Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

We are in the process of getting my son ready for college. Each step along the way we've had to ask the question, "What must we do?" What must we do to apply to colleges? What must we do to apply for scholarships? What must we do to apply for loans? The list of tasks is long and often depends on the work of others. Zack needs to get paperwork from school. He needs to get letters of recommendation. He needs to recall his school years so he can list his accomplishments. We have to go over the check-list until we are certain that we have everything we need. Only when that is done can we mail the envelope or push the send button.

We can't decide that we want to do things our own way. Some steps may not make sense. We are invited to fill in the FAFSA beginning January 1st, but we can't complete that paperwork until we do our taxes. We can't do our taxes until we have all the paperwork, some of which doesn't even arrive until the end of January. So, we do the FAFSA once so that it can be given for scholarship applications that are often due before we can even do our taxes. Then, when we can finally finish our taxes, we have to correct the FAFSA. Wouldn't it make more sense to do this in a different way? Unfortunately, if we do it our way, we might just miss out on the deadlines.

When Zack asked friends and mentors to write those letters of recommendation, they asked the same question, "What must I do?" They wanted to write a letter appropriate to the situation. What is the institution looking for in an applicant? What is the focus of the scholarship? What must I do to help you succeed in this?

We often ask the question "What must I do?" in our relationships. What must I do to be your friend? What must I do to earn your trust? What must I do to receive your forgiveness? What must I do so that you'll love me? Perhaps this sounds odd to you; perhaps you don't think that there should be any "must do" in our relationships, and yet how often do we do we do this with even our relationship with God?

In the passage from Micah, the Lord speaks of all the wonderful things that He has done for His people. And how do they response? "What must we do?" They list a number of sacrificial measures in the hopes that they will provide God with the necessary actions to earn God's mercy and grace. "What sort of offerings would be suitable? Should the offerings be burnt? A year old? Thousands of rams? Tens of thousands of rivers of oil?" Micah even lists sacrifice of the first born, a religious practice among the pagan peoples among whom God's people had dwelt. Does God require those sacrifices?

Our answer to the question "What must I do?" is not likely to include child sacrifice, but we do have our list of requirements. Do I have to go to church every Sunday? Do I need to serve on a committee? Give a certain amount of money? Volunteer in a certain way or place? Do I need to choose a certain community of believers? Perform certain rituals? What must I do to receive God's grace?

Isn't it interesting that in this passage from Micah, it is God who speaks first. "Look at everything I have done for you. Consider all my saving acts." Yet, the people still ask, "What must I do?" God has proven over and over again that He is merciful and that He loves His people, and yet they still want to control their own salvation.

"What must I do?" is a good question as long as we ask God, because in it we admit that we are His creation and we are responsible to do as God requires. Sadly, we often put our own words in God's mouth and claim that what we are doing is according to His Word. The scriptures certainly tell us about the sacrifices at the temple, the pilgrimages to take, the work that needs to be done. Unfortunately, those requirements have been built on years of human interpretation of God's intention for His people. The answer to "What must I do?" is not what we choose, but that which has been revealed to us: do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.

Of course, this means we have to discuss the meaning of justice. What is mercy? What is humility? These are much harder questions to ask than "What must I do?" We do so much better if we have a check-list to follow. Once we mark all the steps we can just slip it in the mail or push the send button. But in matters of faith, it isn't quite so easy. People on every side of those questions that rattle us today firmly believe that they have God's intention on their side. They firmly believe that they are doing what is right. They believe that their understanding of justice is what God means. Perhaps I should say "we" instead of "they" because we all fall into the trap of believing that we are the ones with the answers.

In the passage from Micah, God reports all the good things He has done for His people, and yet they still ask "What must I do?" We are no different. We can read the story of what God has done for us, know Jesus and understand the work God has done for our sakes and we still ask "What must I do?" as if our actions will make God's work real. Oh, there are things we can, and should, do as Christians, but none of our actions will ever make us right with God. We are right with God because of what He has done. And when we are right with God, we naturally respond with mercy and humility.

In the Psalm for today, the congregation asks the question, "Who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle?" This was used as part of their liturgy. The people waited by the gates of the Temple and did not enter until they heard the conditions. The liturgist responds, "He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, And speaketh truth in his heart; He that slandereth not with his tongue, Nor doeth evil to his friend, Nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor; In whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But who honoreth them that fear Jehovah; He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not; He that putteth not out his money to interest, Nor taketh reward against the innocent."

How does anyone enter with such strict requirements? Do we all walk blamelessly? Do we do what is right? Do we speak the truth from our hearts? Are our tongues free of slander and our actions free of evil? Do we always refrain from speaking ill of our neighbor? Do we hate evil and honor those who love God? Do we always keep our promises, give without expecting something in return or act for the sake of others above ourselves? Of course not.

So, who can dwell in the tent of God? In the ancient days, the only person allowed in the Tent of Meeting was Moses, and even he had to follow certain rules to enter into God's presence. Was Moses perfect? Did he always do everything right? Did he always trust God's word and walk humbly before Him? No, Moses failed, and because he failed he suffered the consequences. He did not enter into the Promised Land with the people of God. He died on the other side of the river. Yet, despite his imperfection, Moses is called righteous and blessed by God, and he was able to enter into God's presence and live there because he believed in God and trusted in Him.

Our troubles come, like Moses, when we try to do things our own way. Moses suffered the consequences when he did not follow God's plan. Entering into the Promised Land was never something the Israelites could earn by strict compliance to laws; it was a gift and proof of God's faithfulness. Despite Moses' rightness with God which allowed him to enter into the Tent of Meeting and dwell in God's presence, Moses turned from trusting in God to do his own thing. He turned to his own wisdom and in doing so, lost sight of God's wisdom.

Paul writes, "Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men." We think we are pretty wise. We study the text and reason through the information we have been given about God. We approach the questions of life from an intellectual point of view. We seek facts, compare ideas and come to a conclusion. And that conclusion might make a lot of sense. But no matter how hard we try to be wise, our conclusions are still based on human wisdom. We still see the world through glasses that are tainted by our own culture, geography, time, age, gender, expectations and experiences. Actions that I believe to be right will look evil to someone from another time and place. No matter how wise or strong we are, God is always wiser and stronger than us. Despite this, we constantly try to do things our own way.

God has expectations and He spells them out so that we can try to live up to them. But our salvation is never dependent on our ability to do so. God's love and mercy does not demand anything from us. God's love and mercy elicits a response: He has transformed us for a purpose. We are blessed to be a blessing.

So, we ask another question, "What does it mean to be blessed?" Jesus' idea of blessedness is counter to our expectations. According to the world, blessedness is visible to others. It is seen in our happiness, our wealth and our health. Blessedness is often thought synonymous with happiness, but the sort of happiness that comes with faith is not giddy pleasure, but rather a deeper, inner joy from God. The word "bless" means "may God speak well of you." What is it that God seeks from those He loves? What about our life might He speak well of?

Jesus had a way of turning the world upside down, or at least our understanding of the world. Blessedness is not found in our happiness or in visible prosperity. Blessedness is an attitude that looks to God for its fulfillment. The blessed are not those who deserve to be rewarded, but rather those who see that which God has done and is doing in the world. The poor in spirit do not appear blessed because they seem to have no hope, but they are blessed because God has given them the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn have no joy, but they are blessed because God will give them comfort. Those who are humiliated will be raised and those who are hungry and thirsty will be fed. They are blessed because God has promised to save those who trust in Him.

What must you do? Trust in God, even when it does not seem like you are blessed. Jesus tells us that blessedness does not look like we might expect. Blessedness means that God has raised you out of a world that requires sacrifice and obedience to rules that are not according to God's Word, trusting in human wisdom and expectations. Blessedness triggers a response of thankfulness and praise, and in the attitude of mercy and humility, trusting in God's faithfulness, we live as He has called us to live, blessing the world with God's grace.

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