Jason Byassee: Ask hard questions

Ask hard questions. God is ready for them, says a theologian and pastor.

Genesis 3:1-7, 21; John 18:28-40

The story [in Genesis 3] may be the most influential in all of literature. It describes what’s wrong with the world, what’s wrong with you and me. There was a literary contest in early 20th-century England around the question, “What’s wrong with the world?”

G.K. Chesterton wrote this winning response: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.” That answer comes straight from this story.

This story raises as many questions as answers. Eden was paradise, life as God intends. Well, how’d the snake get in there? Didn’t God know if he gave Adam and Eve just one rule, the first thing they’d want to do is break it? Is the serpent entirely lying? They don’t die when they eat, after all.

Where was Adam in all this? He’s there, but doesn’t object, doesn’t raise his voice -- nothing -- just eats what Eve offers. And where is God? How come God only sashays in after all this? What would have happened if we hadn’t fallen? Would we all still be in the garden, 7 billion strong? If we hadn’t fallen, if there were no sin, what stories would we tell? Wouldn’t that be boring?

The church has always loved asking this one: If Adam and Eve had not fallen, would God still have come in the flesh in Christ? And maybe the best question here: How can God be so gracious, right after the fall, to knit clothes for these two in place of their pitiful fig leaves?

The Bible doesn’t answer our questions. It just tells its story. In fact, the Bible has some questions for us. Why are we so not-at-home in the world? How come even if you really want to do something, morally, you often can’t? Does any reasonable person think we humans can just save ourselves? Are we really as good as we think? When we ask questions of the Bible, we’d better watch out. God has some questions for us.

This is the last in our series of sermons on our new values as a church, and today’s is this: “Ask hard questions.” It is a conviction of this church that God is not afraid of our hardest questions.

Many churches are afraid. It is our worst habit as Christians to freak out when someone asks a hard question, as if God were the Wizard of Oz trembling behind the curtain. God is the source of all wisdom. God gave us our minds, our curiosity. God tells us to love God “with all our mind.”

Ask hard questions. Go ahead. Bring it. God is ready.

We normally read this next story [in John 18] during Holy Week. Jesus is before Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate’s only job is to keep order in the region. Today, we need Middle Eastern oil. Then, Rome needed Middle Eastern corn. Same politics -- keep them as calm as possible, with force if necessary, to keep the economy humming. Pilate also likes to spite the local religious leaders, the Jews.

Notice the question he asks Jesus: “What is truth?” The most cynical, hard-bitten, two-pack-a-day sort of question. Pilate has no idea the truth in person is standing right in front of his face.

Three things I want to say about asking hard questions: Why we ask hard questions of God; how we ask hard questions of one another; and does God have some hard questions for us?

Why we ask hard questions. There is a wrong way to ask hard questions. “Did God say?” is the first question in the Bible. It is also the first lie.

“Did God say you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” No, God did not. God only ruled out two trees. Eve corrects the serpent. But the seed of doubt is planted. Maybe God is ungenerous. Maybe God is hiding something.

Pilate, interrogating Jesus, just another prisoner to torture and dispatch to keep order -- Jesus says something about truth, and Pilate rolls his eyes. Truth? Who cares about truth? What’s that?

Did God say? and What is truth? These are questions born of deceit and despair.

There are other wrong ways to ask questions. Michael Jordan tweeted recently that he could have taken LeBron James one-on-one when he was in his prime. Maybe. Maybe not. Who cares? The real question, perhaps being avoided, is, Can Michael make the Bobcats win?

The sophomore asks, “Can God create a rock too heavy for him to lift?” No, because God can’t do the absurd. Next question?

Questions can simply suggest defensiveness, born of insecurity -- time wasters, designed to make us feel clever.

That’s not why we ask hard questions. We ask hard questions because of who we believe God is. God is a mystery, not a puzzle. A puzzle is a question with an answer: What’s the square root of 49? Who was king of England in 1610? A mystery is a question that, once you get an answer, opens up 100 more questions.

Who is God? Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s true. Now I have a lot more questions. Does God love me? Does God love the world? How do I get my life right with God? A puzzle is like Sudoku or a crossword; you kill time with it, till it’s done, then it holds no more interest for you.

A mystery is like the face of someone you love. The more you know, the more there is to be known. One glimpse at Jesus and all you’ll want is more. A mystery, not a puzzle.

And this is very important. We should never be defensive on God’s behalf. We Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God. Do we understand that? No! Are we afraid when someone questions it? No! We don’t understand it, either; we have some questions, too. But we trust it.

Here’s another reason not to fear questions: God is unbelievably patient. God has been waiting for his people to return to him since the garden. God is waiting right now until all people know about his Son. And God is incredibly patient with our waywardness, sheer laziness and sin. So we can be patient with others.

One way to believe is to ask, “What’s the least I have to swallow?” Virgin birth? Jesus’ divinity? The Scriptures’ holiness? A better way says this: “Look at all this great stuff I get to believe!”

Do you understand it? No! Of course not; who could? But I can worship this God whom I can’t understand.

Two, what sorts of questions do we ask one another? Now, this is hard. Questions about Michael and LeBron one-on-one are fun, but they don’t change our life. In my last “hard questions” sermon, I mentioned my kids’ question, “Who would win a fight between Batman and Superman?” One of you answered it for me: “Batman, of course, because he’d have kryptonite on his utility belt.” Fun.

But what about this sort of question: Why is my marriage failing? What do I do about my kids or grandkids? Why can’t I be happy? How come I’m determined not to look at pornography but still do? How come I need the bottle to feel OK about myself? Barbara Brown Taylor asks this hard question: Have you ever heard someone tell the truth about yourself so clearly that you wanted to kill them to make them stop? If not, let me introduce you to Jesus.

When I hear someone rail against religion, I want to ask them a question: “Who hurt you? I’m sorry.” When someone can’t get their act together, I want to ask, “Who was it who failed you? Who said they’d love you and then didn’t?”

Often, we can all see what’s wrong in someone’s life, but they can’t. Someone tries to change jobs, change spouses, change looks, change self, and all the rest of us can see, “Man, she’s unhappy with herself but blaming everybody and everything else.”

The human heart is a mystery because it reflects God, who is mystery. But God is always good. Our hearts are wounded and torn. John Calvin said the human heart is a perpetual factory of idols. And we can’t fix our hearts by ourselves. I read somewhere that we shouldn’t ask people how they are if we want a real response. We should ask, “How’s your week been?” That’s a real invitation. Or in more Christian terms, “How is it with your soul?”

Here’s a question for each other for stewardship season: If we give more to God, will we get more back? Many of you with more faith than I have insist on this: You can’t outgive God. Is it so?

My worry is if it’s true you can’t outgive God, then giving to the church is an investment rather than a sacrifice. But I think you may be right. The more generous we are, the more generous God is. I’ve heard of churches taking something called the John Wesley challenge. They ask each other to give like they mean it, 10 percent, say, for a certain period of time, say, months. And if God doesn’t give more back, they can ask for that money back.

But here’s the sort of question we might ask each other: Is what the Bible says about generosity true? That God has given us enough to give away generously?

Next week we begin signing up for community groups, places to ask, “How is it with your soul?” I hope we’ll find space in them to ask questions like these of one another. And this is the church. We know that Jesus is the answer to every question.

I tell y’all often the joke about the children’s sermon, where the preacher asks, “What’s gray and fuzzy?” and the kids all scream “Jesus!” but one shakes her head, “Sure sounds like a squirrel.” In the church, the answer is always Jesus. Now we have to figure out the next question.

We know the answer to the pain in our hearts, in the world, is Jesus. Now how do we match that answer with our particular need? No one can answer a question like that on their own. We need others to speak truth in our lives. That’s what Christian friendships and community groups are for.

A friend of mine had terrible back pain. The doctor looked at the MRI and asked a question: “Wow, that must really hurt, doesn’t it?” “Yes,” my friend said, “thank you.” He felt heard, his pain acknowledged.

That’s another kind of hard question -- to notice the obvious thing that is affecting someone’s life. Someone I love saw his marriage dissolve. He asked, “I guess I’m just destined to be alone, aren’t I?” I had to disagree with that hard question. “No, you’re not! You’re destined to be with God and all God’s people. Now let’s get your life ready for that reality.”

And sometimes our hardest questions just show our sin. We ask Pilate’s question -- What is truth? -- when the truth is the Jew right in front of us. Quick, let’s get a cross and string him up. N.T. Wright, greatest Bible scholar alive, notes that in this passage the world’s noblest religion, Judaism, and the world’s greatest legal system, Rome, band together to kill the Son of God.

Together they blunder and stumble into an act so wicked, so unjust, so unnecessary and so indicative of their own moral bankruptcy that, before anything more is said, we can already draw the correct conclusion. The man at the center of this storm was indeed dying for the sins of the world.

God has some questions for us. The Christian faith is not an endless doctoral seminar where you get extra credit for batting around ideas that don’t move your soul.

So here are some questions God has for us: Do you really think you can make your own life turn out right? If you achieve enough, earn enough, will you really not need God? God asks us this: Do you really want to live for yourself alone? The secret to life is living for other people.

Let me give you a little illustration here. We think we ought to be filled up with God and then go serve. (Like this.) It’s exhausting. And it doesn’t work. Here’s how it actually works. We are so filled up with the goodness of God that we overflow and pour God out on others also. That’s how we can serve unendingly.

And that’s the key to life. You don’t want to live any other way, do you?

God asks us more hard questions: Who do you say that I am? A great teacher? Like Socrates? A leader? Like Lincoln? A fool crushed under the wheel of history? Lots of people out there think Jesus is judgmental, unkind, arrogant. Because they’ve met Jesus’ friends, and that’s what they’ve found.

OK, enough distractions. Who do you say Jesus is? The truth? The Son of God? One here to save?

Barabbas is in the cell beside Jesus. In some Gospel accounts, his full name is Jesus Barabbas. And in some stories in the early church, the two Jesuses grew up together and knew each other. Barabbas is a bandit, a brigand, one who wants to rebel against Rome by force. In other words, he is what Jesus is accused of being. One day, with no warning, Barabbas’ prison cell flies open, and he is released. No explanation.

As Jesus goes to his cross, Barabbas goes free. He has made no promise to mend his ways. He’s just the beneficiary of this squabble between Jesus, Pilate, the Jews, and you and me. Do you think Barabbas asked himself some hard questions? Like, “Where did my freedom come from? What did it cost?”

Do you see how free salvation is? We do nothing. God does everything. We deserve death and receive life. God receives death, gladly, for us. Do you hear me? Really hear me? How can anything ever be the same now?

Amen.