Something to Jump and Shout About

A sermon based on Genesis12:1-4a
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 16, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
On an annual cruise through a small island cluster a ship’s entertainment director handed out binoculars to passengers wanting to get a closer look at the little clumps of land. As they zoomed in on the beach of one island a number of them detected a bearded man in tattered clothes jumping up and down, frantically waving and shouting. “Who is that on the beach on that little island over there?” the passengers asked. The director replied “I don’t know. Every year when we pass by he goes crazy  like that.” 1

Today’s Lectionary reading from Genesis that we just heard Cliff read is pretty famous. It’s Abram’s call story and there’s lots of focus on his faith and dedication, and rightfully so because God asks him to up and leave his country and people and family and home, and Abram we learn “went as the Lord told him.” Every time I zoom in on this little island of verses, there’s one part I’ve noticed the Spirit in– jumping up and down, frantically waving and shouting. It’s a part we Christians often seem to ignore ever time we pass by the story. It’s a part that actually a great many verses in the Bible can be heard to echo, and the Spirit’s notice-me presence in them also tends to get passed by.

So lets zoom in a bit so we can see and hear the Spirit’s call that I am talking about. The Lectionary reading is short so I am going to read it again:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him . . .

It’s the part that reads “and in you ALL the families of the earth shall be blessed” that I see and hear the Spirit waving and shouting to be found and noticed, maybe even rescued– “in you ALL the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Yahweh’s first recorded call story culminates with a declaration that God’s intent is to bless all people, not just Abram’s kin, not just his clan, not just his country, not just his religion, but the entire world, ALL families shall–not might– shall be blessed.

From a literal and contextual perspective it’s pretty hard to read the world “ALL” out of the call. ALL means ALL, just as shall means shall. Zoomed in we can see a recording of a divine promise of universal blessing. In other words, we can see there are no exclusions to Yahweh’s promised blessing, it is as inclusive as it can get.

Through Abram God’s shall bless– that is, favor– all families. Abram, later renamed Abraham, is the father of Judaism, and so Jews and Christians all trace their beginnings back to this call, and this promise.“All the families on earth shall be blessed.” This is a theme we can find the Holy Spirit jumping up and down and flagging throughout the Bible.

As we heard in the children’s story, before Jesus is born an angel announces to the Shepherds that the good news of the Christmas story is great joy for everyone, not just specially selected people. Here’s how Luke actually put it:

  an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people (Luk 2:9-10 NRS).

According to God’s angel and the Bible all the people get good news and great joy from Jesus arrival.
In case you are wondering where I am going with all of this, I’m going to suggest there is universal salvation today. Put another way, I’m going to suggest that if ALL are to have blessings, good news and great joy no one can be damned to hell.  If ALL families are to be blessed by Abraham, and if Jesus’ birth is good news and great joy for all people, how can it be that God’s plan and Jesus’ arrival would have anything to do with an afterlife of hell for anyone?  There’s no blessing; there’s no good news; there’s no joy for ALL if anyone is damned or going to hell.

Logically since all are blessed and Jesus’ arrival is good news and cause for great joy for all people; if we take the promise of these texts seriously, ALL means noone gets the bad news and sorrow they or someone they love is going to hell.   I suggest that that reasoning is solid. If hell and damnation is for those who do not believe this way or that about Jesus or the Bible, how could that in any way shape or form be a blessing or a source of good news and great joy for ALL?  The answer would seem to be, it can’t.

I know a number of theologians, pastors and Christians (perhaps some of you) may not agree with me, and that is okay, but the notions of damnation and hell for anyone sure seem to fly in the face of the good news of the Gospel and the whole point of the call to Abram that started the religious journey recorded in the Bible.

I see and hear the Spirit waving to us to notice that ALL people SHALL be blessed and that the good news and great joy of Jesus’ birth are for ALL people. We can think of the Spirit as a crazy looking to others form of God stranded and waving hoping to get noticed as we leaf though the texts.

It makes me want to shout out that in neither of these texts can the word “ALL” be read away. “All” means “all.” Blessings and joy SHALL come to ALL.  It’s good news for ALL! It’s great joy for ALL! That’s the promise through both of these Old and New Testaments’ texts.  There are no exceptions spelled out to God’s all inclusive promise.

The literal and contextual readings of the two texts I’ve mentioned so far are about ALL . . . ALL being blessed and joyful recipients of the good news!The good news in the New Testament is meant to be good news for everyone, not just for the elite few who figure it out the way some denomination or church or pastor says it has to be . . .

And it’s not just those two texts that buttress that the promises of God’s blessings and good news are universal in intent.  And they are not the only texts with the Spirit jumping up and down trying to get noticed that ALL get God’s love. There’s quite a crowd of texts in the Bible out there with the Spirit in them stranded and waving ignored as many readers pass by the texts. In Genesis (22:18) after Abraham – at Yahweh’s insistence– gives up the sacrificing of the first born that the polytheistic Elohim had called for, God explains again that (and I quote)

by your offspring shall ALL the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.

All nations, not just Jewish and Christian ones gain blessings (God’s favor).
Psalm 145 backs this up, profoundly! As we heard verse 9 proclaims that God “is good to ALL and his compassion is over ALL that he has made.”  This statement follows a very clear and concise declaration in verse 8 that ‘The Lord is gracious and merciful and, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The Psalmist goes on to assert in verse 14 that “The Lord upholds ALL who are falling. . .”

If ALL means ALL in Psalm 145 then God is good and compassionate to ALL, God is gracious and merciful to ALL, and God has steadfast love for ALL. Moreover, God upholds ALL who are falling.    Put another way, God does not shove those who fall down to hell or everlasting punishment, instead God upholds them and loves them and is gracious and merciful to them. Why? Because God loves ALL unconditionally. That’s Biblical. Can you hear the Spirit shouting out “Notice this stuff, please!”

This whole line of inclusive scripture sure seems to make it clear that God’s love has no strings attached. The Bible tells us one way or another a multitude of times that God’s love is steadfast and endures forever, that means it never lets go, it never ends. No one can lose God’s love. It’s all inclusive for all time and for all people. There are texts that suggest otherwise, but one has to ignore or limit the inclusivity texts to follow such suggestions. Well, why not ignore or limit the non-inclusive texts? Why ignore these beautiful all- are-loved texts? I mean all being loved fits in with God being love itself doesn’t it? It also fits in with the notion God is interested in saving everyone. Why would God the Almighty not be able to love everyone and uphold everyone and save everyone? There’s no limit to God’s saving power.

Isaiah (49:6) states the obvious logical answer and conclusion of this all- inclusive-blessing-and-love-from-God thread running throughout the Bible.  Isaiah records that God long ago proclaimed  “I will give you a light to the nations that my salvation shall reach the ends of the earth.”  In other words, the light God gives is the salvation for everyone, not a select few, not just for those who figure things out this church’s way or that church’s way. God’s salvation reaches to the ends of the earth, not to the ends of a televangelist’s airwaves, not to the ends of a church’s membership rolls and not even to the ends of Bible distribution and readership. All are loved. All the time. All will be saved. ALL SHALL BE SAVED! . . .

The book of Luke (3: 5,6) has John the Baptist quoting another part of Isaiah which notes this truth too. John emphatically proclaims  that “ALL flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ALL flesh SHALL see the salvation of God. All. Shall. See. Salvation . . .

This church has latched onto the sayings from Micah about seeking justice and loving kindness. Those beautiful verses begin (in the NRSV) with the wonderful phrase “O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you . . . but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8). There is not a word in there about a requirement to believe this or believe that. All that God requires of us is to do justice and to love kindness and walk humbly with our God.  That’s Old Testament stuff and although it’s not an ALL ARE SAVED text, it sure dove-tails nicely with that thread of the Bible. I see the Spirit also jumping up and down and waving in the midst of churches cruising by claiming God requires more than what Micah tells us God tells us is required: “ What does the LORD require . . . but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”

And all of this matches up nicely with the Fourth Gospel’s claim that when John the Baptist saw Jesus he declared Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  John didn’t say Jesus was the lamb would will only take away the sins of the Catholic’s or Methodist’s or Episcopalians or Presbyterian’s or Church of Christ’s or United Church of Christ’s or Pat Robertson’s followers. “The Lamb of God . . . takes away the sins of the world” Accordingly ALL of the world’s sin are taken away by Jesus.
Later in that same Gospel Jesus himself claims “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw ALL people to myself.” (John 12:32 NRS). ALL. PEOPLE.

I am pounding on this “ALL” drum today because Christianity and the Bible have been used to claim an exclusive salvation by many who want things believed their way.   But the Bible can be heard to have not been about a way of exclusivity, but about God’s way and Jesus’ Way of a huge wide open embrace.

The earliest writings in the New Testament are from Paul. And Paul can be heard to laud the truth of inclusive salvation. In Romans (5:19) comparing Adam’s mistake that condemned all, to Jesus’ righteousness that saves all,  Paul writes “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”  By justification Paul literally means acquittal of all sins. 3 According to Paul Jesus’ made it right for all. ALL! At the end of the day, cosmically speaking, ALL have been acquitted of wrongdoing by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection . . .

We hear a lot about God’s grace in Christianity. Grace is basically another way of saying God’s love has no strings attached. See Grace means “unmerited favor.” 2 Grace being unmerited means we don’t have to do anything to merit it. Grace is a gift given without strings attached. Grace is not something we have to do anything to get. It’s ours. And here is the hard part, it is everyone else’s too unconditionally. As Paul puts it in Romans 3 (23-24), “since ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift . . .” ALL are justified by grace!

So we can understand the Bible to claim ALL are justified, ALL are acquitted of sin and ALL HAVE GRACE! Sure enough, Paul’s wonderful words in Romans 8 (38:1) also indicate we cannot lose God’s love:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing can separate us from God, God’s love is steadfast forever.     We can read 1 Timothy (4:10) to back this up when it states that “God . . . is the savior of ALL people.” We can read 1 John (2:2) to back this up when it states Jesus atones “ the sins of the whole world” and that God “the Father sent his Son as the Savior of the world.” We can hear this ALL-are-loved stuff echoed in Acts (10:28) where God commands Peter –and by extension us– to “not call anyone profane or unclean.” In any context this command means don’t call ANYONE profane or unclean! There’s no wriggle room. Why? Because all are loved by God!

We can hear this all-are-loved stuff echoed again when Paul tells the church in Rome (13:9) that “love does no wrong to a neighbor.” That’s why all families are blessed and the Gospels are good news and joy for all. Love does no harm. No harm. And this makes sense. God is love. Love does not harm. Love saves, it does not damn or destroy.  As Jesus put it while speaking of salvation, “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10). Surely Christ can accomplish that seeking and that salvation– a salvation of all which fulfills the promise of God to Abram and the promise of the angels to the Shepherds that all will be blessed, all will have good news and be joyful about it.

The Spirit is jumping up and down waving frantically about this good news and joy and the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that ALL the families of the earth SHALL be blessed.

AMEN!

ENDNOTES:
1. This is a modified version of joke I found in Healing Through Humor (p 4) by Charles Frances Hunter.
2. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms
3. Laughlin, Paul, Remedial Christianity, p. 179

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