Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Lord In Our Midst: The God of Wrath … and Love

Sometimes I have a difficult time figuring this God of ours out.

READ ZEPHANIAH 1:14–18 CEB

READ ZEPHANIAH 3:14–17 CEB

You know, passages like these force me to ask a very difficult question: “Who is God?” Is God loving? Or is God full of wrath?

I wanted to allow Zephaniah to surface our question, “Who is God?” But then I want us to spend some time in the gospel of John in order to answer this question. One of the purposes of the Incarnation was to give us a glimpse at the character of God. So, let’s look at Jesus.

John gives us a great picture of God.

READ JOHN 8:1–11 CEB

The Text says everyone left; first the older people, they were wiser, they knew they were not perfect. Picture this scene. The people are prepared for a lynching. The rocks in their hands, shouting, cursing her sin, this was a riot! At Jesus’ statement, you could have heard a pin drop. Feet began to shuffle, eyes looked downward. You begin to hear the noise, “Thud, thud, thud,”—the sound of rocks falling on the ground. Then you hear feet moving and you see everyone walk away.

Jesus was left alone with that woman.

Have you been there? Alone with Jesus? How do you feel as you approach this Son of God? Filthy with sin, shame, unworthiness. I’ve been there too. We all have! Jesus’ reply in this moment goes a long way in answering the question, “Who is God?”

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”

We learn two things about God in this passage: First, we learn that God accepts sinners. But we also learn that He desires for us to remain sinless.

Of all people, Jesus had a right to condemn this woman. Jesus was perfect. He would have been following the Law of Moses. Surely this woman expected a tongue lashing from Jesus. After all, He was the religious teacher, it was His job! We need to work on this image of our religious leaders! She was a filthy sinner, perhaps even a paid prostitute. She felt unworthy to even raise her head and look at Jesus. “What He must think of me... What will everyone think?”

Rubel Shelly had an interesting experience several years ago in Nashville. As sometimes happens, as services concluded, someone approached him. “Someone is in the back.” “She wants to speak to you.” “She won’t come in here.” So, Rubel went to the back to see this woman. As he approached, he could tell she was not well. Woodmont Hills had worked for years with AIDS patients. He could tell as soon as he approached that she was a victim. She was obviously in the late stages, sores on her body, could barely stand there and talk to him. When he got next to her, she began her rehearsed speech.

“I didn’t know where else to go. I’m not well; I don’t have long. I have made some really bad choices, got hooked on drugs, the small stuff, eventually moved to heroine. Couldn’t get off, but couldn’t afford it either. I began to steal and then started prostituting my own body. I got HIV and then AIDS. I don’t have long. I don’t really know how to say this…”

She was stumbling with her speech, so Rubel helped her out. He reached over and put his arms around this woman. Probably the first person to touch her in weeks or months, the first person perhaps in years to touch her out of genuine concern. Before he even got the words out, she began to sob. He said…

“You’re out here because you don’t think you belong in there" (pointing to auditorium). “You want to know if it’s too late for you.”

Then I believe Rubel embodied this John 8 text. He looked right in her eyes.

“God loves you. God has never left you. God forgives you!”

She was baptized that morning. A week later, she was in his office at his invitation. Rubel also invited a couple of other people. One of the shepherds, and a woman, an MD from Woodmont Hills. He began by saying, “Let’s just talk.” She started in again with her story… "I’ve made mistakes; I shouldn’t have done this; I shouldn’t have done that…” Rubel just stopped her.

"Stop. You’re repenting again, aren’t you? Jesus has already forgiven you. God does not call you to be perfect! God calls you to believe! To believe that He has the power to save you in spite of your imperfection!”

How would you have responded to this woman? Covered with sores, smelly, right here in our nice church building. Jesus accepted the woman. “Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I.” In spite of her sin, Jesus accepted her.

But, Jesus also told her to quit sinning! Even though He accepted the woman, Jesus did not accept her sin. The world often forgets this part of the story, especially our world! Many people today want to ignore sin. “Let’s just pretend it is not there.” One extreme says, “God is a loving God who will never actually hold us accountable for sin.” A world without rules is a world without a foundation. We live in a highly accepting society. “You believe what you want, and I’ll believe what I want.” “There is no absolute right or wrong anyway.”

A Christian apologist visited Ohio State University. He received a tour of the first so-called “deconstructionist building,” a building that fit our culture, no boundaries or absolutes. He writes…
In the building are staircases that lead nowhere, into empty space. Pillars hang suspended from the ceiling. The architectural theme seems to be a series of geometrical non sequiturs. The architect, we are duly informed, designed this building to reflect life itself—senseless and incoherent—and the ‘capriciousness of the rules that reflect life itself.’ When the rationale was explained to me, I had just one question, “Did he [the architect] do the same with the foundation?”
Church, without a foundation, life falls apart. God presents guidelines for His children to follow. Not because he is a harsh task master, but because more often that not, the parent knows best!

In a world that denies the presence of sin, we must remind people of its existence. The church (the people of God) must be the voice of God:
Sex before and outside of marriage is a sin!
Spending hours on your computer looking at pornography is a sin!
Perpetuating racism in our society is a sin.
Talking behind the backs of friends, spreading lies, even through social media, that is a sin.
Hoarding your money, while ignoring the poor in our community, that is a sin.
In a world that denies absolute truth, we must proclaim the truth of God! Church, I believe in many respects our movement has done a wonderful job with this part of the John 8 story. Our heritage in Churches of Christ has a tremendous commitment to the Word of God. I am proud to be part of such a heritage. I pray that we will never back down from our commitment to truth and the absolute authority of the Word of God.

But I have to be honest, even though we have excelled in this area, I believe we have often neglected the other aspect of this story.

In our desire for truth, I believe we have often sacrificed the sinner.

Jesus commissioned the woman to sin no more, but first he accepted her. Many times in this we have failed. I constantly ask myself, “Where would I be without the grace of Jesus Christ?” I would be utterly and hopelessly lost. So would you! We are all sinners and no one is perfect! In a group this size there are people who struggle with pornography, people who are addicted to alcohol, people who are having sex outside of marriage, people who have had abortions, many people who care more about themselves than anyone else.

As you sit here, Satan whispers in your ear “Some believer in God, look at you! Why are you here? You should go as far as you can in the other direction; they’ll never accept you if they know what you’ve done. You are a failure!” As he whispers these words, I want you to know something. Your Father stands nearby with His arms wide open. And there is nothing you can do to scare Him away.

Who is God? God is more than a judge, a shepherd, a ruler, a Father. Each of these metaphors tells us a little bit about God, but never the entire picture. God is all of these things and more. Taking everything into consideration, how should we see God when we close our eyes?

A few years ago a man named John was dying of cancer. A minister came to see him. He saw that he had a chair facing the bed and asked him about it. “It’s always been hard for me to pray. It’s easier if I have a chair and I imagine Jesus in it." A week later a call from the man’s daughter. “Thank you for all your visits. Daddy died yesterday. He was peaceful. I thought he was OK so I went off to eat lunch. When I came back he was dead. He looked so peaceful. But there was something strange about his death. When I came into the room, his head was not on the pillow. My father’s head was in the chair next to the bed.”

Who is God? God is the Parent who in our time of trouble allows us to lean upon His everlasting arms. This is the God I have learned about and have grown to love. There is a statement in the book of Zephaniah that has become the theme of this series. Zephaniah 3:15–17 says twice:

“The Lord is in your midst…”

And church, we may take comfort that this powerful God, this God of judgment who expects great things from His children, and this same God who is the Father who extends mercy to His children; this God is in our midst today and forever. And church, it’s up to us to share that good news with the world.

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