As most of you know, I am an only child. I had an imaginary friend — a monkey named Muntney — that I played with and who got the blame for things I did wrong. But, I was a good girl and don’t believe I was a trouble child. My mom, however, had a different perspective. Several years back, I found my baby book. You know the one with the first fingernail clipping, the first lock of hair, first words, and all the other firsts. There’s a few pages towards the back where Mom could write her reflections. In one section she wrote, “If Janie isn’t spanked every day she thinks something is wrong.” That sounds horrible as I say it out loud because it could be taken one of two ways: either I was a wicked, horrific child or my mom was abusive. And the truth is that neither are the complete truth. I did wrong sometimes, and Mom overreacted sometimes.
I have to say that I truly love the readings for today. They are so rich in their connections and flow. I should be able to say that about every reading from our lectionary, but honestly some weeks I struggle to see a thread. But today is different. Nothing so comprehensively expresses God’s love for us as we read here. In our passage from Exodus we watch God’s anger at the Israelites. Look at what God says: “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them…” He continues, and hear the emotion in His words, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” God speaks to Moses with such power and force. I admit I cannot fathom the frustration, the betrayal, that He must feel. These people, this helpless tribe, have turned away and have chosen another. We might be able to appreciate the power of this emotion when we have been betrayed by another — a friend who shared a sensitive secret, a spouse who crossed a line in some way, a child who moves down a path of life contrary to our hope. We feel confused and lost, unable to comprehend what is happening. Why? Why are they saying this, doing this? I don’t understand, and I am angry about what is happening. God is responding in just this way. And He speaks to Moses as a precious friend. Sharing His grief. Sharing His pain. Sharing His anger.
Being made aware of God’s anger against a people who make a choice that is not Him, we come into our Gospel passage. In our text we can see the movement of God in His Son who offers two illustrations of something that was lost and is now found. God, whose wrath burned hot against the Israelites and wanted to consume them, has now sent His Son to seek the one lost lamb and bring it back into the fold. The lame man lowered through the roof. The leper at the city gate. The woman at the well. The prostitute. Nicodemus. The centurion’s servant. The blind man at Bethesda. Lazarus. Peter when he denied Jesus. All who crucified Him, and He asked that they be forgiven because they did not know what they were doing. Jesus shows us that we are to seek those who are outside and bring them back in. Jesus tells us that we are to be active. We are to pay attention. We are to watch and observe and recognize when something is amiss and out of place. A friend who is wavering. A co-worker who is responding out of the norm. We must look up and see. Arthur Miller wrote of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid to such a man.”
We must be Jesus who goes to the lost and brings them back. We must give attention to the one who has none. And it is in this place of recognition, the moment that one who is lost receives confirmation that he is present, that he has been seen, that his humanity has been made known, that Paul writes to Timothy. And Paul offers us a perspective of the one on the other side. He tells Timothy of what he was guilty: a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. He was a foremost sinner. And Jesus came for him. Jesus chose him. Jesus, who was God, died for him. Displayed utmost patience and offered mercy with the overflowing grace of love. Paul writes with such passion and love and acknowledgment of who he was and who he is now.
There’s a popular contemporary Christian song called “Reckless Love.” I’d like to share with you a few of the lyrics:
When I was Your foe, still Your love fought for me
You have been so, so good to me
When I felt no worth, You paid it all for me
You have been so, so kind to me
And oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine
And I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
I can imagine Paul writing these words. He knows his worth. He knows who he is. He knows he deserves what God wanted to do with the Israelites in Exodus. He knows God spoke of him to Moses when He said, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” Paul understands he is deserving of all the anger of God. He sees himself through the eyes of God and knows his value without Christ.
And we, we deserve the very same anger of God. We fail and we fight and we question and we run. I will spare you the Johnathan Edwards “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, but we deserve what we will not receive when we know Jesus.
So what does this mean, you are asking? What am I supposed to do with this information? What are you saying all this for? Or, yes, I know all of this already…so what?
Paul says that he acted ignorantly in unbelief. So, let me share with you what this means. Who are the Pauls? For some now, the old Paul is Donald Trump. For some a few years ago, Barack Obama. Timothy McVeigh. The shooter in El Paso last month. The rapist. The drunk driver who struck and killed my student’s sister last summer. The pedophile. Your abusive ex-husband. Your mother who ran off when you were a child because life got too hard. These are the Pauls who are the foremost sinners. These, and others you could easily think of right now, are the ones that Jesus died for. You and I sitting here this morning are not the only ones that Jesus died for. It’s hard for us to reconcile that “they” should have what we have. For us, “they” shouldn’t have what we have. But, truly, neither should we. He died for them even if they have not accepted that fact.
We praise Jesus for His sacrifice. We offer thanksgiving as Paul did saying, “to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.” We also remember that Jesus died for all, whether we like it or not. Whether we would approve or not. And we pray for their salvation just as we pray for our own compassion towards them.