Sermon for January 29. 2017, A
Micah 6: 1-8; 1 Cor. 1:18-31

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

                                                                    Jesus 101

If you haven’t guessed it by now, as a Christian, and as a human being, I am disturbed by and concerned about the current state of our American culture, particularly its polarity, its divisiveness, and its incivility.  My concern is not recent; it’s something I’ve felt for at least a couple of years.  I know I am not the only one troubled by this, so when someone writes something from that same discontent, I tend to read it.  Such an article came to my attention on Friday, when I was praying about how to open this sermon, in a blog by Pastor Carey Nieuwhof entitled “7 Ways to Live out the Gospel in a Post-Truth, Post-Fact Culture.”  The blog is rather lengthy, and if you want the reference, I will be happy to share it, but two particular passages struck me.  First, Nieuwhof writes:

Since the 1960s, you’ve seen many challenge and reject the objective nature of the Gospel (one God revealed in Jesus Christ who extends an invitation to all) to embrace a far more subjective spirituality.

For example:

What’s true for you isn’t true for me.

God is whoever you define him/her/it.

My spirituality can be customized to suit me, just like my meal at a restaurant.

Then further on, he adds:

In many ways, as American culture slips further and further away from its Christian underpinnings, the Gospel is poised to play its rather familiar role in culture as a prophet.

The role of a prophet is to help the culture clearly see what truth, God, and life are really all about. The Gospel is also the home to all real hope.

Historically, the role of the prophet has been a bit of a miserable role.. . .(But)if the church starts to mimic culture in this seismic shift we’re seeing, we will tear ourselves away from the very thing that will save us.

Our scriptures for today, including those in the lectionary that weren’t read this morning, all speak to the Truth  (with a capital “T”) of the Gospel, the Good News, and of objective spirituality.  Our role as Christians and as prophets not only is to proclaim these truths but to exhibit these truths, no matter how much our society may resist acknowledging them. These Truths are basic to Christianity and to the Church, which is why I entitled this sermon “Jesus 101,” for as we all know, we often forget the basics as we journey through life.  So let’s begin this review with a prophet from the Old Testament, Micah..
Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, was the small town prophet.  “Howling his poetry like a wild beast,” as William Ramsey put it, he must have been hard to ignore.  Micah understood plainly that the reason his people had been vanquished and taken into Assyrian bondage was simply because they had turned away from God.  Their lives, their society, their culture and habits, were no longer focused on the Source of their being.   They had broken their end of the covenant.  When the consequences of their actions became tragically apparent, God’s chosen people first wailed that God had deserted them.  Then they tried penitence, wanting to know what kind of gift or sacrifice they should give God.  What, exactly, did God want of them in order to get back into God’s good graces?  

We have, no doubt, sometimes wondered the same thing.  Have we given the right amount of money to please God?  Have we been remorseful enough to be forgiven?  Have we said “enough” prayers for the day or gone to church on “enough” Sundays to make God nod favorably upon us?  What is the right answer that will secure God’s good pleasure?

Micah states it is this:  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).  Let’s shoot the prophet, because to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk in humility will not make us popular.   Yet in this one verse, Micah includes a summary of the messages of the greatest eighth-century prophets:  Amos’ demand for justice (5:24), Hosea’s emphasis on steadfast love (2:19), and Isaiah’s humble reliance on the Lord (30:15).   Justice.  Love.  Humility. Foolish words in today’s society, but key words that seem to have fallen into a deep chasm and that we, prophets, need once again to proclaim and practice.  Extending justice and kindness, with humility—expressing them in our simple, ordinary, daily lives--is the gift that God asks for because God has already extended those gifts to us.

A basic Truth of “Jesus 101” is that what the Lord requires is a change of heart called love.
In a culture that is so saturated with the belief that love, and most everything else, has to be earned in some way, we may find that our message of love is hard to understand.  A year or so ago, I was speaking to a friend of mine who is her mother’s caretaker.  My friend had been through an extremely trying day with her aging mother, but was proud of the fact that she had maintained her patience.  She said, “Just think of all the gold stars I’m earning in heaven by taking care of Mom!”  I hated to burst her bubble, but being a Reformed pastor, I couldn’t help it.  My reply was, “That’s not how it works. You aren’t earning any stars in heaven.  God doesn’t have a checklist, and he’s not sending out any report cards or status updates.  You are doing what you are doing out of love.  That is what matters.”

Her initial comment turned into a serious theological discussion.  I thought I was sharing GOOD NEWS, but I discovered that my friend was struggling, as most of us have probably done, with two concepts:  First, that God’s love cannot be earned; and secondly, that God loves us not because of what we do but because of who we are—his children.  Yes, God calls us to participate in ministry and service, but not in order to earn a reward.  We actively respond out of gratitude for a love freely given to us.  We are able to love, and called to love, because God first loved us.

Being loved for who we are, not what we accomplish, produce, or achieve, is what the Apostle Paul called the foolishness of the cross.  That Truth was just as counter-cultural in Paul’s time as it is in ours.  His audience was a young church in Corinth, with its own divisions and difficulties.   He wrote, “For Jews demand signs (gold stars) and Greeks desire wisdom (reason), but we proclaim Christ crucified (grace), a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:22).  And, I might add, an impossibility to those who only see the world through the world’s eyes:  give and take, work and reward, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, my way or the highway.  

Today’s world has little patience for the foolishness of self-sacrifice or love in action without reward, but we prophets know that God turned the wisdom and power of this world on its head through the cross.  We do not have to do what God has already done through Christ.  We simply have to live it.  

So a second basic Truth of “Jesus 101” is that Christ’s love supersedes what the world considers wise.  

Two weeks ago, as I was sitting in the chancel area, listening to the beautiful prelude while preparing for worship, a question popped into my head from out of nowhere:  “How in the world did I get here?”   What incredible chain of events led me to be sitting in the preacher’s seat, preparing to proclaim the Good News in a 200 year old church, the first church in Huntsville, AL, to people used to hearing from doctors and scholars?  I didn’t know whether to laugh or make a run for it.

I doubt I am alone in that experience.  We all have no doubt questioned our abilities or our worthiness at one time or another.  As disciples, we are each called in so many different ways and invited into so many necessary and important ministries.  Yet we often use one of these excuses:  “I don’t know how to do it,” or “I don’t know enough about it,” or “I’m a good follower but I can’t be a leader.”  Yet Paul reminds us of another kind of Godly foolishness.  

God chooses to use the ordinary to bring about the extraordinary, or as Paul wrote:  “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (vss. 27-29).  Everything, and everyone, God creates has value and a purpose, no matter what our society may say.

What we may see through worldly eyes as useless, silly, or unwanted, God sees as useful, worthwhile, and desired.  Paul very pointedly puts us in our place: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise by human standards; not many of you were powerful; not many of you were of noble birth.  Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (vs.31).  Our achievements, our ministries, and our calls are the result of God choosing us—not of our own greatness--and we are no better or worse than the person sitting next to us.  

So basic reminder #three of “Jesus 101” is this:  In a world that preaches that might and wealth make right, we are, in fact, all equal before God.  

Our scriptures this morning did not include the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes,  but they are also a part of the basic teaching of “Jesus 101.”  For those of you not familiar with the Beatitudes, they consist of a list of people in dark situations who Jesus labeled blessed.  In another instance of what the world would call foolishness, Jesus proclaimed that those who mourn, those who are meek, and those who are in poor in spirit are among the most blessed.  Our culture equates being “blessed” with being happy, but in the context in which Jesus used the word, blessed means to be in relationship, to know that deep security that comes from being loved, to be in union with God and with each other, and to be part of God’s people. 

As God’s people, we are called to reach out to those who Jesus identified in that mountain top teaching, to those who are “poor in spirit,” depressed or discouraged.  We are called to extend mercy to those who need forgiveness; to become peacemakers in our relationships; to encourage and stand up for the persecuted; to comfort those who mourn with our presence.  None of these actions will bring us power and prestige; instead, Christ uses each one of us to be his words, his hands, his face in this world so that no one need feel alone.  We, you and I, become the blessings, the Beatitudes, that Christ promises the world when we let go of what it is in it for us. 

So basic reminder #4 for “Jesus 101” is this:  We are each a blessing, and we are blessed by one another.

What I have just shared are my Four Gospel Truths.  You may have others.  The Gospel, to quote Pastor Nieuwhof,

 “is perhaps the very best antidote we have to the current cultural turbulence. It is anchored in the idea that truth (and even love) is objective and available to all, calls us to die to ourselves so that others may live, values all people, calls us to confess, to repent, and to put something bigger than ourselves above ourselves.

If the church starts to mimic culture in this seismic shift we’re seeing, we will tear ourselves away from the very thing that will save us.

“Jesus 101” is nothing fancy, nothing new.  It is not of this world.  In fact, it is often foolish.  But it can, in fact, save the world, if we are brave enough to be prophets.

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