For church last Sunday, I attended the church that I call the “Word of Faith” church, as well as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran church. A common subject in both services was God’s grace, as in God’s unmerited favor towards people.
The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church focused on the Elisha story. The pastor started by looking at Luke 4:14-30. Jesus selectively quotes Isaiah 61:1-2 and applies it to his mission. Isaiah 61:1-2 talks about a figure who has been anointed to preach good news to the poor, comfort the brokenhearted, and proclaim release for captives and prisoners. That is followed by a reference to God’s wrath against enemies. Jesus, in quoting Isaiah 61:1-2, omits the part about God’s wrath against enemies. According to the pastor, many of the Jews in Jesus’ audience had nationalistic Messianic expectations, in which the Messiah would execute God’s wrath on the Gentiles who oppressed Israel. Jesus, however, was preaching God’s grace and mercy, even towards non-Israelites. In making this point, Jesus refers to Naaman, the Syrian general whom God healed of leprosy in I Kings 5. The pastor said that we should realize that God loves and wants to bless even those who have hurt us, and that we should remember that we ourselves have hurt and rejected others.
Brian Zahnd makes a similar observation in his book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. Zahnd’s argument is that Jesus here was repudiating the Old Testament depiction of God as wrathful. Although the pastor at the “Word of Faith” church thinks a bit outside of the box, I doubt that he goes as far as Zahnd does. He probably believes that God’s anger in Isaiah 61:2 has a proper time and place, even if that time and place were not Jesus’ mission on earth at his first coming.
The pastor then looked at the story of Naaman in I Kings 5. Elisha gave Naaman instructions about how to be healed of leprosy, and, after being healed, Naaman wanted to pay Elisha. Elisha declined Naaman’s offer, and the reason, according to the pastor, was that Elisha wanted to highlight that Naaman’s healing was an act of divine grace, not something that could be bought. Elisha’s servant Gehazi was subverting this by accepting Naaman’s payment behind Elisha’s back. Gehazi was punished when he was stricken with leprosy. According to the pastor, Gehazi was seeking his own honor, and a lesson from this is that personal obsession with being honored can eat away at a person, like leprosy. But the pastor also suggested that Gehazi was not just trying to benefit himself, but was trying to benefit the school of the prophets. The pastor drew this conclusion from I Kings 6, the story of the floating ax-head; according to the pastor, the people were chopping wood to construct facilities for the school of the prophets. The pastor was doing what in rabbinic literature is called “smichut”: interpreting a pericope in light of an adjacent pericope.
The pastor at the Missouri-Synod Lutheran church interacted with the Book of Zephaniah and the story caught in adultery in John 8:1-11. The Book of Zephaniah is about how Israel and the nations sinned and deserved God’s wrath, but, right when Israel hits rock bottom and cannot justify herself, God, as a hero, unilaterally saves her and, what is more, delights in her. According to the pastor, the story in John 8:1-11 teaches that we have all sinned and thus we should not think that we are superior to others. The pastor said that Jesus reaches out to us when we feel accused by everyone.
I should add that, prior to the sermon, the youth pastor shared a poem that he wrote about Martin Luther. Luther tried to make God like him by fasting, praying, confessing sins, and doing good works, until he learned to accept God’s favor as the free gift that it is.
The sermons helped me. I felt at a spiritual low that morning, and I felt reassured of God’s love for me, even when that is the case. I was convicted by the message that I am a sinner in need of grace, like the people I condemn in my heart. The first pastor’s point about how a desire for personal honor can eat away at a person, like a bottomless pit that cannot be satisfied, resonated with me.
I stumble, though, in relating the vertical (relationship with God) to the horizontal (relationship with other people). Just because God wants to be other people’s friends, and I respect that as God’s prerogative (since, after all, God is God, and I would hope that God loves everyone), why does that entail that I have to be their friend?