Exodus 32: 7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17 (Romans 11)

September 18, 2022

  • What do we do with our failures as people of God?


I thought I was going to be in decent shape today until yesterday as we were wrapping up our church tent’s presence at the Heart of VA festival, and one of our volunteers who will remain unnamed (but his initials are Jerry Stuart) warned me that today’s sermon had better be exciting or else he would most likely fall asleep during worship.  There is nothing like raising the bar for the preacher, applying that extra pressure.  If I fail, then he fails to stay awake.  If he fails to stay awake, then I fail to be an engaging preacher.  Sounds like a lot can go wrong here.

I had thought to yell out some random warning every 35 seconds to keep him conscious, but maybe the subject today might be interesting enough to stay with us.  I do not mean to pick on Jerry, at all.  We all struggle to be and to do what we set out to accomplish.  We all struggle to end up where we plan in life.  We all struggle every day of our lives in more things than we care to admit – big things and little things.  We all struggle, and we all fail to some degree in just about all of it.  As Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition, we believe all flesh is corrupted by sin and therefore incapable of being good enough without God’s help.  As human beings, it is really, really hard – near impossible – to do anything perfectly as we want.  Certainly, we miss the mark completely, too.  In other words, there is a lot of failing out there.

What people call “epic fails” are not only found in YouTube video collections.  They have been happening through history since the beginning of time.  One of the more interesting failures of the 20th century happened in the early 1930s, and I am not even talking about the Great Depression, but while that was going on, there was another catastrophe happening in Australia, the Great Emu War.  Yes, I said “emu,” the large flightless bird akin to the ostrich but slightly smaller.  They went to war against the Australian military.

Imagine a plague of locusts but these are feathery, aggressive, 6 ft. tall, and can run over 30 mph.  They can plow through fences and destroy harvests, especially wheat harvests which was the problem then.  As many as 20,000 emus were rampaging wild in that day and terrorizing the farms in western Australia.  The government’s best answer was to send veterans of WW1 out there with machine guns in an attempt to squash the invasive emu population and save the wheat harvest.  It turns out emus are remarkably hard to fight in this way.  Maybe 10 percent were handled at the end of a bunch of botched operations.  Some of the harvest was saved for the time, but the birds came back with a vengeance over the next decades.    It turned out to be a pretty big waste of time and money and an embarrassment.  An “emu war” is not a term for a grand success in life.  If you still are not sure, comedians John Cleese of Monty Python fame and Rob Schneider are making a movie about the war that was supposed to be released this year.  Let’s just say they don’t make serious movies.

Something much more tragic and very much more disastrous was the scene in Exodus 32.  You would think that after the Hebrew people escaped Egypt and 10 plagues, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (what we call the Red Sea), the destruction of the Egyptian army chasing them, pillars of cloud and fire, and a mountain storming with fire and smoke while Moses was up there with God, they would have some inkling that God was real and serious.  Literally, they just left Egypt and turn to idols.  You would think that they might appreciate who God is and what God did for them, but it is exactly the opposite.  They have completely forgotten the God who just worked wonders for them and adopted idols to worship while they sit there and wait for something to happen.

God is furious, furious, and beyond furious.  This is a monstrous smack in the face after what God has done for them.  The is the biggest failure they will know in their lifetime, and yet, it is one in a long line of failures.   The people of God get it wrong time and again.  They never get it right, actually, which is the whole reason why Jesus joins us as God’s solution to the epic failure that is humanity.

Please do not take me as a Donald Downer – Debbie gets a break.  Our lives are so incredibly marred by sin as we fail in relation to God, let alone the disappointments, weaknesses and insecurities, limitations, frailty, ignorance, and fear.  It is no wonder that we struggle to be the people that we wish we were.  Hollywood wants us to believe it’s possible.  Marketing and advertising want us to believe it’s possible.  Anyone selling anything wants you to believe that the perfect, the best, the right is possible for the right price.  You can be a winner if you keep playing the lottery – literally and figuratively.  You can find the right partner if you try out enough people.  You can find the right job if you keep hopping from employer to employer.  You can maybe even find the right beliefs or the right God, if you don’t commit to any one in particular.  But all of that leads to failure: broken hearts, broken dreams, broken spirits, broken lives.  There is no way we will ever make ourselves the people we wish we could be.  We cannot win by ourselves.  And that’s OK.

I wish we could hear the emotion in Paul’s voice as he composed these words to his dear friend Timothy.  These were words and thoughts that Paul kept in his heart, and he returned to the ideas often.   He knew how much he had done against Jesus and his followers in his former life.  He knew how far he was from the heart of Christ in his life and beliefs.  He knew how out of touch he was from God’s grace, so he knew how much of a failure he was.  He was the last person Jesus should have called for that special, precious, and vital task of taking the gospel to the Gentiles.  And yet, there he was with his heart was singing in this passage as you can tell from the last line I read.  It is a doxology, a benediction of praise to wrap up his appreciation and gratitude for God’s grace in Christ.  His soul was rejoicing as he wrote that passage.  His soul was rejoicing in his failure.

I literally do not deserve anything good that has happened to me in my life.  I have not earned any of the blessings I have received.  It is interesting that generally we do not talk much about the real struggles we have endured or are enduring.  Sometimes we dance around them and drop hints with each other.  As a pastor, I might know a little more than some about the skeletons we carry, but I carry them, too.  It makes me sad that we cannot be more honest with each other.  If we could bear our hearts a little more openly, we would see that we are not as different from each other as we might think.  It is so tempting to walk into a room and see everyone else around you are way more successful, popular, together, intelligent, beautiful, accomplished, or whatever.  But that is all in our heads.  They are downing in debt with fighting families, failing marriages, health problems, self-image issues, depressing jobs, and weak faith.  We carry our brokenness so carefully that others might not know, but that also means we have to carry it alone.

Paul makes no bones about it, and he makes it abundantly clear to all who will listen what a failure he was and what service Christ has gotten him into.  Maybe we don’t believe God is doing anything good with us and the ways we have flopped in this world.  Really?  You really don’t think God is turning your life around?  If God can use Paul, then we must look good in comparison.

It is not “if” we fail but “when.”  Where is God in that?  That is the real question and where this conversation must come around.  It is a matter of time before we fail.  Jerry might already be asleep.  It is inevitable that we miss the mark.  Before you even get home, you will have failed seven times.  That is not the point, however, and that does not define you.  When we are failures, when we admit we are failures, when we own that we are failures, then we become far more interesting to God.  When we are honest with ourselves and each other, then things can happen in God’s grace that could never happen before.  We need safe spaces for those conversations, but that is exactly where God works wonders and miracles.  By cultivating those relationships in which we can be brutally honest about our own shortcomings and limitations and brokenness, we will find room to heal and grow and serve that we have never known.  Paul would never have given us the gospel if he had shied away from the truth of his failure.

We are so messed up, but God is so wonderful.  We are so wayward, but Christ is so solid.  We are so hurting, but the Spirit is full of healing.  There is nothing we can do to break God’s love.  There is nowhere we can go from God’s grace.  There is no failure we can commit that makes us worth any less in the Spirit of our Lord.

Your homework this week is to think about times when you have confronted your brokenness and failures.  Did you have the courage and humility to share?  Do you have safe spaces to be authentically God’s chosen, hurting children?  How have you found the grace of Jesus?

I wish I did not need God, but life is so much richer in relationship with a divine presence that can comfort, rejoice, mend, bless, and hold the failure of a life that I am.  Maybe that’s your story, too.  I hope so.  To God be the glory.  Amen.