An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Confronting the Almighty

A sermon on 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a, Ephesians 4:1-16 & John 6:24-35 by Nathan Nettleton

The story of the prophet Nathan calling King David to account for having a man killed in order to cover up his own adulterous tracks is a story of remarkable courage because people who expose the corrupt actions of the super powerful frequently pay for it with their lives, and King David had already just shown that he would not stop at murder to protect his public image. On this occasion, Nathan survives and the king admits his guilt and repents, but there was every reason to fear that the outcome might have been a lot uglier.

There are all sorts of interesting directions a preacher could take with this story, but tonight I want to pick up this image of confronting the super-powerful and try to link up several different ideas and questions that I hope will be helpful.

The Federal Treasurer, Wayne Swan, made a speech last Wednesday which made headlines mostly because he said that one of his major social and political inspirations has always been the music of Bruce Springsteen. But in the course of the speech, he also made some very interesting comments about this issue of confronting the super-powerful in our own day and age. He named three billionaire mining magnates as people who think “they think they have the right to manipulate our democracy and our national conversation” to protect their “disproportionate share of the nation’s economic success.” He said that there was a “concerning view emerging that such vested interests should somehow be immune from criticism.” When he had criticised these people before, he suggested, “the idea was promulgated that I had transgressed some new, unwritten law that limits the scope of our democratic debates in this country with this command: don’t criticise the powerful, don’t argue for equality.”

Sometimes I think that our age is unusually celebrity-obsessed, and we probably are, but previous ages have had their versions of the same thing, and one of the things that always seems to be a part of it is this feeling that certain people are above criticism. You’ll remember a few weeks ago hearing the story of the Israelite people insisting that they wanted a king, and even though the prophet Samuel tried to warn them how selfish and exploitative kings always become, they still wanted one. It seems that an agreement to allow the king to do what he liked uncriticised was virtually part of the social contract. You can see the same obsession coming through in the series of readings we are hearing at present from John’s gospel. Last week we heard how the crowd who Jesus had just fed in the wilderness wanted to make him king by force, and this week we can hear them clamouring for more signs of power. “Give us a sign. Give us a sign.” If someone will impress and dazzle us with displays of power, we will offer them immunity from questioning. And if King David had killed the prophet Nathan for challenging him, the strange thing is that much of the population probably would have endorsed his right to do that. “How dare you question the right of our hero the king to do whatever he likes and have whatever he wants? He’s our king and he can do no wrong.”

Now I want to veer off at a slight tangent here and ask whether perhaps we have done the same thing to God, and whether that hasn’t perhaps crippled our understanding of God and our relationship with God. If we have tended to swallow the idea that the most powerful people are off limits for questions and criticism, how much more so have we seen God that way? How often have you heard lines like “God is God and you’re not, so you just have to accept it”? Or “God is in control and knows best, and its not our place to call him into question”? Or even just “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it. Nothing further to talk about”? And how often have you seen people who do ask challenging questions of God warned and rebuked and told that they are falling into dangerous doubts and imperilling their souls? Yes, it seems that since God is the most powerful of all, God is the one who we most cannot allow ourselves to question or challenge.

What if we did? What if a prophet like Nathan, instead of just questioning the integrity of the king, questioned the integrity of God? What if the prophet told his parable of some serious injustice and then turned to God and said, “You are the one who has acted thus”? What then? Would that prophet be as lucky as Nathan? Or would such an action be the unforgivable sin, a one-way ticket to the fires of hell?

I want to put it to you that interrogating God and interrogating what we have been told of God is essential to a healthy relationship with God, and so it is not only something that God allows, but something that God encourages.

A couple of weeks ago, in the city of Arequipa in southern Peru, I visited a fascinating and rather confronting museum. It is dedicated to a fourteen year old Inca girl named Juanita whose frozen mummified body was found on the top of the El Misti volcano which overlooks the city. Juanita had been killed by her people 500 years ago as an offering to appease the mountain god at a time when the volcano was smoking and threatening to erupt. Juanita’s frozen body is on display in the museum, and the whole museum explores the story of the Inca practice of human sacrifice. And part of the story is that Juanita would have lived her whole life knowing that that was her destiny. She was one of the chosen ones, set apart and honoured, worshipped even, as the unblemished innocent one whose sacrificial death would appease the angry god of the mountain and thereby save her people.

Lots of people, as they walk through the museum, can be heard commenting on how disturbing it is that human beings could believe such things and act in such ways. But for me, what I found most disturbing was the realisation that so many people still believe such things, and that in fact such beliefs are actually foundational to the ways that most of us evangelical Christians have understood and explained the meaning of the death of Jesus. But if we were not allowed to question God, or what we have been taught to believe of God, then we would be stuck with that. And that’s not good enough, so I want to follow in the steps of my namesake, and call God to account.

God, is this true? Is it true that our sin leaves you so angry that you are like a raging volcano and that your wrath will not relent unless you are offered the sacrifice of a human life to pay the penalty and satisfy you? Is it true that only human blood can appease your anger, and that only the blood of an unblemished innocent one is pleasing enough to you to enable you to let go of your anger? Is it true that the tortured death of the innocent Jesus was “pleasing” to you and that without it you would have flung us all into hell? Because if that’s true, God, then you are a monster. If that’s true, you are a two-faced fraud. You tell us that we are to forgive freely and not demand any form of retribution when we have been wronged, but you are unwilling or unable to live up to that standard yourself. You want us to be more forgiving that you. We heard the call through your Apostle Paul tonight to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” Well what about you, God? Where’s your humility and gentleness and patience and forbearing love if you get so angry and vengeful that you have to take it out on an innocent victim, making someone suffer horribly to get it off your chest? Where’s your integrity? Where’s your much vaunted love and mercy and grace? Is it all a sham?

Well, lightening hasn’t struck us yet! But how does God answer? The accusation is made, but what is God’s defence? Will God offer a mea culpa like David did; guilty as charged? In some ways, yes. At one level God is saying, “Yes, the charges you have levelled are correct. The God you have been worshipping is a two-faced monster who feigns love and mercy but demands retribution in innocent blood. The god you have been describing is no different from the mountain god of the Incas. But that God is not me, never was, never will be.”

And to prove it, God becomes human and comes among us in the person of Jesus to show us exactly who God is and what God is like. Jesus is God’s defence, God’s answer to our charges. As we heard the Apostle Paul say of Jesus in our second reading tonight, “the one who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.” The same one. The God who came down to earth is the same one who reigns in heaven and fills all things. We are not dealing with the nice side of God on earth and the angry vengeful side of God thundering from heaven. Everything we have seen in Jesus is the whole truth of the whole God. The patient love and extravagant mercy and generous hospitality we have encountered in Jesus is the whole story of God. Not just the nice side. The whole story.

So am I just blithely dismissing centuries of description of Jesus as a sacrificial victim who takes upon himself the punishment for the sins of the world? No I’m not, actually. I still believe that Jesus gave his life as a sacrifice for the salvation of the world. But you see, there is one little presupposition that, with almost no support at all from the New Testament, has been smuggled into our thinking about the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus, and which distorts the whole story into one of an angry vengeful God. That dubious presupposition is that when we talk about Jesus being a sacrifice, it is God to whom he is sacrificed, and God’s anger that demands the sacrifice. And actually this is the great lie that has run through the history of Christianity, and the Incas, and pretty much every religion on the face of the earth. And an essential part of what Jesus came to show us is that it is us who gets angry and demands blood and imagines that the sacrifice of an innocent victim will save us. It is us, but in order to justify it to ourselves, we project it on to God and imagine that our anger and bloodshed are expressions of fierce loyalty to God. And so Jesus comes saying “No, no, no. Have you not heard, I want mercy, not sacrifice.”

But this radical new teaching of Jesus, this picture of a God who does not demand blood and the violent policing of every social boundary, but wants mercy and hospitality and reconciliation, this teaching so upsets the apple cart that the whole structure of society is threatened. If we can no longer use God to justify our strenuous protection of our borders to keep our chosen selves privileged over those lesser outsiders, and if we can no longer use God to justify our blaming of the Jews or the homosexuals or the Aborigines or the liberal heretics for every social ill, and if we can no longer say “our nation, right or wrong, and our king, right or wrong, and our culture, right or wrong”, then the whole structure of society as we know it begins to unravel and there will be chaos. And so how dare he? He must be a blasphemer. He’s a threat to national security and to religion and to law and order, and ultimately it is better that one man die than that the wrath of God or the wrath of Rome come down on all of us, and sure enough, next thing you’ve got an angry mob chanting “Crucify him, crucify him.”

And so the sacrificial system, which is our system, not God’s, grinds on again, and swallows up another victim as Jesus offers himself as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the sacrifice who unmasks the lie at the heart of the system, the lie that says our anger is God’s anger and the demand for blood is the voice of God. And so Jesus takes upon himself the sin of the world, the anger of the world, the bitterness and rage and violence of the world and absorbs it whole that it might do its worst and be exposed as a vacuous lie when Jesus comes back from the dead and he still has not been rendered angry or vengeful by the worst we could do to him. He still comes to us with open arms speaking only words of love and forgiveness and outrageous, unbelievable mercy.

But we still find it hard to accept what Jesus had to say. We are often still like those crowds who followed him around, clamouring for signs of power and wanting to make him king so that they could invoke his name to wage war on their enemies. But Jesus gives them no sign of power. Even under torture, he will not satisfy them by coming down from the cross and calling down legions of angels. He would not give them signs of power, only signs of humble service and gracious hospitality. But so often we still hunger to be dazzled by displays of power, and we are happy to give unquestioning allegiance to those who will provide it. And so we elevate others as our idols, our gods beyond question. And such gods go on demanding sacrifices that we keep offering to preserve them in the power and privilege that we love to ogle at.

And so God welcomes and even longs for our questions, our challenges, our rebellion against the lies we have so often been told about God, for only with such courageous scrutiny can God hope to emerge from under the layers of false images we projected onto him. So God’s answer keeps quietly offering itself as Jesus keeps coming to us with towel and basin in hand, graciously welcoming us and more than willing to get on his knees and wash our aching feet. And he continues to call us to see in him the aching love of the only God worthy of the name, the God who will offer himself as a sacrifice to our anger if that’s what it takes to drain it away and open us up to the wondrous unexpected revelation of God’s limitless love and grace.


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