Lost and Found
Is there any hope for me? For the world? Or, is all lost? Has a word of judgment been written that cannot be undone? Or, is there the possibility of a second chance? It always grieves me when I hear stories about a young person – usually a teenager – who has committed a gross and heinous crime, and thus deserving a severe sentence, receives the sentence of life without parole. To think of this young person, usually a young man, sitting in prison for the rest of his life is mind-boggling. Surely there has to be some word of hope, some opportunity to be set free?
As I read the lectionary texts this week I hear two very different voices speaking from the text of Scripture. One voice, that of Jeremiah, points to the strong and severe wind that is designed not to winnow or cleanse, but to bring judgment against a foolish and childish people who are without knowledge of God or understanding, a people skilled at evil, but not in doing good. The vision laid out by Jeremiah is one of destruction and desolation – so that the fruitful land is now desert and even the skies are devoid of life. This word of judgment is especially severe, a sort of scorched earth policy. But, what is especially disconcerting is the final word:
“Because of this the earth shall mourn; and the heavens above grow black;
For I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back. (Jer. 4:28).
This word is reminiscent of the sentence handed down by the judge on that young man – life without parole. There is no hope of freedom, for the judge has spoken and will not relent.
The word of Jeremiah may be appalling to some, but it is a word that will ring true in the sentiments of many of our neighbors. If you do the crime, then do the time.
There is, of course, another word emerging from these texts. That this word emerges from the New Testament should not lead us to conclude that the New Testament is more gracious than the Old. One can find strong words of grace in the Hebrew Bible as well as in the New Testament. But in this week’s lection the words of hope appear in the two New Testament readings.
The first word comes from the 1 Letter to Timothy. The presumed author of this letter is Paul, though historical scholarship questions the Pauline authorship of the letter. For this reflection, it may be useful to indulge this presumption, for the story that is present in this first chapter looks back to Paul’s conversion experience. Here he was a strong and severe opponent of the church. He had opposed this new message with all of his might, and yet he had experienced the full force of God’s grace and mercy, so that although he was the chief among all sinners, he had been set free from this sin and now stands as a model to others who would believe. The message is simple, and one “deserving full acceptance: ‘Christ came into the world to save sinners’” (1 Tim. 1:15).
As for the sinners, among whom the author of the letter to Timothy was numbered as the greatest, they are the friends of Jesus. The critics of Jesus pointed out that he kept company with the wrong crowd – tax collectors (who got no respect then either) and sinners.
In response to the grumbling among the more upright citizens, Jesus tells three parables, two of which are found in this week’s lection – the third, the parable of the Prodigal Son must wait for another day to be explored. Two parables, one the describes the efforts undertaken by the shepherd to find the missing lamb, and when the shepherd finds the missing lamb – having essentially abandoned the 99 for the sake of the 1 – he throws a party to celebrate. There is no greater joy in heaven, says Jesus, than when the one who is lost returns to the fold. The second parable tells of a woman who loses a coin, and then after madly looking finds it, and then throws a party – using the rest of her money to celebrate the discovery of the one coin.
The message of Jesus is simple – God’s grace and mercy is extravagant. God will do whatever God must do to bring that which is lost back into the fold, and when the one who is lost is found, there will be a party.
Two words – one of judgment and one of mercy. Both are needed. The first word reminds us that God is concerned about that which is right and good. There are consequences of our actions. At the same time, if that is the last word, then there is no hope for us. This is the good news that emerges from the letter to Timothy and the gospel – “Christ came into the world to save sinners” and the chief among sinners is me. Oh, my, it is good to know that God’s love and mercy are so extravagant that I can find hope for my life. There is parole after all!
By Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.