A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sermon (June 12) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "I Can See the Headlines Now"

     I can see the headlines now:  “Vineyard Owner from Jezreel Put to Death. Townspeople Relieved.” 
     And just think of all the people who would read this and say things like, “It’s about time this country gets tough on crime.”  “Who was this nutcase, Naboth, anyway?”  “Who cares?  At least he got what he deserved.”  “People like him should be put away for good.”
     Here we have the justice system at work.  The town’s officials find this man guilty, give him the death sentence, and then execute him.
     To be honest with you, I am not a supporter of the death penalty, but I can certainly sympathize with family members of loved ones who were the victims of a violent crime.
     Many of us might remember reading or hearing about a very tragic news story several years ago about a nine year old girl in Florida who was abducted and then killed.  I’ll never forget the day I read that story. 
     Tears came to my eyes as I read the graphic details of what this person did to this little girl.  And then I read how she died while holding one of her stuffed animals.  I wanted to scream.  I wanted to cry out for God’s justice.
     Someone said to me a while back, “I just don’t understand God sometimes.  Why would God allow a child or people who are unable to defend themselves be harmed?”
     When we read stories like this, we wonder why the world is the way it is.  And we wonder if there will be any justice.  
     Our scripture reading from I Kings tells us the story of Naboth, an owner of a vineyard who was convicted of a crime and put to death.   Here’s a story of someone getting what they deserved.  Here’s a story of God’s justice at work. Right?
     Actually, no.  This is a story of an innocent man who was ordered to be put to death by someone who valued someone’s land over that person’s life.
     King Ahab, who lived next to Naboth, couldn’t help but notice how nice it would be if he had this neighbor’s land for his own private vegetable garden.  So he tried to strike a deal with his neighbor and Naboth declined.  Naboth wasn’t about to sell his ancestral property for any price.
     Ahab goes home and isn’t himself.  He really wants that guy’s property.  So he mopes around the house and is obviously discouraged.
     His wife, Jezebel asks him why he’s so down. After Ahab explains that Naboth had refused to sell him his property, she proceeds to take matters in her own hands.
     She forges her husband’s name on some official letters and sends them off to the leading people of the town, telling them to convict Naboth of some trumped up charges, and to have him stoned to death for his crimes.
     The local politicians, not wanting to disobey the King, follow orders and do just as the King had directed them to do.  They haul him into their assembly, tell him that he’s been charged with a crime, and then they put him to death.
     We’re left to wonder, “Will Jezebel and King Ahab get away with this total disregard for justice?  And what about the townspeople who will hear about Naboth’s alleged crime? Will they ever find out the truth of what really happened?  Will Naboth be remembered as a criminal who was justly punished for his crime?  And where is God in all of this?  Will God vindicate Naboth’s name and do something about Ahab and Jezebel?”
     This story of Naboth’s vineyard is a story that reminds us of the reality of evil in our world, as if we need to be reminded of that reality.  But this is also a story to help us think about the problem of evil as it relates to our faith.
     More than ever, we live in a world where the news headlines are about tragic events that are happening all around our world. These headlines are often closer to home than we may think like the recent Stanford student rape case.

     This past February, we set up our outdoor prayer cross in front of our building. Since we have so many people who walk by our building each day, it seemed like the perfect way for people in our community to let us know of their prayer concerns. Our Tuesday morning prayer team includes these cards from the prayer box when they meet for prayer each week.
     During the first week of having the prayer cross in front of our church building, we received thirty-five prayer cards. I was amazed that we received that many prayer requests, mostly from college students.
     These prayer requests melted our hearts as we read over them. I’d like to share some of those prayer requests from that first week with you.
·     Please pray for my roommate and myself as midterms are coming up.
·     To any god that will answer.
·     I have been a Christian all my life, since 3 years old. And I want to be a strong righteous man for God, my Lord, Jesus Christ. But no men will take my hand and help me in the path of righteousness. No one at this school will help me. I miss my Lord.
·     For my mom with colon cancer.
·     Thank you for loving us and not judging us for drinking too much…We love you.
·     I’m praying for my best friend. He drink and smokes 7 days a week and I am worried for his health.
·     Help me.
·     Help me make it through.
·     Please pray that my biggest fear isn’t happening.
·     I have lost my faith to some extent. I will not give up. Please pray for me.

     These are just some of those 35 prayer requests. When we read these, we were reminded that there are some heavy hearts that walk by our church everyday, especially when it’s the school year.

     We don’t have to look too far as a church to be reminded that the headlines of pain and brokenness are just outside our doors. Thankfully, God has given us a headline this morning that is filled with hope and good news.

     I was sitting in my 20th Century American History class and minding my own business when my college professor surprised me by saying those dreadful opening words, “Mr. McDowell.”  “I understand you’re planning on becoming a minister.  What would you possibly say to someone who is a Vietnam war veteran, who saw his buddies die in the line of duty, and who also witnessed so much violence and destruction.  What could you possibly say to that person about faith and God?”
       This professor, who had lost one of his legs in Vietnam was waiting for my answer.  All I could think of was, “Well, actually, to be honest, I don’t know what I would say to that person, Dr. Avillo.  But I would let this person know that God loves him and wants our world to be a place where there will be no more wars and violence.”
      I could tell that I didn’t totally satisfy his curiosity, but I guess that wasn’t a bad answer for having been totally caught off guard.
     It’s now been 32 years since I was asked that question, and Dr. Avillo, here’s what I would have said if I had been given a little more time to prepare.
     I still would tell that person that God loves him and cares about our world.  But here is what else I would share with him.
     God cares about justice.  It’s all through the scriptures.  From the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, we read about a loving and just God who created the world and called it good.  But because of sin, God’s good creation is being torn apart.
     And ever since, God has been on a mission to rescue his good creation from sin and death.  God made a covenant with Abraham for Abraham to be blessed so that he and his family would in turn be a blessing to the world.  Through this covenant, God would bring peace and justice to all of creation.
     While God has always been faithful on his end of the covenant, we have not been faithful.  And by we, I also mean God’s people in the Bible.  We continued to sin and to not trust God.  But amazingly, God did not give up on us.
     And this is why God sent us Jesus – who was able to be our representative of what it means to fully live out God’s covenant in being the people God has intended us to be.  Jesus, the very embodiment of the God of Israel, fulfilled this covenant through his life, death, and resurrection.  Jesus did for humanity what we could not do ourselves.
     And even though evil and injustice are still very much part of our world today, through Jesus Christ, we can become God’s new creation.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live out God’s desire for all of his creation to be renewed one day at a time.
     And Dr. Avillo, what I’m about to share with you next, is what helps me to not lose faith, especially during those days when the headlines lead me to tears.  I believe that there will be a day when Jesus will return, and for those who have placed their faith in Him, they will be made new again, to live in God’s new creation where there will be no more suffering, tears, pain, injustice, wars, terrorism, hatred, jealousy, heartache, abuse, kidnappings, kings stealing land, murder, sin, and death.
     That’s what I would want to share with this Vietnam veteran, Dr. Avillo.
     I remember reading the story about Victor Jara, who was killed shortly after the 1973 military coup in Chili.  Victor was an educator, a theatre director, poet, folk singer-songwriter, and political activist.
     They had taken him along with thousands of others as prisoners to the Chili stadium which just a few years ago, was renamed after him.  In the days after they were taken to the stadium, many of the prisoners were tortured and killed.
     Jara was repeatedly beaten and tortured; the bones in his hands were broken as were the bones of his ribs.  Fellow political prisoners have testified that his captors mockingly suggested that he play the guitar for them as he lay on the ground. 
     Defiantly, he sang part of a song supporting a different political party.  After further beatings he was finally killed and his body dumped on a road on the outskirts of Santiago, his blood soaking into the ground, soaking into the ground, soaking into the ground.
     The Psalmist says, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.  The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.  You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.”
     Fortunately, the story of Naboth’s death doesn’t end with him lying in the street.  Verse 17 is the turning point.  We read,
     “Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession.  You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?’ You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’”
     In the next chapter, we find that Ahab is killed by a stray arrow.
     And fortunately, the story of God’s desire to rescue the world from sin and death doesn’t end with this story of revenge.
     This story will eventually lead us to another story in which God will send his only Son who will die on a cross for the sins of the world. 
     The blood of the Son of God will trickle down a wooden cross and find its way to the ground, soaking into the ground, soaking into the ground, soaking into the ground. And that blood will cry out and God will hear yet again.
     Only this time, God will defeat sin and death once and for all.  God will raise Jesus on the third day and God’s new creation will begin.
     And God’s people will live with the hope and promise that one day…one day, all of creation will be filled with God’s justice and peace. 
     I can see the headlines now:  “Sin and death defeated! God’s creation rescued!”

     What a great and glorious day that will be!

I Can See the Headlines, Now
Small Group Questions
I Kings 21:1-21a
June 12, 2016

The Old Testament story of King Ahab and Naboth's garden is a story of extreme injustice. King Ahab wanted Naboth's garden and when Naboth refused, he had him executed on trumped up charges. The story concludes with revenge on Ahab.

What are some examples of injustices that you see in our world today, just by reading the newspaper and watching the news? What do you think God feels about these injustices?

Stories of injustice like these that we find throughout the scriptures, (Cain murdering his brother, Abel, King David having an adulterous affair with Bathsheba, etc.) remind us that we live in a broken, sinful, and hurting world.

Jesus came to die for the sins of the world. What difference does Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection make for our world? What difference does it make in your life?

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