July 9, 2017, God 2.0? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

To listen to this sermon, click here:  Z0000032

We just read a passage that I come back to time and time again, year after year: Jesus’ gracious, open-armed invitation to us – not on our good days, when we’re at the top of our game and we have all of our ducks in a row and we are on our very best behavior, but on our very worst, most pathetic, most vulnerable, most shameful, most worn-out, saddest days. “Come unto me,” Jesus said, “all of you, who are tired, and sick of lugging around your heavy burdens. Come, take my burden instead, and listen to what I have to teach you. I am gentle and lowly in heart. Come to me and find rest for your souls. You’ll find that my yoke isn’t heavy at all. No, my burden is light.” There have been so many times when I needed to hear those words.

But today I want to back up a sentence or two and look at what Jesus says just before he makes us this wonderful offer. Jesus is praying to the Father here. He gives thanks that God chose to reveal himself, not to the best and the brightest, or the Fortune 500 guys, or the Moral Majority, but to the simple, to the foolish, to the weak, to little children – in fact, to us. And then he goes on to say “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son – and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” And then, that’s where those blessed verses come in, where Jesus invites us to come to him. But in context, we see that he isn’t inviting us only for rest and comfort, though goodness knows we need that as well. But even more important, when Jesus invites us to come to him, and when he invites us to learn from him, his purpose is to share the Father with us, because the only way that anyone can know God, is to learn from the One – the only One – who really knows him.

And the reason Jesus came to reveal the Father to us is because it was the Father’s good pleasure to be known by his children. We all know the verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” But when we read that verse we tend to jump ahead to the cross. We just think John is just talking about how Jesus came to save us, by dying for our sins. But first of all, God gave his Son to live with us, so that in the life of the Son he could reveal himself to us perfectly, once and for all. Because God has been revealing himself to his people from the very beginning.

In the psalm we read this morning, Psalm 145, King David is extolling the goodness of God, and in verse 8 he says this: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The remarkable thing about these words is that David didn’t make them up. No human being, in fact, made up that description of God; it is what God said of himself – and we find that description of the Father, not once or twice, but over and over and over again throughout the books of the Old Testament, throughout the history of God and his people. It’s almost like the Divine Motto – it’s what he most wanted his people to know about him. Through the years, century after century, as stiff-necked and thick-skulled as we human beings are, he kept patiently telling his children who he was, because he loves us, and because he created us to be in relationship with him.

The first time we hear God describing himself is in that great Cecil B. DeMille moment on the mountaintop with Moses, back in the book of Exodus, when God was giving Moses the Law that would set the nation of Israel apart from all the other nations around it. In fact, God had to write the whole thing out twice, because while Moses was up on the mountain the first time Aaron and the people got tired of waiting for him and decided to make their own god to worship, which made Moses so angry that he threw the first tablets on the ground and smashed them to bits. But the morning Moses went back up the mountain to receive the second set of tablets God came down to him, surrounded by clouds, and proclaimed his name. And this is the name he claimed for himself on that morning, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” [Ex. 34:6]

Forty years later, the people of Israel were about to enter the land that God had promised to give them, and Moses was near the end of his life, But before he died, Moses laid the cards out on the table for his people, giving them a stern warning about what would happen if they went their own way instead of following the way that God had given them. In fact, he told them that they were going to rebel against God. You will turn away from your God, and you will be driven out of your own land, I’m telling you this now. But when you have utterly ruined everything in your sinfulness and stubbornness, you will turn and seek him again, and you will find him. Because never forget this; the Lord your God is a merciful God, Moses reminded them. He will not leave you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers that he swore to them. [Dt. 4:30-31]

When the nation of Israel had come into its Golden Age, and King David, the man after God’s own heart, sat on the throne, David wrote a lot of psalms about God’s mercy and love and forgiveness. In Psalm 103, David wrote: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” [Ps. 103:8-12]

But in the end, inevitably, the people of Israel ended up doing everything that Moses had warned them not to do. They began to worship dumb idols of wood and stone, they became addicted to wealth and prosperity, and most hateful of all to God, they neglected the needs of the poor and helpless and strangers. The integrity of the nation that God had established crumbled and pagan nations came in and took over, just as Moses had predicted. The best and the brightest were carried off into captivity and the poor and the weak were left behind. And in that desperate time Jeremiah the prophet, living in the ruined city of Jerusalem, called to mind the name of God like a light in a very dark place. In the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah wrote, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end… the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love, for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.” [Lam. 3:22-23,31-33]

And then it happened just as Moses had said it would so many years before, that when the people of Israel cried out to God from their captivity, he brought them home. The temple that had been destroyed was rebuilt. And the people who had returned to rebuild the city of Jerusalem repented of the sins of their fathers, praying, “They refused to obey and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them…but you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” [Neh. 9:16-19a]

But the Father promised more than just to give his chosen people a do-over. His plan from the beginning was much bigger than that. God announced that he was going to send his servant, not only to Israel, but to the whole world: “It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I’m sending you to be a light for the nations, that will reach all the way to the end of the earth.” [Is. 49:6] And the Father promised that he would make a new covenant with all people, not like the old covenant carved on stone tablets, the covenant that his people had broken: “I will put my law inside of them; I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they won’t have to teach one another any more, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, beginning with the least of them, up to the greatest, declares the Lord.And I will forgive all their sins; I won’t even remember them at all, any more.” [Jer. 31:33-34]

There is a book, a work of fiction, called The Shack, about a man who meets God face to face after a horrible tragedy in his life: his little daughter is kidnapped and murdered, and the man, Mack, is just consumed with grief and rage and bitterness. His sadness is killing him from the inside. It’s not hard to imagine ourselves in his place, I don’t think. In the story God the Father is known as Papa, and there is one point in the story where Mack is raging at Papa about the evil and suffering and injustice in the world, and Papa says to him, gently, “The real flaw in your life is that you don’t think that I am good.”

For century upon century, from the first word of creation to the moment his Son was born into the world, God was telling his children who he really was: a good Father, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in love. But it wasn’t until God came among us in human form, someone we could see and hear and touch, someone who felt what we feel and was tempted as we are tempted, someone who knew all about hunger and thirst and loneliness and pain and loss and sickness and even death – not until then were our eyes and our ears opened to see what the Father had been telling us about himself all along. Jesus was born and lived among us, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he was not something new and different. He was not “God 2.0, the New Improved Face of the Scary, Vengeful, Bloodthirsty Old Testament Deity”. He was the face and hands and voice and heart of the good Father who has been speaking to his children all along.

And that was everything we needed, because we live in a world where we are all carrying the kinds of burdens that Mack was carrying: maybe not the murder of a child, but every one of us bears our own heavy burdens. We have suffered the loss of the people we love, sometimes much too early. We have suffered the cruelty of other human beings. Sometimes, in our hurt, we have been the ones who were cruel. There is no escape in this world from sickness and sadness and pain. And the only alternative to the pain of growing old is dying young. That’s the brutal truth about this hurting world. But it’s not the whole truth.

That’s why we all need so much to hear the invitation of our Lord to come and hand over our burdens to him, and to take up the light and easy yoke of knowing our good and loving Father, the one who is gracious and merciful to us, who is always slow to anger and sure to forgive, the one who abounds with love for his children. We’re not invited to just try harder or to clean up our act or to be strong. We are invited to know our Father, to know that in all of our hurts and in all of our failures and in everything we will ever face, no matter how terrible, right up to the moment of our death, he never leaves us or gives up on us. It’s in that knowledge that we find rest for our souls.

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