March 20, 2016

The Hard Truth

Have you ever heard of “face-palming”?  It’s typically used as a humorous expression of shock or exasperation at something that strikes you as surprising or, more often, idiotic.  Just so we’re all on the same page here, for a proper face-palming you start with your hand open wide.  You then bring your hand up and your forehead down simultaneously such that your palm smacks audibly on your forehead.  This is followed by slowly moving your hand down the rest of your face as if wiping something off of it.  The expression has become commonplace enough in our culture that if you were to do a YouTube search for “face-palming,” you could actually find quite a few entries.  I know this because I did it…and found this little gem from the movie Naked Gun 33 1/3.

Yes, when the good guy manages to convince the bad guy to give up his gun because psychotic people shouldn’t have guns in the first place the time is right for a good face-palming.  Because of the nature of the world in which we live and the progress our culture seems to constantly be making down the road of total inanity these days it sometimes seems like there are face-palm worthy things going on around us all the time.  I heard just the other day about a scientific journal that ran a big retraction piece because it let a submission slip through its filters that used the word “Creator” in reference to the amazing motor skills of the human hand and this was simply too great an offense for its readership to handle.  The story got even more ridiculous when I learned that the paper had been translated from Chinese and language experts reported that the word translated “Creator” could also have been translated ­­­­­­­­“nature.”  The journal’s worldview purity enforcers even went so far as to look into the background of one of the article’s U.S.-based authors and discovered that in his previous place of employment he may have had dealings with…wait for it…an evangelical Chinese church.  That’s the kind of story that at least as Christians definitely prompts the reaction of a good face-palming.

Now, you might be asking what any of this has to do with our current series, Hard to Love.  The connection point is here: very often the person or group that prompts a face-palming is or thereafter becomes hard to love for us.  This morning we are in the fourth part of our journey of looking at the issue of how to deal with people in our lives who are hard to love.  The idea that has been guiding on this journey so far is just that: we all have people in our lives who are hard to love.  And, like it or not, many of these folks are the people we see and interact with on a daily basis.  The real challenge for us so far has been that if we would identify ourselves as followers of Jesus and we want to live in a manner consistent with that confession, we’ve got to learn to love these folks if for no other reason than because God does and we don’t really want to put ourselves in the place of not loving someone for whom Jesus died.

After establishing that baseline we spent the second week of the series looking at how we can become the kind of people who can successfully love the hard-to-loves in our lives, especially when the point of division is our belief about something significant.  What we found after reflecting on some of Paul’s words to Timothy is that if we will reach out with grace while holding fast to truth we will be able to find a productive way forward.  Whenever we find we don’t agree, grace and truth will help us see.

Then last week we stepped back from theory and looked at all of this in practice.  Through the story of Jesus and the woman at the well and the story of Mary Johnson reaching out with forgiveness to O’Shea Israel, the man who murdered her son, we saw what can happen when we follow through on the love God has for even the hard-to-love people in our lives.  The results were simply stunning.  The whole community of Sychar was transformed when Jesus reached out with love to the unlikeliest of people—a sinful, Samaritan, woman.  In Mary’s case she experienced a restoration of joy and O’Shea experienced a restoration of hope and life when love was injected into a situation any of us could have easily imagined remaining hard-to-love indefinitely.  This same kind of thing is entirely possible in our lives if we will only find ways to reach out with love into our hard-to-love situations.

Today I want to make a turn with you in all of this.  Last week I told you that the purpose of this whole series is twofold.  The first is that we would come to understand how to love the hard-to-loves in our lives.  The second purpose is for us to get our hearts and minds wrapped around the fact that God loves us in spite of the fact that for Him we are hard to love.  I also told you then that it will be when we understand this second part that we will be able to put the first part into practice.  Well, after three weeks we fairly well understand how to love the hard-to-loves in our lives.  But, the driving force isn’t really there yet because we haven’t covered the second part.  This week and next we are going to change that.  I told you in the first week when giving an overview of where we would be going that after talking about loving the hard-to-love people in our lives we were going to spend some time wrestling with a hard truth.  Here we are.

Over the course of the last three weeks and even again this morning we have mentioned the fact that we could easily fit into the category of hard-to-love for God.  Now, as we’ve said, we aren’t actually hard-to-love for God since He is love, but the way we’ve behaved toward Him would leave us all but written off for anybody else.  But, making this acknowledgement and really wrapping our hearts and minds around it are two different things.  Saying we’re hard-to-love for God can easily become one of those clichéd phrases we throw around and then forget about in practice kind of like how the phrase “well, nobody’s perfect” is often used to excuse without consequence some decidedly imperfect action on our part.  We acknowledge it because it’s theologically correct, but then we jump straight on over to God’s incredible love and forget almost entirely about this first part.  The kick is, while this leap to love is totally understandable, it actually serves to diminish somewhat the wonder of the prize we’re seeking.

Think about it like this.  If I had told you last week that Mary Johnson had reached out with love to O’Shea Israel simply because she was part of a prison ministry that worked to share God’s love with inmates you would have probably been impressed, but not all that much.  After all, her ministry would have been all about showing love to people like O’Shea so her coming to love him wouldn’t really be very surprising.  Good for her, sure, but let’s move on.  But when I told you that she reached out with love to O’Shea after he murdered her son…well…I heard someone react audibly to that news.  That wasn’t just, “good for her,” that was absolutely stunning.  That kind of love makes our hearts flutter with desire—I want that kind of love.  Seeing the love is one thing.  Understanding its context—it’s incredibly difficult and unlikely context at that—is something entirely different.  That doesn’t warrant mere kudos; it warrants a celebration.  That’s a story worth being told.  God’s love for us is like that.  Knowing about it is one thing.  Knowing what it came out of…well…that’s something else.  That’s what leads people to receive it.  Here’s the hard part: knowing what it came out of isn’t pretty.  But, if we are going to be able to celebrate God’s love to the fullest degree possible—especially in light of what’s coming next week—it’s a picture we have to not simply see, but own.

In order to make things at least a little bit easier on us, though, we’re going to do this mostly by looking at a story from Israel’s past that is definitely worthy of a face-palming.  If you’ll grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures, you can find this story in Exodus 32.  As you find your way there let me set the stage for us.  When Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, the first place they went was to Mount Sinai.  They went there because God had chosen that to be the location from which He would give them the Law.  Now, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind about the nation of Israel at this point in history.  Number one, to call them a nation is pretty generous because they had no land of their own.  Their ancestors had arrived in Egypt about 400 years before this time with a caravan of 70 people.  That 70 people had grown to nation size (at least as far as nation standards back then went), but had been slaves for most of the time since then.  This leads to the second thing: they had been slaves for decades; generations even.  Not a single member of the community had known freedom in their lifetime.  None of them.  All they had known was doing what somebody else told them.  Living that way for any amount of time isn’t healthy.  Doing it for as long as they had been doing it can destroy the character of a people.  This group of folks had no idea how to govern themselves and get along without an overlord of some kind.  As a bonus third point, other than their family stories which for us comprise the book of Genesis they didn’t know who God was let alone anything about Him.  Still, though, what they did know by the time they reached Mount Sinai should have sufficient to have convinced them just how stupid what they were about to do was.  They knew He was powerful.  They knew He was for them.  They knew He loved them.  They knew He was concerned with justice.  They knew things didn’t go very well for the folks who opposed Him.

They knew all of this when they arrived at the base of Mount Sinai.  They knew it when Moses gave them the Law.  They knew it and gladly entered into this covenant with Him.  Moses recited to them the basic outline of the Law and the people together said, “Yes, that sounds good to us.  We will commit to living life that way.”  More specifically they said in Exodus 24:6: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”  This would have been like the spiritual high of church camp to the nth degree.

Immediately after this God called Moses to come up the mountain where God would give him a physical enshrinement of the Law on two tablets.  These were to serve as a constant reminder for the people of the covenant they had voluntarily entered into with God.  But this, though, is where things went south.  You see, Moses stayed gone longer than any of the people expected he would.  The first week wasn’t so bad, but by the second week they were starting to get pretty restless.  By the third week folks were starting to wonder openly whether he was ever coming back down the mountain.  By week four they were tired of waiting for their absent leader to return.  They wanted to get on to the Promised Land they had heard about over and over again.

What happened next is detailed for us in Exodus 32.  Look at this with me starting in v. 1: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us.  As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’”  See what’s going on here?  Moses was taking too long to come back and the people were tired of waiting for him so they went to Aaron, Moses’ second-in-command and brother, and demand that he made them some gods to lead them on to the Promised Land.  What?  How could they do this?  Did they not just agree to not do this sort of thing?  Look more, though, at how they refer to Moses.  This Moses…we don’t know where he’s gone.”  This guy who did all these remarkable things for us?  He’s missing and we’re tired of waiting for him.  You make a substitute, Aaron, and we’ll take it.  In other words, within days of agreeing to place themselves under the authority of the Law and to enter into this covenant with God they brazenly set out to trample on the very first two commands!

What’s even worse is that Aaron lets them!  Look at this back in v. 2: “So Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’  So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf.  And they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’  When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it.  And Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’  And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings.’  And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play [and when you hear the word “play” there don’t think “fun”; think about all the stupid things a drunk fraternity or sorority member might do at a wild party].”

Just so we’re on the same page here, let’s review for a minute.  God had come to the rescue of His people because of the promises He had made to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, brought them up out of slavery (bringing a pretty severe judgment against the unjust people of Egypt in the process), and led them through Moses on the start of a journey that He promised would end in them having a beautiful new land to call their own.  Along the way He had miraculously delivered them from the Egyptian army with a huge bank of fog that came up out of nowhere and also by dividing an entire sea in half so they could cross it safely on dry ground.  He had miraculously provided food and water for them along the journey.  He made explicitly clear the path they were to travel so there wasn’t any question on how to get where they were going.  He had promised them incredible blessings.  He had given them—a people who were essentially building a culture from scratch—the most just system of laws the world had ever seen to that point in history so they could skip right over the years of trial and error it takes most nations to arrive at such an achievement.  All this and the only thing He had asked of them was to follow Him and nobody else.  And how did they respond?  By walking away the very first time things got tough.  They took all the gifts God had given them, threw them back in His face, and reached for whatever they thought to be right.

What comes next is at one and the same time tragic, hysterical, and awe-inspiring.  The first part is obvious: it is a tragedy that the people would rebel against the very God who had saved them on the very first opportunity that presented itself to them.  It is a tragedy that Aaron in spite of all he had seen and heard as he walked next to Moses and spoke the words of God to Pharaoh would simply lay down before the people and go along with this insane request.  It is a tragedy that the people would bring dishonor to the name of God in the eyes of all the peoples around them who watched them behave so fickly before their God and naturally assume that theirs was a weak God who could not inspire real devotion from His people.  That’s the tragedy here.

The comedy comes in the reactions of the various key players.  Up on Mount Sinai God speaks to Moses to let him know what was going on at the mountain’s base.  Look at this in v. 7: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.  They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them.  They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”’”  One of the things Lisa and I will sometimes say to each other in jest when one or more of the boys are acting up is that your children are doing such and such.  That’s kind of like what God is doing with Moses here.  They’re like a married couple complaining to each other about the behavior of their kids.  Israel was the people of God.  He had claimed them for Himself and yet here He cries out to Moses: “Go down there and deal with your people.”

In the next few verses it looks like Moses essentially talks God down from the destruction He was ready to rain down on the people.  This leads to a thorny issue that has kept theologians busy for centuries and we won’t worry about right now, but the culmination of this was that Moses stormed down the mountain, hollered at the people, smashed the tablets that God Himself had made for the people to serve as reminders of the covenant they had made with Him, ground up the golden calf and made the people eat it, and finally confronted Aaron.  The people reacted like scolded children, but look at what Aaron says in v. 22: “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot.  You know the people, that they are set on evil.  For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us.  As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’  So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’  So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”  Did you catch that?  “These evil people backed poor, innocent me into a corner and threatened me.  So I said, ‘Give me some gold,’ and it’s the strangest thing, Moses.  They gave me all this gold, I threw it in the fire, and wouldn’t you know it?  A golden calf popped out!  Whodathunkit?!?”  Really, Aaron?  Really?  It’s like the people—Aaron included—started to come down from their mountaintop high after ratifying their covenant with God and instead of doing it slowly, they found the nearest cliff with a sheer face plunging a mile straight down into the bottom of a narrow ravine and threw themselves over the side.  I mean, come on, Aaron might as we have told Moses that his dog ate his homework.  But really it was even worse than that.  If you are a parent you remember how you felt the last time you did something really good for your kids and they responded with terrible behavior.  You remember that Christmas morning when after you finished cleaning up from Santa and the grandparents they gave you a bunch of lip and started fighting with each other.  This is like that times six million!

And here’s the thing: when you read through the Scriptures this isn’t the only time it happened.  We started down this path of rebellion almost from the moment we came out of the starting gates.  God gave us the Garden and we said, “Nah, we’ll take the one thing you told us we can’t have.”  God brought Noah and his family through the waters of the flood and his response was to get fall down drunk and embarrass his family.  God promised Abraham a family and incredible blessing and he responded by lying about who his wife was to save his own skin…twice.  God made David king and he raped the wife of a good friend and then had the friend murdered.  Jesus spent an entire night preparing His disciples for what was about to happen to Him in the ordeal of the cross and they all ran out on Him anyway.  We even see this still happening just before the end of the world in Revelation.  Satan gets locked up in the abyss for 1,000 years during which time Jesus Himself personally rules over the earth.  At the end of the 1,000 years Satan gets let out and immediately is able to put together a huge army of people who are willing to attack Jesus and His followers.  When Paul was laying out the Gospel to the believers in Rome it’s no wonder he quoted what David himself had written 1,000 years before: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

Are you uncomfortable yet?  Let me make it worse for you.  Here’s where all of this is going: When it comes to God, we are hard to love.  We may have hard-to-love people in our lives, in fact let’s just say that all of us do have hard-to-love people in our lives.  But this is nothing in comparison with how hard-to-love we are to God.  We are hard to love.  We have been ever since the moment that Adam didn’t bother to say to Eve, “Honey, maybe we shouldn’t eat the fruit since God said not to.”  We are hard to love.  Think about it.  God created us.  He gave us life.  He pours out blessings on everybody.  If you’ve ever seen a beautiful sunset or listened to the pitter-patter of a late summer’s rain storm or felt the gentle breeze of an early spring morning or smelled the savory aromas of fall or taken in a full and deep and refreshing breath of air or nestled in the arms of someone who loves you or experienced the satisfaction of a job done well or basked in the glow of a child’s smile of delight or any one of a billion other things then you’ve experienced the blessings of your heavenly Father.  But if you’ve ever once done something you knew in your heart you shouldn’t have done, said something you shouldn’t have said, thought something you shouldn’t have thought…then you’ve thrown all of that back in His face and said, “You can shove your blessings, I’ll take my own way.”  If I were a betting man I’d bet the house that you’ve done that more than once because I have too.  We are hard to love.  We are the objects of a cosmic, divine face-palming.  What’s more, we follow in Aaron’s pattern of making stupid, whiney excuses to try and cover for it.  We are hard to love.  But, that’s not how the story ends.  We may be hard to love, but God loved us anyway and if you’ll come back for one more week of this series, we’re going to celebrate that fact like crazy.