Saturday, March 3, 2012

Rebuking God

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38

Have you ever rebuked God? ... I have. I remember in particular saying no way, not now, impossible to God. I was 48 years old, and God was telling me it was time to go to seminary. I had lots of reasons for rebuking God.
I had been divorced for a couple of years, and I loved my new little house. I didn’t want to give it up.
It takes a lot of money to go to seminary and I didn’t have it.
I had been reelected to serve as the president of the Synodical Women’s Organization in Michigan – and it was important to honor that commitment.
I hadn’t taken an exam or written an essay paper in decades; I wondered if I could even study and pass classes anymore.  
So, when I heard God calling me to go to seminary, I rebuked God. I said, “No way, Jose’! You’ve got to be crazy. I can’t do that!” Well, God found a way to make it work for me in spite of my rebuke.
... In our text today, Peter rebuked Jesus. Just a week before, Peter had named Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. He just can’t hold his tongue when Jesus begins to teach the disciples about what will happen soon. Peter can’t imagine that Jesus will suffer and die and be raised. How could Jesus’ death do anyone any good? They can’t have a revolution and get rid of the Romans if Jesus is dead! There must be another plan. Peter blurts out what he is thinking, and rebukes Jesus. In return Jesus rebukes Peter, essentially accusing him of allowing Satan to speak through him.
In Hebrew, in the book of Job, Satan is not a proper name, but a designation. Ho Satan means “the satan,” the adversary, the opponent, the enemy. So in this Gospel passage, “the satan” is one who opposes God’s will. When Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan,” he is really saying, “Get behind me, Adversary. You will not use my disciples to keep me from doing what I must do!”
Peter, of course, is not the first person in Scripture to rebuke God. Many of the Psalms contain rebukes; for example, the opening verses of Psalm 22 contain a strong rebuke. The psalmist cries out to God: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. These are also the words Jesus cried from the cross, rebuking God for that moment.
Long before Jesus, and long before the psalmist, there was Abraham and Sarah. God had promised them children and land and fame. God also promised to be their God and to claim them and their family as God’s own people. By the time of our reading from Genesis, Abraham had land, and he was wealthy enough to have some fame, and God was still their God, but there were still no children. For twenty-five years, Abraham and Sarah waited for their child, Isaac. We can just imagine the frustration they felt. How many times they rebuked God is not known, but Scripture does record a couple of times. In response, God does not rebuke them; instead, God repeats the promises and never abandons Abraham and Sarah.
... It doesn’t make any sense to rebuke God. But people do it all the time. We often rebuke God out of frustration and anger. We rebuke God for our own illness or for the death of a loved one. We rebuke God for situations that are beyond our control, like hurricanes and earthquakes, calling those natural events “acts of God”. We rebuke God for asking us to do things we would prefer not to do, like share our faith with someone else, or put more in the offering plate, or serve on the congregational council. We rebuke God for not meeting our expectations, like giving us a million dollars, or stopping the war, or ending child or spouse abuse, or making our marriage perfect, or helping us find a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s.
The amazing thing about rebuking God is that God does not rebuke us in return. God does rebuke us for those things we need rebuking for. But God does not rebuke us for the rebuke itself. God continues to call us God’s beloved children, and allows us to learn from our choices and our circumstances.
God uses our rebuke to help us learn more about God and about ourselves. When we rebuke God for not taking action, we discover that we have grown stronger because of our experience through the challenging times. When we rebuke God for not fixing a problem, we discover that it is not up to God to fix the problem, but it’s really up to us to fix it. When we stop rebuking God and give in to God’s calling to tell our faith story, to put more in the offering plate, to serve in a leadership position, we discover that it was the best thing that ever happened to us. In our rebuking of God, and God’s response to us, we often learn that we can do more than we thought we could, and we learn we can do it with God’s help.
One of my favorite movies is Bruce Almighty. Jim Carey plays Bruce Nolan, who is unhappy about almost everything. He rebukes God for the way things are in general, the way things are at work, and the way things are in his relationships. God, played by Morgan Freeman, invites Bruce to be God for a while. At first, Bruce has a great time, turning his tomato soup into the parting of the Red Sea, and similar playful games. But then, he gets more serious. When he decides to bring the moon closer to show it off to his girlfriend, water levels all over the world become chaotic. When he sets up an automatic email response system, saying “yes” to every prayer, that too becomes chaotic because of competing prayers. Everyone in the world is rebuking Bruce as God. In the end, Bruce realizes that being God is a complicated job, best left to God. God has not exactly rebuked Bruce, but invited him to learn from his own choices and circumstances.
... In our Gospel story, Peter rebukes Jesus, and Jesus rebukes him in return, not to shame Peter but to help him realize that his rebuke went against God’s plan and purpose. Jesus recognizes that Peter’s rebuke was probably triggered by the influence of the adversary. After this episode, Peter continued to blurt out what he was thinking before he considered the consequences; he walked on water until he took his eyes off Jesus; he denied knowing Jesus to keep himself out of trouble; and in the end, Jesus did not rebuke him, but still called him to lead the way in spreading the good news of the resurrection.
This week, I invite you to look back and identify those times when you rebuked God. What was going on? How did God respond to the rebuke? And what did you learn from the experience? Chances are, there are several times in the past which caused you to at least consider rebuking God. And chances are, you grew stronger in faith and in self-knowledge as God helped you through whatever it was. Perhaps you are rebuking God right now. How is God responding? What are you learning from God’s response?
Please pray with me: Gracious God, in our frustration and anger and unmet expectations, we rebuke you for failing us. We thank you for being patient, gracious and forgiving with us. Help us to see beyond our own needs to your greater purpose for our lives and for all of creation. Amen