A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor of First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on June 20, 2010.
Isaiah 55:1-3, 8-13
Our Father who art in heaven, we thank you that this is one of the ways that you have revealed yourself to us. Forgive us if we ever stoop to think that you are like those of us who are fathers. Rather stretch us to see that each of us, male and female, parent and childless, each of us, are called to reflect the perfection of your character in this world. Teach us each to be wise so that we can sort through the competing claims and the various solutions offered by the world to our problems. Teach us to be patient that we might bear with challenging people and circumstances that seem to go on without end. Teach us to be firm in our convictions and courageous in the stances we take, particularly when those things are unpopular. Teach us to be responsible. Teach us not to look for another to fulfill our duties. We pray that you would teach us to be pure in heart, to thirst after righteousness so that we might be an example to each and all that observe our lives. Undergird us with your spirit. Empower us with your strength. We ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.
We are speaking of God, what marvel if thou do not comprehend? For if thou comprehend, he is not God.
—Augustine of Hippo
Like many of you, I do enjoy sports, but if we are truthful, some sports that we watch on TV are rather brutal. They have changed hockey so that people wear helmets, mouthpieces, and face guards, but all of us can remember times we have seen hockey players without their false teeth, and we have seen the scars from where they have been slammed into the boards.
Of course, football is akin to religion in the South but, again being honest, if you watch many games, sometimes you just have to wonder how people get up after a particular incident on the football field. I think we are all shocked when someone has a life-changing injury in football, but really we should probably be shocked that they don’t have them more often. It is a brutal sport.
Then comes the latest phenomenon which is ultimate fighting. I have to confess that is one I do not watch. If you watch boxing in slow motion, that is bad enough. But now we have the cage fights. Is there another word besides brutal? It is just absolutely brutal.
If we compare the things we watch in sports to the things that were sports in Roman times, our sports look like Vacation Bible School. We have all seen Russell Crowe in Gladiator. While that is a significantly better choreographed image of what happened in the Coliseum, those were the kinds of things that took place. People did live and die by the sword and with wild animals in the Roman Coliseum.
The point of this is that we have this false notion that in the times in which the Bible was written, from Old Testament to New Testament, it was a simpler, gentler time. When Jesus tells us things like, “Turn the other cheek,” it was more possible to turn the other cheek in Bible times than in our time. We think about how impractical it is today. You just really cannot expect people to live like this. But the truth is it was actually more difficult in the times in which the prophets spoke and Jesus walked upon the earth in the First Century. It was more difficult to live the way we are taught in scripture than it is today. Sports are just the tip of the iceberg.
We complain about taxes. I don’t like taxes and I am sure you don’t like takes. That is a good conversation piece politically today, but the truth is our taxes are nothing compared to the way taxes were collected in Bible times. It was pure extortion, and there were people who were literally taxed to death. Things were taken from them and they were obliged to give to government and province in such a way that they had nothing left and they literally starved to death.
Of course, we are thinking about the world that brought us crucifixion. Crucifixion was as much a deterrent to future criminals as it was a punishment for those who were being executed. We think that, in some way, the world of Isaiah, Jeremiah or Jesus was this place where it was so much easier to live according to the ideals that God puts forth to us in Scripture.
We think about Jesus saying that the person who has two coats should give one to someone else. I daresay there are very few among us who only have two coats.
I was helping our older daughter and her husband look for a house back in the winter. We went into a home, and they had a walk-in closet that had nothing in it but coats. We have a hard time parting with one, but in Jesus’ world where it really was a matter of “if”—if you happen to be one of the lucky few that has two coats, give half of them away.
Wasn’t it the French philosopher Voltaire who said, “If there were no God, we would have need to invent one.” If we were to invent God, God would not be like this. It seems beyond us to be able to conceive of God who would teach us these things. This is not the way we think.
I am sure you know the old science experiment with the chicken hatchery. If you have a chicken hatchery, and pull out one chick and dye it a different color from the rest of the chicks, then put it back in with the other chicks, the other chicks will peck it to death. Odd one out. That is the law of nature in a world in which we live. Of course, Jesus comes along and says, “Love your enemy.” We are much more prone naturally to instinctively exclude or hurt our enemy much more so than we are to love our enemy.
We think about no free lunch. You don’t get anything for nothing. You have to work; you have to pay. Some way you are going to have to earn it, then along comes Isaiah, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”
One of the first things that happens when there is a disaster is price gouging. Those who have make sure that those who don’t have pay richly and royally for whatever it is they want, but God who owns it all would give all away to those of us who have nothing.
When it comes to salvation, we would make people crawl through the needle’s eye of our demand to make sure they understand where the power of salvation comes from, but God says salvation is free. Which of us thinks this way? Which of us left to our own heart, mind, and ideas thinks this way? It comes as no surprise that God says through the prophet, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”
If we had the power, we would make things happen in a way to serve us. God has power, and God pours it into love. Instead of using it as a way to beat people, God pours all of his power into love so that mercy extends beyond where we would give mercy. God’s love selects much broader than the way our love selects. God’s forgiveness is extended in a way that is wider than the way our forgiveness would be extended. The truth is our ways are not God’s ways. Isn’t that a great thing? Isn’t it a great thing that we have scripture to reveal to us that our limited understanding of what would be right, good, fair, and just is not the way God works?
There is a scary kind of Christian, and that is the kind of Christian who confuses every thought they have with the mind of God. Have you ever run into anybody like that? Whatever it is that they just happen to think at the moment they say, “God told me this. I was just thinking and God told me . . .” Sometimes they come up with stuff that is not God, at least not as I read God in the scripture, not as I listen to God as he speaks from the pages of the prophets or through the red-letter words of Jesus or from the Letters of Paul. We need to remember that even in our highest and noblest moments, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts. Instead of judging what God says by what we think is practical or by what we think might be possible, we need to remember that we begin with God. We are reminded that we are always stretched, pulled, and drawn higher. Our ways are not God’s ways. God’s ways are like the heavens above the earth compared to ours.
Let us recognize that while none of us are perfect, we always aspire to the likeness of Christ. We always aspire to be like Jesus and to reflect the character of God, not as we think it up sometimes, but as we read it in the scripture. This is the way we are to live in the world.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.