A Sermon For Year C, Proper 22SERMON: Quick quiz: As followers of Jesus, what is the proper range of emotions to express in our relationship with God? What are the "correct" emotional responses to feel toward God?
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Habakkuk 1:1-13;2:1-4
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Habakkuk 1:1-13;2:1-4
Well, as Jesus followers from the Episcopal tribe, we are very comfortable with reverence. We like to be reverent toward God, with a sort of muted awe, silent admiration, and inward appreciation of God's beauty. We know what it means to "worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness".
We also value thoughtfulness. We like to meditate on God, without being given the "answers", as we look at ideas about God in our imagination. We truly value asking difficult questions, and deeply pondering the possible answers. In fact, sometimes we so deeply value thinking ABOUT God, that we fail talk TO God!
But, that's another sermon...
And while Episcopal Jesus people value reverence and thoughtfulness, Jesus followers from other Christian tribes value other things. Some value excitement! They want the joy of the Lord to pour out like a gushing river every time they worship. Their worship gatherings often look more like rock concerts than what we think of as Church... But at least they are excited!
Other Jesus followers value faith and confidence in Christ. They think it is important for Christians to step out in faith into the great unknown, trusting that God will provide for them in every way. They believe that Christians should be the bravest people on earth, because they put their whole trust in a God who will not let them down.
Still others place the supreme value on sacrifice. Jesus followers should be willing to sacrifice everything for their Lord, giving up all their rights and privileges for the sake of spreading God's Kingdom, God's Justice, and God's Gospel on the Earth. For them, the major sin is to hold back even a little part of oneself from God.
Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul tended to put supreme value on Love: Agape Love. Unconditional, unselfish, unstoppable Love. Jesus said that this Love is what all the Law and the Prophets depended on. Paul said that this Love sums up the Law, and he spent a chapter in his first letter to the Corinthians talking about how it is the supreme gift of the Spirit.
And, when you put it that way, you can see how Love includes all of the lesser, but still important, values of reverence, thoughtfulness, excitement, trust, and sacrifice. If you Love God you will be reverent to Him, but also excited about Him. If you Love God you will trust Him, and also be thoughtful about Him. If you Love God, you will sacrifice yourself for the things He values: Like Justice and Charity and spreading the Gospel.
But, is this the total emotional range we are allowed to feel toward God? Or, are there some emotions that are "off limits" in dealing with God?
Honestly, I think that many Christians would say yes. There are some things that "real Christians" cannot feel toward God. There are some ideas and emotions that cannot enter your heart or mind, or else you are becoming faithless and endangering your very soul.
Because if you felt THAT- you know what THAT is- if you felt THAT then it means that you must be denying God.
Quick! Think about something else! Pretend you didn't just feel that! Ignore it! Deny it! By all means, do not admit to anyone that THAT thought ever passed through your mind!
And- this is important- DO NOT tell God about THAT. God is not big enough to handle it. God is much too fragile. If you tell God THAT He might just disappear, and cease to exist. Or, even worse, God might throw a cosmic temper tantrum, hurl a few lightning bolts at you, and make your life hell.
Wait, it sounds kind of silly when I put it that way. Doesn't it?
I mean, if God is who we say God is, He should Love us enough to walk with us through whatever we FEEL, right? And if God is big enough to make the universe and everything in it, He should be big enough to deal with my crisis, right? And if God is powerful enough to become a powerless carpenter from Nazareth who lived, suffered, and died as one of us, he should be powerful enough to help me through my pain, right?
We know this when we sit down and think about it, but we still walk around with the assumption that our entire emotional range in dealing with God can only consist of "positive" emotions.
Above all, most people believe that getting angry and frustrated with God is complete blasphemy. You CAN'T get mad at God! He is blameless! He is holy! He could squash you like a bug!
So, we sit on our anger. We stuff it. We pretend it is not there. We go through pain and suffering and rejection and humiliation and we smile weakly and say "It is all in God's plan". We witness astounding injustice- corruption, embezzlement, apathy, hate, homicide, and genocide- and we smile weakly and say "Everything works out for the best".
And the resentment grows. Instead of crying out to God and saying "How could you let this happen to them! How could you let this happen to me!", we choose to cling to a few bland clichés: "A smile is just a frown turned upside down!"
Eventually the resentment reaches a crisis point, and we either explode, or melt down, or loose our faith altogether. Sadly, after doing 15 years of ministry, I find that most people wind up choosing the last option.
Some people feel so let down by God, and so unable to be honest about how they feel, that they just give up on the whole God-business altogether.
But God HAS designed us emotionally to deal with this. For every relationship based on Love, there is a solution for pent-up frustration: Honest anger. You can get angry at God, and He will listen, and He is big enough to walk you through it.
Listen to the prophet Habakkuk: "O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-- therefore judgment comes forth perverted."
Can you hear the anger? Habakkuk is seeing the wicked prosper, and the righteous suffer, and he wants to know where God is! He can see that the ruthless and violent Chaldeans are going to attack and destroy his people, and he wants to know how God could let that happen!
He knows his own people are a real piece of work. He knows they are hypocrites and scoundrels, greedy and unjust, but they are not as bad as the Chaldeans! How can God bring judgment on His own people by using a people who are WORSE than His own people!
Habakkuk wants answers!
So, what does Habakkuk do? He goes up to his watchtower and sits and waits for God to answer. He demands that God answer, and then he has the audacity to SIT and wait for it!
And you know what God did? He answered.
Habakkuk was not afraid to get angry with God. He was willing to argue with God to His face. He was willing to wrestle with God, to struggle with God, to stubbornly wait for God to answer.
What we think of as unthinkable- getting angry and frustrated with God- is in fact at the core of how the Bible pictures our relationship with God. And, if you want to get down to it, it is at the core of how God designed us as humans.
In our culture, raw, honest emotions scare us. We are afraid of honest anger, in the same way that we are afraid of deep passion. We want to keep everything light and bouncy. Nothing too deep.
But, if you really love someone, one of the most important skills to learn is how to get angry with each other, and argue in a constructive way, and forgive each other from the heart. If you do not learn how to do this with your friends, with your spouse, and even with your God, your relationships will not last long, and they will be amazingly shallow.
You can always tell a relationship is in trouble if you are always walking on eggshells, bottling up resentment, and never admitting when there is a problem. The healthiest relationships are those where people honestly express what is wrong, honestly try to fix the problem, and honestly forgive each other.
And, this is true all over the Bible in our relationship with God. In Genesis chapter 18, Abraham has an argument with God about saving the righteous out of Sodom and Gomorrah. And because of this, God allows Abraham to rescue his family members from the oncoming wrath.
In Genesis chapter 32, Jacob literally wrestles with God all night. As a result, God blesses Him and gives Him a new name: The name Israel. Israel literally means "the one who wrestles with God". So, all of the Hebrew people came to be named "Israelites": God-wrestlers! And now, the Church is the "new Israel", a people called by God to wrestle with Him.
Later on in the Bible we see Moses getting angry with God and wrestling with Him. Job has a famous wrestling match with God, and so did the prophet Jeremiah. Even Jonah wrestles with God and has to spend three days in a stinking fish before he stopped being stubborn. And the result of all of this wrestling was that God spoke to them, and met them where they were at.
Wrestling God in frustration and anger is all over the Psalms. Time after time we read the psalmists who cry out and say things like "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?"
Even Jesus wrestles with God in frustration. In the garden before his arrest, He prays three times "Father, I do not want to go through with this! Isn't there some other way? Yet, not my will, but your will be done." On the cross, Jesus cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Jesus, the Son of God, was a God-Wrestler as well. And God spoke through Him too, by raising Him from the dead.
But this did not stop Jesus' disciples from being God-wrestlers. Thomas was so jaded by the death of Jesus that he said He would not believe He was raised until He saw Jesus' face, and touched His wounds. And what did Jesus do? Turn his back? Hurl lighting bolts at him for blasphemy? No, he showed up. Jesus showed up and showed Thomas his wounds.
And the God-wrestling does not stop there. In the last book of the Bible- the revelation of John- we find martyrs crying out with the same question that Habakkuk had asked hundreds of years earlier: "Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood?"
All of God's people are God-wrestlers. We are called to Love God with all we have- with all of our passion, all our reverence, all our trust, all of our thoughtfulness. But, loving God with that intensity means we need to be honest as well. There are times when we wonder where God is. There are times when we ache for God. There are times when the apparent absence of God makes us...
Makes us mad.
And God wants us to express that to Him. God wants us to wrestle with Him. The worst thing to do with anger is to hide it, and talk about it behind someone's back. And this is doubly true with God. Don't talk about God behind his back. Tell it to His face. He is big enough. He is strong enough. And He loves you enough.
And when you do honestly wrestle with God, and when you climb up into your watchtower with Habakkuk and say "I am not leaving here until you tell me something, God!", you will find that the strangest thing happens: God speaks. God acts. God brings resurrection where there was death.
He doesn't do it like you would expect. But, does God EVER do what we expect? Yet, He will do something. And that something will change your life, and change your world. I promise.
BENEDICTION: And now may you become a God-wrestler. May your love affair with Jesus become so real, that you are able to honestly bring your emotions- all of your emotions- to God. And may God answer you in your time of need, and bring resurrection to all of the dead places in your life. Amen+