In the Name of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
My dog Gabriel is a good dog. O sure, sometimes he is a little reluctant, but he usually comes around to being obedient pretty quickly. Gabe is a good dog but he does have a couple of issues. Gabriel is driven by two all consuming passions, and when they come into play Gabriel goes from compliant and friendly dog, to the dog from Hades. Confronted with either of his passions, he becomes an uncontrollable beast and at those times, if you asked his owner, I guarantee he would not say Gabe is a good dog then. His first passion is squirrels. When he sees a squirrel and he goes completely berserk. But it is his second passion that I really want to tell you about. It is a bit of a dark family secret, but your family right? Here goes… Gabriel loves poison toads. I don’t think poison toads live up north here. There is a non-poisonous toad and he will go after one of them out of necessity but Gabriel’s real passion is poison toads and where we lived in Houston—it was just teeming with them. They were everywhere. When Gabriel sees a toad he goes instantly and completely insane. He acts spastic. He becomes unresponsive to verbal commands or physical prompts, and before anybody can stop him, he has grabbed this poor forlorn toad in his mouth and wolfed it down—swallowed it in one gulp. (Believe me, it’s not anything you ever want to witness. It’s truly disgusting and yet to Gabe, whole toad is a gourmet treat.)
What I know, that Gabriel doesn’t know, is that poison toads are poison. (Duh, he’s a dog right?) Anyway, every time he eats a toad he becomes violently ill and O my, what a mess. He doesn’t get sick for five or six hours but when he does it is a very, very unpleasant experience for everyone concerned, Gabriel and Brenda and me. He gets so sick that I’m afraid one day he will die. Now, wouldn’t you think that if toad made him that violently ill that he would stop eating them? He hasn’t stopped. In fact, he seems to love them more every time he eats one. Gabriel has a passion for toad. He knows it’s not what his master wants for him. He knows I get unhappy with him every time he lunges at one, but his desire for toad, and the enjoyment he seems to get from eating toad, far exceeds his fear of displeasing me. And he doesn’t understand why I want to deny him his guilty little pleasure. “What’s the big deal anyway?” And as far as the illness and suffering goes? He doesn’t make the connection. He doesn’t get sick right away. It’s only hours after his favorite snack that Gabriel gets sick and by that time he is incapable of tying the illness back to the snack. His master sees the link between toad and sickness but poor Gabriel never does. If he could see the link, if he could see that the very thing he loves is the thing that is killing him, perhaps he would reach out for help. Maybe he would see the value of the collar around his neck maybe he would respond more positively to his master’s tug on his leash. Perhaps he would see that the master’s desire is not to deny him pleasure but to save his life. But as it is, Gabe’s passion for toads is killing him and he doesn’t even know it.
Now I believe that dogs and people are different, that dogs are beasts with an extremely limited ability to reason, and that people are highly intelligent creatures gifted with the ability to abstract reason. I really do believe that but I am also a student of human behavior and I have to be honest. I see people living the same sort of distorted life, repeating the same sorts of self-destructive behaviors as Gabe. And if I had to be really honest, I might admit that I repeat self-destructive behaviors in the same way as that dog of mine. What’s up with that? Why do we keep repeating the same mistakes and the same anti-social behaviors that make us sick? Our Master knows that these things cause us to become sick. He knows that they will eventually kill us. But we don’t seem capable of putting two and two together. What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same things over and over again, expecting it will turn out differently this time? Somehow we have got to make the connection if we ever hope to break the cycle. We have to see the link between our personal, selfish, sinful behavior and the pain, suffering and death in our world. We are not exclusively to blame of course. Everybody on the planet contributes, but even if they didn’t our own sins would be sufficient to destroy us and those around us. Until we get humble and admit that connection, we are destined to keep eating poison toads, wondering why God is not rescuing us from our pain and sickness and why God keeps trying to deny us our guilty little pleasures. (If people are smarter than dogs then why do we believe in victimless crimes? Or in morally neutral behaviors?)
God made us smarter than dogs but we don’t always act that way. And that is why so much space in the Bible has been devoted to stories about sin and judgment, by the negative illustrations, and by the constant warnings of the wrath to come. Sin inevitably leads to sickness and death. And people sin and don’t see it’s devastating effect. That is the heart of the human condition. And a God who names himself “Compassion and Mercy” cannot leave that condition unaddressed. God has got to work on our hearts. He has got to call us out. He has got to show us the real cause of our sickness. I mean, when I am struggling to pull Gabriel away from a toad I am not doing it to ruin his fun. I am trying to save him from his own ignorance. When God sends one prophet after another with the message that we will be punished for sin, when he convicts us of our personal failures, when he refuses to let us skate, he is trying to save our lives by humbling us in order that we might see the truth. Jesus tells us the truth will set us free.
Over the next four weeks our readings on Sunday morning are going to be tough readings—they always are this time of year. We will hear the words of Jesus and the prophets telling us that God’s wrath is coming. The gist of the thing is this: ‘You haven’t stopped sinning and your chances to stop are just about used up. Once time is up you are going to suffer, not for a little while but forever. Once time is up you are going to be separated from God, not for a little while but forever. To put it into the context of the Gabriel story, God will tell us over and over again that insisting on eating poison toads kills dogs, no matter how good a dog they might otherwise be.
These passages are not designed to make us unhappy or to cause us to have an unpleasant day. They are designed to open our eyes to the true gravity of our situation, to humble us and cause us to to seek God’s merciful and powerful grace. The prophet is not thumbing his nose at God’s chosen people saying, “Tough luck, it’s over, there’s no hope.” The prophet is announcing the inevitable consequences of sin and warning that the time to repent and return to the Lord is now: not tomorrow, not after lunch but right now. Jesus does not tell his judgment parables to taunt those who are about to suffer eternal damnation. He tells his judgment parables to rescue them, by inspiring people to look at him with fresh eyes. Jesus’ desire is to inspire enough humility in his listeners that they will actually be able to see past their own destructive passions and peer into the eyes of the Son of God who is standing right in front of them, offering them God’s forgiveness.
When Jonah finally preached judgment against Nineveh, the people of Nineveh humbled themselves. They threw ashes on their heads and tore their clothing. They fasted and they repented. And (much to Jonah’s chagrin) God did not destroy the city. God had mercy on them and spared them.
Over the next several weeks, as we close out this Church year, we are going to be given the same opportunity Nineveh was given. We are going to be given the opportunity to listen to the hard words of God’s messengers and to hear God’s grave warnings. You can take it as a burden but I would suggest you see it as a great privilege. We are extremely fortunate that God, in his mercy, has chosen to speak these words to us ahead of the time, and has given us another opportunity to amend our lives while there is still time. We are going to be given the opportunity to open our eyes to the gravity of our situation and to humble ourselves, to receive the Gift of God’s forgiveness. That is an priceless gift. Over and over we will see that we have been driven by passions, passions that make our souls sick, passions that lead us away from the Kingdom of God and towards eternal death. But our Lord Jesus Christ was also driven by a passion—a holy passion. And his passion is humanity. His passion is you. More than anything else he desires to see you saved. On the day he was crucified He welcomed the beating he endured because it was the means of restoring you. He let the soldiers spit in his face because he took your humiliation upon himself. When he died upon the cross he died to cancel your debt to God. All that you owed God Jesus paid on your behalf. Jesus paid it all. He paid it all for every one of us. Jesus paid it all for everyone who has ever lived. Jesus’ holy passion has opened up the Gates to God’s eternal city. He has clothed us in pure white robes and he bids us come, come to the banquet. Your debt is paid. You have been stripped of your chains. You are free.
Proverbs 27.6 reads, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” That is a good word for us in the weeks to come. If you feel wounded by the Word of God, I beg you to take the message to heart. God has sent you a healing word. Know that the Lord seeks your welfare and that if you hear a hard or difficult word from him, it is meant for your good. If we humble ourselves before the word of God only good can come of it. Humble yourselves, therefore, in the sight of the Lord, in order that he may lift you up. Amen.