Lectionary Sermon for August 11 2019

Understanding God’s Expectations

I have a difficult time imagining what it was like to worship in the Old Testament when worship involved the sacrifice of animals. I read the words, but I do not want to let an image form in my mind. It seems so savage, so out of place, unlike the God who is love.

Then, I read, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.” (1 Sam. 15:22 NRS) And, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.” (Ps. 51:16 NRS)

God did not expect sacrifices for God’s pleasure but to remind God’s people of the price for sin, the consequences of sin, is death. But it seems as if, in times gone past, and still today, people will take something God has said and twist it in a way that makes them think, “This is how to influence God. This is how we can live as we choose, and God has to forgive us.”

God sent the people a warning and a clarification in the past. Through a Holy man, a spiritual servant of God named Isaiah, “Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more.” (Isa. 1:10-12 NRS)

God is seriously upset by their behavior. God calls His chosen, misguided, unfaithful people the names of two places that represented an evil God would not tolerate. God calls them Sodom and Gomorrah, two places that God destroyed. God seems to make it clear that God is not fooled by their “religious” behavior. God is not impressed with their attempts to influence. God is never impressed what we call worship.

God goes on to say, “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isa. 1:15-17 NRS) Right behavior is a priority in order for there to be right worship.

The writer of Psalm 50 really clarifies this when the psalmist speaks a word from God that says, “Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.” (Ps. 50:23-51:1 NRS) A person, a people, a country nor even a church needs the right priorities if there is to be true worship.

We do not sacrifice animals anymore. There is no need for this activity. Why, because Jesus became the sacrifice for sin and through his death, by our sharing in his death through the Eucharist, the Thanksgiving, we share in the Christ’s sacrifice and in the reality of a resurrection. God does not lie, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23 NRS) Jesus was paid the wages owed to us and we were given a promise of life we did not earn.

But the expectations have not changed. God still expects us to “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” This is what God expects.

It never ceases to amaze me what some people think the Christian faith is all about. Many, many people believe it is about going to church. Others think it is about going to only a particular kind of church. Some think that no church needs to be involved and they can worship God on the golf course or bass pond as well as they could in any building. Some think faith is saying they believe in “religious facts” or creeds. Some believe it is a crutch, a rite of childhood or praying some kind of prayer that gives a person a get out of hell for free pledge.

The word faith, as far as the New Testament is concerned, is a word meaning constancy in awareness of obligation to others. It is not just believing in “religious facts” or prayers or buildings or our opinions. It is a constancy in our awareness of our obligation to God. Have you not heard the term, in good faith, when comes to money, agreements, or contracts? Faith has to do with trust, a solemn promise, an oath we strive to keep. Faith is judged by its actions.

A writer, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, which is a very powerful influence to be under, once wrote, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1 NRS) It is trust that God would not lie to us. It is a commitment to God that gives assurance. It is a conviction that we have an obligation. The same writer goes on to report, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” (Heb. 11:3 NRS)

This is not blind faith. This is not a commitment to some kind of magic or spiritual hallucination. It is faith that is based on the track record of God. God has a very good track record. When God says something will happen, it will.

This is where religion, sacrifice, obligation, and trust bring us to a point of decision. You see, in this country, we live in a time of immense social pressures. Pressures on what we should believe, how we should live, what we should buy, choose or follow.

And if, if we want to follow Jesus and believe that the church is his creation, we face the pressure of which church to attend. We have almost countless choices. In the town I live in, a relatively small college town, there are over 60 churches in a ten-mile radius. Each believes its practices are the right ones. Each believes they have the truth that we need to be faithful, yet if we used the standard of, “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” how many of these churches’ budgets would show these practices are the dominate focus?

Very likely, the large majority, if not all these churches’ budgets would show that most of the money collected goes to maintaining their particular church. This is a reality. This is not to condemn these churches, it is just a reality that comes with a church divided. Someday this will not be the case.
Religions have always had problems in focusing on the reason for their existence. Any social organization that exists must pay the bills that come with their existence. Any social organization must deal with the limitations of their own certainty and the faith that is required of them.

Jesus once went to a town and began to teach the people about the reality every human being faces. What we all must face is just what will be believe? What will we decide is important? Will we be able to even believe in God when there are so many things we cannot understand?

Jesus tells the people, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Lk. 12:32-34 NRS)

Jesus indicates that God will take care of them. Jesus declares that God knows what they need. Jesus also affirms again what God had been telling and telling and telling those who will but listen, “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” This is how to please God. This is what gains you merit in heaven. This is what counts for all eternity.

Then Jesus shares a story. He tells the story a man who tells his servants that he is going to a wedding and wants them to be ready for his return. Today, it would be like the owner of a company telling the workers that he must take a trip and wants them to be ready for a big program when he gets back. Jesus says if the master finds out they do this when he returns, the master will serve them. No those of you who work for some else, don’t expect this. This seems silly. Why would any master or employer do this? They would not.

But our faith is not just a faith of serving God, our faith is in a God who serves us. This was the faith Jesus demonstrated.

So, from a time past comes a call to us, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isa. 1:16-17) And if we do this, God lets us know what God will do in the very next verse

Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
(Isa. 1:18 NRS)