The Sweet Sound of Grace (Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10)
Today is September 11th. 9-11. The words will always have a bitter and ominous ring for those of us who value human life and peace, especially in this country. We all remember the television pictures of all the horrendous damage that was done on that day, which, to use FDR’s phrase, that shall live in infamy. We remember. What’s important, of course, is what we remember and how we remember as those who follow the Prince of Peace – which, in Hebrew, which means the sovereign of wholeness and fullness of life, not for some, but for all.
I never remember 9-11 for its example of the worst that humans do, but also for its examples (plural) of the best that humans do, rising from the ashes of disaster. Of course, the stories of heroism and the triumph of the human spirit are legion. The contemporary author Sebastian Junger (who wrote The Perfect Storm) recently wrote a little book called Tribe which is a reflection on how and why humans come together and do wonderful things when confronted by disaster. He says, in a nutshell, that it’s because our brains are hard-wired by hundreds of thousands of years of existence in tribes, before we ever got proud of ourselves as individuals who owe everything we have to ourselves. Cooperating in something bigger than oneself is a crucial part of the human spirit Junger says. I think he’s right. Although he doesn’t say much about religious things in his book what he says applies to communities of faith who come together to cooperate in something bigger, and that is, the life of God in Jesus. Today’s texts come back to a cluster of thoughts that are crucial and basic for Christians. They deal with the central core of who we are and what we do. We have talked about these truths many times before, and to paraphrase the words of an old Gospel song, “I love to tell this story…”
One of the things I learned from the experience of 9-11 is how quickly many people grew angry and stayed angry about what happened. If they were people of faith, one of the saddest things to me was that their faith began to reflect their anger. This led some to associate with those who had always been angry about this, that or the other, and whose faith and reading of the Bible was affected by their anger inside. Who we are inside affects how we see God, our faith and how we read the Bible, and this is not a new thing. When you read passages of judgment in the Bible (either Testament) remember that they were written by real people whose own situations coloured and directed the way they spoke and thought about God and the world as much as our situations do. They were not immune as we are not immune.
The Old Testament Lesson paints a landscape of wreckage and carnage; sure doom coming upon those who were Jeremiah’s opponents. There was no escape, there was no hope. God was angry. I find it interesting how often Jeremiah not only speaks for God, but feels for God. In the poems of chapter 4 the first person singular personal pronouns (the “I’s”) shift back and forth between referring to God and referring to Jeremiah, and we’re not always sure which is which. I invite you to read through the chapter and see what I mean. Jeremiah enfleshes (or incarnates) God’s pain and, sometimes God’s anger, at the nation’s rebellion. Please understand that the language of hopelessness and violence in passages like Jeremiah 4 grows as much out of Jeremiah’s own human situation as anything else. Because of this, as we try to read these words at our great distance, and unless we understand such situations, God comes off in this text (and others) as hard and angry. And so might the way we put our faith together based on them.
But, even with such clues to reading this kind of language, it is not quite true that there is “no hope” here in Jeremiah 4. There is, what I might call the sweet music of grace, as it were, amidst the main theme of terror coming on God’s own. At the end of verse 27 God utters three remarkable words in Hebrew (wekalah lo e’eseh), coming out as eight in English: “Yet I will not make a full end!” Many scholars think that these words are a later insertion that attempt to take the edge off of the harshness of the judgment. But, if we simply read the text as it is, these words stand, wherever they came from, and whenever.
Sometimes as you and I sit on the inside of trouble, it may easily look as if there is no hope. We may even, with good reason, hope that God will arise and make things right (even by violence). Our language is often like Jeremiah’s. Yet, even in the midst of rubble, we can hear the sweet music of grace sounding softly through the gloom: “Yet I will not make a full end!” “In spite of the wreckage that has come upon you (even if you did it to yourself), I am not done with you yet.” It isn’t over. God’s final word is not “No,” but “Yes.” Always look for the sweet music of grace in the Bible (and your life) and don’t let the tone of the human actors keep you from hearing it.
Let’s think about all this further, as we look at the Epistle in 1 Timothy 1. In this passage the author is reflecting on a life of service to God. The passage begins with gratitude to Jesus Christ that the author was found fit to minister and empowered to do so. The passage rises to a word of praise at the end, growing out of this gratitude. In the middle, however, we hear the testimony of one who thought himself unworthy to have been called, and unfit to serve. Although most of my New Testament colleagues do not think that the author of these words was Paul himself, it is undoubtedly true that, whatever the case, the author is speaking in Paul’s name, and reflecting on the inner life of that great minister of God’s grace. If we think about Paul’s life from the point of view of the facts of his career, the author exaggerates his own wickedness. But, remembering what I said about the place in which we find ourselves affecting what we say and how we say it; to this writer, it really seemed as if he were the worst sinner on earth.
This is because this writer was not primarily listening to the music of his own self-esteem, or his own abilities, but rather to the God’s sweet grace-music. In the light of God’s gracious call it didn’t look as if he were a talented rabbi with great gifts and great energy for ministry. The life of faith really isn’t about us, but about God in Christ, and, in that light, nobody simply gets what they’ve got coming.
Many years ago, when I was a young teacher and joined the faculty of theology at Acadia University, I was about 20 years younger than my next older colleague, and they all appeared to me as, not only giants of scholarship, but of faith. More the latter than the former, actually. Over our years here I’ve talked to you about each one of them at some time. Dr. Millard Ross Cherry taught theology and ethics and was the most ethical individual I’ve ever met. He was also a wonderful teacher. He called his style “treaching,” sort of midway between teaching and preaching. He also taught at a decibel level with which it was hard to compete unless his classroom door was closed. He had taught at Acadia since he came for one year in 1957, so he’d taught many generations by 1982. What a mentor! His former students would look him up years and years later to ask him about things going on in their ministries. So would young faculty.
Before we left Nova Scotia we celebrated his 80th birthday at the professional repertory theatre in town, a group of about 350 of us, together. There were many speakers who testified to the great stories Cherry had written in their lives. At the end, he briefly responded that he didn’t recognize the person they were talking about, because he knew himself in those dark moments when nobody else saw to be a flawed human being of many doubts and fears. He considered it amazing that he’d ever held a church, ever been listened to in the classroom, and on and on – he reminded me then of our passage in 1 Timothy. Judged from what he knew himself to be on the inside, he knew that his success was a gift and an honour. Truly great people, like Cherry, have listened to the sweet music of God’s grace, and have understood the nature of the God who composed the sweet music, and have sought to teach it to others.
The two stories from Luke 15 get behind the character of the God who plays the sweet music, and spell it out as clearly as anything in Scripture. One of the stories is about a lost sheep, and one is about a lost coin. The most famous story is the one we didn’t read about the lost son (the prodigal), which was the Gospel Lesson back in Lent. The context of these three stories is the stark need of people to chart a new course (the Bible uses the word “repent”), as well as the difficulty of discipleship (which we saw last week). The context deals with conflict and the failure of those who do not attend the poor and the marginal. These stories are put into the immediate context of the Pharisees’ grumbling that Jesus had open table fellowship with the wrong sorts of people.
The two parables here personalize God as a shepherd and a woman. Both these were at the margins of Jesus’ society. Isn’t that interesting that Jesus’ God should inhabit the margins? Here is the picture that emerges. God is a compassionate seeker who risks all the ones who are already safe for the one who isn’t. And, finding that one, throws a party. The heavenly community is pictured as a place that finds great delight when the lost is found. God’s community is a place of rejoicing and extravagant celebration when this happens. The party that God throws is also more extravagant than the market-value of that lost sheep or the face value of that coin. The picture of God angry or dour or unforgiving or vicious and cruel isn’t here at all. God is the one who throws a party for the angels. There is no attempt to argue with those folk who are grumbling that the fellowship is too broad. There is no case made that the lost sheep, now found, the lost coin, now found, are good enough. There is simply an invitation. This is what the party is like: won’t you come to the party? And, in the background, we hear the sweet sound of God’s grace.
God does not sit back in heaven and scream “Jump through my hoops or I’ll send you to you-know-where.” God goes looking for us when we are crushed and in the wreckage, and God looks until we’re found. And, then, God rejoices that we (and others) are found, even if we only be few (1 sheep in 100 say) or not worth a lot (like that coin, worth 16 cents). God, then calls us to a party to teach that sweet music of grace to the family. All this brings great joy to God because it is God’s nature to create and to recreate. That’s who God is, and what God does. Can we be like that, too?
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.