The God-Forsaken

Heritage Presbyterian Church

August 22, 2021
13th Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture readings: 1st Kings 8: 1-44       Joshua 24: 1-2a,14-18       John 6: 56-69 

Each time I come to this beautiful place and see all of you gathered either in-person or via Zoom, I am grateful and happy.  I try to remember to thank God for what is so easy to take for granted – a place to worship within a community in which we feel safe, a method of worship that is comfortable to us, and in a country that guarantees us this opportunity.  There is much to celebrate each time we are here.

While I am always mindful of all this, I am also mindful of NOT being in other places.  I admit this is very, very true.

  • I am glad I am not in Afghanistan right now.
  • I am glad I am not in Haiti right now.
  • I am glad I am not in the Pacific Northwest right now, amid the wildfires that are burning; in one of them, there is a firefighter that I have known since she was a little girl, and she is doing her part to battle those fires. 
  • I’m glad I’m not trying to lead a Christian worship service in The Sudan, where a civil war between the Muslim half of the country and the Christian half of the country has been raging off and on since 1950.
  • I am glad I’m not in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, the largest one in the world and home to over 600,000 people.  Most of those refugees are from nearby Myanmar where they suffered brutal religious persecution from the military government there.  They live in tents and flimsy huts made from whatever they can scrounge up.  And if this were not desperate enough, it is the monsoon season right now.

Throughout history – both modern and ancient – there have been literally hundreds of places in which no sane person would want to go and live.  Those believers who live in relative safety and comfort are often tempted to speculate: “I wonder if God is angry at them for something.”  This leads to the title of today’s sermon: “God-Forsaken.”

Webster’s Dictionary defines forsaken in the following way: “to renounce or turn away from entirely.”  If all is lost in any area on earth by the people there, it is tempting to apply this term, even if we hope and pray we are in error.  What is astonishing to me is when and how the “God-forsaken” label might be applied to each setting that we heard and read in today’s three Scripture readings.

Going in chronological order, let’s start with Joshua’s speech.  The Israelites had entered the Promised Land of Canaan with Joshua leading them.  The Israelites had to defeat those wicked Canaanites and run them out of the Promised Land before they could occupy it and live in peace and prosperity.  It is easy for us to forget about those pesky Canaanites because they were not the people of God.  Perhaps they were God-forsaken and that’s why they were slaughtered and forced out of their own country.  But in any case, the entire Book of Joshua is about those battles in which the Israelites conquered Canaan and occupied it.  The book ends with the passage we heard today.

Yet, that passage was a triumphant one, wasn’t it?  The Promised Land was theirs, peace was at hand, allotments were given out to the various 12 tribes of Israel, and now was the time for celebration!  

But Joshua knows these Israelites that he led.  He spoke repeatedly about their choice to either serve God or to turn away from God and do some of their own forsaking.  The people repeatedly reassured Joshua that their choice was to serve God and no other.  If you read all of chapter 24, Joshua’s tone might strike any reader as ominous.  Why did he feel the need to repeat his warning more than once?  What did he know about the future?  Did God whisper something in his ear before he began to speak?  Did Moses tell him something before he died?  We just don’t know.

It didn’t take long before the Israelites did exactly what Joshua warned them about.  The period of Jewish history called “the Judges” in the Old Testament points to a time in which the Israelites turned away from God and served either themselves only or other gods – or both.  In those times, when disaster came to the so-called Promised Land, it would seem that God had done exactly what the definition of “forsaken” said: “to renounce or turn away from entirely.”

To read the rest of the history of the Israelites in the Old Testament is to see this behavior become a disturbing pattern of an entire nation…as we observe 400 years later when Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, described in our second Scripture reading for today. 

In this reading, we are now 400 years after Joshua and his bold speech as the Israelites occupied the Promised Land.  In those 400 years, the people have followed and been led by good judges and poor ones, they have triumphed over enemies and been defeated by some, they have followed God strictly and have turned their backs on God.  They demanded a king “so they could be like other countries” instead of trusting and following God UNLIKE other countries.  They got Saul as their first king, then David, and now Solomon.  The first Temple is complete, the Ark of the Covenant is moved into the Temple, and this is an amazing day of celebration, triumph, and worship.  The Temple was built for the people to rededicate themselves to God’s service.  Solomon himself reminded the people that not even this one-of-a-kind building could possibly contain God – even though the glory of the Lord filled the Temple, and the priests could not minister because of it.  

Yet, just as Joshua had warned the first people of Israel, Solomon seemed to also see a day coming in which the people would forsake their God who had made that day possible.  Beginning with Solomon himself, kings would worship other gods and lead the people by example to do the same.  Imagine how much this must have hurt God – there is a reason that the first commandment begins the Ten Commandment list: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

Solomon was at least as clear in his speech as Joshua had been 400 years earlier: “There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.”  Ask yourself the obvious question:  Why would Solomon have said this if he was not worried about the future actions of the Israelites?

And we all know what happened from that triumphant day forward in history: Solomon was followed by weaker kings who worshiped all sorts of Gods.  Scripture often tells us that “God’s anger burned against the people of Israel.”  Disaster would happen, the people would cry out for God to save them, and God’s mercy and might would manifest itself once again in the lives.  This pattern continued until the Israelites became so wicked and so arrogant that they became truly God-forsaken, and their mighty nation was completely destroyed 500 years after Solomon.  

This pattern was not unique: celebration and triumph, a promise from the people to serve God alone, followed by the people forsaking God, and finally destruction of the nation as they became God-forsaken because of their actions.

The third reading for today seems to break this pattern; in the reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus is not standing in triumph before a nation of loyal believers.  Wicked foes have not been defeated by the people of God.  Yet a new day is still coming that will have a completely new feeling to it, one that will involve God not forsaking his believers – no matter their location, circumstances, or actions.  This new day – and all others in the future – will hinge upon just one thing: the body and blood of Jesus.

And that is the hard teaching that the Apostles complained about.  They didn’t see it as symbolic; they couldn’t see it as anything at all.  They had followed the Lord for a long time, and they had seen for themselves the glory of his power – but then, so had the people of Joshua’s day…so had the people of Solomon’s day.  Seeing for oneself is not enough, and Jesus was telling his followers this in a brand new and unique way.

The short-term future would hold that Jesus would become the sacrifice for everyone’s sins; we would remember and honor Him for this each time we gathered together for Holy Communion.  We would encourage communities of like-minded believers to develop and grow.  We would go to all the corners of the world – even to those places that others define as God-forsaken – and tell the people there that they were NOT forsaken by God.  No matter their circumstances, they could also be saved and redeemed, and this action would last forever.  

In other words, there would NEVER be a day or a time in which God would forsake any of his believers.  

  • They didn’t need to rely upon or follow a king.
  • They didn’t need to be perfect all the time; forgiveness was always available.
  • The words about “choosing who they would follow” and “if you follow the Lord’s instructions and commandments” would still be important; but the words that Simon Peter alluded to are more important: “You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

This is what gave hope to the thief on the cross, who admitted he “deserved what was happening” – and yet asked Jesus to “remember him” when he came into this glory.

This is what gives hope to the prisoners in jails and prisons across the planet who are guilty of the crimes they committed and yet can also receive the mercy and forgiveness of God.  They are NOT God-forsaken.

This is what gave hope to the POW’s in various Vietnamese prisoner of war camps as each day throughout several years brought new torture, pain, and misery that – in some cases – continues to this very day.  They are NOT God-forsaken.

This is what gave hope to believers in the far corners of the world, in many cases to places that any clear view could quickly deem as God-forsaken, places like:

  • Russia after the Bolsheviks took over in 1917;
  • Europe during the plagues of the Middle Ages;
  • The so-called Holy Land during the various Crusades;
  • Spain during the Inquisition;
  • New England during the Salem witch trials of the 1680’s;
  • Cambodia during the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge;
  • New York City’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001;

or any of a hundred thousand places, times, and people throughout history right up to our modern day.

The body and blood of Jesus Christ was given to everyone, including those who reject it.  It is given to us today.  And it is given to remind us that no one at all is EVER God-forsaken.

To close this message, I want you to picture something in your mind, something that I have had the joy to enjoy often in the past few years.  Recall a prayer that I say here often:

“May the Lord bless you and keep you; 

may he make his face to shine upon and be gracious unto you; 

may the Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

You’ve heard me say that often, right?  Did you ever wonder what “countenance” meant?  Here’s your mental picture for today: imagine holding a newborn baby in your arms and looking at that baby’s face.  Now imagine the tender loving look on God’s face as he gazes at you, his precious child.  Imagine the smile on his face that never fades – even as we struggle to even make eye contact, as newborn babies do.

Would that loving Father ever forsake any of us?  Would he?