Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Answer is Yes!


 This sermon was preached at The Church of the Holy Comforter in Drexel Hill, Pa on June 16th, 2013



2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15

 In 1972 John Lennon and Yoko Ono appeared on the Mike Douglas Show for a full week as co-host. I of course did not see the program when it first aired—I wouldn’t be born for another 10 years!—but I did see a re-broadcast of the week long appearance years later. During their time on the show, John and Yoko shared with Mike Douglas the story of how they first met. Yoko Ono was exhibiting some of her avant-garde artwork at a swank London gallery, and John Lennon was an incredulous guest. He really didn’t know what to make of the work. One piece in particular caught his eye, however: a ladder leading up to a white canvas suspended from the ceiling with a spy glass dangling from it attached to a chain. Lennon cautiously climbed the ladder to peer through the glass. What it revealed was the word “Yes” written on the canvas.

Lennon said, if it had said “No” or something else negative or insulting he would have walked out. Because it said, “Yes” he decided to stay and give this woman a chance, and the rest is history.
I think this story reveals something profound about human nature. We all long for acceptance and affirmation. We desperately want to see “Yes” under that spyglass. What we live in constant fear and anxiety of, is the awful possibility of the “No,” the terrible verdict of rejection.

The Bible teaches us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We cannot escape this fact. We live out our lives in the shadow of judgment. We cannot face the truth and so we avoid and rationalize. We live in denial. It is easy for us to recognize the fault in others but much harder for us to be honest with ourselves.

In today’s Old Testament reading from 2 Samuel, King David is confronted with the horrifying reality of his own sinfulness. David coveted the wife of Uriah, a soldier in his army. He saw Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, bathing on the roof and lusted for her. David was the King and had his choice of all the most beautiful women in the kingdom, but he wanted this one who belonged to another. He took her to his bed and made her pregnant. To cover up his crime, he sent Uriah into the front lines of battle knowing that he would be killed and took Bathsheba as his own wife. She bore him a son.

The thing that David did was repugnant to the Lord and so he sent his Prophet Nathan to David. Nathan told him the story of a rich man who rather than killing one of his own flock to feed a guest, took the beloved pet of a poor man, slaughtered it, and served it to his guest.

When we hear this story we are outraged. Maybe we think of a pet of our own that is dear to us. We want to see the guy who would do such an awful thing pay. David is no different, he says that this man deserves to die and demands harsh punishment. The man that Nathan spoke of though was David. David was disassociated from the magnitude of the evil he had done. It was only when it was presented to him as the story of another man that he could recognize it.

A favorite preacher of mine, Tim Keller, summarizes the implications of the gospel in this way, “You are more desperately wicked than you ever dared to imagine, yet you are more loved, forgiven, and accepted in Christ than you ever dared hope.” God is relentlessly opposed to sin and unwavering in his condemnation of it. He pronounces an uncompromising “No” to all human evil, but his “No” is never his final word. God is also abounding in mercy and grace, and while never condoning sin or ceasing in his opposition to evil, all is Yes and Amen in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20).

There will indeed be deadly consequences for David’s sin. Because he struck down Uriah with the sword of the Ammonites, the sword will never depart from his house. David’s line is under the curse of his own wickedness. Despite this, David’s own life will be spared. Although by his own admission he deserves death, the Lord has taken away his Sin and showed mercy to him. Nevertheless there is still awful consequences. Why is this so? Couldn’t God just forgive and forget?

God cannot wink at sin. What would it say if God were to let David get away with murder? Would that be justice? No way! Like we said a moment ago, God is relentlessly opposed to sin and unwavering in his opposition. God’s mercy cannot rob his justice. It would go against his very nature to be unjust.

God’s wrath against David’s sin is expressed in the death of the child he conceived with Bathsheba. How is this just you ask? This child is an innocent! Why should he pay for what David has done? These are indeed troubling questions! If we are appalled that this should be so, we have begun to feel something of the scandal of the Cross. A murderer was set free, and Christ, the one truly innocent person who ever lived, the perfectly righteous Son of God, was handed over to the shameful and ignominious death of a criminal. The iniquity of us all was laid upon his head! The Son in whom the Father was well pleased, received the awful condemnation of God’s “No”!

 It was our sin, and not any injustice or cruelty in God, that sent Jesus to the cross. He bore the punishment that we so justly deserve. In the same way, it was David’s wickedness that brought down curses on his family. It is important to remember that David receives the consequences he himself has decreed. Remember, he said “This man deserves to die, he shall pay four fold for the evil thing he has done!”

Someone once said that, the righteous requirements of God’s law aside, if all the words we had spoken in judgment of others were played back for us on the day of our own judgment, our own words would condemn us! Meaning, we can’t even live up to our own standards!

David will indeed pay fourfold for what he has done. He will live to see the death of four of his sons beginning with the baby born to Bathsheba and continuing onto Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah. Not only that, but the years ahead will see terrible rebellion and division in his own house.
 Is this terrible sentence of judgment the last word? Can we at last expect nothing but irredeemable tragedy in this life? It would be absolutely intolerable for the gospel story to end with the cross. Our forgiveness at so terrible a price could never be a source of joy but only sorrow at the meaningless injustice of it all. On that Friday, the goodness and justice of God itself was blacked out. It was hidden from us.

We know the story doesn’t end there, however, Jesus rose from the dead conquering sin and death and destroying the curse of condemnation that hung over humankind. God’s “Yes,” the gospel proclamation of restoration, peace, and acceptance with God, is his final word! All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thingsshall be well! How can we help but shout in astonished wonder like Sam Gamgee in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, “Is everything sad becoming untrue?!”

Even in David’s situation, God’s “No” is not his final word. Unlike Saul, who lost the kingdom because of his unfaithfulness, God remains faithful to David despite David’s unfaithfulness. He remains faithful to us too!  The second son of David and Bathsheba, Solomon, will take the throne of his father. Solomon’s name comes from the Hebrew word that means “Peace,” particularly the peace that comes through restoration or atonement. 

This act of grace, mercy, and restoration shown to David points us forward to the ultimate act of grace, mercy, and restoration shown to all humankind in Jesus Christ. In the life death and resurrection of Christ all of our sins our taken away and atoned for. The Son of God himself receives the horrible sentence of condemnation in our place. God’s people need not fear, the answer is “Yes!”

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Eulogy for Leo James Stromberg


Leo was a restless searching soul. The popular Bruce Springsteen song goes, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” Leo had the hungriest, most insatiable heart of anyone I have ever known. What was he so hungry for?

Like all of us he was hungry for love, affirmation, and ultimately God, a life with real meaning and significance. Unlike many of us who learn to dial back our expectations, accept the way things are, and become comfortably numb, Leo could never do that. He relentlessly pursued truth beauty, and experience.

As a young man Leo was captivated by the wild, untamed spirit he found in the music of Jim Morrison and the Doors. I think he saw in Morrison a kindred spirit. He was always trying to break through to the other side, to find the deeper reality at the heart of things. Leo was a radical and an agitator that railed against the status quo. He felt everything so deeply and intensely. He was bursting at the seams with passion.

Like Morrison, Leo was a force of nature like a hurricane. Sometimes the hurricane was in your living room. It wasn’t always easy to have Leo around. The experience of talking to Leo was like having ten conversations all at once. Anything from scripture to William Blake, song lyrics, and movie quotes could all be weaved together into his stream of conscious rant.

Perhaps the most decisive moment in Leo’s life came through an encounter with some missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). He heard from them a message about Jesus Christ and he accepted him as his Lord and savior.  Leo had a powerful conversion experience that changed his life forever. His faith was at the center of who he was. He had a testimony of Christ and a fire in his bones to share what he understood to be truth.

At one point Leo made the decision to leave everything behind and spend the next couple years as a missionary with his church. It didn’t go very well. He never quite fit the stereotype of the clean cut, smiling young missionary in a white shirt. He was much more complicated and troubled than that. In many ways however, Leo saw all his life as a mission. Leo was at his core a missionary with a message of peace, love, and justice.

Leo’s faith did not make all his struggles disappear. Far from it. Leo continued to struggle with his own personal demons. We loved him and we tried to help him, but it wasn’t always easy. The dark side of the passion he felt was an often black depression.  Despite this, Jesus Christ was always a source of hope and strength for him.
Leo was not perfect. He never hid his brokenness, concealing it under a facade of respectability. He never mastered that skill. It would be easy to look at the lack of discipline and emotional disarray in Leo’s life and dismiss his faith as not genuine. Like many of his heroes, such as Johnny Cash, Leo was a mass of contradictions.  Kris Kristofferson song The Pilgrim, one that Leo loved, could easily have been written about him,

He's a poet, he's a picker
He's a prophet, he's a pusher
He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stoned
He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction
Takin' every wrong direction on his lonely way back home

Jesus never said “Blessed are they who have it all together.”No he said, “Blessed are thepoor in Spirit” or as Simon and Garfunkel paraphrase, “Blessed are the satupon, spat upon, and ratted on.” It is those who seem cursed and hopeless that the Lord calls blessed. It isn’t the healthy that need a doctor but the sick. Leo knew that he needed Jesus and he clung to him.
This world is not kind to sensitive wounded hearts like Leo’s.  I think of the words Don Mclean wrote about another kindred spirit of Leo’s, Vincent Van Gogh“This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

 Leo never felt at home in this world. His heart was in the Highlands. He was always looking toward that eternalcity with foundations, who's builder and architect is God. Leo believed in the resurrection of the dead. I look forward to meeting him--with all of you--once again in the streets of that city.