Enticed: By Half-truths
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
February 28, 2016
Luke 13:1-5 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
What a joy it is to be in this service! I have really missed being here and seeing all of you and experiencing the sheer joy that marks this service. So during this Lenten season we are in the middle of a sermon series entitled: Enticed. We began our series talking about how culture, society and the world entice us from choosing the very best in life and often settling for that which is merely good. And then, last week, we looked at how we are enticed to always be in a hurry. As an aside, I loved the worship center in here last week that featured some clocks; some of which were mine. Next week, we’re going to consider how we are enticed to be legalistic. Legalism reduces our Christian faith to a checklist of works righteousness. Our final sermon in the series, the Sunday before Palm Sunday, will be about how we are enticed by greed; something that affects us all nowadays.
Today, we’re going to consider how we are enticed by half-truths. Half-truths, particularly in the context of the Christian faith are phrases that have some element of truth about them. But, if we delve deeply into them, we see that they are not totally true. Now, we don’t mean much harm by using them, but they can teach incorrectly about the nature of God and that can hurt folks in life. Let me see if you know some of these cultural Christian half-truths we so blithely use. Have you ever heard: “God won’t put it on you more than you can bear.” Well, basically, we use this phrase when we’re trying to encourage someone. We are trying to remind them that they will make it through a difficult time in their life. We’re speaking of the truth and the reality of hope. But what does it say about God to use this phrase with someone whose life has fallen apart? Basically to say, “God won’t put on you….” the first half of the phrase is to tell him that whatever they are suffering from, came from God! It’s to indicate that God put on them their cancer or heart condition or loss of job for the relational disaster they may find their family in the midst off. And, just at the time when they need to know the presence of the loving God most of all, we’ve offered a phrase that indicates God put this on them and they can bear it.
Or, how many of you have heard this phrase? “God helps those who help themselves.” Again, nearly everyone. Now, we use this phrase to delineate between God’s initiative and human response in life. I love how the Dutch people put it in one of their folk sayings. They say, “Trust God but lock your bicycle.” What they mean is that God alone is absolutely trustworthy; human beings are fallen and not trustworthy; someone will steal your bicycle if you don’t lock it. They are saying it’s not good enough to go to downtown Amsterdam on a bicycle and pray for God to protect your bike and then leave it unlocked. It’s your responsibility to lock your bike! Again, many of you have heard about the fellow who prayed every week to God asking to win the lottery. Well, finally, God spoke to him saying, “Buy a ticket!” The truth is, we have some responsibilities.
But to say God helps those who help themselves, on one hand, can make God sound like an absentee landlord in human life. That’s a theology called Deism which was practiced by the founding fathers our nation. Also to say God “helps those who help themselves” denies a basic fact about God, that is, God loves, cares for and helps the helpless. Also, this half-truth can set up a works righteousness mentality. This phrase implies there is no such thing as pure grace and love from God in our lives. “God helps those who help themselves,” teaches that when we work hard enough helping ourselves, we earn God kicking in some help to boot. So, we do have some responsibilities that is a truth, but to paint God as an absentee landlord, to deny that God is all about helping the helpless or to insinuate that we must earn God’s loving grace and Divine help in our life through our own efforts, is just not true.
By the way these are weighty topics aren’t they? I’ve just found that Adam Hamilton has a study out coming out this year on these and more half-truths. It may be that some of you want to use that for a Sunday school class or small group and dig deeper into these issues. And now the really big half-truth that we’re going to focus on this morning; we’ll look at how Jesus dealt with it and then explore the most important decision humans can make. Have you ever heard or said this, “everything happens for a reason.” Raise your hands if you’re aware of this saying. Again, nearly everyone here this morning has heard that phrase. Now, sometimes we say or hear this in tough times and in tough situations. It is often offered as a word of comfort. The idea is that God must have some reason to cause or allow this awful thing to happen and that reason must be good ultimately because God is good. But, does this half-truth really comfort us or others when we examine what it implies about God? The phrase “everything happens for reason” springs from the work of a French Swiss lawyer turned pastor back in the 1500s. His name was John Calvin. I admire so much of what John Calvin wrote. He was an incredible scholar. He held a very high view of the Scriptures. He believed in an organized, faithful church. I admire these aspects of his teaching and many more. However, I could not disagree more with his view of the human/divine relationship. In essence, Calvin believed God was the ultimate micro-manager of the universe and human beings. He even believed that the very thoughts we have been determined placed in our minds by God. He taught that before all time, before we were born, God determined that some would be saved and others would be condemned and there’s nothing humans can do to change that course. In Calvin’s theology, if you were destined to be among the condemned no amount of seeking God and loving Christ could change that. This is called theological determinism, or more popularly, predestination. (Now, in my experience few in the Calvinist family today ascribe to this double election).
In Calvin’s view, God micromanaged everything on earth, everything good or bad was fixed to happen before Creation for all time. For people, this removes human responsibility doesn’t it? Everything people do is not really because of choice but rather because of God’s plan. Now, on one level, I find that attractive, but I think it would certainly get me in trouble all the time at home. I can just hear the conversation. A voice comes out of the hallway restroom, “why didn’t you replace the toilet paper?” And I answer back, “It was the Lords plan.” I would be in trouble if I followed a theology of everything happening for a reason! Now, don’t get me wrong, some things do happen by God’s desire. God’s ultimate desire is that no soul should be lost. The Holy Spirit is alive, unleashed and active in the world. And if we are sensitive, we may choose to respond to the Holy Spirits presence and help God’s desire for people to be connected to Christ and His church to happen!
James told me a story about an evening out he had recently with Mark Vickers. For those of you who know Mark, this will come as no surprise. They were at a place called Gate City Growlers. While there, they were engaging in discussion about the church and in theology and the Christian faith. A couple nearby overheard their conversation and began to ask Mark if he was a pastor. He said he was. They said because of where he was, they really felt like they could relate to him. After more conversation, they asked him if he would perform their wedding. Now, I know Mark, in the premarital counseling, he will share the love of Christ. Then, James said this couple took Mark out for supper and while they were at supper they introduced him to another couple that needed a pastor, and Mark will share the love of Christ for them as well. Not everything happens for reason, but some things do! But to claim that everything happens for reason says something pretty dire about God. And a dire picture of God can be harmful to hurting folks who need to know the loving, accepting nature of God as revealed through the Christ. To say everything happens for reason means that God is responsible for all of the horrible things we see on the news: the wind storms this past week that took peoples homes and lives including a four-year-old. Friends, the God I know through Jesus doesn’t take four-year-old’s lives. It means that the two mass shootings at workplaces this week we’re ultimately caused by God; it means that all of the war and starvation in the world has God’s plan behind it all. As a pastor over the years, I’ve received those dreadful phone calls in the middle the night. A few years ago, I received one. Sarah, who had just gotten her drivers license, was killed in a car wreck. I went over to the house and it was filled with weeping and agony. The family was crying out “why?” And then a person from another Christian tradition said to the grief stricken family, “There’s a reason behind everything. It was just her time and God took her home.” I don’t know if I’ve been angrier in my life, but with as much control as I muster I said, “No, God didn’t make Sarah’s car leave the road and take your precious child from you. Indeed, God is weeping with you at this time.”
This “everything happens for reason” thinking is exactly what Jesus addressed in our passage today. Some people told Jesus about some Galileans that Pilate evidently killed in the temple while they were worshiping. And then Jesus surfaced a construction accident where people were killed building a tower on the Jerusalem city walls above the pool of Siloam. Now, the folks Jesus was talking with had figured it out in an “everything happens for a reason” mentality. They thought that the people who died must’ve been sinners and God got them for some egregious sin. And you remember Jesus’ answer? It was an emphatic no. Jesus then teaches, and Paul reiterates in Romans, that we are all sinners in need of repentance. And this need of repentance is so that we may not perish but have eternal life. Now, what is repentance? Repentance is a complete turning away from former beliefs and actions and faithful acceptance of the forgiveness and the sovereignty of Christ over every aspect of one’s life. And here is the beautiful thing about repentance; God helps us repent through the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is far more than an act of human willpower or mere philosophical moralism. Jesus is teaching us in this passage to choose Him as the ruler over our lives so that we may be always prepared, always ready, to meet our God. Lent is God’s gift of a holy season, to look deeply and truthfully at our lives. It is the gift of time to turn from any and everything that we’ve put above the Christ and to trust Christ alone for our salvation. So how about you? Will you use this holy season even the next few holy moments of prayer to surrender self to Christ?
Share with your group about occasions when someone has spoken one the half-truths mentioned in the sermon to you.
Share with your group about a time when someone indicated to you that some tragedy in life was attributed to God’s plan.
Share with your group how this made you feel.
Share with your group how you might respond the next time you hear someone attribute a tragedy to “God’s plan”.