Sunday, January 23, 2011
The Next Level
Advertisements for a new book started appearing this week in all the “trade” magazines churches and pastors get during the week. Westminster/John Knox, a Presbyterian-related publisher, released the new title, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still be a Christian. Immediately upon seeing the title the hairs went up on the back of my neck. Really? What’s the least I can believe? Have we sunk that low that it’s assumed we’re trying find the bottom line on which we have to sign to make sure we’re in? Or we’re covered? Or we’re safe?
I did a little more research after hearing the title, and I discovered the title did exactly what the publishers probably hoped it would do. It overstated the content of the book and by doing so drew me in to learn more. The book itself, from what I can gather, is not as bad as the title sounds, and in fact may be a very interesting study for some or all of our churches to undertake. But that’s all beside the point. What drew me in, I think, is the age old question that the title essentially restates straight from Micah, “What does the Lord require of you?”
It came to the people of Israel during what was likely some pretty shocking judgment from the prophet. Shocking because even the judgment itself earlier in the prophecy points out that they were not unreligious people. They weren’t lacking in their practice of their faith, but actually the opposite was true. They were faithful with their sacrifices and activities in the temple. They knew all the right things to say to God and really were talking about their faithfulness pretty publically and pretty loudly. They truly believed they were doing everything just right. That a challenge or judgment or question was being posed to them was unbelievable.
I can just imagine how people of deep religious belief or practice today would take the kind of judgment Micah was bringing. Imagine if he walked into the Presbyterian Church General Assembly last summer, or the non-denominational Women of Faith Conference, or a Billy Graham-sponsored revival, or a meeting of the World Council of Churches and started calling us all to task about doing or NOT doing what God has asked us to do. Imagine if a prophet came through the doors of our church right in the middle of worship when we are doing the very thing we know God desires and told us that God has a case to lay out against us in the heavenly courts. I don’t think we’d take the news or the question so well.
No, the people of Judah never saw it coming. They THOUGHT they were doing everything just right. They THOUGHT they were being faithful. They were making sacrifices in the temple. They were waiting for the Messiah. They were speaking out loud, maybe too loudly, about what they do to worship God. They THOUGHT they were on the right track as religious people of God.
It’s an easy trap for anyone to fall into, turning the life of faith into a religious check list, and then on top of that broadcasting it to the world when we are proud of ourselves for marking off all the tasks on the list. Sing “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art?” Check. Read 2 chapters from the Old Testament and 3 from the New? Check. Attend Sunday worship? Check. Sign up to usher? Double check! Make it for a communion Sunday? Hat trick! Three checks! Put money in the offering plate? Check. Bow head and pray at every meal? Check. Say bedtime prayers? Check. Make it to “Amen” before falling asleep? Bonus check!
It’s an easy temptation to fall into, and it’s exactly this behavior against which Micah speaks. It’s exactly this bone that God has to pick with us. God calls us out on it turning the majestic landscape of creation in a divine courtroom. God calls us to step out before the bench of the mountains, the jury box created by the hills and answer a few questions. The gracious piece, though, is that it isn’t really with rage or fury that God comes to prosecute. Other prophets and even other parts of Micah can really be angry sometimes. Yet this time the tone of God’s controversy is different. Instead of anger, the tone is one of frustration, even pain. It sounds like everything is turned around and instead of creation crying out “How long, O Lord?” the creator is weeping, “O my people, where did I go wrong?” God is upset, but even more than anger it sounds like disappointment.
God is saddened when our faith is placed in the things that we do. God is saddened when we start to reduce our faith to a religious checklist. That’s not the whole point. It’s not supposed to be about trying to figure out what rituals we need to perform to get by or what doctrines we have to agree to in order to meet all the criteria. God is wearied when we try to rely on our rituals to save us instead of our relationship. God’s goal for all of this is not just to count the rear ends in the pews and check off all our names in the Book of Life, calling us good because bothered to show up week after week after week. Just making it to worship and even participating is just not the point.
Don’t get me wrong. Worship is good! The traditions and routines of our public and private faith practices are good! They aren’t only good; they are great. In the fall one Sunday we talked about how much God desires our worship. I’d say it’s even the first and most central thing to which we are called. In one of our historic Reformed catechisms the question is asked “What is the chief end of [humanity]?” The answer that generations since passed were able to answer in one strong voice is, “The chief end of [humanity] is to glorify God and enjoy [God] forever.” God wants us to worship together, to give praise and honor and glory to God, to hear God’s Word, to make offerings to God, to celebrate the sacraments as the body of Christ, to sing praise, and to offer our prayers for ourselves and others.
God LOVES when the community gathers for ritual. God LOVES when individuals are committed to their personal and private acts of faith and devotion… but not when they replace a living faith in God, a relationship with Christ. Not when they replace being an active disciple of Jesus. Worship is good! Traditions and practices of our faith are good! But not when they prevent us from going to the next level.
I have to pause here and give thanks to Lynne Hobson and Marie Bourget for the inspiration they gave me in last week’s children’s time. If you were here you may remember them talking to the kids about “going to the next level.” If not, they started by talking about video games and how players work hard to master the skills at one level to make it to the next, where the skill set changes a little and the challenges are somewhat harder, but the reward for mastering them is even higher. Then they talked about how being a disciple of Jesus can be thought of in a similar way. Knowing about Jesus is one thing, but following him is taking it to the next level. Hearing about Jesus is the warm up round, but believing in him and accepting the challenge to go with him is more difficult, but at the same time more rewarding. It’s taking it to the next level.
Take it to the next level, Micah reports for God. Do more than just honor God with the ritual bare minimum. Do more than just try to cover your bases with your worship, your public sacrifices, and your private prayer. Take it to the next level and really live this faith we proclaim; follow God’s lead, placing your footsteps right next to Christ’s, and move on to the harder challenges of justice, mercy, and humility.
God desires more, so much more, than our empty words and our mindless ritual. God desires more than our affirmation of memorized doctrine and the lowest common denominator of belief. God desires our relationship. God desires our actions. God desires that we submit ourselves to the divine will, that we humble ourselves by letting go of our emphasis on what we need to do to just get by or look good in front of others so that we can instead seek opportunities to enact God’s justice and to reveal God’s mercy to the world.
In presenting God’s case, Micah refers to particular acts of God, asking the people of Israel and us if we remember these saving acts of God. He brings to their mind and to ours these stories that aren’t just accounts of days gone by, but accounts of what God does even now, what God does for us. Remember how God brought us up from the land of Egypt? Remember how God stood up for us when we had no voice, no power, no strength? Remember how God is all about justice, freeing those who are bound up, releasing captives, lifting up the oppressed?
Next Micah reminds us of another story that is probably even farther back in our minds, if it was ever there are all. He prods our collective memory of the time when God got in the way of a foreign king who was trying to curse Israel. In fact, God even used the prophet for the enemy, a foreigner, to bless us to show us God’s redeeming love. Remember how God shows us mercy, using any available means to bring us into a deeper relationship with Christ?
Then he brings up the way Joshua led the people across the Jordan, FINALLY into the Promised Land. He recalls how after generation upon generation first of slavery in Egypt, then as a people wandering around in the desert wilderness, the promise of God was fulfilled. After walking faithfully and humbly with God, not always know why we were doing what we were doing, how we were going to make it where we were going, we were finally brought to the land of God’s blessing. Remember how God’s footsteps lead us right where we belong? Remember how God never left the our poor, questioning side?
Yes, one of our greatest callings and privileges as the body of Christ and individually members of it is to glorify God, worship God, give praise and honor and make sacrifices to God. But what God requires of us, what will take away God’s frustration and sadness over our personal attempts is when we take it to the next level. What does God require of each of us? That we enact God’s justice on behalf of the poor and the forgotten. That we show God’s mercy to those cast aside and left out. That we walking with faith and humility wherever God chooses to take us.
The blessings of God don’t come to us because we are completing the right checklist. That would be the way the world operates. God’s ways are not our ways. God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Instead God’s blessings are with those who are poor, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who are merciful, those who work for peace and righteousness and the unexpected ways of God. God asks us to take it to this next level. God asks us to step up to this greater challenge with this greater reward - - that in stepping up to the challenge we will be filled with Christ’s love enough to share.