Grace for Losers (Jer. 31:1-14; Rev. 21:20,22-22:5; John 5:1-9)
What a world we live in! It’s a world that, at the same time, reaches both the heights of beauty and glory, and the depths of degradation and evil. We are greeted with both kinds of things almost every day in the news, and we know of it all instantly. Well, the world is what it is, and, with all its ambiguities, we know that Jesus has called folk like us to go out into that world, just as it is, to be his hands and feet. The heart of the Gospel is John 3:16, which was our call to worship this morning, and which you’ve heard me say ump-teen times is not about how much God loved the world, but “in what way” God loved the world. God loved the world by the action of giving the only Son to the world, so that those who commit their lives to him and his values might not live in frustration and just wither away, but share the very life of God by imitating what God does in giving to the world. The Gospel is not primarily about being pure enough to go to heaven by and by when we die, it’s about being Jesus’ love in our own human flesh for our own time and place, and in this way sharing the very life of God here and now…and later, too. At the centre of it all is this: “God loved the world.” And love is an action of embrace and affiliation not an emotion of warmth. Today’s texts all speak of this active love.
I could title the Gospel lesson “Jesus heals a loser.” The recipient of healing was already a loser in the eyes of his culture. He was a cripple, which meant that most religious people would have seen him as being punished by God for something he or his family had done. In spite of all Jesus said and did, it’s amazing that so many of his followers seem still seem to suffer from the view that bad things happen to punish people for their sins or somebody’s.
In our Gospel, Jesus healed this one in spite of who he was. He also healed him in spite of the fact that he didn’t ask to be healed, and, at least in the story, didn’t come to faith because of it. Perhaps, we are encouraged by the story to remember that God’s love and grace aren’t reducible to a payment for what we’ve got coming. That’s not grace, that’s a payoff!
Sometimes what happens in the Gospels seems to be that the tiny faith of the recipient works makes the miracle possible, and flowers after it. But who says that’s the template of God’s grace? This man didn’t seem to show faith either before or after the miracle. When Jesus asked, “Do you want to be healed?” The man didn’t answer in so many words, but rather, offered what seems like a “canned speech” as to why he hadn’t been the first one in the pool for nearly four decades. Then God healed the man through Jesus anyway. Might this story have gotten into a gospel we were writing? It isn’t a good story to market either evangelism or discipleship. The story challenges us to learn who’s in charge of things. Sometimes God works miracles of grace just because that’s what God chooses to do. It’s God’s grace that’s central to the story, not a series of hoops that we can learn to jump through in order to receive grace. Again, if that were true it wouldn’t be grace, but a payoff.
Even after the man is healed, he isn’t the good little believer with overwhelming gratitude. He blamed Jesus when the authorities accosted him for carrying his mat on the Sabbath: “He told me to do it,” he said. “Who is he?” say the religious authorities. “I dunno,” says the once-crippled man. Later, he snitched to authorities when he did find out Jesus identity. So, yes, Jesus healed a loser here. But this story isn’t as odd as we might think. God’s been up to that kind of thing for a long time. Once we bring grace into it, then, our list of qualifications for sainthood goes out the window and we lose our ability to predict what God will do. Grace is always a gift not a reward.
The Book of Jeremiah chapter 31 contain words that the prophet uttered together with reports of how these words were heard in a much different day. Jeremiah preached, in often vivid and violent terms, that his own nation of Judah would be politically snuffed out by the Babylonian empire, just as surely as its sister nation of Israel to the north had been snuffed out by the Assyrians well over a century before. Virtually no one in the corridors of power, believed him, but treated him as an anti-government traitor, and so dismissed him as another loser, much as we dismiss such folks today. But what Jeremiah said did happen. And it happened with all the carnage, rape, cruelty, and greed that we’ve seen in places like Nazi Germany, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the slaughter in Rwanda, the civil war in Syria, on and on.
After some of the wounds healed, and survivors became able to listen for God again as part of healing, they heard different words of Jeremiah, now passed from the scene. Our poems are some of those words to which some of those survivors listened. These words start by saying that, one day, the alienation will be over, and, once again, God would be the Lord of the whole people of God.l Again, grace for losers. Now, those readers knew that such words couldn’t really refer to a simple resuscitation of the dead kingdoms of the past because old Israel was gone and Judah had been forever changed. What God was promising through Jeremiah was to be God of new people, in new configurations, that might transcend old incompatibility. It isn’t so much a prediction as an imaginative challenge. What do you think? Could God do that? Or is it always the same with God? Can God work with a reconfigured people? Can God still do it? It’s not about the past, but about spiritual possibility in the present and future.
God’s vision here was based on a couple of things. The first is God’s statement, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” “Love” describes action taken to embrace and include and relate to other people or groups. That such an action is “everlasting,” literally means that such embrace, inclusion, relationship, “goes to the horizon,” or “the limit.” It is love that doesn’t quit, but goes the distance, that won’t be defeated. So God still acts.
Because of this kind of stubborn, persistent action to relate, this everlasting love, God, says, “I have continued my faithfulness to you.” The word faithfulness here is the word for the steadfast loyalty that covenant partners share. God has chosen relationship, and has, and will, remain loyal to it, even through searing times of separation, pain and grief. This word from Jeremiah says that God hasn’t, doesn’t, and won’t quit. God acts as a covenant partner by nature and by choice.
So, just who are these new people that God calls covenant partners? When we think of those who have been through the mill of violence and horrid experience, we might think they’d only be the strong. But look at those God names: “Among them the blind and the lame, those with child, and those in labour together.” God chooses the outcasts, the nobodies, the throwaways. That’s because, at the core of God’s personality, there is grace. So, God calls and empowers losers, flawed, imperfect people, just like Jesus healed in John 5. Just like us. If God is this way, and it is our job to go out to copy God’s work in the world (that is, to love the world in the way God does, John 3:16), wouldn’t it be wise to consider how we relate to those who are outcasts, nobodies and throwaways in our community?
We come, now, to that last book in the Bible, and our lesson from Revelation 21-22. The clue to reading this book is to understand that these pictures describe divine realities imaginatively. Worrying about the details as if they are history pre-written is like debating over the colour of Jesus’ sandals. It’s not important. This is the last vision in the Book of Revelation, and the Bible. It’s John’s imagining of the way things are finally to be: the ultimate will of God for the world that has been the object of divine love and concern since the beginning. Now, it’s interesting that, as much as Christians have believed and taught that our final destination is heaven, that’s not what this vision teaches. The final scene is on earth where the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven. We don’t read that “I’ve got a home in glory land, way beyond the blue,” but rather that “the dwelling of God is with mortals” (21:3).
But this earth is remade, just like the imagined new people of God in Jeremiah. All the images speak of change: no sun or moon, God is the light. No danger or insecurity, everyone is safe and secure in God. God’s presence isn’t like it is now, intermittent at best. God’s direct presence is constant. In biblical culture it was the firm conviction that no one could look God in the face and live. But, here, the seer imagines that this, too, is remade, and all live continually within the countenance of Almighty God. Power is also remade after God’s vision. Power exists to give and sustain life, not to get our way. And all the people are there, not just those we like or are like us or have our label. It also says that the big-shots of the earth will bring their glory into this city and the nations will walk by the light of God.
The vision is a mixture between the old Garden of Eden story and the Fruit of the Month Club, with a different fruit growing on the Tree of Life every month, if you can imagine such variety. Such variety and abundance of food also speaks of the end of hunger, injustice and unfair competition to get it. There is a wide variety of people in God’s city. The leaves of the tree of life are used as an ointment for the healing of the nations. Altogether this vision imagines that the God in whom we found grace as central back in Jeremiah’s day, and whose grace healed a loser through Jesus, is still central to the heart of God at the finish-line.
The purpose of this picture is to be a signpost for tired, imperfect, blind, lame, throwaways (losers all) that God is still gracious to the world. The old Sunday School song had it right: “Red and yellow, black, brown, white, all are precious in God’s sight.” God works grace for losers.
I’m never quite content to leave things without having something to think about and do. The image that intrigues me here is the leaves of the tree of life that are for the healing of the nations. Isn’t this another way of saying that it is God’s will that the nations – all of them – be healed, be recipients of grace? What might we do to break the aloe of the Tree of Life on the wounds of the nations? I mean now. Paul wrote one of the few passages in the Bible that actually says what the will of God is in a few words. Toward the end of 1 Thessalonians he wrote:
See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances: For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
And wouldn’t that be a good start? In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.