A Little Guilt Might Be Good

It’s your lucky day, folks! You’re going to hear not one but two sermons this morning!

Mine, of course, will come later, but the first comes in our Scripture lesson through the Old Testament voice of Samuel, the last of the great judges and the first of the great prophets.

As we learned last Sunday, the judges are leaders raised up by the Lord to deliver his people – the Israelites – from the tragic consequences of their constant disobedience in hopes of breaking the cycle of sin that entraps the Israelites.

The cycle of sin is as simple as it is tragic: Despite God’s faithfulness and because of sin and brokenness, the people abandon God and find themselves caught up in all sorts of troubling bondage and endless slavery as the result of wandering off on their own and disobeying God’s commandments.

Then, separated from God and languishing in places of misery and suffering, the people’s collective amnesia fades, and they suddenly remember the Lord and cry out to him for rescue. And God – over and over, again and again, with patience and mercy that know no measure – delivers them from their captivity to sin and repairs their brokenness by binding their wandering hearts to heaven’s fold.

As it has for generations, that cycle of sin plagues the Israelites, even as they settle into the Lord’s Promised Land of Canaan, where God’s people organize themselves into a loosely knit confederation of tribes. With their nearby idol-worshiping, pagan enemies better organized, more unified, and fiercely equipped for war, the Israelites’s on-the-ground, frontline military and religious leaders are the judges.

During their 200-or-so years of leadership, the likes of Deborah, Gideon, Jerubbaal, Barak, and Samson strongly insist that God really is the people’s true ruler, and God bestows upon these judges tasks both formidable and daunting: Call the Israelites back to obedience, unify them as a community of faith, and lead them in battle against overpowering enemies.

Equipped with the power of heaven, the judges enjoy a string of military victories, but through no fault of their own, the judges fail to capture fully the spiritual hearts of the people, whose faith in God is both fickle and fleeting – as it sadly has been and often continues to be in the long, splintered story of God and us. Though God reigns over the Israelites as king, the restless, nervous people keep calling for a human king to maintain civil order and hold their enemies at bay.

Samuel eventually relents to the people’s anxious calls for royal leadership, and he steps down as a judge and appoints Saul as king. But before leaving office, Samuel shares with the huddled masses this farewell speech. In it, Samuel recaps the gracious deliverance that God has brought to generations of disobedient Israelites. He pleads with God’s people to limit the trust and confidence they put Saul and to shun unreasonable expectation of their new king. Samuel also encourages Saul to keep the Lord in his rightful place atop the pecking order of God’s Kingdom. For it is God who is the people’s ultimate ruler, and in what Jesus far down the road will declare the greatest commandment, Samuel implores the people to love and serve God first and foremost, above everyone and everything else. Failure to do so will have tragic consequences.

As we prepare to listen for the Word of the Lord from the first book of Samuel, please join your hearts with mine in prayer –

God of the Lenten wilderness places in our lives, it can be hard to hear you in the desert. It can be hard to hear you in the city, in the fields, in the woods, in the midst of our calendar reminders, notification alerts, and rushing from here to there. It can be hard to hear you, so we ask: Make everything quiet. Pause the chaos. Still the rushing. Ease our racing thoughts. Give us ears to hear your Word for us today, which promises that even in the desert you are full to the brim. We are listening, and we ache for your good news. Gratefully and hopefully we pray, amen.

Samuel said to all Israel, “I have listened to you in all that you have said to me, and have set a king over you.

“See, it is the king who leads you now; I am old and gray, but my sons are with you. I have led you from my youth until this day. Here I am; testify against me before the LORD and before his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Or whose donkey have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it? Testify against me and I will restore it to you.”

They said, “You have not defrauded us or oppressed us or taken anything from the hand of anyone.” He said to them, “The LORD is witness against you, and his anointed is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hand.” And they said, “He is witness.” Samuel said to the people, “The LORD is witness, who appointed Moses and Aaron and brought your ancestors up out of the land of Egypt.

“Now therefore take your stand, so that I may enter into judgment with you before the LORD, and I will declare to you all the saving deeds of the LORD that he performed for you and for your ancestors. When Jacob went into Egypt and the Egyptians oppressed them, then your ancestors cried to the LORD and the LORD sent Moses and Aaron, who brought forth your ancestors out of Egypt, and settled them in this place.

“But they forgot the LORD their God; and he sold them into the hand of Sisera, commander of the army of King Jabin of Hazor, and into the hand of the Philistines, and into the hand of the king of Moab; and they fought against them. Then they cried to the LORD, and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have forsaken the LORD, and have served the Baals and the Astartes; but now rescue us out of the hand of our enemies, and we will serve you.’

And the LORD sent Jerubbaal and Barak, and Jephthah, and Samson, and rescued you out of the hand of your enemies on every side; and you lived in safety. But when you saw that King Nahash of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ though the LORD your God was your king.

“See, here is the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked; see, the LORD has set a king over you. If you will fear the LORD and serve him and heed his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well; but if you will not heed the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you and your king.

“Now therefore take your stand and see this great thing that the LORD will do before your eyes.

“Is it not the wheat harvest today? I will call upon the LORD, that he may send thunder and rain; and you shall know and see that the wickedness that you have done in the sight of the LORD is great in demanding a king for yourselves.”

So Samuel called upon the LORD, and the LORD sent thunder and rain that day; and all the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel. All the people said to Samuel, “Pray to the LORD your God for your servants, so that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins the evil of demanding a king for ourselves.”

And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless. For the LORD will not cast away his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself.

Moreover as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. Only fear the LORD, and serve him faithfully with all your heart; for consider what great things he has done for you. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.” (1 Samueal 12:1-25)

In 25 bracing verses, Samuel tersely and bluntly tells the story of God and us.

After defending the integrity of his own faith, Samuel accuses with plenty of evidence and convicts beyond a reasonable doubt: God’s people are more than guilty of practicing faith and living lives that lack integrity, honesty, and reliability.

So, if I were huddled with that crowd listening to Samuel, I think I’d be standing there feeling completely gobsmacked and overwhelmed with guilt by the time Samuel steps away from the pulpit.

Samuel is spot o n in describing our relationship with God: The Lord, from the get-go, full well knows and definitely has seen that his people, as often as not, are disobedient and faithless. And God – filled with the patience, mercy, and grace of heaven – reaches out through the Holy Spirit with a divine tap on the human shoulder.

“Excuse me, folks! Ya know why you feel guilty? Because you ARE guilty! You’re guilty of doing a whole lot of things over the courses of your lifetimes that were way over the line and definitely out of bounds.”

But, helpfully, that lump-in-the-throat, knot-in-the-stomach announcement ought to connect a few dots for us.

We know – or should know – that God is a God of goodness. So if the God of goodness is the One who stirs our feelings of guilt, it only seems to follow that guilt must be a good thing.

God is good; God’s Spirit is the revealer of guilt, so then guilt that is of God and the Spirit has to be a good thing.

Although no one feels good about feeling guilty, let me suggest that guilt plays a very important role in our lives. Guilt is a vital part of growing in faith and becoming more like the God in whose image we are made.

We are social beings. God created us to live together in community, and an emotion like guilt that helps us recognize those actions that tear apart our connections with God and each other is a good thing.

Feeling guilty fosters concern for the wellbeing of others within the communities of which we are part. It is the feeling of guilt that causes us to examine the hardships that we cause for others and make us want to engage in some different behaviors that’ll fix the messes we’ve created. Guilt is what spurs you and me to take responsibility for our actions and acknowledge our roles in the conflicts that toss our lives and our world to and fro.

Guilt is what motivates us to extend an olive branch of peace and reconciliation in simply saying, “I’m sorry.”

But that’s not what we usually do with our guilt, is it?

You and I are more like the little boy who answered the phone with a whispered “Hello.” The voice on the other end of the line asked, “Uh, hello, is your mother home?” The little guy answered, “Yeah, but she’s busy.”

“Is your father home?” … “Yeah, but he’s busy too.”

“Well, is there any other adult in the house that I might talk to?”

“Yeah, there’s a police officer and a firefighter here.”

“May I speak with one of them?”

“No, they’re busy, too.”

“Well, what’s everybody so busy doing?”

The little boy whispered, “They are looking for me.”

When we’re feeling guilty, our instinct is to go and hide. Hiding is exactly what Adam and Eve did, as we heard a few weeks ago, when God comes looking for them after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. But hiding probably isn’t the best way of dealing with guilt, because hiding never resolves guilt. Hiding only pushes it down, denies it, or covers it up.

And that’s exactly what you and I have been doing for generations:  Pushing down, denying, and covering up feeling guilty for our sins, debts, and trespasses.

Whenever we won’t let guilt haunt our souls and tug at our heartstrings, it means we’ve become calloused and indifferent, and calloused, indifferent people become increasingly capable of destructive attitudes and behavior that inflict even more pain and suffering upon those around them.

That would explain a lot of what’s happening around us today, wouldn’t it?

But the good news is that guilt is not a dead-end.

Feeling guilty means that you’re standing at a crossroad where a life-changing decision must be made: Either keep running and hiding, or take the road less traveled that leads to something new and fresh.

Remember, in all this, that I’m talking about guilt not shame.

Guilt is about actions and behaviors, but shame is the pain of feeling flawed.

Guilt focuses on behavior and values, but shame is having low self-esteem and feeling unlovable.

Guilt is the natural and healthy feeling we get when we do something we know darn well we shouldn’t have, but shame is the unhealthy response to not doing something correctly.

With guilt, you regret your decisions and actions but still respect yourself. With shame, you lose self-respect and let shame define who you are.

Shame is wrapped up in feelings of unworthiness, or not being loved, or of being responsible for things outside your control.

Shame is NOT a good thing. But feelings of guilt that open heart and mind to harm you’ve done and focus your time and effort on repairing the damage you’ve caused, well, that’s a good thing – a very good thing.

That’s because guilt connects you with grace, and grace connects you to the God who understands your failures and mistakes.

God grieves with us in our guilt and is perfectly willing to forgive us for our failures and mistakes and mend the brokenness that our missteps have created. All you’ve got to do is ask.

We know – or should know – that ours in not a tit-for-tat God when it comes to guilt. Though some expect nothing from God but wrath and retribution, thanks be to God that, because of Jesus Christ, you and I know better.

We know – or should know – that as much as guilt overpowers, grace abounds even more.

As we follow Jesus into Lent’s desert place of lonely self-reflection and honest repentance, let our song also be our prayer:

Lord, who throughout these 40 days for us did fast and pray,
teach us with thee to mourn our sins, and close by thee to stay.

Abide with us, that so this life, of suffering over past,
an Easter of unending joy we may attain at last.

Ancient words, ever true, and filled with courage and hope to again make our Lenten walk to the Cross with Christ.

Amen, and amen.

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, March 6, 2022, the first Sunday of Lent. The ninth sermon in his series “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us,” it is adapted from scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Walter Brueggemann, MaryAnne Fisher, and Terence Fretheim.

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