The Gospel of the Second Chance
July 15 2018 Genesis 27: Acts 7:51-8:3
OK, true confession time. I have been a big fan of Tiger Woods. It=s not just because of my own golf prowess, that I would have been the Tiger Woods of my generation had I chosen golf over preaching. Not just that.
But it=s because of his relationship with his dad, Earl, which reminded me of how close my dad and I were.
It=s because he was a role model to millions of kids, particularly kids of color.
It=s because he had a beautiful wife and two beautiful children, and that he was the ideal husband and father.
And so my grand illusion came crashing down around Thanksgiving time several years ago, when we all learned that my hero Tiger wasn=t what he seemed to be.
He talked about all of that in his first press conference on February 19, 2011.
AI’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’ve done. My failures have made me look at myself in a way I never wanted to before. It’s now up to me to make amends and that starts by never repeating the mistakes I’ve made. It’s up to me to start living a life of integrity.
AI once heard, and I believe it’s true, it’s not what you achieve in life that matters; it’s what you overcome. Achievements on the golf course are only part of setting an example. Character and decency are what really count.@
My wife, Barbara, tells me that one of my blind-spots is that I believe in redemption too much. I tend to think the best of people, no matter what. I=m sure she=s right, and that I need a healthier theology of sin, which would make me more wary and more cynical.
But I=ve been tutored by the Bible and so many of the characters in the Bible are scoundrels at heart, yet mysteriously selected by God for God=s larger purposes.
Take Jacob, for example. Jacob is the second born son of Isaac and Rebekah. He is a twin; his brother Esau is born first, and as such the law of primogeniture applies. The law of primogeniture was fundamental in ancient societies. It asserts that the oldest son always come first; the oldest son is the favored son; he carries the family name. And from this law of natural rights whole theories of social relationships have been established.
In this story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob (and his mother who is in cahoots with him) both turn out to be despicable tricksters. He first tricks his brother in giving him his birthright. On a day when Esau is famished he comes into the house and smells something cooking. Jacob gives his brother something to eat in return for his birthrightBthe rights that ordinarily belong to the eldest son. And then in chapter 27, Rebekah suggest that to get old Isaac=s blessing (and here Isaac appears weak and frail and a little demented), Jacob is to cook his father=s favorite meal, put on his brother=s clothes, and put a goat skin on his hands and neck to disguise himself and to feel like his hairy brother.
And the old man gives Jacob the blessing. He has only one blessing to give. Death bed blessings were absolutely important in the ancient world; it was like a will, and Jacob, by deceiving the old father, gets written into the will and his brother, Esau, written out.
By all rights when should we talk about the God of patriarchs, we should say the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau, but instead we say the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. From here on, Jacob is the main character in Genesis. There is more copy about him in Genesis than there is about Abraham.
And because Jacob has tricked his brother out of the father=s blessing, he flees for his life. In chapter 28 we read about Jacob=s dream, how he has a vision of angels ascending and descending from heavenBWe are climbing Jacob=s ladderBand in this dream the irony of this story comes full circle. He has won the family=s birthright, yet he has to flee from the family circle because he is afraid of what his brother will do to him. And God comes to him in the desert, while he is on the run. God comes to him, while he is asleep, vulnerable, in a dream bringing not the reproach he deserves, but bringing a promise that he will be the bearer of the covenant, the covenant given to Abraham, given to Isaac, and now given to the second born, Jacob.
The Bible is full of scoundrels. Moses was a murderer, David an adulterer, and Peter denied Jesus three times.
But for my money one of the most despicable characters in the entire Bible is Saul. Saul is present at the stoning of Stephen. For a moment, imagine the scene. A victim of stoning is either buried up to his waist or bound hand and foot. Then the stoning begins. The stones are specifically chosen so they are large enough to cause pain, but not so large as to kill the condemned immediately. They are guaranteed a slow, torturous death.
Saul watches all this, and we are told in Acts 8:1 that he approved of it. And we go on to read how the church was persecuted and how Saul was ravaging the church by going from house to house, dragging both men and women off to prison. What happens to them in prison, we can only guess, but it was not pleasant.
You know the rest of the story, how breathing threats and murder against the disciples (9:1) Saul goes to the high priests to get permission to travel to Damascus to search out any Christians and bring them bound back to Jerusalem. And you know what happens on the Damascus road how a lightning bolt crashed around Saul and Jesus appears to him, asking ASaul. Saul why do you persecute me.@
And for the rest of his life, Saul, who becomes Paul, turns his passion inside outBfrom persecution to proclamation and became the individual most responsible for taking the gospel beyond the confines of Judaism to the Gentile world.
How very odd of God, inexplicable, to choose Saul. How very odd of God, inexplicable, to choose Jacob. How very odd of God, inexplicable, to choose Moses, and David, and Peter.
How very, very odd of God, inexplicable to choose you and me.
And I know you are running ahead of me now, and you see where all this is leading. What we have been talking about this whole morning is God=s grace. Grace, according to C.S. Lewis, is Christianity=s unique contribution among world religions. AGrace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us moreY and grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.@
Some time ago I was talking to an old man. Nearing the end of his life, he took the opportunity to tell me as a pastor what a Roman Catholic does in the confessional with his priest. No matter how hard he had tried over a long life-time, he had failed to his life completely over to Christ. He had done some things that hurt his family. He had not lived up to his own standards, much less God=s. He cried as he told me all this, a proud, accomplished, educated man, and he cried.
I listened, not saying anything. I listened to his confession. And after he had exhausted hiss regret, I said to him: ACould I read to you a few verses Psalm 103?@
AFor as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him,
As far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us,
As a Father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.@
And then I said to the old man. As I understand it, the heart of the Gospel is this: It is not our grasp of God that counts, but God=s grasp of us. It isn=t how much we believe in God that counts, but that God believes in us. It isn=t our faith that causes God to loves us. God loves us in spite of how much or how little faith we have.@
What I told that old man I believe that with all my heart. AGrace is God giving us what we do not deserve and mercy is God not giving us what we do deserve.@
God can take our mistakes and failures and turn them inside out. God is a good of new openings, of bold initiatives, a God who has an unalterable will to redeem.
At the end of Tiger Wood=s press conference he said this: AFinally, there are many people in this room, and there are many people at home who believed in me. Today, I want to ask for your help. I ask you to find room in your heart to one day believe in me again.@ And if I could have a personal word with Tiger I would say this: ATiger, I=m pulling for you bud. After all, the gospel I preach is the gospel of the second chance