God’s Wisdom and Goodness

Scriptures: Luke 7:18-35; Psalm 34:1-9

I think, as we start this sermon on Luke today, I need to start by saying, “God is good, all the time!” [Congregation responds, “All the time, God is good!”]

I don’t talk to the liturgists about what they’re supposed to study and what they’re supposed to come up with. And this week saw a radical change in the direction of my sermon.

I was working on it through the week, then Pauline – who is much more observant than I am – asked me if I realized that the passage from verses 18 to 30 was the same, content-wise, as I had preached on December 11 from Matthew, about John the Baptist having his disciples ask Jesus if he was the one who was to come.

I said, “No. Did I preach on doubt?” She said yes. I said “Okay…” and tossed out all those notes. So I decided to focus on verses 31 through 35, on this generation. And what the liturgist said about the passage fits with my new focus.

“To what then shall I compare the men of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children who sit in the market place and call to one another, and they say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’” That is the New American Standard.

The Living Bible say “They are like a group of children who complain to their friends, ‘You don’t like it if we play wedding and you don’t like it if we play funeral.’”

The Message, which is a paraphrase, says “They’re like spoiled children complaining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk but you were always too busy.’”

Jesus was in the midst of a crowd, and they were like a group of spoiled children. Period. Spoiled children need no explaining. We’ve all known someone who’s had some. Maybe you’ve been blessed with some yourself. Although most of the time, we notice other people’s spoiled children.

The whining. The crying. The foot stamping. The screaming. The Stop, Drop, and Roll drill for which they are trained to respond to only in public and at the sound of the word, “No.”

John, if you will, was the bell and telltale chime of the ice cream truck, as he spoke his word about the highway in the wilderness. Jesus is the ice cream man. And in Luke chapter 7 we find him surrounded, in Galilee, by reaching, waving, grabbing, pulling, shoving sticky little hands in the air, as one calls out for chocolate and another for strawberry and another for a pop-up and another for Star Cluster…a Butter Brickle, a peach charm, a lemon-banana twist…

All Jesus has brought with him – is Chocolate chip. Oh yes, it’s Deluxe French Chocolate chip. But that’s just not good enough for the traditionalist who always takes a single dip strawberry cone. It’s not good enough for the risk-taker who has her heart set on a double dip of cosmopolitan.

It’s not chocolate enough for the chocolate lovers, and for the ‘Nilla wafers in the crowd it is polluted with chips of chocolate. The chunks of chocolate chip are too large, even, for those who regularly enjoy chocolate chip. And the vanilla is too genuinely yellow for those who have grown accustomed to bleach white artificially flavored ice cream with absolutely no specks of vanilla bean in it, that we call vanilla. But, I suppose that’s to be expected.

The longer we wait — the longer we have to dream about something, and imagine — the more the reality becomes anti-climactic. You could call it the Big disappointment, or the Big Let-Down.

Some of those U.S. Presidents who are regarded as failures, are remembered that way because of the high tide of expectations that washed them into office. They were Batman trapped in a plot written for Superman. Batman is fine when you’re facing a mugger in a dark alley, but when gigantic asteroids are plummeting from the sky…

On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln astounds us. He became an American icon. Was he great because he led the American people through a war? Not necessarily. Many presidents have guided us through wars –even “World Wars.” Was he great because he managed the nation through civil unrest? Maybe. But many national leaders have guided the nation through social conflict.

It is suggested by some that he is remembered as a great president because nobody expected much out of him. He was a third-party candidate who won because the Whig party and the Democratic party were split. The news media hounded him. His colleagues ridiculed him. The establishment hated him.

The extraordinary things he accomplished while president, he did standing alone. We can stand back and appreciate the magnitude of them. But others who came before and after, who washed up into the White House on the waves of high public hopes, suffer in their legacies because whatever they did, whatever they began, is dwarfed by the backdrop of enormous and many times unrealistic expectations. Their best efforts, their greatest accomplishments, fell far short of the American dream.

In our passage today, we see the Messiah has come. The Kingdom is unfolding before our eyes! Jesus is here! The blind see! The crippled walk! The deaf hear! The dead are raised!

And yet, John asks, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” The Pharisees are constantly opposing Him and finding fault in the very miracles that point to Him being Messiah.

Yes, “reachy”, “grabby”, sticky hands pressing in on the Master. Barclay says, “No matter what was suggested, they did not want to do it; and no matter what was offered, they found fault in it”

Expectation. Imagination. They go hand in hand. I know that many of you, all winter, dream of summer vacation. When I was growing up, we loved to do that. We would travel, most of the time from Nebraska to Pennsylvania. And I know many of you have traveled all over the U.S., and beyond.

The long-awaited trip ‘cross country to visit the world’s largest ball of string. You imagine the wind in your hair as you cruise historic Route 66 with the top down on your convertible. There will be dining in nostalgic diners. Meeting interesting locals. New sights and wonders as you see for the first time different parts of the country… soaking in all the great and gorgeous American countryside.

And then summer vacation begins. At the end of day 1, on deserted Route 66 your left rear tire takes a nail jutting up from the cracks of a neglected highway. As the sun is sinking you feel the sprinkle of rain and hear the rumble of thunder. About a half-mile down the road you see what looks to be a gas station.

Three-quarters of a mile later, pressing hard against a torrential downpour, you reach the filling station and the orange emblazoned letters that read “Closed.” That’s when you remember you forgot to put up the top before you started walking.

On Day 5, as you stand outside your poorly cared-for room adjacent to the motel office, watching as the clerk scrapes the AAA endorsement sticker off the window, a smile stretches across your face. This is the day. Everything will be right. It’s the day that makes it worthwhile.

Then a half hour later you find yourself standing before a ball of string – the world’s largest. And suddenly you think to yourself, perhaps there isn’t all that much competition in the world to make the largest ball of string in the world.

The mountain-sized wonder of the world you had imagined, in truth, rests comfortably in the corner of a small parking lot. As you squish another cup of water from your leather seat while getting into your car to drive home, it occurs to you that expectation is a thief and a liar.

Israel had been dreaming of its “summer vacation” for almost 28 generations. The coming of the Messiah meant the restoration of David’s throne. It meant peace and prosperity for all the sons of Abraham. It meant “come-uppance” time for all the enemies and oppressors of the Jewish people. And in those generations, each one imagined a more glorious coming. The expectations of what the Messiah would be and do had became inflated too.

John the Baptizer was looking for a final judgment – a King to execute the strictest moral codes, bring justice for the small and vulnerable and punish the unrepentant. He said, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath!” earlier in Luke. And in Matthew 3 he said, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Judgment was coming when the Messiah came.

The Zealots were hungry for a King like David. One who put human needs at higher place than religious pomp, like when David took the showbread from the priest to appease his hunger. The king they imagined would be a conquering king, who would punish the Gentiles in liberating military revolution and then put the pious religious legalists back in their place. A king that was more empowered by the blood of Abraham than Moses’ Law.

The Pharisees were waiting for their Messiah too. Waiting for a philosopher-king. Another Moses in the line of David. A wise, meek, spiritual powerhouse who could wage war for three weeks straight and never break a Sabbath in the process. (Think about that one for a moment.) A king who would pat the guardians of the Law on the back and appoint them to positions of power, once he came.

As time moves on in its cruel, relentless march, the sticky, grabbing hands of spoiled children become the clench-fist hands of spoiled adults…

In the midst of the mob of Luke chapter 7, the wisdom of God is being challenged by the imagined, exaggerated expectations of everyone who wants to have something to say about when, where, how and who will bring the Messianic Kingdom to pass.

The wording of the evangelist leads me to believe that the wisdom of God in using subtle and inward ways to introduce and establish the Kingdom was being questioned. Even if the people did not realize they were questioning God’s wisdom, Jesus saw it. Therefore, he says very matter-of-factly, “we shall see”. “Give it time,” he says. The results will prove God’s wisdom innocent of all charges of negligence, irresponsibility, and unreliability.

Verse 35 says “But Wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Eugene Peterson, author of the Message, puts it this way: “Opinion polls don’t count for much do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

But what is God saying to us today through this parable? On this side of the cross, after Jesus was resurrected, the courtroom has long since been vacated. The case has been closed now for some time. God’s wisdom was, indeed, set free and proven innocent through her children and the establishment of the Church.

The Kingdom is now, not coming. The reign of God has touched every continent. Its citizens can be found the world over. That Christ was dealing with rejection rather than reception seems indicated by the analogy that he gives.

It is perhaps here that we can draw correlation without damaging the original message. Christ continues to receive rejection today. Unilateral acceptance of Christ has not come with the advent of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is still the butt of jokes, the cause of debate, and the scapegoat of skeptics and atheists. He remains, after 2,000 years, the favored whipping boy across the globe.

Humanists scoff at His spiritual throne and deity. Jewish and Islamic fundamentalists regard him as apostate. And his disciples still get blamed for nearly every Jihad and political conflict that is out there.

Today, we still find ourselves looking up to see the market full of children. In this free marketplace of ideals, men and women continue to accept or disregard Christ based on their own conclusions about God. My truth, and your truth – they may not be the same, according to these people.

They accept or disregard Christ based on what they perceive as his involvement with and will for mankind. Some are still looking for an earthly kingdom. They require signs and wonders and a physical king on a throne who can fix the economy and bring peace to the nation, put a chicken in every pot and a car in both garages.

But they fail to recognize a Savior who favors a heart to a throne. These people reject Christ because they don’t want a Lord that looks over their shoulders at the bills, or questions what they watch on TV, or what they look at on the internet.

They aren’t interested in a Savior who demands an expression of forgiveness and justice before He will execute the same for them. They are ready to take their ball and go home, because Jesus isn’t the “god” they were looking for.

As we look at all those outside people, who have rejected Jesus, it can be pretty easy for us to feel real good about ourselves, and comfortable. But let me point out something you might not have thought of. As right as the previous conclusion might be, it fails to remember that this parable was not spoken to irreligious people.

This parable was given to those in anticipation of fulfillment. This parable was given to the fans standing at the parking gate waiting for Michael Jordan to pass by so they can get a picture or an autograph. These folks were already initiated into their faith, they were just living in expectation of a renewed kingdom promised long ago, watching the horizon for a king to sit on a throne.

So, perhaps the message is not necessarily for those outside of Christ, who fail to accept him because he doesn’t match up to their customized profile. Maybe the message is for those who wait. Maybe the message is to those already initiated into faith in God. Maybe it is reminding us that His ways are not our ways. And that in all ways, His wisdom will prove itself in the end.

Amongst the church, in all of its variety, there are those who insist that the Kingdom of God is only for those whose hair is off the ears and neck. Those who have “separated” themselves, like the Pharisees in holy array such as a white shirt and tie, or dresses only for women.

They cannot accept a Christ who does not enforce the particulars of their sub-culture onto the entire culture. And this is sad, for in so doing they miss the Messiah, just as the Pharisees did, because Jesus is concerned more with a man’s heart than his hair. And thank goodness for that [reaches up to his hair].

Some look to bring about a revolution rather than a revival. They insist that Jesus is a Lord of politics, who must reign and enforce morality from the seats of the Supreme Court. And this is tragic, for they miss the Jesus that resides in the faces of the homeless.

For all their talk about caring for the poor, they miss the Messiah who changes entire communities one life at a time, moving in small increments rather than grandiose or damaging gestures, trying to force an institutional change without changing the hearts of the people.

And some on either end if the political spectrum and religious spectrum simply cannot tolerate a Christ who is not standing at the ready to mete out judgment for every mistake, every practice they deem immoral . Justice will be done! My way! To my satisfaction!

And thus they miss Emanuel, who wraps his arms around those who fail and says, “Do you want to be healed?…Do you want to be clean?… Your sins are forgiven…Go and sin no more…”

What has Jesus done…and what is he doing…that flies in the face of your expectations –for the world, for the church, in the lives of your brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus?…What has he done and what is he doing that your theology doesn’t allow? Have you taken God to court? Are you challenging the wisdom of the One who was, and is, and is to come? You wouldn’t be the first, by the way.

Were you there when He placed the stars and named them? Did you help Him, in the beginning, to measure the oceans and survey the continents? If not, why do you add to or take away from His standard of Holiness? Why do you question His wisdom and timing in growing the struggling spirit who is just learning to walk in grace, like a toddler taking his first steps.

In some ways, what was a parable for them, becomes for us a historical lesson. We look back to see that wisdom was indeed exonerated by a growing kingdom that could not have been through force or the means of men.

And we see that when we pout and stamp our feet like spoiled children, we miss out on the good times and laughter that comes from conforming joyfully to the will of the Father; allowing Him to be God and take responsibility for His church and to hold your life in His hands.

Can you hear it? The jingle of the ice cream truck? You may have come expecting Butter Brickle or a Star Cluster, but if God says Deluxe French Chocolate Chip you can be sure it’s the best. Always. Every time. Give it a chance. Give it time. You will see…

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[Many thanks for the ice cream truck analogy from a sermon by Rich Hadley]

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