Monthly Archives: August 2011

Tiger Woods Will Not Break Jack Nicklaus’s Record

Tiger Woods will not break Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional major championships.  He’s currently at 14, so he needs five more to surpass Nicklaus.

That may have been a slightly bold claim to make several years ago, perhaps even after Woods’s fourth-place finish at the Masters in April.  It appeared that he might be on track to once again dominate the sport.  Since then, however, he missed most of the summer with an injury, finished 37th in the Bridgestone Invitational, and missed the halfway cut at the PGA Championship.  It may no longer be terribly bold to make this prediction, but I’ll lay out my argument here, anyway.

There are several factors that many have already noted.  Woods is not playing very much nor practicing very diligently.  He’s admitted as much in interviews.  Further, he’s constantly tweaking his swing, which isn’t good.  A golfer must be confident as he stands over the ball and Woods is completely lost these days.

There are a few considerations, however, that I’ve heard very little about.

First, golf is completely unlike any other sport in one respect.  No matter how hard a golfer works, there’s something mysterious that happens in a golfer’s mid to late 30’s.  It’s hard to say just what “it” is, but for some reason, “it” is gone at some point and it’s impossible to find again.  It can drive a person mad.

It happened to Ian Baker-Finch.  He won the British Open in 1991 and within a few years he completely lost it.  He would shoot 65 in a practice round, hit great shots on the range, but then shoot a 90-something and withdraw from the tournament.  He famously stepped up to the first tee of the ’95 Open at St. Andrews after playing wonderfully in his practice rounds and hit his first shot into the stands.  He retired two years later at 37.

It happened to Tom Watson.  He won eight major championships by the time he was 34.  But then he got the “yips” and couldn’t sink a three-footer to save his life.  He didn’t win another tournament for 14 years and never won another major after winning eight between 1975 and 1983.

It happened to Nick Faldo.  He won the Open Championship and then famously re-worked his swing with David Leadbetter.  He went on to win two more Opens and three Masters, and played some of the most sublime golf in that era.  But in his late thirties he completely lost it, and he nearly lost his mind trying to recover whatever “it” was that he lost.

While everyone has focused on Woods’s swing changes and erratic drives and iron play, that’s not his real problem.  Frankly, he’s always been an erratic driver.  The one area where he excelled, and surpassed his competitors, was on the green and that’s the one thing that has left him.  It’s no surprise.  He’s 35.  The same thing that has happened to so many great golfers is happening to him, and it’s in the mind.

And when the putting goes, every other part of the game is affected.  He no longer has the confidence that he can hit wild drives and still recover with his putting.  He can no longer hit risky recovery shots with the confidence that he can make an eight-footer for par.  Bad putting is putting pressure on the rest of his game, causing him to second-guess.  The mind-games have begun.  Not many have come back from that trip down the rabbit-hole.

Second, it’s telling that Woods’s work ethic has slipped so badly.  I wonder if he’s lost his desire with all the turmoil in his life.  There was always something that didn’t seem quite right to me about Woods’s demeanor when he won.  He seldom celebrated after his victories.  He seemed relieved.  That indicates to me that he’s playing for some other reason than pure love for and enjoyment of the game.  Whatever that is, I just wonder if it no longer seems worth it in light of all that he’s lost over the last two years.  That’s pure speculation, but I just doubt that he’s got the heart to do what it takes to return to form.

A final consideration is the extreme difficulty of winning five more major championships.  If a golfer wins one or two in a career, that’s a huge success.  Aside from Woods, only 17 other golfers in the last century have won more than five major championships.  The list of golfers not among that group is very impressive.  For Woods to surpass Nicklaus requires that he match that feat, and do so while being diminished by injury, frustrated at the state of his game, and distracted by business ventures and family issues.

Frankly, I would love to see him do it.  The pursuit of the big records in sports is always riveting.  Even more, however, I would just love to see Woods get to the point where he actually enjoys the game.  I’m not sure that’ll happen, but I’m pretty sure Nicklaus’s record is safe.

God Has No Favorites

Paul wrote Romans 1:18-3:20 to the Roman church with a pastoral intention.  He’s not necessarily laying the groundwork for a gospel presentation here, nor is he speaking of the sinful condition of all humanity.  It isn’t wrong, of course, to theologize from Rom. 1-3 about universal human sinfulness, but we must keep in mind that Paul’s initial point here is that God does not have any favorites in the Roman community.  No one has an inside track with God.

This section begins with Paul’s statement that God’s wrath is being revealed against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness.”  While Paul paints in broad strokes in vv. 18-32, he arrives at his point in Rom. 2:1.  Neither group in Rome should be passing judgment on the other.

In Rom. 2:1-13, Paul depicts the final judgment in terms of conformity to God’s design for humanity rather than obedience to the Law.  He does this to demonstrate that everyone—both Jews and non-Jews among the Roman Christians—is subject to the same judgment.  Being part of the historic people of God shaped by the Law is irrelevant at the final judgment.  What matters is participating in God’s rectification program in which he is restoring humanity.  If a person participates in this, she will participate in the coming restored order, whether she is Jewish or non-Jewish.  If she does not participate in this but remains a selfish, disobedient person, she will be judged, whether she is Jewish or non-Jewish.

Paul again states his point: “for there is no partiality with God” (v. 11).  God does not have favorites among the Roman Christians.

Rom. 2:6-13, by the way, has given fits to interpreters in the Reformed tradition because Paul puts final judgment in terms of human action and states plainly that “the doers of the Law will be justified” (v. 13).  James, of course, wouldn’t lift an eyebrow, nor would those who rightly understand Paul.  Many, however, do everything they can to avoid reading Paul’s words plainly.  As I’ve said previously (here, here, and here), Paul is not reflecting timelessly or abstractly on a theology of justification.  He’s writing a pastoral letter to a multi-ethnic church in Rome that is facing communal breakdown because of racial tension.

In v. 13, Paul distinguishes those who are Jewish from “the doers of the Law.”  They are not coterminous.  It is one thing to be “of the works of the Law” or “a hearer of the Law” (to be ethnically Jewish), and quite another to be a “doer of the Law” (one whose genuine obedience is embodied by embracing non-Jewish Christians as equal siblings in God’s new family in Christ).

The gentiles Paul has in mind in Rom. 2:14-17 are not random morally upright non-Christians wherever they may be found throughout history.  They are the non-Jewish Christians in Rome.  While they do not have a historic relationship to the Law of Moses, their obedience to God in Christ is reckoned as just that.  It is the work of the Law within them even though they do not have a Jewish mode of life (i.e., they are not “of the works of the Law”).

In Rom. 2:17-29, Paul again makes the point that being Jewish does not give one an inside track with God.  The Jews in the Roman church, in fact, are just like the non-Jews in that they are part of a people with a long history of sin. 

After all this negative talk about the Jews in Rome, Paul does let up a little in 3:1.  They are indeed in a position of advantage since they were entrusted with the Scriptures.  But does this mean that the Jews are better than the non-Jews in Rome (v. 9)?  Do they have cause for boasting? 

“Not at all,” states Paul.  “We have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (v. 9), and the Law closes “every mouth” and makes “all the world” accountable to God (v. 19).  This explains Paul’s statement in Rom. 3:20 that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in his sight.”  Paul is not ruling out legalism here (though he would if called upon to do so), but summarizing his argument that being Jewish doesn’t give a person the inside track with God.

God does not have favorites among the Roman Christians.  Both groups—the Jews and non-Jews—are accountable to God and will be judged if they are disobedient.  God’s future judgment is on the basis of obedience to Jesus and one’s ethnicity will be irrelevant on that day.  This is Paul’s point in Rom. 1:18-3:20.  Reading Romans a pastoral letter rather than as a theological treatise makes this plain.

I might also add that when read this way, Rom. 1:18-3:20 becomes immensely practical for churches dealing with internal tensions, conflict, or any other communal breakdown.  Romans, rightly read, is a rich resource for conflict-resolution.

Leadership & Loneliness

I’m reading The Book of the Dun Cow again.  It’s an allegory about . . . , well, about so many things.  It’s such a lively story filled with wonderful characters.  Pretty much every chapter contains a paragraph that makes me stop to re-read a few times.  This one called to mind experiences of pastoral ministry and leadership:

Chauntecleer the Rooster was growing weary of irritations.  It crossed his mind for the second time in a day that it would be good to have just one person for simple friendship and for talk.  In this single, chilly moment—as he got ready to give instructions to a busy-brittle and punctual Ant—the Rooster felt lonely (p. 37).

Obstacles: A Midtown Homily

*Given at Midtown Christian Community, Jan. 21, 2006*

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Jeremiah 3:21-4:2
1 Corinthians 7:17-23
Mark 1:14-20
Psalm 130

Our texts for this week portray a drama.  Or, we could say that they are written from a drama, or out of a drama.  They’re written from within a story.  The story that these texts inhabit, and from which they spring, is the story of God’s pursuit to restore his broken creation.  God longs to reclaim and redeem the nations, to bring people into his love so that in him they might really live, move, and have their being.

This is God’s big deal, the thing he thinks about all the time, the thing he has set himself to accomplish.  And this is what he’s called us to—we have been redeemed and rescued from wrath so that we might be the agents of God’s reclaiming and redeeming love to the world.  We are not simply redeemed by God, and that’s the end of the story.  We are redeemed with a purpose, with an end in mind—and that end is to manifest to the world, and to each other, the love and grace of God—the God revealed in a man who walked on this earth, got his toe-nails dirty, got splinters, initiated conversations with drunks, prostitutes, women of questionable character, inmates, and religious leaders.  The God who weeps when people refuse his love.  That’s our purpose, to enjoy the love of God, to share it amongst ourselves in all its healing and redeeming power with the aim of having it overflow into this neighborhood, reclaiming lives and bringing life.  We can see this ultimate aim in our Gospel reading and in the last few lines of the Jeremiah text.

What we also see in the texts for this week is an identification of some obstacles to the people of God playing their role in God’s scheme to redeem the world.

In the Jeremiah text, the people of God would rather imitate the nations—they wanted to be like the nations rather than a light to the nations.  They had gone to worship other gods. 

Now it’s pretty easy to look down our New Covenant noses at our Israelite forefathers and think that they’re not nearly as spiritual as we are.  But the temptations to idolatry were a whole lot subtler than we realize—there were always apparently good reasons for doing what they did.  You can imagine their leadership meetings: “Look, if we’re going to have any impact for the one true God in this world, we’re going to have to be respectable.  We’ve got to meet the nations on their terms.  We can’t be some backwoods, two-bit nation of sheepherding knuckleheads—we need a king.  We need an impressive bureaucracy, a stable government, progress, a free media and a television in every home, and a nice shiny monarchy that people can understand–that they can relate to.  We can’t be a bunch of freaks!  Now, I know that this may involve bringing in some other statues, religious imagery, and that sort of thing, but hey, we’re Israel, God understands, we’re his people, he knows our hearts, everything will be fine—making these moves will ensure our long-term success.”

Well, you know the story.  In becoming like the nations, Israel no longer had anything to give to the nations—they no longer were the distinctive people of God whose one trait was that they lifted up the name of the one true God who had the power to humble mighty Egypt before a backwoods two-bit nation of sheepherding knuckleheads.

The obstacle facing Israel was the temptation to be like the nations.  In doing so they prevented the life-giving love of God from flowing to the nations.  So, in our Jeremiah text, God calls on them to turn from their trust in dead pieces of wood and stone and to turn back to the genuine source of life so that they can truly be a blessing to the nations.

In our passage from the epistles the temptation is very much the same in origin, but slightly different in manifestation.  The Corinthian church was infected by the triumphalist Greco-Roman spirit.  In a Christian community made up of a handful of slaves, a handful of freed-persons who lived in poverty, and some others who were perhaps well-off, those who were slaves were tempted to seek to gain their freedom.  While this is understandable, Paul tells them to remain in the status and station they were in when they were called.  Why?  Why does he tell them to do this?  Why is it wrong to scheme and strategize in order for people to gain their freedom—to loose themselves from situations that undoubtedly brought hardship, humiliation, and considerable difficulty?

After all, this is also quite understandable.  “Look, I can’t very well be part of the Corinthian evangelism ministry, or visit believers in jail if I’m enslaved to Big Festus at the end of the block.  It’ll be better for our collective ministry if I try to buy myself out of slavery, or if I pull a few manipulative strings in order to force my master into a position where he has to write me papers of freedom.”

But Paul says don’t do it.  Why?  Because what matters is obeying the commandments of God, not a person’s status.  That is, if a slave were to make it his goal to gain his freedom, all his efforts and energies would have been invested in personal vindication, personal advancement.  The way he would have conducted himself in the Christian community would have been determined by how the Christian community could advance his goal of upward mobility.  Such a pursuit would keep him from being a part of the mission of God to reclaim the world.  That is, God’s mission to reclaim the world now takes a second place to my mission of upward mobility.  So, my object of worship becomes a higher status, a better station in life, and not serving the fearsomely loving God who humbled mighty Egypt and who sent his Son to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

That this is Paul’s point is seen in the paradoxical statement at the end of this section: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.”  He’s saying that to pursue personal advancement and freedom is to actually become a slave of a human master, since you are ruled by what you pursue, what you worship.  If you embrace your identity in the Lord—which you do by considering yourself most basically as a participant in the mission of the people of God as agents of God’s reclaiming love—then you are truly a freed person belonging to the Lord, no matter what your position in the world.  If your aim in life is to be upwardly mobile, freeing yourself from some situation of hassle in order to arrive at a status-level that suits your own opinion of yourself, then you sell yourself, thereby, into slavery.

Let’s situate ourselves in the trajectory set by these texts.  What do they have to say to us?  How do they reconfigure how we conceive of things?

This.  Here.  Midtown.  This is who we are.  This is what we do.  This is what matters.  Not our jobs, our dreams for the future, or whatever else.  At the most basic level, this community is the most important thing in our lives—this community that God has called into being in order to be a place of healing, of acceptance, of rejoicing, of worship, of laughter, of life.

It’s very tempting to consider other facets of our lives as the most basic thing about us—the thing that stands at the center of our lives, around which everything else is ordered.  Just as Israel faced certain temptations, along with the Corinthians, so our temptation is to define our lives by our jobs and careers, our neighborhood, our publication record, our resume.  But we are primarily and most fundamentally parts of this group of people in service of the one true God manifest in Christ—and the rest of our lives must revolve around that.

There are obstacles to our effectively being the people of God whom the Spirit uses to heal one another and this neighborhood.  They involve—for some of us, at least—our own temptations toward easing our present pains and present difficulties—at least that’s how the Scriptures struck me this week.

And what’s the solution?  How do we find the way forward?  Our Psalm.  “Wait on the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; for with the Lord there is forgiveness; for with the Lord there is plenteous redemption.”

Discussion: How else do these texts reconfigure how we think, and how we conduct ourselves?

Aspiring vs. Hoping: Turning Platonized Spirituality Sideways

In Creator Spirit, Steve Guthrie contrasts Platonic and biblical metaphors that express the spiritual journey.  “The Platonic vision . . . uses the spatial metaphor of ‘ascent’.”

The language of ascent, of course, suggests that the realm of Spirit/spirit is above and other than the realm in which we reside.  The realm of true Being, the really Real, is not here, but “upwards” in “heaven.”

The Christian tradition, however, turns the contrast of “heaven above” and “earth below” on its side, speaking much more naturally of “this present age” and “the age to come” (see, for instance, Mark 10:30; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:21; Titus 2:12).  The Christian hope, strictly speaking, is not “going to heaven,” but for a new creation and a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2, emphasis added).  God’s people, then, do not desire to ascend (to what is above) but long for God’s reality to arrive (from the future).  They do not aspire; they hope.

From this perspective, then, the glory that we perceive in the material world is not a signpost directing us to journey above or some dim participation in a heavenly reality.  Rather, we see in the world around us intimations of its own transformed glory.  And we look with longing, not to some ideal realm beyond the skies, but for the inbreaking of God’s promised future (p. 66).

Guthrie’s distinction between the Christian posture of hoping and the Platonic posture of aspiring has great potential for discerning various ways that Platonism has hijacked and perverted Christian theology and spirituality.  Here are just a few random observations provoked by his statement that God’s people “do not aspire; they hope.”

Aspiring leads to dissatisfaction with present circumstances and relationships.  Focusing on ideal people and fantasizing about ideal relationships fosters disappointment in my actual relationships.  The biblical posture of hope calls for us to bear with circumstances, relationships, and actual friends and family.  We can acknowledge that we’re all broken in various ways and be set free to actually enjoy one another.

Aspiring prevents us from freely and effectively receiving God’s grace.  Focusing on ideal attitudes and states of mind fixes our gaze on how far short I fall from such ideals.  I wonder if the strong Platonic impulses within evangelicalism account for so much misplaced evangelical guilt.  Hoping, however, focuses on God’s love and his promises of restoration.  This enables a vision of ourselves through the lens of God’s redeeming grace and magnanimous love.

Aspiring fosters individualism.  Just look at the burgeoning evangelical self-improvement industry.  Hoping orients us toward others and creation, yearning for God to fulfill his promises to restore creation and us so that we can once again flourish.

How else might this distinction between aspiring and hoping change the way we conceive of Christian discipleship?

Platonized Jesus: Good News for the Spiritual; Bad News for the Poor

In Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human, Steve Guthrie brilliantly contrasts Luke’s portrayal with a Platonic vision of Jesus’ ministry.  I just love this:

As bearer of the Spirit, Jesus is not (in Platonic fashion) raised up out of this world but rather immersed in it.  It is the Spirit who empowers Jesus to get his hands dirty, as it were, with the very physical and bodily needs of men and women—blindness, poverty, imprisonment.  Luke then draws us along through Jesus’s ministry, pointing out all the ways Jesus is indeed the Spirit-anointed one spoken of in Isaiah…

If Luke (and the other gospel writers) believed that the task of the Spirit was to mortify the body, then we would expect to see this reflected in their depiction of Jesus (who, after all, they believed to be the anointed one—the bearer of the Spirit).  In such a case, at every stage in Jesus’s ministry the sick would come to recognize their bodily infirmities as illusory and of no significance.  The disadvantaged would embrace their hunger and poverty as a means of purging the soul.  In his movement throughout society Jesus would be the very picture of austerity, fasting rigorously and associating himself especially with those of similar temperament.  The disciples would come to Jesus, pointing out that the five thousand who had followed him into the desert needed food, and Jesus would refuse to provide it—declaring that his followers attend to their souls rather than their mortal bodies.  Jairus, the widow of Nain, and Mary and Martha would welcome their loved ones’ physical death, recognizing that their immortal souls were now free of their bodily imprisonment.  Above all, Jesus’s body would not be raised from the dead.  The disciples would foolishly try to touch him, and fail; they would offer this translated ghost of Jesus broiled fish and he would refuse, explaining that he has now ascended beyond materiality.

Of course, we see just the opposite taking place.  Wherever Jesus, the bearer-of-the-Spirit goes, life breaks out, not some metaphorical, etherealized, “immaterial” sort of life, either, but real bodily vitality.  The lame walk, the blind see, the dead are raised to life, the hungry are fed.  Jesus is the one filled with the Spirit, and precisely as the Spirit-filled one Jesus brings life and healing to broken bodies (pp. 68-69).

Becoming Human: Steve Guthrie on Spirituality

For many Christian people, spirituality is set against our humanity.  In order to become more spiritual, we must lose ourselves, our desires, our identities, and become more like some abstract idealized vision of what God wants for us and from us.

This is not at all a biblical vision of spirituality.  God’s original intention for humanity was to grow up into and fill out all that it meant to be human.  In our brokenness, we’ve become pathetic and perverted caricatures of true humanity.  In salvation, God does not remove us from our humanity, but is at work in Christ and by the Spirit to restore our humanity.  Spirituality, then, involves our participation with God in this restorative process.

Creator Spirit, Steven R. Guthrie, 978-0-8010-2921-9

Steve Guthrie says it this way in his book Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human:

[T]he spiritual is not opposed to the human.  Quite the opposite.  There is in fact a deep and intimate connection between Spirit-uality (the work of God’s Holy Spirit) and our own deepest and truest humanity.  We might even say that the Holy Spirit is the humanizing Spirit, the breath of God that transforms dust into a living soul.  The work of the Holy Spirit is to fulfill, complete, create, and re-create our humanity, remaking us after the perfect humanity of Jesus Christ (pp. 34-35).

I am so thoroughly enjoying Steve’s book and will likely have much to say about it in the next few weeks.  It’s quite wide-ranging, very well-written, and entirely readable.  It’s an exploration of the arts through the lens of the Holy Spirit, and a theology of the Spirit through the lens of the arts.

U2’s “Grace” & the Dynamics of Resurrection

U2’s “Grace” is a lovely meditation on the transformational dynamics of resurrection.  It’s the final song on the album All That You Can’t Leave Behind and forms an inclusio with the opening track, “Beautiful Day.”  “Grace” gathers, restates, and explains the call in “Beautiful Day” to inhabit joyfully God’s broken but still beautiful creation.

My kids don’t like “Grace” because it’s quiet, slow, and takes so long to develop.  Perhaps they’ll appreciate it down the road.  The pace and simplicity of the tune is essential to the song’s profundity.

The first stanza introduces the logic of grace.  Grace does not simply look on the bright side or ignore trouble, ugliness, or pain.

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace faces reality and is unafraid of the truth.  Grace encounters and absorbs tragedy.

Grace, it’s the name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything

Grace changes the world because it has a different way of seeing.  Grace, personified here as a woman, isn’t apart from the world.  She walks the streets, encountering the gritty realities of the world as it is.  But she sees differently, finding goodness in everything.

Think of the people you know who are like this, people whose presence is accompanied by music.

This is far from a romantic vision of life.  You can’t respond to the call in “Beautiful Day” if you simply deny harsh realities and try to be positive.  That’s not grace.

Grace, she’s got the walk
Not on a ramp or on chalk
She’s got the time to talk
She travels outside of karma
She travels outside of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace finds beauty in everything

Grace goes to work.  She rolls up her sleeves and takes on trouble and difficulty.  Grace is a completely different dynamic than karma.  We might even say grace is holy—it’s “other,” “set apart,” a totally different reality than anyone could come up with from within our perverted human experience.

And when she goes to work, you can hear the music.

Grace, she carries a world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips between her fingertips

Grace is not a super-model, nor one who indulges in luxury or frivolity.  She’s a mother hard at work, caring for her child and carrying a world on her hips.

The final lines reveal grace’s transformational dynamic. 

She carries a pearl in perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Just as a priceless pearl is formed by the introduction of a painful irritant, grace is at work to absorb hurt and transform tragedy into something beautiful.

I love these concluding lines.  Grace is fearless in the face of pain, confident in the transformational dynamics of resurrection. 

“Grace” is a beautiful meditation on God’s goodness to us, and it might also serve as a manifesto for the church.  God’s people embody his grace by God’s Spirit, turning death into life, darkness into light, and transforming dead-ends into redemptive and life-giving pathways. 

We don’t draw upon God’s transforming power when we protect ourselves from pain, when we wall ourselves off from this world and its brokenness.  God’s grace goes to work when we suffer along with creation, embodying cruciform postures and patterns of life, confident in God’s resurrection power to transform ugliness into beauty.

The resurrection dynamics of grace are the work of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and who animates the church with his life-giving presence.

Pastors, Tell Us How!

My family has begun the search for a church.  We had the most wonderful church experience for the last six and a half years, but we’re now in a new city and are looking for a new fellowship.  We’ve visited a few places and have largely enjoyed ourselves.  Our expectations aren’t very unrealistic, I don’t think, in that we don’t really have any.

One thing, however, has struck me.  The sermons that we’ve heard have been left, for the most part, in the abstract.  They didn’t “land” in the real world of our lives.

I think I’ve agreed with pretty much everything that I’ve heard over the last several weeks.  It would be difficult to disagree.  We’ve heard that we need to “let God carry us” and that we should “seek to serve God and not ourselves.”

But we didn’t hear much about how we could do these things.  We were given little help with envisioning concrete embodiments of these abstract principles.

What does it mean that Jesus has broad shoulders, and that when life gets tough we need to let him carry us?  When I hear this, I tend to think, “yes, pastor, I agree that Jesus has broad shoulders and I have confidence that if I needed carrying, he is up to it.  But this last week I had a very stressful encounter and I would have loved to let Jesus carry me through that.  I really could have used Jesus’ shoulders at that moment.  But how would that happen?  How do I access that dynamic?  Is there a button?  A series of hand signals?  How does that reality break into my situation and reconfigure it?  I don’t doubt that I need God’s help and that he can give it, but how do I go about getting it?”

Now, I don’t want to pile on pastors.  Ministry is tough and it’s too easy to be critical.

So, here’s my question: When have you heard a sermon that interpreted your life theologically, transformed your vision with hope, and did this in a way that gave you insight in how to act redemptively?  Has that ever happened?  What was it about that sermon that was helpful?

A Midtown Homily

*Given at Midtown Christian Community, Feb. 18, 2006*

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 43:18-25
2 Corinthians 1:18-22
Mark 2:1-12
Psalm 32 or 32:1-8

Our texts for this week reveal to us the logic of God’s forgiveness.  They also reveal to us our own ways with forgiveness and perhaps why we have such a hard time coming to grips with God’s outrageous grace.  These texts serve as a pleasant and stunning surprise, and also a blessed rebuke.

We often think that we have God all figured out, don’t we?  We think that we know how he deals with sinners, what he’s like, how he thinks.  What is God like?  Well, he’s mostly like us, except totally huge, and he knows everything.  And he told us what is right and wrong, so if we choose to do wrong, he’ll be rightly outraged at us—because he told us not to do it, and we should’ve known better.

But, thankfully, he has made a way for us to be forgiven, and if we’re willing to clean up our act, make things right, he’s willing to consider taking us back.  But he’ll keep His eye on us, and if we blow it again . . . , well, we might want to read the fine print in our contract.

We may not lay out our understanding of God so explicitly, but we often feel that this is what God is like, right?  He’s very huge and powerful, and his heart isn’t as small as that of the Grinch who stole Christmas—whose heart was two sizes too small—but surely it’s not that big—after all, there’s gotta be some limit to forgiveness and grace. 

In thinking about God in this way, we have managed to become idolaters; we have made God in our own image.  What is God like?  What is God’s forgiveness like?  Probably like ours.

Scripture, however, turns this idolatry on its head, giving us a true glimpse into the ways of God with his people.  We will discover what these texts tell us about the forgiveness of God by asking and answering three questions.

First, why does God forgive sins?  God forgives sins because that’s who he is.  It is his identity, according to the final verse in our Isaiah passage: “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”  It is who God is, it is what God does—it’s his calling card; he forgives sins!

And God loves to forgive!  Our Isaiah text depicts God going to great lengths to overcome our sin and to arrange situations in such ways so that we might more effectively enjoy his love.  In fact, what makes God angry in the Isaiah text, is that Israel refused to give God opportunities to forgive.  “Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel!”

So God forgives because it is his very nature to do so—and he delights to forgive sinners.

These texts force us to ask a second question: Is this really so?  I mean, come on, can we really be sure about this?  Does God really love to forgive, or does he do it dragging his feet?  When God forgives sins, does he do it while rolling his eyes?

And we want to know, because this is how we forgive, isn’t it?  “Well, I know I’m supposed to forgive you, so I guess I do.  But I don’t have to like it!  And I don’t have to like you!  I’m still angry for what you’ve done to me, so you need to spend a few more days in the doghouse until you get completely back in my favor.”

And we lie to ourselves by thinking that by holding on to bitterness against those who have wronged us we’re only showing proper righteous anger at sin.  “It’s a godly anger at sin, alright!?”

So, in the somewhat mystifying words of the 2 Corinthians text, our forgiveness is “yes and no.”  We do, but we don’t.  We forgive . . . , but we’ll just see how things go

But God is completely unlike us—God is faithful and his word is not “yes and no,” but yes!

How do we know it’s “yes” and not “yes and no?”

“Look at Jesus,” says Paul.  Listen to how outrageous this is—God himself came into the world, fully participated in the broken human condition, and died.  And God raised Jesus from the dead to confirm His promises—to show that he is serious about forgiveness, serious about redemption and restoration.

God is fully committed to us—he is not of two minds.  He is not mostly committed to us, but we’ll see how things go

Jesus is the yes of God to us.  There is no indecision with God toward his people.

“In Jesus it is always ‘Yes.’  For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘yes.’  For this reason it is through Jesus that we say the ‘Amen’, to the glory of God.”

And this is gospel—this is good news because we know ourselves.  We know our sinful hearts, and it is so easy to believe the lie that it’s a long road back to God’s good graces.  It’s hard work getting back into his favor.  But this is only true if God is like us—thanks be to God that He is not.

The third question that these texts raise and answer is, What must be done to obtain forgiveness?

This is answered in several ways in these Scripture passages, but I love how the Gospel reading answers it—especially when we think about how we usually read these gospel texts.

We typically polish up this scene where Jesus heals the man lowered through the roof.  The guys run their friend up to the roof on a stretcher, remove a skylight, install a system of pulleys to the roof and smoothly lower him down—and, of course, he’s reclining comfortably—and plop him nicely down in front of Jesus who then conducts this interchange with him and the scribes, to the quiet approval of all those watching, who close the scene with the polite applause of spectators at a golf tournament.

This is, of course, pure fantasy.  Think about this scene.  It’s from Mark, a very gritty Gospel, full of action and pulsing with tension.  These men hear that Jesus is at home, so they grab their friend and carry him down narrow streets, bumping his head on stone walls as they twist and turn down the alleyways, and arrive at Jesus’ house.  They’re probably all disheveled and their lame friend is very uncomfortable and very likely in great pain, at this point. 

“Ugh!  The house is crowded, what’re we going to do?!  Let’s go through the roof!”

“What!?  Are you crazy!?”

So they drag him up to the roof, tear it apart, stuff falling down all over the people inside, who are probably not at all happy that these strangers are doing a demo-job on Jesus’ house—and while Jesus is teaching!

But so what!?  We gotta get to Jesus!  They lower him down . . . how!?  With what!?  We don’t know—rope?  His clothes?  Again, this guy can’t be all that comfortable at this point.  But, as it happens, there he is, lying on the floor, on his mat.

And then what happens . . .

Jesus, taking note of their faith, says to the man, “your sins are forgiven.”

This story is so familiar to us, we have completely missed how bizarre it is.  Think of all the commotion and the dust and dirt, stuff from the roof falling all over the people down below, people shooting dirty looks up at the guys who just lowered some street person down onto Jesus’ IKEA coffee table . . . , it’s crazy!

There’s a lot going on here, but we must take note of two things:

First, the phrase “when Jesus saw their faith.”  How often have we read this as, “when Jesus saw their qualifications?”  Why did Jesus heal the man, we ask?  Because of their great faith—Jesus looked into their hearts and saw that they had great faith!  So we too must have great faith.  End of lesson.

No!  What displayed their faith?  Simply this—that they knew they needed something, and that Jesus could help them.  That’s it.  “We’re in need, Jesus is near, let’s go.”

Just like Psalm 32, v. 6: “I confessed my sin, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”  That’s it—recognition of our sin, forgiveness granted by God.  There’s no middle step of elaborate performance or credential-checking.

The second thing to note is Jesus’ response to witnessing this bizarre instance of breaking and entering that unfolds before him: The dust starts to settle, the people all look at Jesus, he looks at the men, and says to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

No discussion, no questions, no checking of credentials, no theological sparring.  No fancy introductory speech, just a total outcast lowered into Jesus’ living room, staring dumbfounded at Jesus while he has his sins forgiven by the King of creation.

The lesson here is this: God’s hair-trigger response is to forgive.  Call on the Lord, and he will forgive.  Intrude on Jesus’ personal space, make yourself a nuisance, tear up his roof, and he’ll forgive your sins.

On what basis does God forgive?  Recognize your need and call on him and he’ll forgive.  End of discussion.

God delights to forgive, is angry that his people won’t give him opportunities to forgive!  God loves to show mercy, so “be glad you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord.”