Pastor Shawn Hannon
Hope Lutheran Church, Arcade, NY
Another year of confirmation ended recently, and once again I’m astonished at the ability of our young people to reflect on our faith and its role in our lives today. This year was an Old Testament year for us. We studied the creation accounts in Genesis, the formation of the people and nation of Israel, the Exodus, King David, the prophets and more. Our kids learned a lot and absolutely aced the so-called final exam. But what stands out to me the most at the end of this Old Testament year is not necessarily how much they’ve learned, but how far they’ve come.
At confirmation orientation this year, I took a moment to introduce the theme to the youth and then asked if they had any questions—which it turns out is dangerous with particularly thoughtful middle and high schoolers. One young man raised his hand and simply asked, “Why is God so mad in the Old Testament?” When I asked him to say more, he responded again, “You know, why is God such a jerk?” And you know what? I know where that question comes from. It’s not the first time someone’s asked, and it’s not even the first time I myself have wondered just what to do with a particular Old Testament story about God’s wrath.
There are moments in the Old Testament where God picks sides (helping the Israelites crush their enemies), punishes sin (Sodom and Gomorrah), and institutes consequences (the death of David’s child with Bathsheba). All of those can strike us as completely against the God of love and grace we encounter in the person of Jesus; the God who eats with tax collectors and sinners, and defends the prostitute before she is stoned. I totally understand the question.
But the problem is most of our answers to this dichotomy are just a little too easy and most of our solutions are just a little too quick. What we end up with is a God who is a “jerk” in the Old Testament and “nice” in the New. So we throw the Old Testament God out. But the problem is, when we do that we end up forgetting that God has a salvation history with his people going back to the beginning of creation, not simply the last 2,000 years since Christ. We end up forgetting that God didn’t become loving and forgiving in Jesus, but that God has always been love and grace.
We read the Old Testament this year as a confirmation class. We didn’t read every word together, but trust me when I say we covered it thoroughly. We read the story of Abraham, and saw how God was faithful to his promise even when Sarah laughed and Abraham tried to take matters into his own hands. We watched God select Jesse’s 8th and youngest son, and raise him—imperfections and all—to the king of Israel. We heard how Esther saved the Jewish people from genocide and how Deborah counseled the Israelites to victory over the Canaanites. We saw Jonah run from God’s call and pout over God’s grace. We heard the prophets call for justice to roll and were reminded through Hosea that even though we would be called “Not [God’s] People” if it were up to us and our actions, that God will make us his own no matter what. We learned that God didn’t learn love and grace in Jesus, but that God is and has always been “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
Which is why their answers didn’t surprise me at all when I asked, “Describe God according to how God acts in the Old Testament to someone who has never heard of him before.” This is what they had to say:
God is someone who loves and cares for all of us. He can get mad when we are not following his way and word, but that never stops him from loving us or forgiving us. No matter what. God created us and gives us what we need to follow his way every day of our lives.
Quite a difference from “Why is God such a jerk?” right?
I said before that in the Old Testament it seems like God picks sides, punishes sin, and institutes consequences. Sometimes we talk about God like he stopped doing those Old Testament things and started doing this in a new way in Jesus Christ. And to some extent he certainly did. But love and grace weren’t something God learned along the way, they are a part of who God is and who God has to be. As far as those three things God did in the Old Testament, well, God still does those things for us. God just does them differently now. God still picks sides; only that side is the whole world. God still punishes sin; only now that sin was hung on a cross in the one person that didn’t deserve to be there. And God still institutes consequences like life everlasting.
God is, has always been, and will always be “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Or as our confirmands put it, “God will always love and care for us… no matter what.” Amen.
For more inspiration and insights from Pastor Shawn’s past columns, please visit www.jamestowngazette.com and click on the Faith Matters page. The Jamestown Gazette is proud to present our county’s most creative and original writers for your enjoyment and enlightenment.