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F. Earle Fox,
Sermon at St. Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sunday before Advent
Christ the King - Nov. 22, 2009 Gen. 18:20-33; Ps. 39; Jer. 23:5-8; John 6:5-14
Today, the last Sunday before Advent, is commonly called "Christ, the King" Sunday, and the lessons are aimed in that direction. This is the last week of the Church year. Next Sunday it will be "Happy New Year!"
The lesson from Genesis, Abraham's conversation with the three angels on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (or rather to see if it should be destroyed), is one of the most fascinating and informative conversations in all of the Bible. Here is Abraham talking with the King of kings and Lord of lords. The passage begins with God deciding to go down to investigate whether the rumors He has heard about Sodom and Gomorrah are true or false. He makes no assumptions about even Sodom and Gomorrah being automatically guilty, He wants His own actual eye-witness evidence. A person, and even cities, are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
As the story starts, we see Abraham talking with three men, who turn out to be angels from God on their way to what turns out to be those two ill-fated cities.
But then it is as though God Himself were talking to Abraham. The story goes back and forth between God and angels. Hebrew thinking often shifted that way because it seemed improper to imagine mere humans being able to have a direct meeting with God -- as in Elijah's meeting with God on the mountain, where God tells Elijah that he will be able to see God's backside, but not His front, and in many instances where those who thought that they had seen God were in fear of their lives.
But talking with God does not stop Abraham. He goes right on with his questions. We read, "So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham still stood before the Lord." Bold Abraham did not get out of the Lordís way and challenges Him, as though to say, "Lord, before you move on, we have to get something straight!". "Will thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked?.... Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked..... Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
That is pretty strong, one might say presumptuous, language -- for Abraham to be lecturing the Lord about His intentions. Did the Lord really need to be taught a lesson in justice by Abraham?
But Abraham goes on with this amazing series of challenges to the Lord about how few can there be and the city still be saved. He got down to ten and then thought maybe he had better stop.
One supposes that Abraham was thinking of the safety of his nephew, Lot, who had chosen to reside in Sodom with his family because the land seemed to him to be prosperous. And Abraham was no doubt believing, or at least hoping, that God would find Lot and at least nine others of his family worthy of saving.
"And the Lord went His way when He had finished speaking with Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place."
We must remember, of course, that the
second person of the Trinity did not come into existence on Christmas Day, some
20 centuries ago. The Son is eternally begotten, and thus is co-eternal with the
Father and the Holy Spirit. Christmas indicates the
Incarnation of our Lord, not His coming into
existence. The Son of God was from the beginning. And Christians have from the
earliest times understood any appearance of God among His people to be Christ,
the Son of God, as later with Moses at the Burning Bush. So, we can say that
Abraham was talking to Christ, the King whom we celebrate today.
What, then, are we to make of this scene? How is it that Abraham had the temerity to talk to God that way? And what might God have thought of that?
I believe that this passage gives us an extraordinary insight into the nature of our King of kings and Lord of lords, and into the nature of our own fallenness and how God leads us out of it -- back to Himself.
Abraham was a fallen man, a man who struggled with his own disobedience and ignorance of God, even though he was a man open to the Spirit of God speaking to him and leading him on an extraordinarily strange journey and mission.
Abraham was just barely beginning to shed his pagan upbringing. There was no Scripture, no rabbis, no synagogues, no body of teaching at all. There was just God and Abraham, beginning this journey from scratch so far as Abraham was concerned. Abraham had been raised pagan, not Jewish, not Hebrew in the religious sense. Abraham was a Hebrew, of course, but that was a racial fact which as yet had no religious meaning.
Being raised a pagan, Abraham would have been familiar, for example, with child sacrifice to the pagan deities -- a fact which figures in the later event on Mount Moriah with his son, Isaac. But by whatever means, Abraham did have a strong sense of righteousness and justice. When God told Abraham of His mission to Sodom and Gomorrah, Abrahamís sense of righteousness rose up in him to challenge even God Himself to ensure that justice was done.
A fundamental part of our fallenness is our loss of contact with God, and a consequent degrading of our knowledge of God. We do not know Him fully, we have blind spots, and many do not know Him at all, or have terribly inaccurate and misleading impressions of God and His character and nature.
We can assume from Abrahamís concerns that he was not quite
sure whether God would indeed do justly, not quite sure that God would pay
attention to the perhaps very few righteous persons residing in Sodom.
Jesus tells a parable of an unjust judge who is beseeched by a woman for justice. Someone had done badly by her, and she wanted it set right. But the judge was insensitive, and ignored her pleas. Finally, because she was persistent, he granted her wishes, just to get her off his back. Jesus was saying that we should bang on Godís door that way, persistently and vigorously. Jesus did not mean to imply that God was an unjust judge, but rather that we should copy the persistence and vigor of the woman.
But why all that if God is indeed a just judge who delights in bringing justice to His people?
The problem is not in God, as it was with the judge. The problem is, as with Abraham, a suspicion, or even a conviction, that God is not loving, that God does not care about us. That separation of Adam and Eve from God in the Garden of Eden resulted immediately in a fear of God in Adam and Eve, that God was now "after them", out to punish them, going to do them evil. They were no longer "naked and unashamed", they were ashamed and frightened of God. They put on fig leaves and hid in the bushes. They no longer saw the King as one who loved them, who, if they were honest enough to confess and repent, would forgive them.
This Fall, this alienation from God, was passed on from generation to generation, right up to Abraham. Which, of course, God knew. God knew of Abrahamís suspicion and doubt about the character of God Himself. One might surmise that God stopped by Abrahamís tent on His way to Sodom and Gomorrah precisely to give Abraham a chance to overcome some of that ignorance of the God who had called him out of Mesopotamia, across the fertile crescent, into Palestine. But it would take some severe and challenging situations to bring Abraham to the kind of maturity which God needed in him.
And this event with God was one of those.
Suppose Abraham had had those doubts about God and had not spoken them? Suppose he had been "polite" (in skeptical quotation marks) rather than honest. What would have happened differently from the way Abraham in fact related to God?
He would have confirmed in his own mind that God was as he suspected. He would have sealed himself more deeply into his false understanding of God. For Abraham to meet this test from God, Abraham had to challenge God. He had to challenge God to measure up to His best. "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
A few weeks or so ago, I said that we must want God to judge us, we must want God to give us a true and accurate diagnosis of our sin condition. We cannot fix (repent of) that which we do not know, or are not willing to find out. And who would you rather want as a good diagnostician than God? Who could do a better job? And who could then better help you out of your now into-the-light sin?
But the flip side of that coin is that God wants us also to challenge Him. Not because He is in need of repentance, but rather that the God we are in fact challenging is a false, non-existent God. We are challenging our own error and delusion. But we do not know that. We think we are challenging the real God. But God knows that, and wants us to do it -- because, by getting our fears on the table, then God can show us that He does not fit that understanding.
By doing that, we discover that God really means business when He says, "Come, let us reason together." Reasoning together means you present your side, and God presents His -- honestly. God Almighty, God omnipotent, God omniscient, who can crush us in an instant, wants an honest exchange of opinions because that is the only way false opinions can be corrected. The only way we can find out that God is good and loving is to challenge the God we think is neither good nor loving. And then risk letting Him respond to that challenge. God does not respond with beating up on us -- which is what most of us fear. He responds with truth spoken in love.
And that truth spoken and lived in love is what converts our hearts and minds. It is that truth lived in love which enables us to be openly and freely the real persons God created us to be. We find a God who shatters our false image of Him, who reaches out to us with understanding and compassion. Yes, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, as we read in Proverbs. But this is how the perfect love of God casts out our fear -- as St. John says.
There is only one way we can learn these kinds of lessons, and that is risking our necks in being honest with God. God wants us to put truth ahead of Himself, because that makes truth-seeking then the Royal Road, the Camino Real, to God. That risking is the leap which leads to honest faith, honest belief, belief that you can take to the bank.
This is Christ our King, our King! who humbles Himself to let us do our worst with Him. He draws us close and says to us, "Work out your problems on Me. Stop trying to work them out with your boss, your spouse, your children, or parents. I can take it, they cannot -- unless they have first gone through this with Me."
As we have worked out our ugliness on God, as we have found out who He really is, and have allowed Him to be our King and Judge, then we can find out who we really are. You will not know who you are until you know who God is -- because you are made in His image. We can then become the kinds of persons who can be His missionaries to the world, the kinds of persons who can allow others to work out their problems on us -- without our being torn apart. We will know how to take authority roles or helping roles. We will know how to parent our children and teach truth to others. We can do that because we will have our full dependency resting on the Hand of God, and our full obedience submitted to the Voice of God. We will know who we are and where we are going. And all the insanity of the world will not be able to take away our identity as children of God.
That is what God was doing in Abraham, opening him up to the reality of who He, Christ, the King, really is, so that Abraham could find out who, he, Abraham really was, and be that person -- now more fully made -- in the Image of God. And that is what God wants to do with each of us.
In Jeremiah, we read that God will "raise up for David a righteous Branch, and that He shall reign as King, and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. And this is the name by which He will be called, ĎThe Lord is our righteousness," thus affirming the point which Abraham was so eager to make with God.
And then, "Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when men shall no longer say, íAs the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egyptí, but ĎAs the Lord lives who brought up the descendants of the house of Israel... out of all the countries where he had driven them.í Then they shall dwell in their own land."
What of America? We are not yet being driven from our land by foreigners, but our land is being taken over from within by those who reject God. And the Church is mostly -- silent. Our King is capable of restoring our land to its former dedication to Him.
The Gospel lesson about the feeding of the 5000 illustrates the power of our King. Jesus is demonstrating what He has told His people, "The Kingdom of God is among you... In your midst!" Jesus demonstrates the power of God in their midst by multiplying the loaves and fishes. In their midst.
God will demonstrate both His power and righteousness in our midst, and draw us back to Himself -- if we who call ourselves by His name will get on our faces and repent and seek the face of God.
"Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords" is a political claim. It means Lord over Caesar, over Congress, our courts, and our president. But that all begins with us Christians in our homes, in our churches, at work and at play, being witnesses for the power and the righteousness of God.
Lord, make us as bold as Abraham, as persistent as the woman with the unjust judge, as willing to risk ourselves in being honest with You, thus inviting You so that You can in turn be honest with us, become real to us, and thereby become for us the fullness of our Lord and Savior.
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