“How many times do you forgive someone who has sinned against you?” We’ve all had opportunity to ask that question in some form or another – a friend talks about us behind our backs, a family member gives in to alcohol again, a co-worker steals our idea one more time. Of course, most of us have probably asked that question of ourselves too. More like this: “How many times can they forgive me?” or “How many more times can I come to God for forgiveness!” Do you remember when Peter asked that of Jesus? Jesus said “seventy times seven” or 490 times! Jesus didn’t mean literally that many times, but rather that the number of times are not to be counted. Which may seem like a foolish thing to us. But this is our Lord’s principle of forgiveness – a seemingly foolish love he applies to sinners like us and Israel.
Israel is a good test case for how foolish God’s love can seem to us and to the world because Israel is a prime example of the foolishness of sin. The book of Judges shows us the time in Israel’s history after the conquering of Canaan but before the people demanded kings like Saul and David. In that time, this kind of cycle prevailed: Israel would begin to do evil in God’s sight, God would send nations to oppress them, they would cry out for deliverance, God would send a judge (a spiritual/political leader) to save them, they would worship and serve God again for a time, until…you hear the sort of thing we have in chapter 10, when “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Lather, rinse, repeat… By chapter 10 they’ve been in the land of Canaan roughly three hundred years and have repeated that cycle at least five or six times.
Chapter 10 notes how they forsook the Lord and began to serve the gods of seven different nations! This is sort of like the author of Judges telling you idolatry is an olympic event and Israel is getting gold! But what an ironic and tragic accomplishment! They went to find comfort and pleasure and peace in the cultures around them, but really, they went out to serve the very gods their almighty God had conquered for them! They turned away from the God who had given them covenant promises of a land and a Savior by his power and love – and instead to impotent idols of wood and stone in nations God had trounced already! Foolishness!
Don’t you often look at Israel and say, “Yeah, they deserved God’s wrath! Who would do something so foolish!” But have you ever considered your own sins and temptations in this foolishness way? Foolish playing with impotent things – things already conquered? Think of how it really is now as God’s people – use 1 Corinthians 15: Praise be to God, “he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s not potential, that’s not part way – that’s victory won and given to us. Jesus won at the cross over sin and death and all the powers of this world. He set us down in the land of grace and yet, don’t we run to the foreign nations and their gods all around us? Sometimes it seems very sensible – these detestable things, they can give us a little more security or a little less trouble or a few more friends. But is it really any less foolish to give our allegiance to these things Christ has crushed, as though they’ve got something God can’t give? Is it any less foolish when these things overtake us for the 453rd time? Any less foolish to hope that maybe these things will pay out victory in the end though we already know the only possible way to measure up to his will – that of living in the victory Christ won?
Very rightly God could respond to us as he did to Israel – go find help in your new gods! And very rightly Israel provides the only thing foolish sinners can say back. Israel really makes two admissions: 1) “We have sinned against you…” – the reality that our sins are not just mistakes, just interpersonal issues, just personal foibles; they are offense against the God of heaven and damnable therefore. And they admit 2) “Do with us whatever you think is best…” – the reality that, in our sins, we’ve really accomplished nothing, that even all the accomplishment in the world finally leaves us not knowing God better but lacking the only thing he really loves, perfection in loving worship. We can only throw ourselves on his mercy.
Tell God what you have done. Confess your daily sinful foolishness, your inability to live up to his demands, your regular failures. Tell him of your sins and your service to other gods and plead for his mercy. And do it because, despite the foolishness of our sins, he cannot bear our misery and he would have you know the foolishness of his love instead.
In this section, when God responds to Israel, he reminds them of how many times he’s graciously saved them. And one would think that the conclusion after would be: we’ve reached one time too many, Israel, there’s nothing left. And maybe you worry the same. But the essence of the good news of God’s love finally is right at the end. When foolish sinners present their nothingness, God’s love shines in a way that seems quite foolish to the world. He does what we know we don’t deserve and what we shouldn’t expect. For Israel it said, “And [God] could bear Israel’s misery no longer…”
Think about your salvation in that way. God could not bear that you and I be stuck in our sin – oppressed by guilt and fear because of our foolishness with only condemnation coming. In his love, he just couldn’t bear it! It’s like the love Jesus shared in the gospel. That lost son doesn’t belong anymore at home! He squandered everything! Blatantly and foolishly wasted everything! Took prematurely, left selfishly, lived lavishly and should have died. But that’s not what fathers do…when he sees his broken, bankrupt, burned out son coming from a distance, he runs and smiles and hugs him – feeds him, feasts him, friends him again. He says, “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
In this Lenten season, revel in the extravagance of God – what seems foolishness to the world, but is exactly God’s strength in Jesus Christ! He knows what you have done, so he tells you what he has done instead. He preaches Christ crucified to you! A stumbling block to the notion that we can merit God’s love – Jesus brings his perfect attention to God’s will and sacrifices it. A stumbling block to the idea that we can reason out how God should work – he loves us not for who we are or what we become but only in this way, by faith in his Son. He makes his own Son weak, to die, humbled and lowly and seemingly powerless. But by that weak work he is mighty to save. He willingly pays; our sins, greatest to least and those oft-repeated, to remove them. He willingly provides; everything we need and more than we could ask, our rightness before him. He graciously saves, through this kind of foolish love, all those who believe.
This kind of foolish love – I wonder if it made that lost son in the gospel start asking what some might consider foolish questions. Like, “Whatever did I think I was missing before?” or “What do I possibly lack in this kind of love?” or “If he took me like this, and laid out all that, what won’t he do for me from here on out?” If God couldn’t bear our distress, so that he even sacrificed his own Son, he will also follow through on his promises of providing and paradise. He will give us the victory Jesus has won. This sort of thing makes you start to ask the kind of questions our world considers quite foolish: the kinds believers of old have often asked when tempted by the foolish things of this world… “How could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God!” or “Why would I ever stop preaching this Christ crucified for me?” or “What can possibly separate me from this love of Christ? What do I have to worry about?” or “What thing in this world can give me more than God has already given me? What wouldn’t I give, live, do for him?”
Live in God’s foolish love – this love that has given us the victory in our Lord Jesus. Listen to God preach Christ crucified for the forgiveness of foolish sinners, and begin again to ask all the foolish questions – the ones that show you have been so extravagantly loved.