Wednesday, December 12, 2007

“Always Reforming”

Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; Lk.18:9-14[1]

The heart of the Reformed faith is the phrase, “reformed and always reforming according to the word of God.”[2] We who hold to the “Reformed” faith often speak of “the Reformation,” but in fact there have been a number of “reformations” throughout history. And in most cases they were driven by a reassessment of certain notions about God.

For example, in the days of ancient Israel, one of the significant “reformations” in their view of God was that, unlike the deities worshipped by the other nations, God is not restricted to a certain place or nation. Another major reformation was the recognition that God wants obedience, not animal sacrifices; God seeks the heart, not the blood and flesh of our livestock!

In Martin Luther’s day, the reformation concerned how one can be right with God. For centuries the teaching of the church had made it clear that one must work diligently to obey God’s commands, to avoid sin, and to remain true to the faith in order to be found right with God at the final judgment. Luther, like several lesser known “reformers” before him, emphasized Paul’s view that we are made right with God by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus the Christ. There is nothing we can or need do in order to earn it. And it’s something we can be confident of now, not a verdict that will be rendered only after we finish our course.

In our day, I think we still have some “reforming” to do in our ideas about God. For all of the great Reformers’ influence—from Luther to Calvin to Knox—I think we still don’t quite accept the idea that God, out of God’s own grace and mercy and love, set us right with himself, and that there is nothing we have to do to make God love us any more than God already does.

I think the other side of that coin also needs some attention also— there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less! No matter what we do, God continues to love us, continues to seek us, continues to be gracious and merciful toward us. The truth of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is that God loves the wayward, and wants to heal and restore them, not to punish them.[3] That’s the secret of God’s kingdom that Jesus teaches us in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. In fact, the NT teaches us Jesus was willing to give up his divine privileges (Philippians 2:6), willing to be tortured to death (Philippians 2:8; cf. Isaiah 53:5,), willing to literally go to hell for us in order to heal and restore us all (1 Peter 3:19; Romans 10:6-7; cf. Isaiah 53:8-9).

In spite of the fact that the NT assures us over and over again that this is indeed the gospel truth, we have a hard time grasping that kind of love. It’s the kind of love that sets the stage for the 1998 Robin Williams film, What Dreams May Come. The story is about a couple, Chris and Annie, whose love is subjected to the worst possible tests. After the tragic loss of their two children in an accident, Annie also loses her husband and soul-mate Chris. She is so overcome with despair that she kills herself and goes to hell—not because God is punishing her for killing herself or for unbelief or anything like that, but because she is punishing herself. Chris goes to a very unusual version of “heaven”—one that has very little in common with the Christian notion of eternal life, by the way.

But their love is such that even in death Chris and Annie have an unusually strong connection. So strong, in fact, that when Annie takes her life, Chris knows that something has gone wrong. Against all odds, Chris decides to search for Annie in hell. When he finally finds her in an upside-down and ramshackle version of their home, Chris enters the nightmare into which Annie has plunged herself. Despite the fact that he can consciously feel himself slipping into the madness of Annie’s “hell,” Chris has decided to stay with her. His act of sacrificial love in the highest degree breaks through Annie’s despondency and restores her so she can go back with him to “heaven.” What makes the difference is that Chris loves her so much that he is not just willing to die for her, but willing to stay with her even if it means spending all eternity with her in her self-made “hell.”

I think this story presents a parable of the love that God has for us. We have too long believed that sin and death and hell are somehow more powerful than God’s love and grace. We have too long believed that God will stop loving us if at the end of our lives our good deeds don’t outweigh our sins. We have too long believed that God will reject us if at the end of our lives we haven’t endorsed the right theological opinions. We have too long believed that if we aren’t “good enough” God will give us up to an eternal condemnation without the slightest hint of compassion.

But the good news of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is that God loves us with an everlasting love, a love that will not let us go, no matter what. God’s love is more powerful than sin, or death, or even hell itself.[4] In fact, according to the NT the only thing that is ultimately and finally condemned in the end is hell itself![5] The good news is that God always seeks to heal and restore the wayward, whether their wanderings have led them to the brokenness of a dishonest tax collector, or the desperation of a prodigal son so hungry he’s willing to eat pig fodder, or even to the very depths of hell.

On this Reformation Sunday, I hope we can embrace the good news that there’s nothing you can do to make God love you any more than God already does, and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you any less.

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm; a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/28/2007 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See, for example The Book of Order 2007-08, G-2.0200; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 355.

[3] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 87, 88, 91, 94.

[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39-40: “our hope is for the day when all things will be restored and gathered in a new, eternal order.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145. See further Hans Küng, Eternal Life, 212, where he grants that salvation for all is not guaranteed, but nevertheless affirms that “Not even in ‘hell’ are there any limits set to the grace of God”; cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 190: “Death can set no limits to the unconditional and hence universal love of God.”

[5] Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 145: “What will be annihilated is Nothingness, what will be slain is death, what will be dissolved is the power of evil, what will be separated from all created beings is separation from God, sin.”

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