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Monday, August 13, 2018

"I will not Come in Wrath" (Hosea 11:1-2, 8-9)

HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, August 12, 2018

            We’ve heard much about God’s anger as we have listened to the prophet Hosea.  Now, we come to chapter 11.  In the New Revised Standard Version, at the end of verse 9, we hear God say, “I will not come in wrath.”  God’s fury and God’s hurt have been spoken, but God won’t stop at these broken emotions. God has more to say. “My heart recoils; … my compassion grows. … I will not execute my fierce anger; … I will not come in wrath.”  Punishment?  Yes, God disciplines, but in the end, gives mercy. 
            Hold onto that thought and do not let it go.  However you see yourself, hold onto this.  God loves you.  God has mercy, forgiveness, new life.  God has this for you, for the people around you, for the people who have been hurt by you, and those who have hurt you.  It’s true for me, for all sitting here, and for all people who come to Him in faith.  God’s mercy and love are beyond our capacity to sin; God’s forgiveness exceeds the sins we’ve committed. 
            Hold onto that as I look at the Bible and recent history this morning. 
            Recent history: September 11, 2001 is, for the United States, the defining moment of this young century.  Passenger airlines were hijacked by terrorists and flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Thousands going about their daily routines in what they thought was safety died violently.  We Americans thought ourselves untouchable by enemy fire, suddenly felt very vulnerable.  We didn’t like the feeling and did not know what to do with it.
            In Dallas, Texas, one American, a white man, thought he knew what to do.  Born in 1969, Mark Stroman was almost 32 when the planes piloted by extremist terrorists hit the twin towers and killed so many people.  By that point in his life, he had a history of criminal activity, broken relationships, drug use (including crystal meth) and prison time.  He was a well-known name in the white supremacist and neo-Nazi circles in Texas.  His daughter said that once she identified who her father was to Aryan Brotherhood racists she met in a bar, they began singing his praises and treating her well.[i]
            He was an uneducated racist with violent tendencies who had never been out of Texas in his life.  He loved America in his own perverted way, and after the terrorist attacks, he decided to join the war on terror by killing Arab Muslims who happened to live in America.  So he went on a shooting spree.  He thought that as a good American, it was his duty to murder Arab Muslims.  He didn’t actually kill any Arabs, but that didn’t matter.  In his mind, as long as he was fighting brown-skinned people, he was showing his love for America. 
On September 15th, 2001, four days after the attacks he killed not an Arab, but a man of Pakistani descent, convenience store owner Waqar Hasan.  On October 4th, he murdered Vasudev Patel.  Mr. Patel was neither Muslim nor Arab.  He was a Hindu man from India.  Again, it made no difference to the one-man American killing machine, Mark Stroman.
            In between those homicides, senseless killings of people who loved America as much as he did, on September 21, 2011, Mark Stroman shot a Muslim man working at another convenience store, Bengali Rais Bhuiyan.  Mr. Bhuiyan didn’t die.  As the pellets fired out of the barrel, he turned his head.  His face was filled with the burning metal and he collapsed to the floor, but he was alive.  After many surgeries, Rais Bhuiyan recovered.  Loss of sight in his right eye was the only permanent damage. 
            Texas law enforcement officers quickly apprehended Mr. Stroman.  The trial was never in doubt.  Mr. Bhuiyan was able to testify, and soon Mark Stroman was on death row.  Prisoners go through a lot of appeals and end up spending years awaiting execution.  That was Stroman’s experience.
            For his part, Mr. Bhuiyan faced multiple surgeries, mounting medical bills, and heartbreak.  He had a fiancé back in Bangladesh, but she ended their relationship.  Depression threatened to set in.  However, this Bengali demonstrated remarkable resilience.  He had already climbed the ranks in the Bangladeshi air force.  He won a diversity lottery which got him his visa to come to America.  Alone and recovering, he tenaciously pursued all the financial aid he could get so that his medical debt became manageable. 
            Then he got work at Olive Garden.  He started as a waiter and worked his way up, slowly increasing his earnings and decreasing his debt.  His heartbreak healed as did his wounds, and he managed to get a technology degree and became a highly paid IT professional.  He also became an American citizen.  He was living the American dream so many immigrants hope can be theirs. 
            However, for Rais Bhuiyan, the changes weren’t just in his body and financial status and national citizenship.  A devout Muslim, he turned inward, and tried to understand who God wanted him to become.  The spiritual breakthrough came when he did something he had, for years, promised himself he would do.  He took his mother on a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.   The trip to Mecca, where Islam started is something all Muslims aspire to do in their lifetimes.   Those who can financially afford the trip take it.  While he was there, praying, reflecting on life and faith, he felt God was leading him to forgive Mark Stroman. 
            I don’t know what your impression of Islam is.  I know some people – some in our church with whom I have spoken – hear “Islam” and think “terrorist.”  I am telling you, the only person who did any killing in this true story was a white man from Texas who claimed to be a Christian.  A brown-skinned Bengali man, Rais Bhuiyan, looked to the heart of his Muslim faith and heard God tell him to forgive. 
            Make no mistake!  I am a follow of Jesus Christ.  I believe Him to be God in human flesh and the one and only Savior of humanity.  In order to have a right relationship with God, one has to give his heart to Jesus, receive forgiveness in Jesus’ name, and worship him as Lord.
I look into Islam and I see a faith that admires Jesus as a prophet, but does not worship him as Lord.  Anyone who fails to worship Jesus as Lord, in my understanding, is lost.  Jesus Christ is Lord.  We who follow and worship Him cannot accept any confession that comes short of this. 
However, I know God can and does work outside my religious boundaries.  Does God work through Islam to speak to the hearts of Muslims?  All I can do is listen to the stories of real people.  This man was led to do the very thing Jesus commanded.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Rais Bhuiyan did all of this and he did it to the fullest extent.
While he was healing and growing spiritually, the man who tried to kill him, Mark Stroman, sat in prison with death ahead.  But, as it always does, the execution day was a long time in coming, years in fact.  When Mr. Bhuiyan returned from Mecca, he took up a cause.  He was going to stop this execution. Citing his legal right to mediation with the criminal who harmed him, he worked with lawyers and anti-death penalty advocates to try to keep Mark Stroman alive.   
Mr. Bhuiyan’s quest became an international campaign.  Through a prison pen pal program, antideath penalty activists in Europe came into contact with Mark Stroman while he was in prison.  They became his most ardent supporters.  Stroman’s own children, in their own way loved him, but also, for the most part, did not keep in contact with him as the years on death row went by.  He pined for letters, but they never came.  The correspondence came from strangers who encouraged him, doing it all in the name of opposing the death penalty.  And one the leading the charge to save him, was the victim who survived his attack.
Alas, all the appeals and attempts to find legal loopholes were no match for the Texas legal system’s undaunted quest for finality.  On July 20, 2011, almost 10 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was executed by lethal injection for the murders he committed in the weeks after 9/11/2001.

Do you remember, from the beginning, what I asked you to hold onto and not let go?  God’s mercy is bigger than our sin.  In the story of Hosea, God is frustrated because the people He has selected as His chosen ones, the people of Israel, have turned away from God to worship the idols representing false gods: the gods of Assyria and Egypt and other ancient peoples.  Along with this idolatry came abuse of power by many of Israel’s kings, and the corruption of justice, especially for the poor.  The poor were exploited as the rich perceived themselves to be untouchable.  And worst of all, the leading perpetrators of the corruption were priests who were supposed to lead God’s people in worship.
Hosea has vividly depicted God’s anger at the conditions in Israel, 8th century BC.  However, now in chapter 11, we see anger cannot be God’s last word.  Yes, the people sinned and yes the nation did go into exile.  But God went with His people.  Their descendants, the Samaritans, were among the first to meet God’s grace in the person of Jesus.  There was suffering in the story, but it leads to salvation and new life in Jesus Christ. 
In the aftermath of 9/11, Waqar Hasan and Vasudev Patel were murdered.  Rais Bhuiyan was injured.  Mark Stroman ended being executed; so much loss in this story.  But out of it, we see grace.  Rais Bhuiyan fought for Stroman’s life.  After the execution, he gave financial support to Stroman’s children in his attempt to end the cycle of hate, violence, and revenge.  He overwhelmed these Texans with his love and he did it for the sake of changing the world, combatting hatred, and glorifying God.
Now, what about my story, or yours?  God sees our sins and sees the hurt we cause to ourselves and those around us.  God pours out love asking, “How can I make you like Admah?  How can I treat you like Zeboiim?”  Deuteronomy 29:23 reports that these cities, Admah and Zeboiim, were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah.  God’s promise in Hosea 11 is that anger and destruction is not the end for people who turn to Him in faith.  Those cities were consumed, but God’s followers will not be.  “I will not come in wrath,” God says.  God comes in grace.  God is love.
The mercy Rais Bhuiyan showed Mark Stroman is a picture of the love God has for us.  God wants the best for us.  God’s mercy never runs out.  God’s love overflows.  You know your own life story.  I know my own sins and how much they hurt me and the people I love.  You know your own sins. 
What do we do?
We come before the cross of Christ.  We fall to our knees and pray for forgiveness.  We receive it.  And we stand as healed people, washed and cleansed, new creations marked by the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 
Come and lay your heart out before God.  Come and receive forgiveness. 

[i] Giridharadas, Anand (2014), The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, W.W. Norton & Company (New York), p. 263.

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