Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For March 4, 2017
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Wednesday morning, I was visiting with someone here in the neighborhood. Our conversation came around to the people of this congregation. I said, “I’m a fan of this church. There are good people here.”
I did not admit in that private conversation what I will tell you. I love you. I love the people of this church. The people sitting here. And the people connected with us by kinship and friendship. People scattered all over the world. You have captured my heart. You own me.
Which is hardly surprising. Just look at you. You are beautiful. And if you have a hard time seeing yourself as beautiful, just look at the kids.
Think of the beauty of the children who crowd the steps of the stage here during children’s story. They are perfect. Shining eyes. Beautiful faces. Souls as large as the sky. Shy and bold. Prim and proper. Hyper and disruptive. Every week we can hardly wait to see them scurry toward the front. Every week we hold our breath. Will the story teller hold them? Which kid will create the most distraction? These kids disrupt our cool, managed liturgy reminding us that God sometimes breaks out of the boxes we build to manage his presence. These kids are beautiful. And your welcome to them is beautiful. Especially when they mess with our careful plans for order and decorous.
Several years ago, as the kids left the stage, there was a puddle here on the floor. Already I had learned to trust the welcome for children that lives here. I was not worried that anyone would throw a hissy fit. But what happened went far beyond that. Even before all the children had gotten their buckets, two elders had gone for cleaning supplies. By the time all the kids had worked their way down the aisles, it was done. No evidence.
When I laughingly asked others what they thought of our highly competent elders who managed the accident on the stage with such aplomb, they stared at me uncomprehendingly. They had seen nothing. The work of Holly and Kurt was so efficient, so smooth, that no one besides them and me and the child’s mother knew anything had happened.
How can I not love a church that lets children pee on the platform and then covers the mess with such elegant finesse an entire congregation remains oblivious? Where else can a child lose control in front of two hundred people and escape with no shame, no embarrassment? How can I not love a church that loves children so skillfully?
But really, it’s not that hard, is it? We expect our children to stumble as they are learning to walk. We expect accidents as they are learning to manage their bladders. We expect our kids to say inappropriate things on their way to elegance. We are not troubled when they spill their milk, when they ruin their clothes, when they break their toys. These things are the cost of the bright future we dream of for our kids. We easily forgive and life moves on.
Then our children grow up. And they still make messes. And the messes cannot be covered by the swift and surreptitious application of paper towels. The embarrassment can no longer be covered with laughter. Now we cry.
My son is in prison.
My daughter has abandoned her children.
My son is off his medication and back on the street again.
My daughter is in rehab for the fifth time. Her children are with their father’s mother.
My son has committed suicide.
My baby cannot be fixed.
These things happen to us. And leave us reeling. Battered. Angry. Hurt. Bewildered. Perplexed. Outraged. Baffled.
Still, when we sit together and tell our stories, we tell stories about “our children.” That man in prison is a criminal. Yes. AND he is our son. Still. Our heart sits with him, incarcerated. Our love sleeps in fear on a hard bunk behind bars. And when, in a letter, he mentions something he read recently, a book about forgiveness and transformation, our heart leaps. It is a spark of goodness and we pray even more desperately that God will fan it into full flame in his soul. We dream once more of redemption, of restoration, of the future.
When we tell the stories of the aching tragedies in our families, we do not speak of “that man” or “that woman.” We speak of “our son,” “our daughter.” And when we speak that way, we are giving evidence of some element of the divine nature living in us. We have the heart of God.
In the Old Testament, one king stands out as the worst of the worst. He was a puerile narcissist, a puppet of a crafty foreigner whose character is even darker than his own. He ruined his nation. His final act, the event that signaled his doom, was the seizure of a property next door to the palace. Ahab wanted the property. The owner wouldn’t sell. When Ahab whined to his wife, Jezebel, about this frustration of his desire, she arranged for the neighbor, a man named Naboth, to be framed for treason and blasphemy. After Naboth was executed, Ahab expropriated the property.
God directed the prophet Elijah to deliver a rebuke to the king. Elijah found the king on the grounds of the confiscated estate. When the prophet confronted him, King Ahab exclaimed:
“So, my enemy, you have found me!”
“Yes,” Elijah answered, “I have come because you have sold yourself to what is evil in the LORD’s sight. Now this is what the LORD says, ‘I will bring disaster on you and consume you. I will destroy every one of your male descendants, slave and free alike, anywhere in Israel!
I am going to destroy your family . . . for you have made me very angry and have led Israel into sin. As for your wife, Jezebel, dogs will eat her body here in Naboth’s yard. The members of your family who die in the city will be eaten by dogs, and those who die in the field will be eaten by vultures.”
The Bible writer then inserts this comment: No one else so completely sold himself to what was evil in the LORD’s sight as Ahab did under the influence of his wife Jezebel.
But notice what comes next:
When Ahab heard this message, he tore his clothing, dressed in burlap, and fasted. He even slept in burlap and went about in deep mourning. God sent another message to Elijah:
“Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has done this, I will not do what I promised during his lifetime. It will happen to his sons; I will destroy his dynasty.”
Who is this God? Like mothers in this congregation who have tried a thousand times to save their son. Mothers who have cried and gotten angry and scolded, and tried being nice and tried being tough. Mothers who have dreaded to go to sleep because they don’t know where their son is sleeping tonight. Mothers who are afraid to wake up because who knows what bad news will come in the morning. Mothers whose hearts are numb with decades of bad news. . . . But let that son take the slightest step in the right direction. Let him merely mention going back into rehab. Let him for just one day, act like a responsible son and do something helpful at home. Let that son get a job and hold it for three weeks. And that numb heart leaps for joy. It’s completely unreasonable, but it is the natural response of a heartbroken parent. Three decades of proof after proof after heartbreaking proof that their child is beyond fixing. Then their son shows some bit of humanity, a little bit of responsibility, an ounce of conscience, and the numb heart leaps. We tell our friends, our closest friends, the ones we can trust not to mock us, not to shake their heads, at least not while we are watching.
This is God and Ahab. For twenty years God had sent rebuke after scolding after lecture to Ahab through various prophets. Over and over Ahab showed his weakness, his inability to take even two steps away from the mess he was making of things. In many ways his story reads like the story of an addiction, Ahab’s drug of choice was Jezebel. We can imagine him blaming Jezebel but that would be just another sign of his own failure. He was king.
He could do what he wanted. And his desire to do right was less vital than other desires that dragged him and his nation down.
It is a miserable, heartbreaking story. Ahab is weak and evil. God is exasperated and angry.
Finally, God is finished. God announces doom. Irrevocable, total doom. And Ahab has earned it. You can imagine angels in heaven cheering when God finally says, “I’ve had enough. I’m through.” The angels all say, “It’s about time.”
Then for a day or two Ahab acts like he’s sorry. And what does God do? He calls out to his prophet, “Elijah, Have you seen Ahab’s repentance?”
It’s a crazy question. What person in his right mind would take Ahab’s repentance seriously? The answer is no one. But parents are not reasonable. Our love for our kids is not reasonable. It just is. And when our wayward, perverse children give us some slight sign that maybe, finally they are turning around, our hearts leap. We hope again. We renew our prayers.
This is God.
Unreasonably, God hopes again that his son Ahab will do right. God dreams that his wandering son will come home. It’s crazy.
As much as any other story in the Bible, this tale of God and Ahab connects God and us. God has hopes for Ahab. God gets frustrated, hurt, and angry. Ahab is weak. He is evil. He should do better. He could do better. He is making a mess. Stop it, God screams. Stop it. Stop it. Ahab doesn’t. God finally announces the ultimate tough response. Doom. Ahab’s dynasty is over. His family is going to be obliterated. This is just. Ahab has used up all his chances and a million extra beyond what is reasonable.
Then for a few days, he appears to be sorry. For just a little while he repents. And God swoons with hope.
“Elijah, did you see? Have you seen Ahab?”
That’s what God is like.
That is what we are like.
This is what I am like. I am a prisoner of hope.
Last week during children’s story, a kid leaned over to me and announced in an excited whisper, “This week, I had dry pants three mornings!” I loved it. Not, “four days this week I failed” but “three mornings this week I was a champion.”
We handle the failures. They are non-events. Non-news. Unremarkable. We forgive them and look to a better future.
But its the successes that hold our attention. The barest, slightest, fuzziest successes. Yes! Yes!
May God grant that this light-hearted truth of ordinary childhood may penetrate deep into our souls. May we join with God in noticing even the repentance of Ahab and find hope for ourselves and hope for our world.