I was reading the God Pause devotionals that are sent out by the esteemed seminary where some of America’s finest pastors are educated; Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, that Heaven must be a rollicking place what with all of the joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
It sounds like a great thing, this notion of the heavens rocking with the sounds of celebrating angels what with all of the repenting going on, Jesus and the Archangels doing the jitterbug or probably some more appropriate liturgical dance each time the little bell rings or whatever signal there is in heaven whenever someone repents of their sin, turns away from the path of darkness and steps into the light.
I’ll bet that is a terrific sermon to be able to preach, telling a willing crowd that every time they “decide” to not steal, or every time they “decide” to follow Christ and turn away from sin and every time someone somewhere does the achingly simple act of repenting, saying that they are sorry for the wrongs that they have done, for the sins that they are culpable for; preaching that what with all of that repenting, Heaven must just be, and I quote “One big party.”
I’ll bet that is one fun sermon to preach. Everybody likes to hear that God is kindly and patient and only hears the good deeds we do, the good decisions we make and rejoices at them one and all.
God is just so sweet in that picture, smiling all the time; that you might forget all of the scenes in the scriptures where God’s majesty and judgment are mentioned. It would be easy to forget all of the times where God is not setting aside our sins as if they were not there, but forgiving them because they are there and need forgiving.
I’m not exactly sure who God is in that devotional, but I am struggling to find that God in the scriptures.
Its not that I don’t understand, I mean a pastor is at all times to some extent at the whim of the congregation, dependent upon them for his living, to be sure, but in the Lutheran conception of things, the pastor is also dependent upon the congregation for his very identity.
A call to ministry is just an idea until a congregation calls you and so the seminary graduate or even a pastor between calls is not really a pastor. You’re nobody until somebody loves you, only for real in this case because the very validity of who I think I am, who we all think we are is dependent upon the people in front of whom we stand each week, into whose living rooms we visit, into whose lives we are, from time to time, invited.
I can see the desire to be popular, and indeed, since nothing succeeds like success I will state that the author of that devotional leads a church with 2500 members on the books so the message that is delivered in that church must be an effective one in gathering a flock and filing the pews and all of the other things that the scriptures tell us to do.
Gathering the repentant, the redeemed, the righteous into large groups and continuing to congratulate them on their righteousness, as it says in the book of Panderers, chapter six, verse seventeen.
I shouldn’t criticize.
You see, that’s the other side of the call of the pastor: the uncomfortable message. The truth of the law and the necessity to preach it in the context of a world gone to hell in a hand-basket, a wheel barrow, a dump truck, barreling downhill at full throttle with the radio blaring and the horn honking and nobody at the wheel.
But if everybody’s partying in the bed of the truck, reveling in their “freedom” because that’s what they always call it, then nobody wants to pull over, nobody wants to stop the ride, nobody wants to hear the danger, hear the warning, hear that there is nobody qualified to drive the stupid thing in the first place.
The letter to Timothy makes much the same mistake when the author claims that God judged him faithful and so appointed him to the service of God, because God has such a variety of choices that God can pick the very best of the lot to use for divine purposes. Why not pick someone who is “formerly” a blasphemer, nobody is more righteous than the convert, right? Ask an ex-smoker, they’ll tell you.
But the problem is; it doesn’t really work very well. It isn’t so much that God can go down to Sears and buy the very best Craftsman torque wrench on the rack to fix what’s wrong with the condition of Man. God has us.
I used to go to these farm auctions in upstate New York where they would clear out farmhouses and barns once the last surviving member of the family claimed the promise of their baptism. All across this fairly large piece of property there would be these piles of belongings, in pickup trucks and simply spread across the ground, and you could go from pile to pile and the various auctioneers would methodically go through the pile, boxes of this, piles of that and auction them off to the crowd that gathered in front of the pile.
So much of people’s lives after these events are spent sifting through boxes of the spoils, trying to pick out the four decent files, the one good saw, the three screwdrivers that aren’t completely devoured by rust. I myself have stacked these boxes in our own barn and whenever you needed, well, anything, you went through the boxes to see if you had bought something that would serve at the last auction.
What always intrigued me was you never actually got rid of the tools passed over again and again; they stayed in the box, unrepentant sinner if you follow the metaphor that far, just waiting for my father to pass away and for the auction company to come and gather them up again to sell to someone else.
I built a lot of things with tools salvaged from the boxes in my dad’s barn, leftover from auctions over the past year. Lambing pens, fences, gates, a maple syrup cooking shed. I reached into the box of sharp, or less sharp, sturdy or less sturdy, clean or terribly rusty tools and did what I had to do with what I had on hand.
I know from what I read in the bible that God probably wishes there were a few boxes of acceptable tools lying around in creation so that God could have at hand some shiny new tools with which to accomplish the tasks God wants accomplished.
All of the rest of our reading from Timothy I find little fault with. All the rest of the reading is focused quite sharply on the fact that there is much to criticize about the author, how as chief among sinners even he was not beyond the Lord’s ability to sanctify and redeem, making something useful out of something that was without dignity or honor, worthless before the judgment of God.
He’s not kidding.
That’s the feeling. Knowing your own culpability and the comeuppance due you for how far short of the glory of God you have fallen. Conviction, the theologians call it, being convicted, like in a courtroom, by the strident and unsympathetic voice of the Law which does not care for circumstance or excuse, it always accuses and always convicts, without pity and without mercy.
I can understand, given the first characteristic of the pastor, the desire to be liked, to have your congregation happy, how it might be tempting to tell them that God is just waiting up there, waiting to celebrate every time they do something good, each time they avoid sin and that another mark goes into the “nice” side of the ledger, like God was little more than some cosmic Santa Claus.
And I can understand, given the second characteristic of the pastor, the uncomfortable message, how hard that sermon is to avoid, feeling as we are, called to preach both Law and Gospel, to talk at all about our need for Christ’s salvation. I know how hard that is and looking back over the past few years, I can see the congratulatory sermon making itself known here and there.
But here’s the third characteristic of the pastor.
We care. We care what happens to you. If you ask us for advice, we’ll likely tell you something you don’t want to hear. It is okay, nobody has ever taken any of my advice so what does it matter what it is?
But we care, and not just about your house or your kids or about your car or your roof or about any of the ten thousand upon ten thousand little things that occupy our minds and yours.
We care about your faith. It matters to us what you believe. It matter to us that you have fallen short of the glory of God because, if we are blessed with the slightest taste of wisdom we can see it in you because we can see it in ourselves. It matters to us that we are called to open the scriptures, lay your hearts open with the scalpel of the law and then apply the healing salve of the Gospel of Christ and Him crucified, the epic love of God that does not deny your sins or let you off of the hook for them because that does nothing to diminish them or to rob them of their power.
No celebrations in heaven over the repentance of one sinner. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how you can get to repentance without going through the conviction first, without feeling the sting of the law. How can you appreciate the cure if you’ve never admitted having the disease?
How can you love the God made flesh who gave you back your life if your life has never been demanded of you? That’s why you go and look for the lost sheep. That’s why the coin is so valuable, because it is lost. Not to give Jesus and the angels an excuse to party hardy because of something you did but because they are lost.
The ones who have not heard the word are the ones who only know the disease, the angst, and while it might seem easier to just tell them that it’s all right, that God throws a big party every time they do something right it does not reach them when they do something wrong, when they fall short of the glory of God and that feeling does not depart from them and they remain lost.
We have lost the use of the word that most describes why you go and why you search out the one who is lost. We use it in church but because we so seldom use it outside of church I wonder if we still know what it means. It is for mercy that we seek and we search.
The Pharisees knew full well the disease and therefore preferred the company of those they thought of as “cured,” the righteous, and not the sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes that Jesus insisted on hanging out with. They wanted to stay in the company of those who were the saints, the righteous and look disapprovingly at the ones left outside, reserving the celebrations for those on the inside.
Jesus knows that it is mercy to speak the truth of sin, to know it and then to take away its power through forgiveness and not denial. Ask any therapist, even amateur ones, the old saw is true, “you can’t heal what you can’t feel.” And Jesus comes with nothing less than the power to heal, to end the disease entirely.
God has had mercy upon us all, seeking us out with the work of neighbors and pastors, friends and spouses, bringing us not just the word of freedom through the forgiveness of sins, but that actuality of freedom, of being found while we were lost and being brought home again.
There is great celebration in heaven, among the angels, when a sinner repents. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus said so and so it is. I’m just not sure you can get there without a little psalm 51 to carry with you; that’s the psalm that starts off Lent each year.
Have mercy on me, oh God, according to your steadfast love.
Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.
Let me hear joy and gladness.
Hide your face from my sins.
It may seem like a harder road but that’s only because it is. But the place you get to is actually where God would have you be and so the journey must be taken, the lost must be found and the reward is sweeter than any party we can imagine because the repentance is true, the mercy is real and the salvation is forever in Christ.