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Sunday, August 29, 2021

Nothing but Joy?

A Sermon based upon James 1:1-8

Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv; DMin;

August 29th, 2021, Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership 

Series: The Book of James, 1/12

 

James 1:1–11 (NRSV): James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, 

To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:  Greetings. 

2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 

5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 

 

Our high school photographer was an outspoken atheist.  Once he passed by a Christian Club meeting and shouted out insults.  For some reason he just didn’t like Christians, but for him the problem was more academic than personal.  I worked with him on the school newspaper staff. Even though he knew I was a Christian, he never said anything derogatory to me.  He even came to the hospital to visit me after my car accident.  He also brought me a pizza.  I’ll never forget that act of kindness.

Only a few years ago, when Facebook was created, I befriended several of my fellow High School classmates and he was one of them.  Today, he works on staff in a Psychiatric Hospital in New Orleans.   Often he makes political comments on Facebook and recently he posted his continued disdain for religion.  He posted: ‘If someone were to randomly cut and paste together various texts from the world’s religions, your own assemblage would make more sense than the originals.’   I responded that it would be the same with science, art, politics or most anything human from the past.  Religious documents, like most all historical documents are particular, specific and never random.  If you do not try to understand what was intended for the original hearers, you miss what they were trying to say.   That’s why in colleges and universities study music, art, and history.   

         What my school friend was right about is that any religious writing, the Bible too, does not make sense if you take it out of its context.  That’s why in 1 Peter, there is a warning that Scripture can be used for your own ‘private interpretation’.  It’s only when you look at the bigger picture and try to understand it’s context; what was happening when the Scripture was written that enables us to rightly divide the truth of what we may still need to hear today.  

These opening words from James are certainly a good example of words that need interpretation.    Why in the world would anyone ‘count it nothing but joy’ when they ‘suffered different trials’?   It sounds, at least on the surface of things, completely insane and sadistic to find ‘joy’ in pain and suffering.  Why would James start his letter with such a strange statement like this? 

 

WHENEVER YOU FACE TRIALS…. 

         One thing particularly important to understand about the book of James is that James is not a deep, theological treatise.   While James is certainly a Christian writing, it rarely mentions “Jesus”.   Also, ‘God’ is referenced mostly for practical reasons— and there is nothing more practical or earthy than human suffering and pain.  

Perhaps the constant possibility of facing trials and tribulations in life is why James doesn’t begin his writing with philosophical theories about suffering, but simply admits what we know all to well.   Some time we will all ‘suffer’ troubles and trials.  Someday we will all have to face the inevitable which can also be the unthinkable.  The question of pain is not ‘if’, but ‘when’; or in James’ case: ‘Whenever’.

         This ‘whenever’ came for Frank Tupper back in 1983 when his wife Betty Jean, fought a courageous, but losing battle with breast cancer.  This ‘whenever’ reoccurred again, when Tupper himself suffered a fall in his home and spent the last years of his life as a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair.   What makes Tupper’s story unique, is that Frank Tupper was also Baptist professor, Dr. Frank Tupper, having been one of the most respected Baptist theologians in the United States.  Tupper not only taught at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, but ended his career at Wake Forest Divinity School, in Winston-Salem.   

        It was from the experience of his wife’s on intense struggle with cancer that Dr. Tupper came to write a book on God and suffering, entitled ‘Scandalous Providence.’  Tupper calls God’s providential care ‘scandalous because being a Christian and loved by God doesn’t prevent pain and suffering.  Also, God’s providential care is scandalous because, he admits, there is no final philosophical or theological answer to ‘why’ good people suffer.  What we can know, however, is that a loving God does care for us, and that we are not alone.  In Christ, God suffers with us.   Even though life might seem to be ‘scandalous’ in particular moment, or it might appear that God isn’t answering our prayers, we can be sure, Tupper learned, that ‘God is doing all that God can’ under the circumstances of our physical and temporary lives.

         I don’t know about you, but ‘answers’, even thoughtful, good ones like this, are never enough to help me get through the painful and difficult unknowns of life.  Yes, its certainly comforting to trust that ‘God is doing all that God can do’ but sometimes we just have to keep moving forward and looking forward too, without having any kind of answer at all.  

         That’s what Nicolas Woltersdorf had to do when he faced the tragedy of losing his only 25 year-old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident in Germany.  Even as philosophy professor, he wrote that in that terrible, heartbreaking moment he wasn’t the least bit interested in trying to answer the problem of pain and suffering, nor was he angry at God. No, in that most particular moment of overwhelming grief and tears he discovered how much he felt joined with all those who have to face such unimaginable and unanswerable hurt and grief.  

        The book of James speaks from this universal experience of suffering.   James says that our trials may be varied or different, but this experience is something we have in common with everyone.   James deals with this reality not from the angle of being a theologian or philosopher, but he writes as a believer, a Christian, or as he says, ‘a servant of God’ and ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ who is  a ‘brother’ living among the ‘Dispersion’ (1:1).   This dispersion refers to the people of God (Jews and Christians) who were forced to move away from their physical and spiritual home.   In facing this situation himself, James is speaking not philosophically or in theory, but as one who is suffering too.

 

 

THE TESTING OF YOUR FAITH PRODUCES...

What James observes first hand is that even very negative, difficult, and painful events—-even though they neither planned nor positive, the ‘silver-lining’ is that they may still have positive results our lives.  Trials can develop character and maturity.  Again, this isn’t a philosophical observation.  He not saying this always happens this way for everyone or that this is what trials are about, but he merely observed what often happens to people of faith when we keep our faith when facing troubles and trials.  When trials are taken as tests rather than punishments, they can have very positive results in one’s life.

There are many ways we might want to argue with James, since we know this isn’t always true.   Sometimes people get worse rather than better.  Sometimes people are broken completely, and never recover from great suffering.   James isn’t making a philosophical rule.  He doesn’t address exceptions.   James is simply speaking from his own experiences.   This is how he speaks of ‘trials’ as being ‘nothing but joy’.  He’s not talking about finding ‘joy’ in a particular trial, but he’s speaking about the joy of faith that is often proven only through suffering and hardship.   

Again,  we must understand this ‘joy’ James means isn’t random or general, but James sees what he observes particularly in his world, among his people, and in his own life too.  He understands that even in great struggle, like the apostle Paul also observed, God works for the ‘good’ of those who love God and know that they are called to God’s purpose.  The purpose is not the pain itself, but the purpose is found in God who works even through the pain, and most often too, not without the pain.   As my High School Football coach used to say to the football team, when they were grumbling about workouts: ‘No pain, No gain!’  It’s the ‘gain’ through the pain, not the pain all by itself, that James is talking about.

James names this ‘gain’ as the development of character; endurance, maturity, and fulfillment.   ‘Life is difficult,  psychiatrist Scott Peck began his  popular book on emotional and spiritual growth.  He went on to show case after case, that by positively dealing with the challenges have specific opportunities to grow, emotionally, physically, and also spiritually.  

One day, I was looking at the Facebook page of one of my wife’s relatives.  Her cousin’s son and wife posted their process of building their new house on 7 acres of land in Indian Trail, N.C.  The house is modeled after Teresa’s parents farmhouse, but it is a much larger, modernized version.  Teresa’s cousin’s son is a Pharmacist.   He and his wife actually built this house mostly by themselves, during their off hours from work.  It was a long, slow, arduous process.  In one post, they are putting up tiles on the wall.  The wife comically comments, ‘and we managed not to kill each other doing it.’  

Her comment was insightful, but also so true isn’t it?  When we accept challenges in life, and work through them, literally, like they did, we not only accomplish things, we also grow through those challenges and accomplishments.  Sometimes, those challenges can be long, difficult, painful, but if we keep the faith, keep our focus on the final outcome like that couple did, we can look back and see not only what we did, but how we have also ‘grown’ and ‘matured’ through everything we went through.

This is similar to what James is saying about finding ‘joy’ through the trials and hurts of life.   We can ‘count them nothing but joy’, not because they don’t hurt, or weren’t difficult.  We ‘consider them joy’ because after we go through them, we can now look back and not only see how we’ve come through them, but we also can see who we’ve become that we probably would have never become, had we not had these challenging, even difficult and painful experiences.

While I don’t think James is thinking philosophically about the big picture of ‘why’ God allows suffering, I do think he comes close to what many philosophers have reflected upon; namely, that even though we can’t fully understand why human’s suffer, it’s impossible to think of who we might be, without having challenges or the having to face pain, suffering and trials in our lives?  Evidence shows that the easier we have it, not only the ‘softer’ we become, but we also tend to become ‘spoiled’ brats.

 

NEVER DOUBTING, LACKING NOTHING...  

Reflecting upon the hope for something positive coming out of trials and tribulations, James finally turns to our human need for wisdom and integrity too, especially when difficult times come.  

When we speak of wisdom, we all know there’s a big difference between having knowledge about something and gaining wisdom through something.   What James means by wisdom isn’t just that wisdom come through experience.  It might, but it doesn’t always. Becoming wise about life or in life, and through life’s struggles, certainly isn’t automatic.   You don’t just go through hardships and gain maturity or wisdom.    

No, when troubles come, even though we haven’t chosen this trial or trouble, we still have a choice to make.   As one pastor in Texas once put it, when troubles come, we can either ‘get bitter, or better’.   That catchy phrase is an over simplification of situations that aren’t always simple, but it still makes a valid point.   When troubles come, even though we haven’t caused it, we still have a very important choice to make.   We have to decide whether we will face the problem with faith, or only as another cold, fact of life.  We have to decide whether we will grow and mature through this, or whether doesn’t matter at all.   We decide whether we gain wisdom through this, or whether this just another loss in life.  The choice is either, faith, hope, and love, or its doubt, despair, and discouragement.   In the hurts, pains, tribulations and problems we all face, we all have mental, emotional, and spiritual choices that we still must make.  As James says, trials are tests that we all must take in life.

Over 200 years ago, there was a young boy who lived in England who was very sick and puny. They didn't have the kinds of medicines back then that we have today.  So, all of his life he remained in that condition and never became a strong person physically at all.  When he was young, he would look out the window of his house and watch other children playing in the field. He would get sad as he watched them -- at times, even crying -- because he wanted to be out there with them, but he couldn't. That made him feel sorry for himself.  He was jealous and envious of others.

When he got older, he decided that he would go into the ministry -- be a pastor of a congregation, and spend his life serving Christ in that way.

But, again, his health failed, and he was just too frail to carry on his pastoral duties. He became deeply depressed.

"Why can't I be like other people", he cried out.

 "They've got their health and I don't. They can do things with their lives and I can't. 

They are out there making a difference and I'm just sitting here unable to make any difference at all. 

Why can't I be like them?"

But then one day, someone talked with this young man and helped him see that his life had its own purpose apart from that of anyone else. He began to realize that he would get nowhere so long as he compared himself with everyone else... he had his own life to live, apart from that of anyone else. And ... what mattered was that he live his own life fully and completely and to the very best of his ability. When he did that, his life really began to take off. 

You see, that man was none other than Issac Watts, one of the greatest hymn writers of all time. The one who wrote, "Joy to the World", and "O God Our Help in Ages Past." But it didn't happen for him until he quit looking around, comparing himself with others, and committed himself to living his own unique life.

The wisdom we need to pass the test of life is to trust ourselves to this God who can work ‘good’ in our lives, no matter what we are going through.    How do we gain the wisdom to do this?   Well, as James puts it,  ‘If any of you lack wisdom, ask...,   Again, we don’t grow into maturity and wisdom just because we go through trials, but we grow into maturity and wisdom because we are connected with God.  The wisdom that gets us through is a particular kind of wisdom that only trust in God can give to us.   Again, gaining this wisdom from God isn’t the problem—God gives this wisdom both ‘generously’ and ‘ungrudgingly’.   No, the real problem is us being willing to ‘ask’.   As James says later, ‘You have not because you don’t ask.’ (4:2).

Now, we must not take James as making a ‘science’ out of prayer.   This isn’t science, it’s faith.   This is why James says we must ‘ask in faith, never doubting’ (1:6).  He’s not pointing to a form of spiritual straining that gets us what we need, but he’s painting a picture of a genuine relationship of trusting in God, even when life falls apart.   The believer gains ‘wisdom’ from God not because of a certain formula in HOW we ask, spiritual or otherwise, but the believer gains maturity and wisdom because of WHO we are in God’s love and grace: We are a people faithfully connected with a God who is generous and gracious in giving us the strength of faith we need.  And what we need most is the wisdom to know that God is with us and for us, and not against us.  

When we continue to live prayerfully, faithfully, trusting God for what God gives that nothing in life can, we may never gain everything we want in life, but we our life will still end in the plus column, and we will gain what we need the most; to become the person God has created us and called us to be.  To ask for that, to gain that, now, that’s finding the source of life’s deepest joy, and wisdom too.    Amen.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Spirit…Today!

 A sermon Based upon Luke 4: 15-30

By Charles J. Tomlin, DMin;

August 22nd, 2021,  Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership 

Series: The Way of God’s Justice 20/20

 

 

He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,

 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,

 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?"

 23 He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'"

 24 And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown.

But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;

 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

 27 There were also many lepers1 in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."

 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.

 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luk 4:15-30 NRS)

 

In 1992, my wife and I visited Paris for the first time.  We were living in Western Germany at that time, studying  German language and culture, preparing to move into the former eastern communist area as Baptist Missionaries for the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.   As we came near to the city by automobile, accompanied by my wife’s aunt and uncle who came to visit us, we were almost unable to enter the great city.   Tuckers were striking all over the country, blocking highways and all entrances to the city.  I found a local map and was able to get us into the city using backroads and ‘pig paths’. 

Even though we were very excited to be in Paris, when we finally arrived at our hotel, and upon inspecting our room,  I found an insect infestation under the bed pillows.   Also, when we we  went out on the streets asked for directions with my terrible high school French, my newly acquired German, or my southern accented America English, the responses I received were rude, coarse and most often not very polite.  The street caf├ęs were OK, but one one evening, since we expected French Cuisine to be the best in the world, we decided to splurge and experience a nice Restaurant.  There too, we were all disappointed, as not only was the meal very expensive, it did not meet our expectations.  Later, when traveling the courtly side, we stop to eat at a small country home, and the food was much better there, but still not spectacular.  

Finally, we all got tickets to visit one of the most famous art museums in the world, the Louvre.  There were many great painting and sculpture exhibitions to see, like the Egyptian Sphinx of Tanks, Canova’s sculpture of Cupid kissing Psyche,  the Ancient Stele of the Law Code of Hammurabi, the King of Babylon in 1792.  That’s BCE!  More famous than these sculptures, especially more Americans, is the painting of Lady Liberty Leading the People in the Paris Uprising of 1830.  It is believed that this painting by a Frenchman named Delacroix inspired the Statue of Liberty that was later given to the United States as a gift from France.

There are, of course, many other great works of art in the Louvre, including the stunning, headless but winged sculpture of Nike of Samothrace; the Ancient Greek goddess of victory (yes, the inspiration for the name brand shoes).  However, we discovered that the most crowded exhibit and the most highly anticipated work was Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  Today, people wait in long lines just to get a glimpse from a distance.  The painting is not only roped off, its under protective glass and it is so small, only about 2.5 feet tall.  While it looks like she is smiling when you approach, as you look at her head on, it looks like she frowns, and the painting left unfinished.  

To say the least, though Leonardo was no doubt a genius of an artist, this painting is often labeled as ‘the most famous disappointing work of art in the world’.  Some critics are even saying that because of how difficult it is to see, that it’s not worth the wait or the price of the ticket and ‘it’s time to take her her down.’ https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/arts/design/mona-lisa-louvre-overcrowding.html?referringSource=articleShare.

 

THEY...DROVE HIM OUT (29)

A great feeling of letdown and disappointment was expressed about Jesus right after the announced his call to ministry in his hometown.   

Do you see it?  Can you feel it?   

Jesus had just read from a text in the prophet Isaiah. He used this Scripture as a mission statement for his own earthly ministry. So far, so good.   But it was when Jesus began to expound on this text, interpreting it for his own time and for his people that they felt like, as the saying goes, ‘he stopped preaching and done gone to meddling!’   

Do you see it?  Can you feel?  

Jesus stated clearly, right up front, and to his own hometown, before he even got started, that they too would be disappointed with him.  ‘Doctor, cure yourself’.  He put words in their mouths even before they thought them.  

A prophet, a preacher isn’t respected in his hometown’, he continued.   Then, he made it even worse.  He reminded them God has been limited in what God can do through his people.   God has been able to work miracles with other people, less than with his people.  

Needless to say, such barefaced honesty didn’t set well with his hometown folks.  Maybe they expected some special treatment.  Maybe they thought their ‘homeboy’ would give them a special pass.  Whatever they felt, their disappointment was so strong that they let their emotions get away with them.  The text says they surrounded him, forced him out of town and up a hill and wanted to hurl him off a cliff.   Talk about overkill? This whole fiasco ends with Jesus walking straight through this lynch mob  without a scratch. 

 What a strange way to begin a ministry!   

This whole crazy scene serves as a challenging, but very fitting conclusion to this series of messages about God’s command for his people to do justice, to love mercy, and to keep walking humbly with God to keep doing good for our world. 

If you’ve noticed, after each Scripture reading, I give the blessing: ‘May God bless the reading to our hearing, understanding and our doing.’  I say this because it is not at natural or automatic that we understand what God wants to say to us and do through us.  It’s not always easy for us when we do understand either.  Sometimes we want to judge the Word, rather than allow the Word to bring a judgement of truth for us.  We may hear a sermon, and think to ourselves,  ‘I liked that’, or ‘I don’t like it’, or we tell the preacher: ‘Preacher, that was a good sermon’ when in reality, the message isn’t inviting our judgement, nor intended to be a form of leisurely entertainment intended to scratch our ‘itching ears’ (2 Tim. 4:3). 

The message of Jesus still speaks the ‘words of eternal life’ (Jn. 6:68), but, in order to keep us on mission, this ‘good news’ can be challenging and even disturbing too.   Eternal matters are matters of life and death; matters of either finding salvation or remaining lost, gaining hope or facing despair, learning how to flourish or knowing that we perish.   This means like water, food, electricity or even your automobile that can help you and kill you at the same time, God’s truth both hurt you and heal you.  It can even be healing you when it hurts.  

The life-changing and challenging word of a holy God should counter who we are, what we want, how we think, where we are going.  As the prophet Isaiah wrote, paving the way for a story like this: God’s ‘thoughts’ are not (our) ‘thoughts’ and the ‘ways of a holy God are not (our) ways.’ (Isa. 55:6).   When Jesus announced his mission as God’s mission, Jesus’ hometown faced the ‘counter-intuitive’ God head on.  The demands on the hearer proved to be dangerous for the messenger.  To the credit of the messenger, the good people of Nazareth got the message, but what this message required of them, they weren’t quite ready for. 

 

GOOD NEWS TO ... 

The great challenge of Jesus’s message and mission not only made his hometown angry enough to kill him, eventually this same message caused Jewish religious leaders to plot against him and incited the crowds to shout loud and clear: Crucify him!  Crucify him!   As the gospel of John says, He came to his own, but they did not accept him...”.   

     Have you ever wondered why people would want compassionate teacher who brought a message of ‘good news’ dead?   From this story in Luke, the anger with Jesus had to do with two most basic concerns: one, God’s mission in the world, and God’s call to ministry in the world.  

     The ‘mission’ in God’s good news, according to Jesus, is that God welcomes and includes others.  What made the people so angry was how Jesus made this point.  Elijiah and Elisha, God’s first prophets, were able to work miracles among outsiders than insiders.  In fact, the good news is especially meant for these outsiders, Jesus implies.  The good news fits best those who need it -- those who are struggling and know they need saving.  That’s why Jesus announces God’s mission as being for the poor, for the imprisoned, for the blind, and for the oppressed.  There is no question—they know they need it.  That’s why ‘good news’ is especially meant for them. 

         The other part this gospel challenge is that the mission of taking this ‘good news’ into the world is supposed to be the ministry of God’s people.  When the angels announced in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus came to save his people from their sins’  (Matt. 1:21).  The sin that is meant here isn’t that that Israel had become a bunch of heathens (which might have also been true), but that Israel wasn’t being the people God had chosen them to be--a holy, priestly, mission-minded, and ministry oriented people.   This call to God’s own to be and to take God’s good news into the world as priests, ministers and missionaries.    If you read on in Isaiah 61, you’ll understand that the entire passage was written to make a very important point; not only is God bigger than Israel ever imagined, the world is much bigger than Israel.  Isaiah says that God was already calling them to invite ‘strangers’ (Is. 61:5) into their world, and by doing this, they could be who they were called to be; priests of the LORD and ministers of our God (Isa. 61:6 NRS).  

        It is this this calling that includes ‘strangers’ and ‘sinners’ that most infuriated God’s people then, and evidently, still infuriates some of God’s people today.  Many people make it their religion or their politic out of demonizing and demoralizing others, rather than seeing and acknowledging them and their needs as opportunities for ministry.  

         I recall in one church I served as pastor, a member of our congregation who was chief of police in our small village, along with wide had great hearts for children and missions too.  They started a small ministry picking up children in the nearby small town and bringing them to Bible classes every Wednesday evening. The ministry was going well until a grandmother who was helping in the class starte?  complaining that the children they brought into the church were a bad influence on her granddaughter.  When I heard about the problem, I thought to myself what does that woman think the church is about, just for keeping everything perfect Christian children?  Why could she not find something better to do than attacking people trying to do good and children needing to learn how to be and do good?

      Unfortunately, when we make a religion out of attacking, rather than caring, we only prove just how lost we are, rather than how lost they are.  It is still too easy, in a big and broken world like ours, which is getting smaller and smaller to make the stranger and the other person a threat rather than a treat, dumping them into the most negative categories that only distinguishes distinguished between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and distances us all even more, from God’s coming kingdom and from inviting God’s glory to cover the whole earth.  

         Thus, more than anything else from this story, we need to see that what happened in Nazareth is directly connected to what also happened in Jerusalem on Good Friday.  Jesus came to his own and his own rejected him, not because he was misunderstood, but because they, and we too, understand him very well.  When Jesus acknowledged God’s mission, Jesus was reminding them, just as through the Spirit, Jesus still reminds us, what the Lord requires of us too.  This is to answer God’s call to mission with Jesus, becoming and being a people doing ministries of justice, while loving mercy and walking humbly with our God.

 

TODAY...FULFILLED 

Finally, there’s one more important point we must not miss.  This reading from Isaiah, along with Jesus’ interpretation, come together in agreement with Micah’s most basic requirement that we, as God’s people, are still called to do ministries of ‘justice’ in our world.  This is certainly not how we are used to expressing it, is it?  We’ve thought a lot more about ‘being righteous’ than about ‘doing justice’, haven’t we?  

I recall many years ago, when my wife and I visited a big-city Baptist church in New York City.   The church was positioned right on the edge of Harlem, which then was an area of the city filled with many opportunities for doing ministries of justice.   I’ll never forget when we entered the church building, on the bottom floor, that we were meet by greeters and tables where various church members were giving out information about various social ministries.  They were expecting and requiring that church members become involved.  This was not an opition.  At first, I was taken back.  I almost envisioned ‘money changers’ in the temple, but they weren’t asking for money, but they were requiring God’s people to become ministers of justice and righteousness in their city.

When I was growing up, in Baptist churches, I had never heard of ‘justice’ ministries in the church.  In fact, all that I ever heard as a child was a lot of negative ranting about how the ‘social’ gospel wasn’t any true gospel at all.   Now, that I look back at it, can you even separate a spiritual gospel from a social gospel?   The gospel is always both and, not either or.   The gospel is as much good news because of the social ministries we are called to do as it is good news because of the spiritual ministry we are called to. We must not choose, but we must do both.

Interestingly, the word ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ are inseparable twins---inseparable ways of the Lord going all the way back to God’s relationship with Abraham in Genesis (Gen. 18:19).   In the biblical understanding, there is no individual, private righteousness without also becoming involved in public, social justice just like there’s also no true social justice without also seeking God’s righteousness.   

We Baptist have been much better at seeking God’s righteousness, especially as we interpret it for ourselves.  But we need to understand that this is exactly how God’s people Israel went got off track.  They didn’t get off track by rejecting righteousness, but it was their own interpretation of righteousness that ended up neglecting the ‘weighty matters of the law’ which Jesus defined first as ‘justice, mercy’ and then, he also included personal ‘faith’ too (Matt. 23:23).   Go look it up.

So, if doing justice goes along with seeking God’s righteousness, why is there sometimes resistance to doing social justice or carrying out social ministries in our churches, or even to advancing social programs in in our nation too?   Now, I realize I’m close to getting political here, but doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God must be as much a matter of our public, political concerns (doing justice), as it is a part of our  personal faith concerns (loving mercy and walking with God).  If we fail to do justice and love mercy in our political life, as well as in our spiritual life, this the very way of political and religious failure that often leads to the rise of revolutionary and oppressive governments, where people are governed more by fear than faith and trust.

What Jesus was challenging his people to do, which Jesus still challenges his followers to do, is to realize that ‘today’ the day that ‘good news’ must still be ‘fulfilled’ by us.  At Nazareth, Jesus started everything he did by simply telling his own people, "Now, Look around.  The Spirit of God at work, right here. Right now. God is with us.  Let’s work to care about others, doing what God has always called us to do.  Today, God wants to do justice through me—through you—through us; by bringing good news to the poor.  Today, God wants you us to love mercy as if it we are the very ones who are imprisoned, blind, or oppressed.   If we really want to be righteous, and we want to walk humbly with God, we must understand that the Bible must not just be read, reverenced, or preached, but it must also be fulfilled, right now, right here, and through us, now, today!   Amen.

 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

…Before the Water Gate

 

Nehemiah 8: 1-12

A sermon preached by Charles J. Tomlin, DMin;

August 15th, 2021,   Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Series: The Way of God’s Justice 19/20

 

 

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel.

 2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month.

 3 He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

 4 The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.

 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up.

 6 Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites,1 helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places.

 8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

 9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.

 10 Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

 11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, "Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved."

 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

 (Neh. 8:1-12 NRS)

 

The most Bible-quoting Hollywood movie I’ve ever watched was the post- Apocalyptic movie staring Denzel Washington, entitled “The Book of Eli.”  The movie is completely fiction; science fiction, that is; placed in the setting of 30 years after “the war”. 

     “In the opening scene a man walks across the wasteland that was once America.  Empty cities, broken highways, seared earth- all around him. There is no civilization and no law. Everyone left is either predator or prey. Water is so scarce that people bathe with leftover wet wipes from KFC. Food is so inadequate that many resort to cannibalism. Eli makes his way westward across the charred, barren landscape. He has an impressive amount of fighting equipment strapped to his torso and an iPod. A warrior, not by choice, but necessity.   Eli will kill anyone who threatens him.

      Interestingly, it’s not his own life he is guarding- but rather his hope for the future- a hope he has carried, wrapped and hidden in his pack for thirty years. The prize possession Eli so zealously guards is a heavy, leather bound Bible, that he calls “the book.” It’s the last known copy in existence.   Now, maybe you’re beginning to understand why I watched this sci-fi movie.

     According to the plot,  this ‘book’ is also coveted by a sleazed named Carnegie who has assembled a bunch of thugs and runs a makeshift town in the middle of nowhere.  Like Eli, Carnegie remembers the days before the war, and he also remembers his Bible. He tells his henchmen- “It’s not a book.  It’s a weapon. People will do whatever I tell them if the word comes from that book.” He thinks that he can control and subjugate the world if he can only get his hands on a Bible.  That’s the wrong way to use the Bible, which some still try to do.

     Eli, however, is the good guy in the story, who is driven by his commitment and guided by his belief in something greater than himself.  He keeps doing what he he knows he must do to survive. He keeps moving to the west where he believes he will deliver the Bible to restore a ravaged humanity. His strength comes from his belief in the power of the Book, the Bible he carries that he protects with his life” (Synopsis adapted from Dr. Teri Thomas, https://www.northminster-indy.org/sermon/the-book-of-eli-sermon/).

     I must admit, that I have trouble imagining someone killing to get a copy of the Bible. I also have trouble imagining someone dying to protect one. It’s not because there’s no one left who cherishes the Bible, but it’s because we have so many—maybe even too many.    What I mean is that we have lots of Bibles sitting on shelves gathering dust.  Is that because we don’t fully appreciate its power to impact our thinking and our living?

     As we near the end of this series of messages guided by Micah’s call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, in these final two messages we will conclude with two images of public readings from the Bible.  In both accounts there is excitement among the people over the ‘power’ of The Book.  In today’s text, the Bible, which was still in its Old Testament form, was the hope for redeeming a people called to bring hope into the world.

 

Gathering:  Seeking a Moral Structure.

     In our text Ezra and then later Nehemiah returned from exile in Babylon.  Nehemiah has successfully led in the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls in just 52 days.  In celebration of this near miraculous feat, all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate.  They ask Ezra, their high priest and scribe, to bring the book which the LORD had given to Israel. 

     Anticipation builds. The book sits above the people and when it is opened the people stand and the LORD is praised and worshipped.  The book is read for the entire morning.   It’s words are read in Hebrew, then immediately interpreted into Aramaic so all the people might understand.  During the pubic reading, the people are both weeping and rejoicing.

      Why was this reading of the Book of Law so important and moving to the people?   It is this Law Book that reminded them of who they are.  It reminded them of what they have been through and endured.  This ‘Book’ also reminded them of what they had forgotten and why their precious Jerusalem had been destroyed.  Now, in rebuilding their city, they are given another chance.

      Again, let’s remind ourselves again.  This law Book, which was their Bible, part of the Bible we still have, gave them their true identity.   This book said to them, loud and clear:  This is who you are:  ‘You are a people who celebrate the holy ways of the LORD.   This is who you are called to be:  You are a people whose strength is found in the joy of the LORD.  This what you are called to do:  You are a people who care and provide for each other.  It was this Book that helped to fully restore the faith of this people.  It reminded them that God was at work through them challenging them to be a people who bring God’s light into their world. 

     Will Willimon tells about a brilliant mathematician, a professor off mathematics at a college who spent most of his days figuring out tough problems.  But one day he told Pastor Willimon that there was something he just couldn’t figure out.  He said he just couldn’t figure out what makes the church different from other organizations.  He said he understood that the church can be a friendly, helpful, caring and mission-oriented place, but so are a lot of other groups and service organizations.  ‘We get a lot of good advice there too, especially from the preacher.’   But we can also get most of that from the Ruritans, the Rotary, or other groups who meet at an even more convenient time in the week.’ (From Shaped by the Word, p.9ff.).

     Truly, we could think of other groups who do as much good in our communities as the churches.  We can even think of some groups who have done more good in some areas.   The local school and sports programs have done more for racial reconciliation and are more intentional inclusive than many churches are.  This leaves us still needing to answer the professor’s question: ‘What is it that makes the church, our church, your church different, utterly essential, without equal, irreplaceable and unique?   

     In this very first public reading of the Book of God in public worship, these people are defining just how they are particular and peculiar they are as God’s treasured possession of all peoples on earth. (Ex. 19:5).  This wasn’t because they are better than all the others, but because they are called as a witness to God’s salvation in the world.   That’s why this isn’t just any other book and they are a unique people.  And what was true of God’s book and God’s people then, is still true of God’s people, his called and chosen people now (1 Peter 2:9).

 

Understanding:  Attentive to hear from God.

     In this moving account, the people stood for hours listening to the Torah being read to them in Hebrew.  It was also translated and interpreted to them in their newly acquired, post-exilic language of Aramaic.  We might wonder what made this so important?   Why were the people gathering all morning long to hear this book read in their hearing?   Did they not have something better to do? 

     As I have already stated, this Law book told them who God was and who God was still calling them to be.  Knowing their identity as a people was important not only for their own future, but for the future of the world.  Gathering to read, interpret and understand this book was to give a moral structure for their community, develop moral fiber in their character, and provide a moral foundation to insure their future.  This would enable them, as the people of God, to fulfill their mission as a priestly and holy nation (Ex. 19: 5-6) so they would be a light to the Gentiles (Isa 42:6, 49:6, 52:10ff., 60:3) in a spiritually dark world. 

     When we begin to think about why the Jews needed their Bible, we must also begin to ask ourselves, why do we need our Bible.  Going back to the plot of the Movie, The Book of Eli, even in Hollywood someone realized, even more than some in our churches do, how much humanity needs a moral standard.  This standard given to Israel was not only a rule of law, but it was law that established holy ground for a relationship with this moral, righteous, and holy God who still speaks to us through this book.  For people to know what is right and to learn to do what is right, we humans need more than rules, standards or laws.  We are not robots.   We need an encounter an experience that opens us up, heart, soul, mind and body, to a a living relationship with our good, moral and loving creator.

     One of the great Christian thinkers in recent years was the Swiss Pastor-Professor Karl Barth.  In one of his important writings about the Bible, entitled, The Word of God and the Word of Man,  Barth spoke of the great problem we humans have in determining morality and defining what is good and right.  His major point was that while we are aware of our human responsibility to be and do good, this is also where we discover our problem, which he says, is our greatest human problem.  We know we have this moral need to be and do what is right and good, but within our human limitations we have no way of knowing what this good for everyone.  Without the revealed truth in the Bible, he says, we humans cannot find agreement, have no way to fully settle among ourselves, nor can we determine with certainty what is good and what is right.

       In thinking about this, we can see how this problem of knowing and doing the good even presents itself in the story of the Bible itself.  We see it most clearly in the confused question Pilate asked Jesus, just before he ordered Jesus to crucified.  In the gospel of John, Jesus stands on trial before the Roman governor, but you get the sense that Pilate and the world is on trial.  Pilate questioned Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”“What is truth?” Pilate asked (John 19:37-38).  

     Do you see it?  Pilate is morally confused and ethically challenged.  The innocence of Jesus had taken him completely out of his element.  He does not know how to understand him, take him, nor how to rightly or justly deal with him.  Pilate ends up as the judge who is being judged by the true judge.  He has no moral or ethical understanding of truth except what suited him and would keep him in power.  It was a moral darkness in him that only drew him deeper and deeper into the dark of the immoral world.    

We might understand why this worldly man corrupted by human power was so morally confused, but the Old Testament makes a similar point even about the people of God.  This very obvious moral and religious confusion was dominate in Israel before the people had any centralized leadership in Jerusalem or any Law Book to read or to follow.  It clarifies the situation twice, stating that before there was a King in Israel everyone did what was right in their own eyes (17:6, 21: 25).       

This was well illustrated by a story of a young man named Micah (not the Prophet), who one day, as a grown man, finally admitted to his mother that he was the one who had stolen money from her.  Being thankful that her son finally became honest, she melted the money he returned to her and they made an idol so they could worship his particularly good deed.  Not long thereafter, Micah became wealthy enough to hire his own priest and created his own shrine where his whole community could worship this goodness.  Again, they were worshipping not because of the goodness of God but because of his own goodness which challenged others to be good to each other. 

This particular story gives us insight into the typical individualized morality that developed as the people scattered and settled in the various tribal areas.  As they grew larger and became more diverse, they lost their simple centralized altar and common worship of the God who delivered them from Egypt and devised their own personal ways to worship.  With no one judge over them, but many differing judges, there was nothing solid or unifying to keep them conformed to the law God had given them to follow. 

So, perhaps this story gives us some needed insight.  When the biblical writer comments that Everyone did what was right in their own eyes this does not mean that everyone were evil.   That is not what the text says here.  It was because the people were losing their common knowledge and shared understanding of the good and that they still had no king, no guide, and of course, no holy law book to follow.  They were still struggling to develop and come together around their true calling that was preventing them from finding their true purpose and mission in the world.

This different situations of both moral and mission confusion are fitting examples of what Barth was talking about.   We human beings, even good human beings, have no way to answer, to stay on track, nor do we have any sure way to maintain our care or concern about the good and right, except that is, only when it is to our own advantage. 

  Our constant human problem is that we cannot know, at least not on our own, what we what we ought to do and should do in and for the world.   That is the major point Karl Barth was making, and it was the very hope of answering this moral, ethical, and religious dilemma that brought these Jews together to publicly hear this the very first reading of the written word before the Watergate.  They had learned the hard way that only through a constant, living, relationship with this God who is revealed in the Bible, could they ever hope to have any kind of answer to the pressing moral or ethical questions that both living and dying forced upon them, and still forces upon us.  

This great moral crisis, both within ourselves and in our world too, cannot be answered by simply asking or philosophically answering what should I do or what is right or good.  The only way to get a true answer we must learn to ask more personally, within ourselves and with others too; What is the Word of the LORD and what is the will of God for me, and for us? 

     This is the reality we must live in and we live with.  What is right and what is good is not something that scholars can answer in a classroom,  nor is something that can actually be written up in a textbook.  This cannot be answered except through and in response to this living God who still speaks.   The question comes straight to us, as we, ourselves, must stand in our conscience and in our own hearts before a holy God and we must answer for our own still today; what is the will of God which is more than our own desire or our own wish. 

 

Weeping, Rejoicing and Strength:   Life Shaped  by the Word

     Strangely, and most surprisingly too, the truth of this Bible which has been finally and fully clarified once and for all in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is that none of us are able to do the good or be good, at least not on our own. 

This is the negative side of the final answer in this Book of God.  Even when we humans know what is good and right, we still cannot do it, at least not on our own. 

     Could this not have been part of the reason the people were weeping before this open book?   Were they not weeping before the magnificent beauty of this law they could never, ever fully keep.  It is this book that not only revealed to them who God is, but also revealed to them who they were not.  How did they find joy when this law forced them to have to face this truth about themselves?  How did this weeping turn to rejoicing and how did this joy in the Lord, which was not a joy about themselves, become their strength? 

     Most importantly, where does this leave us, as we watch the people of God at this Watergate, weeping before the Word of God and finally being encouraged to find joy of the Lord that can become their strength?  (Neh. 8:10)?   Can we also be made strong by a truth that reveals how weak we are in doing what we should be doing and becoming who we should become?  How can we do what is required of us, as Micah said, when the word from God is that none of us are righteous, no not one, and we cannot be who we are supposed become?

     The only realistic answer I know  to the most astute human problem of doing what the Lord requires, comes from the very Jewish apostle Paul when he also faced the truth of the law he was also not able do, but knew he should.   It was in the moment of his own moral despair that Paul discovered a strength beyond himself—beyond his successes, beyond his failures—beyond all his knowledge of the law of God he could never, ever fully live up to or live out in his life (See Rom. 7-8).   It was only by fully understanding his own moral defeat before the law that he discovered the victory of God in the saving life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Only this God, who gave the holy law and makes liars out of all of us, is the very God who also gives his grace to forgive, restore and redeem us through our weeping to find hopeful, heart-felt, and healing joy and strength.  

     Is is not even now, in our very modern, if not Post-modern world of high tech and human innovation, that we need to open this book and humbly walk with this God more than ever before?  In the ancient world you could have a flaw or do a wrong, and it could take days, months, or even years, or might never be known by anyone what you did wrong or did not do right.  Think about it.  Before he became Paul, Saul got away with murder and he even did it in the name of true religion too. There was still no right understanding of law to stop what he did in the name of God.  

      Today,  the ability and speed to have to confront the truth (or the lie) about ourselves can happen with warped speed, as very young lives can be openly humiliated, if not socially destroyed through the power of the Internet.   More than ever before,  we need God’s grace to be our greatest joy and strength.   It was the realization of this grace in God’s forgiveness that gave this people gathered at the Watergate a new desire to become obedient this God who, as the saying goes, knew them best but still loved them most.

It was this God who does justice by loving mercy that enabled this failed people to walk humbly with their God their redemption made possible only through grace.  It was the joy and strength of this grace that became obvious in how the people went back to work with Nehemiah to rebuild their city and it was through these Words read by Ezra, that they returned to answer God’s call in their own lives.  

     Jurgen Moltmann is one of the most influential theologians of our time.  Jurgen was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1926. His German upbringing was thoroughly secular.  At sixteen, he idolized Albert Einstein, and anticipated studying mathematics at university. He took his entrance exam to proceed with his education, but went to war instead.  He was drafted into military service in 1944 and became a soldier in the German army under the Nazis. Ordered to the front lines, he surrendered in 1945 to the first British soldier he met. For the next few years (1945-48), he was confined as a prisoner of war and moved from camp to camp, first in Belgium, then Scotland, and finally England.

     Jurgen lost all hope and confidence in the German culture because of the horrific death camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  His remorse was so great, he often felt he would have rather died along with many of his comrades than live to face what his nation had done. At this point Juergen was a thoroughly broken man.   And then, one day, a well-meaning American chaplain came by, handing out English-language New Testaments to these German POWs.  Imagine that. German soldiers receiving English-language Bibles. Talk about a hopeless gesture. 

Fortunately, Jurgen Moltmann knew just enough English to make some sense of out of one of these New Testaments. There in the prison camp, under the influence of this English-language New Testament, Jurgen became a disciple of Jesus Christ. He would later sum it up like this, “I didn’t find Christ, he found me.” 

     After his release in 1948, Jurgen Moltmann abandoned his field of physics and went on to study theology. Now his theological works are read all over the world. He is best known for his ground-breaking book The Theology of Hope.  To this day Jurgen carries that New Testament with him as a reminder of what God can do through his word. 

Does this make sense to you?  The Bible, this book of Law that is proven to be the redeeming story of God’s grace, is the book provides moral structure for good in our lives, but it actually shapes our lives, with God’s loving mercy and grace,  if we will let allow this book to prove its redeeming truth in our lives.

    So, what I see on display at this Watergate, which I hope will also be on display after our own Watergate (pun intended), is that here was a people begging to hear and understand a Word from God because they wanted to do the will of God.  This is the reality, our mission, if we choose to accept it,  that still makes the church, the people of God different and God’s  peculiar people of all peoples.   In and through Jesus Christ, we are especially chosen to hear and receive this Word because God still loves the whole world.  Amen.