Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Tough News

Doctors have to give heartbreaking news to patients and their families all the time. Advisors to business and political leaders have to disappoint their bosses on a regular basis. Sometimes attorneys have to tell their clients that they need to prepare for the worst. Clergy, on the other hand, are rarely bearers of bad news.

I have a colleague who has had to tell children that their parents have died. Sometimes rectors have to tell their vestries that there isn't enough money in the bank to pay the utility bills. As a boss, I have had to fire people before. For the most part, however, clergy are in the business of sharing good news. God has given us good news to share: the truth of God's unconditional love and the promise of salvation through God's Son, Jesus Christ. Still, that good news requires truth-telling, and truth-telling can be tough.

In 1 Samuel 3, we hear the dramatic story of the Lord speaking to young Samuel as he lay awake one night. "Samuel, Samuel," the Lord called. Not knowing what it meant to hear the Lord's voice, Samuel thought it was Eli, his master. After mistaking the Lord's voice for Eli's three times, finally, at the invitation of his master, Samuel responds the fourth time by inviting the Lord to speak.

On Sunday, we have the option of stopping there: "Speak, for your servant is listening." But the richness of the call that shapes Samuel's life into that of a great prophet isn't disclosed until the verses that follow--optional verses for this Sunday. What does the Lord say to young Samuel? "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end...I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever."

That made for an interesting breakfast conversation the next day. When Eli asked Samuel to tell him what the Lord had spoken to him, Samuel didn't want to say. He was afraid to disclose the vision he had been given. No one likes to bring bad news--especially to someone who has cared for us the way that Eli had cared for Samuel. But, at Eli's insisting, Samuel told him everything, and Eli accepted it.

God loves each one of us without condition or reservation. That's true for the holiest saint and the wickedest sinner. That love has the power to transform us from broken, self-serving people into shining servants of God. But we cannot know that love or its transformation without hearing the truth: we are sinners. Although made in God's image, the evil within us has corrupted our nature. We may not sin as dramatically as Eli and his sons did, but we cannot please God without God's help--without that love that God is already bestowing upon us, the love that has the power to shape us into the children God has created us to be. We may be good, but we are not good enough. The good news of God's unconditional love evaporates if we pretend that we are good enough to deserve it. We aren't. And God's love is even more amazing because of it.

No one likes hearing the preacher deliver a sermon about sin and wickedness, but we can't hear the message of forgiveness and love until we've confronted the truth. Now the preacher has to figure out how to deliver the bad news in a way that opens our ears to hear the good news that always follows it.

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