Text: Psalm 25:3, Psalm 28:6-9, Jonah 3, Luke 19:1-10, Acts 9:17-31, 1 Peter 2:9
“Everybody, even the worst stinker on earth, is somebody for whom Christ died.”
- Robert Farrar Capon
I know so many stinkers. I bet you do too. The question of what to do about someone who seems like a lost cause is, frankly, often on my mind. I knew some real stinkers even when I was in middle school, and during those years I was very committed to reading The Lord of the Rings. All those years ago, dressed in my mithril shirt, clutching my sword of Gondor, and nibbling on lembas bread, I discovered the stinker to beat them all: Gollum.
Originally, he was just a normal hobbit, until he fell into some bad circumstances (found a dangerous object) and made some bad choices (murdered his cousin) that conspired to turn him into the wretched creature, Gollum. Most of the “lost causes” I know got that way because of similar reasons: an unfortunate combination of bad choices and bad circumstances.
That instinct to be free of a “lost cause” is something many of us share, although we aren’t inclined to admit it. But, man, remember how Saul persecuted the Church, and stood by, complicit, at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-66)? God picked Saul up, turned him around 180 degrees, and sent him in the other direction with instructions to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God (Acts 9:20). God wasn’t done with Saul; He had a whole new life for him as Paul.
The story of Zacchaeus is similar, though instead of a zealous Pharisee, Zacchaeus was a rich and “sinful” man (Luke 19:1-2,7). But, like Paul, Zacchaeus repented when Christ called him (Luke 19:5-6). Both Paul and Zacchaeus repented, not because they sought Christ on their own, but because they were called to Him. The change in their lives didn’t happen because they were fed up with their way of life and turned all their gumption toward making themselves better human beings. It was God who called them to Himself.
If you are a Christian today, it’s not because you are a better or more disciplined person than your “lost cause.” It is because of “the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). He calls us. He changes us. It is He who makes the difference in the lives of the broken, the stubborn, the sneaky, the exhausting, the terrifying, and the unlovely.
What do we do in the meantime? If it’s all up to God, does that get me off the hook? I would be so happy to go back to my second breakfast and let God deal with His own invitations to stinkers. Jonah definitely felt the same way: Good riddance, Ninevah, you bunch of eye-gougers! (Jonah 3:1-3; 4:1-3, my summation and paraphrase). Then God had to call both Jonah and Nineveh to obedience; He called Nineveh to repent and Jonah to deliver His message of repentance.
And there it is. God does the calling. God does the changing. But we pray and walk in obedience, even if our steps are slow.
We don’t know the end of the story. In spite of how much I wanted Gollum to be shoved off a cliff and go away already, at the end of The Lord of the Rings, he was the only one uniquely and perfectly suited to save the whole world. Even the most seemingly hopeless case may still have a part to play. The gospel urges us not to give up hope and continue in quiet obedience.
But I will hope continually
and will praise You more and more.
- Psalm 71:14