God’s not fair

It’s unfair, it’s unfair, it’s unfair. 

How come he got the promotion.

How did she get that car.

How did they afford that house. 

It’s unfair, it’s unfair, it’s unfair. 

Black Lives Matter, LGBTI+ rights, equal pay, we live in a world where we have come to understand that life is not a fair place to live and that we should strive to make it more just. But justice and equality are different. Equality is the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities. Justice, on the other hand, is about our behaviour and our treatment of those who are different from us. That, when observed through the lens of justice, this passage teaches us more about God’s love than we care to admit and that once we have seen it we cannot be changed.

God’s love is radical. 

If we were to trace the narrative ark of God’s love through our bible, beginning with Adam and ending with the ascension, we cannot but see that God’s love is radical. The biblical narrative is about a divine creator who wants to be in relationship with us. Think back to the Israelites who rejected and turned away from God’s love. For 40 years they wandered in the wilderness, worshiped idols and failed to hear God’s call. Yet God still provided for them. He provided them Manna to eat, great chunks of food which gave them physical sustenance. He gave them leaders to follow, people who could help reconcile their relationship, and, eventually, he brought them home. No matter how despondent their faith got. No matter how much they moaned and wailed, God still wanted them. He was still jealous for them. He still loved them. 

This love does not stop with the people of Israel. It does not stop even when the Israelites turn away from faith and professionalise their worship in the temple. God still yearned for his people, and this was demonstrated through a truly radical act. God came to earth and offered love. God, in human form, offered us a kind of reconciling love that was totally radical. Jesus’ death on the cross was the most radical act of love. It strived to break down barriers and build connection. It called the people of Israel back into loving relationship and it opened our understanding of love to include us. 

God’s love isn’t fair.

If you struggle with the concept of God’s radical love this next concept is even more difficult to comprehend. God’s love isn’t fair. When we come to God’s holy table we get a glimpse of this. When we recite the prayer:

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” 

This prayer is not exactly something one would want to say to God. Yet, these words are prayed by Christians in liturgy before receiving Communion.

In this moment we remember our original sin. We are reminded that we can never be perfect and that it is only by God’s love and grace that we are able to approach the altar at all. 

Those words, not only remind us of our original sin but, also remind us that God’s love is open to all. For they take us back to Matthew 8 and the Roman centurion. Jesus, approached by the Roman Centurion who asks for healing for his servant, is so moved by the centurions faith that he offers healing to the servant. In response the centurion says those words we heard a moment ago. But it is Jesus’ response that I want to focus on right now.

‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed…’ When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, ‘Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith…You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.’”

There is too much going on in this passage for me to unpack it now, but let me say this. The faith Jesus encounters in this moment demonstrates the unfair nature of love. Jesus offers healing to this “servant” even though he is not of the Jewish faith because he encounters true faith in the words of the centurion. Moved by love Jesus offers the healing of the Jewish people to the world. It may seem fair to us, but could you imagine what the Jewish authorities thought?

But, what about us. How do we understand the unfair nature of God’s love. Well, let’s think about the prodigal son for a moment. Once again this is a complex multi-layered story that I cannot unpack fully. But, let me draw your attention to a few things. The obvious focus point, when discussing what is “fair” is to discuss the son who did not receive his inheritance. Who stayed and worked for his father and, in his own words, didn’t even receive a fatted calf. But, I think there is something even more radical going on. Something that we often fail to notice as we are caught up in the story. The younger brother never truly asked for forgiveness. He admits his fault yes, but he never asks for forgiveness, he never says “Father, please forgive me”. He doesn’t need to, the Father has already forgiven him, even before the words are uttered forgiveness is offered. All is forgiven. 

That is what the radical nature of God’s love is all about. It has nothing to do with us. It isn’t about what we can earn, or what we receive, but it is about a God who constantly offers us forgiveness, no matter what we do. And, it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we can strive our whole life to live by faith and then our friend, or neighbour, confesses on their death bed and are forgiven. It isn’t fair that God forgives the worst of sinners but we experience suffering even though we have lived our whole life by faith. God’s love simply isn’t fair. 

It’s all about grace 

That’s the point though, for God’s love isn’t about what is fair, it is a moment of grace. Grace is the free, undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God. It is free and undeserved. It is offered to all, not just a set of people who look and sound like us, but those who we think are unworthy. It is radical. It is obscene. It is the offer of salvation to a Roman Centurion and his servant. It is the offer of love to a child who is spent up and washed out. It is an offer of safety to a people who have wandered aimlessly unable to hear God’s call. Grace is a radical gift that we cannot predict or contain. It is about a radical love. A love which is completely unfair but is available to anyone who wants to come and receive it. 

Now is the moment to act. A sermon for ash Wednesday with a call to repent and treat the world differently.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

There is nothing like the words of a prophet to remind us of our own sinful nature. To remind us of our sinful mortality and to demand us to change. To shake us to the very core and make us look up and see what is going on around us. 

16 year old Greta Thunberg is one such voice. A voice calling us to repent and change. In one of her speeches she says:

‘I want you to panic. I want you to act as if your house was on fire. I have said those words before… I agree. To panic unless you have to is a terrible idea. But when your house is on fire and you want to keep your house from burning to the ground then that does require some level of panic.’ 

I think one of the hardest voices to hear is the voice of the prophet. The voice of the person who reminds us of our mistake and calls us to repent and turn from our evil ways. 

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. 

Greta Thunberg finishes her speech with this:

‘Our house is falling apart. The future as well as what we have achieved in the past is literally in your hands now. But it is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision. It will take courage. It will take fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations when we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. … To do your best is no longer good enough. We must all do the seemingly impossible.’ 

Joel had a similar message for the people of Israel, their best was no longer good enough, they needed to do the seemingly impossible, turn to God and repent. Otherwise they were likely to face death and destruction. 

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Theologically, one of the most prominent messages that our passage from Joel places in front of any reader is a need to lament and turn back to God. But in the midst of their lament Joel promises them hope. Joel is not simply calling Israel back to God because it is the right thing to do but because God is where their hope is found. Joel is calling the people back to God so that their shame can be removed and their honour restored.

Joel does not just offer hope for the restoration of a sinful humanity but also offers hope for the restoration of creation as well . In verse 14, Joel makes reference to God’s blessing not just being upon the people but also upon the land. Here, Joel insinuates that God will leave a blessing behind him and that this blessing will restore the land as well as the people. This would have been important for the people of Israel who, at this time, would have been living in a land of desolation, and it is an important message for us to hear as well. 

In light of flash flooding and forest fires. In the words of Greta Thunberg and extinction rebellion we are being challenged to repent of our sinful treatment of the planet and amend our ways. We can see before our very eyes places of desolation and we must lament and, like the people of Israel, return to our God of hope.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Our current situation calls for us to repent. To turn back to God and put our trust in Him. For Israel this call to repentance was through acts of “fasting,” “weeping,” and “mourning” (2:12), which were linked to lament. Lent could be such a moment for us. Lent could be a time where we assess our sinful ways and mourn. It could be a moment, in the words of Pope Francis in On Care for our Common Home, that we weep and mourn for the state of “creation.” It could be the moment that we return to the Lord through worshi. There has been a moment like this. A moment which demands us to mourn, repent and turn to Christ.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

It is important to respond to the needs of “creation” in our worship; both liturgically and missionally. This, on the one hand, involves lament and repentance, it can involve mourning, but, above all, it must involve action. General synod made the bold promise of making the Church of England carbon neutral by 2030. This is impossible if we do not act. If we do not repent, turn from our previous ways, and act. 

We, the congregation of the parish of Norbury, need to be bold in our actions. We need to think about things differently. We need to be willing to change our ways and rethink how we care for creation. We need to move away from a model of apathy to a care which is deep and compassionate. We need to think bigger than recycling, bolder than turning of a light. We need to start rebuilding the foundations, even if we have no idea what the ceiling will look like. We need to reimagine what it means to live in a way which cares for one another, our homes, and the planet. This may take time, and it won’t be easy, but it is what we must do. For our house in on fire but it is still not too late to act.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Our passage from Joel reminds us that our salvation does not simply come from our repentance, but from God’s compassion. Therefore, in all our lament and repentance it is important to remember that it is not our action that redeems us but God’s grace. So, although we are called to care for creation and to repent communally, we are also reminded that it is God who saves us and it is God who redeems us. In the end our salvation does not come from our actions but from God’s love. 

When we come to the altar and receive ashes we are reminded not of our failed humanity, but of God’s redeeming love. We are reminded that there is a better path. There is a more worthy path. One which offers redemption for both us and the planet. We just need to be prepared to hear that call. What Joel reminds us is that our actions alone can never save us. It is only God’s grace that can do that.

Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. 

Greta Thunberg. 2019. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference.

Pope Francis. 2015. Laurdato si’ – On Care for our Common Home.

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