Sunday, April 11, 2010

the God that refuses to leave

Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

About ten years ago I decided to read the Bible from cover to cover. The truth is, I didn’t really know the story. I knew the climax – Jesus’ death and resurrection. And I knew some of the pieces – stories about Moses and a talking snake and a multi-colored coat. But the glue that held the pieces together? Well, that’s what I wanted to find. And so I opened the Bible and started – “in the beginning.” And at first nothing really surprised me. When the snake was like “hey eat this fruit – it’s really not that big of deal” – well, I wasn’t fooled. But what I read after that kind of surprised me. You see I had always assumed that people in the Bible were, I don’t know, decent human beings. But I found them to be the exact opposite – a bunch of misfits that were always leaving the God that loved them. And the more I read the more I noticed a pattern. God would claim people as His own – He’d mark them out and give them an identity as His special people. But eventually those people would forget about God, leave, and try to find an identity somewhere else. That was the basic storyline that kept repeating itself. God would bless and love and claim a people for Himself – but the recipients of His grace would forget who they were and what God had done for them and because of that, they would leave.

The Bible surprised me because I thought it was a textbook on how to be good. And of course, there’s some truth to that view. But I had always imagined that God was like a talent scout on a quest to find great moral athletes who could help His team win. But then I read about Abraham, who gave his wife to two foreign kings pretending that she was his sister; and Elisha, whose self-esteem was crushed when some kids mocked him for being bald and responded by praying – not for their forgiveness but that a bear would come and eat them; and the Israelites, who were saved from slavery on a Wednesday and began worshipping a golden calf on a Friday; and Peter, who on the toughest night of Jesus’ life took a power nap, chopped off someone’s ear, and denied his Lord three consecutive times. In other words, I was surprised to learn that the God we worship claims people as His own – that he marks them out and gives them an identity as His special people – before they do anything good. And even more surprising was that God’s people would routinely forget about Him, leave, and decide to find an identity somewhere else. But the most shocking reality of all was the glue that held these misfits together – God’s utter refusal to leave them. It didn’t matter how many times people left God. God utterly refused to leave them.

In tonight’s Gospel we hear the story of “doubting Thomas,” which is not a nickname I approve of. We don’t give pejorative nicknames to anyone else. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no “persecutor Paul” or “impulsive Peter.” But more than that, it’s an understatement. Tomas doesn’t have doubts. Thomas quits. In his heart, Thomas leaves – he walks away from God. Forget that Jesus spoke openly about his death and resurrection before they even happened. After all, Thomas has – he has forgotten everything Jesus said and did before he died that was meant to prepare him for this moment. Now understandably, the cross was devastating. Thomas’ master is dead, life seems absurd, and Thomas decides that he’s had enough. And so when the disciples proclaim, “we have seen the Lord,” Thomas’ response makes sense. “You know what. I think I’m going to count my losses here and walk away. Believe whatever you want – but until I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his side, I’m just not going to believe. You want to hold on the dream? That’s fine. But as for me, I’m leaving.”

It would be great if Thomas’ story were an isolated incident – if Thomas were some weirdo freak that we just couldn’t relate to. But let’s be honest, life is painful at times and faith doesn’t always come easily – for the depressed, or the burnt out, or the lonely, or the guilt-ridden, or for those who suffer, or when people we love suffer. And God knows faith isn’t easy in a secular world that wants us to believe a different story than the Gospel – a story that ends, not with resurrection, but with the cross. It’d be great if Thomas were an exception to the rule and not the perfect example of it, but let’s be honest. At some point in our life, we either have been or will be right there with Thomas and Peter and the Israelites and Elisha and Abraham and the whole band of misfits that, as the hymn says, “are prone to leave the God we love.” Eventually – if only in our heart, and for a million different reasons – we all get discouraged. We all get confused. We all leave God.

The miracle of Easter – the miracle the church celebrates week after week – is that God refuses to leave us. Yes, we leave God. But God never leaves us. And so, is it really that surprising that Jesus comes back for Thomas? In other words, if by walking away Thomas does what we’re all prone to do at times – isn’t God just doing what His loving nature demands – come back for the people He loves? You see, in tonight’s story about Jesus and Thomas we have the entire Bible in a nutshell. Like Thomas, we’re all prone to walk away from God. But in Christ, God does whatever it takes to get us back. He refuses to let us go.

To be a disciple of Jesus is root our life in the story we heard tonight, this story that’s glued together by God’s refusal to leave His people. To follow Jesus is to say that this story is our story, that this God – the One that refused to leave Thomas even though Thomas had left Him – is our God. For in giving our lives to Jesus we receive a completely new identity – an identity that’s marked by the faithfulness of God.

This morning I preached at my goddaughter’s baptism, and a lot of people I know have a problem with infant baptism. Their argument is that the children aren’t old enough to decide for themselves. Here’s why I think they’re wrong. To be a Christian isn’t to say that we’re good but that God’s good; it’s not to say that we’re faithful, but that God’s faithful; it’s not to say that we choose God, but that God chooses us. You see, in baptizing people before they think or speak or do anything good or bad we are claiming something profound about the awesome character of God – that God reaches out to us before we reach out to Him, that God loves us before we ever love Him, that God gives us a new identity – an identity that’s marked by His refusal to leave us – simply because He wants to.

To be a disciple of Jesus is root our life in the story we heard tonight, this story that’s glued together by God’s refusal to leave us – because we’re tempted every single day to find meaning in a different story, a story that ends with the cross, or a story that says we have to prove ourselves for God to love us, or clean ourselves up before God will love us. But that’s why the church is so important. You see our job is to do for each other what Jesus did for Thomas, to do for each other what God does for us – utterly refuse to leave! And so if someone you love wakes up tomorrow and is anxiously wrestling with who they are and they’ve forgotten what gives them worth, our job is to remind them of who they are in Christ; to remind them that, contrary to what the world would have them believe, they are not what they do. They are not their reputation. They are not the sum total of their achievements or their mistakes. They are what they feel. They are not how they look. They are not their portfolio. They are not their IQ. They are not as good as their latest sermon or their latest relationship or their latest test score or their latest service project. Our job is to remind them of their true identity in Christ. And they will forget. And so will we. We forget our story, our true identity in Christ every single day. But, the good news of the Christian Gospel is that God doesn’t forget, that He can’t forget. Because at the end of the day our worth has nothing to do with our ability to be faithful to God and everything to do with God’s promise to be faithful to us. AMEN.

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