Contrast, Change, and Challenge
A sermon on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 and Luke 15:1-10
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash.]
Is it just me, or does hearing our two readings today, one right after the other, feel a bit like a bizarre “How it started / How it’s going” contrast?
[In case anyone doesn’t know, How it started/How it’s going is a social media trend that juxtaposes two pictures that represent a major change – initially in a romantic relationship but now it is used in other contexts too. In its purest form, the contrast should be surprising or revelatory in some way.]
And, these two verbal pictures of God’s relationship with God’s people sure do offer us a pretty startling shift:
How it started: The prophet describes the wind of God’s Spirit blowing with the fierceness of angry justice. The people are foolish children who only do evil and don’t even know how to do good, and God’s anger in response is so destructive that it leaves only desolation.
How it’s going: Jesus’ parables paint God as 100% committed to finding what is lost. Whether the people are witless, wandering sheep or misplaced coins, God finds them, brings them back, and throws an epic party in celebration.
I mean… talk about a shift! This God-people relationship thing has apparently done a complete 180: from judgment to seeking; from wrath to celebration!
That contrast is why I feel a lot of sympathy for the religious leaders of Jesus’s time and their grumbling about the extravagance of Jesus’s grace. They have been raised with the “how it started” image as a central element of their faith: the warning that there are very real and serious consequences for evil-doing. Add to that, as leaders, they bear the weight of responsibility to prevent a repeat of the Jeremiah prophecy.
That’s not to say that they don’t also have access to teachings from the Hebrew Scriptures about God’s grace. They do! The Psalms extol God’s steadfast love that endures forever, and the prophets balance their warnings of judgment with sign-acts of forgiveness and words of redemption.
But our instincts teach us to pay more attention to threats than to gifts. And, from where they are standing, Jesus looks like a threat. He speaks with the power to move people. And his actions of welcome represent a profound disruption of the social order that is centered in their understanding of God’s law. Their grumbling isn’t about pettiness or narrowminded prejudice. It’s about protecting the system that they sincerely believe to be God’s will for their nation. A system that Jesus is calling into question.
Which begs the question for us: where does the change from “how it started” to “how it’s going” come from?
One thing that I want to be clear about is that this is NOT a case of God’s revelation through Jesus supplanting everything that came before. That interpretation is a school of thought known as “supercessionism” and it is dangerously dismissive of our Jewish siblings and of Jesus’s actual witness and ministry. Jesus did not come to “supercede” the laws and the prophet, but to fulfill them. So, we should NOT take the contrast in these two scenes as evidence for the simplistic view that the Old Testament God is all about judgment and law and the New Testament God is all about love and grace. That is NOT true, and it is NOT what is going on here.
Rather, this really IS a “how it started/how it’s going” situation. Because we are seeing two snapshots of a RELATIONSHIP. And relationships grow. Communication patterns evolve and understanding unfolds so that we see more clearly the person who has been there all along. And the God who has been there all along is a God who cares PASSIONATELY about God’s people.
That passion does get expressed very differently in these two scenes.
In the Jeremiah passage we see God’s passionate frustration about the people’s abuse of God’s gifts. They have been given a homeland in which to become a nation, and they have twisted this gift into the imagined independence to do whatever they want: violating the core of their relationship: the commands to love God and to care for the poor (see Jeremiah 3). So, God lets the rival nations run them over (although, verse 27 assures us that God “will not make a full end.”)
In the gospel parables, we see a different, fuller expression of God’s passion. Jesus makes it clear that God’s love is not a selfish obsession that refuses to bear any of the pain or sacrifice to work through the problems in a relationship. Quite the opposite. God will risk everything to find the one who is lost. God will exert limitless energy and disrupt the household order to recover what God values. And when the lost has been found, God will celebrate with a joy that seems utterly out of proportion!
As the SALT Commentary describes, “God is no cool-eyed observer. God is love, and as such, God is deeply involved in our lives and the life of the world, loving us with a fierce, steadfast mercy, ardently seeking out the lost.”
That being said, I’m still aware that these two pictures do show a profound shift in the relationship between God and God’s people. We can explain some of that shift as a deeper understanding of the love that lies at the heart of all that God does, and the way that the insight of the narrator (Jesus vs. Jereemiah) shifts the way that they describe God’s actions. But the contrast between desolation and celebration is too profound to just be shrugged off with the explanation that “God is passionate.” And, frankly, that kind of explanation is dangerous, because it leaves the door open to justify abusive behavior as an expression of love in human relationships, and that is NOT OK.
Besides, there is another difference between these two pictures that I think holds the real key to the contrast. In Jeremiah’s prophecy, the “people” God is in relationship with is the NATION. Although that nation is made up of individuals, God’s argument is with the system of power and with those who wield it in ways that do harm to the subjects of that system. In contrast, in Jesus’s parables, the “people” God pursues are the vulnerable and lost. In the parables, the lost have no capacity to save themselves. A lost coin cannot repent and come back. It has to be sought out or it will stay lost.
And this detail sharpens our view of the two contrasting images, because with it we can recognize that these are not images of one-on-one relationships. Rather, there is a triangle in each scene.
In Jeremiah’s prophecy, God is angry at the leaders who have brought destruction on the people they were responsible for protecting and leading.
In Jesus’s parables, and their audience, we see the roles of God, leaders, and people too. Except, here, the God-figures in the parables are modelling for the leaders in the audience, the way to care for and protect those in their charge.
As Lutheran Pastor Kendra Mohn explains, in this passage, “Jesus speaks to a group of people who resent his inclusive welcome to all…. They are focused on how Jesus’ attention on those deemed undeserving undermines his authority in their view. He responds to their criticism with a (series of) parable(s) that shifts the focus to the expectations of those in authority to seek the lost, and the joy experienced when the lost one is returned to community.”
The leaders think that they are responsible for gate-keeping goodness… for protecting their nation from destruction by judging and excluding those who don’t meet their standards for righteousness. But Jesus shows them that they are responsible for seeking out and welcoming the very people they have been trying to push away, because wholeness and love is what God really wants for God’s people.
So, what does all of this mean for us? If our readings offer us a contrast of how it started vs. how it (was) going in Jesus’ time, what image would we add to the display for how it’s going now?
It’s my hope that our participation in God’s Work Our Hands Sunday today is an honest picture of the same three-pointed relationship that Jesus was trying to illuminate: a relationship where we experience God’s passionate commitment to us and rejoice in it, but that we also let it turn us outward, toward others… that we hear Jesus’s call to be the kind of leaders who look beyond ourselves and our narrow understandings of who belongs and work to make sure EVERYONE is included in God’s welcome party.
Because God’s generous welcome is truly good news, but only if we reject the temptation to twist it into our own entitlement. As we have been blessed by God’s love, it’s now our job to go to whatever lengths required to share that love and welcome with others.
Thanks be to God.
 https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/9/10/rejoice-with-me-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-fourteenth-week-after-pentecost  https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-24-3/commentary-on-luke-151-10-5