Seeing in a Mirror Dimly


A sermon preached on October 26, 2008 based upon Deuteronomy 34:1 – 8 and Matthew 22:34 – 40, entitled “Seeing in a Mirror, Dimly.”

There is a great deal of pathos in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Moses has been God’s instrument in delivering the Hebrew people — the children of God — from their captivity to Pharaoh in Egypt. Together they have wandered through the wilderness for forty years, getting ready to enter into the promised land, a land said to be flowing with milk and honey. Moses ascends a mountain that allows him to see for the first time the promised land off in the distance.  In short order the children of God will reach their destination.  

But Moses will not go with them. He dies there, and is buried.  No explanation is given in the passage we heard why Moses doesn’t get to enter the land in which he so dearly desired to dwell. It just is — one of those things that is just plain sorrowful, and appropriately, for thirty full days, the Israelites don’t do anything but grieve, weeping for Moses and the fact that he won’t get to be with them in the promised land.

Earlier, in the book of Numbers, a failure on Moses’ part to show perfect trust in the Lord at one moment of his life is given as the reason why he doesn’t get to enter the promised land.  He is being punished.   To my ear this strikes me as a lame attempt inserted after the fact to explain why that which Moses has so longed for has been withheld for him.

There seems to be something inside us human beings that prefers to think that ultimately everything in life could be under our control — that if we could just be good enough, or smart enough, then we could make everything work out the way we desire, and we are willing to take on a burden of guilt in order to hang on to this belief. There is something inside us that would rather think we are being punished than to believe that we are so powerless at times to get the desire of our hearts. 

The truth of the matter is, however, that sometimes life isn’t fair, oftentimes we don’t get what we long for — there are times when life is downright tragic.

An ongoing marvel for me is Brother Harold Camping, the Bible teacher who every day at the age of 87 can be heard on the airways of the radio, and seen on his television cable channel. The format never changes. Either Brother Camping is lecturing about the Bible, or he is taking questions from callers about the Bible, explaining everything anybody wonders about in regard to this often confusing book.

He has some unusual view points. For one, he believes that we are living in what he calls “the post-Church age,” which means that Satan is presently running all the churches, and therefore believers should avoid church, and devote themselves instead to the study of the Bible, with, by implication, his direction, of course.

A couple of years back, Brother Camping declared that his careful study of the Bible had led him to predict the return of Jesus on a particular date. When the date he picked came and went, it didn’t seem to phase him much. This is complicated stuff, he implied, and there were a couple of obscure Bible references that he hadn’t quite gotten exactly right. No problem, he had clarified the points of contention, and now Brother Camping is quite certain that Jesus will return in the year 2011.

Brother Camping was originally trained as a civil engineer, which is based on the premise that if you just study the data hard enough, there is always an explanation, and that’s how he approaches the Bible. Study your Bible closely enough, and all the answers are there.

One reoccurring expression that Brother Camping uses over and over is “the true believer”. For Brother Camping there is a pretty sharp line drawn between “the true believer” and the “false believer.” True believers are destined for salvation, false believers for eternal damnation. His callers seem to share his preoccupation with this concept, which, I think, is what his appeal is all about — the desire to be counted among the true believers whom, if they just work hard enough at the Bible study, can solve all of the as-of -yet unsolved mysteries of life.

Bobby and I were listening to Brother Camping on the radio the other night driving back from Bobby’s soccer practice, fascinated by the remarkably monotonous quality of his never-varying delivery. We listened as he described how the “true believer” simply becomes stronger and stronger in their certainty that the Bible has all the answers.

A man called in to ask about a couple of passages where Jesus teaches about forgiveness. Brother Campy’s response was to say that human beings are sinful and prideful, and as such find forgiveness very difficult (which, with some qualifications I would agree with.) But he went on to say that once a person becomes a “true believer,” forgiveness is easy — you no longer feel any lingering animosity to someone who has wronged you. Your one desire now is that the person who wronged you will also become a child of God just like yourself.

Brother Camping doesn’t seem to go into any great depth with particular callers. Once he’s given the answer, in his mind it is time to move on. I wanted to hear the caller asking the forgiveness question go on to ask what seems like the obvious follow up question:

“Brother Camping, if I’m still haunted by fantasies of murdering my brother-in-law because of the money he stole from me, does that mean I’m not a ‘true believer,’ and therefore destined for the fires of hell?”

But to ask such a question would already identify the caller as exactly that. I kept finding myself thinking about the Emperor’s New Clothes.

The Bible, in my experience is a whole lot more appreciative of the difficulties involved in the life of faith. Like Moses, you can live a life with much courage and faith and still not get the deepest desires of your earthly life. Job suffers more than a man can be expected to endure, with no good explanation offered him, though his so-called friends feel compelled to try and explain it all to Job any way.

Unlike brother Camping who believes that the truth is there to be found only if you are willing to obsess endlessly over the details of Scripture, Jesus recognized that it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. There are 613 different commandments in the Torah, and the dominant spirituality of his day involved an obsessive attempt at making sure you kept every single one of them, which, in the end, made it real easy to miss the Spirit of the Law.

As with last week’s Gospel story, in this week’s reading we are in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life. His adversaries are trying to trip him up with trick questions. This is another: ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’

If every commandment is essential, how do you answer a question like that? Offer one, and there will be a whole bunch of people ready to jump down your throat for the 612 commandments you didn’t mention.

But Jesus isn’t afraid to take the bait, though he doesn’t feel compelled to answer with only one commandment:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’'”

In the end, he said, it’s all about LOVE. Love itself is something of mystery — not something you can precisely define or explain. It involves both loving this mysterious God who doesn’t always make His or Her ways clear to us, and it involves loving ordinary, fallible human beings, who aren’t always easy to love.

Focus on these two commandments, and you can let go of the obsessive need to get all the details just right.

As I’ve mentioned before, all those years back I ended up a United Methodist pastor as opposed to some other denomination of pastor in large part for two rather unimpressive reasons:

One, my original church membership was in a United Methodist Church, and even though I hadn’t really been active in that church since I was about 13, the official membership I retained allowed me to get on with the ordination process.

And two, United Methodists didn’t require that their pastors study Hebrew and Greek, and I really stank at language study.

But as I learned more about the roots of the Methodist Church, I came to feel like it was the denomination I most would have wanted to be a part of, which isn’t to say that the United Methodist Church is a perfect institution, which it certainly isn’t.

In the end, LOVE was the primary concern for John Wesley, the founder of what became the Methodist Church. Faith is important, but faith without love isn’t worth beans.

For Wesley, once people become “believers”, embracing the gift of unconditional love given to them freely in Jesus, they embark in what is generally speaking a life-long journey in the process of what is called “sanctification.” For Wesley, sanctification was all about love — becoming loving with the same sort of heart and actions that Jesus lived out. Wesley believed in the possibility that a person could be fully sanctified — which means fully perfected in regard to being about nothing but love — in this life time. But he never claimed it for himself, and avoided claiming it for others as well. Wesley did, in fact, become more loving in time, as did the persons who came under the influence of his teachings, but to the end of his life, he remained very much an imperfect man, living by the mercy of God’s grace.

In Brother Camping’s teaching, once you become a believer you are already sanctified — already perfected in love, or else you never really were a “true believer” in the first place.

Of course, if you follow Brother Camping’s teachings and avoid contact with the imperfect-but-real human beings who inhabit local congregations, and if, as he suggests you spend all of your time with your nose in your Bible trying to figure it all out, you won’t get much opportunity to actually interact with other people, which in my experience is precisely where we discover how very challenging real love is.

Interestingly, John Wesley believed that for the vast majority of “believers” full sanctification — being perfected in love — does not occur until the moment of death itself.

That also makes sense to me. At the end of life, as we finally stand face to face before the brilliant light and perfect love of God, we’ll be able — if we’ve developed some familiarity with love and grace over the course of our life time — to finally let go of all the stuff inside us that gets in the way of letting God’s love flow through us without any kind of impediment.

In the meantime, we keep on as best we can, practicing the art of love. The best place to learn the art of love is with other imperfect people, who likewise can’t figure out why Moses didn’t get to live in the promised land, at least for a little while.

One of my lodestar scripture passages is the thirteenth chapter of 1Corinthians, known as “the love chapter,” and I want to finish this morning with the last three verses of this chapter:

“Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

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