I was babysitting my granddaughter a few Saturdays ago, and I came to a remarkable discovery about myself. It’s a good thing that my wife and I had our children many years ago because I don’t think they would have survived to adulthood if we had them now. It’s not because they were naughty as children, but simply because watching out for their own safety and keeping them out of harm’s way takes a great deal of energy, and I don’t always have that.
For example, during the four hours I watched Layla so my daughter could do some gardening without having an 18-month-old try to help her, I had to prevent Ms. Layla from eating her own shoes after stomping in the mud of her backyard. When Layla was pushing her little Mini Cooper riding car around (instead of sitting in it and letting yours truly give her a ride) I had to keep her from pushing it into Oliver the dog, into her mothers flowers, and catch her when she got the wheels caught in a crack on the Patio floor and falling on her face. When we were playing in the living room, I had to prevent her from jumping off the couch and onto the glass coffee table.
Now all these things are nothing bad about Layla. After all, she is just a year and half old and still learning about what things are safe, and what is not. Little children tend to be fearless because they have not learned yet about what things can hurt them. So it is the job of adults, typically parents, to keep them protected and safe, caring for all their needs, until as they grow older and more mature, they learn how to care for their own needs, and learn how to live their lives in safe, responsible ways.
Earlier, I mentioned that Layla is not a naughty child. Let me backtrack on that statement just a little bit. She is not naughty, in the sense that she deliberately does bad things. But being so young she still does not have a defined sense of what is right and what is wrong. All she knows right now is how things affect her. For example, my wife, being a much braver grandparent then I am currently, took Layla with her grocery shopping the other day. The grocery store in question had those little child size grocery carts that little ones can push themselves. Well, I am told that Layla had a grand old time, pushing her little cart around with only a small amount of guidance by my wife. And she was absolutely thrilled when Terri put a small bag of Layla’s favorite snack, string cheese, and let her push it in her cart up to the cashiers counter. Once the cashier tried to take it out of the cart though, it was not a pretty scene.
She didn’t understand that it needed to be paid for. And when Terri tried to put the cart away. I am told there was a major meltdown on the floor of Trader Joe’s.
As adults, typically we don’t have meltdowns when things happen that we don’t necessarily want. We know how to behave in age-appropriate ways because we’ve (hopefully) learned how to behave in ways that are sane and safe. We’ve learned rules of behavior that we use to guide our life, to help us know good from bad, safe from unsafe, appropriate from inappropriate. We’ve learned from our life experience of course, but perhaps, more importantly, we learned from the people who helped us grow, parents, relatives, teachers, neighbors. People who care for us, who nurtured us, who wanted only to keep us safe and protect us from the dangers of the world.
As a parent, and as a grandparent, I want to keep my own children and my grandchild safe and protected. Heck, I want to keep them perfectly protected. Deep down in my heart of heart, I want to wrap them up in cocoons, keep them away from anything that could ever harm them. I would love to ensure that they would never face sickness, that no accident would ever befall them, that they would never suffer pain, suffer loss, suffer hunger or thirst. Now be honest, wouldn’t you, deep down, really want to be able to do that for your own children, because you don’t want to suffer the heartache yourself of seeing them suffer?
On sober reflection though, we all know that we can’t do that. Even if we had the power, the resources, we couldn’t, we shouldn’t protect our children or anyone we love in that manner. Why? Because if we wrapped them up in cocoons, kept them away from all dangers, prevented them from making mistakes that could injure them, away from all every possibility of being harmed, how would they grow? How would they learn to make their own choices, how would they experience the joys of life? The exhilaration of taking risks and being rewarded for their efforts? The joy of opening their hearts up to another individual and perhaps, finding a true love, a true soulmate?
So as good parents, at first, we keep our children on very tight leashes. We watch over them constantly, intervening when they put themselves in danger, giving them sometimes very strict rules to live by in an attempt to protect them from themselves and the dangers they face by making unsafe choices.
As they grown older though, we begin to loosen the reigns a bit, we give them more freedom. We provide them with opportunities to make their own decisions, their own choices in life. We hope they always make wise ones, but when they don’t they pay the price for their decisions. They have to suffer the consequences of their actions. And, hopefully, they learn not repeat the same mistakes.
But even when they make poor choices, we are there for them. Offering them our love, and all the comfort we can give. Not necessarily bailing them out of the consequences of their choices, because again they need to learn from their actions so that they don’t repeat the same mistakes. But letting them know that no matter what, no matter how bad their actions or what the consequences that they suffer, they can be sure of one thing, they can never be cut off from our love.
Maybe that is the most perfect protection we can give anyone we love or care for, the certainty that our love for them is always there.
Realizing our own limitations for how much we can protect the ones we love, let’s reflect for a while about how God can and does protect us. Let’s even take it a step further, does God perfectly protect us?
For the very literal-minded, probably not. Let’s face it, people die in accidents all the time. We get sick, we grow old. Death comes to everybody. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been with people over the course of my own ministry, who sobbed out the question “why did God allow this to happen?” It could have been over the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job. It could have been over the failure of a marriage or a hundred other types of tragedies we experience in our lives. Why does God allow these things? Why are we not protected from these horrors?
Perhaps it’s for the same reason that we don’t wrap our own children up in cocoons, the same reason that we give them the freedom to explore life, make their own decisions, find their own ways, and yes even sometimes fail, and get hurt along the way. Because, like we do with our own children, God wants us to grow, to become more then we could ever dream possible. To mature and become better then we are now. Not just as individuals either, but collectively as a people loved and cherished by their creator.
Zachariah, writing in the time when the Babylonian captivity was coming to an end, reminded the people of Israel that no matter what their crimes had been, God still loved them. When the Babylonians had first invaded Samaria, and then the land of Judah itself, the leaders of the people, the priests, the rich, all had been carried away into slavery, leaving only a handful still in the holy land. All had mourned the fate that had befallen the land of David, the land that Moses had led the Hebrews too, freeing them from their first time of bondage, when they had been slaves in Egypt.
They came to realize that they had brought this awful fate on themselves. They had done so by disobeying the rules God had given them to follow when he first led them to Mount Sinai on their escape from Egypt.
They had been a young people then. In the great scheme of things, the Hebrew people had only existed for a few hundred years before they first had been enslaved in Egypt. So when the time came when God led them from bondage to freedom, he did what any good parent would do for a young child, God gave them a set of rules to live by. They weren’t rules meant to be a burden or enslave a people, or rules meant to prevent them from growing and maturing, but rules meant to protect them. To guide them in their relations with each other, with the nations around them, and to guide them in their relationship with God.
Now we all know what happened next. No sooner had God given Moses the 10 commandments, Moses came down from Mount Sinai, tablets of the law in hand, and finds the people who he had led to freedom engaged in a drunken revelry around a God they had created, a Golden Calf.
God disciplined the people, forcing them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until they were ready to go to the land God had promised Abraham so long ago. They had grown to a point where God gave them their own land.
Still, they kept pushing the envelope, still resisted the laws they had been given. God gave them the freedom to do so, but with each transgression, they came closer and closer to the time when God said enough, and even though they were loved as a people in a special way by God, they needed to learn that breaking the laws of God will eventually lead to the most serious of consequences, not because God wants it to be so, but because the people themselves make it happen.
First Israel had torn itself apart in a Civil War, as the decedents of King David fought each other over who should rule the Kingdom he had made great. Then after the war ended, with Israel broken into two weaker kingdoms of Samaria and Judah, the Babylonians overran and conquered first the Northern Kingdom, then the southern kingdom of Judea, and with it the holy city of Jerusalem.
Even in their exile and disgrace, God never gave up on them, never stopped loving them. When the time finally came when they had repented, God beckoned them to return to their land. He had the prophet Zachariah call them home, implore them to return from the lands that they had scattered to, and return to the land of Abraham.
Not only was God calling them home, but God was renewing his promise to protect them. They were, in the words of Zachariah, the apple of his eye.
The apple of his eye. Like our children are the apples of our eye. Doesn’t this very situation often play out time and time again with our own children, or maybe even our relationship with our own parents. Very strict rules at first, rules that are pushed, broken, leading to discipline, but also leading to growth, relaxing of the rules, mistakes still being made, relaxed rules still sometimes broken, but loving forgiving parents still. Allowing the children to choose their own paths in life. Loving them enough to let them make mistakes, allowing them to learn by experiencing the consequences of their decisions, both good and bad. Rejoicing at their success, and suffering with them when they fail. And even when because of their poor decisions that are left broken, our love for them is still there.
There is one important difference to remember though, between us earthly parents and our parent God. While we too can provide rules to our children, while we can try to provide them safety, to provide for all their physical needs, only God does those things perfectly.
Now I know that many of you would argue that God doesn’t provide for our physical safety. We can all point out to time we’ve been injured, often through no fault of our own. We all know or have experienced physical illnesses. We’ve seen the deaths of people we loved. We see in the news often enough how storms, earthquakes, volcanoes ravish our planet leaving death and destruction in their wake.
But I would argue that God does, and God does it by having a created a universe with fixed, physical laws. Laws that do not change at a whim, laws that can be counted on to always behave in a predictable manner. For a good example of this, come over to the Kite Festival this afternoon. You’ll see people do some pretty remarkable things with a kite. I brought in here with me one of my dual line sports kites. Unlike one of my regular single line kites, that pretty much only do one thing, go up and down, with this kite I can do loops, I can make it hover. I can even make it walk on the ground, it’s all a matter of knowing how to work the lines. A gentle tug to the right and the kite will turn in that direction, pull down both lines at the same time and the kite will go up, it’s all in knowing how to pull on the lines. It takes time and practice, of course, to get good at it and know how each tug and pull will cause the kite to behave.
It’s the same with learning how to live in this universe. God gave us a world bound by natural law, laws that we can count on to work, laws that we could discover to make work for our own good. Even in our own lifetimes, as we struggle to learn more of the natural laws that govern our world, we have learned how to make things that have transformed and improved the quality of our lives immeasurably. We’ve learned how to cure diseases that were death sentences only a few short decades ago. Of course, we still have so much more to learn, but because God provided a universe bound by unchanging laws of physics and nature, we will learn how until we conquer more and more of the ills that plague us now. We will learn how to better predict earthquakes and other natural disasters, and maybe we will even learn how to overcome the hubris that allows us to think that we can build and live on places (like fault lines and by active volcano) that are dangerous and can be counted on to destroy the things that are built on them, if not right away, then at some point in the future.
Yes this takes time. And because we don’t have a perfect grasp of all the God-given natural laws that govern our existence, people do suffer. But that is part of God’s plan. It’s not that God doesn’t care or doesn’t suffer with us when we suffer because of our ignorance or disobedience, but God want’s us to grow as a people. God wants us to mature, to develop and become so much more then we think possible, Again, just like a parent wants their children to grow and experience all the joy, and yes even the pain that comes from the struggle of growing to experience their potential.
God knows exactly what we need, and has provided all that we could ever want. Jesus talks about this in our passage from Matthew today.
This is part of the discourse that Matthew records as being part of the Sermon on the Mount. A sermon where Jesus gives practical advice on how to live our lives as a people of faith. Everything we could ever need is already here. God has provided us with the food from the ground, with the animals of the fields. The materials necessary to build homes, to make clothing. Everything is here if only we learn how to use it wisely, as good stewards of the bounty God provides.
And here is where another law of God comes into play. A law designed to perfectly protect us. The Greatest commandment that Jesus gave us, to love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves.
When we love God we will want to please him. We will want to live our lives as a love response to the love God has for us. So, as a response to God love, we will, if indeed we are faithful to Jesus, reach out to our neighbors, sharing the resources entrusted to our care, making sure that no one goes hungry, no one goes without clothes, no one goes without shelter, no one lives without experiencing God’s love in a real, practical way.
And we will live in peace with each other, respecting the rights of all, seeing people not for what they look like, or for the amount of money they have in a bank, but seeing them as children of God. Loved by God as much as anyone. Worthy of respect, of being treated with dignity, worthy of the same love we have for ourselves.
This paradise on earth, this place where there is no suffering, where we are all perfectly protected from all harm or pain, that’s someplace off way in the future, maybe never to come during the lives of any human being. But God has given us the potential to make it so. The physical rules that we can count on are in place. We just have to continue to strive to understand them. The moral precepts that God has given us to follow, we already know full well. We have to strive to learn to really incorporate them into our lives, learn to really love God with all our heart and souls and our neighbors as ourselves.
It’s up to us to do the work. Like a good parent God has nurtured us, taught us, disciplined us. But we are the ones who have to grow. We are the ones who have to learn how to delve deep into the mysteries of science and learn how to use God’s physical laws to continue to eradicate the things that plague our world. We have to learn to incorporate God’s great commandment in our lives so that we can live in peace with each other, and work to ensure that the bounty of the world God created is shared so that all have access to the necessities of life.
And through all this, God will be with us. Rejoicing in our victories, perhaps weeping when we struggle and fail. But always, always filled with love for his children, always ready to forgive, and there for us to offer encouragement, comfort, and hope.