On occasion I am forced to preach at the church I attend; for instance when the pastor goes on vacation or gets sick.  Once, not so long ago, I chose as my sermon title “God: Harsh Disciplinarian or Permissive Parent?”  I suggested that mercy matters more to God than judgment, which should surprise no one.  Consider our own thinking. As teenagers, if we came home past curfew and our parents caught us, what did we do?  We told mom and dad that it would never happen again, it was an accident. We begged for mercy.

 But if someone eats some of our food that we stored in the break room at work, what do we want?  We want to see some punishment.  We want justice!

In examining the Bible, it seems to me that God mostly treats people the way we hoped our parents would treat us, not how we’d treat someone who ate our last cupcake.

            In the treaty God made with his people Israel, he told them that he was not giving them the Promised Land because of their righteousness, but because he loved them (Deuteronomy 9:4-6).  It’s rather similar to what Paul later writes to a church in Rome, when he reminds them that God loves us and sent his son to die for our sins while we were still sinners and still his enemy.  (Romans 5:6-11)

            Therefore it is not so surprising that God regularly warns his people of punishment, and then is likely to forgive them and not punish them at all.  For instance, in Exodus 33:1-3, after the golden calf incident, God told the Israelites that they would have to go to the Promised Land by themselves, without him.  But by Exodus 33:15-17,  Moses begged and so God agreeed to go along with them after all.

Each week I teach an adult Sunday school class; currently we are studying the book of Judges.  We’ve very quickly discovered that the Israelites kept repeating the bad behavior. At least twelve times the Israelites worshipped idols, God sent trouble, they begged for help, God sent a rescuer, and when the rescuer died, they reverted to worshipping idols.  And the Israelites continued their idolatrous ways even after they got kings like David and Solomon to rule over them.

So what did God do about it? What most of us do with our children: he just yelled at them. He sent prophet after prophet warning them that God would bring judgment if they didn’t stop worshipping idols.  This continued for about nine hundred years, until God finally had the Babylonians haul them into captivity starting in 605 BC. They remained in captivity only seventy years, and then went back home.

To put this into perspective, this would be like yelling at your teenager from the time she was 13 until she was 15 and a half—and then grounding her for a week.

Mostly, this is how God handles his people throughout the Bible. Once in a while, God drops brimstone.  Ananias and Sapphira lied to their church and they dropped dead. But most of the time, people lie and nothing much happens to them at all. Except they keep getting re-elected.

Frankly, God usually just lets people get away with murder.  Quite literally.

Moses killed an Egyptian.  Did God see to it that justice was served and that he got the death penalty or at least life in prison?  No.  He spent forty years tending sheep and then came back and rescued the Israelites from Egypt.

Jephthah (one of the Judges from our Sunday School studies) sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering because of a foolish vow (Judges 11).  Did God kill him?  Nope, he made Jephtha successful and established him as a leader in Israel. In the New Testament he is listed as an example of a great man of faith (see Hebrews 11:32).

David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband. Did God see to it that David was executed as the law of Moses required?  Nope. David remained the king of Israel. And the second son that he had with that hussy Bathsheba was Solomon –who became the next king.

            How many crimes have been committed this past year, just in California? Did God strike even one miscreant with lightning?  Did he lift a finger to prevent their misbehavior? Where was God when the Nazis slaughtered 6 million of his people in gas chambers? 

And look at you! Those awful, unfriendly words and gestures you shared with  that driver who cut you off on your way to work.  Even now, some of you are fantasizing about eating a whole Costco cake even though you’re on Weight Watchers.  And how many guys just “accidentally” stumbled upon certain pictures on the internet?  Fifteen times.  Every day.  And I’m sure most women are just thinking about how much they love their husbands while they watch that periodically shirtless actor in the TV series Chicago Fire.

But, perhaps surprisingly, you are still breathing and going about your daily business. No brimstone has fallen on your head.  You probably had a nice weekend.

What’s it all mean? It means that God is not a harsh disciplinarian.  Quite the opposite.  God loves us.  He thinks our freedom trumps making us behave.

In Genesis 3 God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to make the wrong choice with the forbidden fruit.  All of human history: every war, every murder, every act of genocide, all the lies, abuse, slavery, and more—flowed from that bad decision. 

But God thinks that was a price worth paying for freedom.  And think about it this way: there is very little crime in Saudi Arabia, where they kill and maim people for the most mild of offenses.  So everyone is well behaved. You can leave your doors unlocked and you purse unattended.  But tell me, where would you rather live?  Here, or there? Dictatorship or democracy?  Do you want mercy—or do you want justice?

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