In my last post - that ever contagious Book Meme which Liam says is spreading like the flu - I said that the book that I would most like to see written was Drawing Water Out of Rocks: Reflections on Scripture by my real-world self, Chris Baker. In truth, slowly and not so surely, that book is being written, if you can say that the process of birthing it really is "writing." I have written some new material for it, which has sometimes been included in this blog (see the sidebar on the right), but most of the process has been going through old sermons and seeing what can be salvaged.
Because I started preaching at such a young age (hell, I quit at a young age!) many of my early sermons are very immature, and I wish that they didn't exist. Still, I have, in my free time, been pouring through them, editing liberally, and trying to turn them into something that can be used now. Why don't I just start from scratch? I often wonder. Why do I insist on digging up artifacts from my past? Perhaps because I am trying to connect who I am now to who I was then. Perhaps because, even though my steps were and are clumsy, I was, then as now, moving toward a way of thinking about God that is worth communicating to others.
During Adam's nap today I got to look at one of the last sermons from my "early" period. I gave this sermon, titled "What the Lord Requires" as the guest speaker at a church pastored by a good friend of mine, while I was still a youth minister in Louisville. The text came from Micah 6:6-8, and at that time I always preached from the NIV, finding it the most "user-friendly" translation. I have since switched to using the JPS when preaching from the Tankh, and using the NRSV when preaching from the New Testament. I have not yet mustered up the energy to alter the text of the sermon, so I still use the masculine pronoun to refer to God. I have even included here a note I wrote to myself to remind me of the sort of introduction I wanted to give. I have also included the numbering system from the outline that I used to construct the sermon, and have left the parts that I saw find to bolden in the bold font used in the original sermon. This, then, looks exactly like the sheets of paper I held in front of me as I delievered this sermon years ago.
This should, in other words, be a time warp of sorts. Perhaps you can help me edit this one so that it will conform to the tone of the more recent scriptural reflctions which will some day be part of my long-suffering "book."
(Place Micah in its historical context – it was written after Israel had split into two kingdoms, and after much of what had been Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. It was written in a time of great fear, by a people who believed that they were being punished for their sins against God. The first three chapters outline they ways in which the people have sinned against God; but then the book takes a more hopeful turn. By the time we hit chapter 6, the subject of this morning’s message, Micah writes about how people should approach God, how they can be reconciled to God, and what God desires from them.)
I. How do we approach God?
1. Different religions have many different names for God, many different ways of describing God, and many different rituals designed to help believers approach God. Some religions, like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam claim that God is One; others, like Hinduism and polytheistic indigenous traditions claim that God is many. Some religions claim that beliefs about the nature of God are vitally important; others, like Buddhism, find beliefs about God irrelevant. Among the world’s various religious traditions, then, there are a number of diverse ways to approach God, and the subject of God.
2. Even within our own Judeo-Christian tradition there are a number of ways to approach God. While we believe in one God, that God in whom we believe has many names, found in both the Old and New Testaments, the Jewish and Christian Bibles. We call God Father, Maker, Saviour, Redeemer, Lord, Creator, Sustainer, and a whole host of other names and titles. While we as Christians believe in one God, we have also created the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity, dividing that one God into three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All of these doctrines point out the universal truth, that God acts in many ways, and that there are a variety of ways to approach God.
3. Just as there are a variety of ways in which religious systems approach God, there are also a variety of ways in which religious people approach God, and it is this – these ways in which individuals approach God – that seems to be Micah’s concern. When we approach our God in prayer, both as individuals and as a church, we come with many different attitudes. Some of us come humbly, knowing that we are sinners in need of God’s grace, and knowing that the grace of God can never be earned, just freely given and freely received. Others, however, approach God as they would approach a politician or business partner, looking for some kind of leverage in a high stakes negotiation. We say, “Lord, if you do this, then I will do that. But, if you do that, then I will do this.” We sometimes come to God as though we were entitled to come before Him, as though we have some shots that we can call. In other words, sometimes, when we approach God, as individuals and as a church, we forget the basic truth that Micah wishes us to understand from 6:6 – that however we approach God, we must approach God knowing that God is God, and we are not God. It is God who is in charge, God who calls the shots, God who holds all the cards, God who runs the universe. God is God, and we are not.
II. What sacrifice do we bring to God?
1. So often, because we wish to negotiate with God, desiring to somehow earn God’s favor, we approach God with some kind of tangible sacrifice. In our bargaining prayer we say to God, “If you will only do what I want, then I will never commit this particular sin again.” Or, “If you will only answer my prayer, I will give up this particular bad habit or material possession.” We offer God so many different sacrifices – things which have great value to us – to try to earn some kind of favor or make up for some kind of mistake. And, of course, we are not alone in this. Every major religion has a tradition of some kind of sacrifice to God, or the gods, or the forces of nature, or whatever. For as far back as there is recorded history, we humans have tried to offer up things that have value to us to some kind of power higher than us, to curry some kind of favor with it. We used to do this to try to make the crops grow, or to keep enemy armies from invading us. Now we do it to make more money, or to feel a little less guilty for a bad habit or evil action. But we always tried to negotiate with God with our sacrifice.
2. But, of course, as Micah points out as he lists the various kinds of sacrifices that he could bring to God, our sacrifices become more and more ridiculous. “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?” What would God do with the rams, with the oil, even if Micah had them to offer, which he doesn’t? “Shall I offer the firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” It is, of course, easy to sacrifice the life of another for our own sin. It is not so easy to sacrifice our own life.
3. But the sacrifice that the Lord requires is just that – our own life. Our very own life. Not in death. God does not seek to destroy us. Instead, he wants us to sacrifice ourselves in life, so that he can remake us. The sacrifice that God desires from us is found in the very way that we live. The sacrifice that God desires from us is the sacrifice of our own wills, of our false claim to be masters of our own destiny. God wants us to sacrifice our control. The sacrifice that he demands from us, then, is no sacrifice at all. It is, instead obedience. The key to a healthy relationship with God, then, is to approach God knowing that He is God, and that we are not God. And knowing that, we should also know that God desires our obedience, not our sacrifice. God does not want us to offer up ridiculous things to try to make up for the fact that we consistently sin against Him. Instead He wants us to be obedient, to accept His grace, and to stop sinning.
III. What does the Lord require?
1. So, knowing that God is God, and we are not God, and knowing that God desires our obedience rather than our sacrifice, how can we, who so often stumble and fall in so many ways, be obedient to God? What does it mean to be obedient to God, anyway? Or, in other words, exactly what is it that the Lord requires of us?
1. “act justly”
The first thing that God requires of us, according to Micah, is that we “act justly.” The concept of “justice” has always been important to people. It is the hallmark of all great societies. But it is often left undefined. All people use the word justice, but they do not always use it in the same way. Frequently our inability to “act justly” comes not just from laziness or a lack of desire, but from honest ignorance. We use the word justice, often, but do not always know what we mean by it.
In my opinion, justice both implies and requires three things:
1. To do what is right.
2. To not do what is wrong.
3. To encourage others to also do what is right and not do what it wrong.
We are morally obligated, and called by God to not only avoid doing what is wrong, but to actively do what is right. That is why the Epistle of James tells us that “anyone… who knows the good he ought to do, but does not do it, sins.” But not only are we responsible for our own acts, and also our failure to act, we are also responsible for the influence we have on others. We are not only obligated to avoid wrong and to do right, we are also obligated to encourage others to avoid wrong and to do right, and we are obligated to restrain those who are doing wrong. This is the obligation of justice.
2. “love mercy”
But we are not just commanded to “act justly,” we are also told that the Lord requires that we “love mercy.” We are, like God Himself, to always temper justice with mercy, in all of our actions and interactions, because justice without mercy always fails to be justice.
We, who presume that we are righteous, are often rightly offended by wickedness in others. And we know that we are called to restrain that wickedness. However, far too often we become obsessed with the sins of others, and forget to temper our so-called justice with the mercy of God, who has shown us mercy. Far from being Jonathan Edward’s “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” we are in fact “sinners in the hands of a merciful God” who has called us to show mercy to those who sin against us just as He showed us mercy when we sinned against Him. Justice without mercy is always a miscarriage of justice, and so fails to be justice at all.
3. “walk humbly with your God”
But how do we, as individuals, family members, church members, and citizens of our great nation, go about the difficult task of balancing justice and mercy in our individual interactions as well as the actions of our families, churches, and our nation? How do we temper justice with mercy in our own lives and the lives of others? To this Micah reminds us that the most important thing that God wants from us is to “walk humbly” with Him. Humility, which comes from our walk with God, and is, in fact, necessary for any walk with God, teaches us something that seems very important to Micah, and to God. It teaches us that God is God, and we are not God. I know that I’ve said that a lot this morning. But, if there’s anything that you take away from this message and the worship here today, I want it to be that point. God is God, and we are not God. Too often we get the roles reversed, and believing ourselves to be God, or to be like God, we take on the responsibilities of God. We judge the actions and the spiritual state of others, forgetting that it is not our place to judge; forgetting that, in fact, we don’t have enough information on which to make a sound judgment; and forgetting that we are no better than the people that we presume to judge. If we are to be who God requires that we be, then we first and foremost have to be people who walk humbly with God. To do that, we need to be people who can freely and honestly acknowledge our own mistakes, and we need to be people who can look past the apparent mistakes that others make. We need to be people who can relinquish any claim or desire to judge others, turning our gaze first on ourselves. Then, when we allow God to finally remove the plank from our eyes, we can see clearly to remove the saw dust from the eyes of another.
To sum up, while, like the Hebrew people in Micah’s time, all of us have in one way or another turned away from God, God not only desires us to turn back to Him, He has in fact empowered us to do so, and provided us with the means to do so. So, we need to approach God, knowing that God is God, and we are not God. We need to approach God bringing not a sacrifice of some kind of our own choosing, but rather the sacrifice of our very lives, and our obedience. And, we need to approach God, knowing that what the Lord requires of us is to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.
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