Our scripture passages speak to us today of things that are both terrible and wonderful. They speak to us of consequences that are immediate and eternal. And they remind me of a time when I had the opportunity to sit before a judge who was dispensing wisdom and mercy.
On this particular occasion, my dear wife had been in a fender bender that was the result of a momentary misunderstanding of the actions of the driver in front of her and a confusing traffic pattern. On advice from others, she decided to go to court and plead “no contest,” as this was a minor offense on an otherwise spotless driving record. I came with her – expecting to do some work while we waited – and found the bailiff to be quite clear in the expectation that my open note pad was not welcome. Instead, I enjoyed one of the most interesting days of listening to stories of innocence and confessions of guilt and watching consequences unfold. In the end, our result was no different from what it would have been if we had just paid the fine, but we learned a lot about people that day.
One of my favorite cases was a man who had come to his son’s school because he believed that his son had been wrongly punished for his part in a fight. This turned into a shouting match with the principle and resulted in the Father being escorted from the property by the Police. The Judge listened with compassion, noting his experiences as a father, and said, “One thing that I have come to realize over the years – when I see those traits in my children that I also struggle with – is that there are times when I am the creator of my child’s problem. As parents, we must be aware of our own limitations and do our best not to nurture them in our children.” I don’t remember the penalty that came with that judgment – and certainly there was one – but I imagine the words had a greater impact.
The other case I remember from that day was a man in military dress. His lawyer acknowledged the soldier’s service and dedication and desire to begin a career in the military. He was asking for leniency, because the young man had been speeding in excess of 100 mph while riding a sport bike on the shoulder of a highway that was gridlocked. The judge very carefully and sincerely thanked the young man for his service. Then he said, “While it is admirable that you hope to serve our nation as a career, every career path has a winnowing process to select certain characteristics. Yours may require high risk behaviors in some circumstances, but when those behaviors endanger others then you have defeated yourself.” The penalty was lenient, but the truth in his words rang out loud and clear.
These stories represent two things for me that I find in our scriptures today. The first is the realization that our decisions carry consequences that are both immediate and eternal. Our decisions and actions reflect our identity and character. They take root in those we love and echo in eternity. Our actions reflect our understanding of our relationships with others, and they demonstrate our awareness of God’s active presence in this world.
The second thing that I believe these stories share with our scriptures is an expectation that God is moving us toward better things. God’s constant push and pull in our lives moves us – regardless of our decisions – to let go of things that keep us apart from God. And God will use any means, even events that may seem harmful, to move us closer to God’s embrace.
Let me be clear in saying that I do not believe that God causes harmful things like the random attacks of madmen or the intentional abuse of power or acts of violence masquerading as faithful submission. Those things are the result of the condition of sin. They are the result of systems of care and social contracts that are broken. They are the result of individuals making choices that are not in keeping with God’s will.
God is yet involved in all of these things and is constantly moving us toward the doing of God’s will in the presence of those whose selfishness seeks to work against God’s will. And so the question our texts ask us today is which side of that equation are we on – living in response to God’s grace or living in pursuit of our own desires?
More specifically, our scriptures are deeply concerned about our immediate experience of faithful living today as it relates to the eternal life that God offers us through the revelation of Jesus Christ.
In II Samuel we find that King David’s indiscretions have finally come home to roost as his son Absalom leads a rebellion that divides the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Absalom’s death is particularly terrible, and he is seen as “cursed” for dying in a tree hanging between heaven and earth. Believe it or not, I think this a place where we begin to see why David is called “a man after God’s own heart.” Even though Absalom may have deserved his fate, David weeps over the loss of his son and even longs to take his place.
It is the longing of God to love us even in our rebellion that eventually led to the cross of Jesus. And through God’s love that cross – which was supposed to demonstrate the power of Rome over life itself – became a symbol of eternal life in God. Eternal life is not something that we have to wait for. Certainly, our expectation is that we will yet be with God after our time on earth is at an end, but our salvation is not limited to the afterlife. In fact, our salvation has immediate consequences. It creates an understanding that we are connected to one another, indeed that we are responsible for one another – and even the whole of creation.
Throughout the letter to the Ephesians, we are encouraged to let go of personal agendas and anticipate the opportunity to build one another up in faith. In fact, we are told that doing anything less is to work at cross-purposes with God. So, we too must become open to a winnowing process to move us forward – past our anxieties and fears and into the embrace of God.
I love saying things like that – past our anxieties and fears and into the embrace of God – and I think it is true and right and important to remember. Yet our scriptures want us to remember that this faith – this belief that Jesus reveals the heart of God – is very hands on and very practical.
Jesus wants us to know that he is the literal expression of the will of God. Devotion to him will fulfill our innermost needs, yet he is also concerned with the very visceral experience of hunger and thirst. Ultimately, I believe that this passage is about living in expectation of God’s providence.
And we know that God provides, because God has given us our faith in Jesus. And Jesus offers us a way to understand everything in light of sacrificial love and forgiveness. And that’s the truly beautiful part of the idea that our actions will echo in eternity.
Think of it as a ripple in a pond. Energy is transferred when the rock hits the water and sends waves across the pond. Eventually the waves get further apart and become unrecognizable, but the energy that created them continues to spread. According to Einstein’s law of conservation, energy never ends. It simply changes form.
Ultimately, our actions are like that. Ultimately they are consumed by God’s will so that all that remains is the love that inspires and moves us. But, in the meantime, we do need to wrestle with the question of the immediate impact of our decisions. I’m guessing that most of us will find that we are neither purely following God nor purely rebelling against God.
Yet all of us – if we are honest – will find that our actions, our relationships, and our faith share a common bond. And that is the desire to love as we have been loved. That’s a lot easier to do in situations of charity. Certainly we need to be generous. Paul even tells us that our motivation for working should be so that we have something extra to give to the poor. Still, the harder road is to submit to one another in order to build one another up in love and service. That is the more difficult path, but we’ve done it before. I believe we can do it still, but only if we can become aware of our limitations and nurture a love of God instead of a repeating old habits in new relationships.
In this way, we might yet become imitators of One who is so needed in this world; the One who is with us in all things yet so often ignored; the One who would even take the place of a rebellious child like me and you.
Because of this One – who is the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all that exists – what we do and say matters. Yet ultimately, what matters most is that you are God’s beloved, that God works in and through us, and that it is through God’s love that everything – and everyone – is moved closer and closer toward redemption. And to God be the glory for that, now and always. Amen.