Sermon: Gaining an Incomparable Joy.

“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” [Micah 6:8]

Have you ever wondered why, as a religion becomes older, legalism seems to enter its method of worship?  You can see this with Roman Catholicism, how a simple thing like abstaining on Fridays to commemorate Christ’s crucifixion and death, soon results in the requirement that all should eat fish on Friday.  “Should” soon becomes “must.” Then, soon after this, it becomes a sin NOT to eat fish on Friday.

Before I go further, let me make clear that it is not my intention to pick on the Roman Catholics.  ALL established religions seem to follow this same trajectory.  Look at the Baptists.  How did temperance, which means drinking in moderation, turn into an edict to abstain from alcohol, altogether?

But, the truth is that the Roman Catholic fish-on-Friday edict is the most recognizable edict and the easiest in which to show legalism at work.

Although we may criticize legalism and even make fun of it, secretly in our heart of hearts, humans LOVE legalism.  It makes everything so much easier!

With legalism, we know instantly if we are saved or condemned, if we are following God or departing from the path.  It is SO easy in this sense. And it is SO comfortable and comforting that it is easy for each and every one of us to fall into it.  Yet, this it is NOT God’s way.

God constantly has told us both through the Old Testament prophets and through Christ that God does NOT enjoy a mindless observation of the faith.  And here in our lessons for today, we are given God’s commandment to us. It is put in very simple terms, but in reality, it requires of us much more than mindless legalism.

In our Old Testament lesson, we have God asking the Israelites a very simple but powerful question:

O my people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against me.

This is a phrase that always hearkens to me when I think of those people who seem angry at God.  Those who are angry seem to be so, for the same reason – it may have been a trivial reason, or it may have been extremely important or significant reason, but somehow the person didn’t get what they wanted.  And the fact that they wanted something and didn’t get it resulted in disappointment, anger, and rejection of God.

I remember seeing that Christmas movie, “The Santa Clause,” and in it, two people lost belief in Santa because they didn’t get the one gift they wanted that year. It resulted in them doubting that there was a Santa Claus.

Unfortunately, this also happens with God. It may be a wish for an object or a love, but it may be as significant as an illness that may have claimed the life of a loved one.  But because the prayer seemed unanswered, disappointment evolves into anger and finally rejection of God.  But, God is NOT a genie.  He is not here for our wish-fulfillment. In fact, whether our prayers are answered or not, if we were to be logical, has no bearing on whether God exists.  And His mere existence alone would require our veneration, worship, and devotion.

However, our God is a loving, caring God.  Those things that make us sad also make God sad.  And the truly amazing thing is that God, while furthering His overall plan for the universe also is concerned with the smallest issue in our lives.  He therefore WANTS us to bring to Him all our troubles through prayer.  We just need to realize that this does NOT mean that in this life we will get everything we want.

So what does God require of us? It seems simple, but appearances can be misleading:

“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it.  “Do justly;” “Love mercy;” and “Walk humbly with thy God.”  But all of these things are subject to human interpretation. And here is the crux of the problem.

This reminds me of the Sunday School teacher who was teaching a class on the Ten Commandments.  She had just finished the class on “Honor thy father and thy mother,” and decided to ask her class, “Children, is there a commandment that applies to your brothers and sisters?”  One little boy raised his hand and said, “Yes. Thou shalt do no murder.”

“Do justly:” In our New Testament lesson, we have the Beatitudes.  Christ Himself tells us:

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”

I don’t know about you, but often I look for justice.  And in the ordinary events of the day, it rarely happens.  The person who waits patiently is usually the person beaten out by the impatient.  Those who do not speak up lose out to those who complain the loudest. After all, the adage, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil,” did not come about because the quietly suffering got recompensed.

In matters of justice, it is important what God is telling us.  It is not whether OTHERS are doing just things, but whether WE are.  We cannot control others; but we must do what we know to be right and just.  This is true in our everyday lives as well as in the voting booth.  In fact, I would venture to guess that it is MORE important that we do justly in our everyday lives than it is to “win” any of the big battles.  Those battles may not ever be won, or they can be co-opted by powerful people, but the everyday lives we can impact with living justly may be more significant than any political cause.

And we need to remember our psalm for today when we look at the world and see the unjust prospering:

7 Hold thee still in the LORD, and abide patiently upon him: * but grieve not thyself at him whose way doth prosper, against the man that doeth after evil counsels.

8 Leave off from wrath, and let go displeasure: * fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil.

9 Wicked doers shall be rooted out; * and they that patiently abide the LORD, those shall inherit the land.

“Love mercy:” Again, Christ, in the Beatitudes, tells us the same thing:

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Be merciful to others.  This is not a command that is dictated by results.  It is not “Be merciful to those who have earned mercy” or “Be merciful to those who will change their lives and turn over a new lease.”  No, it is merely, “Be merciful.”  When looking at this command this way, it suddenly becomes much harder.

I have found that, in my life, it was easier to be merciful when I was younger than it is to be merciful now.  There is something about “growing wiser” that sometimes makes us less generous with others.  But mercy is crucial.  If we just had justice in this world, we would have never had Christ and His saving grace.  As God has been merciful to us, so we MUST be merciful to others.

And like judgment, mercy is returned to us in exactly the same amount as we give it to others. “Do not judge lest ye be judged” goes hand-in-hand with “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”  One commandment helps us with the other.  And yet, they are both harder to do than it appears on first blush.

Finally, “Walk humbly with thy God:” This is our commandment to love our God with all our heart, soul, and mind.  In the Beatitudes, it is:

“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

First off, walking humbly in and of itself is not as easy as it sounds.  Look at the Pharisees.  They thought they were walking with their God, but they were NOT humble.  And their pride tainted everything they did, to the point that God despised their sacrifices, even though they were done precisely and correctly.

To walk humbly is to constantly remember our sinful natures.  That is NOT something that is supported by our society, in the least.  Add to this the person, who makes it a point of PRIDE to constantly tout his sinfulness, and it is easy to see how hard it is to keep our pride out of the mix – but we must.  The key to walking humbly is to focus on our love of God.  That appreciation, more than anything else, will keep us humble. But it is not easy.

With all of this in mind, it becomes clear that all these commandments rest with us and what is in our hearts.  Although I hate the new love of relativism, it is also clear that God is more concern with a right intention and a correct feeling in our heart than any exterior manifestation.  Legalism, although easy, is NOT what God wants.  What He wants is our sincere desire to love Him AND to act in accordance with this true love.  And, once again, the difficulty becomes apparent.

But the word “Gospel” means “good news.” And in the Gospel we have the greatest news known to man.  Guess what: God KNOWS we WILL fall short.  He knows we cannot make it on our own.  So, He has decided to give us a gift – one that is unearned but one that will make up for all our shortfalls.  And that gift is His only begotten Son, Jesus the Christ!  This is good news indeed, because, let’s be honest. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t make it WITHOUT Him.  Thank God for this unearned gift of grace!

And one final thought as we go out and try to do justly, and try to love mercy, and try to walk humbly with our God, don’t worry about the other guy, what he does or doesn’t do.  First, it’s totally out of our control.  Second, by obsessing about others, we start NOT doing what we SHOULD do.  And that is not what God asks of us.  Just remember what that wise psalmist wrote:

FRET not thyself because of the ungodly; * neither be thou envious against the evil doers.

2 For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, * and be withered even as the green herb.

3 Put thou thy trust in the LORD, and be doing good; * dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.

Remember, God loves you so much, He is willing to sacrifice His Son to buy you back. If you keep this in mind; if you concentrate on following God and not others; and if you can ignore others, and trust in God and His ultimate justice, not only will you gain a peace that the world can never give you, you will also gain a joy incomparable with anything else in this world.

Amen.

 

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