Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Scandal of Particularity

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 16, 2011

There’s a scandal in the Church. In our country the political races are heating up and candidates are trying to get the upper hand on their opponents. Sometimes when a candidate becomes aware that an opponent is embroiled in a scandal, they may use that to try to bring their opponent down. In the Church, we’ve heard all too often of scandals rocking individual congregations, whether through larceny or adultery or bigotry or any number of ways to scandalize the Church. But there is one scandal in the Church that is different and God is the source of it. This scandal rocks the Church, that is, the holy Christian and apostolic Church, and it offends the world at large.

It is the scandal of particularity. It is not some deep dark secret that God has been trying to hide. It doesn’t uncover some character flaw in God or moral failing on His part. It is not some devious and sadistic action on His part that brings Him joy in bringing upon people needless pain and harm. What it is is simply the way He does things. What He does and how He does it is scandalous. It is offensive.

The reason is it is? Because it is specific. So specific, in fact, that it is exclusionary. Not meaning that His love is exclusionary. His love is anything but. His love is inclusive. His salvation is for everyone. God loves everyone. He has offered salvation to every person. Jesus died for everyone. So, no, it’s not His love. It’s the way He brings about His love.

And here is the scandal of particularity. God’s love is in His Son Jesus Christ. It is in Him alone. That’s the scandal. That’s the particular nature of it. If you casually read the Scriptures you may not see it. If you read them carefully and take them to heart you will see more and more the scandalous nature of God and how He relates to us. You will see that no matter how you would like to view yourself God sees you in your sin. No matter what you think that you think of God, God knows that as you stand He is your enemy. No matter how you would like to shy away from your sin and the consequences that go along with it, God doesn’t shy away from it, He meets it straight on.

The world likes to talk about love and tolerance and all the religious roads ending up in the same place and you believing what is right for you and I’ll believe what is right for me and not believing in anything at all and an array of ways to explain basically the same thing: can’t we all just get along? In comes God with His scandal of particularity. It’s in Jesus. Take away all the religious platitudes, all the appeals for tolerance, all the pleas for being loving of our fellow man and there’s one thing you must face: the man Jesus Christ.

People do deal with Jesus all the time. But notice how they do it. Everyone comes at Jesus with an agenda. Everyone. Some would like you to believe that they are willing to give Jesus a shot, but they really have no more use for Him than a staple you find lying on the floor. This includes a lot of people who say a lot of good and even true things about Him. It’s what the people in the Gospel reading did. “Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and You do not care about anyone’s opinion, for You are not swayed by appearances.” If you didn’t know who was saying this to Him or of Him you wouldn’t be able to tell that they are really scandalized by Him and want only to get Him out of the way so that they can continue on in life without having to deal with Him.

But He’s there. In the flesh. A man. A person that must be dealt with. Why? Because He said that your eternal destiny must go through Him. No one else. Nothing else. Nothing. Only Jesus. The scandal of particularity. It is so particular that if you say all the great things about God you can think of and even believe them but do not look solely to Christ for eternal hope than you do not believe in the true God and you do not have eternal salvation.

It honestly is very easy to miss this when you’re reading the Scriptures. But it’s there. God doesn’t just say He loves us. He says He loves us in Christ. It is in the suffering and death and resurrection of Christ that He loves us. Not in anything else. Nothing. The scandal of particularity. You must look to that one man and His death on the cross to see who the true God is and that that is how He loves you. If it’s not in this way then you have no God, you have no hope, you have no salvation.

Why does Paul talk the way he talks when he writes to the Thessalonians? Because of Christ. When he writes to the Christians in Thessalonica He writes to them in God the Father. Scandal of Particularity. It’s funny, though. That doesn’t sound particularly scandalous. It may not even sound particularly particular. But it is. It so very is. Paul isn’t just writing to his brother and sister Christians in God. It’s in God the Father. What that means is that God is not just some ethereal spiritual ‘thing’, but distinct. Not just God; God the Father. What that means is that He is the Father of someone. And it’s not just any someone. It’s a particular, distinct, person. As Paul says it, it’s the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now what does this mean? It means that it’s only in Jesus, the one who is Lord, the one who is Christ, that we know who God is. Because God is very particular. He’s not just God. He’s God, the Father. God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is only one. Only one God. Only one Lord. The only God is the one who is the Father of the Lord. The only Lord is the one who is Jesus. That’s the scandal. That’s the particularity of it.

Jesus is a man. Jesus, however, is the man who is the Lord. He’s the man who is the Christ. The Messiah. The Anointed One. The one who was anointed by God to be the Savior. That’s how God loves us. In His Son. The one He appointed. The one He chose and sent to be the Savior. It was this one who stood before those people who said all those nice things about Him that were very good and very true, and as Jesus pointed out, utterly hypocritical. Hypocritical because they wanted God without Him. They wanted religion apart from the one in whom only true religion and salvation is known. The one who is the man Jesus. The Lord. The Christ. That’s the scandal. That’s the utterly particular nature of it.

God works this way. Scandalously. Particularly. He’s not floating around up there. He’s specific. Revealing Himself in His Son. His Son, the one who is the Lord; the one who is the Christ. God works in what seems strange ways to us. But they’re really not strange at all. They are scandalous. We would cry false doctrine if someone else were appointed Messiah, the Anointed One. The Christ. But that’s exactly what God does. It’s right there for all to see in the Old Testament reading. Cyrus. The pagan. The king who worshiped false gods. The king who rejected the true God, the Triune God. This is the one God chose to be His Anointed. His Chosen One to bring His people out of bondage in Babylon. You think the people of Israel were scandalized? Sure, they were glad to be going back home. Happy finally for the chance to worship back in their own land. But Cyrus? Why should it have to come about through a pagan king giving them release from their captivity and safe harbor back to their homeland?

Why? The Scandal of Particularity. This is the way God works. Not strangely. Not mysteriously. Scandalously. With specificity. Not in all of that. Or in everything. Or in any old way you’d like. This way. In the way He chooses. The way He appoints. If the Israelites were going to have any notion that they could have anything to do with the accomplishing of their release, the breaking of their bondage, of their salvation, that was all shattered in the pagan that would make it come about. If you want salvation, people of Jacob, sons and daughters of Israel, look to the true God, the only one who can bring it about. But be aware, you may not like it. Be warned, you may be offended. Take note that you may question His ways. Consider that you may end up as those in the Gospel reading who said all right things about God but ended up walking away from Him. Did He just say we are to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s? What kind of a God would teach that? He can’t be the true God. The scandal of particularity.

Jesus comes in the flesh. And He says to render to God what is God’s. What is God’s is His own Son. He Himself is the one who renders Him unto Himself. That’s the scandal. That’s where salvation is found. In the Son. In the one who was rendered to God on the cross. If we then are to render to God what is His we come quickly to the realization that we can’t do it. How can we? He places His judgment on us that we are sinful. Utterly corrupt and unable to render anything to Him of good. What we must do, rather, is simply look to Christ. He’s the one who does the rendering. Anything we do for God, everything we give to Him, is solely by and because of and for the sake of Christ. Jesus, the one who is the Lord and the one who is the Savior.

The scandal of particularity may seem like a great concept for talking about the big things. Salvation. Your eternal destiny. Etc. Etc. But what about now? What about this life? What does the scandal of particularity mean for this life? For what we do? It means that you are who you are because of the God who is the only God. In the Old Testament reading He can’t say it any clearer: I am the Lord and there is no other. What He also can’t say any clearer is that we are who we are because of Him. “I have named you. I am the one who calls you by your name.” The reason this is so? His Son. Jesus. The one who is the Lord; the one who is the Christ. This why Paul said that he “gave thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in my prayers.” Was it because they were so wonderful of people? Well, in a sense, yes. The reason is because of, guess what?, that’s right, Jesus. The scandal of particularity. They were wonderful people because of Jesus. Paul said he remembered them in his prayers, “remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

These aren’t just fine platitudes one Christian is saying to others. They are realities. The Thessalonian Christians were the people of God because of God the Father in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is who we are. It’s not because of you. It’s because of Christ. The one who went to the cross and walked out of the tomb. This is it. This is not just the main thing, it’s the thing. If people have a hard time coming to terms with it, it’s not a surprise. There is a reason it is the scandal of particularity.

This isn’t to say that’s it’s a dark, awful, message. It’s the most glorious message there is. It’s the reason Paul has to give thanks. Just as God said to His people, as we heard in the Old Testament reading, Paul says of the Thessalonians, and of us, that God has chosen us. Who we are, as with those Paul was writing to, comes about by the Gospel. Paul describes it as the “Gospel which came to you not only in Word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” To our ears the Gospel may not seem powerful but when the Holy Spirit is involved there is power beyond what our eyes can see. God the Father is the one who sends His Son. He is the one who also sends His Holy Spirit. So if it seems scandalous that you need to hear the words spoken that you are forgiven then it at least shouldn’t surprise you. It is, after all, the scandal of particularity.

The more you dig into the Scriptures and see how God works, the more you see that it never quite seems to be the way we would think it should be. Why would the Thessalonians have needed to receive, as Paul says, “the Word in much affliction”? Because of the scandal of particularity. The Gospel strips away all our notions of who we are and what we must do so that we can clearly see Christ and who He is and what He has done. But the affliction is never without what comes with it, as Paul says, “with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” It is through the experience of affliction that we can better see that others are in need and that is how we are able to help and serve them. It is how, in the same way as with the Thessalonians, the Word of the Lord sounds forth from us to the community and even everywhere.

The scandal of particularity ultimately comes down to this: there is one God. That is, there is one true God. That we place our trust in so many things of our own making or desires shows how steeped in sin we are. Paul rejoices in how the Thessalonians turned to God from idols. We must also see ourselves here. Anything in our lives we look to for help and hope and fulfillment apart from God is in the end an idol. As they turned from idols  to serve the living and true God, so do we. We see that the living and true God is not some nebulous god but the one who has given us His Son. This is specific. It’s particular. If it’s a scandal to us, we can rejoice with Paul that it is so to our sinful nature and in being renewed by God’s mercy and grace we, as Paul says, “wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” Amen.


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