Sunday’s sermon: Excusing Our Excuses


Texts used – Jeremiah 1:4-10; Hebrews 4:11-16





  • We’re actually going to start off a little interactive this morning. Y’all are going to be each other’s sermon illustrations. Let me ask you a question: What are your favorite excuses?
    • Could be classic excuses
    • Could be excuses you’ve heard from your friends, family, etc.
    • Could be excuses you’ve used in the past or even ones you use on a regular basis
  • Purpose of excuses = get ourselves out of something, right?
    • Getting ourselves out of sticky situations → excuses that try to get us out of trouble
    • Getting ourselves out of obligations → excuses that try to get us out of this event or that meeting
    • Getting ourselves out of responsibility → excuses that try to get us out of being blamed for something
    • Shift the pronunciation a bit and “excuse” the noun becomes “excuse” the verb
      • Noun definition: a reason or explanation put forward to defend or justify a fault or offense
      • Verb definition: attempt to lessen the blame attaching to (a fault or offense); release (someone) from a duty or requirement
      • Excuses excuse They pass the buck. They shift the focus. They redirect attention away from ourselves and whatever we’re doing wrong … or whatever we’re not doing … or whatever we’re trying to keep from doing.
    • And depending on which corner of the internet you’re hanging out in, excuses can either be a good thing or a bad thing.
      • Self-help/personal betterment corner: “13 Steps to Stop Making Excuses and Get Results in Your Life”[1] and “15 motivational Quotes to Stop Making Excuses”[2]
      • Comedic corner: “The 40 Lamest Excuses Ever Uttered”[3] and “14 Hilarious Homework Excuses”[4]
      • And so on, and so on.
    • Church life and faith are no strangers to excuses either.
      • Excuse away why we weren’t at church or why we couldn’t make it to this church function or that meeting
      • Excuse away why we couldn’t make time to attend to our spiritual health today
        • Couldn’t read
        • Couldn’t pray
        • Couldn’t sit quietly with God
      • Excuse away why we act one way even when we know we should act another way
      • And let me tell you something this morning, all – let me reassure you of something. When it comes to excuses and faith, we are by no means alone. We are in prominent Scriptural company. Some of the best excuse-makers ever are found in the pages of Scripture.
        • Adam and Eve → Adam: “She made me do it.” Eve: “The snake made me do it.”[5]
        • Sarah → “Me? Can’t be, God. I’m too old to have a baby!”[6]
        • Moses → “I can’t go there and say that, God. I don’t speak well.”[7]
        • Pharisees (over and over again) → “But that’s not the letter of the law. It must be wrong.”
        • Jonah → (running in the opposite direction) “NOPE! Just … NOPE!”[8]
        • King David … well, that whole Bathsheba incident (just to start with!)[9]
        • Peter → “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know that guy.”[10]
        • Rich young ruler that approaches Jesus → “Yeah, I’ve already done everything. Wait … sell my stuff? Uhhhhh … buh-bye.”[11]
        • Gideon (one of the great judges of the OT – after the Israelites reached the promised land but before they demanded a king) → “I’m the scrawniest guy in the lowliest family in the weakest of the 12 tribes. No way you can actually mean me, God.”[12]
        • Today’s passage – prophet Jeremiah → “Not me, God. I’m just a kid!”[13]
  • Let’s look at today’s passage a little more closely.
    • Context for Jeremiah
      • Jeremiah sees some of the best and some of the worst of the people[14]
        • BEST = religious reforms of King Josiah
          • Renovates and even fortifies the temple → finds a long-lost scroll of the law during renovation
          • Renews religious devotion → draws people back to prayers and practices laid out by God in the Torah
          • Time of relative harmony and unity in Judea
        • WORST: Babylonian exile → prophet to the people of Israel left behind during Babylonian exile
          • Jerusalem = a city forever changed
            • Temple was destroyed when the Babylonians sacked the city and took the best and brightest into exile
            • Walls of the city were also destroyed along with many other dwellings and prominent buildings
            • Living with Babylonian-appointed and Babylonian-born governor who ruled over Jerusalem → killed by rival for political reasons → rival flees to the Ammonites (modern day Jordan) → remaining city leaders become nervous and eventually flee to Egypt (last we hear from Jeremiah)
    • Book of Jeremiah begins with Jeremiah’s own call – text: The Lord’s word came to me: “Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I made you a prophet to the nations.”[15] → Pretty weighty, right? That’s certainly no small charge – no insignificant call. I think it’s safe to say anyone would feel overwhelmed by a revelation like that, right?
      • Jeremiah’s response = excuse: “Ah, Lord God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child.”[16]
      • So we’ve got God’s call, and we’ve got Jeremiah’s excuse. But hear what comes next. This is the important part! – text: The Lord responded, “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’ Where I send you, you must go; what I tell you, you must say. Don’t be afraid of them, because I’m with you to rescue you,” declares the Lord. Then the Lord stretched out his hand, touched my mouth, and said to me, “I’m putting my words in your mouth. This very day I appoint you over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and to plant.”[17] → God sidesteps Jeremiah’s excuse and says, “It’s not your words. It’s not your work. It’s not your journey. It’s my work in and through you. It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. I’ve got you.” God doesn’t berate Jeremiah for his hesitation, for his fear, for his excuse. God simply takes that excuse, acknowledges it, and releases it.
  • Heb. passage speaks to God’s power to do this, too
    • Heb. context[18]
      • One of those letters that has been attributed to Paul in the past but is probably not actually one of Paul’s
        • Writing style doesn’t match (phrasing, word choice, etc.)
        • Content doesn’t jive with much of Paul’s other writing
      • Time?
        • Definitely written before 95 C.E. (quoted by Clement of Rome in 95/96 C.E.)
        • Potentially written sometime prior to the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 C.E.
        • Probably written somewhere between 60-95 C.E. → roughly 30 yrs. after Jesus’ death and resurrection, after the gospel of Mark, possibly around the same time as Matthew/Luke were written, before the gospel of John
      • Audience (not much known): community of believers, probably 2nd generation (Heb. later mentions the recipients having been baptized) → most likely a group of Hellenistic (Greek) Jewish Christians possibly living in Rome
      • One thing that is clear in the content of the letter itself is Hebrews was written to a community in crisis. Many of the people have grown lax in their faithful living, and it appears that their commitment is waning. They haven’t completely fallen away, but the writer of Hebrews makes it clear that they’ve got some work to do. They’ve been making and living their excuses for too long.
    • Today’s text addresses this by addressing the potent, powerful, penetrating nature of God’s word: God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.[19] → Friends, the good news and the challenging news is that God sees right through our excuses. God sees right through all those walls and barriers we try to put up. There is not an excuse on this earth that God hasn’t already heard. There is not a hurdle on this earth that God hasn’t already cleared. As we read in this passage from Hebrews, God is not only familiar with all the excuses, God is bigger than them all. But God doesn’t berate us for our excuses. God doesn’t shame us with or forsake us for those excuses that we make in our hearts and our souls. God simply acknowledges them, acknowledges the fear and worry and doubt at the root of them, and says to us, “But I am with you. And it’s okay. And it’ll continue to be okay. Because I’m not leaving you, and you have work to do.”
      • Makes me think of the classic children’s book Runaway Bunny[20]
        • Little bunny think of any and every way he can to run away and hide from his mother (become a fish, a rock on a mountain, a crocus in a garden, a sailboat, etc.) but the mother always comes up with a way to find him
        • The mother bunny doesn’t just say, “That’s silly. You’re not a rock. You’re my bunny, and you’re right here.” She doesn’t dismiss his scenario. She imagines herself in the midst of it – a fishermom who pulls her fish-bunny out of the sea, a rock climber who finds her rock-bunny on the mountain, a strong wind who blows her sailboat-bunny to wherever he needs to be. No matter what we try to do to excuse ourselves from the work and call and presence of God in our lives, God is just like that mother bunny. God smiles. God gently but undeniable inserts Godself into whatever story we have woven as our excuse, and God says, “But I love you, and I need you, so let’s go. Let’s do. Let’s be.” And friends, even when we are hesitant and frightened to hear it, that is, in fact, Good News. Alleluia. Amen.





[5] Gen 3:11-13.

[6] Gen 18:12.

[7] Ex 4:10.

[8] Jonah 1:1-3.

[9] 2 Sam 11.

[10] Lk 22:54-62.

[11] Mt 19:22.

[12] Jdg 6:15.

[13] Jer 1:6.

[14] Patrick D. Miller. “The Book of Jeremiah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 6. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), 556-560.

[15] Jer 1:4-5.

[16] Jer 1:6.

[17] Jer 1:7-10.

[18] Fred B. Craddock. “The Letter to the Hebrews: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 12. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 6-10.

[19] Heb 4:12-13.

[20] Margaret Wise Brown. The Runaway Bunny. (New York, NY: HarperCollins), 1942.

Sunday’s sermon: We Will Come Back Home

prodigal son

Texts used – Hosea 14:1-9; Luke 15:11-32




  • It’s a story as old as time, isn’t it?
    • Two people share a connection … a relationship … a love
      • Could be romantic love between two people
      • Could be love of friendship/companionship
      • Could be love between a parent and child
      • In the end, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the existence of the connection itself that matters, not the particulars.
    • Two people share a connection → for whatever reason, one person becomes distracted
      • Something promising
      • Something grander
      • Something more … just more. Again, it doesn’t really matter what the distraction is. It’s taken a thousand different forms throughout the various iterations of this story: power, prestige, wealth, flattery, fame … and on and on and on.
    • Two people share a connection → for whatever reason, one person becomes distracted → that person wanders away from that original, cherished connection in pursuit of The Other
      • Physical wandering
      • Emotional wandering
      • Even spiritual wandering
    • Two people share a connection → for whatever reason, one person becomes distracted → that person wanders away from that original, cherished connection in pursuit of The Other → sometime (either after obtaining The Other or even sometimes during the pursuit itself) the person who has wandered away realizes that the connection they initially had was better than whatever they’ve been chasing → RETURN
    • It’s a story as old as time, isn’t it? We’ve seen it played out in literature. We’ve seen it played out in popular culture. We’ve seen it played out in Scripture. I’d be willing to bet we’ve even seen it played out in our own lives or in the lives of the people we know and love. Maybe you’ve been the Wanderer. Maybe you’ve been the one waiting for the Wanderer to return. It’s a story as old as time and as universal as humanity itself. It’s a story that spans all the barriers. Some variation of it is told in every culture, in every language, in every part of the world. → 3 variations of this story just today
      • Wandering and returning of the religious devotion of the people of Israel = OT passage from Hosea
      • Wandering and returning of the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable = NT passage
      • Wandering and returning of P.T. Barnum in the last song of our Greatest Showman series
  • Since it’s been a few weeks, before we listen to our song this morning, let me set this up for you a bit.
    • Reminder: P.T. Barnum grew up dirt poor → always wanted to have that wealth and privilege he glimpsed when he went with his father to help tailor rich men’s suits
    • Reminder: when his circus started growing in popularity and notoriety, Barnum decided to add on to his repertoire by bringing Swedish opera star Jenny Lind to America to tour → Barnum went with her to do promotional work, leaving his family (both his nuclear family – wife and daughters – and his circus family) behind
    • Quick succession toward the end of the movie:
      • Scandal on tour with Lind
      • Barnum returns
      • Wife is angry → has moved out of their house with his daughters
      • Circus family is angry → feels as though they’ve been abandoned by him
      • Building in which the circus is housed is burned to the ground → shaky/shady investments that Barnum used to secure the building and initial funding for the circus in the first place means there’s no way he’ll ever have the money to rebuild
    • And in the face of all that loss, as he sits in a bar lamenting what was and trying to come to terms with what his life has become, Barnum finds himself surrounded by his circus family once again. And this is his apology. This is his plea. This is his song. → [PLAY “From Now On[1]”]

  • As I said, when Barnum begins singing this song in the movie, he’s sitting in a bar with the core of his circus family. But in that bar, he finds a picture of himself and his family – his beloved wife and daughters. And that picture lights a fire inside Barnum’s heart and soul. So as he’s singing – as he’s boldly and unashamedly declaring, “From now on, these eyes will not be blinded by the lights!” – he’s running down the street. He’s catching a train. He’s journeying back to his in-laws’ house to find his wife and daughters because he has realized that they are his truest, most important treasure. He is turning and returning, doing everything he can to “come back home.”
    • Probably pretty obvious why I picked Prodigal Son passage out of Lk for today, right? → Barnum is quite literally the Prodigal
      • Lured away from family by wealth and prestige and all the trappings that come with it
      • Dazzled and distracted for a time by Swedish Nightingale’s exceptional talent and the renown that it brings to Barnum himself by association just as the Prodigal Son was dazzled and distracted by all the attention and status his fleeting wealth brought him
      • Unfortunately, in the general tale of the Wanderer as well as our more specific tales of the Prodigal Son and The Greatest Showman this morning, there always comes a moment that jars the Wanderer out of that overawed, starry-eyed state – something that brings the Wanderer back to reality, that brings about the realization that what was had before was better than where he finds himself now. And this moment is almost never a pleasant moment.
        • Barnum – perfect storm: manufactured scandal splashed across the front pages + his family leaving him + the fire at his circus building
        • Prodigal Son: running out of money + famine = taking the dirtiest, lowliest job there was (feeding the pigs) and being so hungry that the pig food started looking appealing → text puts words to that moment for us: When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death!”[2]
          • Startling realization
          • Harsh realization
          • One of those moments that you really feel like you’ve suddenly woken up → You know, those moments when you feel like everything leading up to where you are was a dream, and suddenly you’re awake for the first time in who-knows-how-long. You can’t believe you are where you are. You can’t believe you’re doing what you’re doing or seeing what you’re seeing or experiencing what you’re experiencing.
    • This is where our Hosea passage comes in this morning, too. Sometimes, it’s not just an individual that has wandered away and hit rock bottom but an entire people.
      • Don’t often preach from Hosea → one of those small, minor prophets buried at the back of the OT that you can easily miss if you’re flipping through
      • Hosea is an especially challenging prophet with a particularly accusatory tone – e.g.: Hear the Lord’s word, people of Israel; for the Lord has a dispute with the inhabitants of the land. There’s no faithful love or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, murdering, together with stealing and adultery are common; bloody crime followed by bloody crime. … Listen, priest, I am angry with your people. You will stumble by day; and at nighttime so will your prophet, and I will destroy your mother.[3]
      • Context:
        • People of Israel were in the midst of serious economic hardship – huge gap between the few who were wealthy and everyone else – along with the cost of a long and bloody war with Assyria (which they lost) and the tribute they were required to pay to the victors → rich exploiting the poor to try to pay debts
        • Also in the midst of serious cultural and religious turmoil – people of Israel had abandoned their worship of God for the cultic religions of those around them
          • Pantheon of other gods
          • Pagan practices both in the home and in places of worship
        • Basically, things had gotten about as bad as they could get for the people of Israel. So God sent Hosea to speak harsh words of truth and rebuke. But as always, God did not stop there. – today’s passage: Return, Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall! Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him: “Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.” … I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them.[4]
          • Speaks of the incredible grace and forgiveness of God → a God who not only welcomes home lost and wandering loves but waits for them with anxious, baited breath, who runs to embrace returning wanderers with open arms and an open heart, who longs to heal our waywardness and love us freely … and that, friends, is good news if I’ve ever heard it.
        • Good news that Hosea continues to proclaim → goes on to speak of Israel blooming and flourishing under God’s encouragement and protection … But first, they have to make that choice. They have to choose to
  • BUT not just simple returning
    • “return” in Scripture = interesting word
      • Heb. “return” = same word as “repent” → multiple meanings: turning, going back
      • Gr. = “turning around” as well but also contains connotations of remorse and change
      • Either way, there is intentionality and purpose in this turning and returning, in this repentance. There is a self-awareness that a wrong was done – either intentionally or unintentionally – and there is a concerted effort to right that wrong, both internally and in the world.
    • Convocation speaker at Synod School a few weeks ago – Dr. Dede Johnston
      • Professor of Communication and Interim Associate Dean for Global Education at Hope College in Holland, MI
      • Theme of the week: Cultivating Civil Community
      • Spend most of the week talking about civil discourse and non-violent community and how to lean into conflict without becoming overwhelmed by it
      • During her last convocation presentation, Dr. Johnston pointed out an interesting distinction. She was talking about reconciliation, and she pointed out that there’s a subtle difference between repentance and reconciliation.
        • Repentance = see, turn (as we’ve already said)
        • Reconciliation (takes it a step further) = see, turn, ENGAGE → Seeing the mistakes made. Turning and returning to the people and places in which those mistakes were made. And then engaging in actions to mend the fences broken by those mistakes.
    • Powerful illustration → story of Corrymeela in Northern Ireland
      • Live-in community that hosts 11,000 visitors per year (similar to Iona in Scotland or Taize in France)
      • Community dedicated to the hard and painful work of reconciliation → particularly powerful and difficult work in Northern Ireland following the Protestant/Catholic violence throughout the late 20th
      • From their website: Corrymeela believes in the power of people telling their stories, of shared hospitality, of telling the truth about the present, of turning towards each other and finding strength, life and hope in each other. Ultimately, the work of Corrymeela helps groups learn how to be well together.[5]
      • Chapel = circle → service of lighting candles for loved ones who had died as a result of the Protestant/Catholic violence → mother of a son who had carried out a bombing helped to light a candle by the father of a man whose daughter had been killed in that same bombing → Seeing … turning … engaging. In those simple and yet profoundly difficult steps, we find the same steps necessary for repentance, but we also find action. We find resolve. We find a willingness and a humility. And friends, in taking those steps, we will indeed come back home … home again. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] “From Now On” written by Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, © 2017 Sony/ATV Music.

[2] Lk 15:14-17.

[3] Hos 4:1-2, 4b-5.

[4] Hos 14:1-2, 4.