Sunday, February 5, 2017

Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
Isaiah 58:3-9a
Psalm 112:1-9
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20

Things which an eye didn’t see, and an ear didn’t hear, which didn’t enter into the heart of man, these God has prepared for those who love him.

Our Sunday School class has been using the Book of John as a foundation for a study of the character of God as revealed in and through Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the thing we are proving over and over again is that Jesus is the One promised in the Old Testament, but even more so, He is God incarnate fulfilling everything God laid forth throughout the history of His people. The promises and prophecies of the Old Testament all point to the One who is our Savior.

The writer of the book of Hebrews goes on for several chapters talking about the faith of those who heard the promises but never saw them fulfilled. Abraham was promised that his offspring would dwell in the Promised Land, but it didn’t happen for hundreds of years. He was promised that his offspring would be as many as the stars in the sky, but he was a very old man when his son was born. The writer lists many promises given to God’s people and then says, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and embraced them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Many of those promises were fulfilled in some way in their day, but pointed to an even greater promise. They saw God’s work but could only hope for the salvation that would come. They believed anyway, not because they saw the fulfillment but because they were in a right relationship with God.

We look to the Old Testament to see what God has promised, but we are blessed with more than hope because everything has been complete in Jesus Christ. Of course, this isn’t so obvious to those who do not believe. They think our hope is foolishness because they can’t see or hear the Gospel as it has been made clear to us by the Holy Spirit. We have faith and therefore we rest in the knowledge that God has prepared something beyond this world for us, but the world does not understand. They don’t understand because they aren’t in a right relationship with God.

That’s the definition of righteousness: to be in a right relationship with God. The people in Isaiah’s time were acting righteous, but they were not in that right relationship. The same is true of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, and in the religious lives of so many today. They were going through the religious motions while ignoring what God was calling them to do in the world. We are still a few weeks away from Ash Wednesday, but how many Christians will decide to fast on something as a Lenten discipline. That can be a good thing, but how many of those same Christians will gorge on those items on Easter Day? They give it up- fast - for seven weeks, but nothing is changed?

The religious rituals that are mentioned in Isaiah were commanded by God, but they had become something much different than God intended. The people saw their actions, their obedience, as the source of their salvation and their blessings. They did all the right things, so they must have been righteous. Jesus says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Too many people are confused by the word righteousness. The world thinks it means being good, doing good things. Like those in Isaiah’s day, they think being righteous is doing all the right religious practices. “I fasted, so I deserve to be blessed.” The religious leaders in Jesus’ day were the same. “I keep the Law, so I deserve to be blessed.” Today people work so hard to be right with God, and never realize that the things they are doing will never make them right with Him. We can’t work our way into righteousness: that’s called self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the very thing that divides us from God and from one another. When we think we are being obedient, following all the rules, then we think we deserve favor from God.

Paul writes, “Now the natural man doesn’t receive the things of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to him, and he can’t know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” It doesn’t make sense to our natural man to live the Christian life. We want to follow rules and earn our reward. We want to get what we deserve. We think we are entitled to God’s blessings because we are righteous. So we do what we do to earn our place in God’s kingdom. However, we can never earn our place; we can’t manipulate God into giving us what we want. Righteousness is not a matter of works; it is a matter of heart.

Unfortunately, many read this text and have a worldly understanding of what it means to be spiritual. That might sound like an oxymoron, but I recently read an article that defined someone who is spiritual as one “whose highest priority is to be loving to yourself and others. A spiritual person cares about people, animals and the planet. A spiritual person knows that we are all One, and consciously attempts to honor this Oneness. A spiritual person is a kind person.” This is not what Paul means when he talks about being spiritual.

The author of the article suggested that one could follow different types of religious practices like attending church and doing yoga and not be spiritual. This is true, but as many in today’s world, the author use some scripture quotes but removed God completely from the equation. Paul tells us that we need God’s Spirit to know the things of God. That’s what it means to be spiritual. The worldly definition of spiritual makes it about works, about doing good things to and for others.

Paul is not referring to the spiritual man as being non-religious as many tend to understand it today. Paul is talking about those who are focused on God, who live lives that glorify Him. The man who lives by faith will live according to God’s Word, doing what God calls us to do, living the life of discipleship. The spiritual man is the one who lives the Christ-centered life, who has the mind of Christ. The world would rather remove Christ from the equation, and even God, reducing Him to some sort of great force of which we are all a part. The world would rather be self-righteous rather than right with God.

The whole message of Christ, the message of forgiveness and mercy, is beyond our vision. The idea of God the Father giving His Son for our sake is just crazy. Why would an all powerful God do that? Why would He have to? Though there are still things about the spiritual realm that we do not fully understand, we have a wisdom that is greater than anything in the world because we have a connection to the source of all wisdom. The Spirit of God dwells in our hearts and reveals to us that which God would have us know. We no longer live in the flesh, but in spirit. We are no longer uncertain, but have confidence in the promises of God. We don’t live in darkness, but in the Light.

I suppose sometimes we make it all too complicated. I like to use the word “theology” when I’m teaching, but I know many are intimidated by it. After all, shouldn’t the professionals be doing theology; shouldn’t we leave theology to the theologians? Since theology is the study of God, we do theology every time we talk about him. Perhaps I should ignore the big religious words like theology, but I want others to find joy in the discussion and to realize that it should not be left to the professionals.

I try to go a theological conference each year. I have to admit that there are times when I am intimidated by the lectures I hear. They use Greek and Latin words I don’t understand. One speaker spoke so quickly that I could barely comprehend the fifty-cent words he used before he moved on to the next topic in his lecture. I was dazed and confused! Yet, it is so exciting when I’m sitting in my Sunday school class and we have discovered together some great idea about the character of God. Our discussions have left us breathless, in tears, laughing with joy. While people may be afraid to do theology as it is done among the doctors of the Church, the simple reality is that talking about God helps us to see Him, hear Him and understand Him. The Holy Spirit works among us during those conversations, revealing to us the God who loves and forgives us with such grace as to send His own Son for our salvation.

A motorist was driving in the country when he came upon a priest and a rabbi standing on the shoulder of the road, fishing. Next to them was a sign that read. “Turn around. The end is near.” The motorist didn’t like to be preached to, so he rolled down the window and yelled, “Mind your own business, you religious nuts!” A few seconds later the two fishermen heard tires screech, then a splash. The rabbi turned to the priest and said, “I told you we should’ve just written, ‘Bridge Out.’”

The message of the priest and the rabbi would have helped the driver keep from ending up in the river, but they spoke in a language that the driver rejected. They made it too complicated for the motorist to understand. He saw two religious men and assumed the sign had religious significance. He quickly rejected what it had to say because to him it seemed unreasonable. If they had put the simpler words “Bridge Out” on the sign the man would have stopped and turned around.

How often do we try to share the Christian message in a way that is too complicated for the hearers to understand? Sadly, we sometimes do this because we are trying to put our own spin on the Gospel message. I experienced too many people doing online ministry who convoluted the Gospel and would then say, “I don’t need to explain it to you. If you had the Holy Spirit, you would understand.” They made it seem as if you couldn’t possibly be saved if you didn’t understand what they said.

That which brings people to Christ is the message of love and mercy found at the cross of Jesus Christ. By His blood He restored our relationship with God our Creator and Father by paying the price and providing forgiveness for our sin. By His resurrection we are raised to new life as His child to live and love in this world, sharing that message with others. We think we have to make it complicated, sound intelligent among the intelligent, to speak into the lives of those to whom we are sent as witnesses. We don’t come to faith by understanding the things of God. Rather, it is by hearing the Word of God, having Him move within our hearts to convict us and transform us by His love. It is the simple message, “Jesus loves you” that will plant seeds of conviction into the hearts of the unbelievers. Then God will do the rest.

People from every age think that it is enough to go through the religious motions and then go on to do what they want to do in their daily lives. They think it is alright to cheat or hurt their neighbors if they repent with the right rituals. It is no wonder that God did not hear the prayers of those in the text from Isaiah. He calls us to be merciful, to be just, to be compassionate and to be generous. He calls us to sacrifice from the heart, not the flesh. God cannot be manipulated, and too many people then and now think that if they just appear to be faithful, then God will bless them. God sees behind our masks; His grace is not a reward for good works. He looks to the heart.

Isn’t it funny how the Church has lived through two thousand years of discussing the nature of God and His will for this world, and yet today we are no closer to understanding Him than the disciples were when they lived with Jesus? It is good that we have these conversations, discovering together the character of God and the fulfillment of His promises in and through Jesus Christ. There are things about God, however, that we will never fully know. We can talk about the things we know, the things we believe, the things we see and understand. That’s faith. Faith is trusting that God’s promises are true and that our hope is found in Christ.

While our works will never make us righteous, God calls us to be the people He intends us to be. He isn’t looking for religious folk who fast when they are supposed to fast or who sacrifice when they are supposed to sacrifice. He is looking for believers who use their gifts for His glory.

A bible study leader once asked, “Are you a banker or a distribution center?” In other words, when you receive gifts from your heavenly Father, do you hold on to them or do you send them right back out? An item is not nearly as valuable sitting in a warehouse as it is being sold in a store. A loaf of bread will perish if it is not offered for sale quickly enough. So it is with our gifts. Withheld from the world, our gifts our useless. Everything we have and everything we are should be shared generously. That’s how we, as salt, flavor the world and as light shine in the darkness.

There are many things about God that we will never know or understand, but what we know comes from the Spirit of God. God has prepared so many good things for us, has given us incredible gifts. Both Isaiah and the psalmist show us what it is like to live the spiritual life. We are blessed when we delight in God’s commands. He will bless those who dwell in a right relationship with God. We will not be moved or shaken when our hearts are steadfast and trust in God.

Isaiah writes the word of the Lord, “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh. Then your light will break out as the morning, and your healing will appear quickly then your righteousness shall go before you; and Yahweh’s glory will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and Yahweh will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’”

So, while the author of that article is wrong about what it means to be spiritual, she is right that ultimately it all comes down to love, peace, joy, truth and kindness. The difference is, she contends that it is by our power we can heal and change the world, but we know that it will only come about through God’s power. We are salt because He makes us salty and we are light because He shines in us. It is by faith, trusting that God has given us all we need, that we can go out into the world to share the Gospel in word and deed. We are spiritual because we have been given His Spirit, and we can trust that God will answer when we call, accomplishing His great works through our lives.

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