Sunday, October 7, 2012

Justice, Wisdom, Values

Good Morning, and Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1)

This last summer, while some of you were in Sunday School, and some of you were at the cottage or traveling the world, we were reminded of some great heroes in the Bible. But I bet you’ve heard of some of them… ([let us] give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind-Ps 107:15) What’s your favorite Bible story?

Perhaps you like:
- Daniel in the lion’s den? This one is awesome. Daniel’s enemies tricked the king into having him arrested and thrown to the lions. But as Daniel himself says the next day, “God sent an angel to shut the lions’ mouths.”
- David and Goliath? This one is often the favorite of boys, isn’t it? We like the idea of winning a fight against someone four times our size, don’t we?
- Moses at the Red Sea? I recently listened to the head Rabbi in the UK describe this story – and he did it wonderfully. He said that the weakest of the weak were able to prevail against the strongest of the strong by the intervention of a great and powerful God.
- Joseph in Egypt? (as some of you know, this is my very favorite story in the Bible – I’m almost fifty, and I can’t read it without crying at the end). Sold as a slave by his brothers, Joseph is lifted up to the second highest position in the world. And in the end, he forgives his brothers for their cruelty.

Did you notice something in common with all these wonderful stories? In each of them, the main character is at a bit of a disadvantage, isn’t he? Joseph and Moses and Daniel were all essentially slaves in a strange and foreign land and David was a young fellow going into battle against a giant. But in each of these events, the underdog prevails. In each case, God is more than enough to solve the problem. In fact, we could say that the point of each of these stories is that God’s justice is different than man’s justice.

Joseph, Moses, David, Daniel: each one of these men’s experiences still resonates with us today. Whenever we see the humble succeed against all odds, we celebrate with them. Most of us identify with the underdog. And when God takes the guy that everyone else is putting down and makes him succeed, it is hard not to share the excitement. Take a second and look inside yourself – what are you feeling when you are reminded of the power and drama of these Biblical events? Don’t you want to thank God that His justice is so much better than the so-called “justice” of the world?

One of the most dramatic sports stories of the last year was concerning a young man named Jeremy Lin. Mr. Lin is a basketball player, and in the course of this last season, his team went up against the world-famous Los Angeles Lakers. The night before that game, a reporter asked the Lakers’ big star, Kobe Bryant, whether he was at all worried about Jeremy Lin. Kobe, not exactly known for his humility or tact, told the reporter that he had never heard of Jeremy Lin. The next day, this is what happened… VIDEO

Even if you don’t follow basketball, you get the idea – here’s a player nobody has even heard of a few weeks earlier, coming onto the court and schooling the biggest egos in sport, perhaps the biggest egos on the planet. Quite a story. And it didn’t hurt that Mr. Lin, in the after-game interview, wanted to give all of the credit that he received to his teammates and to his God. Ok, I’ll admit: schooling Kobe Bryant isn’t in the same league as killing Goliath, but no need to be picky.

But let me ask you again: what are you feeling when you see a story like this? Is it… perhaps… thanksgiving? It is… perhaps… praise? Not praise for Moses, or Joseph, or Jeremy Lin, of course. But praise for God. Perhaps events like these remind us of the words of Hannah’s song:

My heart rejoices in the LORD;
[He] sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.

You know, God raises the poor and the needy out of the dust and seats them with princes not just because it is fun, and we all get to cheer, and it makes us feel good. God also exalts the humble to remind us that His justice is different from the world’s justice.

But now listen to the words of Jesus… after all, we’re transitioning from a sermon series on the heroes of the Bible to Jesus: the greatest teacher. And of course, Jesus doesn’t just teach us by what he says – he teaches by what he does! Let’s pay attention to his example this morning:

… Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.” – Luke 10:21 ... ROPE

Now I don’t know about you, but for me that was fun because the small and young and shy succeeded while the old and confident failed. And if you liked it, then you are picking up the ripples of Jesus, when he said: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

But with Jesus words, we see a slight twist to the theme, don’t we? With David and Daniel, the conflict is physical – David against Goliath and Daniel against the lions: no mercy in sight, but God’s justice prevails. We get that, because most of us have realistic estimates of our physical limits (we don’t think we can fly, or run faster than cars).

But now Jesus reminds us that God’s wisdom is greater than our wisdom. Unfortunately, studies show that we so often over-estimate our own wisdom. And this makes it harder to appreciate God’s wisdom, of course. When that happens, perhaps it may be the time to remember Jesus words: “Truly, I tell you: unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” Then we would better understand Jesus heart, when he says: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” As Paul writes “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” Far too often what the world thinks is brilliance is often really just foolishness, and that what the world thinks is hopelessly simple is often actually far closer to the truth.

But God takes things one step further. You see, not only is God’s justice higher than the world’s; not only is God’s wisdom higher than the world’s, but God’s values are also higher than the world’s – and this is illustrated for us a few verses further in Luke 10 (verse 30):

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two hundred dollars and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Now this parable is called “The Good Samaritan,” but it isn’t about the Samaritan at all. Instead, the story is about us. The story is about how we react like the priest, and how we react like the Levite and how we react to the Samaritan.

You see, Jesus’ listeners had been brought up to believe that the priest and the Levite were automatically close to God. (The closest thing we have today would be one of the elders in the church). But in Jesus story, these two characters showed their distance from the heart of God by their inability to address the suffering right beside them. But Jesus’ listeners would understand the behavior of the priest and the Levite. The priest is a busy man. The priest has important work to do. The priest might even have been late for a meeting of the synagogue outreach committee. Besides, the law said that a priest must not touch a dead body – and how did he know the man wasn’t dead, after all? And the very robbers who had injured this poor fellow might still be around. Like all educated people, the priest would have been quite familiar with the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But the priest was more interested in his protection or his pocketbook or his privilege than his principles.

Rather than the priest or the Levite – the religious characters in Jesus’ parable, the person closest to the heart of God is clearly the Samaritan. But back then, Jesus’ listeners would only have looked down their noses at a Samaritan. You see, the Samaritans back then had their theology all wrong, and they had their religious practices all wrong, and to make it even worse, they represented a history of wrong behavior, too.

We don’t have too many Samaritans walking about these days. But if Jesus were to tell the story today… among Habs fans… instead of “Samaritan” he might have said “Leafs fan.” Or if He were to tell the story today… among Liberals… instead of “Samaritan” he might have said “Conservative.” Or if He were to tell the story today… among Conservatives… instead of “Samaritan” he might have said “Progressive.” You get the idea. Whatever group of people you like the least, imagine that Jesus had mentioned that group rather than a Samaritan. Jesus is saying very clearly that God has much more room than we do for anyone in the world, and that God isn’t particularly interested in our prejudice.

Isn’t it tragic that God’s people, having God’s laws (which were, of course, a “snapshot” of God’s values) had such a profound misunderstanding of God’s values that this parable was necessary. But don’t imagine I’m pointing a finger at the failure of the Jesus’ listeners. We do exactly the same thing. We take the things that are valuable to us and convince ourselves that they must also be valuable to God. And we so often overlook the things that are valuable to God – because they are not valuable to us.

Isn’t it a whole lot easier to be neighbors to those who are far away? In our modern society, we all too often choose our neighbors for our own convenience – usually overlooking those who God considers to be our neighbors.

The priest and the Levite limited their own neighborliness for their own protection. In churches today, it is far too easy to limit our own neighborliness for our own protection. If your marriage is working (and I pray that the marriages at Bethel are) don’t limit your neighborliness to your wife or your husband or your children. “If you love those who love you, what reward do you expect?” And if you have a close circle of friends (and I pray that those flourish in our church as well) don’t limit your neighborliness to your close circle of friends. Listen to Jesus command: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed.

But, but…. Those people are awkward. They are difficult. They make me uncomfortable. Uh huh. The injured man made the priest and the Levite uncomfortable as well. In fact, according to Jesus, unless your expressions of love aren’t slightly awkward or difficult or uncomfortable, there may not be a heavenly reward in them at all.

Let’s recap: when we see God’s justice, most of us rejoice. We thank God that His justice is at a much higher standard than the justice of this world. Now when we see God’s wisdom, it is often a bit more of a challenge. We often need to become more like children – to have our imaginations expanded – to appreciate God’s wisdom, which is so much greater than the wisdom of this world. Then we will be able to share in our Lord’s thanksgiving, who rejoiced that God shares important truths with little children. But we all struggle when we see God’s values. Even though God’s values are so much higher than our values, we cling to our own values, don’t we – it is so much safer that way. But Jesus challenges us here. After all, he says to each of us:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 …But love your enemies, [and] do good to them, … Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High.

When, by the grace of God and through the Spirit of God, the people of God understand this important truth, they will change the world. And they will share the same joy in the Spirit that Jesus had, and they will cry out in thanksgiving: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”