Sunday, February 27, 2011

THE CREEPY LITTLE SIN

1 Samuel 18:  1-10a
By Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
February 27, 2011, Epiphany 8.

A story is told that a person dressed like the Duke Blue devil mascot was out walking a neighborhood some years ago when a sudden rain storm came up. 

Not wanting to ruin his body paint, the devil-dressed man runs for cover in the closest building.  It happens to be a church and a worship service is going on.   He quickly and suddenly enters directly into this one room sanctuary to the shock of all in attendance.   There is a great panic.  Everyone clears the room, except for one unfortunate lady who had fallen down and is now lying at the feet of, what is now, a very confused man dressed like Satan.  

Looking straight into his face with fear and trembling, she says to him:  “You know, I’ve been on your side all along.” 

THE SADDEST SIN OF ALL
As we continue our messages on the 7 deadliest sins, today we are considering what many call the “saddest sin of all”; the sin of envy.   Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, going back to some of the first English ever printed, has the parson describing the sin of envy when he writes:  “For hardly is there any sin that has not some delight in itself, save only envy, which ever has of itself but anguish and sorrow.”
Another notable thing about the sin of “envy” is that King James Version has the Roman Governor Pilate suggesting that it is out of “envy” that Jesus was handed over to him to be crucified (See Matthew 27:18).

But that was then.  This is now.  Just how deadly is this very “old” sin, which  writer Garrison Kellior calls “the creepy little sin”, be to us?  Do you know why Kellior calls it a “creepy” sin?   This is the sin that doesn’t make you feel good until you see another person feel bad.  

The most dramatic biblical example of the sin of envy comes from this the life of King Saul.  

Saul was the first chosen to be King of Israel, but in the biblical story his leadership became a disaster.    So much so, we are told that the “the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul”  (1 Sam. 16: 14), and that the prophet Samuel secretly anoints the young boy David as the next in line to be King.  It is during the conflict with the Philistines and his famous encounter with Goliath, that the young man David’s star begins to shine.  As David matures, we read that he becomes so successful in battle against the Philistines, that Saul makes David the head general of his army (vs. 5).   We are told that “everybody”, “even the servants of Saul” approve of this choice.  Things were going well for everyone until Saul heard the women singing a new song, which said: “Saul has killed his thousands, but David his ten thousands.” (18:7).   You don’t have to guess what hearing this song did to King Saul.    He believed it to be a threat to his own Kingdom (18:8).   Then we read these very descriptive words: “So Saul eyed David from that day on.” (18:8).  

This biblical image of Saul keeping his “eye” on David is important for understanding the sin of envy.   In Latin envy is called “invidia,” which literally means looking at someone from the corner of your eye.   As a sin of the “eye” Envy is a close cousin to the sin of jealousy; which we often call “the green-eyed monster”.   But whereas jealously may or may not be a sin, (remember that the Bible says that God is a jealous God),  we need to understand that jealousy is the desire to keep what one has, while envy is the excessive desire for what someone else has, which is desired to be had at the other person’s expense.  

You could suggest that envy is the “sin” that causes us to “covet” what our neighbor has.   But again, the sin of envy is more than wanting to drive the kind of car, own the kind of house, to have the job or money or to desire the spouse another has.  Envy is sin of excessive coveting and wayward jealousy which turns destructive and goes after what one desires and is not satisfied until it gets what it wants.  And that is exactly envy did to Saul.  In the very next verse we read how Saul attempted twice to “throw a spear” at David and “pin him to the wall”.  (Great understatement).   Then we are told how Saul sent David out to be in charge of larger armies, probably hoping David would lose at battle or get killed.  But we read that the harder Saul tried to stop David’s rising popularity, the more, the Bible says, “The Lord was with David” (18:13) and the less the Lord seemed to be with Saul (16:14).  Envy cannot be happy with another’s success.  It only sees what the other has as a threat.

A more recent example of the destructive sin of envy is dramatized in movie Amadeus, which tells the story of the great composer, Mozart.   The movie opens not with Mozart, but with the Italian musician named  Salieri, who tries to commit suicide, because fills guilty over his attempts to hasten Mozart’s death.  As a young man, Salieri prayed for God to bless him and make him a great composer.  And Salieri was a good composer in his own right.  But this was not enough.  He was enraged and wondered: How could God lavish such amazing musical gifts on such an arrogant, shallow buffoon?   Mozart was now dead, but Salieri knew he could never be as great.

In next scene, after Salieri fails at his own suicide, a priest visits him to hear his confession.  As the priest enters the room, the aged Salieri is playing the piano from his wheelchair.   Salieri indentifies himself to the priest as a composer and asks whether the priest has had any musical training.  The priest admits to having a little training as a young boy, so now Salieri wants to test to see if the priest had ever heard any of his own music.  Salieri plays a couple of bars, but the priest is embarrassed that he does not recognize the tune.   Then Salieri plays another, and another, but still there is no recognition.  Finally, exasperated, Salieri plays the sparkling measures of another little tune.   The priest lights up and exclaims, “I know that one!”  He even continues humming is after Salieri quits.  The priest, relieved that he knows a tune, smiles at Salieri and asks: “Who wrote that one?”.  At that moment, Salieri’s face darkens with malice and his eyes narrow.  He answers, “That was Mozart!”

With this Salieri continues to believe that his work will always be second-rate and inferior  compared to Mozart.   The priest tries to console him, saying, “All men are equal in God’s eyes!” But Salieri cannot hear that.  “Are they?”  He asks skeptically.  He cannot allow himself to ever believe something like this (Retold based on Rebecca Deyoung’s “Glittering Vices”, Brazos Press, 2009, p. 42).

THE HEART OF AN ENVIOUS EYE
Looking straight into the heart of envy, we can see a great error of the soul: the constant need to compare ourselves to others.  


It can be clearly seen by the story of a lady went to see her therapists.  She was honest.  She said that she and her husband had designed their new home and moved in just six months ago. Everything was fine until they went to a party at the Bentleys.  "I fell hopelessly in love with their house, and now I can't stand ours," the lady told her therapists. "But your house is brand new," said the therapist. You just built it. You designed it exactly the way you wanted it."


"I know," she said, "but when I saw what the Bentleys had done with their four season porch I realized ours should have been built exactly like it.  And I haven't been able to get over it. I wish I had their house instead of mine. I hate my house," she kept saying. "Our new home was an awful mistake. I tell myself over and over again my feelings are ridiculous," she confessed. "I should just get over it. I should get my mind on something else. But I can't stop thinking about it. I've been crying a lot lately."

Envy robs us of the ability to have joy over the accomplishments of another.  And Envy robs us of our joy because we can’t find contentment and pleasure with who we are or what we have already.  

Many might remember the man known as the Flying Scotsman -- Eric Liddell.  Eric was a Christian missionary and Olympic-class runner who later competed in the 1924 Olympics.   Maybe you remember the story from the book, Chariots of Fire.    As the story goes, Liddell was home from china with his sister, raising funds for their mission and involved in ministry.  Liddell was also winning some important foot races and was considering the Olympics. His sister urged him to drop running and turn his energies to the missionary enterprise that he came home to, because as she said “God had gifted him to excel in the ministry.  His sister pleaded with him: "We need you here. God made you for this."   Eric Liddell's recorded response is a classic. To the comment that God made him for ministry, he replied, "Aye...and he also made me fast! And when I run, I feel His pleasure." (Randy Rowland, The Sins We Love: Embracing Brokenness, Hoping for Wholeness, page 82).

THE PLEASURE WE REALLY NEED
I believe Eric Liddell expresses something we have to see, recognize, celebrate and feel if we want to overcome our need for the “the next best thing.”  We have to feel God’s favor and “pleasure” within ourselves.  It is only from finding “his pleasure” within ourselves that we overcome our constant need to compare ourselves with others.   There is nothing out there that can bring us the contentment we need.  Our joy must go deeper than comparisons.   When we are unable to feel “the pleasure of God” within ourselves or feel happy for others, we become envious.  Isn’t this what happen to Saul’s, to Salieri and to the woman who went to the Therapist crying about her house?   We can even see this most “creepy little sin” raising its ugly little head around the last communion table Jesus had with his disciples.    In Luke 22, after Jesus had just explained to them about his death, he tells us what happens next:  “There was also a strife, a conflict among them,” the King James Version says (Luke 22:24).  It was about “which of them should be accounted as the greatest”.    The disciples where spending their last moment with Jesus, not taking pleasure in being with him, but wasting it on arguing over comparing themselves to each other and asking who would be the greatest in the coming Kingdom of God.  

This episode of the disciples reminds me of a story Oscar Wilde once told: “The devil was once crossing the Libyan Desert, and he came upon a spot where a number of small fiends were tormenting a holy hermit. The sainted man easily shook off their evil suggestions. The devil watched their failure, and then he stepped forward to give them a lesson.
“What you do is too crude,” he said.“Permit me for one moment.”
“With that he whispered to the holy man, ‘Your brother has just been mad bishop of Alexandria.’
A scowl of malignant envy at once clouded the serene face of the hermit.
“‘That,’ said the devil to his imps, ‘is the sort of thing which I should recommend.’” [From Gordon MacDonald, The Life God Blesses, Nelson, 1994, p. 143.]
 
Any of us can succumb to feelings of envy. Since we can’t help but compare ourselves with others, and because someone will always be smarter, better, richer, and younger than us, we must find our deepest contentment in God’s pleasure and not only our own.  But what is God’s pleasure?  What is “his pleasure” that rids our soul of envy?

North Carolina author Clyde Edgerton’s has a wonderful perspective on God’s pleasure in his book Walking Across Egypt.  What makes this book so interesting for me is that it’s about a old lady who is a Southern Baptist from eastern North Carolina.  One day she listens to a sermon about thinking beyond herself and helping “the least of these, my brethren.”  After the sermon, she actually does it.  She brings into her home a boy who has broken out of a prison for Juvenile Delinquents.

As she feeds the boy home cooked meals, teaches him to take a bath and takes him fishing and swimming, everybody disagrees with her doing this.  Her son and daughter don’t like her giving things to him because they too are jealous or envious of her time with him.  Her neighbors think it’s stupid.  Even her church turns against her actually helping “one of the least of these” when he steals the preacher’s car.  It’s hilarious, but it also turns miraculous.   Through it all, the boy the boy starts calling her grandma, not just because he’s old, but because she actually takes pleasure in loving him like a grandma, even though he is a worthless, good-for-nothing, thief.  And do you know what happens, next. It is this unmerited favor, and her pleasure in giving it to him, that finally gets through to him, and in the end, even after he steals the preacher’s car, she is the one who convinces the preacher to drop the charges and she is the one who goes to prison and brings him home with her for good.  In spite of the fact that this boy is still a little rough around the edges, she knows that he has a heart and is able to change.  She takes pleasure in believing in him until he finally he starts to believe in himself.

The way you and I can overcome envy in our lives is to find pleasure in God’s love.  And when you find this love in yourself, you will find that you are unable to keep it for yourself.  When you love and when you find pleasure sharing love, you can’t feel envy.  “Love suffers long and is kind; says Paul, and then the says this: LOVE DOES NOT ENVY.    Amen.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

WHAT EVER BECAME OF SIN?

Lenten Series: The Seven Deadly Sins: Pride
A sermon based on Luke 18: 9-14
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

On a sunny day in September, 1972, a stern-face, plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner in the busy Chicago Loop. As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word "GUILTY!"
Then, without any change of expression, he would resume his stiff stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture.  Then, again, the inexorable raising of the arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word "GUILTY!"(1)

Members of the lunch hour crowd would stare as they passed by at the strange performance.  They would stop for a moment, look away, glance at each other, look back at the man, and then hurry on their ways. One man, turning to another, exclaimed: "But how did he know?"   

Are we all guilty?  And, if so, of what?  and before whom?  and can we ever straighten it out?    These are questions that begin the book by the great Psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Menninger, who once asked: “Whatever Became of Sin.  In a society that STILL FEELS GUILTY but no longer understands why; we are a people who talk less and less about sin; especially our own.   Of course, I might be somewhat willing to talk about “your sin”, but when it comes to DEALING WITH THE THINGS WE PERSONALLY NEED TO CONFESS or work out in our own lives, most all of us live in a state of constant denial.

THE WORSE SIN OF ALL
WE ARE NOT THE FIRST PEOPLE TO HAVE DIFFICULTY TAKING ABOUT OUR SINS.  In one of his great parables, Jesus told us a lot about sin.  He did not give us a scientific analysis, but HE GAVE US A STORY.  This classic biblical story not only tells us what it MEANS TO BE A SINNER, it also tells us WHAT IS THE WORSE SIN OF ALL. 

What do you think is THE WORSE SIN OF ALL?  Would you say MURDER?  Would you say HATE?  Well, that one didn’t make the top ten.  Would you say it was something more practical like THEFT, disobeying parents or lying?  WHAT IS THE WORSE sin of all?  Some of you MAY ALREADY HAVE AN IDEA, but in order to help us consider this topic, LET’S LOOK at this story from Jesus for a moment.  It’s found in Luke 18: 9-14 in ONE OF TWO PARABLES Jesus told about prayer.  

But first, we need a review.  In the FIRST PARABLE about prayer in Luke 18: 1-8,  we can find WHAT WE EXPECT JESUS TO SAY.  He tells about A WIDOW WHO KEPT COMING TO A JUDGE for help even though he kept telling her to get lost.  But this helpless widow was persistent.  She never gave up.   FINALLY, because the judge was simply TIRED OF LISTENING TO HER COMPLAINTS and even though he was not a believer, nor a very good fellow, he gave in to her and granted her request for help.  

With such a story about prayer, Jesus taught his disciples that just AS THIS WOMAN KEPT ON ASKING, WE SHOULD KEPT PRAYING.  We should keep on praying and believing in faith, because God is much more willing to do right by us.  OUR GOD IS NOT AN UNBELIEVING, UNJUST JUDGE, but he is our willing, caring and faithful heavenly father who wants to do for us, more than we sometimes want to do for ourselves.    This was the FIRST PERSPECTIVE Jesus gave on prayer.  Be faithful.  NEVER GIVE UP.  Do not lose heart.   EXPECT THAT GOD IS ON YOUR SIDE and wants to do right just as much as you do.

NOW COMES THE SECOND LESSON about prayer.  You remember the story don’t you?  It’s ABOUT TWO MEN WHO WENT UP TO THE TEMPLE to pray; one being a Pharisee, or a very religious fellow, and the other being Tax Collector, someone other though of in the lowest human terms.  In the story, IT IS THE PHARISEE WHO IS THE “STAR” of the story.   He is the one who “stands by himself” and prays, “THANK GOD, I’M NOT LIKE OTHER PEOPLE.  I fast.  I give my tithe.  I do all the “right” things.  But now, in contrast, JESUS TELLS US OF THE TAX COLLECTOR.  The tax collector prays in a whole different way.   This tax collector stands far off from others.  He will not even hold his head up to pray, but KEEPS IT BOWED while he beats his chest he says: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”

ABOUT THIS SECOND PERSON; both in how he prays and what he prays, that Jesus says; “I tell you, THIS MAN WENT DOWN TO HIS HOME JUSTIFIED rather than the other.”   The story ends up being a particular, much needed lesson in prayer.   Learning to pray, says Jesus is much less about the newest techniques, but learning to pray is much MORE ABOUT WHO WE ARE WHEN WE PRAY.   Prayer is much MORE THAN THE WORDS of prayer, about being the right kind of pray-ER.    
Right at the very beginning of THE SECOND PARABLE Jesus tells us that THIS PARABLE IS MEANT SPECIFICALLY FOR PEOPLE who have a very SERIOUS PROBLEM that can INTERFERE with their prayer life.   The people who have the greatest problem in prayer do two things wrong:  THEY “TRUST IN THEMSELVES that they were “righteous” enough already, and at the same time, they trust in themselves, as THEY ARE LOOKING DOWN ON OTHERS, regarding them “with contempt.” 

SIN WITH A NAME ON IT
Can you see how this lesson about prayer FITS RIGHT INTO OUR OPENING DISCUSSION about sin?    Sin is not always what we think it is.  Sin is NOT HALF AS MUCH ABOUT THE THINGS WE DO WRONG as much as it is about THE KIND OF PERSON WE ARE when we do wrong.    Even behind a lot of good words and right deeds, we can still be a sinner; and worse of all we might not even be able to see or realize it.    In fact, some of the WORSE SINNERS are all dressed up in their Sunday best. 

DO YOU SEE WHAT JESUS IS SAYING?  THE GREATEST THREAT TO LIVING A LIFE OF PRAYER as a disciple of Jesus Christ, is NOT WHAT WE DO OR HAVE DONE WRONG, but the GREATEST THREAT to our being Christian is IN WHAT WE THINK ABOUT OURSELVES.  WHEN WE THINK WE ARE BETTER THAN SOMEONE ELSE; when we think WE ARE ALL RIGHT and others are all wrong; and worse of all, when we think that WE OURSELVES ARE RIGHTEOUS ENOUGH to stand before God on our own merit, making up our religion by our own rules; this is the WORSE SIN OF ALL. 

Of course THERE IS A NAME FOR THIS “WORSE SIN of all.”   When you THINK YOU ARE A GOOD person; and when you LOOK DOWN on others, you are engaging it what the church and THE BIBLE TEACH TO BE “THE ROOT SIN”, that is the SOURCE OF ALL OTHER SINS, the sin of pride, or vainglory. 

Pride?  What does that word CONJURE UP IN YOUR MIND? 
Of course we can SEE THE SIN OF PRIDE IN THIS PHARISEE who went to the temple and prayed, thanking God he was BETTER THAN EVERYBODY ELSE.”  But CAN WE SEE THE SIN OF PRIDE or VAINGLORY IN OURSELVES?  

One picture of pride that comes to my mind is the great boasting boxer, Muhammad Ali.   Remember him---the guy that said he “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.”  Ali had just won another boxing title and on the airplane fly home, the stewardess politely said to him, "You need to fasten your seat belt." To which Ali replied, "Superman don't need no seat belt." To which the stewardess politely responded, "AND SUPERMAN DOESN'T NEED AN AIRPLANE EITHER; PLEASE FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELT."

We can all see a certain amount of pride in ourselves, and some of it appears rather harmless.  But CAN WE also SEE how DANGEROUS PRIDE can become?  Can we see that pride is not just in the WRONG THINKING we have about ourselves, but that the most dangerous forms of pride hide in the  GOOD DEEDS or the GOOD LIFE we say we live?   Can we see sin right in middle of our own little Garden of Eden we have worked to build for ourselves?

Scripture tells us that this root sin was RIGHT THERE IN THE GARDEN of Eden FROM THE VERY BEGINNING.  Didn’t you see it in Adam and Eve?   The classic story tells that God had given Adam and Eve everything in a wonderful paradise and expected only one thing in return: they were to REMEMBER THAT HE WAS GOD AND THEY WEREN’T.  As Humans, they were to remember their limits, even with all their beautiful human potential, and THEY WERE NOT TO PARTAKE IN THE FRUIT of the forbidden tree that was put there to remind them they were not God.   That sounded like a good deal.  All this for one little rule.  But this tree kept bugging them.  Adam and Eve must have thought to themselves, just as we think to ourselves; AREN’T WE GOOD ENOUGH TO HAVE THAT TREE TOO?  Can’t we have our cake and eat it too?  And when they BEGAN TO THINK THEY WERE GOOD ENOUGH, good enough to start living life by THEIR OWN RULES, it was then that Adam and Eve LET THEIR OWN PRIDE TAKE OVER and partook in the forbidden fruit.   Thus, pride has been there, right from the beginning and it is what turns us all into sinners.  

BUT PRIDE IS NOT ALL A BAD THING, IS IT?   Don’t we like to take “pride” in our work?  Don’t we like to try to GET OUR CHILDREN TO TAKE “PRIDE” in who they are?  Isn’t one of LIFE’S GREATEST PROBLEMS that we let our SELF-ESTEEM GET TOO LOW?  I mean look at this POOR GUY IN JESUS’ PARABLE.  There he is “beating himself on the chest” THINKING HE’S NO GOOD TO ANYBODY, not even to God.  What good is that?  Can’t a certain amount of pride about our lives BE A GOOD THING?   The Bible does say, doesn’t it, that we should love our neighbor, AS WE LOVE OURSELVES?  Is pride really all that wrong?

C. S. LEWIS, who is in the news lately with the release of the Chronicles of Narnia, was not only a DEVOTED CHRISTIAN, but was also an Oxford Scholar.  AS A ENGLISH SCHOLAR, once said, “When we say in English that a man is “proud of his son, or his father, or his school, or regiment, and it may be asked whether pride in this sense is a sin.  I THINK IT DEPENDS on what, exactly, WE MEAN BY “PROUD OF”.

Girolamo Savonarola was one of the GREAT PREACHERS OF THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY. He preached in the great CATHEDRAL OF FLORENCE, Italy, which contained a magnificent marble statue of the blessed virgin Mary.  When Savonarola STARTED PREACHING at this great cathedral, he noticed one day AN ELDERLY WOMAN PRAYING before this statue of Mary. He then began to notice that it was HER HABIT to come every day and pray before the statue.

SAVONAROLA REMARKED one day to an elderly priest who had been serving in the cathedral for many years, "LOOK HOW DEVOTED and earnest this woman is. Every day she comes and offers prayers to the blessed Mother of Jesus. WHAT A MARVELOUS ACT OF FAITH." But the elderly priest replied, "DO NOT BE DECEIVED by what you see. Many years ago WHEN THE SCULPTOR NEEDED A MODEL TO POSE for this statue of the blessed Mother, HE HIRED a BEAUTIFUL YOUNG WOMAN to sit for him. This devout worshiper you see here everyday is that young woman. SHE IS WORSHIPING WHO SHE USED TO BE."

The Oxford Dictionary defines pride as an "UNDULY HIGH OPINION OF ONE'S OWN QUALITIES, MERITS, that is, AN ARROGANT BEARING." In other words, PRIDE IS SELF-LOVE, a centeredness upon self, that does more than expresses a simple love and respect for oneself, but it is a self-love that says, "I'M BETTER THAN YOU."  It is the kind of pride of  that GETS STUCK ON ONESELF and ones own opinion so much that they CAN’T LET IT GO and won’t give in and  EVERYONE ELSE IS EXPECTED TO PAY HOMAGE to them, what they think, what they’ve done and who they are.  That is selfish, destructive, and evil pride.

Now before you think that pride is not SOMETHING YOU AND I WOULD EVER DO because you and I are Christians, let me remind you what else is said about Pride: Pride is SOMETIMES CALLED THE CHRISTIAN’S SIN.  It is called the Christian sin exactly BECAUSE OF WHAT HAPPENS in Jesus’ parable.  IT IS THE RIGHTEOUS MAN, or at least the man who thinks he righteous, WHO GOES HOME UNJUSTIFIED, while IT IS THE SINNER, who knows that HE IS IN NO WAY RIGHTEOUS, who goes home being made just.  Why does this happen?  How does pride and self-righteousness get into the way of being truly righteous?  HOW DOES OUR OWN SELFISH PRIDE become the worse sin of all?

CHRISTLIKE HUMILTY OVERCOMES PRIDE
Let me answer this right away: PRIDE IS THE SIN OF THE RIGHTEOUS PERSON, not because they try to be good or righteous.  Pride is the sin of the righteous person BECAUSE SIN HAS AFFECTED AND INFECTED EVERYMAN, every woman, every person.  Pride IS THE WORSE SIN, not because it is “worse” than other sins, but because IT IS THE ONE SIN WE ARE ALL MOST LIKELY TO SUCCUMB and SURRENDER TO. 

HOW DO WE COMMIT THE SIN OF PRIDE?   This is the easy part.  Our text tells us straight up.  Jesus told this parable about the Pharisee who was prideful to “some who trusted in themselves.”   At the very core of selfish human pride is one dreadful for of false worship: THE IDOLATRY OF THE SELF.   When we put SELF ON THE THRONE OF OUR LIFE, our own opinions; our own actions; and our own feelings matter most.   WHEN WHAT WE THINK, SAY AND DO MATTERS MOST AND WHAT GOD SAYS MATTERS LESS, then we have broken the FIRST AND SECOND COMMANDMENTS: “You shall have no other gods besides me…”  and “You shall not make for yourself an idol…you shall not bow down to them…

So, PRIDE IS THE GREATEST SIN because it puts “YOU” ON THE THRONE and that is one place no one belongs except God.   When life must revolve around you: When you are IN A FAMILY and ONLY YOUR OPINION MATTERS…You are on the throne.  When you are IN A COMMUNITY and ONLY YOUR OPINION MATTERS… you are on the throne.  When you ARE IN A CHURCH and only YOUR OPINION MATTERS… again, you have placed yourself on the throne and you have displaced God.  WHEN IT IS ABOUT YOU… YOU… YOU… and not about him, him, him and not about others too… then you have STEPPED ACROSS THE LINE and MOVED INTO IDOL WORSHIP, which is self-destructive of the person God has made you to be.

Now, to the PENULTIMATE QUESTION: HOW DO WE PREVENT PRIDE and how can we stop “sin” at its source?  Well, let me be honest with you and say that WE CAN’T.  In this world where we all live post-paradise, after Adam and Eve, there is no way that we can prevent pride or sin from creeping into our lives.  We are sinners.  Even after we become Christians, WE ARE STILL SINNERS.  Christians do sometimes behave badly too.  KNOWING CHRIST should redeem and shape our behavior, but it does not stop us from being sinners.  We can, through Christ’s power, overcome certain sins, but we can never overcome all sin.  The sin we can overcome doesn’t happen all at once either.  Overcoming sin in us IS A PROCESS and it is a work of the Spirit.  It is a process that takes time with God and EFFORT ON OUR PART.  Yes, I know we sometimes don’t like to admit that WE MUST HAVE WORKS with our faith, but that is exactly what the Scripture says: faith without works is dead, being alone.  We are not saved by works, but OUR FAITH MUST WORK OR what we have is DEAD faith; and dead faith is no good at all.

THE KIND OF WORK that helps us overcome pride should come as no surprise.  It is the work of humility revealed in the humility of Jesus on the cross.  IN CHRIST, WE SEE BOTH WHAT PRIDE DOES AND HOW IT IS OVERCOME.   In his story we see how HUMAN SIN PUT JESUS ON THE CROSS, and HOW JESUS RESPONDS TO HUMAN SIN with his own self-chosen humility.   In Philipians 2, Paul describes the way Jesus modeled the kind of humility that defeats pride, because Jesus “was in the form of God, but did not regard equality with God something that should be exploited and he emptied himself…taking the form of a slave…humbling himself and being obedient unto death…”    Paul says that we should have “this mind which was also in Jesus Christ.”   The ONLY WAY TO STOP THE GROWTH OF DANGEROUS AND DESTRUCTIVE PRIDE is to practice the humility of Jesus Christ.

Understanding how “humility” works against the growth of dangerous pride, CONSIDER ONCE MORE THE PARABLE of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  The PHARISEE SAW NO NEED in himself.  He saw no need to repent; and he also had NO NEED OF OTHERS.  And WHAT DO WE SEE HIM DOING but also worshipping all “alone”.  WE SEE HIM GOING HOME WITHOUT GOD’S WORK OF GRACE in his heart because he only sees his life as between him and God alone.  On the other hand, the TAX COLLECTOR entered the worship place with a completely DIFFERENT ATTITUDE.  He held nothing back and humbled himself before God, admitting that he was just one of many sinners crying out: God be merciful to me, a sinner!    ONLY HE WENT HOME JUSTIFIED, having God’s work fully accomplished in his life.   

Don’t miss the real difference in the two.  It is only THE ONE WHO COULD SEE THAT HE WAS NO BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE that only received the gift of grace and forgiveness.  IT was not WRONG that prevented God’s saving work, but it THE INABILITY TO SEE WE ARE ALL WRONG in our own ways that prevented God’s saving work.  Living together in Humility opens the door of our hearts to God.  The PRIDE of standing above, beyond or being better than others SHUTS THE DOOR of our hearts and hinders God’s work.

At Christmas a few years ago, THE YOUTH AT OUR CHURCH GAVE A WONDERFUL LITTLE PLAY about the challenge some city cousins had getting to know and appreciate their country cousins.  It was hilarious.   Let me tell you a SIMILAR TRUE STORY.   A CITY BOY VISITED HIS COUSIN WHO LIVED ON A FARM in the country for the first time. The city boy had never seen wheat growing in a field. It was an impressive sight for him, the WHEAT GOLDEN BROWN AND READY for harvesting. He noticed that SOME OF THE WHEAT STOOD TALL in the field, whereas SOME OF IT WAS BENT LOW, touching the ground. The city boy said to his cousin, "I bet the ONES STANDING TALL ARE THE BEST ONES, aren't they?"

His cousin smiled knowingly and reached over and PLUCKED THE HEAD of one of the tall-standing wheat stalks and one that was bent to the ground. HE RUBBED EACH OF THEM and the city boy saw that the TALL ONE WAS ALMOST EMPTY of seeds. But the one BENT TO THE GROUND WAS FULL, FULL OF THE PROMISE of a very rich harvest. 

That’s how God sees the richness of our humility too.  TRUE HUMILITY, as Scot McKnight says, DOES NOT COME FROM BECOMING OBSESSED WITH OUR SINS; this produces guilt, not grace.   It was not his sins that captured the Tax Collector’s mind, but it was God’s mercy.   TRUE HUMILITY COMES FROM SEEING GOD’S MERCY THAT IS GREATER THAN ALL OUR SIN, as the song says.  You can only honestly face yourself as a sinner when you know that God will be merciful to you.  Mercy works to humble us because GOD’S LOVE IS NOT BASED ON WHO YOU ARE NOR WHO YOU AREN’T.  God’s love is only based on who God is.  This is what makes God’s love and mercy most humbling:  IT IS COMPLETELY UNCONDITIONAL.  In the Bible, it is not being uniquely loved by God that saves us, but it is being loved by God’s unique love; a God who loves us like God’s loves everyone else.  That is not only the most humbling to us, it is also what is most saving, most redeeming and the greatest piece of “humble pie” you’ll ever eat. 

Truly enjoy the humility of God’s mercy and you will lose, “ALL YOUR GUILTY STAINS” and you will also lose the hardest stain of all ---YOUR PRIDE!     Amen.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

“YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE!”

A sermon based upon Deuteronomy 31: 11-20
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Epiphany 6, February 13th, 2011

Picture this!  You’re playing a card game with some friends.  You’re losing.   You’re supposed to pick up a card whether it will be favorable or not.   You don’t want to take a card.  You hesitate.  You look at your friends and they look at you and then they remind you: “Hey, You have to choose!”

The game of life is the same way.  You can’t live the “game of life” and not make choices.  You can’t live a human life and not make important choices each and every day of your life.  You choose the people you spend your life with.  You choose the food you eat, the work you do, the activities to get involved in, and the places you go.   It may not feel like it, especially when there are so many things you have to do, but for the most part, life is always a choice.

Moses understood this too!   In today’s text he’s preparing to send the people into the promise land.  He’s soon going to die and he can’t go with them.  So, he gives the people one final challenge, saying: “Now, you are ready to go, but remember this one thing always:  You have to choose!”  “I have set before you life….and death, blessings and curses….(vs. 15-19).  Your life provides an opportunity for both, but you have to choose! 

LIFE IS SOMETHING YOU CHOOSE
Bret Younger tells about a man who was in the prime of his life in 1860, the year Abe Lincoln was elected president.  His name was Milton Bradley.  “In that year, Milton Bradley invented a board game called “The Game of Life!”  
On a red-and-ivory checkerboard of sixty-four squares, players start on a square labeled infancy and end, usually, but not always, at happy old age. The Game of Life requires you to make decisions.  Most players try to go to
college, heading slowly towards happiness, but even when you are one square away you can end up at ruin, passed out, drunk and drooling on the floor of a seedy-looking tavern where death darkens the door disguised as a bill collector in a bulky black overcoat and a strangely sinister stovepipe hat. Curiously, two directions that almost guarantee that you will lose are going to prison or going into politics.   Bradley’s game rewards the virtues that lead to wealth and success. The good squares are honesty, bravery and perseverance. The bad squares are poverty, idleness, and disgrace. The person who wins is the one who gets to happy old age first.

One hundred years later, in 1960, the year John Kennedy was elected president, the Milton Bradley Company released a commemorative Game of Life, which bears almost no resemblance to its 19th-century namesake. Bradley’s game about vice, virtue, and the pursuit of happiness was reinvented as a lesson in consumerism.  The box is filled with fake money—seven and a half million dollars of fake money—as well as fake automobile insurance and phony stock certificates. This life is paperwork. Players fill teensy plastic station wagons with even teensier pink and blue plastic mommies and daddies, and have pink and blue plastic babies, but this Game of Life is relentlessly cash-conscious. In this version you do not die; you just retire. Life’s most important squares are marked Payday. In the 1960 game, whoever finishes with the most money wins.

Three years ago, Milton Bradley released The New Game of Life: Twists & Turns. In the 2008 version life is meaningless. This is the game’s selling point, that it has no goal.  The blurb on the box says, “A thousand ways to live your life. You choose.”  Money is a big part of the game, but there is no
cash. Each player receives a Visa card to keep track of points. You get the same number of points for scuba diving as for donating a kidney as for getting a Ph.D. In the new game there is no square marked “finish.”  It is all pointless  (Bret Younger’s source is Jill Lefore, The New Yorker, “The Meaning of Life,” May 21, 2007, 38-43.).

Choosing life is not what it used to be.   Russell Moore writes:  “Nobody is as happy as they seem on Facebook.   A social psychology journal started with an observation about how college students felt more dejected after logging on to Facebook.  There was something saddening about "scrolling through others' attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates." The students' moods were darkened because they believed everyone else was happier than they are.      http://www.crosswalk.com/11644916

It’s quite  ironic.  The more choices we have, the more stuff we own or have access to, even with all the new high tech opportunities for both knowing and communicating, does not necessarily make us wiser, happier, better communicators, nor does it make us smarter about choosing life.  Before I move away from this, listen to this quote I received this week in a Magazine from Baylor University about “Curiosity and Smartphones” 
“For all the frenetic changes heralded by new technology, the human heart---with its longings and loves, heartaches and heartbreaks---remains essentially unchanged.   We may delight in carrying new gadgets and developing virtual networks alongside of trusty old tools and time-tested friendships.  Yet whatever technology’s wizardry does for us, it cannot fundamentally alter our heart’s desire to love God and to love others in God.  Then the writer adds:  “This is not to say that life in the virtual world is not without risks….  Having immediate access to these things is not itself bad.  However, living in a world of perpetual mobile connectivity can be spiritually distracting, and even deforming…”(From Christian Reflections, p. 11).

What can be so “distracting and deforming” about the virtual world should be obvious: We satisfy our curiosity and desire for knowledge…the same kind of knowledge Adam and Eve wanted in the garden… ,  but all the while, we forget to make wise judgments that we should be making with the knowledge we already have; ie., we fail to seek the kind of knowledge which brings us greater opportunities for life rather than death.

All of us know the blessings and the curses of the Internet.  Just a few weeks ago, a 30 year old Google Marketer in Egypt named, Wael Ghonim, sparked an online campaign that inspired the democracy revolution in Egypt.   This is how this new technology works.  It brings new opportunities for life, but there is also the possibility for chaos, destruction and death. 
Perhaps you can think of some occasion when a person used the “Internet” for good, but you can think of several occasions people have used it to spread lies, to start rumors, to ruin reputations, or to fuel crime, or abuse it through pornography, inappropriate texting, or sending photos or videos that have enabled bullying and caused people to commit suicide.   Today, the opportunities of the Internet “promised-land” are much the same:  “See I have set before you life and death…blessings or curses  (vs. 19).   Much has changed in the world since Moses, but this has not changed.   We still have to choose life over death.

So, how do we use the opportunities, choices, freedom and chances we are given to choose life, rather than to let life “steal” our life away from us?  

TO CHOOSE LIFE YOU MUST CHOOSE LOVE
The dots of life and love are especially connected in this passage.   To “choose life”   you’ve got to include “loving the LORD your God with all your heart...” (vss. 6, 16).  Moses says this means loving God in a way that it gives “prosperity to your descendants…your children, you grandchildren, and your great grand children”and on and on.   We read later, beyond our passage that “loving God” includes loving “men, women, children…as well as the aliens residing in your towns… (31: 12).  It is one of the remarkable things about Deuteronomy, that it calls upon the lover of God to even “love the stranger, because you were also strangers in Egypt (Deut 10:19).

Over and Over I have to ask myself, like Jeff Foxworthy’s TV show: Am I as Smart as I was as a 4th grader?   It was in the 4th grade, that I recall preparing to hand out Valentines to fellow students.   I was preparing those Valentines when I noticed that I was preparing the better Valentines for those I liked the most and the lesser Valentines to give to those I like the least.   Then something I had been reading in Sunday School hit me like a ton of bricks:  “If I’m going to be a Christian; a real Christian, then I need to give just as good a Valentine those I dislike!   It’s easy to like those who like me, but the way of Christ is to care even about those I don’t like as much.” 
Of course, that’s not an easy thing to do.   I knew it first-hand.  When I was in the 3rd grade, we had moved from the city to the country.   I remembered that while I was in the 3rd grade, I was the stranger who could have been left out.  It was not just a Bible story, but it was my story.  

Did you know that Deuteronomy was Jesus’ favorite book of the Bible?  Part of the reason was that it was a “second writing” or rewriting of the Law which put the Law of God in its proper context.   It was written right after the Exile…after the people sinned… after they lost everything….after they felt God had abandoned them.   Even though it sounds as if God is warning them, this warning was written down, after the fact, which makes God sound rather harsh and threatening.  But if you a little closer, you will see that you can’t fully understand all these threats, warnings or hopes for blessing without the context of God’s love and the language of covenant.

Deuteronomy 7:7 is especially expressive when it says: “7 "The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples;
8 "but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 
9 "Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; (Deu 7:7-9 NKJ).   
The point Deuteronomy makes is that you can’t properly understand life, even life in God, until you understand the love God has and the love God wants his people to have.   After Israel had learned the hard way, what it was like to forget God and what it happens when they forget to love God with their “whole heart” they wanted their children to know only whole-hearted covenant love can prevent the curses of life they had experienced.

What is covenant love?  There is a lot of “love” that gets promoted in this world that has nothing to do with talk of “commitment” and “covenant”.  Last week, on the Today Show, I heard the author of the book “Eat, Pray, and Love” Elizabeth Gilbert make an very interesting comment about her new book on relationships, entitled, “Committed, A Love Story.”  I haven’t read her book, but in the interview she shares that the book is a record of observations made about getting married after adventuring around the world, learning to eat, pray, and to love.  She then went on to tell how  being ‘committed’ in love is something our culture has a hard time with because most people today equate “love” with romance rather than commitment.   She said this is a problem other cultures outside the west don’t have as much as we do.  Since our culture has moved from having “arranged” marriages or marriages based on ‘business’ contracts to having marriages based solely upon our romantic feelings, she says, since this has happened, we’ve seen both the quality and length of marriage constantly decline.   A lasting marriage, she has learned, must be based more upon a “contract” or a “covenant” than romantic love.  Some time or other, we can all be disappointed by the failures of romantic love. 

I don’t know that much about what this woman is writing, but there sure is wisdom in what she is saying. It’s this same kind of “contractual” or “covenant” love that the book of Deuteronomy calls for when it says we are to love God “with our whole heart.” Only “covenant”, “committed” or “contractual” love is able to hold together in human lives.

 LOVING GOD MEANS OBEYING GOD
The other important word, besides the words: “life” and “love”, is the word “obey”.   Moses writes in verse 15: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  If you OBEY the commandments of the Lord your God… by loving your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commands, decrees and ordinances… then you shall live….and the Lord will bless you…(vss. 15-16).

Can a culture like ours, a culture that is so used to being free, independent, and self-reliant really know or appreciate the word: obey?”  In the moral, social, and religious confusion of our times, can people still understand obedience to anyone beyond our own choices, beyond our own private opinions, and beyond our own conclusions about God?  Our text suggests that there is, and that “it is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us and get it…. Neither is it across the ocean….so that we have to cross to the other side to get it?” (See verses 11-14).  

Before we can “map” out what our “own” obedience to God can look like, we must answer another important question: Is this a game you really want to play?  When you became a Christian, did you think you were signing up for something different?  Having abundant, meaningful and eternal life is not in any way an automatic choice.  In fact, if Milton Bradley is right, understanding that there is a purpose and promise in life at all is something fewer and fewer know today.   

To understand what it means to “obey” God, where the main game in our world is not God’s game, but is the game of life we “want” to live, as Christians, we need more than Moses’ challenge to answer this question.  We need also to turn to John 14: 15 to the “second Moses”, Jesus, telling his disciples something that very similar: “If you love me, you’ll keep my commandments.”  Jesus continues in verse 23, “Those who love me will keep my word.”  

O.K., now, are you getting the plan?   If you want to love God, then love Jesus.  And if you say you love Jesus, then keep his commandments and keep his word.   But what Jesus sees at the center of everything is not always what we put in the center of everything.  Pay close attention.  You find it continuing in chapter 15, verse 4 where Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you…Just as the branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me….”   Now, Jesus outlines what it means to abide in him: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love….. I have said this, that my joy by be in you…and that your joy might be complete.  (vs. 10ff).  Jesus is not trying to get us to follow a bunch of strict rules and regulations (15: 9-11) for the sake of the “rules” themselves.   Jesus is talking about following and obeying for the sake of the joy of a sustained relationship with him.  Are you still with Jesus on this? 

Further explanation comes in John 15: 12 when Jesus says:  “This is my commandmentthat you love one another as I have loved you.”  With Jesus, God’s law has now come full circle.  The commandments given for us to obey are explained for what they were designed to be in the first place:  The law is about love for the sake of love, not law for the sake of law.  Furthermore, God does not need our love….but we need God’s love, and we need his love to know how to love each other. 

Now we are finally ready God’s greatest commandment as it works out in John 15: 13ff: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for ones friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.   I do not call you servants any longer… but I have called you friends… You did not choose me, but I choose you.   And I appointed you to go and bear fruit (the fruit of love that will last), so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.  I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”  

We could spend another sermon on only these words, but what God essentially commands is that we bear the fruit of love in our lives.   This is what God wants and it’s how energy and the source of life comes to us.  Did you catch the powerful statement Jesus makes at the end of his discussion of love and commandments in verse 16?  It’s a shocker.  Jesus concludes that God gets what God wants by telling us how we can get what we ask for.   Let me repeat that again just in case you didn’t get it:  GOD GETS WHAT GOD WANTS AS HE GIVES US WHAT WE ASK FOR.  The whole point of our asking and God’s wanting are to be lined up together and this brings both life and blessing to us.  When we get on the same page with God’s will and purposes, every day and in any moment blessings can happen.  

But let’s stop and ask for a moment: “Whatever” is really a “big” word,  isn’t it?  It can sound more like “I Dream of Jeannie” than the hard realities of life.  It especially sounds like too tall of an order in a world where fewer think faith in God has much of anything to offer at all.  What can a life of obedience in God offer that the world can’t give?  The answer is in understanding how Jesus started this whole conversation with the issue of “believing” the Father as he does (John 14: 11), doing greater works than he did (John 14: 12) and living a life where we feel like we are so close to God, like friends (John 15: 15), so that we can ask for “whatever” and God will do “whatever” we ask  (John 14: 13 and John 15: 16).  If you are still wondering what “whatever” means, read John 14:27 and you’ll hear "loud and clear" what God can give that no one else can:  “My peace I leave with you.  My peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”   

If you are still having a hard time fathoming what God can give, think about Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.  Do you recall that moment in Star Wars, when Luke  is part of a squadron of fighters attacking the huge “death star”, a planet size  fortress so well armored that only an exact torpedo shot in a small vent can destroy it.  Time is short because the death Start is revving up its weapons to destroy a good planet.  Luke and his comrades fly toward the fortress and fire their torpedoes, but to no effect.    As the story goes, most are shot down, leaving only Luke to save the day.  As he hurtles in his fighter toward his target, he hears the voice of his dead mentor “obi Wan Kenobi”, saying “trust the Force”.   Luke has only a few second to choose his course and his aim.  Having been squinting through his gun sight, he raises up and waits until the moment is right.   “Trust the Force,” Luke.  The voice keeps coming.   Luke has only one moment take the right aim and make the right choice, and it was not a choice he could make on his own.  He had to “trust the Force!” 

That’s how the “choice” of life is dramatized in human fiction and fables, but the real way we “choose life” is more complex and much more complicated.  
There is a “true” human choice being made by American teenager, Trey Styles, played by Cuba Gooding, in the movie “Boyz n the Hood.”   Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, most of the boys there grow up having to cope with all the violence of the “hood”, which can lead young boys to choose “death” over “live”, just so they can survive.   But in this story, one of the boys is raised by his strict father, who has made mistakes and wants his boy to make a better choice, to see beyond the games of death in the “hood” that most of the boys make.  

In a most important moment, young Tre has to make a hard choice.  He has some advantage over the others, in that because of his Father, he has made good grades and has a chance to choose a life beyond the “hood”.  But now comes the moment of truth.  A close friend of Tre has been killed by a rival “gang” and his two close friends ask Trey to join them in getting their guns and going after them, to avenge their buddy.  He goes home to get his gun, but his Father protests, but still he chooses to return to be with his “friends”. 

Finally, Tre is in the car with his friends and they are on their way to kill the murderer.  But along the way, Tre hears his Father’s voice, heeds the warning, comes to his senses and asks his friends to stop the car, so he can get out.   In that moment, Tre chooses life rather than death.   Later after his friends return, they understand Tre’s decision, but both lament that they have to follow the rules and conditions of the “hood”.   Finally, as the flim ends, both of those friends are killed by way of vengeance they have chosen.  The cycle of violence goes on.  Only one, like Tre, who’s Father has shown him a way to “choose” and to “live” beyond the rules of the “hood” can be saved.  (From goodpreacher.com, and Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. XXII, Number 2, p. 18).

You and I have been fortunate enough not to have to grow up in “the hood”, but we still live in the “world” where we must continually choose the high way of God rather than the lower way of living only by our own desires.  I can think of several moments in my own life, where, as Robert Frost said, I choose to take a certain path and “that has made all the difference”.  The road of abundant life is a road you have to “take”---you have to choose it.  If you don’t choose it each and every day, and if you don’t keep asking for it, the right choices get harder, if not impossible to make.  

Obeying God in the small choices of life paves the way toward the greatest choices you will ever make.  Even “small” “choices” for God are steps toward a limitless future beyond your imagination.  But before you can know where the choices lead, you have to make them.  Each and every day, if you want the life only God can give, you still have to ask for it; you of course: you have to choose!  Amen.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

WHAT DOES GOD WANT?

A sermon based upon Isaiah 58: 1-14
By Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
February 6th, 5th Sunday of Epiphany

All of us are concerned about events taking place in Egypt.  Political experts say the protests of people currently taking place there will change the course of world history.

One scene that impacted me this past week was the scene of thousands of protestors on their knees in the streets, pointed east toward Mecca, saying their morning prayers.  Then, in the next moment, the protesters cease their praying.  They stand up, and proceed to create chaos in the streets for country and for the President, Hosni Mubarak, they want out of government.

While I believe the people have a right to protest and express their grievances with the government, and I hope there will finally be a peaceful transfer of power.  In our Christian understanding, there is something very wrong with the picture of people praying and then standing up to bring violence.   It just doesn’t seem to be what religion is about to be about.   The Coptic Christian Bishop in Cairo instructed the Christian community not to go out on the streets join such a chaotic movement, but many of them did anyway, ignoring and disagreeing with his views.

THE DARK SIDE OF RELGION
Of course, this is not the first time we have seen the misuse and the abuse of religion and religious practice.  Here in the U.S., most all of us still have the events of 9-11 on our minds.  The main motivation for the killing of 3,000 innocent American lives was religion----an extreme form of fundamentalist Islam which has declared Jihad, or Holy war on America.

How could people use religious belief; which is suppose to provide people moral value and hope, to be so misconstrued as a reason for hate and violence?  Well, the truth is Jesus had the same kind of problem with religion in his day.  You can’t read the gospels without understanding that one of  major issues Jesus had with his own religion of Judaism, was its desperate need for reform and for it the reformers to refuse the way of violence.  Who can forget Jesus’ powerful words recorded in the gospels about Jerusalem’s bent on violence and resentment to change:  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
 38 See, your house is left to you, desolate.”   (Mat 23:37-39 NRS)

What we also need to understand is that the misuse of religion is not exclusive only non-Christian religions.  Some of the worse abuses of religion have been under the name of Christianity and Christ.  It is part of the “dark side” of our history of faith that most want to ignore.   

For example, consider what in Salzburg, Austria, just before our nation’s founding.   In the town center sits a mighty fortress and castle.  It is also notable, that Salzburg's population swells each summer for the Mozart Festival.  Musicians arrive from all over the world for this world-class musical event.   Salzburg is a splendid and beautiful town, rolling in and out of the hills above the Salzer River.

But it was not always that way.  Salzburg is Catholic land. It always has been.  For many years its prince was also an archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church.  After the Protestant Reformation, many Lutherans settled in that area along side of Catholics.  Life was never too easy for them, for their fate depended upon the archbishop and his feelings about Lutherans.

In 1727, five years before George Washington was born, Leopold Anthony von Firmian became the ruler of Salzburg.  He resolved to rid his principality of its Protestant dissenters. "I would rather have thorns and thistles on my fields," he said, "than Lutherans on my land."   To his astonishment, even after he introduced repressive measures, 19,000 peasants defiantly registered as Lutheran protestant and adherents of the Augsburg Confession.   Leopold's response was arrests, prohibition of meetings, and the suppression of baptisms, marriages, and funerals for Protestants. On Reformation Day in October of 1731, he gave all Protestants this ultimatum: "Become Catholic or leave."

Thirty thousand persons left.  They streamed northward to Germany and England.   Some came to the new colony established by James Oglethorpe in America where they set up a Lutheran colony near Savannah, in Ebeneezer, Georgia.   Some fled to Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach lived. So moved by their plight and thus inspired to arouse public sympathy on their behalf, Bach composed a contata based on Isaiah 58, our text today  
(From a sermon entitled “What God Sees” @ www.sermons.com).

Before we get to closer look at this text, consider a major abuse and misuse of Protestant religion closer to our own time.  When Hitler rose to power and sent his armies to war, he engraved on every soldier’s belt was the motto, “Gott Mit Uns”.  It was to encourage every soldier to believe that God had sanctioned this war on the world. 

I think I’ve told you this story, but it’s worth telling again.  When I was living in eastern Germany, as a missionary, there was a small “copy” shop next door to our apartment.  I would frequent the shop often to make copies for my work.  Once, I started a conversation with the owner about church, faith and belief in God. 

The owner told me that he studied as a church historian, but he would never, ever enter a church to worship God.  Why was the man so turned off by the church?   He said that during the early days of the war, that Hitler began a draft and his family, being Lutheran Christians, were very much opposed to the war.  His Father went into hiding to avoid the draft, and to avoid participating in an “unjust” war.   It was the church who ratted on his Father and gave away his “hiding place”.   He told me he could never forgive the church for what it did.  Though he loved to entered churches and to study the church for its art and architecture, he had no inclination whatever, to ever worship God with the church.

When you begin to think of the “dark side” of religion, I think ever one of us who have been in church for a while, could come up with our own personal story about the hazards and hurts of being involved in a church or religious practice.  If we thought about it, just about any of us, could find some reason, some dark story, and some very legitimate reason, not to be in church today.   Most of us could point to some form of abuse, misuse or disappointment in religion or with or church.

This past week on North Carolina Bookwatch, D.G. Martin had a very interesting interview with a  writer from Charlotte, Andrew Park.  The book is entitled: “Between a Rock and a Hardplace—One Faith-Free Dad’s Struggle to Understand What it Means to be Religious (or Not).”   It’s the story of how a friendly atheist father deals with his three year old son coming home from his Methodist Church Day Care saying the word “God”.  The father himself grew up in a staunchly atheist household, but he is wondering how he should deal with his son’s curiosity about faith.   More interesting than how the father deals with faith is why his family rejected the faith in the first place, especially since his own great grandfather was a famous and well-respected holiness preacher in the last century.    Andrew Parks said, his own father, being a professor at UNC-Charlotte, made an intentional effort to raise his two sons atheist, because he believed that religion, especially religion as it was practiced here in the south and in North Carolina (remember Jim Bakker?) was bad for their intellect and their ethics.  Ouch! 

One other thing that becomes very interesting in this story is that Andrew Park’s brother, when he was only 17, rebelled against their atheist parents and became an evangelical Christian and still is today.  Andrew Park, says he is not against religion, and has a good relationship with his brother, but has no definite “feeling” or true “experience” of faith in his own life.  But he does write in his book, that he wants his son to be free to choose, and does not want to prejudice his son against religion, like his own father did for him.

GOD’S CONSTANT CALL
I’ve started today’s message with all these negative examples of religion, because this is exactly how today’s text begins.   Notice how Isaiah says to us to in verse one, “cry aloud, spare not,” and to “lift your voice like a trumpet” and what does he want us to shout about?   It’s about the people’s misuse of their faith and their religion.    The prophet continues, even though, “they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways,…  they take delight in approaching God” (vs. 2),  they are missing the mark and they have, literally, fallen short of the glory of God!  How they have fallen short of the glory of God is incredible.  It is not in their deliberate sinning, but in the very sincere practice of their faith! 

Isaiah 58 expresses rarely boldly and does not hide at all God’s immediate concern and disappointment with the religious practice of his people.  Even the most sincere and intense religious practices of fasting is analyzed and condemned as being useless.   God wants the prophet to expose the shallowness of their worship and the perhaps even, the superficiality of their sincerity.  And if they do sincerely worship the true God, they are found to be sincerely wrong in their worship, causing much more harm than good.

This kind of anger toward religion and religious practice puts God and the prophet with some rather strange contemporary “bedfellows”.    One of these “strange bedfellows” is outspoken Atheist Richard Dawkins.   He has been going around the world since 9-11, calling for a Jihad against all religion, including Christianity.   In his book “The God Delusion” Dawkins declares that; since religion does so more harm than good, since religious people are so ignorant in matters of science, and since he believes religion brings out the worse in people rather than the best, he believes that it is time for people in this world to move beyond the superstitions and the shackles of religion.  

But the problem that most scholars, even non believing scholars have of Dawkins and the new atheists, crying out against religion, is that they are not only overstating the negatives of religion, but they also deny the other negatives within society, within family, and even within the human personality itself.  In other words, yes, scholars will agree that religion has done some bad things and bad things are still being done in the name of religion, but the truth really is, that religion has also done some wonderful things for humanity, and that you can’t have any kind of human institution or experience that is void of risk for destructive or negative behavior.   In other words, we could think of negative things family life, but he would not believe that family life should cease.   We all can think of negative things in government too, but we still need government.   We could also think of negative things, flaws and failures in most all human lives, but I don’t think human life is completely worthless.  No matter what we humans do, whether it be religious or not, there will be failures, flaws, problems and negatives to contend with in our fallen world.   This is just how the world is and it is also in this fallen world that religion and faith must be practiced.  It is also why we all need God’s mercy, love and grace.

What is important to understand from today’s Scripture, is that according to the prophet, God sees the same negative kinds of things about religion and even more than Richard Dawkins.   God sees the wonderful positives of human life and the positive force the human response to faith (religion) can be in the world.   At least in this moment, the positive can still outweigh all the negatives, or we would not still be here.  But in order for life to continue, for the people of God to rise up from the ruins of their own negatives, failures and disasters, something very intentional must happen.   “Announce to my people their rebellion….”  (vs. 1).   Or as the New Testament also says, if there is going to be any judgment about what is wrong with the world,  “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God”  (1 Pet. 4.17).  The prophet here says, clearly and distinctly, that the people of God, in order to overcome the negative forces of corruption and death, and in order even to see the negatives that are in work in us, WE MUST ALWAYS BE WILLING TO EXAMINE, REFORM, RENEW AND OUR LIVES AND OUR FAITH, or as we say in Baptist circles, we must constantly be ready to “rededicate” ourselves to what we know we should do, when we discover how we have failed.   

As an example of what God wants the people to “examine” that is contradictory in their religion, notice how where the word “look” appears twice as a strong imperative in this text.  In verse 3 the people are wondering why God doesn’t appear to take special notice their sincere worship, but God says is verse 3, Look!   Look at yourselves….you worship but, “You serve your own interests….(vs. 3).   Look!  “You worship but you are still oppressing others?…   You practice your religion, not to bring good into the world, but you practice it just so you can “quarrel and fight…to strike the wicked with your fist” (vs. 4).  Thus, the word of God coming from this text says that we can’t have true, positive, worthwhile religion without the continual ability to examine ourselves and to reform and renew our commitment to God’s continually revealed truth that show do us good not harm.

The motto many of the “reformed” churches in America is a phrase that comes out of Latin, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.”  Translated into English this Latin phrase reads, “the church reformed and always reforming.”  This phrase first appeared in a 1674 devotional in the Dutch Second Reformation.   According to the reformers who first used this phrase, the church that was reformed under the Protestant Reformation, is always in need of further reformation, according to the Word of God. http://jimkang.wordpress.com/2009/10/19/the-church-reformed-and-always-reforming/ 

The word the Bible uses a stronger word that reform: repentance.   The word is not used specifically in this text, but the call for repentance is behind ever thought the prophet expresses.     As verse 12 testifies,  until the people change their approach to God, their religion and faith will remain in “ruins,” the “foundations” for the future will not be rebuilt, and the “breach” will not be repaired”  (vs. 12).  This prophetic call for change in Isaiah compares to the same prophetic call Jesus made when he started preaching: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom has come near, repent and believe the gospel” (See Mark  1:15).  Jesus believed that in order for God’s people to receive the “good news” of the gospel, there had to be a time of self –examination and a movement of repentance.    

It should be the same for us, but “repentance”  is rare in culture today, isn’t it?  Last year Mark McGwire, the homerun champ, acknowledged what everyone already knew by looking at him.  He had used steroids.  He only acknowledged this now, after years of lying to his family, friends, investigators, and congress, so he can get a job with the Cardinals as a batting coach.   He still claims he only took performance enhancing drugs for their health benefit, not to strengthen his hitting.  He wants to be forgiven, but he is still not coming completely clean.

Marci Glass, says that “if you look around our culture, you see disgraced politicians from both sides of the isles, telling their constituents they are sorry for their indiscretions, while often their wives stand faithfully beside them.  Many of them will go on with their lives as if nothing has happened or nothing has changed.  Some even get notoriety through their sins.  Eliot Spitzer got a job on CNN less than two years after his scandal.  Michael Vick served time for his involvement in a dog fighting ring, but is back in the NFL, as soon as he was released.  

I might also add that recently Ted Williams, the homeless street alcoholic with the golden radio voice, would have been given instant celebrity-hood without even a mention of his flaws, failures and struggles with his family and with alcohol and drugs, had Dr. Phil not exposed his flaws and encouraged him to rehab.  I hope and pray that Dr. Phil also quietly encouraged him toward repentance, especially as much as William was thanking God for his new life.

We offer cheap repentance and cheap religion in our culture.   While we all should believe and hope for second chances, our children need to know that second chances are not at all easy to implement (even harder than the first chance) and they do not come without certain spiritual and biblical conditions; one of which is always, as John the Baptist called, “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3.8).  

MOVE BEYOND FAKING YOUR FAITH
In the final analysis of this text, the main problem God has with his people is that, even though they are sincere in their worship, to God it is still “fake” because they are not doing what God really wants.   Their religious practices all look good, they were all dressed up in them, busy fulfilling them, but it is still getting nowhere with God. 

What was the heart of the problem?   It wasn’t just that they were going through the motions.  It wasn’t just that they didn’t make the effort.   It wasn’t because were forsaking God’s commands for themselves.  Again, Isaiah says, “day after day they seek (God), and delight to know (God’s) ways,” acting as if “they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;” and “they ask for righteous judgment from God”  and “they delight to draw near to God.” (vs. 2).   In other words, their religion all looked good, and no doubt they also meant it to be good, and they all wanted God, but God and to the prophet their perceived “good” had  a “faked” faithfulness to it, which was taking them away God’s future blessings.   At the very core, we also see that this “fake faithfulness” was selfish, self-oriented, and a form of religion that rejected the most important thing God wanted in any religion.

The religion God wants is unveiled in verse 6 as “the kind of fast God chooses!  What is that?   What does God want in our religion?  How can we tell the difference between a religion that is real and a religion that is still faking it?  Let me answer with what unfolds in verses 6-10.  Our faith is a religion, in that it is a human response to God’s grace.  Our faith also contains traditions and rituals that we follow to help us continue and be faithful in practicing our   faith,  true and faithful religion is never solely about getting the rituals or traditions right.  It is mostly about getting our relationships right.   Only when we treat others “fairly” or “justly”; only when we work to “break the bonds of injustice” in this world; only when we “share our bread with the needy,”   only when we are so serious about out faith that “we bring the homelss home with us”, says the prophet, only then----
         shall “Your light break forth like the dawn;…
           shall your healing spring up quickly…
          shall the glory of the lord be your rear guard….
Only then you will call and
          the lord shall answer…..
Only then, you shall cry for help and God will say, here I am…..
Only if you remove your finger from pointing…..
Only if you stop all your talk about evil
        and only when you DO SOMETHING….
                when you offer food….
                when you satisfy the needs of others,
ONLY THEN will your light shine in the darkness and your gloom like the noonday.  
ONLY THEN WILL the Lord will guide your continually…
                   and satisfy your need in parced places…..”  (vs. 6-11).

These, the prophet says, are the conditions to get yourselves out of ancient ruins.
These are the conditions to restore the streets and make the world a place worth living in…
These are the ways to make God’s holy day “honorable.”
“IF YOU HONOR IT….NOT GOING YOUR OWN WAYS AND NOT SERVING YOUR OWN INTERESTS, ON PURSUING YOUR OWN AFFAIRS…..  (vs. 13), then,  “you shall take delight in the Lord….and then, God says,  “I will make you ride on the heights of the earth….. I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestors….for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

I don’t think there is a clearer picture in Scripture of what God means by “true religion” and I don’t think even the likes of an angry atheist like Richard Dawkins or an innocent agonistic like Andrew Parks, nor anyone else can argue with what is “right” about religion when we get it “right.”

There is a ancient Chinese story about an emperor who summoned children from all over the empire and announced that one of them would become the next emperor. “As you leave today,” he explained, “you will be given a seed. You must nurture and care for it.  In one year’s time, you will return here with your plants, and by looking at them I will know who is the new emperor.”

Each child received a special seed and hurried home with great excitement to plant it. One boy, Ling, faithfully planted his seed, tended and watered it. But it failed to sprout. He listened with dismay as his friends all boasted about how large and beautiful their plants were becoming.

A year later, Ling still had nothing to show for his work. He was afraid to go back to the emperor, but his mother convinced him it was his duty to obey the emperor’s command.  By the time he arrived at the palace, the great hall was already filled with beautiful plants and even some small trees. Ling stepped quietly into the shadows, holding his pot of bare earth.

The emperor arrived but seemed oddly unimpressed by the thriving plants. Then his eye fell upon Ling, and he commanded his guards to bring the boy into his royal presence.  Laughing at the spectacle of this boy with his empty pot of earth, the guards brought him forward.

Ling was shaking with terror, certain he would be put to death. He listened in astonishment as the emperor declared, “Today I have chosen your new emperor. Behold! It is this boy!”

“I don’t understand,” said Ling. “I failed to grow anything from my seed!”

“That is exactly the point,” said the emperor. “I gave each of you a boiled sweet, not a seed.  No one could have grown a plant from any of them. Only this boy had the courage and honesty to return today and tell me the truth. He alone has the makings of an emperor!” 
(From Homilecticsonline.com, Feb., 6th, 2011).

Before you and I can discover what God wants, we’ve got to do the important work of telling the truth, realizing what we are doing and what we are not doing, then hearing what the “mouth” of the Lord is saying to us right now.  If we want to rise from the ruins and have a future as churches who minister in our communities, we also got be people who are intentional about doing what God really wants.   Amen.