Look Inside the Box
You and I have so much room to grow, so many more things we can learn in this season of growth called Pentecost. Today we can learn one of those fundamental building block things that must be learned before moving on to the next level. But we can only learn this if we look inside the box.
Country music singer Randy Travis has a song that is titled, "The Box." It's about his dad. While growing up he thinks his dad is distant, uncaring, and basically uninterested in him. The presents he got him for things like Fathers' Day didn't seem to mean that much to him. His dad wasn't very demonstrative in terms of love and affection. He seemed emotionally detached from the family.
Well his dad dies, and the song goes on to tell how he finds a box. It's just an old tattered box the kind that dad's have in drawers and on work benches. Inside that box is the pocket knife he had given to his dad many years before, the one that his dad didn't seem to care much about. Inside the box were drawings he had made as a kid, letters he had written from camp, and other sorts of priceless, yet really quite worthless, memorabilia that could only mean something to someone with a basically tender heart.
What a shock the box was for the writer of the song. Till he looked inside the box he didn't really know his dad at all. His dad was not uncaring but caring, close not distant, attached not detached. His whole life he had thought his dad was one way when in reality he was another. The box changed his whole view of his dad.
God, the heavenly Father, appears uncaring, insensitive, distant and down right hard, doesn't He? Surely He appears that way to some of you too. He doesn't bend. He doesn't say, "Thou should not," but, "Thou shall not." He doesn't say, "The soul that sins might die," but, "The soul that sins shall die." He doesn't say that the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, or homosexuals might not inherit the kingdom of heaven, but that they will not.
Hold on there. Before you get all proud and pompous because you aren't caught up in any of these things, read the rest of I Corinthians 6: 9-10. Paul says it's not just those guilty of sexual sins but the greedy, drunks, thieves slanderers, swindlers, indeed anyone who is unrighteous at all, according to Paul will not inherit the kingdom of God. That little piece of gossip you spoke or even listened to is enough to keep you out of heaven. That greedy thought, that sexual thought, that time you ate too much according to God's unbending law is more than enough to send you to hell.
Want a second chance? God's Law says, "There is none." Have a good excuse why you did what you did or thought what you thought or said what you said? God's Law says, "Who cares? You're still guilty as sin." Promise you'll try harder, do better next time? God's Law says, "To hell with you." God is not some plump Santa-like figure who can just "ho, ho, ho" away sins. That's why Hebrews 10 says, "It's a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
To some people, Texas' "three strikes and your out" felon law is too harsh and unbending. Well all of God's Laws are "one strike and your damned forever." How loveless! How uncaring! How judgmental! But God's Law doesn't bend for you or for me. Surely He is a harsh, uncaring Father.
God doesn't bend in Law or in life. This presents another problem that I've seen on bumper stickers: "God is 1) All powerful. 2) All loving. 3) You can only choose one." Doesn't that bumper sticker have a point? Monstrous things happen to people at the hands of weather, and who holds the weather in His hands? Who brings the winds out of their storehouses? Who scatters the frost like ashes? Who hurls the lightening bolts? Winds aren't always soft summer breezes but tornadic ones sucking the pavement off the ground. Winds hurl 2 x 4's through not just walls but people. Frost forms black ice on roads sending whole families sliding to cruel deaths. Lightening bolts strike little league baseball teams and mother's with umbrellas.
These things go on day in and day out all over the world. Right now someplace in the world God's morning sun is blinding someone to oncoming traffic and there is going to be a fatal crash. Right now someplace God's rain is swelling a river that is going to sweep someone away to their death. Right now a tragedy is happening someplace that the all powerful God could easily stop, and He does nothing. He sits in His heaven far above all this, aloof and distant from the blood, sweat, and sorrow that every paramedic knows, every emergency room doctor sees, every person with half a heart sheds tears over. And what does He do? Nothing.
Some of you will remember this. In 1964 a woman was murdered in New York. 38 people heard her terrified cries for help yet did nothing. They didn't run to her rescue; they didn't phone for help. They sat in their apartments listening to her cries, her shrieks, her pleas for 30 minutes. Society was shocked by this. How could people be so heartless, so hardhearted! Yet God appears to do this every day. I had an English professor in military college. His son was killed in Vietnam. On the way to the funeral, he had an accident. His wife went through the windshield and was killed. He never tired of quoting to us with thick sarcasm and a cold smile this line from a poem, "God is in His heaven and all is right with the world." The man mocked a God who could be so heartless and distant that He could sit motionless in heaven while human tragedy unfolded below.
You can't get beyond such a God if you're a thinking person. God really does appear that uncaring, that unloving, that distant from the griefs and sorrows of sinners. He seems no different than the father in the Randy Travis song only His apparent lack of care and His apparent distance doesn't just hurt His children's feelings, these ruin our lives. You won't be able to come to terms with such a heavenly Father unless you look inside His box. The box of God is worn and tattered too. It doesn't look worthy of looking into. His box is a rough, wooden manger; a blood stained cross with bits of flesh hanging from it, Water, a Bible, and ordinary looking Bread and Wine.
God doesn't will that we sinners approach Him through the Law, through His all powerful working in the world, through our sinfulness or our tragedies. God wills that we approach Him always and only in Christ. Lutherans don't try to approach God in His majesty, in the tragedies of life or in our failed plans and shattered dreams. We let God be God and go to where God points us.
And where does God point us? Paul tells us Romans, "God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Right before that Paul says, "When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly." Christ, His innocent life and His painful suffering and death, is God's answer to His own unbending Law. God could not tone down His Law. God could not take it back for then He would cease to be God. God promised that the soul that sins will die. He promised that no sinner of any kind could inherit the kingdom of heaven. God couldn't break those promises of the Law anymore than He could break the promises of the Gospel without ceasing to be holy. So God fulfilled the Law through the perfect life of Christ and God punished everyone of your sins by whipping, beating, and crucifying Christ in your place. Christ was the innocent sacrificial lamb for all of us very guilty sheep.
Therefore, we don't plead our excuses or our promises to do better over against the Law. We plead the holy life of Christ and His holy Blood. We plead our Baptism which covers us with Christ. We plead the absolution which sends our sins away from us, in Christ's name, as far as east is from west. We plead the Holy Communion where we eat the holy Body of Christ and drink His holy Blood. With these in us, we go where He goes. We inherit His inheritance. But we're ungodly. Christ died for the ungodly. We're sinners still. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us says Paul.
But what about the tragedies of life? There are cancers and heart problems and diseases that have mile long names. There are accidents and weather patterns that kill. There are life's disappoints and hard knocks. There are funerals and calamities on the way to them. What of these and the God who appears to sit motionless in heaven? Don't go to Him; go to the God who walked in the dust and dirt, the tears and griefs of this earth. Go to the God that endured the death of His stepfather, the tears of the grave, and the sorrows of sinful life. Go to the God who when He saw the crowd harassed and helpless had compassion on them.
That word compassion is a special word. It's used in the New Testament only of Christ or for the Christ-figure in parables. It's never used for the compassion Christians are to have for others but only for the compassion that Christ has for sinners. It comes from the Greek word for spleen. Just as we speak of butterflies in our stomach, gut reactions, and our heart going out people, so the Greeks described emotions in terms of physical reactions. The spleen was thought of as a noble organ, a deep organ. To be moved there was to have a deep, intense, noble feeling. This is how God in Christ feels towards sinners. This is the God we sing of in "Abide with Me" which is about none other than the Lord Jesus. We sing of Him as "kind and good, with healing in His wings," as One who has "tears for all woes" and "a heart for every plea."
We must stop seeing God as far away in His heaven distant from all that hurts, harms and embitters our lives. He who shed tears in our place is described in the Psalms as putting our tears in a bottle and writing down why each one of them falls. He who willingly gave His hands to be nailed to the cross for what our hands have done is described in Isaiah as having us engraved on the palms of His hands. He who gave His eyes to be blackened in our place calls us in Zechariah "the apple of His eye." Literally, "apple" is pupil. You know how we protect the pupils of our eyes. We can't bear for them to be touched. We flinch when anything comes near them. That's how God in Christ protects you. The disease, the tragedies, the disappoints that flood our lives; don't nullify this care anymore than the cross nullified God the Father's love for God the Son.
Back to Father's Day. There comes a revelatory moment in the lives of most children raised by a loving father. One day it dawns on you that your father didn't seem all that concerned about what you gave him, not because he didn't love you but because he loved you just as you were. He really didn't want things from you but a whole world of good and blessed things for you. Now I know not all of you had the grace of a loving Father, but all of you, none excepted, have the grace of a loving heavenly Father in Christ which is far more precious and important. And you can know this from looking inside His Box. Take a good long look today and learn to celebrate having such a loving heavenly Father in Christ. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost IV (6-16-02), Matthew 9:36; Romans 5:6-9