. We focus too much attention on the fire and suffering of hell, and we make it sound as if God likes to see people suffer. We ask questions about the world, about why things go wrong, and we fail to show our faith that God is still in control. We get caught up in the matters of this world—the wars, the diseases, the political problems, the economic problems—and we fail to proclaim that it all belongs to God and that everyone will answer to Him. We even act as if we are in control of our own lives, as if we need to take care of ourselves and turn to God only as a last resort when all our plans have fallen short of our goals.

              Jesus came into this world to forgive sinners. He is obsessed with forgiveness. He tells us to forgive sinners, and he links our forgiveness to the forgiveness that we share with others. Not that we forgive those who sin against us by the goodness of our own hearts. When we try to find in ourselves the power to forgive, our goodness and our forgiveness falls short of God’s glory. But when we are confident that Jesus forgives sins, we pass along the forgiveness that Jesus earned on the cross. Because we are forgiven, we also forgive. Because we have been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, we act as agents of God. We warn sinners of the cost of their sin, speaking to them the Law of God. We call them to repent. But we also share the good news of forgiveness to all those who repent. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is bigger than all the sins of the world combined. His Gospel is far bigger than all the sins which have caused us to suffer. We love our neighbors and forgive those who sin against us because God loved us first and because Jesus has already paid the debt of all sinners in this world.

              We too are sinners. We have fallen short of the glory of God. We do not always love and forgive as we should love and forgive. We deserve to be rejected by God, punished by God for breaking his laws. Instead, Jesus came to rescue us and forgive us. Jesus mourns over our sins as we wept over Jerusalem. We grieve the Holy Spirit when we sin. Even in his grief and sorrow, God desires our forgiveness. He wants to restore us to a right relationship with him; he wants to call us his children. Therefore, Jesus came into this world. The only-begotten Son of God paid the cost of our adoption so we also could be children of God and could live forever with him in his kingdom.

              Jesus lived as our substitute. He obeyed the Law perfectly where we have fallen short. He was circumcised, shedding his blood even as an infant to wash away our sins. Later, he also was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. He was tempted by the devil, but he resisted temptation. He loved his Father perfectly; he loved his neighbors perfectly. He submitted to earthly authority, even when that earthly authority was corrupt. He earned the rewards of a sinless life so he could grant us those rewards at no cost to ourselves.

              But then Jesus was crucified. Jesus compared himself to a mother hen, spreading her wings to gather her chicks. God the Father and God the Son do not often portray a feminine nature, but on this occasion Jesus does call himself a mother hen. When a hen chases away the intruder in the barnyard, and when she gathers her chicks to protect them from danger, she spreads her wings wide. With that image, Jesus pictures himself on the cross, spreading his arms over the world to provide protection for all the people he loves and gathering us all under his wings at the cross. There he suffers and dies for us. There he pays our debt and adopts us into his family. There he defeats his enemies and reclaims us as his people so we can live with him forever in his kingdom.

              This payment was necessary, because evil has a price. God cannot forgive sins by ignoring sins.
God cannot pretend that everything is good when everything is not good. God hates evil, because evil damages the good things God made. God hates evil, because evil hurts the people God loves. God hates evil, because evil brings darkness in the place of light. Evil brings death in the place of life. Evil is a barrier that separates us from God. We cannot remove the barrier. We cannot replace darkness with light or death with life. Therefore, on the cross, Jesus pays in full for our restoration. He takes away all our sins, redeeming us, paying the full cost to make us the children of God and guaranteeing us eternal life in his kingdom.

              Having defeated evil, Jesus dies and is buried. On the Sabbath Day he rests, his body in a tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. At the dawn of a new week, Jesus rises from the dead. He proves that he has won the victory over all evil, even over death itself. He presents the evidence of his resurrection to his followers, promising us a resurrection like his resurrection. He sends his followers as messengers, bringing forgiveness and the guarantee of eternal life to all nations.

              Jesus ascended into heaven, but he did not abandon his followers. He is with us always, even to the end of the earth. He is with us in his Word, guiding us by his Law and reminding us daily of his Gospel promises. He is with us when two or three gather in his name, reminding us of his forgiveness and giving us power—through that forgiveness—to live as his people. He is with us in Holy Baptism, daily renewing the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of eternal life. He is with us in Holy Communion, feeding us with his body and blood, and giving us forgiveness and eternal life by the power of his sacrifice on the cross.

              In the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments, Jesus shares with us the good news of a God who cares. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, he spread out his arms on the cross to embrace all the sinners of the world. Through the Church, Jesus continues to reach out to the world with the good news of forgiveness and eternal life. He shares his blessings with us this morning. He sends us again into the world to be his messengers, carrying with us the keys to the kingdom of heaven. He is with us always, just as he said, working through us to change the world, and keeping us faithful to him as we walk the paths he planned for us.

             

When I find myself in times of trouble

John Cassian (360-435) wrote that times of trouble come to the Christian from three causes: as a result of that Christian’s sin, as an attack from Satan, and as testing from the Lord. Regretfully, Cassian did not offer any clues how to discern which of these three is the result of any particular trouble. Moreover, he did not address the likelihood that a trouble may come from two of these causes or even from all three at once.

The best defense against the first source of trouble is a life of continual repentance and faith. Repentance is not a practice that can be accomplished once and concluded; repentance is an ongoing condition, a continual element in the Christian life. In his model prayer, Jesus taught his followers to pray “forgive us our trespasses” immediately after praying “give us this day our daily bread.” Like our need for food, our need for forgiveness comes each day. Each day we sin and need a Savior; each day our Savior is present for us, removing all our sins by his work. Each day we turn to him in faith, trusting his promises. Each day he keeps his promises. Therefore, if trouble should come because of our sin, the work of Christ removes that sin and ends that trouble. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we have is not a result of our sins—because those sins are already forgiven and forgotten by God. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we face must be an attack from Satan (or from the sinful world around us) or a test from the Lord, or (most likely) both at once.

In today’s world, tests are seen as examinations in school, exercises in which the teacher discovers how much each student has learned. God does not have to test us in this way; he already knows what we believe and the strength of that faith. The origin of the idea of testing, and its meaning in Biblical times, comes from refineries. Metals are tested by enduring heat: impurities are burned away, so that the surviving metal is more pure. So God permits Satan and the sinful world to test his people, putting us through the heat to purify our faith. God does not test us because he hates us, and God does not test us because he doubts us; God tests us to strengthen us and to purify our love for him.

Job was tested by Satan. Satan was permitted to strip away Job’s wealth and to kill Job’s children. He then was permitted to strike Job with a disease along the order of chicken pox or shingles. Job’s wife told him to reject God, but Job continued to trust God. Job’s three friends visited Job and sat with him in silence. (Their presence during his trouble was supportive friendship, a model that should be imitated.) Job endured depression, part of the test, and Job spoke about his problems. His friends tried to answer his questions, becoming part of his affliction and part of his test. They told Job that God does not make mistakes, that Job deserved whatever was happening to him, and that Job could end his trouble by identifying his sin, repenting, returning to God, and trusting God. Even in his depression, even in his questions, Job had not stopped trusting God. He rejected the suggestion of his friends that he deserved to suffer. In the end, God vindicated Job, telling his friends that they were wrong, but offering to forgive their sin against God when Job interceded for them.

God never answered Job’s questions about why Job was suffering. God did not tell Job that Job was being attacked by Satan (although God’s allegory of Leviathan, the sea monster, was a huge hint about Satan and his opposition to Job). Following the test of Satan’s attack, God restored Job’s wealth, giving him twice as property as he had lost. Ten more children were born to Job. They did not replace the ten children who had died; Job was now the father of twenty children—ten alive with him on earth, and ten alive with God in Paradise, waiting for the resurrection.

Job suffered, even though he did not deserve to suffer. His troubles were not caused by his sins; his sins were removed by his Redeemer and could not bring trouble to Job. Job became a picture of the Redeemer, of God’s Son Jesus Christ. Jesus also would suffer without deserving to suffer. He would endure the cross, not because of his own sins (for Jesus never sinned); he would endure the cross on behalf of all the sinners of the world, including Job, his children, his wife, and his friends.

In times of trouble, Christians can be pictures of Jesus, as Job was a picture of Jesus. We accept trouble, not because we deserve it, but because we are living on a battlefield. Satan and the sinful world attack the children of light. We respond by trusting God, the Source of life and light. Instead of examining ourselves to see what we have done to deserve trouble, we repent of our sins and trust God’s promises that all our sins have been removed. Testing strengthens us, burning away impurities, drawing us closer to God. Whatever hardship or loss we endure, we can use it to remind ourselves of the cross of Christ and the victory he has already won on our behalf. J.

Harvey, Irma, and the hand of God

Earlier this week I read a conversation between two bloggers. One is a Christian; the other is an atheist. The atheist accused the God of the Christian of being genocidal. (Indeed, the rage the atheist expressed against an imaginary, Bronze-Age, fairy-tale god seems incongruous, but that is beside the point.) The atheist mentioned the flood from the days of Noah, as well as God’s command to the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites and the Amalekites. Causing the death of so many people, whether through direct action or by divine command, the God of the Christian failed to meet the standards held by the atheist blogger.

One would have to be an atheist to dare to judge God. Anyone who knows even a little about the power of God and the wisdom of God would find it hard to try to measure God by his or her own standards. One can defend God by speaking of the evil of those people he chose to destroy. The people of Noah’s generation were a blight upon the planet. The Canaanites were so evil that they killed their own children and slept with priestesses as part of their religion. A good God, a just God, cannot tolerate evil. If God does not strike down sinners, then God is not worthy of honor and praise.

If my pet cat was afflicted with fleas or intestinal worms, I would take vigorous steps to destroy the parasites. My conscience would not be troubled by the death of dozens of fleas. Even if they were a very rare flea, a species of flea that was endangered, I would kill them all for the good of my cat. In the same way, for the good of the Israelites, God wanted the Canaanites killed. When the Israelites failed to obey God’s command, the Canaanites managed to make the Israelites equally evil, so that God had to strike down his own people, using the Assyrians and Babylonians to bring death and destruction upon the sinners who had rejected God and his commands.

God is powerful, wise, and just, but God is also love. Love is the very nature of his being. God does not enjoy punishing sinners; he does not delight in the death of his enemies. God wants all people to repent of their sins, to turn to him, and to receive from him the gift of eternal life. To make this happen, God became one of us. He lived among us, following his own rules, earning the rewards of total obedience. Then he turned the tables upon himself. He took up our guilt and our punishment, facing the wrath of his Father while hanging on a cross. At the same time, he bequeathed to us the rewards he earned by his perfection.

Christians are not called to exterminate God’s enemies—not even Muslims, not even atheists. Christians are called to warn sinners of the cost of their sins and to call for repentance. When those sinners repent, Christians are called to share the promises of God, to invite the sinners to enjoy God’s forgiveness, eternal life in a perfect world, and a share in God’s victory over all evil. Yet all of us remain sinners. Together we live in a sin-polluted world. God does not rely only upon Christians to speak of the wrath of God’s judgment. God uses his creation to demonstrate the power of his judgment and to remind all people of the Day of the Lord that is coming.

This brings me to Harvey and Irma. Those do not sound like the names of powerful storms. Harvey and Irma should be the parents in a 1950s television show, a comedy about an average American family. In the 1950s, when children misbehaved, they sometimes received a slap or two on their backsides from Harvey and Irma. No one considered spankings “child abuse” in those days. Society understood that, to correct children, to turn them away from wrongdoing, sometimes one must first get their attention.

Harvey and Irma may be that slap on the backside that the United States needed. Things have been getting out of control around here lately, and someone needed to react. The ugliness of hatred does not belong in our nation, but it took powerful hurricanes to quiet the shouting and to force people to care about their neighbors. Old Testament prophets lectured the wealthy few in Israel about their abuse of wealth, gathering it at the expense of their neighbors and keeping hold onto it, ignoring their neighbor’s needs. The aftermath of these storms may help to redistribute our national wealth, not through government regulation and taxation, but through compassion and a desire to help those in need.

All authority comes from God and represents his authority. Yet some American voters thought so little of their government that they cast their votes for a celebrity with clear and obvious character flaws. Worse, others began—the very next day after the election—to plot his overthrow. For months they have been challenging every one of his decisions, constantly depicting him in the worst light possible, and searching high and low for excuses to overturn the results of the election. The nightly news has become a morass of accusations and criticisms, loudly and shrilly and repeatedly offered as if repetition would make them true. (In most of the world, these broadcasts would be considered treasonous.) For all the damage they brought, Harvey and Irma have given us something else to talk about and to hear about and to care about.

We sinners need such reminders, from time to time, that the sinful world stands under judgment. But do you suppose that the people who died because of these storms were worse sinners than those who survived? Jesus would say no, “but unless you repent, you will likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). The atheist might blame God-who-does-not-exist for allowing the violence and destruction of Harvey and Irma, that of the Mexican earthquake, and that of the wildfires in western states, offering that random violence as proof that God-who-does-not-exist cannot be good or just.

Evil is random and unfair. God permits us to see evil—whether the violence of nature or the crimes of terrorists—so we can distinguish good from evil, and so we can hunger and thirst for what is good. Any Christians who died in the storms or the earthquake or the fires is with Christ in Paradise awaiting the resurrection. They are happy to be there; they are not complaining. Unbelievers who perished would have died from something else sooner or later. They are no worse off now than they would be had they survived to die another day.

Believers and unbelievers lost property in these storms. Tragic as the loss may be, it also reminds all of us to value heavenly treasures rather than earthly wealth. Insurance companies, relief organizations, and compassionate neighbors will help to restore or replace what was lost. Along the way, jobs will be provided, meaning that families will be fed and sheltered. More precautions will be taken to make homes and other businesses safer from future storms. Meanwhile, one can only hope that another blessing from these tribulations will be less hatred, less rebellion, and less division among Americans—more compassion, more cooperation, and more faith. J.