Sermon – September 15, 2019 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Character of God

Having been around town for 19 years, I’ve come to know quite a few people in the community who don’t belong to St. Matthew.  Not surprisingly, our conversations with these folks often turn to church and when they do, I will sometimes invite people to visit our fellowship.  Well, I did that with one woman who obviously had some sense of church, some history and I thought she certainly would benefit from a believing community, forgiving community.  She had a lot of problems and a lot of past and was a little rough around the edges. She declined my invitation saying, the church “was full of just too many hypocrites.”  So I quickly reassured her, “Why, we always have room for one more.”

I think her reluctance to be affiliated with a church said something not about the people in the pews, although all churches populate our sanctuaries and pulpits with our share of hypocrites.  No, I think she was directing her comments toward God.   I believe that she felt judged by her idea of the church, and therefore judged by God.  Her view of the character of God, not an uncommon one, was of an angry and judgmental God waiting for the opportunity to rub her nose in her sinfulness and she just didn’t what to be a part of that crowd.   She thought she was clear about who God was and who God was for. I think she was wrong.

In our lesson from Luke today, Jesus is going around trying to show the people who God is and who God is for.  The evidence of God’s blessing, of God’s watchfulness was sometimes scarce to some folks, the lost, the outcast, the set aside, those who did not meet the standard of piety put before them.  Jesus came to say, “You can see how God is through me, and I will show you the character of God”

So what is the character of God?   The people had surely not forgotten that God was capable of being offended.  The Pharisees knew that.  Bless their hearts they knew that well.  And they struggled with their lives and their teaching and with their example to show the people that God may be offended, and here’s how not to do that.  They were quick to point out that is y’all that have offended.  Not bad work if you can get it.

But as the Pharisees were ever reminding the people that God could be offended by their very person, their sinfulness, and then, therefore exact God’s consequences of the people, they were in danger of overlooking the fact that finally the heart of God is mercy.  The heart of God is covenantal, the heart of God is finally bound to the people and he had not abandoned them and he has not, and would not leave them.  Moses said to God in our Exodus lesson, as God’s anger raged against the people in the desert, remember . . . . your people . . .  remember your covenant, remember your promise. . . . and God changed his mind and God did not given up on the people. .   The people surrounding Jesus, the sinners, the tax collectors, the lost, may have given up on God because those who spoke for God, those who represented God, those who assembly in God’s name and mitigated for the people, had given up on them, so they gave up on God.

The Pharisee seemed quite satisfied by this arrangement, and expressed what they surely felt was God’s dissatisfaction with Jesus’ company of tax collectors and sinners.  So, to this Jesus says, let me tell you a little something.  Let me tell you what God is like.  God is like a woman who has lost a coin.  While it may seem a small thing to you and me, to her it is a crisis, and she is desperate to find it.  More importantly, even, God is like one who owns a flock of sheep, who discovering he has lost one of the sheep, leaves the rest to search for the one until it is found. What does that say about God? That God is miserly?  I suppose.  God is miserly, God is jealous, God is watchful over those things that are God’s, because this is God’s creation.  God claims each person, each soul, claims each broken heart, claims each estranged, confused and frightened as his own.  Jesus is pressing with all his weight against the bean counter God who will attend only to the holy, and would judge the rest. Jesus is pressing with all his life against the notion that God is an individual commodity, something to be had, a private relationship open only to the lucky, the pious or the perfect.  Jesus would reject the silly, shallow, theology that makes God our fishing buddy, our copilot, or private companion on account of our own loveableness.

To see God in these private and possessive ways is to deny the universal character of God’s love and it is to miss the point entirely that God will risk and change and even humble God’s self for the sake of the lost.  The Pharisees missed that when they grumbled about Jesus shady table company.   Their idea of God would not risk being seen with such a crowd.

What is the character of God?  Miserly, surely.  This woman I invited to church had not yet heard are had not come to believe that she is one whom God loved and that God would go to great lengths to find her and bring her to the fold.

The character of God is self-giving, sacrificial.   In the eyes of humanity, this is a surprise. When God changes God’s mind it is a surprise, it appears that God gave up something. Surely the people of Moses time deserved the licking they had coming, yet God changed God’s mind.   And then, it can be no clearer than in the giving of his son.    Rather than exact from us sinners and tax collectors and hypocrites the just punishment of our sinfulness, God instead turns from wrath to mercy and gives us all of himself in Jesus Christ.  The giving of God’s very self for the lost and the sinner, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ came into the world to save sinners.”

The character of God is to exceed our expectations.  We are so quick to measure the character of God by our own terms, by our standards, by our expectations, by our limited vision that we often miss the character of God that is revealed in Scripture, in the teachings of Jesus.   The God we meet today is a God certainly capable of being offended by our disobedience, by the hurt, by the preventable pain in the world, by judgmentalism, by racism, violence, by war and division.  But this is a God not bound in wrath and judgment, but instead seeks to bring mercy, surprising mercy to bear on those very things that offend him and to bring mercy and forgiveness to the offender.   So that the flock might be complete, that the community might be whole, that healing might come.  The character of God is not content to be alone with the holy and the self-satisfied, but in fellowship with all of creation.

Finally, we look to the cross and where see the character of God in pursuit of the lost, who sees all people as children and who will not rest until they are gathered in.  Who gives all of himself to them, even unto death, and in doing so brings triumph out of tragedy, and who calls us from mourning to dancing with all of heaven and earth.

That’s who God is.  That’s who God is for.  Thanks be to God.