Sunday, October 16, 2016

“Was Blind, But Now I See!"

A Sermon Based Upon John 9: 1-41
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
October 16th,  2016  (Series: 3/7, Amazing Grace)

What do you drive or walk by time and time again, but never notice?    I’m sure each of us does this countless times every day.  We go by familiar sights and fail to notice the changes or the details.   Of course, when you drive in a new or unfamiliar area, you see all kinds of new things.  You even look for them.  But when you live in a familiar place, you may drive by a something dozens of times and still not really notice. 

Early this year, I was driving from Union Grove turning onto Mullis Road, and noticed that Pilot Mountain was visible on that ridge.   Just before that, I was driving on Highway 18 from Wilkesboro to Lenoir, like I’ve done almost monthly for 9 years while trying to sell our house.  This time, instead of looking at the mountains on my left, as I normally do, I looked toward the more distant mountains on my right and saw a house built at the top of a mountain I haven’t noticed before.  If I drive down almost any road I know well, and start to look closely, I still catch new glimpses of things I’ve not seen before.

But it’s hard to see and notice everything, isn’t it?   As the brilliant TV commercial says, “Life Comes At You Fast!”  It’s probably a good thing that we don’t notice every detail as we go down the road at 55 miles per hour.   Besides the possibility of crashing our car, our brains would not be able to handle all the information at once.   This is why seeing things around us, is very much like reading the Bible.   You don’t and can’t see everything at once.   I’ve preached the Bible for almost 40 years, but it never gets boring because each time I read or study a particular passage, even a passage I’ve preached many times before, I find new insights.  

This inability to see everything at once, along with the opportunity to make new discoveries and to wonder at new sights, is part of the joy and excitement of being alive.  What is a bit more troubling however, are those times when we fail to truly notice things we should see, especially when we overlook, or fail to notice what and who matters most.  Just as we can pass by buildings or scenes dozens of times and not really be conscious of all that surrounds us, we can also allow the true identity, the life, and presence or pressing need of another person to fade into the background, just like another nameless tree on the roadside (This thought comes from Matthew Emery, from a sermon he preached at Storrs UCC Congregational Church, Storrs CT, at

In this discussion of the wonderful hymn “Amazing Grace,” today we come to a very short, but greatly important phrase, that concludes verse one: …was blind, but now I see.”   When ‘grace’ came into John Newton’s life after his life was spared on that storm-tossed ship, Newton began to see everything differently.  Some of us have had a similar experience.  We’ve come through a car crash, a life-threatening illness, or had a debilitating injury, and through that traumatic experience, we have learned, like Newton did, to see life in new ways.    

Today, in this text from the gospel of John, we also come across a person who ‘was blind’, but now, came to see life very differently because of the ‘healing’ grace of God through Jesus Christ.   Though this man was born blind, we are told---having never seen the color in flowers,  the beauty of the sunrise, his own mother’s face, nor any other part of the wonderful sights of the world around him---now, the saving, healing presence of Jesus Christ has given him his sight so ‘that the God’s works might be revealed in him’ (vs. 3).  

Of course, this is not the only time a blind person was healed by Jesus (cp. Matt. 9:27; 12: 22; 15:30; Mark 8: 23; 10: 46;  John 5:3) and this healing, though very interesting, was not as graphic as the man who was healed in stages, first only seeing  ‘people like trees walking’ (Mk. 8:24).  But what makes this description most important, how flow of the story uncovers a kind of ‘blindness’ that still persisted, and unfortunately still persists, among those who don’t want to see who Jesus was, nor to see what Jesus saw. 

There is a line in the middle of this story that is most revealing.   In verse 8, it tells us how ‘this man’s neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar…”    Before this man was healed, people looked at him differently, negatively, and even judgmentally.   Even the disciples own negativity about this man and his blindness sets up the whole story with a question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (vs. 2).

At the beginning of baseball season this year, came the announcement that ‘Chicago Whitesox’s baseball has a new TV voice, ESPN’s sports broadcaster Jason Benetti.’  What makes Benetti so unique, is not just his great voice, but also the handicap that he has overcome all of his life; his Cerebral Palsy.   But this had not hindered him, and he has overcome much and proven much to earn this position.  He earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism, economics and psychology from Syracuse University, and has a law degree from Wake Forest School of Law.  Why has Benetti been such an ‘overacheiver’?  He said in an interview,  that he had to ‘persevere and not be defined by his disability’ and to prove he was not disabled in his ‘brain’ or ‘voice’.  “The way I look or walk is such a small part of who I am as a person”,  Benetti said.    Now, with his own success, he says  if he ‘can help change one person’s attitude about how they perceive others, then I have made a positive difference.” (

Apparently, as Benetti has witnessed with his own handicap, we’re not the only ones who have perhaps passed, ignored, or misjudged people too easily.   Too often, we too can walk by people and either not notice them, or mistake a ‘neighbor’, as this blind man’s neighbor’s did,  as just a another unfortunate ‘beggar’.   They had seen him before, perhaps many times.  Who knows how often he had been stationed in the middle of their village.  Who knows how many times they had walked by him on the way to the market, maybe even dropped in a few coins as he sat and shook his cup.  They saw him, but did they really see or notice him---seeing him as their own neighbor--- as a man who deserved their own healing and helping touch?

Interestingly, as soon as his "condition" changed, this man born blind was no longer defined by the fact that he was blind—in fact, now that he could see—these neighbors of his weren’t even sure who he was anymore.   Did you notice how they still struggled to see him differently:  "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" (v.8).   That’s all they ever knew him as, the "man who used to sit and beg."  But even more astounding is the fact that they weren’t even sure it was him anymore.  As you heard, some were saying "No, … it is someone like him" (v. 9), and the healed man had to keep asserting, explaining, and emphasizing, as another translations puts its more emphatically,  "Yes, it’s me! (CEB).  “I am the man" (NRSV).  It reminds me of that scene in the Dickens’ play, “The Christmas Carol”, where the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is trying to show Ebenezer Scrooge why he should be a different person, and the dreaming Scrooge, standing on his own grave, now pleads with this “Good Spirit” to assure him that now that he sees everything differently,  he may wake up to ‘change these shadows… ‘by an altered life!”  (

The people living around this blind man were having difficulty, just like Scrooge did, seeing the possibility of ‘an altered life’---a life that had altered by healing love and grace.   Part of the reason they could not see, was not simply because the man had always been blind, but because they saw him, but hadn’t really seen him.  They had just looked at him as "the man who used to sit and beg,"  but they had never really encountered him, and never truly noticed him as a ‘man who could receive healing ‘grace’ and love.

But these neighbors are not the only ones in today’s story who failed to really notice and encounter this man.  As the story opened, Jesus and his disciples were walking along the road.   Jesus immediately ‘saw the man who was blind from birth’,  but his disciples, did not really see him, nor have pity on him, but they only thought of him as an impersonal, religious question they still needed to settle in their own minds: "Rabbi who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" they asked. (vs. 2). 

Perhaps it’s still a linger, interesting question for many, especially those who still like to see reality as a matter of pure good, or pure evil,  ‘black and white’, or ‘cause and effect’.  That kind of mentality and spirituality definitely fit nicely into the common religious, cultural and theological worldview of the time.  If someone suffered some sort of physical limitation or disease, it was normal, even theologically necessary to assume that a person who was ‘handicapped’ like him, had to be suffering some sort of bad ‘karma’, a form of God’s punishment for a presumed sin, or a ‘cruel fate, determined by the gods.  For most of us today, this way of reasoning seems rather silly.   Fortunately, we have all kinds of medical and scientific knowledge our ancestors did not have access to.   This gift of human knowledge can point us to many other reasons, and sometimes the reality that suffering and illness comes to people for no reason at all.  

But apparently, and unfortunately, this is even more difficult for some people to accept, especially since, in their minds, they still have to have a God whose ‘in charge’ of everything that happens—no matter what happens.   In the wake of the recent the recent refugee crisis in Syria,  or when the great earthquake hit Hati, when the terrible Tsunami hit Japan, as when Hurricanes hit New Jersey or New Orleans,  there are always people, and not a few preachers, who will feel the need to claim that these disasters are ‘definitely’ some sort of divine ‘judgment’ send directly from God.   Even in smaller, more personal situations, this line of thinking is still around in our world.   It has even been known in our much ‘beloved’ American work ethic; the attitude that says you anyone can and must "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" results, not only in all kinds of foolish TV and Internet adds offering "secret ingredients" to success.  This idea that ‘I’ve worked hard to get where I am’, and so, the ethic says, ‘if you can’t do the same—regardless of what other circumstances, powers, and systems are at play in the world.   If you can’t make it, and if you can’t do it—then, it suggests, there must be something wrong with you.’   You or your parents, must have sinned!  Right?

Jesus say, “No!”  “Wrong!”   This line of thinking is dead wrong, because Jesus himself tells his disciples and he should tell be telling us, once and for all,  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (9: 3).    If you only look at people this way,  it results in an even greater ‘sin’  bring allows and invites even more suffering in the world because you will not really see the other hurting person as who they truly are,  a person who needs God’s healing’ and our own ‘helping hand’ of grace, that ought to be revealed through us.  The greater sin in this story,  is the ‘blindness’ of a way of thinking, even a wrong way of believing that becomes a way of escape so that we don’t or won’t truly notice a person and really encounter them, not just be repulsed by their suffering and pain, but to stop and feel for them enough to care.   

If there is any reason for the unexplained suffering in this blind man, or in anyone, for that matter, Jesus says, it’s so that “God’s works might be revealed”.  What works?   What kind of ‘answer’ is this to all the bad things that happen in this world.   Well, it’s the only ‘answer’ Jesus gives, because in reality, it’s the only ‘answer’ we need.   If there is any God given answer to ‘why’ bad things happen,  there certainly no absolute, healing answer, Jesus implies, in only trying to figure out ‘who did it’ or ‘why’ it happened.   Here, I only stop to think about how so many “Crime” shows, and even how so much real “Law Enforcement” only works to figure out ‘who did’ and the to discover the some kind of ‘motivation’ for why they did it.   You hear this continually on the news, from all networks.   After someone is murdered,  after an Isis bomb goes off,  or even after some plane crashes, a train wrecks,  or after an automobile accident,  there is a ‘rush’ to answer,  ‘who’ and ‘why’?   

There is, of course, in a world that demands justice and law,  valid reasons and right times to ask such questions.   But what the gospel of Jesus Christ has come to tell us, and what and experience of God’s grace in our own life will ‘alter’ our minds and hearts to see, is that sometimes, in fact, many times, perhaps even most of time, and I might even dare to suggest, probably, in one way or other ‘all of the time’,  the even greater ‘answer’ in all our human problems, pains—in all our suffering, in all our unexplained, impossible-to-understand world---  the only one answer that makes sense in every situation, for every person, and works to address every hurt, is ‘healing grace’.   The only ‘answer’ you and I, those who are alive, who survive, who are well, and who are blessed, must show and reveal, for life to have any meaning, love and grace left at all, is to reveal in our ‘seeing’ and ‘actions’ toward others, is to show them that God is at work, because he is definitely at ‘work’ through us.   

Figuring out how to ‘answer’ questions like these disciples pose is most often a defense mechanism, a stalling tactic, and a barrier to instinctively ‘protect us’ against getting close to pain.  It can also become a way to ‘animalisticly’ stand above the other, rather than to be with them, communing with them in suffering, and in their humanity.   Unfortunately,  the very real part of this story, and the reason it is told the way it is, is that we also still see ‘people’ for what we think they’ve done, or what they haven’t done, rather than for who they are, and who they might become, if only someone would show some form of ‘grace’ to be with them and work for them,  the ‘works of God’.

I could go on and on, my friends, because God goes on.  God wants us to overcome our defenses and let him be our true defender.   God wants us to forget about having ‘answers’ and to focus more on being an answer.   Through Jesus Christ, and his healing power, God wants us to meditate more on ‘healing grace’ rather than on the ‘condemnation of the law’.  The greatest law is love, and the greatest work is to extend God’s ‘amazing grace’.   God want us to have an even greater healing than physical healing.  I remember how wonderful it was in Union Grove Community when a sweet, graceful, spiritual elderly woman, who had been ‘blind’ since her childhood, finally received her sight through the development of medical science.  It was amazing, wonderful, and an incredible moment of healing grace.  But it was not greater than the ‘spiritual eyes’ she developed during her own many years of physical blindness, as she was determined in her soul, to pour out so much grace and love on everyone she met.   To gain and give that kind of grace; that’s the greater healing.  To have and receive God’s grace, to have our eyes open to really see each other, as God sees us,  whether our ‘answer’ comes or doesn’t, that’s the greatest healing, until that day, when God, through our coming Savior, will make all things new.    Will you open your eyes and see?   Amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

“How Sweet the Sound!”

A Sermon Based Upon Ephesians 2: 1-10, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
October 2nd,  2016  (Series: 1/7, Amazing Grace)

The spring after we adopted our daughter in November of 1989, we made our first camping trip to Florida, where we would also visit Disney World.   We had a wonderful time experiencing the camping and Disney experience together. 

After the week was over we were making our way back in the middle of the night on Highway 95.   I had planned for us to make camp on Tybee Island, Georgia.   We turned toward the Island and we drove, for what seemed like hours.  It was much further than I had anticipated.  It was also very dark and we could see nothing.   Everyone was complaining.  The further I drove the worst it looked.   There was nothing.  I had no GPS, only a map.  When we finally arrived at what was said to be Tybee Island, it looked abandoned.   No one wanted to stay there.  We turned around and may our way back toward the main highway.  It was already late, and everyone was tired.   Finally, I pulled the little truck and camper off in a parking lot near the interstate and we all crawled into the camper and went to sleep.  It was like a nightmare.

Have you ever miscalculated your drive or your destination?   It’s harder to do that with GPS, but it still happens.  Once on route to speak at a church in town I was unfamiliar with, my GPS took me down a road that turned to dirt and finally ended up at a river with no bridge.  It was the shortest route to the church, but did not realize there was no bridge.

In our modern world with sophisticated satellites and GPS guidance systems, it’s getting even harder to admit that we can be lost or mistaken about where we are going, but it still happens.  It’s kind of like those drones, or unmanned aircraft, especially the military type.  They fly over a target, see some people who look like the bad guys, and perhaps really are.  Then they unleash the missiles and only latter we read that they ended up hitting building full of school children.   ‘Collateral Damage’, they call it.   It may be getting harder to miss our target or destination these days, but now when we miss it, we really miss it.  

In today’s text we read about missing the right ‘target’ when it comes to living our only chance to live our lives.   That’s how the apostle Paul defined sin in his letter to the Romans, as ‘falling short of the mark’ (Roms. 3:28), or missing the target.   Here, in Ephesians we find an very detailed elaboration of what ‘missing the mark’ truly means when you have only one life to live, which is, only one chance to hit the target right.   Paul also called the result of ‘missing’our mark the ‘wages’ (Roms. 6:23) or consequence of sin, which is ‘death’.   When we ‘miss the mark’ of living the right way, we end up arriving at the wrong place, hitting the wrong target, or hurting the wrong people, including ourselves.   In the history of this world, we human beings have an incredible strong, if not an overwhelming tendancy, when left to our own choices, our own desires, or our own ‘fleshly’ inclinations, to make the wrong decisions, to go down the wrong the road and to end up hitting the wrong target, even a ‘target’ which we sincerely thought was ‘right’ for us all along.   In other words, getting where we wanted  proved to be a ‘dead end’ in more ways than one.  As the tragic saying goes,  “We get what we want, and then we don’t want what we got.” 

The writer of Ephesians, either Paul, or one of his disciples who wrote for him, describes in great detail what ‘getting what we don’t’ want means when people ‘follow the course of this world’ by going with the flow or current of the ‘powers’ that are ‘disobedient’ to God’s intended target.   Paul does not say this is how the ‘world’ lived, but he says this is how Christians have lived also:  “You were dead through the trespasses and sins” (2:1).  “All of us lived among them in the passions of our flesh” (2:3).  We too have followed ‘the desires of the flesh and senses’ and have been ‘by nature children of wrath’ (2:3). 

These are strong words.  They are not chosen randomly but intentionally.  They are intentionally strong, which is too for most people, drawn to appear much more ‘politically correct’ today.   But the sad truth is that we’ve lost the value of God’s love for us, exactly because we’ve lost our vocabulary about ‘sin’, and because of this, we’ve also lost our God’s given ability to confront the reality and very real consequences of sin, which can wreck great, if not irrevocable havoc in our very short, precious but most fragile human lives.  

Australian Mark ‘Chopper” Read was beaten by his Father and then bullied in school.   He then got into a lot of fights at school, losing several hundred of them.  By age 14 he was made a ‘ward of the state’ and declared mentally ill and given shock treatments.   Between the ages of 20 and 38, he only spent 13 months outside of prison.  He became a member of prison and criminal gangs, in order to survive.   Once he launched a prison war.  He killed not to be killed.  He used a blow torch to punish his victims and burn off their toes.  Once he attacked a judge in court.   He had a fellow inmate cut off his own ears so he could temporarily leave the prison.   He claimed to have killed 19 people, and attempted to kill 11 others, many of whom criminals too.   Near the end of his life, he put many of his life stories into crime novels and a movie was made about his life.  ( 

The title of that movie: “One Thing Led To Another.”   That very intentional title, chosen by a notorious criminal, points how such a difficult, deadly, even degrading life got started from a very gifted, innocent, but hurting and brokenhearted child.   By the way, Mark “Chopper” Read got the name ‘Chopper’ not from the people he ‘chopped’, but from his favorite childhood cartoon character, a big bull-dog in the Yakky Doodle cartoon named “Chopper”.    
Few of us ever intend on ending up where we do.   Few of us ever choose the wrong road on purpose.  Most of us thought we were choosing the ‘right’ road, or we choose the ‘road’ or ‘route’ we wanted and we made the ‘choices’ we felt we had to, or wanted to choose.   It’s a free country, isn’t it? 

But Paul links our self-directed choosing with the ‘the passions of our flesh’ or the ‘desires of flesh or senses’ (vs. 3).   Today, this kind of language has completely reversed itself into a more positive packaging: “Find Your Passion”, or “Follow your desire.”  It all sounds very attractive and makes what the Bible presents to us appear terribly ‘outdated’ and/or ‘restrictive’.  

Would we dare admit today that our ‘free’ choices and our own decisions can still be influenced by the ‘ruler of the power of the air’ who is still at ‘work among the disobedient’?    Would we dare say that all that all that is destructive and deadly among us is only humanly inspired?   I remember what someone said after Donald Trump’s outrageous negativity and nasty rudeness which strangely kept getting him votes, against all political precedence or reason.  Someone said, “Either he is a genius or he’s an idiot!”  I could add maybe it’s neither stupidity or brilliance, but that other ‘powers’ are still at work underneath the negative intensity of our world.

There was another person, whose early life had too many hurts for such a tender, young child.   At a very young age, he lost his mother to illness, because his Father was a sailor, he had to be sent to boarding schools which often proved very difficult for unwanted or abandoned children.   

After Johnny ran away from school and came home, his Father began to take him off to sea with him.  Johnny began to love the adventure of the open seas, but the living the life of a sailor caused him to rebel against the faith his mother taught him.   His faith and life became ‘shipwrecked’ by his own ‘delight in sin’ and doing what he knew to be wrong.   After a short stint in the wartime navy, the free-spirited Johnny decided the regimented military life was not for him, so he went AWOL in search of his Father.   But this young,  self-serving ‘deserter’ was quickly captured, publically beaten, and stripped of his rank of midshipman, and placed in shackles.  

After his release from military confinement, feeling greatly humiliated, he contemplated suicide, but then managed to get on to an African bound freighter.   He managed to get onboard a ship headed for India, but behaved so poorly with crew of the ship, and was left with a West African salve dealer, whose wife mistreated him much as if he was a slave himself.  This time of exploitation and degradation only made little Johnny more rebellious, and he tried to soak his sorrow in all kinds of debauchery and dissolution.   Johnny was rescued from his abuser by the kindness of a sea captain, who had been asked by Johnny’s father to search for him, and to bring him back to England.    But on the way back to England, the slave trading ship encountered a severe storm off the coast of Ireland.   The 23 year old named Johnny, found himself in the middle of the dark night, aboard a storm-tossed ship, quickly filling up with water.   After reaching the deck, he was ordered to ‘go get a knife’, but when he returned, the man standing in his place, had been washed overboard by a wave.   “That wave was meant for me”, he thought.   It was in that moment that Johnny called out to the God he remembered from his mother, “Lord, Have mercy!”   Not long after his prayer, the cargo shifted, stopping up the gaping hole of the sinking ship.  The ship then drifted to safety.    But during that long, slow drift, Johnny began to have thoughts he hadn’t had in years.  He begin to wonder if this God did ‘have mercy’ on this wayward child.   That young man is Johnny, who one day later, as John Newton, came to understand what had happened to him on the merciless, angry waves of life, and then came pen these powerful words we still sing today: “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound, that Saved a Wretch Like Me….”  (

“Amazing Grace” is perhaps the most beloved hymn of all, or at least is the most sung in church and especially at funerals.   It is the theme of this song that still rings true to our hearts, because we too have at some time or other, been pronounced ‘dead’ spiritually, if not also physically, mentally or emotionally deadened---either because of our own sins and failures, or because of the failures and sins of others that have hurt us---have been taken by ‘forces’ and ‘powers’ we did invite, down paths we did not intend into dark places we did not wish to go,  putting us a place where there seemed to be no way back or no way out.   

This song, Amazing Grace, recognizes exactly what Paul also realized here in this wonderful text.  Had it not been for “God, who is rich in mercy out of his great love” (v. 4), who has come to interrupt and interfere with the whole downward spiral, and even to stop a false ‘upward’ one, we too could have become ‘children of wrath’ obtaining just enough ‘rope’ and power to hang ourselves.   This is where we ‘all’ have been, would be, or will end up, Paul suggests,  unless we also come to know the ‘grace’ (v. 5) of this God who has come to us in Jesus Christ, ‘to make us alive so that we can be raised up ‘together’ to ‘be seated with Christ in the heavenly places’ (v. 6).  Through Jesus Christ, and all his teachings, his living, and his dying and his resurrection is about, God wants to show the same ‘grace in kindness to us’ (v. 7) which God showed when he raised up Jesus from what human sin and death did to him. 

Just as there was no way for Jesus to get out of this world ‘alive’, there is no way for us to get out of this world ‘alive’ either, unless we also come to find this salvation God offers  to save us through our faith, by his grace (v. 8).   What makes God’s grace amazing, is exactly as John Newton discovered in that storm onboard that slave ship.  This is what Paul discovered and expressed too, when he wrote:  “It is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (v. 8-9).   You do get this picture, don’t you?   There is no way out of this world alive.  There is also no way out of your own situation right now, unscathed.   There is also no human way out of the messes we people make for ourselves, or get ourselves into, when left to our own devices, left to our own passions, desires and senses, unless there is this God who has entered this world through Jesus Christ to offer us His unmerited, unearned, unfathomable, and amazing grace. 

“For by grace, you have been saved…” (2:8).   If helps us to realize that Paul is writing these words of ‘grace’ to people who look around at the world, as it is, as it seems to remain, and as it appears to be getting worse and worse, and he says to them,  “You were dead…. You followed the course of this world… You lived among the passions of your flesh… you were, by nature children of wrath…. BUT GOD, WHO IS RICH IN MERCY, OUT OF HIS GREAT LOVE… has
‘saved’ you ‘by grace’.   Because you have seen the lies of world, and the senselessness of your destructive desires,  you ‘have been saved through YOUR faith by grace’---saved through your faith in God, through Jesus Christ and saved by God through your faith given by Jesus Christ.  IT is Jesus who has restored your ‘faith’ and it has all been done by God’s grace.  

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith.  They began by eliminating possibilities.  Incarnation?  Other religions had gods appearing in human form.  Resurrection?  Again, other religions had accounts of returns from death.  The debate went on some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room.  “What’s the rumpus about?”  he asked.  He heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity unique contribution among the world religions.  “Oh, that’s easy,” Lewis responded.  “It’s grace.”

After some discussion, the conferees had to agree.  The notion of God coming to us ‘free of charge’—no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of religion or humanity.  The Buddhists eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of Law---each of these offers only ways to earn approval.  Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.  At the center of the Christian gospel is a ‘lovesick father’ who is waiting for a ‘homesick’ child to come home---nothing said, no questions asked, only a party of love and welcome will be served.  It is an amazing welcome that is now provided through faith, but only ‘served’ by grace (From “What’s So Amazing About Grace” by Philip Yancy, Harper Collins,  1997, p. 45).

So what ‘s our own response to such amazing love expressed through ‘amazing grace’?    In his commentary on Ephesians, N. T. Wright tells an interesting story about fellow Englishman, James Herriot.  Perhaps you recall that James Herriot became very famous through his delightful and inspiring stories about people and animals in the local farms and villages o Yorkshire, England.  His book “All Creatures Great and Small” also spurred a TV series.

In one of his stories, Herriot tells how, after one of his books was finished, he planned to take his wife out for a small celebratory dinner at a restaurant some distance from home.    When he was about to pay, he suddenly realized that he had lost his wallet and had no means to pay.  However, to his complete astonishment, the waiter told him that the bill had already been paid.  Unknown to him, his senior partner had telephoned the restaurant and told them to charge the meal to him instead.  It was his personal gift to the couple  (Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters,  by N.T. Wright, WJK Press, 2002, p. 21). 

The astonishment, and the relief of such a moment, is a small, but valid pointer to the message Paul is still proclaiming to us.   In Jesus Christ, God has ‘paid’ the cost of our own reconciliation to God and others, and God has also redeemed us from a ‘life’ and from a ‘death’ that has no meaning or hope.   This is what God has done, as a free gift.  There are ‘no strings’ attached—none whatsoever, only ‘faith’ in Jesus Christ enables us to ‘receive’ God’s free gift of grace. 

But perhaps the most ‘amazing’ thing about God’s grace is not what it does ‘for us’, but what it does ‘in us’, as our text concludes by saying that we are not saved ‘as a result of works’,  but that we are ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works’ (v. 10).  This is not a ‘trick’ salvation to get us from doing our own thing into doing God’s thing, but this is a ‘true’ salvation which gets us back to doing the ‘good’ and being the kind of people we have been ‘created’ to be.  This is what true faith does and this is what true salvation means--- because we ‘were dead’, but now, ‘we have been saved’ and made alive ‘in Christ,’ we will, most definitely, be doing the ‘good’ God had planned and ‘prepared beforehand to be our way of life’ (v. 10).   When we are ‘saved by grace’ we glad to get back to the ‘good’ we know we have been ‘created’ to be and to do.  We are ‘glad’ to serve, because we know who has given us back our life as a ‘gift’.

What happens to the moral and spiritual life of someone, who like Mark the Chopper Read, ends up feeling like the world is against them?  Or what happens to someone like John Newton, who knows, but has forgotten, that life, even with all its challenges, is still a wonderful, underserved ‘gift’?     The gospel of Luke makes this point when it reveals a great, contrast between religious leaders always arguing about who’s right, verses a ‘sinful’ woman who came bathing Jesus with her tears and kisses because she knows that Jesus loves her, no matter who she has or hasn’t been.   “Who is greater”? Jesus asks.  The sinner who sinned, but has learned to love, or the religious person never learns how to love, but only knows how to hate?   (My translation, See Luke 7: 36-50).  Only and full grasp of God’s ‘amazing grace, will enable us to fully receive or faithfully respond to such a gift.   It is a gift of eternal ‘kindness’ that God has come to ‘show’ (v. 7) still to us, through the ‘immeasurable riches’ of ‘his grace’.  Ame

Sunday, September 25, 2016

WE NEED GOD to ‘Lay Down the Law’

A Sermon based Upon Matthew 22: 34-40: Exodus 20:6; Leviticus 19:28
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, D.Min., Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C: Proper 21, 19th Sunday After Pentecost, September 25th, 2016

One day a seeker approached a great Jewish Rabbi named Hillel, who lived until the time Jesus was born.    The seeker said to the great Rabbi, “If you can teach me your whole religion standing on one leg, I will become your disciple.”  And Rabbi Hillel answered him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another.  That is the whole Law; the rest is commentary; and learn.“   (

Jesus did not invent the golden rule; but he did promote it.   Jesus promoted the golden rule because the main rule is love.   Every rule is about love and begins with love: “This is the first and great commandment… Jesus said.  “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart,…?  Where did Jesus get something like this?   Jesus also said: ‘A new commandment I give to you’ which is ‘to love one another’ (John 13:34), but just how ‘new’ was it, really?  It might have been ‘new’ to those disciples and could be ‘new’ to us too, this law of love was definitely was not ‘new’ to God. 

Today, we come to the concluding message on the Ten Commandments.  Here, at the end, we come to the commandment rightly called the 11th commandment, which might even include a 12th commandment.   In other words, Christians don’t just settle for ten, but we make it 11, or perhaps 12.  We may even reduce all the Ten Commandments down to these two.   
If this sounds confusing, it’s really not.  The ‘greatest’ commandment we encounter today, from Jesus, points out that all of God’s commandments are about love.  As the gospels present Jesus’ unique message, “love” is the final interpretation of what the commandments mean and how they should be implemented into our lives.   No matter how you count them, it’s love that counts most of all.  It’s all about love.

In today’s text we have the well-known gospel story, told by both Matthew and Mark, where a Scribe (Mark) or Lawyer (Matthew) who was an expert in the Jewish Torah (or Law).  Whereas in Mark, it appears that the Lawyer is asking a sincere question (Mk. 12:34), Matthew names this a trick to ‘test’ (NRSV), ‘tempt’ (KJV), or maybe even to trap Jesus into giving a wrong answer (22:35).  In the same way Jesus has just silenced the Pharisees about the question concerning Resurrection (Mt. 22:23-33), now Jesus silences this Scribe concerning the Law.   This follows Matthew’s own agenda to assert Jesus as the one who is greater than Moses, who has come as the ‘preeminent’ interpreter of the Law. 

The Greatness of the Law   When the Scribe asked Jesus, “Rabbi, which is the great commandment in the law?’ (v. 36), Jesus gave an answer the Lawyer did not expect.   Jesus does not simply give one law, but Jesus gave two laws that made one single point.  When you love God and you love your neighbor only then can you understand the whole point of the law.  The whole Law is now reduced to one single act: Love.

Without a doubt, Jesus believed in the greatness of the law.  Jesus quoted the Psalms often, and he had to have known those great lines from Psalm 19, saying; “The Law of the LORD is perfect…The Decrees of the LORD are sure….The precepts of the LORD are right…The commandment of the LORD is clear….(Ps. 19:7-8).   But taking his cue from Deuteronomy, what was clear to Jesus was that the Law was about “love”: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5).   Deuteronomy is the ‘second’ interpretation of the Law and it is an interpretation that has ‘love’ written all over it (Deut. 6:5; 7: 9-13; 10: 12-19; 11: 1; 13:3; 30:6).  The point of Deuteronomy was not to correct or rewrite the Law, but it was to put the whole law into better focus because already, many had forgotten what the law is really all about.

But the Law Can't Be All It is important that God’s people know that the Law is about love, about a covenant relationship, and about having a loving community.  This is important because even the Law can’t do it all or mean everything all by itself.  As again, going deeper into what the Psalmist wrote, “The Law of the LORD is perfect” because it “revives the soul”.   “The decrees of the LORD are sure” because they “make the simple wise”.  “The precepts of the LORD of the LORD are right” because they “cause the heart to rejoice.”  And finally, “The commandment of the LORD is clear” because “it enlightens the eyes.”  What is this reviving, wisdom, rejoicing, and enlightening all about?  It is all about something the law can only point to, but it not something the Law can do.

When you get to the New Testament, the apostle Paul made it clear what the Law can and cannot do.  Paul, a professional Pharisee and promoter of the Law came to realize that the Law has its limits.   “The Law is holy, and the commandments are holy, just and good” Paul wrote (Rm. 7:12), but he also wrote that “the commandment which promised him life proved to bring death” (Rm. 7: 10).  The problem in the Law was not the Law itself, but the problem was what the Law, even God’s law cannot do.  The Law can reveal sin, but the Law cannot deal with sin, especially the kind of sin that stays hidden deep down in the human heart (Rm. 7: 7-9). 

The only hope true salvation, as Paul saw it, is a different kind of “law” that God has released into the world, which Paul called the “Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rm. 8:2).   This is the kind of Law that has ‘no condemnation’ (Rm. 8:1) that ‘sets you free’ (Rm. 8:2), and that ‘sets your mind on ‘life and peace’ (Rm. 8:6).  Do you know what kind of “law of the Spirit” doesn’t condemn, sets your free, and focuses your mind on ‘life’ and ‘peace’?  “The only thing that counts,” Paul told the Galatians, “is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).  “The greatest of these is love”, he told the Corinthians (1 Cor. 13:13).  He told the Philippians that they are to ‘be of the same mind, having the same love…that was in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 2:2-5).   “Above all,” Paul told those at Colossae;  “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…. (Col. 3:14).  

The long list of Paul’s discovery of love over law could go on, which is quite remarkable, since Paul was once trained as a legalist.  But perhaps the final word from Paul should be how Paul instructed young Timothy to “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2Tim. 1:13).   The ‘sound teaching,’ which was undoubtedly the main teaching of Paul, was not about greatness of the ‘law,’ but it is about our human need for ‘grace’---the grace of Jesus Christ, that is, which was, and still is, the kind of grace that can only be built upon the foundation of “the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8.2), flowing from this ‘the God of love’ (2 Cor. 13:11) who has revealed himself fully in the ‘love of Christ’ (Eph. 3:19).

The only thing left to say about Paul’s discovery of the priority of love over law is to repeat what the preacher King Duncan once said.   In a sermon he remembered a moment in the “All in the Family” TV series, where Archie Bunker is arguing with “the Meathead”, his son-in-law’, who was a professed agnostic.  The son-in-law asks,  “Archie, if there is a God, why is there so much suffering in the world?”  After a long, awkward silence, Archie finally yells, “EEEDITH, would you get in here and help me?  I’m having to defend God all by myself.”

Archie was wrong to think that he needed to defend God.  While there are always have been, and always will be questions we don’t have answers to in his life,  there is one answer that always works:  Love.   While none of us can answer ‘why’ people suffer,  we all know that God’s response to our pain is love---and that is the only response that really matters or makes sense.  It is this love that comes into our human sin and pain, to bring healing and hope, that the message of Jesus is all about.

 “It is impossible to improve on the teachings of Jesus”  King Duncan goes on to say.  And this is,  I say, is right at the heart of what Paul realizes too, not by theory, but in practice.  When, as a legalistic, murderer of God’s true people, Jesus appeared to Saul on the Damascus Road as his judge on the.  But Jesus did not stop there, but went on forgive Saul and to call him to mission in Jesus’ name as Paul, who now discovered, in that moment,  that there is no way that you can ever improve on the love and grace of God that revealed to him in Jesus Christ.  Christ’s love will not answer every question, but it does answer the great question.  “Why” will only be answered by the reality of divine and human love.

Since, the Law can’t do or be everything, to be worth anything at all, it must point to something greater.   This is why the whole law, and the greatest law, as Jesus explains, must point to love, or it means nothing.  Because, as Paul enlarged on Jesus’ teaching, “If you don’t have love, you don’t have anything worth having, haven’t said anything worth saying, nor have you ever ‘done anything worth doing’ (My paraphrasing of 1 Cor. 13: 1-3), the law must be all about love.   Isn’t this how Jesus got the idea from Deuteronomy?  When Moses was going over the Law again, for the very last time before his death, he must have realized, that without ‘love’ the law does not, will not, and cannot work—at least, it won’t work as it was intended to work.  The law can’t be perfect, can’t be sure, can’t grant wisdom, and can’t even be right, unless it points us to the greatest law of all---the law of love—which is the law ‘observed with the whole’ heart (Psa. 37:31; 119:34).  It is the law of love that all the reviving, wisdom, rejoicing, and enlightening, is supposed to be about. 

But it is not just enough to say that the Law, even the Ten Commandments is all about “love”.   In clarifying what that the ‘greatest’ law is about love, Jesus is very specific, just as the Ten Commandments are very specific.  Here, in our text, Jesus heads in two directions to clarify what the great law is about:  the great law is about how to ‘love’ God; and the great law is about how to ‘love’ our neighbor.  

       Loving God is what the first 4 commandments are about---Having no other gods, making no idol or image,  no misuse of God’s name, and honoring the Sabbath, are laws that all have to do with ‘loving God with your whole heart, soul, and mind.    
       Loving Neighbor  is what the last six commandments are about---honoring parents, no murder, no adultery, not stealing, no lying, and taking control over lustful desires is how you express love to those around you.

In both of these ‘directions’ the main message is all about love.  Love is the common denominator that is not just an idea, a feeling, or a wish, but love is doing what love will do: act responsibly out of an obligation that comes straight from the heart.  “You shall love the LORD with all your HEART…. (Deut 6:5).  “You shall love your neighbor as YOURSELF….”  (Matt. 22:39).   The point is that you must love both God and Neighbor, or there is no proof that love is “realized” or God’s law is ‘obeyed’ by you. 

Isn’t this exactly what John’s letter to his church was saying when he wrote, “Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.   The commandment we have …. is this:  those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  (1 Jn. 4:20-5:1 NRS).   The law, the commandment we have, John says, is all about love, or it is about nothing.
You can’t say you honor God’s law, unless you love—you love God, and you show you love God, by loving your brother, your neighbor, or even the stranger you might meet on the road.

Ron DelBene recalls that when he was growing up his mother “had a real thing about cleanliness.” Anyone have a mother like that? His mother was a nurse.  

From an early age Ron was taught that when he went through a push door to shove it open with his fist. If the door had a handle he was to pull it open with his little finger. If he did as his mother instructed, he would not get germs on his hands. Ron never forgot his mother’s teaching. “At age forty-eight,” he says, “I probably had the strongest little finger in America.”

One day Ron was serving a hot meal at a soup kitchen. They were serving chili with two pieces of buttered bread on that particular day. A man came through the line who looked even more scruffy and broken than the others. Ron was overwhelmed by his stench. “Like the pull of a magnet,” Ron recalls, “my gaze went to the dirt and dried blood on his hands.” Before he realized what was happening, the man clasped Ron’s hand in both of his. “Brother,” said the scruffy man, “I love you. Thanks for being here.” “I’m glad you came,” Ron replied after swallowing hard. Ron tried to smile as the man shuffled over to one of the tables with his meal.

The next man stepped up. As Ron handed him a bowl of chili, a little of the chili spilled on Ron’s hand. Without thinking he licked it off. Then it hit him. That was the hand the other man had just clasped! Ron momentarily froze, repelled to think that he had licked something that smelly, dirty man had just touched. It was a moment of revelation for Ron.

“The light of awareness changed my vision and my heart warmed with new understanding,” Ron says. “No longer was Jesus only the handsome man I had pictured in my mind and seen in paintings,” he continued. “Now he had a scarred, stubbled face and fingers stained yellow; he was dirty, he smelled bad, and he wore cast-off clothes. I had just served him chili and bread.” (As quoted by King Duncan, in a sermon, “Surprised by Love”, from DelBene, from the Heart (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1991), pp. 32-33).

There’s a reason we are to prove our love for God by loving our neighbor as ourselves. When we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and love by loving our neighbors, this is when we experience the presence of the risen Christ in the life of the other, who may most often be ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25:40).   The law is about loving God through loving ‘them’.

The final point is not just that the law is about love, but that love is what the law is all about.   This may sound as if I’m saying the same thing in different ways, but there is a difference.  To say that the law is about love sounds as if law still has priority in all things.  But to say that “love is what the law is all about” means love has the final priority.   Let me put it this way, when you love, when you act out of love, and when you are loving toward another as toward God, this is what it means to be a fully redeemed, restored, and complete and perfect, human being.

We must make ‘love’ our priority, the priority of our faith too, why?   Even in the 10 commandments, we learn that love is what the law is about.  Let me conclude with three simple points that reveal love in God’s law.
       God’s Laws are about relationships not rules.   When Moses gave the Ten Commandments, God was not setting rules for the sake of rules, but God was laying down the law for the sake of maintaining a saving and sanctifying ‘relationship’ with the living God. 
       God Laws are about having community not control.  Also, God’s law are not about forcing people into God’s control, but there were intended to create space so that a community based upon trust and faithfulness could happen. 
      Finally, God’s Laws are about being in covenant not being contentious.  The reason the law was given was not to give rules for the whole human race, but the reason the law was given was so about promise---God making a promise to be with his people, and the people making and keeping their promise to God.  At the center of everything God commands is the promise---the promise of God and the promise of God’s people.

Perhaps the biggest and too often ‘unanswered’ question about the 10 commandments is why are they stated in the negative.  If they are meant to be so positive for us—about having a relationship with the true God and about creating a space for real community to happen between people, then why are all of them, except one, stated in the negative, rather than in the positive?   Why does God thunder “Thou Shalt Not….”  over and over, instead of giving us more positive, affirming, statements or commands,  like “Thou Shalt be HonestThou Shalt be Contended”, or “Thou shalt be Pro-Life”, or “Thou Shalt Respect God, or Thou shall Love only God, and so on.   Why do these commandments, sound so little like love, but make it sound as if God is already on our case about something, making demands rather than creating the boundary of a loving relationship between us and him?   

Besides, when we say our wedding vows of love, we don’t say, “I’ll not commit adultery, or I’ll not covet my neighbor’s wife, or I’ll not hate my in-laws if you don’t hate mine.   In a wedding ceremony, we make our sacred covenant by being more positive, saying, “I take you to be my wedding husband/wife…. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in heath, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.  According to God’s holy law; this is my solemn vow.”   In our most sacred wedding vows, we sound much more positive in our speech to each other than how God speaks to us through these 10 Commandments.  How can we say, along with Jesus, that as they are, mostly stated this very negative fashion, that as the commandments are really, truly, honestly, fully, and completely about love?  How can Jesus say this?  How can Jesus say that all the law is really about love?

The reason God stated the commandments in this negative form must be for the same reason a parent has teach a child to understand ‘no’ before they can understand ‘yes’.  Of course, hearing a ‘yes’ is better than always hearing a ‘no’, but as a parent, you have to start somewhere.  If your child is getting ready to walk out in front of a car, step on a poisonous snake, or take hold something that will hurt them, the first words out your mouth, if you really love your child, will be “Don’t…Stop…No!”.  This is the very first sign of your love for your child.  Likewise the Ten Commandments are the first ‘signs’ or ‘words’ of God’s love for us.  They are the first, but not the last.  They very first sign that God wants us to live and God wants to live with us.   Love will always understand  ‘no’, before it can fully understand ‘yes’.

What Jesus shows us, however, is that when we live in obedience to God’s commands, love never stays with ‘no’.  This is why the 10 commandments end up being transformed in the Sermon on the Mount.  After we, as children of God, come to understand what ‘no’ means, we are on the right path understanding what God’s greater ‘yes’ is all about.   The first step from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ is when you come to realize God is love and God loves you.   This same God who says ‘no’ is also the God who said “yes” to you, before the day you were born.  This ‘yes’ was the love that the law was always, and will always be about.   Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

WE NEED GOD To Be All We Can Be.

A sermon based upon Exodus 20: 2-3;  Deuteronomy 6: 4-9; 11: 1-7
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin,  Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C:  Proper 20,  18th Sunday After Pentecost,  September 18th, 2016

The unforgettable movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy” is an South African comedy film about a happy, contented tribal culture who believes the gods have blessed them with everything they need.  But that BEGINS to change when they encounter A RATHER SMALL AIRCRAFT FLYING over their remote village deep into the African continent.  The pilot is drinking out of one those old-fashioned green Coca Cola bottles. When he is finished with the beverage, he throws the bottle out of the airplane and it lands near some native tribal leaders below.  THEY PICK IT UP and ARE GREATLY INTRIGUE. It is shaped far differently from anything they have ever seen.  Until now, these secluded tribal people have known nothing of the modern world. 

Because this strange item has come to them from the heavens above, THEY BELIEVE IT TO BE a god, or a gift from the gods.  So they naturally begin to ASSEMBLE A NEW Way of life around it.  They develop songs about it and say prayers to it.  But as the story unfolds, envy, jealousy, and disputes arise like the simple, harmonious tribe has never known before.  It’s all because of the bottle. 

In an attempt to bring peace back into their lives, some of the leaders leave the village, in an attempt to take the ‘bottle’ back.   But it’s too late.  Now their simple lives have been altered and made much more complicated by the not-so-simple, often very negative, “new world” this bottle has invited them to encounter.   As there seems to be no way to stop the flood of trouble,  a tribal leader takes the bottle up to the top of a mountain to throw it back into ‘the window of the gods’.   What we all know too well, is that once the simple innocent world has been invaded, there is no way of going back.

There are many spiritual and cultural truths from this film, but most basic is its portrayal of the instinctive need for HUMANS to WORSHIP something--whether it is coke bottles, pop stars,  or the most destructive desire for wealth or power.  Humans NATURALLY BEGIN TO WORSHIP what or who we prize the most.   In order to find purpose or meaning in our short, insignificant LIVES, whether we are part of an ancient tribe or people in this complicated, modernize world, we still must give ourselves to  SOMETHING bigger than ourselves.

Several years ago, before there was Oprah, THERE WAS PHIL DONAHUE.  He was known for a radical, groundbreaking approach to TV talk shows.  On one of his shows, way back in the 1970’s was the first time I heard someone say that we, as a nation, are fast becoming a nation of addicts.  The point was that in the western world, ADDICTION WAS ON THE RISE, as more and more are hopelessly addicted to drugs, to alcohol, to sex, to food, and to a host of other things.  As humans beings, who must give ourselves to something, we can just as easily give ourselves to the wrong thing---to something that enslaves rather than frees.  TO BE ADDICTED TO SOMETHING means you HAVE GIVEN THE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE OVER TO SOME LESSER GOD THAT WEAKENS YOU, AND without some form of intervention, WILL EVENTUALLY DESTROY YOU.   To give yourselves to wrong attractions, the wrong powers or to the wrong desires, will eventually destroy your freedom.  It will also destroy your God-given potential.  It can destroy your personality, and worse of all, IT WILL DESTROY YOUR ABILITY TO GIVE AND RECEIVE LOVE. 

 Is it not true, that the more  simple trust in GOD has been removed from the center OF OUR LIVES, the more we ALLOW “OTHER GODS” or “powers” TO TAKE OVER?  Could our struggle with some many impossible to overcome ADDICTIONS reflect the “emptiness” that is at the very center of our modern, mostly secular lives today?  Have we lost the delight for our own lives because we too have replaced the hunger and thirst for the true God with our own lust for “other gods”---which are lesser gods and very destructive powers that don't have our best interests at heart?

This very first commandment reminds us that we are created to worship.  YOU WILL BOW DOWN To Something.   But BEWARE.  Beware when you give yourself over to something or someone.   EVERYTHING YOU WORSHIP AND GIVE YOURSELF TO WILL NOT CARE ABOUT YOU.   Other gods don’t die to set you free, but they live off enslaving you and off taking life from you.  It is, however, the desire of the TRUE GOD to FREE You from  bondage.  It is the desire of the true God to give you true freedom.  BUT FALSE GODS WILL PUT YOU INTO BONDAGE and do set your free to find life.   THESE LESSER GODS ARE LIKE A BOA CONSTRICTOR that will wrap its self around its prey, drawing in slowly and more tightly, each time you breathe in, until your breath GETS SHALLOWER AND SHALLOWER with no life left.

THIS IS THE GREAT DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WORSHIPING WHAT IS TRUE OR WHAT IS FALSE.  It is not an imaginary difference, but it a difference that makes all the difference in the world.  IN ONE OF JAMES MICHENER''S GEOGRAPHIC NOVELS about some exotic part of the world, GEOLOGISTS WERE DIGGING UP THE RUINS of a civilization from an era long gone and long ago.  As they uncover the relics of that ancient society, they begin to DISCOVER THE INFLUENCE OF THE GODS that ancient people worshiped and HOW IT SHAPED THEIR IDENTITY AS A PEOPLE. One geologist is heard to say, "If  THEY’D HAD A DIFFERENT GOD, THEY COULD HAVE BEEN A VERY DIFFERENT PEOPLE."    People reflect, if not BECOME LIKE THE GOD or GODS they WORSHIP.

This is WHY WE MUST ONLY WORSHIP THE ONE TRUE GOD--the God whose character is holy and righteous, as well as, gracious and merciful.  But how do we know or worship a ‘true’ God in a secular world, in which people more generally assume it that we have no need for God?   Since we are not ancient Israelites having just be delivered from slavery in Egypt, how can we expect moderns who think they have everything they want or need, to worship this one, true God, who is unfathomable to some, and has become unbelievable to most?

In our kind of world, a non-enchanted, secular, high-tech world centered upon self and fulfilling human desire, worship of the one true God is NOT AUTOMATIC.  If you look closely that this first commandment,  you understand that worshiping the one, true God wasn’t automatic in the ancient world either.  It was into a world of many options then too, that God said to his people,  “You SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS before me.” It was exactly BECAUSE THERE WERE, and STILL ARE, ALL KINDS OF GODS AND POWERS IN THIS WORLD to choose from that God demands our utmost allegiance to Him.   

 How many could have done SOMETHING much DIFFERENT WITH YOUR TIME today?  You could have done something more pleasurable or something more exciting, instead of BEING HERE to GIVE YOUR HEART TO THE one TRUE GOD. It is YOUR CHOICE that makes all the difference.  True worship of the living God is a choice BORN OUT OF YOUR FREEDOM which chooses NOT to DO OTHERWISE.

 GOD WANTS US CHOOSE HIM FULLY, BUT ALSO FREELY.   THE Reason  WE HAVE TEN COMMANDMENTS is not because God wants to CONTROL OR FORCE us to comply, but these 10 commands ARE INCREDIBLE WORDS THAT CALL US TO COVENANT and freely RELATE TO this GOD who calls US TO CHOOSE THE POWERS OF LIFE, not death.   WHEN GOD SAYS “no other gods” we are IMMEDIATELY CONFRONTED both with our freedom to choose rightly and our Freedom To Choose Wrongly.  JOHN MORLEY, a member of the British House of Commons during the 19th century, once TRAVELED FROM ENGLAND TO CANADA to address the graduating class of a university. He began his speech by saying, "I have traveled 4,000 miles to TELL YOU THAT THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RIGHT AND WRONG."   CHOOSING WHAT IS RIGHT is what worship is about. To live, to breathe, and to step into the next moment of our life is always a CHOICE IN ONE OF TWO DIRECTIONS: WE ARE EITHER CHOOSING TO WALK  TOWARD THE ONE WHO CREATED US or we are choosing to WALK AWAY FROM HIM.   EVERY DAY WE MAKE A CHOICE.  To be human is to decide and to choose.   You cannot be alive and not choose.

 It is BECAUSE WE HUMANS ARE FREE that GOD THUNDERS this first commandment as a warning from Sinai: "You must not have any other gods except me." GOD IS AFFIRMING HIS PRIORITY as the CREATOR OF LIFE.   He is calling us to worship and only choose Him, not only because HE DESERVES TO HAVE FIRST PLACE, BUT BECAUSE HE IS the only, true GOD.  ALL OTHER GODS SHOULD BE SPELLED WITH A LITTLE "g"  because they are REALLY NOT THE LIFT GIVING GOD AT ALL, ONLY PALE SUBSTITUTES.   Psalm 115:4-7 says, "… Their idols are silver and gold, the work of  human hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak. They have eyes, but they cannot see. They have ears, but they cannot hear. They have noses, but they cannot smell. They have hands, but they cannot feel. They have feet, but they cannot walk. They cannot make a sound with their throat."(NASB) In other words, false gods are COUNTERFEITS. They might have LIMITED POWERS, but eventually they can only ENSLAVE OR DESTROY, because they DON’T HAVE THE POWER OF LIFE TO SAVE, which means they are not God at all.

YOU MAY BE THINKING, "I DON’T WORSHIP GODS OF STONE--- IDOLS set up in some pagan temple. I am a SOPHISTICATED PERSON."   But to be tempted to worship ‘other gods’, doesn’t necessarily mean you might run out into the woods at night and worship a rock.  BUT THERE ARE GODS BESIDE IDOLS OF STONE. ANYTHING CAN BE A GOD, if it takes the place of the true God.   So, if you want discover who, or what you worship, ASK YOURSELF these THREE SIMPLE QUESTIONS, to determine who or what is “God” in your life:

 (1) ON WHAT DO YOU SET YOUR AFFECTIONS?  When your heart takes a break from the complexities of daily living, WHERE DOES IT COME TO REST?  Like a COMPASS NEEDLE, though spun around will always come to rest by pointing north, WHERE DOES YOUR HEART POINT WHEN IT COMES TO REST?  WHAT IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO YOU?  There are many concerns and loves, but what is ultimate love guides all other desires or loves?  Is it your JOB? A PROMOTION? Perhaps your HOME? Your CAR? Maybe another PERSON? Or MONEY? MATERIAL things?  On what do you set your affections?  Do you set your greatest affection on God? WE ARE TOLD IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, TO SET OUR AFFECTIONS ON THINGS ABOVE.,
(2)  This is proven by answering the second question: WHOM ARE YOU TRYING TO IMPRESS? We work, we buy, we plan, we push ourselves, we study, and we achieve, but why? Who or whom are we trying to impress? Some may say they DO IT ALL FOR THEMSELVES.   There are some who are guided by purely SELF-CENTERED MOTIVES OR AMBITIONS. We work for ourselves. We accumulate for ourselves. We  achieve only for ourselves.  SOME WILL say they LIVE FOR OTHERS, for their family, or for some other person or persons.  In other words, it’s not “your” own opinion that matters, but OTHER PEOPLE’S OPINIONS ARE IMPORTANT TOO.  Perhaps we might even become PEOPLE-PLEASERS. Perhaps we strive to look good in the eyes of others.   Giving ourselves to others can be good, but alone, it might go wrong too.   You can give, and give, and give, and not have anything left of yourself.    This is why this first commandment points us in an even higher motive than SELF, or OTHERS:  it EXHORTS US TO BE GOD-PLEASERS. The person we should seek to impress most is God. We should seek TO BE A DELIGHT TO HIM.   ONLY when we have our hearts on God do we know how much or what is necessary for others or for ourselves.
(3)  The final question is most obvious: WHAT ARE YOU LIVING FOR THAT YOU WANT TO GIVE YOU LIFE, RIGHT NOW?  What are our GOALS? What are OUR ASPIRATIONS? What are OUR OBJECTIVES?   IF YOU WERE TO LIST YOUR GOALS ON A SHEET OF PAPER would ‘Spiritual’ goals, you place for God be at the top? Would your main priorities be your walk with God, and your service to Him, or is God only a leftover, afterthought, or a postscript?   ARE YOUR GOALS ONLY CENTERED AROUND PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENT, job, home, family, money and the like?  You can live for all of these, but you must also ask yourself: WHO GIVES YOU YOUR LIFE AND THE POWER OF LIFE?  These kind of questions WILL HELP YOU EVALUATE WHAT YOU PUT FIRST.  As Jesus instructed: seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and ALL THESE WILL BE ADDED.  ONLY SEEKING YOUR OWN KINGDOM or your own rightness, and you NOT ONLY LOOSE YOUR KINGDOM, YOU’LL EVENTUALLY LOOSE YOURSELF TOO?    

 Choosing God means YOU ARE NO longer the center of YOUR world.  Realizing that Life is bigger than you, and is a gift, is also how your best chance for life happens too.   I once  read of A MAN IN A CATHOLIC PARISH who had a life-THREATENING ILLNESS.  The priest was called to his hospital bed.  The man was on first name basis with the Priest: “Ed, in a real crazy way, I AM GRATEFUL THAT THIS IS HAPPENING TO ME.” The Priest asked, “Why?”  The sick man answered, “Because THE WORD THAT KEEPS COMING UP IN MY MIND is the word, ‘give’… give, give.   I have some sense that NOW I AM CALLED TO GIVE MYSELF IN A WAY I’VE NEVER GIVEN BEFORE.” I have come to realize, as death threatens, and the end will come, to take myself out of the ‘center’ and to give is the only true way to live.

 We choose the one true God by the IDENTITY WE CHOOSE FOR OURSELVES. We are either people who CHOOSE TO LIVE FOR Ourselves, TO TAKE and keep on taking… OR, on the OTHER HAND, We ARE PEOPLE WHO CHOOSE TO BE INSTRUMENTS and to GIVE THEMSELVES FULLY INTO GOD’S HANDS.

 Saint Francis of Assisi SAW HIMSELF AS AN INSTRUMENT of the one,  true God and IT TURNED HIS LIFE AROUND and GAVE HIS LIFE MEANING.  Francis expressed it in a WONDERFUL PRAYER: “LORD, MAKE ME AN INSTRUMENT OF YOUR PEACE. Where there is HATRED, let me SOW LOVE, where there is INJURY, PARDON; where there is DISCORD, UNION; where there is DOUBT, FAITH; where there is DESPAIR, HOPE; where there is SADNESS, JOY.  GRANT THAT WE MAY NOT SO MUCH SEEK TO BE CONSOLED AS TO CONSOLE, to be UNDERSTOOD AS TO UNDERSTAND, to be loved as to love, for it is in GIVING THAT WE RECEIVE; it is in forgiving that we are forgiven, and it is in dying that we are born into eternal life.”

 Isn’t it amazing how EVERYTHING CHANGES WHEN WE CHOOSE TO PUT OUR LIVES INTO THE HANDS OF GOD as his instrument?  WE WORSHIP GOD, not just with words, with lips, or with a few scattered  SUNDAY ‘nods to God’, but we WORSHIP GOD ONLY WHEN CHOOSE TO WORSHIP HIM DAILY with all our lives and we put nothing in HIS PLACE AND WE HOLD NOTHING BACK.

WORSHIPING the ONE, TRUE, GOD, means FINALLY THAT WE COME HOME to WHO WE ARE CREATED BY SO WE CAN BECOME WHO WE ARE CREATED TO BE.   Clinging to things that cannot last only leads us from one pain to another in life. Only God lasts.  We have no scientific proof that there is a God and we have no scientific proof that there is not a God. All we have is the low, clear voice within saying always, “THERE MUST BE MORE to this than this.” And that is all the proof we need.
(From: Chittister, Joan (2012-08-01). The Ten Commandments:  Laws of the Heart (p. 21). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

 BECAUSE THERE IS MORE, This FIRST COMMANDMENT ASSUMES that you WILL WORSHIP something.  It also assumes that YOU MUST CHOOSE TO WORSHIP THE ‘TRUE’ GOD and it assumes that this ‘true’ God MUST BE THE “ONE” AND ONLY GOD in your life.  All this is implied in ‘having no other gods before you.’   


 Well, TO BE QUITE FRANK, the truth is that we CAN’T ASSUME THIS ANYMORE, as we once thought we could.  Maybe WHEN WE ARE ALL LIVING IN OUR HAPPY LITTLE SINGULAR WHITE, EUROPEAN, American RELIGIOUS TRIBES made of DIFFERENT “JUDEO-CHRISTIAN” Flavors” we assumed it, but we don’t live there anymore.  LIKE THOSE ‘TRIBAL LEADERS’ IN THAT MOVIE, “The god’s must be crazy”,  WE TOO CAN’T JUST THROW THE COKE BOTTLE BACK up into the sky and go back to the way things once were.  LIFE HAS BECOME MORE COMPLICATED and you CAN’T JUST ASSUME WHAT WAS ONCE GOOD FOR ISRAEL is good for us.   Even Israel, modern Israel that is, DOESN’T PUT THAT MUCH STOCK IN THESE 10 COMMANDMENTS anymore.   Today, even Israel is less Israel,  or as the Apostle Paul once put it,  All that is called “ISRAEL IS NOT ISRAEL  (Roms 9-11).  

 It is PRECISELY BECAUSE life is much different than it was before, that the 10 commandments BELONG TO MORE than a “NEUTRAL” government building,  and must belong to MUCH MORE than in a “PUBLIC” school book, and MUST BE EVEN BECOME MUCH MORE than a NICE “MORAL” Tale told to children.   No, the 10 Commandments, if they are to GIVE THE LIFE THEY WERE INTENDED TO GIVE, must BE GET INTO OUR SOULS with the whole HEART, SOUL, MIND AND STRENGTH.  How can this happen?

 There is a GREAT Biblical EXAMPLE OF Someone quietly and fully putting the true God at the center of their lives.  DO YOU REMEMBER THE STORY OF MARY AND MARTHA IN LUKE’S GOSPEL  (10: 38ff)?  When Jesus came to visit, they both loved Jesus, BUT THEY HAD DIFFERENT WAYS OF RESPONDING TO JESUS.   MARTHA, responded to Jesus WITH HER BUSINESS.  Mary, on the other hand, RESPONDED TO JESUS BY GETTING CLOSER to him by HANGING ON to EVERY SINGLE WORD.   THE TEXT TELLS US THAT WHILE MARTHA WAS “DISTRACTED” by her many tasks, Mary WAS SITTING AT JESUS’ FEET, listening, and taking everything in.  

 When Martha observed Mary there, she protested, saying, “Lord, do you not care that MY SISTER HAS LEFT ME TO DO ALL THE WORK by myself?  Tell her to help me?   We can understand Martha’s difficulty, for we TOO ARE OFTEN PRESSED UPON BY THE WORRIES and cares of this world.  WE TOO ARE IN A HURRY to make sure THINGS GET DONE RIGHT BECAUSE WE LIVE TO MAKE EVERYONE HAPPY.  But there is more.  There is MUCH MORE THAN OUR HURRIED, WORRIED LIVES.  Listen to Jesus’ response:  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  There is need of only one thing.”  MARY HAS CHOSEN THE BETTER PART, which will not be taken away from her. 

THAT “ONE THING which is the ‘better part” is to INVITE YOURSELF, to CHOOSE, TO KNOW THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD OF LORDS, and King of Kings, WHO HAS COME CLOSE TO US IN JESUS CHRIST.   DO YOU KNOW  HOW DO YOU “SERVE” WHEN WE A KING COMES TO YOUR HOUSE?   If you think like Martha, you ‘do things’ for him.   But think about this another way: “HOW DO YOU SERVE A KING OR this GOD, who comes to us, to call us to be his own ISRAEL, as the GOD WHO HAS AND IS EVERYTHING?   HOW DO YOU SERVE A KING WHO HAS COME TO YOU BECAUSE YOU CAN”T GET CLOSE TO HIM?   YOU certainly don’t BEGIN AS MARTHA DID, but YOU MUST DO WHAT MARY DID.  YOU Acknowledge that the KING has found you and you SIT DOWN TO LET HIM SERVE YOU FIRST.

 “Be still, and know that I am God…” This is WHERE ALL THE COMMANDMENTS Begin and End.   There was nothing wrong with what Martha was doing, but there is something BADLY WRONG WITH WHAT MARTHA WAS MISSING.  She is MISSING THE BEST PART….the LISTENING… The LEARNING… the GROWING… THE WONDERING… AND THE WORSHIP… What she was missing, most of all, was the LOVE God had to give her first.

 We will also come to worship the one, true God when we let him find us, first.   And WHEN HE COMES TO US, we need to MOVE IN CLOSE WITH ALL OUR HEARTS until we come to fully understand that what he come to give us, FIRST OF ALL…AND MOST OF ALL IS….HIMSELF.   Amen.