Theology Sermon #8—Hos 11:1-9; Ps 115:3-11; Lk 15:11-14; Rom 12:1-2
Ted Grimsrud – Shalom Mennonite Congregation – May 27, 2007
Word association: “Salvation”
When I first became a Christian, now over thirty-five years ago, I was taught a certain view of salvation. Confess to God that you are a sinner. Acknowledge that as a sinner, you are bound for hell for an eternity. Recognize that belief in Jesus as your savior is the only way to go to heaven instead of hell. Pray the sinners prayer that you trust in Jesus. And be saved – once and for all.
Now, I have to say that this schema actually worked pretty well for me. I admit that by personality I’m not prone to doubt and anxiety, so perhaps I shouldn’t draw too many theological conclusions from my experience. But from that night in late June, 1971, when I accepted Jesus as my savior, I have never once wondered whether I was a Christian or not. However, my understanding of what salvation is has changed tremendously from those early days.
And I now wonder: Is it God who we are saved from or God who we are saved by? If not God, what are we saved from? And, what are we saved for?
The theology I was first taught as a Christian implicitly told me that God was who I needed to be saved from. In a freshman lit class, I read Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The prof kind of mocked Edwards, but I took him pretty seriously. This is what I had been taught.
God is furious at each of us because of our sin. So we are doomed – and we fully deserve our doom. Our only way out is through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. God visits upon Jesus the violence we deserve because God must punish sin – Jesus is our substitute who saves us by paying the price required to satisfy God’s righteous anger.
Why did I come to question this theology? Well, I saw too many people who were afraid of God. In one church I worked with two older people who were close to death – in both cases, they had made clear professions of faith but still felt great fearfulness. What did God really think of them? They knew they were unworthy of God’s love – and deserving of God’s anger. The gospel songs only helped them so much.
Plus, this picture of an angry God simply did not jive with my own experience. I am sure, like most of us, my deep down experience of God has been closely related to my experience of my parents. With my parents, there was never any doubt about their love. I think of an image. Kathleen and I reach out toward our grandson, baby Elias and he reaches back, meeting our reach with his. I likewise, see my father moving toward baby Teddy, hands outstretched. Would I flinch, fearing his anger? Or would I move toward him, expecting his embrace? It would always be the embrace.
So it has been with God. At the times of my greatest vulnerability, of coming face to face with my failure or loss, there was no question that God was present with me, the source of comfort not condemnation. So how could it be believable to me theologically that God’s disposition toward me was one of anger? How could it be believable to me theologically that God would be the one I needed to be saved from?
I also came to see that the Bible does not actually support that angry view of God. Certainly the God of the Bible gets ticked off with human beings some times – really ticked off, even. But I it is a mistake to see these instances as definitive of God. Passages such as Hosea 11 and Luke 15 are more central, more definitive. In these passages, God is savior. God is not the one to be saved from, but the one who saves.
And, this is the crucial point, God does not need sacrifice. There are no complicated cosmic transactions necessary. In fact, as Hosea tells us, because God is holy, God simply forgives. Because God is holy, God seeks healing, not punishment.
Hosea 11 tells the Bible’s salvation story. The Egyptian empire enslaves the children of Israel. The Israelites cry out in their pain. God hears, and acts to liberate them from their oppression. At its heart, this is simple mercy. God does not need to be appeased, or manipulated by sacrifices, or convinced by good deeds, in order to bring salvation. God simply does it because that is the kind of God God is.
God intends for God’s people to be whole so that they might bless all the families of the earth. God gives them the law codes as an expression of mercy to help them embody a way of life in contrast to the oppressions of the Egyptian empire. And God gives them a home where they might do this.
However, Hosea continues, speaking for God, “they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love” (11:4). Tragically, in face of this kindness, “they moved from me!” (11:2). So God is justifiably distressed: “They shall return to the land of Egypt” (11:5). Wait, though, God keeps talking. “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst” (11:8-9).
We need to notice this picture of God’s “holiness” in Hosea. When Jesus tells his remarkable parable of the Prodigal Son, he simply lifts up what the prophets had already taught about God. God desires mercy, not sacrifice. God responds to brokenness with justice that brings healing. God wills for God’s people to bless all the families of the earth with peace and kindness, providing a place for the nations to beat their swords into plowshares.
God seeks out broken, damaged people to heal. That’s the core reality of God’s character. So we get to Luke 15, and we hear Jesus telling us several stories to illustrate what God is like. Jesus, God’s very son, “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (15:2). In doing so he sets to grumbling those who speak of God’s righteous anger, those who want a God who cares only for those “worthy” of God’s care.
Jesus doesn’t back down a bit. This is what God is like: the shepherd who, after desperate searching, celebrates the finding of his lost sheep. God is also like the woman who rejoices over finding her one lost coin (15:10).
And, most powerfully, God is like the father who welcomes back his wayward son with a big party. The son, first, actively hurts his father, taking his inheritance and deserting the family. But then he hits bottom, and has no place left to turn. He “comes to himself” (the key moment) and heads home. On the way, he plans his speech – “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (15:18).
Now we come to the truly powerful part: the father does not need this speech. While the son “was still far off [before he could say a word], his father saw him and, filled with compassion; ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Only then does the son give the speech – and the father brushes it off. “Quick bring out a robe,” let’s celebrate, “this son of mine (that’s right, this son of mine) was dead and is alive again.”
I think the son’s speech was important for his own healing; it showed that he truly had come to himself. But it seems not to have mattered one whit to the father. This is what God is like (just as Hosea had said, just as was seen in the exodus): God saves because God wants wholeness. God save because God wants damage to be healed. God saves because God wants all the families of the earth to be blessed.
So I have an answer to my first question. Is it God who we are saved from or God who we are saved by? The prophets and Jesus make it clear: God saves.
So, what then do we need to be saved from? In a word, our damage. We are damaged. From the beginning of Genesis, we learn that a consequence of the damage that human beings suffer is violence. Cain murders Abel, the first outworking of damaged social life. The ancient Israelites in Egypt needed to be saved from the damaging violence of the empire. And, when we consider Psalm 115, we may add that we all also need to be saved from the damage caused by trusting in “the work of human hands.” Such trust turns us into beings that do not see or hear or smell or walk or speak. If we add a thought from Luke 15, we could also say we need to be saved from the damage caused by views of God that portray God as unmerciful and retributive.
The Bible from the start presents us with a God who shows (and tells) that life lived in trust in God heals that damage. Trusting in God as peaceable frees us from the damage of trusting in the myth of redemptive violence and damaging our souls by acting violently toward others. Trust in the ultimacy of this peaceable God frees us from the damage of trusting in things as ultimate – things like possessions, or nation-states, or religious structures, or social status that when idolized deprive us of our humanity.
Trust in God as merciful frees us from the damage of fearfulness. It is telling in Genesis three, that after Adam and Eve eat the fruit, God still reaches out to them, walking as always in the garden to be with them. But Adam and Eve hide from God; the alienation comes from their fear, not from God’s anger.
I think of an old friend of mine from my hometown in Oregon. After finishing school, my friend moved to San Diego, got married, and had a couple of kids. When his son Josiah was two or so, they visited the grandparents back in very rural Oregon. My hometown was the kind of place that when my family went on a six-week trip when I was a teen-ager, we didn’t even bother locking our house while we were gone. So, grandpa asked Josiah if he wanted to go outside to play. Josiah was reluctant. Why? Grandpa asked. Josiah pointed outside and said “strangers.”
Now I am sure it was wise to teach Josiah caution, especially for life in the big city. But this also strikes me as an example of what we could call “surplus fearfulness.” The world can be scary, but it is God’s world – and God presence with us is one of empowerment and generosity, not of fearfulness and retribution.
So, we are saved from our damage. We are saved from fearfulness. We are saved from idols and powers that dehumanize us.
What are we saved for? As the prodigal son’s father insisted – we are saved for celebrating. When damage is healed, and it will be when we turn to our merciful God, God is like the shepherd finding the lost sheep and the woman finding the lost coin – and God invites us to join this joyful celebration.
What are saved for? I will close with Romans 12. Because of God’s transforming mercy, you may devote yourselves to being agents of that mercy, blessing all the families of the earth. Because of God’s transforming mercy, you may live a life of creative and healing nonconformity to the ways of empire, creative and healing nonconformity to the dehumanizing ways of the powers, creative and healing nonconformity to the violence caused by our projecting anger and retribution onto God.
And God’s mercy does indeed transform. I’m sure we all know salvation stories we could tell – stories from our own lives, from our friends and loved ones. I have a short one to end with.
When I was in high school, I became close friends with a guy who was several years older, David. He had been a star basketball player and liked to give pointers to us younger guys. He was kind of drifting in his life, living at home and working in a plywood mill. Then he got saved – and in fact he was the big influence on my own conversion not long afterwards.
David left Oregon and went to Bible college in Missouri – to Jerry Falwell’s old college. He bought into the theology I began my sermon describing. He went on for a graduate degree in counseling, got married, had a child. We stayed in touch even as my theology evolved – he respected my changes but remained tied to his adopted theology. But over time, things didn’t work out for David and his family. He ended up divorced and his daughter left home in her mid-teens basically to live on the street.
We visited David about seven years ago and his life seemed at a low ebb. He had basically lost his faith. He had left his counseling profession, and seemed at completely loose ends. Several years later, we were back in Oregon and met David for dinner. He was being resurrected. His theology was being reconstructed. He had embraced Eastern Orthodoxy. As I talked about the new thinking I was doing on understandings of salvation, he nodded enthusiastically. Yes, the God he now worshiped was a God of love, not a God of judgment and fear. And this God was helping him put his life back together.