Recent Sermon from Myers Park Baptist Church
H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
March 7, 2004
GOD SEEKS TO SAVE
Texts: Hosea 11:1-5, 8-9; Ephesians 2:4-10;
There is a gone-wrong-ness about our life. This gone-wrongness challenges
our belief in the goodness of God, the goodness of creation, maybe even our
own creedal goodness.
Every religion, philosophy, political theory, psychology and sociology
wrestles with it. Call it:
Read it on the front pages of the newspaper, read it in the back pages of
our lives, p. 16B. It is there.
We experience it as loss, as the haunting sense that the goodness of
life has fallen into something far from goodness. We experience it as a
loneliness, a longing for God, for home, for our own true self.
We see it in the personal realm in acts of betrayal and thoughtless cruelty
– when we just screw up, if you’ll pardon my slang.
We see it in the social realm in systems of injustice, in cultures of
built-in inequity and legally encoded discrimination. Slavery was once
defended by laws, by Bible, by science.
We people of privilege are normally blind to the prerogatives of privilege.
We take pride in our position as if we earned it all. As the old quip goes:
"He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." Some people
never get to the plate.
And as for our twisted hearts: We find ourselves perversely sad when others
triumph and perversely happy when others fall and fail.
It’s enough to help you understand what Luther meant about his term,
"the bondage of the will." It almost makes you believe in the devil.
This condition is not a disease invented by the church because it owns the
patent on the medicine.
There is a gone-wrong-ness. It is real. And all alone, left to our own
resources, we are helpless to overcome it.
The Bible tells of its beginnings in the garden. God put Adam and Eve
there, provided all they needed and gave only one prohibition: Not to eat of
this one tree.
A serpent insinuated itself up to Eve and suggested to her that God was
being unfair to them to place boundaries on what they could eat. The fence God
put around that tree was for God’s benefit, not theirs. Planting this
distrust in her heart, the serpent handed her the fruit from the forbidden
tree. She took and ate – and handed it to Adam, who did the same.
Watch what happened next. God came for a visit. They ran and hid themselves
from God. How terrible to have to live in hiding.
God asked Adam if he’d eaten the fruit. He said yes and blamed Eve. No
surprise there. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution which
blamed Eve for the "Edenic Fall" and used that misogynist theology
to bar women from full participation in ministry.
Then, Eve blamed the serpent. "The devil made me do it!" There’s
always someone to blame.
And now we live "east of Eden." Augustine called it Original Sin
and said this Original Sin was passed down to every child by sexual
intercourse. Sin, thus, became a sexually transmitted disease, and infant
baptism became the cure owned by the church to save us from it.
Conservatives tend to focus on the personal sins and ignore social
sins. Liberals tend to focus on the social sins and ignore personal
sins. That’s why we need each ! Don’t
you hate it that we need each other?!
Some "with-it" contemporary churches call sin a
"downer" and have eliminated the Confession of Sin from Sunday
worship. A confessionectomy of Sunday liturgy.
Others are spiritual masochists who would like it if every minute of
worship were a confession of sin or a denunciation of sins, particularly
But beneath it all there is this reality we must face: This gone-wrongness,
this disorder. "The times are out of joint," wrote Shakespeare, and
so too our lives. Estrangement feels less like a momentary affliction, more
like a condition. There is a brokenness in life, in ourselves.
In the Bible sin is not just something we do. It is a power which
imposes itself on us and takes control. James called it a "devouring
lion." In face of it Paul said: "The things I want to do I do not
do; and the things I hate are the things I do." Jeremiah cries from our
condition: "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician
In face of all this gone-wrong-ness, this brokenness, what we testify to in
our Statement of Faith is this:
You seek in holy love to save all people
from aimlessness and sin.
Aimlessness and sin.
Aimlessness is part of the gone-wrong-ness. There is a Hebrew word for sin
that means "missing the mark." Yes, we’ve all done that. But
sometimes we get to the point where we don’t even aim anymore. We
give up on life, on God, on self. We fall into the malaise of apathy, a no-caring,
into what the French call ennui, a wan, world-weary carelessness.
Sometimes we get there because we’ve cared so much and gotten so hurt.
But aimlessness too can be deadly for our souls and for the society’s
As the saying goes:
Evil prevails when good people do nothing.
But the good news of God in Hebrew scriptures and New Testament alike is
In holy love God comes to save us
from aimlessness and sin.
Our text today from Hosea expresses this holy love. Hosea the prophet has
seen Israel headed toward destruction through their sins, personal, social and
political. The text depicts God as a mother raising her child, loving her
child fully and completely, then watching the child wander off toward
destruction. What is more painful than this?
"Remember me," says God. "I heard your cry to me from
slavery in Egypt, and I came and rescued you. . . .
"I taught you how to walk and nursed you in my arms, I dandled you on
my knees. When you were sick I took care of you."
But now you have wandered far from me and taken after other gods. All I see
for you is ruin and destruction.
"How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O
My heart recoils within me;
My compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not come to destroy.
For I am God, not human –
My ways are not your ways,
My thoughts are not your thoughts –
I am the Holy One in your midst,
And I will not come to destroy.
This God, our God, has from the very beginning been coming to seek and save
the lost. This God, our God, has from the beginning been doing all God can
do and been giving all God can give that we might flourish.
God gave to Israel the Ten Commandments; God gave to all people laws
written on their hearts, inscribed upon our malleable conscience.
God rescued the Hebrews from slavery and exile, and kept their hope alive,
their souls alive, until they could be free. God has taught rulers how
to rule and citizens how to govern. God has taught parents how to parent and
has made our hearts pliable to recognize our wrong and turn to the right.
God in holy love has come to
save us from aimlessness and sin.
And then and then, in the fullness of time God came to save us in Jesus of
Nazareth, Jesus, Yeshua, whose very name means God comes to
Jesus, who forgave sin and befriended sinners, who healed the broken ones
and gave power to the powerless, who challenged tyrants, who took on injustice
and turned over tables in God’s temple, our temple.
He was the salvation of God – the holy love of God that comes to save us
from aimlessness and sin – made flesh.
What God is up to in the world is not condemnation but salvation. How does
John put it:
For God sent the Son into the
world not to condemn the
world, but that the world
through him might be saved.
What hinders you from opening your hands to receive that salvation? From
believing in, believing into Jesus, the grace of God to us?
There may be some good reason. Has the church made it something less than
grace? Have we preached some other gospel than the gospel of Jesus?
What the New Testament says over and over is that salvation comes by grace.
It comes by the power and mercy of God, not by our attempts at self-salvation,
our trying and trying and trying. As Buechner describes grace:
There’s nothing you have to do
There’s nothing you have to do
There’s nothing you have to do.1
Grace means God comes to do what we cannot do. If, as Buechner suggests,
the power of sin is centrifugal – that is, what it does is "to
push everything out to the periphery. Bits and pieces go flying off until only
the core is left." Then " bits and pieces of the core itself go
flying off until in the end nothing is left."2 If that is
true, then the power of God unto salvation is the restoring of the center,
Kathleen Norris tells of a friend who revealed to her one day that he’d
gotten his life into such a mess that the only way out seemed to be the
killing of a person. He knew where a gun was. The only thing that kept him
from going ahead was that the person he intended to kill was not at that
moment alone. While he waited something happened
"It was right then I decided to get out,
he said. "This was way over my head."
And that is salvation, or at least the beginning of it! The Hebrew
word for salvation means literally "to make wide." or
"to make sufficient," and our friend had recognized that the
road he had taken was not wide enough to sustain his life; it was
sufficient only as a way leading to death.3
There is a gone-wrong-ness about life. But God comes in holy love to save
us. And it comes, this salvation, by grace. How does St. Paul put it?
For we are saved by grace through faith, not of works, lest anyone should
boast. For we are God’s workmanship, God’s poeima, poem, God’s
work of art, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God is already
preparing for us to do.
Georgia poet David Bottoms has written of redemption and grace in one of my
favorite of his poems: "In a U-Haul North of Damascus":
Lord, what are the sins
I have tried to leave behind me? The bad checks,
the workless days, the scotch bottles thrown across
the fence and into the woods, the cruelty of
silence, the cruelty of lies, the jealousy, the indifference?
What are those on the scale of sin or failure
that they should follow me through the streets of Columbus,
. . . What are these
that should find me half-lost,
sick and sleepless
behind the wheel of this U-haul truck parked
in a field on Georgia 45
a few miles north of Damascus.
Lord, why am I thinking about this? And
why should I care
so long after everything has fallen
to pain. . . .
Could I be just another sinner who needs to be blinded
before he can see? Lord, is it possible to fall
toward grace? Could I be moved
to believe in new beginnings? Could I be
"Lord, is it possible to fall toward grace?" We’ve all heard
the fearful phrase "fallen from grace." But here is God’s good
news: God comes in holy love to save us from aimlessness and sin.
We all, you and I, the whole human running race, have by the mercy of God
fallen toward grace.
1. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (N.Y.: Harper & Row,
1973), p. 34.
2. Ibid., p. 88.
3. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (N.Y.: Riverhead Books, 1998),
4. Armored Hearts: Selected and New Poems (Port Townsend, Washington:
Copper Canyon, 1995).
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