I want to tell you about my Aunt Julie, because everybody has an Aunt Julie in their family or an Uncle Harry or a cousin Jessicasomeone who they're glad lives far away, someone whom they're glad they see only at family reunions, someone who embarrasses them. Now, my family was blessed with many Aunt Julies, but I'm just going to tell you about one Aunt Julie.
She's the sister of my mother, and all the sisters in that particular clan are a bit eccentric, Julie more than others. In fact, Julie suffers from schizophrenia in her life. She saw her baby come out of the moon. She was always an extravagant person, always dressed oddly, wore her hair in a way that made her look the worst, was always having dreams and inspirations, always asking the awkward question when she first met you. She lived in Bright, which is a suburb of Sacramento. It's anything but bright. It's a poor, impoverished, dirt road, ramshackle suburb with houses made of cardboard and tin. So, basically, everything about Aunt Julie was uncomfortable.
When I was a pastor in Sacramento, my father came to visit once, and this is after my mother died. So while we were driving around visiting tourist spots, we decided, "Why don't we just drop into Bright?" I wanted my wife, Barbara, to see where my mother spent a lot of her childhood years. That would be interesting. But my father and I agreed right away that we were not stopping to see Aunt Julie. We were just not going to do that. That would only get us caught up in a conversation we don't want to get caught up in, and we could be there for hours.
So we're driving around Bright, and we're driving upon the street in which Julie lived, and right next to her house there's a man on the roof yelling because his ladder had just fallen down. And he sees us driving by and he's saying, "Stop! Help me!" So, you guessed the end of the story already. My father pops out of the car and goes to lift up the ladder, and out pops Julie who's living next door.
She says: "Bob! Bob Galli! What are you doing here? Mark! Good to see you. You visiting?" "Well, no, Aunt Julie, we actually live in Sacramento now." "Oh you do? Isn't that wonderful. What do you do here?" "Well, I pastor a church in Sacramento." "That is so great. I'm going to have to come and visit." And I lived in dread for weeks that Aunt Julie would come and visit, and I would have to introduce her to people as my aunt.
We all have Aunt Julies in our families, and we have a big Aunt Julie/Uncle Harry in our faith. We'll learn about that in today's text. But it's interesting that the embarrassment really begins with an enigma, not with embarrassment. It begins with just mystery, and we see that in the story of Abraham and Isaac.
There are a number of mysteries that are going on in that story, but the first one begins with God's command to Abraham to go sacrifice his son. The second mystery is that Abraham just says, "Okay." The third mystery is that Abraham lifts the knife and actually prepares to kill his son. The fourth mystery is that God says: Never mind, stop. I didn't want you to do that in the first place.
Now, if I was a grandson of Abraham, and he told this story around the fire one night, I'd say: "That's very nice, Grandpa. Nice story. But can we just kind of shove that under the carpet? Can we put that in the family closet (that's already full of skeletons), because we're trying to raise a respectable family here with a respectable faith, and you keep talking about a God who we just can't figure out and does some things that are downright troubling."
But the Old Testament seems to be fairly comfortable with this type of God. In the Old Testament, we hear the description of a God who is so angry at the sin of the earth that he destroys it with a flood and then later says: Oh, I'm not going to do that again, by the way.
We have a God that's so disgusted with Israel's sin that he says: I'm pushing you out of my presence; I want nothing to do with you. And then decades later, he says: Come on back, my heart breaks when I see you guys over there.
This is a God who is described as one who comes in the flesh and heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead, is King and Lordyet he ends up getting crucified. And the Bible, for the most part says: Well, that's just the way God is.
It doesn't spend a lot of time wringing its hand over that God. And that's a God we kind of understand, I think.
Our embarrassment begins with a lack of understanding.
I was a pastor for ten years. I felt absolutely sure that God called me into the pastorate for those years. And I was a dynamic, incredible, and powerful so-so pastor. I struggled to keep 70 people in my last church. I'm not browbeating myself. I'm sure the Lord used me, but I was positivethe whole time that I struggled through the pastorate, that I worked my way through itthat I was called, no question.
And then ten years into the deal, I get this call to become a journalist at Christianity Today. And I thought, Okay, maybe I'm supposed to do that for a couple of years and then go back to the pastorate. As it turned out, that call became much more permanent, and I got this profound sense of calling that I'm supposed to be doing this now.
And the crazy thing is, as soon as I stepped into the journalistic offices, I started having success left and right. I kept on getting promotions, kept on getting raises without even asking for them, kept on having people writing me and saying, "This has really helped me." No one in my congregation ever said that. So I'm thinking: Lord, if I had started this thing ten years earlier, if I had taken some journalistic classes in college, I would have been feeling successful my whole life. Why the call here and now this call? What's going on there?
On a more personal and tragic level, we see this enigma and this mystery in other ways. This winter, I knew three women who had miscarriages. The miscarriage begins in a God moment, doesn't it, when a husband and wife make love and join flesh and somehow feel a sense of unity and love with one another and with God that's just incomparable. And then for a woman to find out she's with childthat's got to be incredible. I can't say I've experienced it, but it's got to be that moment to go: Yes, this is what I'm supposed to be doing as a woman, one of the things I was built for, one of the things I was made for. This is a God thing if there ever was one.
And then a couple of months later, the child is lost. And you're thinking: Wait a sec. God, you're perfectly capable of fixing any defects that that baby would have had, and you know very well I would have kept that baby and loved that baby despite the defects. What's with this?! Why did you give me that God moment and give me this moment?
And that's when the enigma starts to turn into an embarrassment, especially the last couple of centuries when more and more people ask the question: Why does an all-loving God and an all-powerful God allow these sorts of things to happen? Why does he allow a tsunami? Why does he allow Katrina? Why does he allow genocide in Darfur? Why does he allow the 1,001 sufferings and miseries we have to endure on planet Earth every minute of the day?
And we Christians hear that, and we say: "Now, wait a sec. God isn't all that bad. Let me tell you a thing or two. Let me explain this ." And so we get into the court and we want to defend God from his accusers. He needs help because he's not doing as good a job as we thought he could do, so we're going to defend him.
We say things like: "Well, you have to see, after all, that God doesn't cause these things to happen; he just allows them to happen." As if that solves the problem of an all-loving God and all-powerful God having the ability to stop and going, Hmmmm, nah.
We say: "Well, you've got to understand. God, he just sort of created the world and he allows us to have free will and he lets us do our thing. And if we want to live on the coastline with this hurricane that's our problem. He just he let us stay in control of stuff." Nice idea, but that's called Deism. That's not Christian faith.
"Well, you've got to understand that we really can't solve the problem of theodicy. It's a great mystery. But we understand that God sits up in his cosmic throne and he looks upon us and he sees the suffering, and he feels our pain." And I'm thinking, Fine, but I need a God who does more than that, frankly.
The Old Testament is much more comfortable with that mystery. The Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away. "I am the Lord and there is no other," he says in Isaiah. I form life and I create darkness. I make wheel and I create woe. I am the Lord. Do all these things. As a matter of fact, get used to it.
A. W. Tozer, a devotional writer from the 1950s and '60s, said this: "Left to ourselves we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms. We want to get him where we can use him, or at least know where he is when we need him. We want a God we can in some measure control. We need the feeling of security that comes from knowing what God is like." And yet what the Old Testament gives us, what the Bible gives us, is a God who in lot of ways is a huge mystery, a great enigmaand sometimes, frankly, somewhat of an embarrassment.
Now, not too many people in the Old Testament rail against him. You see a little bit of this in Job, some in Habakkuk, I suppose in some of the Psalms. The classic case of railing against this idea of God is found in the conversations between Peter and Jesus. Peter has been awfully impressed with Jesus up to this point. Jesus is the one who brings sight to the blind. He's seen him raise a little girl from the dead. He's watched him calm a storm. He's heard him talk about the coming kingdom. And Peter has put two and two together. This is the King. This is the Lord. Here we come, Jerusalem.
And then Jesus says: By the way, guys, before the kingdom comes, I have to suffer and die.
And Peter says: Wait a sec. No, no, no, no. We can't be talking like that. If Madison Avenue hears that, our campaign is dead. Enough negativity. Of course there's going to be a hard time when we get to Jerusalem. Of course there's going to be a few hills to climb. But we can do it, Jesus. You're the king. You're the Lord. You raise the dead. You calm storms. Enough of this negative talk.
And Jesus says: No. You don't get it. In order for the kingdom to come, I must suffer shame and death.
And Peter says: No, you don't. I gave up family. I gave up vocation. I gave up my reputation to follow a wandering rabbi who sometimes says some strange things, but I've hung in there with you. You're not going to go dying on me now. That will be a waste of these three years.
And Jesus says: I've got to die a shameful death before the kingdom comes.
And Peter says: You're an idiot.
And Jesus says: You're satanic.
And to drive home the point, he turns to the disciples and says, get this (and if you don't get anything else, get this: Life comes through the cross. And anyone who is ashamed of my words and my life, you're got big problems, because I traffic in shame. I traffic in suffering. I traffic in embarrassment. And it is through embarrassment that you're going to find redemption and love. And if you can't handle that, you've got big problems.
Eugene Peterson in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction says:
Will we let God be as he is? Or why are we always trying to whittle him down to the size of our small minds, insist on confining him within the boundaries we are comfortable with, refuse to think of him other than in the images that are convenient to our lifestyle? But then we're not dealing with the God of creation and the Christ of the cross, but with a dying to our reproduction, something made in our image.
God works through our lack of understanding.
It's in Romans where this comes into crystal clarity for me. Paul says in that famous passage: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?" And he's describing things in some ways that apply to the Christian life, this business of persecution and maybe the sword. As a result of being Christians, we have to endure some things we don't really want to endure.
But a lot of this just has to do with being a human being on planet Earthhardship, distress, nakedness, famine, peril. We suffer these things physically, but in the last couple of centuries we've suffered another level of psychological pain because we believe in an all-loving and all-powerful God who allows these things to happen, and we have people constantly haranguing us and wondering how this can be.
And Paul says both the suffering itself and the psychological and theological difficulties it arouses can't be dealt with by pretending they're not there. We can't deal with them by knocking on wood, hoping they'll go awayyou know, pie in the sky, by and the by, just grit and bear it and you'll get through it and somehow goodness will be on the other side. No, Paul says in all these things we are more than conquerorsnot in spite of them, not around them"in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."
And at this point a light goes on. These hard things, these embarrassing thingsnakedness, famine, peril, when we're weak and vulnerablewe find that it's in these things that God communicates his redemption and his love. We see that in Abraham. We learn that God is a God of provision, and that he provided only through Abraham's obedience to a hard and difficult command. We learn about the rainbow only through the flood. We know about God's commitment to his people Israel only by the fact that he draws them back from exile. We marvel today at Christ's honor and glory and victory that came through shame and defeat and death. It is through the very enigmas that sometimes embarrass us that God shows us his love and his mercy, and that he redeems the world.
He comes to us in the form of Jesus Christ and he allows himself to be put on trial unjustly, to listen to the perjury and the lies of the witnesses. He allows himself to be whipped, dragged through the streets, stripped naked, nailed onto a cross, and publicly humiliated and shamed in a moment of tremendous weakness. How utterly shameful. How utterly embarrassing. How utterly wonderful.
For Jews demands signs, Paul says, and Greeks seek wisdom. We want a God of power. We want a God who makes sense. But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and our God with weakness and humiliation and shame is stronger than human strength.
How Deep the Father's Love for Us is a hymn we'll sing later:
How vast beyond all measure, that he should give his only Son to make a wretch his treasure.
How great the pain of searing loss, the Father turns his face away, and wounds which mar the chosen One bring many sons to glory.
Behold the Man upon the cross, my sin upon his shoulders. Ashamed I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished. His dying breath has brought me life. I know that it is finished.
And that brings us to the last turn in the sermon. It brings us back to Lent. We spend all this time worrying about God's reputation or being angry at him or frustrated with him or embarrassed by him, when he has a heck of a lot more to be embarrassed about us. That's what Lent's about. It's about kind of digging deep and thinking of all the ways we let him down, all the ways we shame his name, and coming to grips with thatnot just as an exercise of self-flagellation, but to recognize what he did on the cross on behalf of us. We are the Aunt Julies and Uncle Harrys to God. But he doesn't treat us like I wanted to treat my Aunt Julie. He treats us like my wife treats me.
Let me give you an illustration, and with this we'll close. This was when I was a pastor in Sacramento. And Barb was in the kitchen; I was in the dining room. And there was an open doorway between the two. I can't remember what started it. She was fiddling with the dishes, and I was doing something in the other room. And we got into a conversation that turned into a discussion. And the discussion decibel rose and rose, and she was just making me more and more irritated.
To this dayit's funny how these things happenI can't remember what the argument was about. I mean, I distinctly remember that I was right. To this day I'm convinced I was right, but about what exactly I don't know. But somehow the conversation moved to a pitch at which point she said something that flipped a switch inside me, and I curled up my fist and I just hit the wall as hard as I could.
Now on the one or two other occasions in my life to that point where I had done that, the Holy Spirit had always guided me to hit between the studs. I would hit the wall, and my fist would go through the drywall. I would look around and go, Yes, I showed that wall. But this time the Holy Spirit didn't guide me, and I hit a stud. My hand bounced off it, and a shearing pain shot through my arm, through my whole being, and I felt like screaming out. But I was still angry at Barb and I didn't want to show her that I was in pain.
And now a deathly silence fell over the house, as it always did whenever I lost my temper, because Barb doesn't come from a family of yellers. She comes from a family who miraculously manages to talk about most things pretty calmly. I come from a family full of Russians and Italians. You don't get anything done unless there's yelling. Nothing happens until the yelling starts.
But my wife shuts down whenever I yell. And then she gives the silent treatment for a day or two. So, at this point I'm thinking: Let's see. Yelling. Hitting a wall. Ruining her brand new wallpaper job. We're talking at least a week. And she might even kick me out of the house and make me go live with Aunt Julie.
And now there's a mess on the floor. Some of the wall paper crumpled and fell on the floor. So I have to go get a broom. Have you ever tried sweeping with one hand? And I just can't hold onto that broom. It's painful, but I'm not going to wince. And all of a sudden as I'm justthis pain is just terrible, both the psychological pain of what I'd done and the physical pain. And all of a sudden I feel these arms come around me, and I hear "Thank you." It's my wife.
And I said, "Thank you? Thank you for what?" She said: "I know I infuriate you sometimes. I know you probably feel like hitting me sometimes, but you never do. Thank you. Let me see that hand." "No, no. That's okay. I'm just going to finish sweeping." "Let me see the hand." "Naw, naw." "Just, just give me the hand. You broke a knuckle. We're going to the emergency room." "Well, let me " "No. Get in the car right now. We're going to the emergency room."
And of course the next day was Sunday, so I had to get up with a cast on my hand and tell the congregation what had happened. All the while I'm saying it, here's my wife, the pastor's wife, smiling and thinking: He's an idiot. He loses his temper. I've worked with him for ten years now. He still doesn't know how to dress right. He says all sorts of embarrassing things from the pulpit now and again. That's my man. That's the man I love. That's the man I'm not going to be separated from.
And you know, to this day when she meets someone new and she's excited about knowing that person, she will grab me by the arm, and she'll pull me into that conversation and say, "Hey, I want you to meet my husband"as if she really loves me and is really proud of me.
And that's what I think God is like. Yeah, we're the Aunt Julies that show up unexpected. You know what he says? He doesn't say: You know it would be a lot better if you didn't show up in church. Just make me much harder to do my work in the world when people like you end up representing me in the world.
No, he welcomes us. And he grabs us afterwards and he pulls us by the arm and he shouts to the world: Hey, this here, this is my daughter Julie. Hey, look here. This is my son Harry. And I love them so much. I'd do anything for them.