At Just the Right Time

Romans 5:1-11 (NLT)

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.

We are making a major shift in Romans as we reach the fifth chapter. By this point, Paul feels he has clearly established that faith in Christ’s work on the cross is all we need for salvation. Believe, and we are made right with God.

Paul now wants to explore the benefits of faith. We will hear some of these interrelated concepts come up again over the next few weeks. He mentions:

Peace. Paul’s notion of peace is what I would call beautifully complicated. At times, Paul uses “peace” as if he means the cessation of hostilities. In other words, we have been at war with God because of our sinful natures, but through faith in Christ’s work, hostilities end. “Peace” also represents what we receive from this reconciliation: a constant sense of well-being, an understanding there is nothing to fear.

Joy and Rejoicing. We are so assured by the Holy Spirit of the truth about our salvation that our basic way of experiencing life is changed. We are lifted up in a way that is hard to describe until it has been experienced.

Endurance and hope. Yes, suffering continues to be a part of our lives, but we are changed so we can endure what others might find unbearable. We talked about this some last week as I asked you to think about the future.

Paul pulls no punches. Life can be hard, and we should expect difficulties to arise. But filled with the assurance the Holy Spirit has given us, we know what lies ahead, and we can plow through life without losing our ability to rejoice.

Our Focus: God’s Timing is Perfect

Palm Sunday is a special day in the life of the church, and I want to focus on a timely thought in our passage. “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time for us sinners.” Today we celebrate the image of Christ coming for us, riding into Jerusalem to save us in a most unexpected way.

We hear the story of this timely arrival told in slightly different ways in all four gospels, in Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-19. In short, Jesus rides a donkey into the city as a prophetic act, and the Jews who have packed the city for the Passover cheer him like a king as he enters. “Hosanna!” they cry in a cheer of praise.

They didn’t really understand what they were seeing. They were in the right place at the right time, but they cheered for shortsighted reasons. Most of them assumed Jesus had the potential to overthrow the political system and establish himself as an independent Jewish king, restoring the Jewish people to their former glory.

In less than a week, many of these same people would take up the cry, “Crucify him!” They would see Jesus as a failure, another rebellious wanna-be king crushed by the people in power. As big as their dreams had been, they could not see the incredibly big picture of what Jesus, truly the Christ, their promised Messiah, was doing.

When we read the story of the “Triumphal Entry,” it looks like a joyous scene, but it is actually a sad scene to contemplate. Of all the people who had ever lived and will ever live, the people gathered in Jerusalem were the privileged few allowed to be present at the pivot point of history. Remember the promise made to Abraham thousands of years earlier—these Jews were to result in a blessing that would impact every family on the earth.

Jesus was on his way to make that blessing possible. All of us who have walked through Holy Week with Jesus in past years know what is coming. Jesus offers some of his most intense and disturbing teachings to his followers, to the point where most abandon him.

His conflict with the Jewish leaders grows and grows until they determine they must get rid of him. And, working with the Roman Empire, they do—but not for long.

We will talk more about the “not for long” next week, of course, on Easter Sunday. Let’s stay focused right now on the work Jesus arrives to do in Jerusalem.

Paul is telling us that Jesus’ life and ministry, in particular the moment Jesus died on the cross to make it all effective, happened “at just the right time.” As time has passed, Paul’s meaning has become more and more self-evident.

Think about the time and place Jesus was crucified. What’s miraculous is that we ever heard about it at all. From a human perspective, if you wanted to plan a martyrdom to change the world, the last place you would start would be through the crucifixion of a backwater rabble-rouser who had lost most of his following, to the point that only a tiny remnant showed up at his execution.

From God’s perspective, though, this was the golden moment for the divine sacrifice to atone for all sin. Over nearly two millennia, it has proven to be golden. What an astonishing thing to consider; by our time in history, we can see how word of this obscure crucifixion and what follows has spread globally, touching nearly every culture on the planet!

Yes, God controls the big picture in ways we cannot see. And here’s some more good news: We’re part of that picture. And as tiny a part of it as we are, God’s perfect timing also is at work in our lives.

God’s grace—that is, the unmerited, unearned love he pours out on us—doesn’t always make itself evident when we think it should, but it certainly is poured out when it can be most effective.

At just the right time, we feel that gentle tug inviting us to turn toward him.

At just the right time, we are given the opportunity to understand salvation is being offered to us through the simple act of belief. And guess what: If we don’t respond right away, at just the right time we will get another opportunity, and another. God wants us to come back to him.

At just the right time, the grace we need to grow as his followers will flow to us. We will find ourselves open, vulnerable, and God will not miss that opportunity to pull us further from sin and closer to him.

At just the right time, when we think we cannot bear pain or grief anymore, God will be there, and we through his presence during our suffering will develop a deeper understanding of just how much God cares. Our endurance will grow, our character will grow, and we will be filled with a new hope.

At just the right time, we will see God with restored eyes, praise him with perfect voices, hear the angels singing with incredible clarity, and know that everything has been made righteous and holy. Certainly, we will see this in some way at our deaths. Perhaps some of us will see this in a resurrection that precedes our dying.

Either way, we are all subject to God’s timing, and we know we can trust him.

The featured image is “Christ Enters Jerusalem,” Wilhelm Morgner, 1912.


Sinners, Part Two

Romans 2:1-16 (NLT)

You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?

But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.

When the Gentiles sin, they will be destroyed, even though they never had God’s written law. And the Jews, who do have God’s law, will be judged by that law when they fail to obey it. For merely listening to the law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the law that makes us right in his sight. Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. And this is the message I proclaim—that the day is coming when God, through Christ Jesus, will judge everyone’s secret life.

Well, I warned you last week that Paul’s discussion of sinners, including some very specific descriptions of particular sins, was a set-up. It’s easy to think of sinners as “them,” as in “those sinners,” those people we like to pretend are somehow worse.

We should never get too big for our britches, though, no matter how good we may think we are. We are the sinners. And sinners shouldn’t be in the business of judging other sinners.

When we judge, we are doing something even angels fear to do. If you don’t believe me, look at Jude 1:9. It references a story we find nowhere else in established Scripture, a story about the archangel Michael contending with Satan for Moses’ body. Why Satan wanted Moses’ body, we don’t know—Jude likely is quoting from a story in Jewish tradition. But for whatever reason, Satan was after the body, and Michael was sent to claim it for God.

Jude says, however, that “even Michael, one of the mightiest angels, did not dare accuse the devil of blasphemy, but simply said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”

Only the perfect Creator, the being who makes the rules, is qualified to judge. Others who attempt to say certain people are unworthy of God have crossed a dangerous line, assuming we believe God’s loyal angels are generally wise, prudent beings.

Clean up your own house, Paul is saying. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

I will long remember the man and woman in a Sunday school class several years ago who asked me what could be done about homosexuality and its effect on the larger church. She was a young single woman; he was an older married man. They were quite worked up about the issue.

I did not find out until more than a year later that they were having an extramarital affair at the time they asked me the question. I walked around for a couple of days thinking, “Really? In their minds, the homosexuals were the problem? Really?”

Again, clean up your own house.

I also once witnessed the terrible effect large-scale judgment can have on a church. A church about the size of Luminary had two women visitors who began to attend regularly. Word quickly spread the women were known to be lesbians.

The pastor told me how matters developed from there. He said the women simply sat in church, never showing any displays of affection for each other. They just wanted to worship, to pray, to hear from God. But because of the allegations about their sexuality, people became more and more incensed at their presence.

The pastor, I think, did everything right. He stuck to the current, doctrinally sound Methodist line: Everyone is welcome in worship. Everyone. It doesn’t matter what your sins are, you are welcome.

And certainly, he did not ask the women to leave. After all, if we start throwing out everyone suspected of sin, churches will be empty pretty fast.

His gracious manner didn’t help, though. People were too worked up, too—judgmental. A significant number of members upped and left, saying they wouldn’t be in the same room with those sinners. The angry exodus of people and money soon prevented the church from being able to employ a full-time ordained elder as pastor.

As I am prone to say when dealing with touchy subjects, I do have to be careful here. As Paul makes clear in last week’s text, there are specific sins listed in the Bible. Homosexuality is one of them, although it is hardly the only one listed. We are called to faithfully teach and preach what Scripture reveals.

Sometimes, when we teach and preach regarding what the Bible calls sin, we are accused of being judgmental. That label is terribly unfair to people who simply are using Scripture as the basis for understanding God’s will, continuing the work the church has done for almost 1,984 years.

Our need to preach and teach truth as revealed in the Holy Bible and our simultaneous biblically based need to avoid being judgmental place preachers and teachers in a difficult position. We must constantly balance the two requirements.

I think the United Methodist Church is a special place right now in the kingdom of God. In our Book of Discipline, the place where we state our doctrine and practices, how we achieve that balance is clearly defined.

The Discipline prohibits clergy from officiating homosexual marriages, and it prohibits the ordination of “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals.” These prohibitions exist for a simple reason: The church cannot affirm ongoing, unrepentant sin.

These prohibitions are balanced with a large measure of grace, however. Here is a portion of what the Discipline says about sexuality in the section on Social Principles:

We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.

I like these words. In them, we have already achieved a middle ground so desperately needed in other parts of the global church. In this statement, we see a rejection of sin combined with a clear declaration of the power of grace.

Unfortunately, like people in so many other places in our world, we in church are increasingly polarized.

At one extreme, some people want church without Scripture, or without the more difficult portions of the Bible, anyway. They find God’s call to holiness too demanding. Let me ask you this: If we don’t have the Bible, or if we chip away at the parts we don’t like, what is the basis for our beliefs? In time, church would become little more than a civic club with a nice steeple.

At the other extreme, some are quick to condemn those they see as lesser followers of God. In their hands church becomes an unpleasant, mean place, a poor location for experiencing God’s grace.

Neither kind of church is fully God’s church. We can do better. In fact, I would argue we have already done better. We as United Methodists simply need to learn to live out what is already written in the Bible and reflected in our Discipline.

Perhaps when the real judgment comes—the judgment meted out by God—our ability to pursue holiness while offering grace will help identify us as followers of the risen Christ.

That Deep Desire

Luke 19:1-10 (NRSV)

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.

So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”


Hmmmm. Another tax collector.

Last week, we heard Jesus’ parable about a righteous Pharisee and a deeply penitent tax collector. As you may recall, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were often rich, but also were considered by their fellow Jews to be traitors, doing the work of an occupying empire. Today, we hear of an actual encounter Jesus had with one of these tax collectors—a chief tax collector, no less.

We know for certain this one, Zacchaeus, was rich, likely because his position allowed him to take a cut of the thievery enforced by the tax collectors under him. He was wanting something more, however, something he could not buy.

This man Jesus, a prophet and healer, a speaker of words of love and grace, intrigued the little tax collector. As you may recall from the old Bible school song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man,” unable to see Jesus for the crowd following. So he climbed up in a sycamore tree, “to see what he could see.”

As I think of Zacchaeus scrambling upward with searching eyes, I imagine him as one of the great examples of the power of desire. Desire is a feeling God actually encourages us to have, assuming we can learn to desire what is right.

We of course often desire the wrong things: money, possessions and status are good examples. We’ll just call those desires “worldly,” as they are for objects, people or ideas that are of this world and remain in this world. They are possessions we are sure to lose even if someone stuffs them in our graves.

What’s interesting about Zacchaeus is he already knew worldly pleasures. He at some point had disregarded fidelity to his God and people to pursue the things of this world he thought could make him happy. And yet, he was not happy. Otherwise, he would not have been looking for answers from a penniless prophet being followed by the rabble Zacchaeus routinely taxed.

I’ve known other people who have traveled down the path of “more, more, more” only to find themselves more lost than ever. For a couple of years, I wrote a newspaper column detailing the career-ending antics of Georgia lawyers who had been disbarred, meaning they had done something so bad they lost their licenses to practice law.

You would think they would not speak to a reporter after such an experience, but I was always surprised at how open many of them were when I called for a comment. Some of them had simply fallen into addiction, certainly a misguided desire. I’ll always remember the one lawyer who told me, “It’s not my fault! It was my partners, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.”

Others told me stories that followed a surprisingly similar pattern built from greed. Despite earning very good livings, often $300,000 or $400,000 a year, they worked for and circulated among people who made millions a year, and felt like they somehow needed to keep up.

So they lifted money from trust funds and escrow accounts, investing it for their personal gain, thinking they would keep the profit and put the “borrowed” money back. I was talking to the ones who had seen their schemes come crashing down, and they were deeply, deeply chagrined. And yes, having hit bottom, some of them had turned or returned to God, seeking forgiveness and trying to make amends.

Zacchaeus still had all his money and stuff, but he must have felt as empty as those disbarred lawyers I interviewed. I suppose one way or another, the meaninglessness of money and possessions either owned or desired must dawn on everyone.

Perhaps we are like the lawyers and feel foolish at how hotly we have pursued wealth; perhaps we are like Zacchaeus and simply realize the money and stuff won’t fill the empty place in our souls.

Certainly, the futility of worldly desires must dawn on us when we are near death, that moment we realize we cannot take with us even the sheets to which we cling, no matter how nice the thread count.

Our deepest desire can be fulfilled only by Christ, through the simple faith-based relationship our savior promises us. And here’s the most fulfilling aspect of the good news I preach today—this is not some sort of delayed gratification, offered to you only at death. The sense of fulfillment can be experienced now. The joy is for now, as well as for eternity.

This promise is in the Zacchaeus story. The grace Jesus extended by simply going to Zacchaeus’ house changed the man, and his happiness and gratitude came bubbling out.

Half of what he had went to the poor. The other half was put completely at risk, as Zacchaeus promised to radically overcompensate anyone he had defrauded. We see a man who no longer cared about the worldly things, knowing that through Jesus he had found something better, something for now and all time.

The featured image is “Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus,” James Tissot, painted between 1886 and 1894.

Arrogance and Accommodation

2 Kings 5:1-19 (NRSV)

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”

He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” He said to him, “Go in peace.”

God wants you to know something. God has long wanted all of humanity to know something.

Naaman was one of those people who struggle to hear God’s basic message to humanity. He was a powerful man, and with that power came a degree of arrogance. He was a violent man, one likely to look down his nose at the people he had raided and captured.

He also, however, was a man of suffering, bearing a disease that would have made him an outcast except for his brilliance on the battlefield. It ultimately was through the suffering and shame that God was able to reach Naaman. It is clear from the story the warrior craved healing, the kind of healing that would restore him fully to his community.

His arrogance almost undid his healing. How could the Prophet Elisha’s miraculous cure be so easy? Shouldn’t he at least come out of his house, wave his hands and do his prophet dance? How could a river like the Jordan, one in what he considered a backwater place, be superior in any way to the great rivers of his homeland?

Thank God for the sound, sober thinkers around Naaman, people able to inject a little rational thought past his emotional arrogance. This is easy, so easy, they told him. Just do it. And he did, and after the seventh immersion he found himself restored.

And by restored, I mean more than just his skin. Certainly, he had fine skin, the soft, unscarred skin of a boy, the kind of skin that would make him a wonder among his people. But other changes happened, too.

He had brought gold and silver, worth more than $2.5 million in today’s money, as well as fine clothing. Naaman, used to power and wealth counting for everything, had naturally assumed healing from his terrible disease would have to cost a fortune. He offered it to the prophet as a gift of gratitude. Imagine his surprise when the prophet refused!

But again, God wanted Naaman to know something, something beyond the powerful truth that God has the power to heal anyone.

And Naaman finally understood. Instead of offering gifts, he had one last request. Could he take some of this dirt from Yahweh’s homeland to use as the base for an altar of worship? In Naaman’s limited understanding of the world, he saw Elisha’s God as a god of a place, even though the warrior was beginning to hold the conflicting thought that Yahweh must be the only true God. Surely dirt from that place would be needed to build a proper altar.

Elisha didn’t try to engage in any deep theological conversations. Naaman had understood what was important. Naaman had learned that God’s grace flows freely; Naaman understood that the primary response God seeks is worship, a humble acceptance of God. In his time and with his background, this Aramean’s understanding was a remarkable breakthrough. It was enough.

Elisha even accommodated Naaman’s request that he be able to continue to treat his pagan king’s practices with respect.

This story is a loud whisper of what was to come. God’s grace freely given would overcome everything, even the treasured laws of the Jews.

The day would come when restoration for all would be possible, regardless of our particular sins, regardless of how far away from God we may find ourselves. In an act even stranger than a healing dip in the Jordan, our faith in Jesus Christ’s work on the cross immerses us in the blood of one slain like a lamb, and we know we will be made whole and new for all of eternity.

In the meantime, there is worship, glorious worship, heart-filling worship, with no mule-loads of dirt required. After all, we know Christ as King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the ruler of all of creation.

The featured image is “Elisha Declining Naaman’s Presents,” Abraham van Dijck, circa 1655.

Bad People

1 Timothy 1:12-17
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of one of the most terrible days in our national history, what we simply have come to call 9/11. All of us who were old enough to know what was going on have powerful memories of that Tuesday.

I also have memories of that following Sunday in 2001. I was not yet a member of the clergy, but I was a certified lay speaker in Georgia, and I was scheduled to fill the pulpit for a preacher at a small church. Needless to say, getting into the pulpit that Sunday was a daunting task for any preacher, and particularly for me, being very inexperienced and not knowing the congregation.

In my sermon, I chose to focus on God’s plan for bad people. Fifteen years later, I still choose to focus on God’s plan for bad people. Bad people don’t seem to be going away; in fact, in the case of Islamic terrorists, we now experience their impact in ways we could not fully imagine in 2001. Who would have thought the particular form of terrorism that brought down those planes would evolve into an organization capable of streaming its horrors via professionally produced video?

Of course, terrorists are not the only bad people among us. “Bad” simply represents a state of being out-of-sync with God’s will. We all find ourselves being bad from time to time, in need of forgiveness and God’s grace. I’m focusing on the people who are “bad to the bone,” the people who commit the kinds of atrocities the vast majority of us could never think of doing—the murderers, the child molesters, anyone who does deliberate, significant damage to another’s life.

These people are not a new problem, of course. Violence has been among us since prehistoric times. Archaeologists have found plenty of skeletal evidence. As readers of the Bible, we also have Cain’s murder of Abel to give us what is, at a minimum, a powerful allegory of the origins of emotionally driven, quick and senseless killing.

The Old Testament has some straightforward punishments for the very bad. There is the famous “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” repeated in various contexts with “limb for limb,” “fracture for fracture,” “hand for hand” and “foot for foot” added.

And of course, death sentences were common. In Leviticus 24, shortly after these laws of equitable response are stated, the Israelites take a man out and stone him to death for blaspheming God.

It’s not unusual to hear people go all “Old Testament” when discussing how justice should be doled out today. This is particularly true when the topic of the death penalty is being discussed, or any time people do something so horrifying they trigger in the rest of us a very visceral reaction.

We as Christians have to be careful in such conversations, however. Why? Well, the coming of the Christ seems to have modified the approach God wants us to take.

In our 1 Timothy text today, Paul describes himself as having been among the bad to the bone, calling himself a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” As a good Jew trained in the Law of Moses, he is citing aspects of his former life that made him deserving of death in God’s eyes.

As he dictated these words, he most certainly was remembering how he stood by and encouraged the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He had to have been thinking of all those religious warrants he executed, harassing and capturing early Christians until the fledgling community lived in terror of him.

He is grateful, he writes, because through Christ he has experienced mercy, not getting the punishment he deserves for his evil acts, and salvation, receiving the gift of eternal life he does not deserve.

And here we find our Christian conundrum. If a very bad person like Paul can be saved through a relationship with Christ, should we not treat very bad people first of all as potential Christians, as people who could receive mercy and salvation?

We do need to take precautions against evil. Christians serve as police officers and soldiers with good reason, to stand between the rest of us and the particularly violent forms of evil in the world. We need to be smart enough to take precautions in our homes, places of work, and churches, too, remembering the Cains of the world can strike hard and fast.

But at the same time, we have to maintain the attitude there is hope for even those we consider the worst kind of people. There is a story going around on Christian websites and cable channels about how serial killer (and pedophile and cannibal) Jeffrey Dahmer had what seemed to be a genuine conversion to Christ before he was murdered in prison in 1994. If it’s true, then our Christian understanding of the power of grace tells us Dahmer is in the eternal presence of God—Christians will share the afterlife with him.

Of course, there’s no way for us to know for sure what went on in Dahmer’s heart, just as there is no way for any human to know with certainty what is happening spiritually in another person. But the very possibility of such remarkable turnarounds lets us imagine all sorts of possibilities.

Consider this: What if God raises up dynamic followers of Christ among the Muslims, sending them evangelists who are able to speak to their own people in their own Muslim context? What if Christian martyrs in that culture accomplish what martyrs have historically tended to do, leaving a positive impression on the witnesses? What if more and more of the Muslim world were to begin to see the truth of Jesus Christ as peacemaker and reconciler in this world?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Our faith has repeatedly managed to penetrate what looked like impenetrable cultures, bringing millions to Christ at a time. Roman, Celtic, Germanic and African polytheists have all found the message of Christ attractive at some point in history.

In a more modern context, scholars familiar with China estimate there are between 70 million and 100 million Christians in that very closed Communist nation. Because of the risks they are taking, we would have to classify them as very serious Christians. For comparison, the United States has about 223 million people calling themselves Christian.

We spend a lot of time talking about how it is going to take bombs and bullets to end the threat posed by the particular set of bad people we have faced the last 15 years. Perhaps God will provide another way, though, one we should be seeking through prayer. Here’s mine: Lord, open our enemies’ eyes. Let them hear your voice; let them experience your light. And in turning to you, may they astonish us as Paul astonished the early Christians.

The featured image is “Orfeus or Paradise Lost,” inspired by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. By MarikeStokker, 2013. Used under Wikimedia Commons’ Creative Commons License.

The Surprising Samaritan

Luke 10:25-37

I’ve noticed a very particular trait about the hero in the story of the Good Samaritan. Maybe you’ve seen this trait in him before, but it is new to me.

It helps that I recently read a couple of commentaries providing additional details for the main scene of the story, the road running from Jerusalem to Jericho. The earliest audiences for the story would have learned these details by traveling the road or hearing others complain about the road. But we cannot know these ancient details without the help of experts.

It’s a steep trip downhill going northeast from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jerusalem is about 2,500 feet above sea level, while Jericho is 846 feet below sea level, making it one of the lowest cities in the world. The 18-mile journey required a descent of more than 3,300 feet! For you hikers, the closest local equivalent I could find would be taking the Boulevard Trail down from Mount LeConte. Hiking guides list this trail as “difficult.”

And at least local hikers don’t have to deal routinely with bandits. Like many of our local mountain trails, the “road” from Jerusalem to Jericho was a narrow, winding, rock-strewn path with switchbacks and overhangs galore. In Jesus’ day, much of the path consisted of soft, flaky limestone that eroded easily. Thieves loved to hide along this road, attacking shaky-footed travelers to take what they wanted.

There is one strange thing about all the characters in this story. They all traveled alone. People usually traveled in caravans for safety. For whatever reason, the wounded man, the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan were taking big chances traveling alone. Everyone in this story was at least a little afraid.

This fact doesn’t justify the actions of the priest and the Levite, but at least we can learn they weren’t just being haughty. There’s a good chance they hustled away in fear. What had happened to this half-dead man in the ditch could very well happen to them, too, they must have thought.

To stop and help the wounded man, the Samaritan required a very special trait—courage. Not only did he have to fear the bandits himself, he had to fear being accused of banditry. Remember, Samaritans were considered unrighteous half-breeds by the Jews. Had a band of Jews found the Samaritan hovering over the man in the ditch, the situation might have quickly turned ugly. But all the same, he stopped.

He took on the time-consuming and laborious task of cleaning and binding wounds. He slowed his journey considerably in dangerous territory as he burdened his beast with the injured man. There’s no doubt he had courage.

Christians, we need courage, too.

We need courage to go to the places that frighten us. We need courage to be among the people we distrust or dislike. We need courage to act when action is needed, not waiting in some vague hope that someone else will come along and deal with the situation.

You may fear Muslims. We as Christians still need to be among Muslims. You may distrust poor people, particularly if they seem manipulative. We still need to be among poor people, helping them and witnessing to Christ’s love.

You may be tired of hearing about people with lifestyles very different from ours. You may even be pretty sure their lifestyles are sinful. But we still need to be among people of different lifestyles and ways of thinking, trusting that God’s word and the Holy Spirit will reveal—and heal—sin in all its forms.

Jesus calls us to go among all our neighbors offering mercy and grace. Mercy and grace are the healing wine and oil given to the world by Jesus Christ.

The featured image is a 1771 book illustration of the story of the Good Samaritan.

Power and Much, Much Grace

Last week’s Elijah story was full of sound and fury, with fire falling from the sky. This week’s story—we’ll call it a prequel, as it happened before last week’s showdown with the priests of Baal—is more tender, a reminder of how powerful God’s grace can be.

Again, I need you to read it first. Today’s story is from 1 Kings 17:8-24.

A little background: Elijah had predicted the great drought that was going to fall on the disobedient people of Israel and the lands surrounding them. For a time, he had been in the wilderness, drinking from a brook running into the Jordan River and relying on ravens sent by God to bring him food. But the drought finally became so severe that the brook dried up, and God sent his prophet to Zarephath.

Zarephath, by the way, was in Phoenicia, outside the bounds of Israel and the center of Baal worship. God chose to hide and care for his prophet in the midst of his enemies!

God told Elijah to go to a widow he had “commanded” to care for the prophet. As we read the story, however, we should notice something odd. The widow seemed to need convincing. In fact, as the story proceeds, it is not clear that she considered the Yahweh God of Israel her god.

I suspect she had heard from God the way we often do. She had an intuitive sense that something was about to happen, that despite her dire circumstances, she was not completely out of luck. She must have experienced some confidence that her intuition was divinely inspired, too.

Her first act of faith was to use what little meal and oil she had to make something for the prophet rather than for her and her boy. The result of that act was her trading what would have been their last meal for many miraculous meals to come. At this point, her intuitive hope began to take on an astonishing reality—it must have been amazing to go morning after morning and find there still was flour and oil in what had been an almost empty jar and jug. The God of Israel truly had drawn her and her boy into his circle of grace and love.

In this broken world, tests of our faith abound, however. Despite being in one of the few households with food, the boy became sick and either died or was near death. The wording is a bit obscure; we’re told there was “no breath left in him.” Some of us have seen that point where people hover on the edge of death, leaving us unsure whether they remain with us. The Scripture may be written that way simply to reflect the doubt so many people have experienced waiting with their critically ill loved ones.

The mother was of course distraught. So was Elijah. He was not a detached prophet. He had come to love these people. I imagine Elijah interacting with the boy day after day, growing fonder of him over time.

Elijah’s act of stretching out on the child was an effort to share his life with the boy. It perhaps had physical implications, the prophet’s weight compressing the child’s lungs and heart, but it certainly had spiritual implications. It was like spiritual CPR, a desperate prayer physically expressed, and it worked. The boy was revived and restored to his mother.

The widow’s final statement was one of conversion. She believed in the prophet, and more importantly, she believed she had found the God of Truth.

This story is very much a precursor to Christ’s work. Jesus, of course, stretched tiny meals to feed thousands and raised the dead more than once. In Luke 7:11-17, we see a story with a lot of similarities to our story in 1 Kings. Jesus saw a funeral procession for a widow who had lost her only son, this one a young man.

Her situation was sad and about to become very desperate with no one to care for her. But Jesus raised her son from the dead, letting him walk away from his funeral bier.

And of course, in dying on the cross for our sins and proving his power in the resurrection, Jesus opened the door for all of us to one day experience the grace these widows felt firsthand. The dead will be raised; sickness shall be overcome!

The God of Truth guarantees it.