Monday, September 29, 2008

A Question of Authority

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Is it possible that He is a God who loves so completely that His love for us could actually be considered a weakness, even a fetish (ie, “obsessive devotion”)? Think about the crazy – and often irrational - things we’ve all done when we were, or are, so completely in love. The world is beautiful and scary at the same time. Life, in its chaos, suddenly makes perfect sense yet makes no sense at all. Food tastes better, but we never seem to have an appetite. Music makes sense, and we who held a certain disdain for poetry and Shakespeare in high school would suddenly find ourselves recalling and quoting from certain poems and even Shakespeare. Love may be a many splendor thing, but the mind that is completely engrossed in someone else is a whole other story and somewhat less than splendid.

In Tuesday’s Dem-Gaz editorial, it was written about a confrontation at the Peabody Hotel in Little Rock where editorial writers had gathered for a conference. The Phelps clan from Topeka’s (KS) own Westboro Baptist Church was also at the Peabody doing what they seem to do best: protesting. Exactly what they were there to protest was never clear, but it is presumed and inferred that editorial writers and other media types in general were in danger of eternal condemnation – or have already been condemned - because they do not express the level of hatred and disdain for homosexuals that Westboro folks have and do so often express. And the editorial quoted John 3:16 in the piece but emphasized John 3:17: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”

Apparently the Westboro Baptists don’t read John very often – if ever. And it may be telling that Christians in general can easily quote John 3:16 but not much of what follows.

The American Church does not seem to be faring well in our contemporary society. When I was a child growing up in a small town, there was almost nothing happening on Sunday morning except for folks getting ready for church. Oh, there were pockets of those who would choose instead to play golf, go hunting or fishing, or stay home and watch a football game, and stores were closed but for the most part people were in church.

Over the years, there has been a dramatic turn. With the exception of die-hard denominationalists, people seem to have lost faith in the so-called “mainline churches” and have moved toward non-denominational settings or have moved away from the Church altogether. As a result of this apparent shift in priority, every generation or so has seen a shift in emphasis coming from the various churches except for those who have maintained a solid, if somewhat conservative line.

Telling the truth, as it were, should never go out of style, but truth seems to be relative to what is important in our lives. And what is important to us at a particular time is not necessarily as important to our neighbors.

It always seems to boil down to a quest. We are constantly in search of something. Whether it is something new or more of something we don’t seem to have enough of, we are always on a quest. During this time of such drastic and dramatic financial challenges, for instance, people young and old are looking for certainty and security. We all need to know that there is something we can count on, something that will never change and will never shift even as we are constantly changing and shifting. How we or our neighbors choose to embrace a certain reality may change somewhat, but the constant we seek in our lives must remain steadfastly unchanged and as sure and true as the floor we stand on.

So here is a little foundational truth for us all to stand securely on: the God and Father of the New Covenant has not changed and has not changed His mind. About anything. And the bottom line of this constant truth is that He may well be so madly in love with us that He is willing to reach out in whatever way possible to teach us, to show us, to nurture us, to remind us that He is still with us and that He has not given up on us even as we seem to have given up on Him.

According to the tenets of New Testament faith, He has made it somewhat easier – for lack of a better term – to meet Him or to be met by Him through the New Covenant. For some reason, however, and for far too many among us, even this is not good enough. And with this sense of dissatisfaction has come a certain, if profound, complacency and loss of respect.

What do people want? What is it that we seem to respond to more favorably? This is the compelling question that haunts pastors throughout the Church, regardless of denomination. Now I will grant you that there are some pastors who consider increased attendance and new membership as evidence of the fruits of their own individual efforts, and on a certain level it is probably true. People need to know that the pastor cares. And for the life of the church, it is important that the pastor see his role as far more than just a 9-to-5 “job”.

The pastor, however, is not the Church nor is the pastor the final “authority” of the Church although too many do believe that if the pastor is not “right”, then the church cannot be “right” and so they choose to leave. But even these well-intentioned people are on that same perpetual quest, looking for something, anything, that will add or enhance the meaning and purpose of their lives without disturbing their sense of security, failing to see what is right before us – and always has been - waiting to be embraced.

In the confrontation recorded in Matthew21:23-32, Jesus is being challenged in the very same way and in the very same vein in which the Lord God Himself has apparently been challenged according to what is written for us in Ezekiel 18. It seems to be a question of authority and to whom, or to what, we choose to offer and show our respect. Man has created his own system of justice the standards of which are inherently in conflict with the Holy Father. How can this be in a system of justice that presumably has its very roots in a legal system commanded by the Lord God?

What is the difference in two such systems that seem to strive toward the same goal of an ordered society? Notice its profound simplicity: man is loathe to forgive and rarely – if ever – gives second chances. Not really. We talk a good game, but I don’t think we really believe that.

Listen again very carefully to the words of Ezekiel 18:27-29a: “When the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’”

So what is unfair in the eyes of Israel? It surely cannot be the “wicked” who call the Lord “unfair”, the “wicked” who have turned from their sorry ways and have finally found peace and fulfillment in their lives by turning to the Lord. I don’t think those who have experienced the Lord’s forgiveness find Him unfair at all. So who is it? Who is doing the asking? Who is issuing a direct challenge to the Lord Himself by such an accusation?

I think it is a safe bet that these allegations against the Lord are not being spoken aloud as much as they are being lived, acted upon, and played out. When someone breaks the law, we expect and demand that they pay the price. Fair enough; the law stipulates penalties. For man, however, it goes much further and deeper than that. We don’t want the transgressors to merely pay; we want them to S*U*F*F*E*R for what they’ve done. This, to man, is true justice and the way things ought to be, and anyone who suggests otherwise is not being “fair” or reasonable, including the Lord Himself.

Yet according to Israel’s objections, the Lord is being unfair because He is allowing even the “wicked” to come to their senses, turn from their evil ways, and live. Why are we not so inclined?

Could it possibly be that the Church is in decline because we cannot seem to make up our minds about the Lord? Or that we have somehow come to the conclusion that the Lord is unfair because He offers salvation to ANY and ALL who come forward so we therefore have a hard time taking Him seriously because transgressors don’t openly suffer and pay to our complete satisfaction?

Yes, it is true enough that we must meet the Lord on His terms and not our own; this is the essence of repentance. But does it have to mean that we who call ourselves faithful can choose to stay away, having somehow justified ourselves to the point that we no longer feel the need for the support and the fellowship of the Church? Or believing in our own piety to the point that we choose not to worship with “sinners” who are not worthy to be in our presence?

It is entirely one thing to find a church with a congregation one can be comfortable with. It is another to be on a constant quest for the “ultimate” church without being willing to bring something, such as one’s life and devotion, to meet the Lord on His terms. It is His authority by which the Church proclaims the Word of Life and not death. Surely we do not, or dare not, demand anything more or offer anything less.

We are specifically denied the authority to judge, but we have been granted and blessed with the authority and privilege to proclaim the Good News of Christ. We must therefore be willing to use this authority to offer to a seemingly hopeless world the same Word of Hope we seek and desire for ourselves for it is in the proclamation of hope and redemption by which we are redeemed.

It is solely His authority to grant; it is our privilege to receive. It is a safe bet, dear friends, that if we need to hear a Good Word of Hope, so does someone else.

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