Dumbfounded: God did what? …for who?
I am dumbfounded. And it’s because of my kids. You know how kids…especially siblings…play together, right? Sometimes they play like they really love one another. And sometimes they play like they hate each other. Most of the time it’s somewhere in between.
My two older girls will start out playing nice. They’re on the same page having fun. Joy Kate is princess Elsa and Nora is princess Ana. They get rambunctious acting out a scene from their favorite movie Frozen. They get further and further into the story, and then it happens. Joy Kate – or Elsa – starts belting out the climactic song:
Let it go. Let it go. I’m one with the wind and sky.
But singing this song is the half the fun of playing. So naturally, Nora wants to be Elsa too and just joins in and starts singing:
Let it go. Let it go. Can’t hold it back anymore.
Well this makes Joy Kate annoyed because she was singing first and she was playing Elsa and it’s not fair. So they start to argue and bicker. And as they are trying to shush one another with their hands, one of them asserts herself and sings louder.
Let it go let it go. I’ll rise like the break of dawn.
And not to be outdone, her sister raises her voice as well:
Let it go. Let it go. This perfect girl is gone.
Of course, neither one realize that the words they are singing are right on point with their behavior! And pretty soon it gets out of control. And where do they go?
To me, right!? As if I am the director of their musical playtime. So I ask, “What happened?”
One chimes in quickly and points the finger at the other. And this makes the other upset because of course it’s not her fault. So she points the finger back. And the explanation escalated into…
But she’s not sharing.
But she being selfish.
But she interrupted me.
But she won’t let me sing too.
But she this and she that…
And I’m sitting there like this (moving my head side to side listening). I watch and listen like a good daddy. But, honestly, as a boy I’m kinda confused about these girl arguments. I grew up with He-Man and GI Joe. There’s dozens of cool characters in those TV shows. But no princess and no singing. All you gotta do is play in the dirt, build a fort, make some war noises and your good. So…I’m dumbfounded.
But I’m also getting more and more frustrated and struggling with how to handle this. And so finally I step in:
“Girls, girls,” I say. No response. So I speak louder, “Girls! GIRLS!!” Still nothing. So, I speak in the only language they can understand:
Let it go…Let it go…. for the love of God Let it go! (singing)
When I read scripture, it’s a lot like this. A lot like listening to my kids argue. Sometimes reading scripture is like being a boy listening to girls argue about things you don’t understand.
Do you ever feel that way?
One verse says one thing. For example, in the gospel of John:
God so loved the world that whosoever believes in him will have eternal life.
And we all love and trust in the promise of this truth. But then Matthew interrupts and begins arguing with John:
Not everyone who calls me Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of God.
And I get confused. I think to myself: What? Wait guys. Matthew just said that whoever BELIEVES will enter the kingdom!? Now, John, your talking about DOING something? Scripture, you gotta get story straight!
Then the Paul proclaims in his letter to the Ephesians (chapter 7)…
For by grace you are saved through faith and this is not your doing, but the gift of God and not a result of your works.
And then James butts into Paul’s proclamation and yells:
What good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?
Now, this is obviously a rhetorical question. But I’m thinking, Well, yeah, Paul just said faith can save you!
But before I can even get my question out James keeps yelling:
No, faith can’t save you; faith without works is dead!
And then Paul looks at me again from the book of Romans and points the finger at James:
We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
And then Matthew shoves Paul out of the way and says:
The Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.
And on and on it goes. And eventually I’m just dumbfounded. It’s just like listening to my girls argue.
Scripture can feel like that…one child interrupting the other…this back and forth right before your eyes. And you just want to know, which is right?
Maybe you are like me and I feel like the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 just wanting to know:
What must I do to inherit eternal life? Just tell me what I need to do!
Now, here at Hood we have talked in depth about tensions in scripture. And so I know that you know that there is always more going on in scripture that what appears on the surface.
Even the most insightful scholars among us, if we are honest with ourselves, recognize that there is contradiction and tension in scripture. I mean we have to have 4 gospels just to tell us the one story of Christ. Our bible is based on different versions of the same story.
And if you think about it that is pretty astonishing. It’s enough to make us all dumbfounded.
So what DO we do?
There’s a helpful word in a pair of scriptures that I want to share with you today. The early church grappled with this back and forth tension, especially when it came to who was in and who was out. And there is this great story from the book of Acts that gives us a clue about what to do.
Let me set the stage…
The disciples have never really set forth a mission to proclaim the message of Jesus to Gentiles at this point. And there are lots of cultural and religious rules about Jews and Gentiles associating with one another.
Peter, a Jewish Apostle, has this vision about unclean food – you may remember it. And God commands him to eat this unclean food that Jews were not supposed to eat. Peter says no way and then God says to him, “Look I’ve made this food clean. Don’t look down on it. Just eat it.” This vision prepared Peter for what comes next.
A Centurion – a Gentlile – comes and wants to fellowship and listen and learn from Peter, a Jew. Now this is profound because Gentiles were like that unclean food in Peter’s vision. Jews didn’t eat with them, they didn’t share their homes with them. Gentiles were like that unclean food in Peter’s vision.
And because he had the vision, Peter does something different. He opens himself to this Gentile and shares fellowship and conversation with him. Peter begins teaching and preaching in this Gentiles home and then this happens:
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. They heard them speaking in other languages and praising God. Peter asked, “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?” He directed that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited Peter to stay for several days. (Acts 10:44-48)
Basically we have this struggle over the Gentiles, a group of people that Jews didn’t associate with, that they didn’t agree with or associate with, they didn’t condone their lifestyle, they were not comfortable with their culture and way of life.
You can probably think of folks like this…maybe people in our community, maybe friends or family, maybe groups around the world…. people that you or I may not or like or be comfortable with, folks who live a way that you or I may not agree with or support.
And in this story God pours his Spirit on the Gentiles – these unclean, unwelcome, undesirable, disagreeable people. So, of course, all the Jews present are astonished, amazed, bewildered, dumbfounded. You have to just picture their jaws dropping all the way to the floor. They could not believe what was happening, it didn’t fit with their religious teaching, with their cultural upbringing, with their beliefs, with anything they were comfortable with
And God doesn’t just speak a simple word through them. God doesn’t just open the door for them. God doesn’t just give them a nod or an okay. God doesn’t just sprinkle his grace and favor on them. God POURS HIS SPIRIT on them. This is a dramatic and extravagant act over a group of people that the Jews thought wouldn’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t receive God’s spirit.
It’s startling. It’s shocking. It’s mind boggling. But that is what God does. Because even our best and brightest and smartest and most powerful ideas can not comprehend the magnitude of God, of God’s love and grace and mercy and forgiveness and salvation.
So sure we may see contradictions and discrepancies, the differences and tension in scripture. It may seem like one part of God’s word argues with another part. I think part of the reason is that things aren’t as simple as we might want or think. Life and faith are deep and complex.
We have to allow scripture to startle us. We have to live into the tension and discover the grace that is beyond our limited beliefs and ways of living. We have to realize that God’s grace will always astonish and surprise us. And if it isn’t, then we must be missing something
Maybe, just maybe we should be a little more like Peter. Maybe we should listen and learn from his vision and realize that our rules and beliefs may close the door to some people, but God is always about finding a way to open the door.
- God takes what is unclean and makes it clean.
- God takes the uncomfortable and makes it comfortable.
- God hears our beliefs and pays attention to how we pull our beliefs from His holy word…and then God presents a new situation that doesn’t fit the parameters of our belief, a situation that forces us to dig deeper into His word, deeper into our relationship with Him and with others and we will find that our belief has grown and matured.
- God turns our disgust into appreciation, our prejudice into respect, our disapproval into praise, and our dislike into a like. No, not just like….God turns dislike into love.
And at the end of the day, God will change and transform us through his love to such extremes that we should be left gawking, dumbfounded wondering to ourselves: God just did what? And for who?
And I imagine God sitting like a parent who’s been watching his children argue back and forth – for days for years for millennia. But God is much wiser than me for God has written a book about living righteously and loving one another. And when we have those moments of astonishment, I expect God is a lot like me when my girls finally make up….standing tall and proud that his child is finally getting it. Patting us on the back and encouraging us with some familiar words that Jesus spoke for the gospel of John:
Remain in my love. I say and do all this for you [no matter how uncomfortable and confusing my word may be] that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. So love each other just as I have loved you. And always remember that I always give you commandments and teachings for one purpose: that you will love each other. (Paraphrase)