Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us; establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands.
I was watching a show in which the host was interviewing an unusual couple. The woman was thirty; her boyfriend and the father of her son was just seventeen. They had been in a relationship since he was just fifteen; the relationship is illegal. They went on the show to prove that their love was real; they hoped it would keep the woman out of prison. The woman considers herself a victim in this and despite the advice she was getting, she was defiant. It wasn’t fair! She didn’t think she was a criminal! She was not a predator; they are in love and everyone should just leave them alone.
She claimed that she was set up. What she meant is that she thought the show was going to go a very different direction, and she became angry when she was told the reality of her situation. She could get fifteen years in prison. She was pointing her fingers at all the other guests. She claimed that it was their fault that she was in danger. She refused to see her own responsibility for the situation. Instead of admitting her own guilt, she attacked those who were trying to help make things right. She wanted to make herself look good and the others look bad. In the end justice will be served.
We might judge the woman harshly for her actions, but stories like this should cause us to think about our own actions. Don’t we fail to do what is right? Don’t we try to make ourselves look better than we really are? Don’t we claim to be victims even though our own actions are what brought on our difficulties?
I’m a pretty good person. I am certainly not without fault; I have not kept the commandments perfectly. Sin has crept into my life. I haven’t done anything criminal, I hope my failure has not done too much damage to my neighbors. I have been disobedient to a least a few of the Ten, if not according to the letter, then certainly according to the spirit. I have not committed adultery, but I have felt lust. I don’t think I’ve born false witness against my neighbor, but I admit that I’ve gossiped. I have taken a few things that are not mine and while none of it was of great worth, stealing even a nickel is a sin.
In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther talked about the Ten Commandments not only from the point of view of the “thou shall nots” but also as commands of how we should live. About the Eighth Commandment, Luther wrote, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God, so that we do not lie about, betray or slander our neighbor, but excuse him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” It isn’t enough to keep from telling a lie in court, but we should do our best to help uplift our neighbor's reputation. By pointing fingers at everyone else, the woman lost the chance to make things right in her little corner of the world, including for herself.
We like to point fingers, too, mostly because it takes the attention off our own faults. That is, if not in words, definitely in action, bearing false witness against a neighbor. Even more so, it is a rejection of the reality of our own sinfulness. If we do not admit our sin, we do not need a Savior. Then there is no need for faith in Jesus.
Now, there are many who prefer it that way. They prefer to ignore the reality of sin in our lives. They prefer to think of Jesus as a good friend, an excellent example, a teacher who showed us a good way. They reject that Jesus’ main purpose in coming out of heaven to earth was to atone for our sin. They are shocked and offended by the cross. They separate the wrath of God in the Old Testament from the love of God in the New, without seeing that both are not only true but necessary.
H. Richard Niebuhr said, “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” This is a reminder the God that everyone would prefer cannot be the God we need. We would much rather ignore the God of the Old Testament and embrace the God that loves unconditionally. We want a God that has no expectations; we want a God that does not demand obedience. We want the warm fuzzies without the reality of our sin. The truth is that we could never have the warm fuzzies unless God got so angry at our sin that He decided to do what was necessary to make restore us to His Kingdom: kill His own Son.
It is shocking to hear it put so bluntly, isn’t it? The cross is God’s wrath fully revealed for our sake. We are sinners in need of a Savior. And yet it is so easy to think of ourselves as good. I am a pretty good person. I haven’t kept the commandments perfectly, but I’ve done fairly well in my nearly fifty-five years of life. I respond to the needs of my neighbors as I am able. I try to do what is right and to honor God with my life. And yet I fail. I try to seek God but sometimes the call of the world is much too loud. It is easy to justify some actions because they seem like the right thing to do at the time. It is easy to make excuses when I fail because it all seems like much, too much. It is easy to avoid responsibility by blaming others with pointed fingers.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus asked, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except one - God.” He knows we are going to fail and He identifies Himself with us. He takes on even our very nature as His own, despite the reality that He is truly good.
Jesus said these words to a rich young ruler that went to Jesus to ask a question. The man honored Jesus with the title “Good Teacher” and bowed down to Him. He wanted to know what was necessary for eternal life. Now, this particular man was wealthy. He had everything he could possibly need and more. It appears he came upon his wealth in a righteous way, for when Jesus asked if he followed the commandments, the man was happy to reply, “Yes.” We might call him a good man, if we hadn’t just heard Jesus say no one was good. The young man probably wanted Jesus to tell him he was good and that he’d done everything right. “You are going to heaven, my son. You did everything right.” Isn’t that what we all want Him to say to us? Yet, we know it isn’t true. We all fail. We all sin. We aren’t “good.” But we can do what is right and good by being obedient to God.
Jesus answered the man’s righteousness with a hard saying, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The man was devastated; Jesus’ words were the last thing he wanted to hear. He grew up in a world where righteousness meant following the Law and if you did that well, you would go to heaven. Jesus told him that he had to give up his whole life. Which of us would respond any differently? Following Jesus means giving up everything; can you pay so high a price?
We might say, “I don’t have great wealth.” But the words are the same for you. Could you give up everything? Could you give up your selfish agenda and hard heart? Could you leave everything behind and follow Jesus? Do we believe in God like a child, completely dependent on Him and willing to trust without reserve?
Jesus knew the man’s heart, just as He knows ours. He knew the man would be devastated by His answer, but Jesus looking at him loved him. That’s why God forgives. He knows us better than ourselves. He knows we can’t do it on our own. He knows that we will constantly fail to live up to His expectation of our lives. He wants more from us and knows our life will be better if we follow Him.
The text from Amos shows us how life is made more difficult by those who do not do what is good and right with their resources. It tells us what happens when we put our own agendas or hearts ahead of God. We are to seek God first, to seek goodness so that we’ll experience life, not death. God does not call wealthy people to become paupers; He calls us to do what is good and right with our wealth. Unfortunately, those to whom Amos was talking were not seeking God or goodness. They turned justice to wormwood and cast righteousness to the earth. They trampled the poor in their work and in their pursuit for self-interest and pleasure. They took bribes rather than judged rightly and ignored the needs of their neighbors.
God calls us to a life in which we “Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the courts.” We may not be good, but we can do good in God’s name. We can serve Him by using our resources for the sake of others. Jesus made the task impossible for the rich young man, but if he had only listened and followed, he would have discovered the incredible blessing that comes from putting God first in the world.
We are shocked when Jesus says, “Don’t call me good,” because if Jesus isn’t good, then how do we have any chance? But we are reminded by the writer of Hebrews that Jesus shared in our frailties. “For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus knew how hard it was to be a human being; He was tested just like every other man. When we go to Him with our pain and frailties, He can sympathize. Yet, He was without sin and because of His own obedience to the will and word of God; we can trust what He says. There is one thing we all lack - God - because we have something that we hold in higher regard than Him. For the Israelites in Amos’s day, it was their twisted justice that trampled the poor and oppressed the righteous. For the rich young ruler, it was his wealth. What is it that Jesus is asking us to give up to follow Him? In what do we trust more than God?
When Jesus says, “one thing you lack” we are brought face to face with the truth that we too have failings that separate us from God. Even the most pious or righteous person can’t reach God’s expectations. That’s why we need Him. I wonder if the response would have been different if Jesus had said, “Give half your stuff to the poor.” The man would then have still had enough to survive in the world without relying on the charity of others. He would have had a place to hang his hat. He would have had finances to support the ministry he may have been willing to do. Jesus said, “Get rid of it all.” The young man wanted to know what he had to do to earn what God was giving for free, so Jesus made the payment beyond the young man’s ability to pay.
This isn’t about money, it is about letting go of the very things that keep us from trusting and obeying God. What is keeping you from following Jesus fully? Your job? Your family? Sports or other leisure activities? Politics? Your biases? Your opinions? None of these particularly bad, but we need to consider if any of these things are standing in the way of our relationship with God. Is Jesus asking you to give up something that seems impossible? It is. It is meant to be. We can’t live up to these expectations, we’ll fail. That’s why we need Jesus.
What Jesus was trying to get across to the young man and those who overheard the conversation is that it is not about what we can do to earn our place in the kingdom, but rather what God can do and what God has done. Amos calls the people to live in a relationship with God. He shows them their faults and their frailties. He points out their injustices. Most of all, he shows them that they are no longer in a relationship with their Creator. They have turned away from Him. He was calling them to live a life of justice and peace, but that life was too hard. They focused on their wealth, and the keeping of their wealth. Amos told them to seek something better: the Lord. It might seem like a burden to turn around and follow, but it is there that the true blessing is found. It is there we will find rest.
We can’t do this alone. We are all so easily tempted by the world. The excuses are right on the tips of our tongues. What harm is there in taking the reward when the boring work is probably pointless? Who is really harmed when I keep that nickel the cashier accidentally gave me in my change? The woman on today’s show is not necessarily a bad person, but she’s caught up in a situation of her own making. The truth is we really do harm our neighbors when we do not live according to God’s Word.
So, we need to help each other. The writer of Hebrews said, “Beware, brothers, lest perhaps there be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God; but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called ‘today’; lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm to the end: while it is said, ‘Today if you will hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts, as in the rebellion.” It took just one voiced doubt in the desert to turn the entire nation of Israel against God. It takes just one moment of disobedience to set us on a wrong path. We need to encourage one another to be obedient so that we will all be blessed with the promise.
The Psalm is a song of repentance. The first verses speak of God’s greatness and honor Him for being the everlasting Creator. Then the psalmist confesses his frailty and humbles himself before the Lord. He recognizes how unworthy we are to stand before the Lord, and how God’s light reveals everything about ourselves. Then the psalmist seeks forgiveness and asks the Lord’s presence in this life.
Repentance is no guarantee. The passage from Amos says, “It may be that Yahweh, the God of Armies, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” Repentance, saying “I’m sorry,” is not a magic formula for getting God’s grace. God looks to hearts, not mouths. He looks at actions, not words. Repentance is more than an apology, it is about turning from our old ways, to live as God intends.
The Psalmist knew that salvation must come from the Lord. He cried out to God for mercy. “Satisfy us in the morning with your loving kindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” God’s grace, the unmerited favor He grants to those who seek Him, is the only way we will receive eternal life. The rich young ruler did not give Jesus the chance to reveal the grace of God. He heard only the Law and went away sad because it was an impossible request.
Christians have a great advantage over the psalmist. We have seen the fulfillment of this prayer. The Lord had compassion on us; He sent His Son to take His wrath upon Himself. He has proven His unfailing love through the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. He has favored us with His Holy Spirit through whom He establishes the work of our hands for His glory. Let us praise God for His greatness, His mercy and His love.
We can’t do it ourselves, but Jesus makes it possible for us to approach the throne of grace with confidence and to receive that which God gives so freely. At His throne, we find mercy and forgiveness. It is there that God takes away our burdens and makes us free. It is there He helps us through all our trials and suffering. We get to the throne through the cross because it is there that we see that God does know our suffering and that He can overcome anything we bring before Him.
It is all about grace. We can’t live up to the expectations of God’s commandments, but God is with us through it all. He looks on us with love; He provides the way for us to go. He calls us to follow Him so that we will experience the blessings He desires for our lives. We can confidently sing with the psalmist, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us; establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands,” because God is faithful to all His promises.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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