It is the gracious providence of God, for me, to be staggering back home just in time for Good Shepherd Sunday, which happens every year after Easter and before
Mother’s Day Pentecost. I attempted to read the whole internet in the middle of the night when I was awake wishing I could go back to sleep, and I’m happy to report that the usual conversations carry on apace. What I particularly enjoyed, during those dreaded hours, was the mashup of the ongoing debate about Christian Nationalism (CN, I gather it’s called now) and the various people tweeting about the coronation of Charles III which I think is happening tomorrow, whatever time it is over there in England. Then I remembered that Sunday was veritably upon me, and so popped over to the lections to see what I might expect to hear in church.
Just as an aside, I do find the “conversation” about CN excessively amusing. Why is this such a contentious debate right now? Is there any danger of America suddenly being turned into a “Christian Nation?” What is the argument about? What to do three hundred years hence when whatever we’re trying out now collapses? Obviously, to answer that question, I would need to do more than read some tweets, so never mind.
What isn’t so amusing, but is tragic and sad, is when the Church itself can’t be bothered to be Christian anymore, but sticks her head in the sand* and pretends that Jesus has no problem with whatever heretical thing she, the Church, is deciding to do. Whether or not the nation should be Christian is one thing, but it should be indisputable that the Church should be so. Too bad so many different kinds of churches across the Western world have decided they can’t be bothered to cling, be it ever so loosely, to the faith once delivered to all the saints.
So anyway, the Archbishop of Canterbury tweeted out the service for the Coronation of King Charles III and got this bitter reply:
I suppose I should feel sorry for Justin Welby. It must be terrible to be presiding over such a time as this. I wonder if he was able to hear any of the biblical texts read out in the divine liturgy for Sunday morning or if he was running around like a crazy person, trying to make sure all the vestments were mended and pressed and that everyone had their proper hats and their shoes shined. It’s a big deal to bless and coronate the next king, even if it’s basically a spiritual vacuous exercise.
I, on the other hand, have nothing better to do than sit in church and listen to the reader.
“You are the Lord, you alone,” pray the eight Levites whose names are recorded by Nehemiah. These repentant spiritual leaders are standing on “the stairs” before all the people who have arrayed themselves appropriately in sackcloth, adorned themselves with ashes, and, to make the point absolutely clear, poured earth over their own heads. The gathered congregation is not there to celebrate themselves nor to figure out how to organize their political lives. They are there for the painful business of confessing their sins. They have a lot of them, some of them ironically tragic. Those kinds of sins that arise from the stubborn refusal to accept God on his own terms, even when he has abundantly provided for every possible need and circumstance:
You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous.
The Levites, before all the people, rehearse again the saving work of God to bring the people through the Red Sea, through the Wilderness to the Land he had prepared for them. “By a pillar of cloud you led them,” they remind God, “and by a pillar of fire at night.” And finally, the bit that’s so pertinent for this most special of Sundays, “You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought them water out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in and possess the land you had sworn to give them.”
It’s so simple–bread and water and a place to be. Food and shelter. Not halls of power. Not beautiful music. Not kings and queens–though those appear later in this long prayer for having failed as much and more than the people themselves. Every portion of Israel failed to obey God, from the least to the greatest. They were meant to be a people, a nation called by God, set apart as a light to all other nations, so that all people everywhere would see how peaceable and prosperous and happy they were. Not happy in the devouring sense we are used to now, but restful and quiet, and yet busy and content. They were to be the flock of Israel and God would be their God, the Shepherd who gave them everything they needed.
But they preferred other kinds of shepherds, the kind that told them they deserved more, that they should follow their hearts, that it was fine to take their sacrifices to the altar, and then, on the way home, to pop by those high places to worship other gods, the kind that have no eyes and ears, who can’t hear you when you pray. What do you do when you tell someone who you are, in plain terms, and that person insists that you are not that way? If you were God and Israel behaved as she did, what would you do? Is there any gift that God withheld from Israel? Anything she needed that he kept back? Except, really, what she wanted was for God to worship her, rather than the other way around. And so, because that is the ultimate betrayal, the greatest wickedness, God judged his own people. He brought about the judgment he promised and they deserved.
And yet, here are the people praying this prayer. Even though they rejected God over and over and over–both his Kingship over them and his provision for them–he nevertheless took care of them still. Like Adam and Eve, he sent them out of the land so that they couldn’t spoil it and misuse it anymore. It wasn’t good for them to devour everything, rebelliously, and sin. Sending them away was good for them. And yet, because he is God, he brought them back.
Repentance is such a tricky thing. It feels impossible because it is in human terms. You can’t do it on your own. God has to come and make you see how good, how relieving it will be for you. One of the ways he does that is by sending you back into the howling wilderness so that you can feel how desperate is your condition without him. It feels cruel to be cut off, sent away, enduring deprivation and pain. But what it does is show you that you are not God. You are not able to hold the universe together by your will. You cannot make nations rise up and then fall. You are only a creature, a sheep wandering, gone astray in the imaginations of your own heart.
When you repent, you discover something strange. God, who you kept so far away, at arm’s length, like a cruel Master who reaps where he does not sow, who must be withholding the thing you most desire–God himself interposes himself between you and all your failures. Because Jesus is the Good Shepherd and not the wicked one, he lays down his very life to bring you back. He takes away your sackcloth and gives you himself to be your food, your shelter, your all in all. And he does this while you were yet running away from him, while you were lying, while you were prancing up and down the church aisle in your fancy robe denying his scriptures, blaspheming his name, rejecting his law, and denying the good news of his salvation.
“He committed no sin,” writes Peter who knew a thing or two about betrayal,
neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
If you are straying into some less than grand church this morning, perhaps with bad lighting and no one wearing any robes at all, you might feel the temptation towards discontent, towards a bitterness of spirit that at this moment, when it would have been such a good time to declare that Jesus is Lord, to confess that he is good and not we ourselves, so many spiritual leaders in so many churches decided to exalt themselves, to betray their high calling. But God is not surprised. Wherever you are worshiping him, in beauty or in poverty, in disappointment or contentment, he is the Good Shepherd. He has the power to bring you in, to lead you beside still waters, to restore your soul. He listens to your prayers–even for those for whom it is very hard to pray. Yourself, perhaps, or Justin Welby, or King Charles, or the person you hate on Twitter, or the petty and corrupt magistrate in your town, or all the principalities and powers of this world who jostle you and make you afraid. There is one Lord alone, and he always keeps his promises. He is there in every place where two or three are gathered together in his name. Hope to see you there!
*Very sad to learn during our most informative game drive that ostriches don’t actually do this.
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