Christ Centered Resources

You are a letter of Christ

Rev. Ed Searcy

2 Corinthians 3:1-6, Hosea 2:14-23
University Hill United Church : Sun, February 27, 2000
This morning's epistle brings us face to face with the impossible task of theological education in a theological school ... and, for that matter, in every congregation. "Not that we are competent of ourselves", writes Paul, "to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God". Competence ... anyone who has been hanging around the Vancouver School of Theology for any period of time over these past three decades knows all about competence. It was the 'competency model' of education that originally thrust VST into the forefront of North American Theological Schools. You see, graduation from this school is an unusual feat. Here graduation does not depend upon passing a set number of courses or obtaining a fixed quantity of credits. Instead fitness for ministry in the church is to be shown when a student demonstrates competencies in a wide variety of skills and areas of knowledge. Yet, here I am, two decades after proving my 'competency' for ministry feeling utterly incompetent for the task at hand. Faced by the charge to proclaim the gospel as it is announced by Paul and by Hosea within a span of something less than twenty minutes I am overcome by a great sense of incompetence. It is not unlike the incompetence we felt as we gathered here yesterday and pondered how we might possibly fulfill the immense calling that we have on this campus. Looking at our relatively sparse resources we could not help but feel more than a little overwhelmed by it all. So, with Paul, even those of us who have been officially 'approved' as competent by the degree from our theological school or by our election to the Official Board of this Congregation can rightly plead incompetence. Surely our competence can only come from God. Now a fascinating thing occurred this past week on the UBC campus. The non-Christian guests of VST and of Regent College who came to speak here both urged the church to use its divine competence with more confidence in the world. Stephen Lewis was forceful and dynamic in his call for the church to lose its shyness and to once again find its tongue. He decried the "anxious isolation" of the church on the sidelines of current cultural and political debates. He used his considerable rhetorical skill to call the church back to its prophetic role in Canadian society. Lewis was the epitome of a revival preacher reminding the people of God of their responsibility to seek God's justice and God's peace in the world. Neil Postman encouraged a similar recovery of voice. Postman spoke philosophically about the culture and its current losing battle with the gods of technological wizardry. He convincingly portrayed a world which too easily forgets that technological improvements do not necessarily equal steady advancements in human culture. It is not technology, he argued, but our great true stories ... the large narratives like Christianity ... that provide meaning, coherence and hope for the world. No wonder an evangelical school like Regent College would invite a non-Christian professor of communication to be their guest in Vancouver for three days. He, like Stephen Lewis, is eager for the church to reclaim a lively, courageous and creative voice in western culture at the turn of the millennium. Then we come here to open our Bibles on Sunday morning and find Paul's encouraging news. He writes to a congregation strikingly like the one gathered here and says:"You yourselves are our letter ... to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ ... written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts." This is really quite an astounding claim for Paul to make ... especially when you consider all of the troubles of the little church in Corinth. Infighting. Immorality. Unfaithfulness. This is a dysfunctional congregation if there ever was one. Yet Paul says that, in truth, its troubled life is a letter of Christ written with the ink of God's Spirit and addressed for all the world to read. Even the seemingly incompetent church at Corinth is, to our great surprise, competent to deliver the good news of Jesus Christ. It seems like a text that is made to order for Stephen Lewis and Neil Postman as they exhort the church to address the world with the inspired message of God. But here's the rub. These two powerful speakers who would have us confidently addressing the world with the inspired message of God assume that we have received this inspiration ... that the Spirit has already written the Word on our hearts ... that in our correspondence with the world we are not simply reading, and enforcing, some ancient letter of the law. Stephen Lewis seemed genuinely surprised to discover that the church in Canada has, in his absence, become a marginalised community. Nonetheless, upon judging this to be true, he had words of friendly advice from one who has been in the minority and on the fringe for most of a lifetime. "Get some issues", he said, "don't accept defeat, speak boldly and the people will come". Well, perhaps. Or perhaps our story is not the equivalent of a political party trying to rebuild before the next election. Perhaps, instead, we are like the people of Israel whom Hosea has in mind. Perhaps you've forgotten Hosea ... one of those ancient prophets that Stephen Lewis spoke of last week. Let me refresh your memory. Hosea's message is the announcement of a cosmic divorce. He arrives in the holy sanctuary to deliver the bad news that God has found Israel out ... that her illicit affair with other gods is a secret no longer ... and that the marriage is over. God is through with Israel because she has broken her promises to be faithful ... not kept their sacred ten commandment wedding vows ... and has now shacked up with the gods of fertility and technology and consumption. Israel no longer trusts in God. Instead she has wedded herself to the prosperity of a rising gross national product and to The security of national defense arrangements. Hosea finds an entire people for whom 'doing whatever we choose to do' has replaced 'doing what God would have us do'. With us Israel likes to give its children names like "Grace" and "Joy" or "Matthew" ('gift of God'). Now the prophet names the illicit offspring of Israel's idolatrous affair 'Loruhama' (which means: 'Not pitied one') and Lo-ammi (that is: 'Not one of mine'). And then God gets to the consequences of Israel's unfaithfulness ... finally Gog gets to the dreaded 'therefores' in the divorce court: "Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns ... therefore I will take back my grain" (Hosea 2:6 & 9). The relationship is over. The divorce is final. What's done is done. Or so it seems. It is at this point ... just as God is about to slam the door on the relationship ... when there is an inexplicable change of mind. "Therefore" says God a third time. Along with Israel we fully expect to hear: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn". Instead, seemingly from out of nowhere God says: "Therefore I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her ... there she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt" (Hosea 2:14-15). Hosea portrays Israel's move to the margins not as a humiliating time of separation from God. He sees, instead, that it is God who is calling, alluring, attracting Israel into the wilderness ... away from the centre of things ... so that here, away from the distractions of power and the temptations of relevance she will fall back in love with the God of her youth. At the conclusion of Neil Postman's lecture at the Chan Centre on Wednesday night there was a fascinating response from Professor Craig Gay of Regent College. Dr. Gay agreed that Postman's analysis of the dangers of technological culture were helpful. But then he went on to suggest that the prescription that Dr. Postman prescribes or our immunization from infection by technological idolatry can not cure us. It is not enough, argued Professor Gay, to simply educate ourselves about the dangers of falling head over heels in love with technological change. Education will not prevent us from treating our technological marvels like gods because we are inevitably shaped by the ideas that are inevitably transmitted by the technology itself. The medium, he reminds is, is the message. Instead, Dr. Gay proposed that God now waits for us to learn to listen once again ... to learn to listen for the voice of God. This transcendant voice is rarely heard in our age over the ceaseless din of cyberspace. Like the stars, God's voice is best perceived at the margins ... out away from the lights and noise of civilization ... in the wilderness ... at the boundaries of the known world. Listening before speaking ... listening for this peculiar Holy voice may, you see, be our primary divine calling. Israel is shocked by the sound of this peculiarly Holy voice. One wonders if we are prepared for what we will hear. God's Holy love song comes totally - and unexpectedly - out of the blue. More than that, the hauntingly beautiful voice sings that Israel's great hope lies in the very location where she is most afraid and vulnerable. "From there," sings God, " I will ... make the Valley of Achor a door of hope" (Hosea 2:15). For Israel the Valley of Achor carries with it painful memory. On her first trip through the wilderness to the Promised Land, Achor was a valley of trouble (Joshua 7 & 8) where a wayward Israel suffered a humiliating defeat. Now God proclaims that the place of sinfulness ... the place of Israel's horrible blundering ... is to become the way back into the Promised Land. What was Israel's "valley of trouble" is now to be its "door of hope". When it comes to facing a troubled past Hosea and Stephen Lewis do not agree on what should be done. Lewis notes that he learned long ago from his political mentors that when you have got a scandal on your hands the best way forward is to find positive issues rather than to dwell on the trouble spot. Hosea, on the other hand, points to the scandal itself as the place where God is wooing us ... the place where, if we will listen, we can learn to hear the voice of God once more and, in hearing, to turn our life as a people around. Surely Lewis and Postman are right. The world longs to hear the Word of God addressed in correspondence that is written on the hearts of a people who speak it with their very lives. Like us, the world to which we belong wants to breath deeply the Spirit of God that gives life (II Cor. 3:6). But such a heartfelt letter can not be found in the printed statements of the churches (no matter how carefully researched and profoundly written they may be) ... nor, for that matter, can the handwriting of the Holy Spirit be detected in the manuscript sermons of even our finest preachers. The letter that Christ is writing in the hearts of congregations from Corinth to Vancouver is not a work of our own. In case you hadn't noticed, we are not competent to tell the world how to overcome depression and despair ... never mind how to defeat the evils of injustice and oppression. No, the letter that is God's Word is not to be found in the 'how-to' section of the world's pearls of wisdom. It is, instead, a wildly passionate and deeply romantic love letter ... from a God who will not give up on us or the world in spite of so much blatant unfaithfulness to the ways of the Creator. Only this living God is competent to write new marriage vows of faithfulness ... and to inscribe them on our hearts ... the new covenant which "will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land" (Hosea 2:18). Look at how the Spirit of our suitor-God romances us out of our affair with the beloved idols of our age and back into relationship with our one true love, the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Here in the wilderness we discover that even the illegitimate offspring of our idolatry ... even the child whose name means 'not to be pitied' ... even the orphan whose identity screams out: "does not belong to God ... even these are adopted by the Creator of All."I will have pity on 'Not to be Pitied", says God, "and I will say to 'Not my People' "Your are my People". And as any step-parent will attest - only one thing is more amazing than this. It is that God's new found stepchildren accept God's paternity, responding "and You are my God" (Hosea 2:23). It is just such a love letter as this that Paul sees enfleshed in congregations from here to Corinth. He sees communities of orphans, cut-off, forgotten souls ... jew and gentile, slave and free, women and men ... broken, forgotten and ashamed ... now, in Jesus, miraculously adopted into the family of God. Are these seemingly incompetent 'no-names' and 'nobodies' competent to fix the world ... or to mend the earth? Heavens, no! But this one thing is clear for all the world to see in the new life that they are living together. The God who, in Jesus Christ, is saving such as these is surely competent to love the rest of an orphaned world back to life. Amen!