Remember the days of old, consider the years of all generations. Ask your father, and he will inform you, your elders, and they will tell you. - Deuteronomy 32:7 (NASB)
Jesus called the children to him and said, "Let the children come to me and do not stop them, because the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these." - Luke 18:16 (GNT)
Two-year reading texts: Psalm 81:1-5; Isaiah 17:1-19:17; Ephesians 2:1-10
A common theme in today's scriptures is the contrast between faithfully following God vs. rebelliously worshiping idols. Deuteronomy 32 and Isaiah 17 both speak of God as "the Rock" upon which the identity of God's whole people is built, and they point out - something like 800 years apart in time - how God's people nevertheless forget, and turn away from God, and make for themselves dumb idols fashioned from material things. These idols have no power, and can never really save us in times of trouble. So inevitably, there's a painful time when we suffer because of our misplaced faith. And then, maybe, we remember the one true God.
More hundreds of years later, in the early days of Christianity, here's how today's passage from Ephesians addresses this situation:
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.We all fall into the human pattern of idolatry and disobedience. On our own, we'll do nothing but lose our way. Here one of my seminary professors has pointed out how important two little words are in scriptures like this: BUT GOD. On our own, we've reached a dead end. There is no way forward. BUT GOD makes a way. Even while we're stuck, God comes with grace, love, mercy, and faithfulness to make a new way. The gift of Jesus Christ is that as he goes through birth and life and ministry and death and resurrection and ascension, he takes all of our human experience up with him into the life of God. By grace we have been saved!
Today's verse from Luke 18 is one of many simple but powerful examples where Jesus shows how this works. Children in the ancient world were counted as having very little value, certainly not worth the time of a rabbi and prophet. BUT GOD, in the words of Jesus, insists that not only should these little children be allowed to be brought to him for a blessing, but also that the very Kingdom of God - God's way of life in this world and into eternity - belongs to people who are as small, under-valued, vulnerable, and needy as these.
This is the way of God. Our "Rock" has always insisted that God's ways come before human ways. Throughout the Bible, and especially in the life and teachings of Jesus, we see that God's ways are founded on love and grace and mercy, and include countless commands for the care of all people and all creation.
Now, more thousands of years later, our nation and generation face the same challenges, choices, and decisions people have always faced. As citizens of the United States of America in the 21st century, our inheritance includes our country's best instincts, our ideals of freedom and justice and equality. These values grow out of our Christian roots and are consistent with God's valuing of life. And we are so committed to these values that we want everyone to have them, even if they have a religious faith, or no religious faith, as a shared foundation of understanding for them. But we also inherit the temptations and fears and faults of those who have come before us. When we've obtained a degree of freedom and justice and standing for ourselves, we are too quick to deny the same things to others. As individuals and at every level of our governments, we have stood between "little" people and the blessing God wants for them.
Today, as we celebrate the 241st birthday of this country, may we remember that we are all children of grace. What we have was given to us, and is not the result of our works. As a result, we are called and prepared for a way of life worthy of the great blessings we've been given. May we remember our own place, and remember that God desires an equal place for everyone.
These days, I sometimes come close to despairing that America still has time to choose God's ways over selfish, idolatrous ways. Too often, "Make America Great Again" seems to mean that our greatness is to be found in money and power and notoriety and influence, rather than the greatness of heart and spirit to be found in God's ways. On our own, we will surely march toward the dead end of selling ourselves and our neighbors into slavery in the pursuit of human power. BUT GOD ... with God there is another way. I pray that we remember and listen to the witness of the people of God in generations before us, that we recover our vision of ourselves as children of grace, and that we welcome rather than hinder the inclusion of all people, so that everyone can be considered a child of grace too.