Grace Not Always Gentle
Romans 4: 13 – 25; Matthew 9: 9 – 13
We Christians like to use the word grace a lot. We speak of our God as a God of grace who forgives our sins and loves us unconditionally, which is true. The only problem is that it’s not the only truth about God. Sometimes God’s grace can rock our world and turn it upside down. Sometimes God’s grace feels more like judgment but in the end it’s always grace.
I would refer you to the experiences of Job as well as the psalmist, whose experience and communication with God began, not on the mountain tops of inspiration and celebration, but in the depths of suffering and despair. “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!” “And my God, my God, why?” cries the psalmist. (Psalms 130 & 22).
The great theologian Paul Tillich goes even further and argues that if we have never met God as the enemy, we have never met God at all.
It is safe to say that a man (or woman) who has never tried to flee God has never experienced the God who is really God. When I speak of God, I do not refer to the many gods of our own making, the gods with whom we can live rather comfortably. For there is no reason to flee a god who is the perfect picture of everything that is good in (humanity).
Why try and escape from such a far removed ideal? And there is no reason to flee from a god who is simply the universe, or the laws of nature, or the course of history.
Why try and escape from a reality of which we are a part? There is no reason to flee from a god who is nothing more than a benevolent father, a father who guarantees our immortality and final happiness. Why try to escape someone who serves us so well?
No, those are not pictures of God, but rather of man, trying to make God in his own image, and for his own comfort. They are the products of (humanity’s) imagination and wishful thinking.
A god whom we can easily bear, a god from whom we do not have to hide, a god whom we do note hate in moments, a god whose destruction we never desire, is not God at all, and has no reality.
All of us harbor that kind of hatred, but we are very successful in masking it. All of us have a quarrel with God, but most of us vent our anger by quarreling with others.
For example, I have been known to get upset with Dotty when other responsibilities call her away from home. And though it would seem as if I am upset with her, what I’m really fighting against is the aloneness of life. The fact that one day everyone I love will leave me. Death ensures that truth.
And we tend to do this because God meets us in our youth and says, “You will grow old and feeble.” God meets us in our anxiety and says, “That’s life!” God meets us in the midst of life and gives us a cross.
But the God of the crucifixion is the God of our Lord Jesus Christ who calls him, “good” and “Our father.”
I will be quite honest with you. If it were not for Jesus Christ, I would find it difficult to believe that God really cares. But Jesus calls God “good”, and in my book he is credible. Jesus went to his death thinking that his dying would serve God and humanity and it did.
It would be one thing to go to our death with the bands playing and the banners flying, taking a stand with everyone applauding, but it is something else to go through what Christ did, knowing that he had to do it absolutely alone.
One by one his disciples abandoned him, then the crowd taunted him to come down off the cross and save himself, and then when it seemed as though even God had deserted him, he cries out with the psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Paraphrase Mark 15: 34).
And in spite of all of this Jesus calls God good. I want to suggest that in a world where kids kill kids, and mass genocide still takes place, there is one thing that is absolutely dependable and that is the word of Christ. When all of a man’s supports have been stripped away and he is left there on a cross, utterly alone – faithful to the end- there is a man who can be trusted. And it is Christ who says, “You can call God good.”
That is the absurdity of our faith. We believe God is a father who truly cares about us. And like a caring parent, God endures our anger and hatred, in order help us grow and mature, so we can live in the world of reality.
The reason that this so hard to understand is because most of us have a rather adolescent attitude about suffering. We live in an age when medical technology has done some amazing things to improve our quality and quantity of life, but it has also given us a distorted view of pain, suffering and even death.
It has made us view all suffering, pain and death as bad. We see no value in the experience of suffering. And in our denial and desire to avoid pain at all costs we deny a huge part of our reality and as a result have little to say to those who suffer.
This same attitude toward suffering also expresses itself in our demands for justice in life. I can’t begin to tell you how many times as a parent I have heard myself and others say, “But that’s not fair.” “I have rights!” And like Job we come before God demanding fairness, demanding justice, only to be reminded by God’s silence that our demands are of little use.
Why me? Why should I suffer? What have I done to deserve this? But we forget that nowhere and at no time does the Bible promise fairness in life. “Why not me?” is perhaps the more appropriate question.
In the book of Job, Job comes to God with a preconceived idea of the way life is – or ought to be. He assumes this is a moral universe where good guys win and bad guys lose. And because he is good he shouldn’t have to suffer. So he lays his complaint before God, but God responds in silence. Chapter after chapter God turns the other way because he is not interested in Job’s preconception of the way things ought to be. God’s only interested in bringing Job into the world of his presence.
The real world is not ordered by Job’s preconception of the way he thinks life ought to be. The reality is that life contains mystery and absurdity. Life is not reducible to Job’s understanding or comprehension. God comes to Job as the enemy in order to destroy his adolescent ideas of justice in order that Job can come to know the Lord as the God of grace.
By the end of the story, Job no longer regards his existence or his possessions as his. He sees his life as a gift of grace with no explanation attached, a gift, which is as much a mystery as is his suffering. He understands neither why he should suffer nor why he should live. Both are mysteries. He now lives by amazement, not by answers.
God’s best gift to us is that we might know all that being alive brings. It’s as if God were saying, “You might never have been, but you are! And now that you are, I want you to experience all that being alive means. I want you feel joy and sorrow; laughing and weeping; I don’t want you to leave here without knowing what this gift is all about.
It is for you that I created this universe. I offer you all of the resources of my being: my strength, my joy, my endurance, my wisdom, my peace even my suffering, but I do not give you reasons. I want you to be amazed and there is no room for reason in amazement. That is the meaning of grace.
Had it not been for the Resurrection, we would never have thought about the crucifixion a second time. But the resurrection makes us look again at the crucifixion. It reveals that suffering and death are a part of God’s will for human life. There are no reasons given to justify that assertion. No reasons are offered to make sense of it.
The story of the Resurrection simply affirms that the crucifixion is part of God’s plan and that life goes on. But the question still remains, “Why does God allow suffering to exist?” And no answer is given.
Perhaps the closest we can come to a reason for suffering is that when life is pleasant we do not need to live by faith. Everything makes sense and we really have no need of God. But when life tumbles in, when the bottom drops out, and when we are left in the pits of reality, then we are doing business with a reality that we cannot escape.
Maybe it’s then and only then that our relationship with God takes on an intensity and an urgency not possible before. Maybe it’s as the apostle Paul says, “… suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. Amen