If you’re on a roll—your kids are happy and healthy and cooperative and like your company, your career ladder feels like the up escalator, your romantic life seems like the stuff of steamy novels—then this sermon probably isn’t for you. File it away and come back when you’re not at the top of your game and all is not so right with your world.
I’m giving you this advice because there are times, at least for some of us, when we look at the world, at our lives, and wonder, “What was God thinking?” “What is up with that?” Or more personally, “So, God, would it have been too much trouble for you to give us a little break here?”
Giving thanks for successful children, happy marriages, job promotions, beautiful sunsets, starry nights, and a three car garage is certainly a good practice. In all of these good things we catch a glimpse of God’s gaudy generosity and flawless taste. Being thankful sets our own soul aglow in a way that contrasts sharply with the darkness of an ungrateful heart.
But life is actually not all kittens, triumphs, and passionate kisses. What about the parent whose daughter is trapped in addiction or lives on the streets? What about the newly widowed woman facing her first Christmas alone, the down-sized sixty-year-old that no one wants to hire, or the vet with PTSD and no available treatment program?
Some people are mired in depression, bearing chronic pain, struggling with shame, facing the choice between filling a prescription and feeding the kids, or looking at a home flattened by storms.
Where is God in that?
When life seems like not only a mess but wreckage, we can wonder if we’ve finally stumbled on godforsaken territory. We’ve moved outside of God’s zip code. The wasteland. Hell. Or maybe Texas.
Looking for God in times like this we will find out that God is faithful to us in ways that turn our whole notion of God and faith and the meaning of our own life on its head.
Before I explain what I mean, let me be clear about something.
Some preachers will add to our burden by telling us that the key to handling dark stretches of life is to have faith. It’s as if God is watching how we handle crummy situations. God assesses how consistently and persistently we cling to our beliefs. If we waver, we fail the test. So not only am I dealing with an unmanageable mess, now I’m on my own and proving myself to God.
Tell these preachers to take a hike. Or at least let them know that this sounds like Burdensome Instructions and remind them that the Gospel is Good News.
The bottom line of the Good News is not our faith in God. Lots of earnest people have assumed that it is, and they’ve distorted the Good News into a new commandment: cling with all your might to a set of beliefs so you can get through this life with a few blessings and maybe earn a sweet spot in the next life.
What makes the Good News news at all is that it reports what has already happened, what is already true, instead of what we have to do. And that news is good precisely because of what it says about God. God is unwaveringly faithful toward us.
In the Church year this is Christ the King Sunday. We take time to think about the reign of God in and through Jesus. We mull over what theologians mean by phrases like “the sovereignty of God,” what Jesus himself means when he talks about the Kingdom of God, and what we say in the Nicene Creed when we say that Jesus’s kingdom will have no end.
Let’s put all of this another way. On Christ the King Sunday, we ask, “What is God really up to in the world we actually inhabit?” The answer is: God is being faithful to us.
The Gospel reading that we’re given to guide our thinking is a portion of Luke’s account of the Passion. Jesus is on the cross and utters this familiar phrase: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
Let’s slow down and mull this over together for a while.
Let’s start with what Jesus means when he says, “Forgive them.”
I used to assume that Jesus was saying something analogous to this: “Don’t hold this against them. They don’t realize how awful their sin is. Let me take their punishment so that they can get another chance.”
Now I hear something different: “Let’s dive in and fix this. Life is more than they can manage on their own. They’re in over their heads, and they are clueless. This is really going to hurt.”
As it turns out, forgiving is how God exercises his reign and extends his Kingdom.
God is dreaming of what the world will be. It needs his forgiveness to get there. It needs renewing. Jesus isn’t suggesting that God should sweep things under the rug. But neither is Jesus merely asking God to write off a moral debt. God is making all things news.
God recognizes that life is more than just a little messy.
It’s beautiful and it’s shattered beyond human repair. It’s sweet and it’s bitter, nourishing and toxic. Our hearts are full to bursting. Our hearts lay in fragments on the ground.
We love and we hate, we build up and we demolish. Some can feast while others famine. We park our cars in more luxurious shelters than most people on our planet will ever call home.
In Jesus, God has said, “I’ll take it just as I find it. Whatever you give me, that’s what I’m going to work with.” Our life. Our world. As it is. That’s what God is going to work with. That’s what God is working with.
But that’s not all.
Do you remember hearing the word “repent” in those last words? I don’t. Jesus did not say, “Forgive them because they’re sorry for what they’ve done. They’re going to do better next time.”
Nope. Jesus said, “Forgive them. They’re clueless. They don’t even realize the damage they’ve done. The damage they’re still doing. They’re so clueless, half the time they think they’re making things better. They’re driving in the nails and they think they’re building a better tomorrow. They’re clueless. If we don’t help them, Father, they’re lost. And that’s a loss we cannot bear.”
God takes the initiative. What God is doing is not a reaction to us. He is not rewarding us because we’ve been so good. God is restoring us because God is so good.
On the Cross Jesus stands right in the midst of agony and sorrow and humiliation and betrayal and death. God is determined. There is nothing God cannot, God will not, redeem. God does not take away our pain or grief or isolation. Instead, he inhabits them and turns them into the harrowing passageway to vitality, joy, and belonging.
Simply put, God’s reign means this. In Jesus, what happens to us, what others do to us or fail to do for us, and even what we freely decide to do is not the decisive thing in our lives.
What God has done will be decisive. Life’s meaning—how all things come together—is a result of what God has done and is doing in Jesus. The word who spoke us into being is the last word on what our eternal life is becoming.
God is standing in the midst of things with us. And when God reigns in our hearts and minds, when we throw in our lot with the crazy idea that God is renewing this world, we stand in the midst of things with others while they’re going through whatever life throws at them.
We cry with the broken hearted, feed the hungry, sit with the lonely, demand justice for the powerless, treat the sick, and visit the imprisoned. Or more accurately, God is doing it through us and with us.
Our finite hands will not fix things, not finally and forever. But God’s infinite love will. And that infinite love extends its reign on this planet, in this universe, through you and me and millions of others like us.
In and through our willingness to show up, to do the one good thing in front of us, addicts get sober, victims of violence dare to be vulnerable again, impoverished children go to bed with full stomachs, the poor get prescriptions filled, and adults embarrassed and held back by their illiteracy learn to read.
God extends his Kingdom one act of forgiveness, one act of mercy, one casserole at a time. God does not reign by pushing us to and fro or by handing out rewards and punishments when all is said and done.
God reigns by tossing his dignity aside and getting recklessly involved in the chaos and the music, the dreck and the beauty, the horror and the glory of all things human. God reigns by saturating us from within with a love that cannot be staunched.
That love does more than fill us and transform us. It spills out from us onto those around us. And that is just how God’s reign is expanding. Expanding until God’s reign on this earth is like his reign in heaven.
This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s in Moss Bluff, Louisiana.