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How Costly Grace? Or Does Spelling Count?

Hope Beneath the Surface
Cycle A First Lesson Sermons for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
As long as men and women and boys and girls have inhabited this planet, they have sought to control their lives in whatever ways possible.

In order to have a better harvest, they have experimented with different crops, different fertilizers, and different methods of planting. In order to kill more game for food, they created more and more advanced kinds of bows, more accurate arrows, more deadly traps. In order to protect themselves from neighboring tribes they produced walls and moats and castles, and better weapons.

But there has always been a feeling of uncertainty. A particular method of planting, a new brand of hunting instrument or weapon, a certain kind of house did not necessarily bring success. There were some things beyond their control. The crops might still fail, their enemies sometimes would still prevail, the arrow often missed the animal, and their children and loved ones still died of accident and disease.

Therefore, from the beginning of time there has been a search for a power beyond what humans themselves could muster, a power which could bring success and confidence and victory.

Also from the beginning of time there has been an awareness of a spiritual reality. Human beings have always been moved by key moments in their lives, and those moments have been the same for the first men and women who roamed the earth as for you and me today: birth, death, a spectacular sight in nature, a moment of terror and fear, a moment of grace and relief and gratitude. In such moments the human spirit has connected with the Spirit, the Spirit of the One we now know is God.

It's not surprising then that men, women, boys and girls have sought to influence the unseen presence beyond them, to help them in time of need, to protect them when afraid.

How might one decide how to influence a god? Wouldn't you start with how you influence another person? Of course. And so people began giving their gods things that were precious to them, assuming that such offerings would make the gods happy. And what are our most precious things? Well, that would be the cream of the crop, the best food, or, the very best, the most precious of all: one's very offspring, one's children. Therefore, child sacrifice was begun.

The Old Testament records the dawning of the awareness among the people called Hebrews, that there was not a number of gods, all with various powers, but rather there was one God, more powerful than all the others. This God created the world out of love and a desire to be in relation with us. Only later did they understand that there was only one God, period.

It was only natural then that some of the understanding from other pagan cultures would slip into their worship of this great Yahweh, the Lord. And one of the major traditions was offering sacrifices. Early in our scriptures we read of it in the tragic story of Cain and Abel. Cain felt that God liked Abel's animal offering better than Cain's offering of the fruit of the ground. Out of jealousy over what offering God liked better, the first murder was committed. God must have wept as he saw his creatures kill over such misguided understandings of what God desired of them.

Which brings us to the focus of this morning. What in the world does God want of us, for heaven's sake?

People down through the centuries have struggled with that question. Moses was given the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, a list of those basic guidelines for life which God has forever set down. But that still left lots of questions.

Hundreds of laws were written in an effort to respond to people's questions of specifically what God wanted of them, and what would make God "smile" on them. And finally, in the fullness of time, God sent us Jesus to make it clear that what God wants is not that we obey a list of laws, no matter how correct. Rather what God wants is that we love God with our whole being and that we love our neighbors, near and far, and ourselves. Everything else is fine print. And Jesus lived out that kind of life before the people of his time.

God did give some guidance prior to Jesus, however, though it was hidden in the midst of the laws and fears and sacrificial traditions of the Jewish people. The prophet Micah was a prophet from 742-687 B.C., a time period which overlapped much of the ministry of Isaiah, including the period of the reign of King Hezekiah. The words of the prophet Micah, which we are looking at this morning, are considered by many to be one of the four or five mountaintop gems in all of scripture.

Before we get to that, though, I want to just mention what to me is the low point in all of scripture in the search for an answer to the question, "What does the Lord require of you?" It's right up there with Abraham's almost-sacrifice of Isaac.

I'm talking about what happened with Jephthah, the son of Gilead, who was asked by the Israelites to lead the battle against the Ammonites, some thousand years or so before Jesus' birth. The story is a terrible one. In order to gain the support of God, Jephthah said the following to God, as quoted in Judges 11:30-31:

If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord's, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.

Jephthah and his army defeated the Ammonites and home he went rejoicing over the defeat. And coming out to meet him, dancing with timbrels, glad to see her daddy home safe and sound, was Jephthah's only child, his lovely daughter.

Seeing her father's face fall and learning the reason, the unnamed daughter said, "My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth." And he did, though the details are mercifully left out, other than the moving verses 39-40: "So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite."

As long as there are people who believe that the God of the universe is willing to be party to vows and bargains like that of Jephthah, there will be people who will not consider faith and trust in such a God. And for good reason!

The prophet Micah saw the religious sickness among his people and after putting forth the rhetorical questions, listing all the kinds of sacrifices which people had been wont to give, burnt offerings, calves, thousands of rams, rivers of olive oil, one's firstborn, Micah makes this statement, one of the highest statements of religious truth in all of literature:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Justice and kindness in relations with people, and humility before God. That is what God wants of us. And that is what Jesus lived out before us. He lived and taught justice, with the poor, the rich, the sinners, and the scribes and Pharisees. He lived and taught kindness, with children and women and the sick. He even lived and taught humility before God, whose very Son he was. When in talking about the end of the world, he said, "Only the Father knows such timetables" (Matthew 27:36; Mark 13:32).

Justice and kindness and humility before God.

The reality in our day which those of us in the church need to acknowledge and confess is that we are seen by the world as unjust in our treatment of other Christians and not involved enough in matters of justice in the world. We are seen as often supremely unkind toward people, particularly those who do not share our details of faith and doctrine. And we are seen as supremely cocky and arrogant and know-it-all in our relationship with God, when in fact, we of all people should be the most humble, for we know of the greatness and the mystery of God Almighty. It is we who should know the words of scripture from Isaiah 55:8 and 9:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher then your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Humility before God is the beginning of faith, and opens our hearts and minds up to search for how we may need to change in our thinking and our acting regarding ourselves and our neighbor. It may appear admirable to be absolutely certain about every bit of doctrine and every portion of scripture, but in fact the attitude of the follower of God is humility, utter humility.

Through God's gift of Jesus we know all we need to know for salvation, but that is not close to proclaiming that we know all there is to know about faith and doctrine. We all still look through a glass darkly, as Saint Paul has said. Only when we are with the Lord will we see face to face and know fully.

I remember once someone asking me in utter seriousness, "How much can I get away with and still go to heaven?" It reminded me of the question youth and children often ask before an exam: "Does spelling count?"

Micah says it is not a matter of adding up points and tallying up percentages of Sundays when you went to church or how often and what kind of sacrifices you offered to God. What does God want?

He has told you, O Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8)

Through Jesus Christ this message has been underlined and finalized. There is nothing you have to do to earn God's love. No sacrifice, no ritual, no trick questions to answer will get us into the arms of God or earn us good health or convince God to do something for a loved one.

Yes, the grace, the loving, forgiving grace of God is costly, because it demands our whole allegiance, our whole selves. But we are not to replace that kind of wholesome, healthy, life-giving commitment to the way of God in Christ with a poor, sick substitute of something God would never ask of us, such as the lifeless body of a child or the paltry offering of a few good deeds or a string of perfect attendance pins, or even the ability to cling firmly to some proper doctrine set up by the church or denomination of our choice.

No, the life of faith comes from active, humble love, embracing both our neighbor and our God. And such a life of meaning and faith and joy may be found and experienced by walking in the footsteps of Jesus.
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