March 25th, 2012 – He Walks With Us

I remember during one class at seminary, someone mentioned the different perceptions we have of God. Some people see God as a vengeful God, one who is always ready to smite or punish his people. Some people see God as a loving God, one who is always ready to forgive. I suggested that maybe our perceptions are coloured by which section of the Bible we are reading, saying that the God of the Old Testament was more likely to smite. After all, in our reading from Exodus just a couple of weeks ago, were we not told that God is a jealous God? It seems to me that a jealous God would be more likely to smite or punish his people for wrongdoing. Well, that, as it turns out, was the wrong thing to say. Because, of course, that implies that the God mentioned in the Old Testament and the God mentioned in the New Testament are different gods, which we know is not the case.
However, my statement does show that each one of us can have a different perception of the same thing. I grew up in a paper town, where the forest was seen as a source of paper and of income. Most of our fathers – mothers rarely worked outside the home in those days – worked for the paper mill, and we all knew that, without trees, there would be no mill. The disadvantage to this was obvious one day in school, when my teacher got upset because I had – to her mind – wasted paper. She glared at me, and demanded: Do you think that paper grows on trees? Well, of course, the answer was: yes. My uncle, who also worked for the paper mill, was also a hunter, and he had a different view of the woods. He saw the forests surrounding the town as a place to hunt game, as a place where he longed to be during hunting season. Woodworkers looked on each tree as a possible piece of furniture, or as a possible work of art when put in the hands of a skilled carver. Friends of mine who were farmers looked at the forest as something to be conquered, to be eliminated, so that they could plant more land with vegetables or use it to graze more animals.
And, of course, the forest is all of these things. But it is a whole lot more. It is a place where we can see God’s hand at work wherever we look. It is a home for countless animals, birds, and even insects. If you have ever seen any of the countless documentaries on the rain forest, you will know that a forest is actually a microcosm for the universe, and a place of beauty and wonder, a place where we can see and hear the Good News.
Every Sunday, I am to preach the Good News, and sometimes it is easier than others. Given the readings today, it would be impossible NOT to do this. Let’s start with the reading from Jeremiah, which is not usually the place where we would expect to find good news. Jeremiah is known as the one who laments. In fact, at times the book of Jeremiah has been called: Jeremiah’s lament because it is so full of doom and gloom. But that is not the case today. Here, Jeremiah is telling the people of Israel about a new covenant which is coming between God and his people. He said that it will be radically different from the one which was made at the time of the Exodus. That covenant culminated in the Ten Commandments, which were carved on stone tablets, and which, unfortunately, the Israelites broke again and again. At the time of the new covenant, no teaching of the Lord will be necessary, because everyone will know him in their minds and hearts. To me, the last sentence in this reading is the most wonderful: For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. God will remember sins no more. Now, that is something I wish we all could do. I have managed to make forgiveness part of my life, but the forgetting – well, that isn’t quite as easy. I believe that this is part of the human condition, and a part against which we must constantly struggle.
Jeremiah is speaking to the people while they are still in captivity, and the tone of these verses is very different from what he said before. He has stopped scolding the people for their sins and for the times they have broken their covenant with God. Instead, he is now talking about rescue and release, about restoration and return. Despite the many times the Israelites have turned away from God, Jeremiah is bringing them a new message. Not only will God forgive them AGAIN, he will forget their sins. It will be as though they never happened at all.
God says, through Jeremiah, I will be their God and they will be my people. In his great book Theology of The Old Testament, Walter Bruggeman explained that God says this out of love, a deed, abiding love and grief – grief that his people have strayed yet again. But despite their straying, he still loves them. And if that isn’t Good News, then I don’t know what is!
Jeremiah’s words invite us to think about who God really is. When I was in seminary, and before and after, I was never able to describe God adequately. And I don’t think I ever will, simply because I am using human words to try to describe something that is so far beyond anything we can ever imagine. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. You have heard me preach on the various aspects of God – as Saviour, Creator, Shepherd, or King – but whatever I call him, it is still short of what he really is. There is an interesting thing to see in verse 32. I don’t know how many of you read the footnotes in the pew Bibles, but I always did, and there is one word which could be translated in a couple of different ways. In this verse, speaking about the Israelites being led out of Egypt, God says: They broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them. Now, the Hebrew word could have been translated as HUSBAND or MASTER, but, to me, neither word adequately describes God’s relationship with me. In fact, I would rather use the word PARENT, because that is how I see God in this reading. As a parent – and also as a child – I can totally understand God’s frustration when his people seem to be constantly messing things up. I can understand his anger, But most of all, I can understand his love. And that love is put into words a bit earlier in this chapter, when, in verse 20 God says: Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him. This is not the vengeful God so many of us have come to associate with the Old Testament. This is the God of love.
And the God of love gave us his son, so that we would have eternal life. It is important for us to recognize that Jesus was both God and man – not half and half, but fully one AND fully the other. There are some who cannot accept that Jesus was fully man, and this leads to some interesting beliefs. I am sure that most of you have heard of M. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Traveled, among other inspirational books. While I find some of what he says rather unusual, once in a while I find something in his books which I think will be interesting even to us Presbyterians. Peck, in addition to being a writer, is a psychiatrist, and many of his patients came to him because of religion. There was this one woman, who had been involved in what I politely refer to as New-Age movements. Peck says, “I asked her one day, ‘Tell me about Jesus . . . how he died?’
‘He was crucified.’ She answered. Something, perhaps the fact that she did everything she could to avoid pain, propelled me to ask, ‘Did it hurt?’

‘Oh no!’ she responded . . . . . I persisted ‘How could it not hurt?’
‘Oh,’ she replied happily, ‘He was just so highly developed in his Christ Consciousness that he was able to project himself into his astral body and take off from there.’”
Well, now, isn’t THAT interesting? But, you know, it isn’t only the New-Agers who come up with such things. I have heard main-stream Christians say that we really shouldn’t think of Jesus as divine, because, if we do, we can too easily ignore his suffering. We can say something like, well, because he was divine, none of it – the torture, the crucifixion, the death – hurt him as much as it would hurt a human. So that negates the sacrifice he made for us. Because, believe me, everything that happened to him – it hurt him just as much as it would hurt us. And we need to know this, because we need to know that following Jesus doesn’t always mean that things are wonderful. It doesn’t always mean that we won’t suffer. It doesn’t always mean that we won’t be sad. But, it does always mean that the rewards are worth it.
In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, which we heard just a few minutes ago, we were given a very real human picture of Jesus – a Jesus who suffered, one who cried, and prayed, and ultimately submitted himself to his Father’s will. Despite the fact that he cried, he was crucified. Remember, in the garden at Gethsemane, Jesus said: My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.
I remember when my son was about four years old. He was helping us dig rocks out of our garden so that we could plant vegetables there. He was tossing the rocks as far as his little arms could throw, but once he made a mistake. Instead of throwing the rock ahead, he threw it up into the air, and it came down right on his forehead, splitting it open. After the initial panic, I drove him to the hospital, where he had to get stitches. Before getting stitches, of course, he had to have a needle right in the wound to deaden it. He was holding my hand, and crying, begging me not to let the doctor hurt him. But all of his tears and pleading were to no avail, as it had to be done. Alec probably felt abandoned, but I was right there.
In just the same way, when you feel abandoned, Jesus is there. Whatever you feel, Jesus has felt it, Jesus has experienced it. Think about a time in your life when you have been scared, alone, and troubled. Then think about Jesus in the garden, when not one of the apostles could even stay awake to pray with him, when one of his trusted twelve betrayed him. Think about the times in your life when you felt that you just couldn’t go on. And know that Jesus has experienced the same emotion. Then ask yourself why he allowed this to happen. After all, he was God. He didn’t have to do suffer any of this.
The answer, of course, is love. He moved among people on earth, ministering to the lowest of them, caring for all, because he loved us. I don’t know if you have ever heard the starfish story, but I am going to tell it again anyhow, just in case you missed it, when I last told it, a couple of years ago. There had been a storm at sea, and the great waves had washed up many starfish onto the beach, where they lay, dying. A small boy was walking along, picking up starfish, one by one, and tossing them back into the water. An adult watched him for a while, and then asked him what he was doing. The small boy said: I am rescuing starfish. The adult said that there were far too many for his efforts to make any difference, and laughed. The small boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the water. Then he said: It made a difference to that one.
And that is what Jesus did. He came to restore wholeness to those who lay helpless and stranded upon the shore of life because either the tide and wind had cast them there, or – as is so often the case with us, but not so often in the case of starfish, because they had thoughtlessly and foolishly stranded themselves on the shore. Jesus gave up everything for us, and that is what he expects us to do, if we are going to follow him. The power of Jesus, the love of Jesus, the compassion of Jesus, the joy and the sorrow of Jesus, and the life everlasting of Jesus, are all available to us – for the asking and the wanting, if we but follow him, if we are but willing to walk as he walked, and die as he died, in obedience to the Father.
Jesus said : Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life in this world will lose it, but the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
Jesus was a seed, ready to die for us. Jesus was a starfish thrower, ready to save each individual person. And that is what he wants from us. He loved and loves us, and expects us to love others, for it is in this way that we will find his love. The Gospel – the Good News – is our call to follow him, our call to love others. We are asked to follow him in serving those who need serving, and you’d be surprised where you will find them. We are asked to follow him in standing up for the oppressed, and the mistreated, and those who are downtrodden. We are asked to follow him by fighting against evil wherever we see it. In following Jesus, we, too, may be rejected by others; we, too, may be scorned. Nobody ever said that it was easy to be a follower of Jesus. His way is the way of the Cross. But the promise of the Gospel is that, wherever we go, Jesus has already been, and wherever we go, he is there with us. Thanks be to God.


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