The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 2, 2020

Would you please pray with me: Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word. Curb those who by deceit or sword would wrest the Kingdom from Your Son and bring to naught all He has done. Amen.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

What does God expect of us? Our lessons today give us a very concise look at exactly what God expects of us. You may remember that in the Law that God gave to Moses, there were 613 laws: “365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands. David reduced them to 11 in Psalm 15… Micah 6:8 binds them into 3 commands.” So in the first two selections of Scripture for today, we get an overview of what God expects of us as His children. Is there a better summary of that than “act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with Your God”? This is what God expects of us.

Now when I say “expect” I think it’s important to remember that this is not about our eternal salvation. That is a gift, not something we earn. We know this, because this is the grace we read about every week. Our sins forgiven in Christ’s cross are washed away only by God’s love and mercy…not by anything we have done…nor by anything God expects us to do.

That said, now that we have been forgiven and redeemed…now what? As Paul says in Romans: “should we continue to sin so that grace may abound? By no means!” Absolutely not. Not because we are in danger of losing our salvation. Rather, having been forgiven, how do we want to respond to our God Who loves us this much? How do we want to demonstrate our appreciation for such grace and mercy and love in how we live our lives day-to-day? Do we just go about our lives the way we always have? What if God is calling us to make a change…?

Think of a time when your parents or grandparents gave you the present you had wanted for a long time, or a present that you thought was the best present… how did you react? Did you run away and go and get yourself into trouble? Did you ignore the gift and your parents and go and do something to make them mad? Did you disobey them? Or did you hug them and tell them “thank you!” and do something nice for them? Did you clean your room without being asked? Or wash the dishes maybe? Feeling loved by that gift you enjoyed so much, I suspect most of us would want to return that love.

I wonder if some don’t really understand the gift of the cross. I don’t mean those of us who believe in and follow Christ; I mean those outside of the Body of Christ. I think they must see the cross as a huge failure.

[1]The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” You may recall that last week we talked about failure, and how some viewed Jesus’ death on the cross as a failure. Paul is talking about that here as well. Remember that the people who Paul is addressing here did not grow up as Jews. Instead, they were Greeks, and in their culture, there were a variety of gods. For a Greek, gods were powerful, immortal beings who pretty much did whatever they wanted, but because they were immortal, the idea that a god could suffer or even die was simply unthinkable. It was foolish to the Corinthians. It was “folly”.

But Paul had been working on the people of this church, teaching them and helping them to grow in faith. So, we understand that those who had been taught and believed that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior were truly saved. They understood that Christ’s death was necessary, but it was not the end. They knew that while the cross was important to the story, it was actually the empty tomb that had the final word.

And so Paul talks about this folly, this foolishness of the cross that Greeks have such a hard time understanding. This God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is unlike any of the gods the Greeks knew. This God does not act like any of them would expect. He does not overthrow armies with more powerful armies. He does not do the things that human beings expect of Him. Instead, He does what is unexpected, and while it may look foolish to us (like sending a small team of men to topple a castle wall with trumpets instead of catapults), His way always does what He wants it to do. It’s often difficult to see in the moment, and it seems foolish to us, but if you let some time pass, it becomes crystal clear that it was God’s intent. I found this wonderful little story that explains this pretty well:

On the front porch of his little country store in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and Berry, his partner, stood. Business was all gone, and Berry asked, “How much longer can we keep this going?” Lincoln answered, “It looks as if our business has just about winked out.” Then he continued, “You know, I wouldn’t mind so much if I could just do what I want to do. I want to study law. I wouldn’t mind so much if we could sell everything we’ve got and pay all our bills and have just enough left over to buy one book–Blackstone’s Commentary on English Law, but I guess I can’t.” A strange-looking wagon was coming up the road. The driver angled it up close to the store porch, then looked at Lincoln and said, “I’m trying to move my family out west, and I’m out of money. I’ve got a good barrel here that I could sell for fifty cents.” Abraham Lincoln’s eyes went along the wagon and came to the wife looking at him pleadingly, face thin and emaciated. Lincoln ran his hand into his pocket and took out, according to him, “the last fifty cents I had” and said, “I reckon I could use a good barrel.” All day long the barrel sat on the porch of that store. Berry kept chiding Lincoln about it. Late in the evening Lincoln walked out and looked down into the barrel. He saw something in the bottom of it, papers that he hadn’t noticed before. His long arms went down into the barrel and, as he fumbled around, he hit something solid. He pulled out a book and stood petrified: it was Blackstone’s Commentary on English Law. Lincoln later wrote,

“I stood there holding the book and looking up toward the heavens. There came a deep impression on me that God had something for me to do and He was showing he now that I had to get ready for it. Why this miracle otherwise?”[2]

Imagine how different Mr. Lincoln’s life would have been if he had not been so foolish as to give up his last 50 cents to a stranger passing through? Imagine how different our country and our history would be now? That one simple little act of foolish generosity set in motion a path for that tall, dark Illinois man to study law, to run for public office, and to become one of the most respected and revered leaders in our country’s history. And his partner thought he was foolish. If anyone else had been there that day, THEY would have probably thought him foolish, too.

We spend all of our younger years being taught by the world how NOT to be foolish. We are taught by the world to be wise and to make good choices. We are taught by the world to avoid foolishness. We are taught by the world to do things a certain way, a way that is decidedly not God’s way. And this teaching is powerful and has deep roots in us.

I fully acknowledge that I’m in dangerous territory here. There are things that the world calls “foolish” that I think truly are “foolish”. But I only want to focus on one: when the world calls God “foolish”. That’s when we should find ourselves struggling to understand it.

And I do struggle with this. There are things that God asks me to do that when I first think about it, seem QUITE foolish to me. Loving my enemies is one of them. My gut does NOT want to let me do that…especially those people on the other side of the world who want me dead just because I believe in Jesus Christ and not Allah. I have a really hard time loving them. I also have a really hard time being loving to those who ridicule and berate Christians in our own country. The “militant atheists” if you will. Those who work to suppress Christian expression anywhere outside the walls of this church. I have a very hard time being “loving” toward these people who speak such awful things about me and who work so hard to minimize the presence of my faith in our society. This is a struggle for me.

So when I read these scriptures for today, and what God expects of me…Psalm 15 – to walk blamelessly, do what is right, speak truth in my heart, not slander, do no evil to my neighbor… Micah 6: to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with my God…it’s easy for me to begin to see where, when I try to do these things, I struggle with them. I have a hard time doing them. I often fail. Far too often. I think about Jesus’ own words in the beatitudes, where he describes the different types of people who are blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, or for the sake of Jesus’ very name. When I look at these qualities, I’m a little overwhelmed. Poor in spirit, which means the opposite of “full of self-pride” – jeez, I’ve got a lot of work to do there. Do I hunger for righteousness? Truly hunger for it? Do I show enough mercy to those who ask for it? Peacemaker? Does that label fit me ever? What about persecuted? Can I claim that I have endured persecution for my beliefs? Not when compared to Christians in Africa, Southwest Asia, and China. Not by a long shot.

BUT, thanks be to God, someone clued me in. These lists of demands have already been met. All of these laws, these requirements of God, these expectations…they all perfectly describe Jesus Christ. Look again at Psalm 15 – Jesus meets all of that. Certainly He did justice, loved kindness, and walked humbly with God. (And He still does!) Even the beatitudes – His own words – describe Jesus Himself. He has fulfilled God’s expectations. He has shown us how to do these things.

So our salvation is assured – it is a gift. And when we are struggling with these things, it is such a reassurance to know that we are not going to be judged by our failures, but instead by Christ’s righteousness. How freeing is that? We are free to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to live God’s way. We are free to embrace God’s foolishness in the face of the world’s criticism. Is that an easy thing? No, it certainly isn’t. But it’s worth trying.

So I ask you: what does that look like for you? What is it that God is calling you to do that seems “foolish” to the world? Or how about our church? What could God be calling our church family to do that might seem “foolish”? We’ve done a little work to put aside our differences with our 2 neighboring Lutheran churches this year. I think that’s a pretty good start. So what else? I will ask you to pray about this in the weeks and months ahead. We have grown in the last year. We are more stable and positive now. We have good energy, and we are doing good things in our church. But we are not called to be “church” for just ourselves. We are called to share our blessings with the world. Yes, that very same world that calls much of what we do “foolish”. What might that look like?

Pray about that, and please, talk about it. I think we have a lot to offer our brothers and sisters in this community, and I’d like all of us to be working toward that. I’d love to hear your ideas. I’m sure we will find a way to reveal Jesus Christ to our unchurched neighbors in a way that only we can.

Would you please pray with me once more: