The sermon texts for July 9, 2017, the fifth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A are Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30; Psalm 145:8-14; and Romans 7:15-25a. The pictures shown were projected during the service. Inspiration from Dr. David Lose.
Grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Close your eyes and picture God. What do you see? How do you imagine God? Do you see the big guy upstairs with a bushy beard?
Do you see just light? That’s a way of picturing God.
Perhaps Morgan Freeman playing God in the movie Bruce Almighty?
Or God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting?
As humans, it’s natural for us to try to picture God. It’s just the way our minds work. And we’re never going to be quite right, because we’re fallible, sinful, limited beings. God is beyond our comprehension. That’s part of what makes God God.
But there are some things we can know about God. Today’s Psalm lists a few. The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. The Lord is faithful and gracious.
But there are limits to what we can know about God, and the problem is that when we picture God, we have a tendency to make God look an awful lot like us. Think about how we see Jesus. We usually picture Jesus as something like this, with white skin and a nicely trimmed beard.
Or this one, which is in at least one place in our church building. This is what we expect Jesus to look like.
But a lot of that is because that’s what people around us look like. Look at how different cultures picture Jesus. Here’s a Chinese portrayal of Jesus. [source for these images]
A crucifixion scene from India.
Here’s one from Tanzania.
People everywhere tend to make Jesus look like themselves. It’s human nature.
It happens politically too. Political parties and politicians claim God is on their side. They look at the issues they care about and assume God must care about the same issues and reach the same solutions.
We are made in the image of God, but we really want God to conform to our image. We really want God to care about the things we care about, and to work the way we work. It’s not just the way God looks, but the way God acts. That’s where the problem is.
In the Gospel reading from Matthew, many of the people have rejected God’s work among them because they don’t recognize the way God is working. God’s work doesn’t meet their expectations. They’ve set themselves up as judges to decide if something or someone is from God.
First, Jesus says, John the Baptist came along, living a strict ascetic lifestyle, neither eating or drinking. The people rejected his message saying, “He has a demon!” He’s too strict. He’s too angry, too demanding. It’s too hard to live up to his expectations.
Then Jesus came, and he did lots of eating and drinking. In some ways, he was the opposite of John, welcoming sinners, hanging out with the wrong people. And the people said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” No wonder Jesus gets frustrated with them!
It’s like the story of Goldilocks. They’re never quite satisfied. They don’t want a god who’s too strict and demanding and hard to follow. But they also don’t want a god who’s too forgiving or accepting of their enemies.
They want a god who’s in the middle, who’s just right. And just right means, basically, they want someone who agrees with them, who looks like them, who acts in ways they approve of. Don’t we fall into the same trap?
It’s a lot easier to listen to someone you agree with. I believe part of the problem in our country right now is that we like getting our news from sources that agree with us. I find myself sometimes reading news articles or editorials or thought columns and agreeing with everything they say. It’s nice to have my opinions validated. Being challenged is harder.
It’s a lot easier to follow a religious leader who you agree with. Making God into our own image is easy. But what good would that kind of God do? Why would we need a god who looks like us and acts like us? We are sinful people. We have all kinds of problems, all kinds of failings, and we can’t fix ourselves, no matter how hard we try.
Listen to the way Paul puts it in one of my favorite verses in the Bible. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” This is the verse I think of when it’s the end of the day and I still haven’t accomplished the one thing I intended to get done. So often I know what I should do, but I find myself doing everything else instead.
The reality of being sinful people is that no matter how hard we try, we can’t be the people we want to be. We can’t be as good as God calls us to be. We procrastinate, we fail to love others the way we should, we miss opportunities to be good people. We make great plans, we have good intentions, and in our sinful nature, we sabotage ourselves along the way.
It’s like sin is a pit that we try to climb up out of, but every time we get to the top, there’s something shiny in the bottom so we go back to see what it is. We can’t ever climb all the way out of our sin. It’s a cycle we get caught in.
Paul lays all this out, how he can’t seem to master even his own body, how he can’t seem to get control over his own life, and he concludes in verse 24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Thank God that what we couldn’t do, God has done for us. Even though God doesn’t work in the way we expect, even though from a human perspective it’s a ridiculous way of saving the world, God has come to us as a human and died for our sins. As we said in the confession at the beginning of worship, we need God to come cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Go back to those cultural images of Jesus. I used them a few minutes ago to talk about us making God in our own image, but I actually really like them, because they show God becoming like us.
The heart of the Christian message is that in the person of Jesus Christ, God has come to dwell with us. God has come to be with us in our world, in our own lives.
No matter what we try, we could never climb out of that pit of sin, so God came down into the pit with us. God became a human being, Jesus Christ, one of us, except Jesus can get out of the pit, and bring us out with him. So often, though, we don’t recognize Jesus coming down into the pit, because Jesus doesn’t do things the way we would.
There’s a song that goes “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.”
Of course God is more than a slob like one of us, which is good, because we need God to do what we can’t. But the point of our Christian faith is that God has become one of us. And God is still active in our world. Jesus isn’t walking around in the flesh any more, but God is at work around us.
Do we notice, or are we like the people who complained about John and Jesus? Are we waiting for God to do it our way, or are we willing to get involved in God’s way of doing things? black
This week, I challenge you to be open to noticing God working in unexpected ways. Of course, I expect we’ll notice God at work during VBS. We’ll even have times each day of VBS with God-sightings, where we share where we’ve noticed God. But don’t stop there. Will you be open this week to recognizing God in the unexpected places and in unexpected people?
Let’s pray. Good and gracious God, thank you for your work among us. Thank you for showing up both in the obvious places, in the majesty and the good times, and in unexpected ways, in the people we don’t expect, in the midst of suffering and doubt. Help us to notice you as you work in our world, in exactly the right way. Through Jesus Christ we pray.