Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Devotional for the Thirty-Sixth Day of Lent

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
 Lord, who could stand? 
But there is forgiveness with you,
 so that you may be revered. (Psalm 130:3-4)

Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
 ”I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation;
 with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” 
Then Isaiah is so bold as to say,
 “I have been found by those who did not seek me;
 I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” 
But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:19-21)

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:14-16)

The story of the downfall of the ancient city of Sodom is a dismal one. It is often thought that that Sodom’s crime was a sexual one. But the prophet Ezekiel interprets things differently:

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)

The people of Sodom violated a fundamental code of the ancient near east: Hospitality. The strangers visiting Lot should have been treated kindly by the community. Instead, the men of Sodom sought to violate the visitors in the most degrading way they could imagine. Apparently the people of Sodom liked things the way they were, and having strangers in town shook their system of life. It also offered them a possible distraction from the boredom of excess. It’s a scandalous story.

The story of the people of God is also a scandalous one. First, the one (Abraham and his descendants, who will be become Israel) are chosen for the sake and blessing of the many (all the families of the earth). Then Israel repeatedly turns away from God in order to compete with the very nations they were called to bless. God himself becomes scandalous to Israel when he reaches out to people groups that are not Israel. Jesus repeats this scandal when he speaks of “other sheep” who will listen to his voice.

The Apostle Paul’s quoting of Isaiah shows that God’s heart is for more than just a select few. Isaiah speaks of God revealing himself to those who haven’t even asked for him. When you consider yourself to be part of God’s original chosen people, those are fighting words.

I sometimes wonder if the complacency that characterized Israel in those days could be found in the complex and fractured world of the church. We sometimes think that being a Christian is about describing who is in with God versus who is out, and end up viewing ourselves as a kind of select few. How are we so different from our spiritual forebears of Israel? How shocked we might be if the prophetic word came to us that God was reaching out to a people yet unknown to us. What if it ended up being people we considered to be enemies of our faith? We should certainly share Israel’s sense of scandal if that were to happen.

The psalmist points out a profound truth: If God were to list our iniquities—our sins, violations, and failures—no one would have a leg to stand on. But none us—not Jew, not Gentile, not rich or poor, not man or woman—are left standing alone. God himself stands with us, offering forgiveness where there has been sin, so that we might become the people he has always desired.

God’s scandalous ways will always violate our non-hospitable sensibilities. That’s how most of us came to faith in the first place.

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