Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 8C, July 17, 2016 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Amos 8.1-12; Psalm 52.1-9; Colossians 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-42.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our epistle lesson this morning, Paul tells us that he is working to make the word of God fully known to us so that we will be let in on a profound mystery. God’s mysteries for the apostle and the rest of the NT writers are things previously unknown but now revealed to us by God. And what is this thing Paul is talking about? It’s none other than Christ in us, the hope of glory. But what does Paul mean by that? This is what I want us to look at this morning.
Contrary to what many of us think, the mystery revealed to us in Christ isn’t about getting right with Jesus. It isn’t just about Jesus and my salvation, although that is certainly part of what Paul is talking about. No, Paul has in mind something much richer and more exciting. He is talking about how God has revealed to us his promise to redeem his good creation gone bad, us included. If we don’t understand this fundamental promise, that God has promised to heal and redeem his broken creation, both the physical and spiritual dimensions of it, Scripture won’t make a lot of sense to us because that’s exactly the story it has to tell.
Take our OT lesson for example, with its uplifting message of the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel’s happiness, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord God; “the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place. Be silent!” (Amos 8.2b-3). Many of us hear judgment oracles like this and conclude that God surely must be the supreme tyrant and ogre who is always angry with us and just waiting to rain on our parade, preferably with fire and brimstone. This (false) god we conjure up in our minds is determined that we should not have a good time and unfortunately has the power to enforce his wishes.
But to read these texts in this way does violence not only to the text but to God himself because we almost completely miss the point of what is going on in the story contained in them. We must always keep in mind that the OT is the story of God’s interaction with his called-out people Israel, the people whom God chose to help him heal and redeem his good but sin-corrupted world. You can and should read the background for this narrative in Genesis 1-11 and God’s call to Abraham starting in Genesis 12. God’s people were supposed to reflect the glory and love of the one true God to the nations around them who did not know God and who worshiped false and destructive idols, because we inevitably turn into the idols we worship. But instead of acting in the truly human ways as God created them for, and the people God called them to be, so that they could show others who did not know God a much better way, Israel astonishingly adopted the ways of the nations they were supposed to convert! Sound familiar?
Now in our OT lesson, we see the fruit Israel is bearing, and it ain’t real tasty. As was God’s habit, God sent a spokesman to speak to his people on God’s behalf, in this case Amos, and we learn that after repeated warnings Israel had rejected God’s call to turn from their false and dehumanizing ways of living that had resulted from God’s people worshiping false and dehumanizing idols. And here we get a glimpse of what was happening. Merchants had made profit their idol and this resulted in all kinds of shady economic practices and the poor being exploited. These greedy folks were so eager to line their pockets they cut short their God-mandated sabbath rest and the festivals that were to produce real and heartfelt worship of the one true God. We all know what endless work does to our body, mind, and spirit, and we all know what happens when we fail to worship God regularly. We get flat worn out and our hearts get hardened. These folks presumably pursued their wealth for the same reason we pursue wealth so hard: for power and control. Implicit in these behaviors was the notion that God could not be trusted to provide. No, these folks wanted to be in control instead of aligning their lives and work to mesh with God’s good creative purposes for human living and work. It’s not that God wants us to sit around waiting for him to drop good things into our laps. It’s about who is in charge of things, us or God? When we choose the former over the latter, all hell breaks loose.
So after repeated warnings, we see God announcing the end of his people’s happiness. Their celebrating would turn into mourning when God’s final judgment fell on them. It would be so terrible that even the creation would mourn for God’s people, and we are reminded once again that God created us to be wise stewards over God’s creation so that when we act selfishly and myopically, all creation suffers, not just humans (cf. Romans 8.22). If we understand the backdrop to this story, we see what’s going on. To be sure, God is not happy with sin because sin corrupts and dehumanizes, and causes chaos and evil to erupt. But there’s more to the story than this. We see God the Father angry at his children for not living up to their purpose as God’s people. Instead of reflecting the glory of God and the promise of his redemption outward to those who desperately needed it (whether they knew it or not), God’s people had turned inward and saw their status as God’s people as a privilege with no accompanying responsibility. To make matters worse, many of them had turned away from worshiping God and worshiped false gods or idols. As parents we all get this dynamic, especially if we have dealt with children who wanted nothing to do with being part of the family. It gets messy and complicated in a hurry and that is what is going on here, only on a cosmic level. God’s people had refused to live up to their calling to help bring God’s healing to the world and in the process they had adopted lifestyles that were destructive and dehumanizing. Real love never wishes that for the beloved. Never.
And then we read a strange thing happening as part of God’s judgment on his people’s bad behavior. God would withhold his word from them and the effect would be devastating. As Genesis 1-2 make clear, without God’s word to bring order, there is only chaos, chaos in all creation and chaos in our personal lives. As Fr. Bowser continually reminds us (does that mean he is doing a lousy job of preaching if he has to keep reminding us of what he tells us?), if we do not align our lives to God’s good creative purposes for us, we can expect our lives to be chaotic and we will personally experience all kinds of physical, spiritual, and mental chaos. Here in our OT lesson we see the same thing happening to God’s rebellious people Israel. Go figure.
When God’s word is absent in our lives, we instinctively know it and it terrifies us because we know that without God’s word, we will not experience God’s order, God’s blessing, God’s fulfillment of his wonderful purposes, and God’s forgiveness. Here God is telling his people that he is withdrawing from them, giving them up in judgment to their own evil desires, and the people frantically search for that which they’ve lost. No wonder their happiness has turned to mourning! Remember, this is not about God raining on people’s parade and denying them a good time. God is condemning those behaviors that cause suffering and injustice (chaos) to break out on folks, especially on the poor, the weak, and the helpless. How can God’s love spread throughout his creation to heal it if God’s people will not cooperate?
Before we look at what Paul has to say about this, we need to stop for a moment and reflect on what this means for us because we too are called to bring God’s healing love to the world. God’s judgment on Israel’s greed and love for injustice falls on our own practices. It reminds us we cannot be two different people, ones who worship God on Sunday and then go to our areas of work to worship the god of avarice and greed. It means we must look carefully at all sides of the burning social issues of our day so that we can best bring God’s healing to bear on them. It reminds us that we have to pursue justice, hard as that can be at times, so that the poorest and weakest of our day do not suffer at our hands. When we stop looking after the needs of others, darkness and chaos will surely descend on us as it did for God’s people Israel.
Thankfully for us, however, we are not entirely like Israel because as Paul reminds us, God has become human in the man Jesus to be the faithful Israel and so complete God’s plan to heal and redeem his good world hijacked by human sin and the evil it unleashes. Paul further reminds us that we belong to Jesus, who is the firstborn of all creation, and who rules over God’s current creation and will rule over God’s promised new creation. He tells us that on the cross, evil has been defeated and we have been reconciled to God. Paul doesn’t spell this out in any detail, only that this is what God has accomplished. Evil has been allowed to do its worst to Jesus and has failed to destroy him. Instead, God raised him from the dead and in doing so, ushered in God’s new creation, God’s newly healed and redeemed world in Christ. Not only that, but God has called us as Jesus’ people to be human agents of God’s new creation in the world. When we believe that God really has overcome evil and reconciled us to him in and through Jesus’ death on the cross, we know that we too will share Jesus’ ultimate fate of resurrection so that what happened to our Lord will also happen to us. We become a forgiven people in Christ and we have confidence that we can stand before God as Jesus’ people, despite our sins.
And as Jesus’ people, we are called to work on deepening our relationship with him so that we do know without a doubt that the above promises are true and that we too are part of God’s promises to heal and redeem his good creation. This is the mystery Paul talks about in our lesson today. Jews are not the only ones who are called to be part of God’s new world. Gentiles are called to be part of it as well, specifically Gentiles who put their hope and trust in Jesus and who develop a living and active relationship with our living and active Lord. This is what it means to have Christ in us, our hope of glory. It means he is available to us at all times in the power of the Spirit to love us and heal us and help us live as people who have real hope, even in the midst of our present adversities, because we have faith that we too will share in his risen glory. What this means on a practical basis is this. As Jesus’ people, we know first and foremost that we are loved and forgiven by our Creator so that we know the real heart of God. This, in turn, means we are to live our lives patterned after Jesus for the sake of others. We look out for each other and care for each other. We are careful not to pursue our own self-interests at the expense of others. We are quick to forgive and slow to judge in self-righteous ways. We are tenderhearted toward each other and bear each other’s joys and burdens. Every time we do these things, the new creation becomes a fuller reality. And it all starts by engaging with Jesus, the Word of God. No wonder our Lord reminded Martha and the others that Mary was doing the needful thing by sitting at his feet and listening to him teach God’s truth and wisdom. It’s the very truth and wisdom that enables us to know we have Good News and to live it, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.