Micah 6 1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31;
This is the text of the sermon I preached at Lakes Entrance on 29th January 2017, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A.
For many people who search for God in our day and age, and I’m thinking of people from outside the world of organised religion, the “God questions” remain the same as ever they were. And the key question among all the questions, from an Evangelical perspective at least, is “what must I do to be saved?” Now, what salvation actually means in this question can often be hard to nail down; I mean, does that seeker after Godly wisdom mean the same by “salvation” as me who is “saved” thinks it means? I told you last week that my first degree from University was in Sociolinguistics, and none of you knew what that was. Well this is one example of what sociolinguistics does, it does this word that you and I are using in conversation actually mean the same thing for each of us. When I say “salvation” what ideas come into your head? Are they the same ideas that are in my head?
In other words, do we know what each other is talking about? Are you hearing what I’m thinking about as I speak?
My theology as it is now, (and as a student of theology my ideas of theology tend to move about a bit), but at the moment I think the question “what must I do to be saved” is actually not the major question. With my understanding of who God is and what God does, what God is like and what God wants from the world, the question we really need to be asking is “what must I do to be loved”. I think, and I may be wrong in this, that your average non-believer in the world is not looking for “salvation” so much as he or she is looking to be loved and to feel valuable in the universe. More of that later.
Now, for those of us who are being saved, for those of us who know that we are loved by God and valued by the Lord and by the Church, the question goes a little deeper. My question of God, and myself, is “what must I do to be useful”? Knowing that the One whom I worship already loves me completely and is actively working for my salvation, and that neither love nor salvation can be earned since each is a free gift of grace, what am I actually supposed to be doing as a Christian? To borrow Micah’s words, what does the Lord require of us?
Well I think since we’ve borrowed Micah’s question we might as well look at Micah’s answer. What God required of the Israelites of Micah’s day, and I believe what God requires of the Christians and Jews of our day, is human kindness. God’s word is quite plain in Micah’s mouth, God would rather that we were just nice to each other and to strangers than that we ignore our neighbour’s needs to prioritise churchgoing and hymn-singing. According to Micah all of creation is called as witnesses to this, God speaks to humankind in the named presence of the mountains and the hills, the seabed and the tectonic plates, the oldest subjects in creation. God demands of us exclusive loyalty and love; however, it seems that in Micah’s day at least these demands were going unmet by the nation of God. I wonder if we might say the same thing today.
Micah tells us that God was worthy of such loyalty in Micah’s day because God is both creator (as the geology testifies) and saviour (as the ancestors and the national history testify). Israel was living in the land promised to Moses, God’s side of the covenant had been more than met since God had gone beyond the agreement in showing patience in the presence of a disloyal covenant partner. Look at the specifics of God’s argument through Micah’s mouth. Shit’tim was the last camp in the wilderness, and Gilgal the first camp on the west bank of the Jordan. God is specifically pointing to the crossing of the Jordan behind Joshua, the actual moment of the Hebrews’ entry and first settling in the land of Canaan as the culmination of God’s presence. “I got you there”, says God, “all the way there and all the way in, just like I promised Moses.”
So, again, what is God’s actual point here? What does God want in response to this great act of salvation? Does God want worship, gratitude, your tithe, your wealth, your firstborn son? No, and in Micah 6:8 we may as well read the phrase “look you thick-headed mob, I’ve already told you this.” God wants justice, kindness, and humility, which my commentary suggests is better read as “wisdom”. God does not want what the Canaanite gods want. In place of the scared children desperately scuttling about at the feet of the baals with their tearful screaming, their grain and blood; Israel’s God wants an adult relationship with the nation called to declare God’s majesty. “Don’t act like pagans, idiots that they are,” says Micah, “act like God’s own people, act like God’s own character”. Worship God by emulating God’s nature, like God has been toward you so you be wise, be just, show mercy, and be loyal toward each other.
Paul tells a very similar tale to the Corinthian house-churches. Whatever you “civilised Greeks” and “pious Israelites” think is worthy and to be held up as exemplary God’s wisdom says otherwise. Micah has already addressed the preferred Israelite manner of pleasing God, extravagant temple worship and lots of bloodied sacrifices. Now Paul knocks down the pinnacle of Greek culture which is its philosophical tradition. We are not saved through wisdom, says Paul, and wisdom cannot discern God unless God is already a part of the wisdom-seeking venture. We might say that God can only be found by the intellect through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Religion (ritual activities) and philosophy (rational argument) cannot lead you to the One who is above all humankind. All human efforts to discover God fall short. God is found and known only when God reveals God-self, in other words it’s only by paying attention to the revelation of God that you will know about God and know God at all. Scripture reminds us that revelation was found in the prophets through whom God spoke, and the messiah who is God with us. In addition to these God was known from the time of Paul and through until today through the disciples of Jesus through whom God speaks and acts. Christ’s gospel is proclaimed in our actions of love and our spoken assertion that God’s salvation and love is accessible through a personal, welcoming relationship with God. Our God is the only god ever to come to earth in human form to reveal love as God’s purpose. “To obey is better than sacrifice,” we read, but we also read “because you obey I call you friends.” God wants us as friends, not as minions, and certainly not as offerings of self-flagellated or cremated human flesh.
So, let’s step away from the theoretical bit and talk brass tacks. We know what God doesn’t want, mindless ritual or masterful rhetoric, and we know what God does want, meaningful relationship. So how do we actually do that. Back to our key question, how can I be useful for God who already loves me and is saving me?
Well, think about your own story says Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:26. If God called humble and bumbling you back in the day, why would God prefer to choose the wise and powerful now? The answer is simple, God chose people who could not make anything of themselves so that when they were made notable it can only have been because of God and not by their own achievements. God alone is our source (1 Corinthians 1:30) so that when we are asked “how did you do it?” we can only answer “I didn’t do it, God did it through me” (1 Corinthians 1:31) and in that way God gets the praise and glory. Your theology degree might be useful, but it doesn’t make you a better person, so stop your posing and live with Godly wisdom among the company of the all-are-saved. Step one in being useful for God is that you be yourself; the self that God is transforming you in to through the continuing work of salvation. Utilise the wisdom of God, tell people about what God is like based on how God has acted toward you and what you have seen God do in the lives of your brothers and sisters in Christ. Tell others about your answered prayers, your sense of peace in a troubled world, your firm assurance that you are loved beyond comprehension by the creator of the universe. That’s a pretty big story in itself, it doesn’t need embellishment.
Following last week’s sermon we might say “live in the reign of God”. Live as if God is already king of the world and your best beloved father, friend, and lord. Then tell everyone you know what that feels like. You never know how persuasive your unfettered excitement is to others who are living precarious, loveless lives. The world is not looking to us for philosophy, it has enough of that, but when they see our excitement for God and our joyous abandon to the love of God and each other they will quickly rush over to see what we are up to.
And who may abide with God? This is the question from today’s psalm so we ask whether there is a difference between being saved and abiding with God. I think yes. You can abide with God on the earth, and I think that’s actually the point. Judaism back in the day wasn’t big on an afterlife, Heaven was where God and the angels operated but it wasn’t necessarily a blissful place for the after-dead. It still isn’t to a great extent, the idea of “believe in God and go to Heaven after you die” wasn’t a major focus even of Jesus ‘teaching because it just wasn’t part of Judaism. The psalmist lists the characteristics of those who dwell with God, i.e. those who live inside the reign of God and act as if God is already king of the world, that they are blameless, they do what is right, they speak truth, they don’t speak slander, they don’t do evil, and they don’t take reproach. The citizens of God’s kingdom despise the wicked and respect the lord. In their broken and troublesome world, they are loyal and trustworthy even beyond the point of their own pain. They do not extort and they don’t even charge interest (because interest is extortion of the poor). They do not take bribes nor take any unfair advantage which might have afforded to them by their position in the world. The Psalmist concludes his short list of life standards with the confident assertion that if you hold fast to God then God will uphold and preserve you in the time of hardship. You will not be moved, you shall not waver (Psalm 15:5c). You will know God’s strengthening and quickening in your soul when you need it. God’s got your back. So, again, God desires that you be yourself, and if you’ve forgotten what it is that you do as a saved and loved son or daughter of God then the Psalmist gives you a little cheat sheet. As a Christian, a citizen of God’s reign in the world God created, this is how you act. This is what we do, we who are the saved, redeemed, beloved ones of God the king.
So, if you worship God that’s great, no-one is saying you shouldn’t worship and practice your religion. But what Micah, the Psalmist, and Paul are all saying is that if you really want to do it properly, if your attention to goats and trumpets really is for the glory of God alone and not just the fun of the party, then spend your time showing compassion and good character so that others will also give glory to God what God is patently and lovingly doing through little old you.