The same old sin, and a lesson in grace.

How often have you heard people complain about the differences between the Old and New Testaments…complain that the Old Testament is full of stories of God’s vengeance and wrath, while the New Testament reveals that God is love.  It’s not true, of course – God is God, and our efforts to describe God – to capture the essence of God in mere words – always fall hopelessly short of the mark.

We are made aware, through the history of the Hebrew people (as it is told in the Old Testament) that they understood their hardship and suffering in terms of God’s punishment or God’s absence.  They had some justification for this, I suppose, as their suffering was extreme, and their difficulties were numerous.  As a result, their descriptions of ‘God’s vengeance’ were vivid, and they lived with the constant expectation that God was both willing and able to punish them for their mistakes.

That expectation becomes a cultural ‘fact’; their history is full of fine examples of what they understood as God ‘acting out’ – surely, God knows the difference between punishment and prosperity – and so it is easy to develop a worldview that places punishment entirely in God’s hands, meaning the avoidance of punishment is our task, every time.

This week, however, the Lectionary readings offer us an alternative: joy and plenty from the hand of God, offered by a prophet who works among people in exile; people who believe their exile is part of God’s plan to punish them – and the prophet tells a story of providence instead.

It boggles the mind that God, whose task (in the Old Testament) is imagined to be limited to judgement and punishment, instead offers comfort, nourishment – even GLORY – to those whose lives have fallen apart.  True, this is a call to repentance – but repentance is always necessary in a world where

“…my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”  This is also a reminder that God’s measure of who is and is not worthy defies our understanding.

This seems to be the point Jesus would make – not that Jesus has suddenly reverted to an ‘old testament’ understanding – to promoting a two-faced god.  “Are they (who died so horribly) worse sinners than all the rest?”  There is a temptation to make Jesus sound morally superior, but the parable that follows suggests that Jesus is mocking those who imagine that any one particular sin is worse than another in God’s eyes.

I take this approach to this morning’s lessons at a time in the life of the national church when our energies are directed toward these sorts of ‘preferential judgements.’  A flurry of Overtures to last year’s General Assembly brought Homosexuality and same-sex marriages back into the spotlight.  To be clear, the Presbyterian Church in Canada has already said that homosexuality is not a sin, but that marriage is defined as between one man and one woman.    Nonetheless, following the discussions on Overtures to last  year’s General Assembly, the church at large is taking time to consider what it means to be ‘fit to minister’ in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

There are those who argue for fuller inclusion; calling the church to recognize this as an act of social justice.  Others prefer the current approach, that allows homosexual individuals to be ordained and seek a call, so long as they remain celibate.  Still others believe that the recognition of homosexual people as among those fit to serve the church is nothing more than a dangerous concession to society.

It’s likely that we’re all wrong.

”For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways” – so says the prophet on behalf of the Lord (Isaiah 55: 8) – words not meant to discourage us, but to remind us that we are still part of an ordered Creation that we do not fully understand, over which we cannot gain full control.  Our hiding behind rules, modern and ancient, and our various appeals to ‘tradition’ or ‘progress’ are simply further outbreaks of the same old sin.  We are consumed by the pride which suggests that “we alone” can know the mind of God.  This is the sin that makes Jesus weep for Jerusalem – the sin that drives him to these careful comparisons – “…are these any worse sinners than those…?”

It is possible to imagine that there is only one sin – and that, being human, we have managed to express that one sin in an infinite number of creative ways.  Therefore, among sinners, God does not play favourites (if that were the right word) – indeed “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, and yet…and yet…God’s favourites are those who recognize that their sin keeps them from right relationship with God.  Repentance is always necessary, for everyone – constantly – not because certain sins are occasionally ‘favoured’ as more harmful, but because we continually re-invent new ways to express our sin.

And so, in this season of preparation and, yes, anticipation, let us hear for ourselves Jesus’ call to repentance “…or else you will perish as they did.”  This is not an empty threat – there are two choices within a life of faith – acceptance that “God is God and we are not” – a position of humility and worship and service guided by the promise of God’s providence, or a futile pursuit of “certain righteousness” based on a proud (but baseless) assumption that our minds have somehow unravelled the mystery of God’s plan for Creation.  No matter which path we pursue, we shall perish – that is certain.  But will we have lived lives of humble service, or lives of willful belligerence?

Even the tree that have not produced fruit are nurtured and encouraged; there are many “last chances” in the vast fabric of God’s grace – many times many, it seems – and it is only our foolish pride that runs us out of chances.  To those who believe that the churches future hangs on our ability to make the “right choice” – relax; remember that God is predisposed to Grace.  If Resurrection teaches us anything, it is that we should humble ourselves before the One who has overcome even death.  Let us abandon the pride that must be right – the pride that must be certain – and accept God’s offer of mercy which is deep and wide and absolutely without favourites.

Amen

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