Sunday, September 5, 2010

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 23
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; to love Jehovah thy God, to obey his voice, and to cleave unto him; for he is thy life, and the length of thy days; that thou mayest dwell in the land which Jehovah sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.

The order of the Biblical canon is a human construct. It isn’t chronological. It isn’t place in order of importance. As a matter of fact, sometimes the Bible seems like it is a library that is put together with little rhyme or reason. Oh, you have groupings of books: the history, the prophets, the Gospels and the Letters. But even then there is some question about whether a book belongs in one section or another. Were all the letters attributed historically to Paul really written by Paul? Is Job history, prophetic or poetry? The Psalms themselves cover so many topics that it falls into a category of its own.

The chapter and verse numbers are not part of the word of God; they were assigned throughout history by people that thought to make it easier for multiple people to find a reference. I’m glad it was done, because I don’t think we’d do as well at Bible Study if we had to find the references without the numbers.

So, it is unlikely that God cares which Psalm is first or which is last. Psalm 23 is not beloved because it is the twenty-third, but because the words speak of God’s loving care for His sheep. Psalm 100 is not popular because it has such a concise number but because it is a call to praise God. The book of Psalms is a hymnbook, filled with hymns of the people that praise God, cry out in lament and repentance, and seek God’s help and grace.

But isn’t it interesting that the book of Psalms begin with the words in today’s lesson. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, Nor standeth in the way of sinners, Nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers: but his delight is in the law of Jehovah; And on his law doth he meditate day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2, ASV)

Now, it might seem odd that this Lutheran would begin to study these scriptures from the point of the Law, and yet isn’t that where ‘we’ begin? It isn’t where the process begins, because we know that any salvation we have is from God first, through Christ and His work on the cross. But we can’t possibly realize the gift we have in Christ until we realize how pathetic and wicked we are. The Law is a mirror in which we see our sinfulness and realize our need for a Savior. If we are perfect, or even if we are simply good, we do not need a Savior. We need to know our failure so that we can experience God’s grace. So we look to the Law to understand how we do not, and can not, live up to the holiness of God.

So, who is the one who is blessed? In an age when we are so divided by our opinions, we have to wonder: who is the wicked? Who is the sinner? Who is the scoffer? What does it mean to delight in the law of Jehovah? We have our opinions about religion and politics, and those opinions are filled with every emotion. Those emotions even follow through on other parts of our lives. Have you ever seen Philadelphians fight over which cheesesteak is the best: Pat’s or Geno’s? Should we drink Coke or Pepsi? McDonald’s or Burger King?

These things don’t matter, but the issues facing us in the world today do matter. I personally don’t have a preference on the sodas or the fast food, although as a former resident of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, I prefer our way of serving cheesesteaks. I don’t think I would destroy a relationship over the choice, however. It is harder when we are dealing with politics and religion because those topics have consequences. How we live our faith and how we run our country can make a difference today and tomorrow. How we understand our relationships with one another can change the future for our children.

The problem is that the voices we hear on every side are often the extremes. They all, whatever side they are on, know how to say what sounds good and right and true. Those who agree with them hear grace and mercy and Gospel in their words. Those who disagree only hear anger and wrath and law. It doesn’t matter which ‘side’ the speaker is on… the other side will find something negative to say. We can’t live in the extremes. We have to find a way to discern which words, no matter which ‘side’ is speaking them, are true. It is up to us to study God’s word so that we can hear His voice in the cacophony of voices that surround us.

The scriptures give us both Law and Gospel, wrath and mercy, command and grace. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “There is a season for everything.” There are times when we have to face God’s Law so that we’ll see our need for Him, and times when the Gospel is the Word that will turn us around. There are times when we do have to suffer the consequences of our mistakes and other times when we will experience mercy. God’s commands are His expectations of us, but He sees us through the work of Christ, the work we are called and gifted to continue through His grace. Christians don’t worship an Old Testament God or a New Testament God: we worship the God who is revealed in a million different ways through the scriptures that have been handed down to us over the generations. We can’t know everything about God, but we can delight in His Word, studying so that we’ll recognize His voice when a prophet speaks to us today.

Sometimes it helps to look at the scriptures in different language, to better understand what the writer might have been saying. The Amplified Bible adds possible translations of the words so that the reader can see it from different perspectives. Here is Psalm 1:1-2 from the Amplified Bible, “BLESSED (HAPPY, fortunate, prosperous, and enviable) is the man who walks and lives not in the counsel of the ungodly [following their advice, their plans and purposes], nor stands [submissive and inactive] in the path where sinners walk, nor sits down [to relax and rest] where the scornful [and the mockers] gather. But his delight and desire are in the law of the Lord, and on His law (the precepts, the instructions, the teachings of God) he habitually meditates (ponders and studies) by day and by night.”

In this amplified version, we see a progression of life amongst the wicked. At first the man walks along, following advice, but soon he are standing, submissive and inactive. Finally, those who follow the ways of the wicked sit down and relax, allowing the wickedness to pervade their world. This doesn’t happen instantaneously. Day by day, idea by idea, the ungodly let go of God and cling to his or her own plans and purposes, forgetting the Word of God.

What makes it particularly hard is that we know that God is merciful and gracious, so some things we read in the scriptures don’t make sense. Take, for instance, Jesus’ call to the faithful to hate their mothers and fathers! How can He possibly mean we should hate them? After all, in the other gospels, Jesus rebukes the temple leaders for allowing the dishonoring of parents (Mark 7:11). So how could He mean that we should hate our parents?

The word ‘hate’ is defined in Webster’s as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury, extreme dislike or antipathy, loathing.” If it is used as a verb it means, “To feel extreme enmity toward, have a strong aversion to, find very distasteful.” It is because we define hate in this way that we are shocked by Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson. Surely Jesus does not mean for us to have extreme dislike and loathing for our parents?

This is why it is important to understand how words were defined in the days they were spoken. Jesus did say that we are to hate our mothers and fathers, but he was not giving us permission to make them our enemies or treat them with dishonor. “Hate” as it is understood in ancient Israel has to do with our priorities. To hate something meant to turn your back on it, to separate yourself from it. Jacob loved Rachel but hated Leah. Obviously, he did not feel a strong aversion to her since they made several children together. The passage simply means that Jacob put Rachel first, turning his back on Leah for Rachel’s sake. When Jesus calls us to hate our mothers and our fathers, our wives and our children, He is not telling us to abandon them or treat them poorly. He is simply calling us to put Him first, setting aside everything and everyone else for His sake.

Many of our choices have no real consequences. It doesn’t matter if we drink Coke or Pepsi, or if we eat at Pat’s or Geno’s. It does matter how we live our life. It does matter if we believe God’s Word or if we follow the words of others. It does matter if we obey the commandments of God or if we decide to walk another path. These choices mean the difference between good and evil, between life and death. The consequences we suffer are not as some might suggest “the wrath of God.” He does not destroy those who are disobedient. In reality, we destroy ourselves by turning our hearts away from God. He does not leave us, we leave Him. Either we love Him or we hate Him. There is no in between. When Jesus calls us to hate everything, including our own lives, He is calling us to love God with our whole being.

Is God a Lutheran, and if He is, which type of Lutheran? I know what I’d like the answer to be, but I also know that He isn’t any of the above. When we put our religious opinions ahead of God’s Word, we are hating God and loving ourselves. We have to remember that God loves all who believe in Him, even if they see God differently. We must just be careful that we are devoting ourselves to the study of His word so we can know, without a doubt, when the voices we hear are leading us down that path of walking, standing and sitting with the wicked, the sinners and the scoffers.

See, that’s what happens when we aren’t willing to listen to others: we become scoffers. I know that right now, those who are reading my words who know my religious and political opinions are thinking, “Yeah, you should listen to what I say.” But I have to ask, are you listening to me, too? I’m not right and you aren’t right—right might just be somewhere in between. God is big enough to be both.

But we are so caught up in our own opinions that we do not hear what the others have to say. We might stop talking for a minute, but we don’t listen. Worst of all, we don’t listen to what God has to say. We don’t look at it from the many sides of God, the Law side and the Gospel side. We’ll use only that part of the Word of God that strengthens our point of view, ignoring the rest of God’s Word. We reject what doesn’t agree with our opinions without considering that we might need to understand the situation in a new way. That person on the other side of the table might just love God as much as you, and has to live according to the word of God as they believe it to be. We know we are on the wrong path when we become scoffers: when our words do nothing to elevate God but rather disgrace others.

So, Jesus doesn’t tell us to hate our mothers and fathers or our life. He tells us to put God ahead of them, ahead of everything, even our own pursuits and opinions. It isn’t easy to be a follower of God, to let go of societal expectations and do according to God’s will rather than the will of those around us. But once we turn to God, we have to go all the way, because if we only half-heartedly serve God, we’ll find ourselves wandering back to the path of the wicked.

In Deuteronomy we hear, “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.” The kind of life we will live is dependent on the way we walk in this world. If we love God and walk in His ways, we will see the blessings of obedience which is life and prosperity. “But if thy heart turn away, and thou wilt not hear, but salt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish; ye shall not prolong your days in the land, whither thou passest over the Jordan to go in to possess it.” If we turn away from God, in essence ‘hate’ Him, we will suffer the consequences. If we hate everything and keep God first, then we’ll know life and prosperity. And we won’t lose the things that truly matter.

What must it have been like for Philemon? And Onesimus? The difference between these brothers in Christ was not religion or politics, but societal expectations. Philemon was a master, Onesimus was a slave. We might want to take sides in this relationship, choosing to support Philemon’s rights as master or Onesimus’ rights as a human being. But Paul chooses not to take sides. He doesn’t fight for Onesimus’ freedom or demand that Philemon do what is right. He calls both the men to live in their relationship with God as the binding force. If there is a disagreement, Paul volunteers to pay the debt. He encourages Philemon to allow Onesimus to live his faith and share his gifts in a way that will glorify God. No matter what, Christ has changed the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus forever. Paul writes to encourage Philemon to see his slave in this new light.

The purpose of Christian faith is restoration and forgiveness. Philemon knew the power of God’s forgiveness in his own life because he’d become a Christian. He knew the transforming power of the call of God in the lives of those who believe. Onesimus also learned about the forgiveness that comes from faith through the teaching and concern of his new friend Paul. Onesimus, though still a slave, was something new—a brother in Christ to all those who believed in Jesus, including his master, Philemon.

So, how do we dwell in this place between the voice of God and the voices of those who would have us follow their ways? Happy are they that delight in the Law of God, who meditate it on it night and day. As we study God’s Word, searching to know and understand so that we can hear His voice in the cacophony of other noises we face. Following Jesus has a great cost: everything. Are we willing to put God ahead of our mothers and fathers, our opinions and our expectations of our neighbors? Are we willing to see our brothers and sisters in Christ through His eyes, to see how they are being obedient to the Word of God even if it is different than the way we understand it? And, are we willing to separate ourselves from the ungodly, those who are leading us down a path toward scoffing and mockery. Once we get there, we can no longer see God in our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we lose sight of God in their faces, we lose sight of God.

So, let us continue to meditate on God’s Word, learning to hear His voice and to stay on the right path, for it is there we’ll find life and prosperity. Let us choose life and do that which God has commanded us in His Law as we live in the grace of His Gospel.

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