Fourth Sunday after Epiphany 2 February 2020
(Micah 6:1-8 Psalm 15 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Matthew 5:1-12)
“Taking God Seriously!”
When Herbert Chilstrom, the first presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) died two weeks ago (January 19), there was an outpouring of emotion describing this man’s courage in taking on the challenges of a new religious denomination. He was remembered as a man who “took faith and the church seriously, believing that the church would not survive if we only went through the motions to look good.” He described himself as “an evangelical conservative with a radical social conscience.”
Evangelical Conservative. To be in right relationship with God through the outpouring love of Jesus.
Radical Social Conscience. To practice this outpouring love of Jesus in ways that are creative, compassionate and courageous.
There can be no clearer summary of the three scripture texts we heard this morning.
The final verse from Micah “. . . and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” [Mi 6:8] is often called “the Golden Text of the Old Testament.” The Beatitudes from Mathew present a spirituality that will identify us with Jesus like no other text from the New Testament. The reading from 1 Corinthians turns our world upside down: “God chooses the weak, those who no one cares about….”
Let’s begin with the Micah text. It is a courtroom scene. It will make a whole lot more sense if you are looking in your Pew Bibles, because there are different people talking. [Vs. 1] The prophet introduces the case, demanding that the people defend their sinful activity. [Vs. 1-2] We hear that the witnesses are the mountains and the hills.
Then [vs.3-5] God speaks and reminds them that God has always been faithful as God reminds them of the many times He has rescued them from enemies and cared for them. He thwarted the plan of King Balak [vs.5]; He recalls how He helped Joshua cross the Jordon at Shittim into the Promised Land at Gilgal.
Then the defendant, Israel, [vs. 6-7] (guess what, they don’t have a leg to stand on!) begins a rebuttal: maybe if I offer more; maybe I’ll sacrifice more, maybe if I do more, maybe God will be pleased. Do you see what Israel saying? More offerings, baby calves, thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, maybe even I’ll give my firstborn child.
They know God is angry so they’re saying— okay I’ll give more in the offering! I’ll volunteer more at the church! How about if I come to church more often? How about if I join the choir, join five different committees and run for council?
Then the prophet reenters the courtroom drama [vs.8] and speaks in God’s name, but not with a guilty/innocent verdict, not out of anger, but with a love that reaches beyond anger—with a commandment that speaks to the relationships with God and with all of God’s beloved children. “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” [Mi. 6:8].
The Israelite people have failed to build the kind of just community envisioned by the God who liberates people from political and economic bondage.
I guess it is no flashing news bulletin for me to say that today we are in the midst of a serious political, religious, and moral crisis in our country. If we are going to respond to all that is going on around us; if we are going to put our faith into action in “creative, compassionate and courageous ways, then we need to take our faith seriously and not only go through the motions.” (Chilstrom’s words) To do this, I sincerely believe that we need to go deeper, to be more deeply rooted.
I want to suggest we do this in three specific ways.
FIRST, by going deeper into our faith. For me it means going back into the disciplines and prayer practices that bring our faith alive each day, to make these practices part of our daily schedules. Prayer space and quiet are necessary to deepen faith; we all have to stop sometimes in the midst of the noise and busyness to listen and let go into God.
SECOND, by going deeper into our relationships to each other. It is especially important to do so across racial and ethnic lines. Who our real friends are, who we invite to dinner, who our kids play with—all shape our understanding of the world and ourselves and have an impact on our congregations, our communities, and on us.
THIRD, by going deeper into our relationships with the poor and vulnerable.
Jesus always wants to remind us of the people who are the most invisible, who are left out, who are left alone in the world—those who become the targets of individuals when they come to power.
And if I might use a sports image on this Super Bowl weekend, when it comes to justice for all people, we cannot simply play defense. We need to play better offense when we hear the cries of people in misery!
On this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany I want you to know that I believe in the hope the angels brought to the shepherds who were tending their flocks on that first Christmas night.
I believe in the hope that those visitors from the East held in their hearts when they followed the star to Bethlehem.
I believe in the voice Jesus heard when he was baptized in the Jordan that called him “beloved.”
I believe in the hope of those women when they entered the tomb on Easter morning.
I believe in the hope of our proclamation of Christ crucified.
These stories are the very foundation of our hope that the Light is greater than all the darkness of pain and separation and conflict.
“Do you believe. . .do you truly believe that the Light is brighter than your darkest darkness?”
If so, then this sermon is over and time for action to begin. Time to “…do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Or, as Eugene Peterson translates these verses in The Message: now is the time to “do what is fair and just to your neighbor; time to be compassionate and loyal in your love. Now is the time to take God seriously” [Mi. 6:8, The Message]. Amen.