When the sharp edges of the horror start to soften, there’s a popular story that kind-hearted people tell about God. You’ve heard this story before. It pretty much goes like this: God is in charge of the universe. God has a desire for how things will unfold —call it a plan, or a promise, or a dream. Therefore, God must have wanted this horror to occur. You and I might not understand it. Surely God must have wanted the accident, or the arrest, or the heart attack. Surely it is part of the story he is writing. It must be part of his plan. Unless…
What if it’s not? What if God never wished this upon you, never in a million years.
After the worst moment on the worst night, there’s a popular story that kind-hearted people tell about God, and it makes sense. In the thick of the crisis, it offers a reasonable theory when all you want is a reasonable theory. If you’re sitting beside someone who can’t stop crying, all you want is to give them the answer they’re asking for. It makes sense. It makes so much sense.
One of the ways we get to know God is by telling stories about her. It’s not wrong to do this! Even though every story we can ever tell is made up by human people, even though no story will ever be able to tell the whole truth of God, somewhere, somebody’s story might give us a glimpse, so it’s not wrong to tell the stories.
It’s just important to know that stories are stories and God is God. And sometimes the stories we tell help us get closer to the heart of God. And sometimes, well, we’re going to need some new stories.
In the scripture Karen read, we hear a snippet of history that introduces how Israel became a divided monarchy splitting into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, right around nine hundred years before the birth of Christ. In thinking about this story, I invite you to pay attention to three main characters.
First, we meet Rehoboam, the son of King Solomon. Now it’s his turn to take the throne of all Israel, but before the coronation dust has settled, a coalition turned up complaining that King Solomon had imposed upon them a yoke of heavy service, so please, King Rehoboam, be kinder than your father.
The first thing the king does is consult with the elders. They advise him to listen to the people and become a servant unto them which is wise counsel, of course. The second thing the king does is consult with the younger men. They advise him to double down on his father’s harshness. Here’s what to say: You think you had it bad before, you ain’t seen nothin’! King Solomon used whips to get results, Ha! I’ve got scorpions!
Now, all eyes are on the king, who’s he going to listen to?
Unfortunately, Rehoboam gives into peer pressure. He chooses cruelty over kindness, and this decision sparks an uprising. One of his law enforcement officers gets stoned to death by the people! So Rehoboam goes into hiding in Jerusalem.
The second character to watch is Jeroboam. Back in the day, Jeroboam worked for King Solomon. One afternoon, he got stopped on the street by a prophet of the LORD who looked at him and predicted that he would take over Israel. He will rule over ten of the twelve tribes! Well, when Solomon heard about this, he tried to kill Jeroboam, so Jeroboam fled to Egypt.
After Solomon dies, Jeroboam returns. Now that things fell apart with Rehoboam, Jeroboam fulfills the prophecy by becoming king of the ten northern tribes. Only thing is, Jeroboam is also not a terrific king! Shortly after taking the throne, he had two cows made out of gold, then he set them up as idols to be worshiped. If that sounds familiar, it is. It’s the exact offense the people committed generations earlier when Moses went up the mountain to get the Ten Commandments. Jeroboam unfaithfulness toward God is believed to have cursed the Northern Kingdom for generations to come. It’s all his fault.
Now if you were in an ancient audience hearing this story, when you heard how King Rehoboam chose cruelty instead of kindness, you would hear the whole crowd BOOO that king! When you heard about King Jeroboam crafting golden cows to worship, you and all the crowd would BOOO that king!
Whoever was telling this story understood that the people hearing it were getting upset. So the third character to notice is the LORD our God. Throughout the story, the narrator slips in words of assurance that all this havoc is being wreaked in order to fulfill the plan of God. God expected Rehoboam to get driven into hiding. God knew Jeroboam would lead the ten tribes into failure because of his idolatry.
You might not like these kings, but you’ve got to wonder whether they ever stood a chance. The storyteller wants us to see how the whole time, it’s God who is pulling the strings.
It is not wrong to tell stories about God; stories are how we get to know God. It’s just, stories are stories, and God is God. What are the stories that we rehearse? Which stories do we believe?
Something to notice, when God gets into our human stories, she does at least two things. One, God pays attention to the characters who don’t get the speaking parts. Two, God is absolutely not afraid to change the ending. He’s not afraid to sabotage the narrative arc you’ve been so carefully constructing. All your work to make something make sense, leave it to God to come along and turn the universe upside down.
For God so loved the world, she looked at it and saw how it was broken. Then God came into the world to go with us. With his own two hands, he picked up what was broken and said to us, “Here, I need you to help me.” God started turning what was broken into something beautiful, and you and I know, the story was never the same after that.
There’s another story, though, and it’s one the world loves to tell to answer the most terrible events. Here, says the world, do you need this to make sense? Here’s a seductively simple story. You’ll hear it so often you might even forget it’s a story! It involves a villain, a victim, a hero, and all of their teams. The plot goes like this: The villain hurts the victim. The hero rescues the victim and defeats the villain. We’ve heard this one before, so many times.
Just like Rehoboam and Jeroboam were the designated villains in our scripture, we all can name the villains in our day: Dylan Roof. Omar Mateen. Bill Cosby. Jeffrey Epstein. Before we even know it, we find ourselves teaming up with the victims or the heroes standing opposite the villains. Before we know it, we hear our own voice join the crowd in booing, somehow we’ve gotten rocks in our hands, and the world is telling us to take our best shot. It’s just—
What if the villains are also victims of a different story? What if the victims become the heroes? What if God is making it her business to notice the people who are overlooked —like the children of the villains and the grandparents of the victims… What if God is about to change the ending…
Two years ago, the Quad Cities Area Children’s Food Program closed its doors. This program got its start right here. During school breaks, members of Church of Peace served and delivered meals to children who relied on school breakfasts and lunches. Children who would have gone hungry got something to eat because of your time, and your work, and your compassion. This program helped fulfill our commitment to stay in this neighborhood and serve those who are most in need. It is a meaningful chapter in the story of our church.
And this program came to a swift and shameful end. We had to put signs on our doors telling children not to come here for breakfast; go to the Academy instead. A number of people, including several church members, lost their jobs. The program’s director, Nora, is currently serving time in prison for several financial offenses. On the one hand, you can hear how this is a story with victims, and heroes, and a designated villain. On the other hand, we know it is much more complicated.
I know there are people here who are furious with Nora and who continue to carry deep hurt from what happened. I know there are people here who love Nora, and worry about how she’s doing, and feel filled with the forgiveness of the Holy Spirit. I know there are people who are all of the above all at the same time —hurt and concerned for Nora, furious and forgiving. You and I know, our church has enough room for all of this.
If you are hurt and you cannot forgive —that would cost too much —then, here. Let us come and stand beside you. If someone you love is being vilified by the world, if it’s your grandma getting charged, if it’s your son who’s getting accused of evil, here, let us stand beside you. If you need to forgive the person who hurt you, even when doing this will make the world call you a villain, then here. We will come and stand next to you with no rocks in our hands, only new stories to tell.
For God so loved the world, she looked at it and saw how it was broken. Then God came into the world to go with us. With his own two hands, he picked up what was broken and said to us, “Here, I need you to help me.” God started turning what was broken into something beautiful, now the story will never be the same again. Neither will the world.