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Sermon “What Does the Lord Require?” – October 14, 2012

Sermon  for October 14, 2012                                    The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg


What Does the Lord Require?

Psalm 15;  Micah 6: 6-8;  Matthew  25:  31-46

There still are exclusive dance clubs in New York City which put up a velvet rope at the entrance and hand-pick whom to let inside.  A couple of decades ago this approach was news; it was a bigger phenomenon then.  People would line up hoping to get into a hot spot, and at least profess to have no idea why some people were chosen to enter and others overlooked.  The harder it was to get into a place, the more it added to its reputation, and this carried over into other popular or fashionable pursuits.

A major metaphor of the Biblical tradition is to be good enough, somehow, to be in some location where only the good belong.  Nowadays we so often say that the truly important things are more-or-less portable, like integrity or a sense of accomplishment, or even things like celebrity or wealth, if that’s what people value, that it is a little hard to regain the Bible’s equation of desirable place with ultimate happiness.  All these scriptures conceive the height of human potential as proximity to God, meriting being allowed to exist in God’s presence.  Psalm 15 begins, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent?  Who may dwell on your holy hill?”  It goes on to list the qualifications, and concludes with another spacial way of expressing security–“Those who do these things shall never be moved.”

That’s how it’s put.  Being good enough for God has to do with being allowed into God’s closer presence, and if you really are what you’re supposed to be, you can stay there.  The familiar passage from the prophet Micah begins with the metaphor of physical approach–“With what shall I come before the Lord?.”  It discards some things which some people might say were the right things, and affirms some others, and concludes with the image of walking with God.  It says “walk humbly with your God” but I don’t want the requirement of humility to obscure the idea of physical closeness, of the final aim of religious concern being not merely the privilege to approach, but the blessing to be with God.

Jesus’ lesson concluding the twenty-fifth chapter of the gospel of Matthew is, again, about qualifying to come to the right spot at the end.  The sheep and goats are being sorted into final destinations, and the process even begins with favorable and unfavorable placement–at the judge’s right and left hand.  From there the destiny of each continues to be cast in terms of physical movement to some particular place–contrasting the unworthy with the worthy the parable concludes “and these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  What the righteous are doing is receiving the reward the Judge earlier invites them to take possession of when he says “come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

The Bible’s conception of final blessedness having to do with location may have something to do with so many of the Bible’s big stories being about the difficulty of being in the spot God wants people to be.  There’s a place of innocence and obedience and intimacy with God–Eden–which one reluctantly leaves, and then the far country to which Abraham is invited to go, and then the big story, the Promised Land to which they are delivered– after getting rid of that ungrateful generation whom God destroyed by its desert wanderings, so that only the deserving would make it to Canaan.  Perhaps some collective memory about moving from being nomads to being settled people is involved–the nomad’s world is wherever he is, and the settled person’s world is the settlement.

Whatever the reasons, people still link acceptability to God and place .  Folks who want to persuade you to do Christianity their way may start with you by asking, “Do you know where you’ll go when you die?”  They don’t mean the local cemetery or having your ashes scattered on the back forty.  They mean it in spiritual terms, in these broad metaphors of a place of God’s favor, or conversely, being excluded from that place.  The reason they ask you about your destination is that they’re going to tell you how to get there.

The funny thing is, they don’t tell you that in the same terms their religion tells them. Their religion–their Bible, which includes Psalm 15 and Micah and Matthew 25– tells them that the way to secure closeness to God is neighborliness, virtue, humility.  They wouldn’t be against any of those things, but they’re probably from a variety of Christianity which emphasizes that you can’t do anything to earn any favor from God, and so the only way to get there is to admit that you can’t and throw yourself on the mercy of the court, so to speak– to ask Jesus to accept you.

Well, there’s a place for that.  I understand what they’re saying.  The thing is that the scriptures so often have a distinctly different idea.  The scriptures so much of the time don’t commend specifically religious behavior at all.  The theology of most people who want to save you from an eternal stretch in a bad location after death is that, if you see the predicament of being left out of the good place, you’ll be motivated to ask to get in, reassured by the idea that Christ has gotten you forgiven for, perhaps, never having displayed any kindness or generosity or compassion at all–in short, the idea that the point of God’s making the world is getting the chance to redeem you out of it.  Their road map to the right place is sharing their religious ideas, using their religious language.  You become acceptable to God as you become like them.  Who are they?  They’re people who know they’re going to heaven, and that others are going to hell unless they can make them into persons like themselves.

That’s a caricature of conversion-bent Christians and that whole tradition could be discussed more sympathetically, but I want to box some broad, familiar ways of thinking about being saved in this way because I want to contrast that with what the Bible itself says.  If we are taking God seriously enough to believe that our acceptability before God always is a gift, an accommodation to our weakness on the part of the Almighty, then shouldn’t we also take God seriously enough to believe that our response to God’s care for us should be our care for one another?  There’s a theological discussion about salvation we could have here about just how it works, but even if we want to say it works by God’s grace and God’s initiative, don’t you think we’re still supposed to believe what the Bible tells us in places like Psalm 15, and Micah, and Matthew 25?  Anyone who thinks that what God has to say to us is as much for the here-and-now as the hereafter, and for the good of the world as much as it is for our own individual advantage, can see that taking these teachings seriously will get us where God wants us to go.

Notice that there’s no formula here of thing to believe and thing to say.  It might be implicit that living right will require you to call upon God, but that’s certainly not the emphasis.

The emphasis is upon doing right by the people you encounter in the world–people who are close to you, people you only meet through business, people you only see in passing.  What kind of a person are you going to be?  You approach God when you are a person of consideration, openness, and a willingness to do good.

The scriptures stress that it isn’t about religion.  Except for the line about honoring those who fear the Lord, Psalm 15 is all about living responsibly with others, and even the notion of honoring those who fear the Lord can mean as little as respecting and upholding the dignity of others whose fear of the Lord amounts to being truthful, refusing to harm others, keeping promises, avoiding exploiting others’ need, and standing by their principles  if offered an incentive to do wrong.

Micah emphasizes even more that being close with God results, not from participation in religious customs or rituals, but in doing what is right, and loving those actions which treat others as kin–that’s what “kindness” means– and recognizing one’s worth relative to that of the Almighty, which is to say, being humble.

You see that Jesus in Matthew 25 is describing a judgment which is not based on consciously religious behavior by the fact that neither those being praised and rewarded or those being condemned have any idea that their actions concerned the Righteous Judge at all.  Some of them saw the needy stranger and were kind.  Some of them felt a claim upon their hearts from the misery of those they did not know, and did what they could to lessen the other’s suffering.  In a sense they were practicing what the book of James calls “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” namely, “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

I would say, however, that they weren’t aware that they were being religious in an appropriate way.  They didn’t know they were seeing the Righteous Judge in any of those folks who benefited from the good deeds they did out of the depths of their hearts.  Nor did those who failed to measure up realize they were neglecting true religion by neglecting to show care for the suffering.  What does that mean?  That being welcome with God is not based on what people do when they expect to deal with God directly, but being welcome with God has to do with how people treat other people when they’re not thinking about pleasing God at all.  Talking about Christ and even talking to Christ is not of first importance; kindness to others, not because you recognize the Lord in them–because the sheep in the story don’t recognize the Lord in them– but based on their need,  is what God wants.



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