How Do We Let Go?
This sermon is the final sermon in our series: Faith is a Group Project. It has been formatted for presentation and not for the prevention of errors. Enjoy!
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The prophet, Isaiah, wrote words, given to him by God, calling out the people of Israel for being a huge letdown. He writes, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Isaiah 65:2, Romans 10:21). This is where Paul begins today. Paul quotes Isaiah in order to show that Israel is not where God wants them to be.
See, there is a sense in which, Israel, in following the Law, in doing what God told Moses to teach them, doing it as it was written, these people of Israel thought they were doing fine – thought they were doing well, in fact. They thought that if they just made sure that they didn’t carry anything on the Sabbath, don’t carve an idol for worship, and refrained from doing the other 611 things laid out in the 613 rules of the Law of Moses, then God would be supremely happy with them.
Trinity’s book club read A Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs a couple of years ago. It’s one of my favorite books. My family listened to it on audiobook on a trip a few years ago and Katherine, who was probably six years old at the time, sat in the back seat of the car just cracking up.
A.J. Jacobs decided that he was going to live his life as literally close to the teachings of the Bible as possible. So he began by not wearing clothes made out of mixed-fiber materials and stopped cutting the sides of his hair. But, it is not long before he graduates to stoning adulterers. But, it’s not what you might think. Jacobs wanted to live the Law as closely as possible for our modern times. So he begins walking through Central Park and picks up a handful of pebbles that he can secretly toss upon someone who he deems to be an adulterer.
By this time in his year-long project, he had begun wearing long robes, and his beard had become long and full as well, and the sides of his hair had grown out. As a result, a man in park approached him and said, “You look weird. What are you doing?” And A.J. told him that he is trying to live according to the Bible, “you know”… not cutting his beard or hair, wearing single-fiber clothing, stoning adulterers…. The man cuts him off, and asks, “Stoning adulterers? I’m an adulterer. Are you going to stone me?” Jacobs responded, “You know, that would be great. Can I?” And the man grabbed the pebbles out of Jacobs’ hands and chucked them at him. So, A.J. thought to himself, ‘an eye for an eye, I guess,’ and threw a pebble at him as well (Jacobs, 392), thus fulfilling his obligation to that particular law.
It’s a funny story that punctuates what happens when we let rules be our spirituality. It’s why we find both Isaiah and Paul writing about Israel’s unfaithfulness. They may have been well-meaning; it wasn’t that. They just couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
I have to admit that every time I have ever read this passage, I have always identified myself with the Church and not with Israel. On Thursday night, I had a meeting up in Santa Ana with my friend, Stephen Hale who will come and preach for us someday soon, and I was telling him about this sermon and he said something like, “Matt, we’re now a lot more like the version of Israel, that Paul is talking about; more like Israel than the Church.” I turned my head to the side like a confused puppy. But, I immediately know that he was right. Often, we’re the ones who judge and hurt and lack in spirituality. We’re the ones who have forgotten the reasons why we follow God and allow ourselves to be consumed by rules and regulations.
It’s the way it became with the Israelite tribalism. In the Thursday night Bible study, we have been talking a lot about Israel, the tribes of Israel, and all the baggage that comes from having thousands of years of sibling rivalry that comes into play between those tribes. Tribes were an important part of being a Jew in the first century and we get a hint of their tribal nature in Paul’s explaining what is happening with Israel and their current state of disobedience. In doing this, he admits his own tribal affiliation, that he is a part of the tribe of Benjamin.
Geographically, Benjamin’s territory was the one closest to Judah, Jesus’ tribal home. In fact, both tribes, both Judah and Benjamin, at different times in history, claimed Jerusalem as part of their tribal home. That closeness made these two tribes act a lot like the two youngest siblings in a very large family, who constantly try to one-up one another. See, the first king of Israel, Saul, was from the tribe of Benjamin. The king who overtook him was David, from the tribe of Judah. Paul was a Benjaminite. Jesus was from Judah. That would make Paul’s relationship with Jesus, at least historically, a little more complicated than we might like to allow.
The point of this discussion of tribalism is simply because tribes still mattered in Israel when Paul was writing. And, perhaps, this is a big reason why they can’t see how they could ever be joined with the Gentiles. If they can’t get along with those other tribes who are a part of their genetic and spiritual family, how can they get along with others outside of it? And, in this way, Jesus comes to a world that is so broken and hurting and divided.
Isn’t it such a shame that this is exactly where we find ourselves now. Professor and writer, Robert Reich, says that we still create tribes and most, but not all, are political: republican/democrat, white/black, liberal/conservative, Christian/secular. We draw these tribal lines to make it clear to one another, “I’m not like those people.”
It’s funny to think how clearly Paul tells the Roman churches that they don’t get to do this and, yet, we still do it. Paul says that they don’t get to feel superior to other people. It’s funny because, when we consider how the Church, for much of Christian history, has been devoted to proving how superior we are to other people. I have to admit that I’m guilty of it too, even this morning, as I overemphasize the number 613 when I talk about the Law of Moses. In some ways, I have to repent even as I preach.
Like Israel, we in the Church love to fight and to argue and consider our way the best way. It makes us further isolate and insulate ourselves from our neighbors and our neighborhood. And when we are confronted about it, as Jesus and Paul did to these Israelites who were no longer a city on a hill or a light of the world, we act like they did, becoming stiff-necked and stubborn. So at this point, because of our stubbornness, are we hopeless? Is God now done with us? Thanks be to God, no.
Neither Paul nor Isaiah thought that God was done with Israel. Both men meant that God was gently calling Israel back to the heart of God. As if he knows the tendency of people to make themselves better than others or to talk down to people who disagree with them, Paul, and this is my paraphrase of it, tells the Roman churches this: He says,
“Look around you; none of this is new. Israel has always struggled to follow God. And so, now, why are you so surprised to find them still struggling? Is it because for once, they are found disloyal while you happen to be faithful? Who do you think you are? Why is it that you think that God has given up on them? God certainly has not – they are still chosen. And now that we have that out of the way, what do you, Gentiles, get to say about the current condition of Israel? Do you get to laugh to yourself and shake your head and think, ‘what a bunch of bozos.’? Absolutely not! In fact, if you do that, you are not only making fun of them, and excluding them, you are doing the same to me as well. For I, Paul, am a part of Israel. So I think it would benefit you not to do that” (Romans 11 paraphrased).
This is Paul’s version of: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, let them hit the other one too; and from anyone who steals from you, give them everything you have and do not ask for it back’ (Luke 6:27-31, paraphrased).
I say this because the people of Israel were killing Christians. We witness it even in the story of Paul as he watched Stephen’s murder at the hands of the Jewish leadership. Now, imagine yourself, sitting in your church in Rome, hearing this letter read, knowing that your pastors have been in jail, they have been banished from the community – exiled from their homes – and some have even been killed because of their faith in Christ… now imagine that you hear Paul say that these ones who caused it all, these ones who have caused so much trouble in your life – Paul says that they will be restored to the Church, restored to God and that you will one day be brothers and sisters again. You might respond with an internal, “Yeah, right. How can Paul expect me to forgive these people?” But, Paul was right, God is not done with Israel.
And God is not done with the Church. Paul asked Christians to be forgiving and open, even to the people who hurt them the most. And Paul asked Israel to return to the heart of God that lives inside the Church. And to that Church, those Christians, Paul asked them to welcome Israel back with open arms when they returned. Whether we see ourselves as those endangered and hurting Christians, or the powerful and rule-centered Israelites, or even a little of both, we can’t help but hear this as a radical message of forgiveness and reconciliation. Paul is asking us to do the impossible: to forgive the ones who hurt us most.
So, who is it who has hurt you? I’ve got mine in the front of my mind right now. Is it crazy to think that God is going to restore that person? Does it even hurt our hearts a little bit to think that God might forgive what those people did to us? It goes against our sense of justice, doesn’t it?
But, when we stand in the way of grace and forgiveness and unity, God prays for us those words of Isaiah, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Isaiah 65:2). And it is us who have become disobedient and contrary. We heard Paul say already in Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NIV). When we want to stand in the way of what God is doing to reunite all of humanity within the heart of God, we have forgotten our own sin and all that God has forgiven us for. We cannot stand in the way of God’s grace.
And so, may we, as the Church, go forth in grace and in forgiveness, even for those who have hurt us most.
The grace, peace, and forgiveness of Christ Jesus go with us.
New American Tribalism