A More Beautiful Gospel
Jeremiah 8:1-9:1; Timothy 2:1-7
September 15, 2019
As humans, and especially as Americans, we are quite good at ignoring pain. When I was in college I tore my ACL playing sports. The problem though, was that I didn’t learn I had torn it until two months later. And I spent those two months continuing to play sports until the pain became too much for me to ignore. You’d think that I’d be smart enough to realize that something was wrong when my knee swelled up to the size of a grape fruit and I lost my full range of motion. But nope, I was obstinately convinced that it was nothing major and nothing I couldn’t keep playing on. Man, was I a big dummy! By the time I got an MRI, the doctor pointed to the screen that imaged the inside of my knee, revealing tendons and muscles, and he pointed to the center of the knee and said: “this is where your ACL is supposed to be, and there is absolutely nothing there.” I had played on a torn ACL for so long that I had worn it down to the point that there was nothing left of it.
When we want to, we are quite good at ignoring pain; we are adeptly skilled at escaping the problems we don’t want to face until it’s too late and they’ve festered for too long. We do this with physical illnesses yes, we’ll put off doctor’s appointments and think that if we just ignore the problem it will go away over time. But more often, it is internal problems and issues that we ignore. We let emotional stress and trauma build until it’s released upon other people. We’d rather not deal with it, and so others suffer. We make poor and rash decisions which hurt ourselves or others, and that we never properly seek forgiveness for or seek healing from; we try to forget these choices and hope they will just go away over time. We seek escapes from the mundane drudgery of our work lives, our retirement or our ordinary life; I’d be curious to take a poll about how much time each of us spend per day, trying to escape the reality of our lives – whether it be escape into TV shows or movies, escape through our phones and games, escape through addictions. If we’re honest, we spend a lot of our lives trying to escape the everyday realities of them.
We do this in our personal lives, as well as with the world around us. In the age of information when we have access to every news source worldwide at our finger tips, we become numb and desensitized to the evils and tragedies that occur. We are not surprised when another mass shooting happens; we lament it yes, but we don’t really feel it as deep in our bowels as we used to.
We become desensitized to other issues too. We hear nonstop about healthcare issues – how we’re the wealthiest country in the history of the world, yet we can’t take care of our sick and poor who can’t afford health coverage; we are constantly inundated with new revelations of how deep systemic racism runs in our country; we hear about civil wars, refugee crises, children separated from their parents at our nation’s borders; we hear about how we are destroying our world’s environment. We turn on our TV’s and there seems to be a constant onslaught of political drama. It’s all so overwhelming, and at times we can’t help but become desensitized to it. We begin to ignore it. The problems of our world seem too big for us to conquer, so we try to ignore them; we try to escape them through any form of entertainment we can.
Jeremiah, in our passage today, is also addressing a people who had ignored their problems and their pain for too long. It is not clear whether it is Jeremiah’s voice or God’s voice crying out on behalf of the Israelites; the voice cries out on behalf of a people who had been given multiple warnings about their slide into disobedience. They had ignored their poor and marginalized for too long. God required the Israelites to take care of the disadvantaged, but they did not. They had ignored their spiritual collapse as well. They worshiped idols, they sought political advantage through treaties with other kingdoms that were morally corrupt, they disregarded their covenant with God. God continually called them back to the covenant through the prophets, but now as Jeremiah is on the scene, it is too late.
The Israelites don’t want to actually deal with their problems, with their moral corruptness. They want quick-fix religion instead. They put their confidence in the Temple and in sacrificial rituals to automatically save them. They want to be able to make the right number of sacrifices, say the right number of prayers, and move on with their lives. They don’t want to get their hands dirty by trying to correct injustice, to change the way they live or the direction their nation is heading. And so the voice laments on their behalf: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” The time for change has come and gone; salvation has not come.
In our other passage this morning from 1 Timothy, Paul is addressing a group of Christians who are also tempted to ignore the problems of their world, who are tempted by threat of persecution to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, to escape. These early Christians, living a few decades after Jesus, suffered immense persecution from the Roman government; their very lives were threatened at times. It was understandable that they wanted an escapist form of religion – a religion that allowed them to say their prayers, believe the right thing, gather together in Christian community, but not engage with the world around them.
Both the Israelites and early Christians whom Jeremiah and Paul are addressing are looking for a quick-fix or escapist religion. Neither group wants to get their hands dirty with the problems of their world. The Israelites didn’t want to correct the injustice they’ve been living with; the early Christians didn’t want to pray for or engage the issues of Rome’s government systems that marginalized and brutalized people. They wanted a religion that patched the holes, ignored the problems, and made them feel warm and fuzzy inside, so they could carry on with their lives, safe from God’s intrusion.
If we’re all honest, this is the type of religion we’re usually looking for too. We want a religion that disrupts our lives just the right amount. And so we reduce the gospel to something we can manage. We reduce the gospel to function as a quick-fix and an escape. Indeed, many versions of the gospel floating around in various churches do exactly this. We reduce the gospel to something that only affects our spiritual lives; as long as you pray the right words or believe the right thing, you get a golden ticket to heaven and then you don’t need to worry about the collapse of the world around you. We don’t really have to deal with the issues in our life because we’re saved by grace. Since the gospel is only a spiritual reality, then we don’t have to worry that much about what’s going on in the world. As long as we save people’s souls, their condition in this life doesn’t matter much, because at least they’ll get to heaven.
While this is certainly a caricature of certain versions of the gospel, we all reduce the gospel in our own ways to be something smaller than it actually is. We put limits on the gospel; we are small-minded when it comes to thinking about salvation. When we think of salvation in a Christian context, we often think about salvation for our souls from hell, sin or whatever lies beyond death. When pressed, most of us probably have certain groups or types of people in mind who will and won’t be saved. But as Jeremiah’s and Paul’s responses reveal, God’s vision for salvation is so much deeper and wider than our vision for it. Jeremiah and Paul offer us a corrective to our small-minded gospels that allow us to live in bliss, ignorant of the injustices and problems in our world, and naïve of our own heart issues. They show us a more beautiful gospel.
What we learn from Jeremiah is how to lament. Lament is a form of prayer that engages suffering, rather than running away from it. Lament cries out from the midst of suffering, and on behalf of those who suffer: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician here? Why has the health of my people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” Whether it is Jeremiah or the Lord lamenting, the text isn’t clear, which I think is intentional. Jeremiah’s lament is God’s lament. God cries out against the suffering and the injustice that people must endure. And it is our call, much like Jeremiah’s to do the same, to mirror our heavenly Father’s lament. The text declares: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.”
Jeremiah’s lament is anything but an escape. It is more powerful than any quick-fix slogans or messages. Jeremiah opens his heart and allows it to be rent and torn up on behalf of the injustices he sees, and on behalf of the spiritual lost-ness of his people. Jeremiah’s calling is not an easy one. This goes against every one of our American instincts that tell us we must seek happiness and bliss. We must not allow ourselves to feel too much negativity; let’s gloss it over with some optimism.
But there is no optimism in Jeremiah’s tone. It is mostly despair. He fears it’s too late for his people. They are too far gone. The world is too far tilted against justice. Many of us resonate with Jeremiah’s fears. We fear the same thing when we look closely enough at the world around us. We feel despair. And so we look away. If we’re honest, we doubt whether God’s kingdom can really be present on earth right now; we doubt whether God’s salvation is big enough to encompass all things. Jeremiah doesn’t care though. He goes on crying out to God. And it is in his cries of lament that hope is born.
When I worked as a chaplain at the psychiatric hospital, I became very acquainted with despair. Each time I entered the locked units I greeted despair like an old friend. Encountering the violence, the hallucinations, the delusions and the suffering that I did there, my quick-fix version of the gospel was shattered and I did not even know what to hope or pray for. All I could do was cry out to God with and on behalf of my patients. It was all that was left to do. I cried out to God against the injustice, against the terrible scope of suffering they had to endure. Lament was my last resort; it was all I could think to do.
But the very act of lament is an act of hope. When we cry out against injustice, against suffering, we acknowledge in our words and our actions that there is a God who hears us. We do not cry out into a void. We worship a God who hears our cries, and who cries out with us. We hear God’s own lament on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus’ lament joins our laments; and these prayers, these cries for help gather under heaven’s altar, ready to be redeemed when Jesus returns.
Jeremiah has a vision of salvation that extends even beyond what he can see and imagine. Jeremiah trusts that God’s salvation is large enough and deep enough to encompass even his lament. Lament, even from the midst of despair, we see is a faithful response to the suffering and injustice in this world. Lament does not offer any quick-fixes, it does not offer any escapes; lament faces the messiness, the brokenness, the chaos of our world and chooses to trust that our God is big enough to hear. Is your God big enough to hear your laments?
Paul engages the issues of this world in a similar way to Jeremiah, but he has a little more explicit hope, so you can breathe a sigh of relief. Addressing a group of Christians who were understandably tempted to withdraw from the public sphere, to escape from dealing with the problems inflicted by their Roman government, Paul urges them to intercede on behalf of all people. He tells them to keep praying for everyone, even their kings and rulers, because God desires the salvation of all people. The salvation of how many people? Wait, which people specifically? Oh, Paul said all people?? Yep, Paul said God desires the salvation of all people. You’d think this verse was left out of some Christians’ Bibles.
So God desires the salvation of all people. But what does Paul mean by salvation? If we look closely at the context we get a hint. Paul is talking about praying for rulers and kings so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Paul tells this group of believers to pray for the Roman government, their greatest threat, so that peace may ensue among all people, because God desires to save all people. Now, if we’re used to thinking of salvation as purely a spiritual reality, it may be strange that Paul connects salvation with living a peaceful and quiet life, under good government. Hmm. It’s almost as if Paul is implying that salvation is more holistic than getting our soul into heaven.
The Greek word for salvation is sozo, which means “to heal, bring wholeness, preserve.” This is what God does. Heal fractured parts of ourselves and our world back together into wholeness. As human beings, we are more than a soul; we are also a mind and a body. And God desires to redeem and save these parts of us too, not just our souls. And so for Paul, of course salvation is connected to how we pray for our government, because our government’s decisions affect the health or unhealth of our bodily lives here and now. And now, there are some of us who really like our current president and some who really don’t like him. Regardless of where you stand, I think Paul means it when he says pray for him, because no matter how bad you might think Trump is, he doesn’t hold a candle to some of the Roman Emperors that Paul would’ve been encouraging these early Christians to pray for. If we desire wholeness for our world, then we should pray for wisdom on behalf of our nation’s leadership.
Paul here and in most of his letters is widening the scope of the gospel. Gospel literally means “good news”. When Jesus came to declare the good news of God’s Kingdom, he wasn’t declaring good news for just one part of us or for one part of our world. God desires to save and bring to wholeness every part of our life – the mental, the spiritual, the sexual, the physical. Nothing is beyond the scope of God’s salvation plan. This is a more beautiful gospel than the one we try to create for ourselves to simply manage our lives – to get quick-fixes and escape from reality.
But if we really truly believe that God came to redeem and reconcile all things on the earth, that God came to save all people, then that really changes the way we live. We can no longer with a good conscience try to ignore the problems of our world or the traumas and hurts we’ve buried deep inside ourselves – God desires to redeem it all and bring it all to wholeness. God is picking up the broken shards of our world, bloodying God’s hands alongside us, so that God can piece them back together.
As Christians we are called to join God on this mission of piecing together broken shards. Sometimes this needs to start with our own lives, letting God help us deal with the issues, hurts and traumas we’ve buried deep and think are beyond redeeming. Sometimes this needs to start with our world, allowing God to open our eyes to the pain and the injustices that exist. Oftentimes all we can do is join our voice with Jeremiah, lamenting it all and crying out to God on behalf of those who suffer and are treated unjustly; meanwhile we trust that God will one day redeem it. Other times it is actually in our power to do something about it.
Last week we had our church dream session and you all shared some great hopes, dreams and ideas for the church moving forward. All of these ideas, whether you realized it or not at the time, were about salvation – they were about seeking wholeness in our church body and in our Cheney community. So Church, let’s take up some of these ideas – let’s make them happen! God desires to bring salvation and wholeness to all things; we are invited to join in on this mission. When we look at how we live and how we engage problems in our own lives and in our world, would it be obvious to a stranger that you believe salvation and redemption are coming? Do the actions and prayers in your life reflect the reality that God will bring about the salvation, the redemption, the reconciliation of all things??
We are invited into a more beautiful gospel – a more beautiful good news that promises healing and wholeness beyond anything we can envision or imagine. Will we choose to live in the promise and the hope that God is actively redeeming all things? God has already long been at work bringing about the wholeness of all things and all people; let us join God in this more beautiful way of living.