Jason Micheli

The Odds are Ever in Your Favor

by Jason Micheli

1 Peter 3.18-4.6  (click to see Scripture text)

August 2, 2020

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I don’t know about you, but I love Alexa on my Amazon Echo. With Alexa, I can play Tyler Childers’ latest album or Townes Van Zandt throughout my house without lifting a finger. Alexa can tell me the news headlines. She can wake me up in the morning, send me laundry detergent, and update me on the Nationals score. She can tell me a joke. She can tell me a story. She can tell me whether she’s any relation to Jarvis.  And she can even have Samuel L. Jackson give me the weather forecast for 22003— Samuel L. Jackson! 

“Unlike stupid-a@# decisions, you can’t ignore today’s weather…” Samuel L. Jackson told me just this morning. 

In the world of Amazon Alexa aficionados, they’re known as Easter Eggs, questions that are like hidden gems to make the juvenile middle schooler in all of us giggle. If you ask Alexa to meow, she will make a cacophony of meowing noises that will drive your cats crazy. Ask Alexa to cry like a baby, and she’ll not only wail, she’ll eventually self-soothe, like the perfect baby. 

And because Alexa isn’t an actual human, it’s perfectly fine to ask her all the sorts of questions you could never ask a real woman. You can ask Alexa how much she weighs, and she’ll give you an answer. You can ask her how her day was, and it will require no superhuman interpretative skills on your part. Even better, Alexa never asks you what you’re thinking.

Alexa can tell you anything you want to know. 

Or, at least I thought she could tell me anything I want to know.

Until, I decided to ask her a simple question. 

“Alexa, does God love me?” 

The little blue light circled round and around. 

“I’m sure you’re very lovable,” she answered. 

I tried again, “Alexa, does God love me?” 

Again, the little blue light circled around. 

“‘I’m sure you’re very lovable.” 

“No, I’m not! Just ask my wife!”

I tried again, but this time I said it louder like you do when traveling in a foreign country, “Alexa, does God love me?” 

The little blue light circled round and around and Alexa replied, “How could anyone not love you?” 

Easily!

“Alexa, does God love me?” 

“People all have their own views on religion.”

“Alexa, does God love me?” 

Again, with the little blue light, circling around, “If you search yourself,” she said, “you’ll find the answer within you.” 

What?! Search within myself?! The only thing inside me is shame, sin, and cholesterol!

“Alexa,” I shouted, “Does God love me?” thinking, “How in the hell can they have a response for every possible question under the sun, except the most important question?!” I mean, if you ask Alexa to cluck like a chicken, she’ll come back at you with a chicken joke. She didn’t even reply with any “The Bible tells me so” answers. 

The little blue light traced the top of the Echo, and Alexa said, “It’s more important that you love yourself.” 

No, no it’s not. I’m just a forty-something white guy with male-pattern baldness and hair growing in strange places on my body. My opinion about me is NOT more important than the Almighty’s opinion about me.

“Alexa, does God love me?” 

The little blue arrow went round and around and around and around until finally Alexa replied, “Hmmm, I’m not sure.” 

I tried again. 

She still wasn’t sure.

————————

Maybe you can’t blame Alexa. Who is she to presume to know how the Maker of Heaven and Earth feels about me? Or you. Who are any of us to speak for God?

How could you ever know for certain, right? Sure, it’s easy to speculate that “God, who is the True and the Good and the Beautiful, just is capital-L “love” and, therefore, God must love all of us and that includes me, so perhaps…” But as Karl Barth insisted, that’s a far cry from being able to say with absolute conviction and zero uncertainty that “God loves me.” It’s a far cry from being able to profess “I believe in Jesus Christ His only Son, MY Lord.”

But who other than God could know the mind of God when it comes to me?

Who other than God could know such an unknowable thing?

Alexa may know the chance of showers tomorrow, but she doesn’t know what you’ve done. Alexa may know the square root of 36, but she certainly doesn’t know what you’ve left undone. For most of you, I’m willing to wager that what you’ve left undone is your real problem— that’s not a ledger Alexa can see. And surely before Alexa can speculate on how you measure up before your Maker, there needs to be a reckoning. What you’ve done, what you’ve left undone, your merits and your demerits, they need to be taken into account. Your ledger needs to be audited. The scales need to be righted, right?

It’s only just. 

———————-

There is a teaching in the Talmud that says an individual who comes before God after death will be asked a series of questions, the first one of which is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?” 

In a New York Times article from over a decade ago, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in L.A reflects upon the Ten Commandments in light of the historic Ponzi scheme committed by Wall Street financier, Bernie Madoff. 

“You shouldn’t steal,” Rabbi Wolpe said. “And this is theft on a global scale.”

Bernie Madoff confessed to swindling not only individuals, but charitable groups, too. According to the New York Times, Jews all over the world felt his crimes were of such a scale they went beyond the financial to the theological. “Here is a Jew accused of cheating Jewish organizations trying to help other Jews,” a rabbi told the Times, “He betrayed the trust of Jews and violated the basic tenets of Jewish law.” 

In 2008, in synagogues and community centers, on blogs and in countless conversations, many Jews beat their chests not out of contrition, as they do on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but because Mr. Madoff brought shame on their people in addition to financial ruin. 

The Anti-Defamation League said in a statement that Mr. Madoff’s arrest had prompted an outpouring of anti-Semitic comments on Web sites around the world, most repeating familiar tropes about Jews and money.

“The fact that he stole from Jewish charities puts him in a special circle of hell,” a rabbi added. “He really undermined the fabric of the Jewish community, because it’s built on trust. 

pastedGraphic.png According to Jewish tradition, the article notes, the last question people are asked when they meet God after dying is, “Did you hope for redemption?”

Rabbi Wolpe of Sinai Temple said the odds were that the scale and severity of Bernie Madoff’s sins were such that he did not believe Mr. Madoff could ever make amends. There would be no just way Madoff could receive forgiveness. 

“It is not possible for him to atone for all the damage he did,” the rabbi said, “and I don’t even think that there is a punishment that is commensurate with the crime, for the wreckage of lives that he’s left behind. The only thing he could do, for the rest of his life, is work for redemption that he would never achieve.”

———————-

All he could do for the rest of his life is work for a redemption he would never achieve. 

Only when you have realized the sense of justice at the heart of the rabbi’s judgment— that his sentence upon Bernie Madoff is fair and righteous altogether— will you understand the radical novum that erupts in the world through the cross of Jesus Christ. 

The Gospel heralds the offensive and surprising news— news that sounds irreligious and immoral even— that Christ Jesus died to atone for the sins of the whole world, died once for all, mine and Madoff’s and yours so that nothing now can separate us from the love of God. As the Apostle Paul, because the one man, Jesus Christ, all have died [to sin]. Christ Jesus was crucified for the justification not of the good, but the ungodly. Like Jewels says to Honey Bunny, that means everybody. For the sake of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, all of us who are, on our own, goats, have been reckoned among his faithful flock. 

And it’s yours not by merit, not by all your work to undo what you’ve done or left undone, but by the one-way love of God. 

By gift.  

Grace— God’s Redemption At Christ’s Expense. 

No wonder, Alexa is so mum about the most important question of all. Only the Gospel offers such an unambiguous answer. Only Christianity dares to assert without any qualification, without any hesitation, without any embarrassment, that quite apart from any earning or deserving on your part, “Yes, in Jesus Christ, who is the end of the Law which accuses all of us, God loves and forgives you without remainder.” Because of His work for you, your ledger is always in the black and before Almighty God the odds are ever in your favor. 

And his work for you is applied to you at your baptism. 

As the Apostle Peter puts it in chapter three of his epistle: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” 

Baptism, which the flood in Noah’s day prefigured, now saves you. 

Baptism saves you. 

It’s three simple words. 

Baptism saves you.

Not— Baptism wipes your slate clean, so that you can finally get your act together. 

Not— Baptism gives you a do-over, so that you can straighten up and fly right. 

Not— Baptism provides you the opportunity to become the sort of person for whom 

Jesus Christ never would’ve had to die in the first place. 

No, it’s three simple words: Baptism saves you. 

Salvation is a gift given, not a deal struck. 

And it’s a gift signed by the blood of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit and delivered to you through the waters of baptism. 

Paul says the Law is written on all our hearts— that means we’re addicted to the comfort of merits and demerits. We’re all closeted Pharisees and part-time accountants, so I realize those three simple words, “Baptism saves you,” probably tighten the sphincters of all you moon-lighting bookkeepers. 

So, don’t take it from me, take it from Jesus. 

———————-

On the very night we betray him, Jesus says to us, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” 

There at the Last Supper, Jesus has just finished washing his disciples’ feet. “You’ll never wash my feet,” Peter had protested when Jesus squatted down on his knees like a slave. 

“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” Jesus had replied. 

“You’ll have no share with me, unless I wash you,” Jesus said, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet,” Jesus elaborates, but one who has been bathed is entirely clean.”

Jesus’ veiled way of speaking— it’s is like an Easter Egg hidden deep inside Alexa’s algorithms. Jesus isn’t talking about feet. He’s talking about baptism. He’s talking about the baptism of His suffering, death, and resurrection.

If you’ve been baptized by me, baptized into me, you are entirely clean, Jesus promises. 

It’s what we pray at every baptism:

“Pour out your Holy Spirit, Lord, to bless this gift of water and _____ who receives it, to wash away their sin and clothe them in Christ’s righteousness; so that, dying and rising in the waters of baptism, they may share in Christ’s final victory.” 

Wash away sin and clothe them in Christ’s righteousness— That’s everything. 

That’s all any of us will ever need before a Holy God. 

That’s enough.

Faith clings to baptism, Martin Luther taught. Whenever doubt or despair attacked him, Martin Luther said he could always return to the fact of his baptism and take comfort. No matter what’s going on inside you, no matter what you’ve done or left undone, no matter the doubts that besiege you, Luther taught that you can always point outside of yourself to your baptism and know that, by virtue of your baptism, you are in Jesus Christ.

 

Faith clings to baptism. Faith clings to baptism, because the Good News of the Gospel is that you are not the good news! The fact of your baptism is all you need to know that everything you need to enter the Father’s house was already gifted to you by Christ through water and the Word. 

Speaking of the Father’s house, after making this promise about the power of baptism not simply to cover all our sins, but to clothe us in Christ’s own perfect righteousness, Jesus makes this other promise about going to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house. 

Jesus isn’t giving blueprints of heaven. 

Jesus is talking about a wedding. 

I bet Alexa knows this—

In first century Jewish weddings, when a bridegroom betrothed himself to a bride, before the wedding ceremony, he would first go to his father’s house and build an addition onto the family home. Only after the bridegroom had prepared a place for his bride at his father’s house would the bridegroom return, make his promise of forever to his bride, and then take her to the place he had prepared for them. 

This promise at the Last Supper— It’s not about a place; it’s about a person. 

Jesus is promising to make good on the betrothal He pledges to us at our baptism. 

He’s promising that you who are in Christ by baptism will be with Christ eternally. 

In Jewish weddings, it’s the bridegroom who does all the work to prepare the bride’s home with him. The bridegroom does all the work, and when his work is finished, he gifts it to his bride. In this case, the work that prepares our home with him is Christ’s own work— the baptism of His death and resurrection. 

This is why, when Thomas asked, “Lord, how can we find the way?” Jesus doesn’t give directions. No, Alexa can give you directions. Only Jesus can say to them, “I am the Way, I am the Truth and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except through me.”

Christians often use that verse as a bludgeon, but it’s meant to be immense comfort as you face the dark hours of your life. When Jesus says, “I am the way,” He’s saying that He is the one who stands uniquely in the breach between a Holy God and sinful humanity, and because He stands in the breach as the only mediator between us and God, in His flesh, He has put sin to death, and in that, He has destroyed the power of death to separate us from God and from one another. 

Despite what the song says, Jesus didn’t come to show us the way. If the Gospel is that Jesus comes to show us the way, then the Gospel offers no hope to someone like Bernie Madoff  or me. 

No, Jesus comes to be the way. 

Jesus comes to be the way, reconciling a fallen world and fallen humanity to the Father. And because Jesus is the way, Jesus is not a truth among many truths. Jesus is the truth. 

Jesus is the truth that speaks to the lie that God’s love must be earned or deserved. Jesus is the truth that speaks to the lie that it’s your faith that justifies you before God rather than Christ’s faithfulness gifted to you as your own. Jesus is the truth that speaks to the lie that what you do or leave undone can undo what he has done for you. Jesus is the truth that speaks to the lie that there is any way to his Father’s house other than through Him. 

———————-

I’ve been a preacher long enough to know that those most likely to be offended by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and, thus, those most likely to doubt and resist it are those who profess to believe in Jesus Christ. 

The Gospel is for Christians, too. 

So, listen up, because I tried again just before I preached this sermon. 

“Alexa, does God love me?” 

And, again, the little blue arrow circled round and around, thinking.

And again, Alexa was no help. 

“I’m sure you’re very lovable,” she answered. 

But here’s the thing— I’m not. Or, I’m not always. 

And neither are you. 

Which is how we always end up back where we started, wondering if…

So, hear the Good News, the answer’s “YES!” 

In Jesus Christ, God loves you. 

In Jesus Christ, God loves you to hell and back. 

In Christ Jesus, nothing— NOTHING— can separate you from the love of God. 

And the next time you start to wonder, the next time you begin to doubt that “YES,” don’t search your heart— that never helps. Look outside of it. Look outside of yourself. Look to your baptism. 

———————-

“Alexa, does God love me?”

“Are you baptized?”

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18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

4Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same intention (for whoever has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin), 2so as to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God. 3You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry.

4They are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme. 5But they will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead.6For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

Jason Micheli

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