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Sermon for January 27, 2018

Sermon Title: “As Plain as the Nose”

Texts: Micah 6:1-8/1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Did you ever believe something with such passion that you could not believe how someone else could make the counter argument? That has been my experience. For instance, when I was growing up I used to get in these heated arguments with my cousins over baseball.  My team was the Milwaukee Braves, while my cousins rooted for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Try as I might I couldn’t convince them that the Braves were the better ball club. I could go up and down the roster, position by position, and prove to them how Pittsburgh was over-matched at each position. I had to concede that right fielder Roberto Clemente was a great player, but then Milwaukee’s right fielder, Henry Aaron, was no slough.

My cousins and I argued all the time over whose team was the best, but they could never come round to my point of view, even though, from my perspective, it should have been as plain as the nose on their faces that the Braves were the better team. Sometimes, however, the obvious isn’t so obvious.

Another example. From the time Ford’s assembly plant began mass-producing automobiles in the twenties until the 1960s, seatbelts were largely viewed as an accessory item, if they were available to the auto buyer at all. Today we regard the seatbelt as an indispensable safety feature. How could the automakers have failed to see that? After all, it should have been as plain as the nose on their faces that seatbelts were a necessity.

There are many reasons why the obvious doesn’t register as such.  There are things out there we overlook, other things we don’t want to see, or having seen, choose to ignore.  Many of us have perfected avoidance as a science.

Avoidance is one of the strategies we have perfected when confronting things we would rather not see or deal with. Avoidance is a major biblical theme. The people of Israel repeatedly attempted to avoid the prophets, for the prophets brought a message they didn’t want to hear. The same would pertain in the era of Jesus and the apostle Paul, but more about that later.

Micah, the prophet to whom we are introduced in this morning’s lesson, was so committed to his calling that he was flabbergasted when the people rejected his counsel. He delivered his message with God-inspired passion and conviction, the truth of which, at least from his standpoint, should have been as plain as the nose on their faces.

Though the verses we read this morning are perhaps the most well-known of the entire book, the companion verses and chapters add important detail to the message Micah so passionately delivered.

If you were to summarize that message you might do so under three related headings: woe, repentance, and judgment. The message was not endearing, but Micah didn’t intend it to be.  He felt obligated to tell the message as it was told to him, unlacquered, unvarnished, straight from the heart of God.

Micah spoke for God, these words, “Hear what the Lord says, O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you.  Remember me?  I’m your God.”  “Remember me?  I’m your God.”  Micah would go on to report the mighty deeds of God, using the reference point so many of God’s prophets have used.  Micah reminded the Jews of what we have come to know as the Exodus.

Every Israelite knew the story of the Exodus, for it was the most celebrated episode in the peoples’ history. That God made that happen was as plain as the nose on their faces, an undisputed testimony to God’s love for them. It was by virtue of the Exodus that they were freed from Pharaoh’s clutches and enjoyed freedom in a land they could call their own.

We know that the Israelites’ occupation of the Promised Land was not accomplished painlessly. They only reached their destination after forty years of trial and testing. Those experiences over forty years could not be forgotten, and would not be forgotten. Unfortunately with the passage of time the peoples’ appreciation for the faithfulness of God throughout that prolonged episode steadily diminished.

God was faithful in the face of the people’s faithlessness.  It should have been as plain as the nose on their faces, but it was not. Arrogance displaced humility. The Jews, you see, thought they had “in” with God.  They fashioned themselves entitled, after all they were God’s chosen. Oh, they conceited that they were not perfect, but they were teachable. They had grown in faith and knowledge of the Lord. They respected the law and the prophets, at least for the most part.

The people had an elevated opinion of themselves, but that was not the main issue Micah confronted. Arrogance wasn’t really the issue. Self-righteousness was the issue. The Israelites measured their commitment to the Lord by a standard of their own devising.

Micah challenged the people to set their sights on higher aspirations than those that could be satisfied by such things regular attendance at public prayer. The expressions of piety they displayed were impressive, but were they authentic? Not merely outward displays. God expected more.

Micah reasoned that it should be as plain as the nose on their faces.  God expects more.“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Unfortunately, these basic obligations the prophets of God sought to inculcate didn’t register as such with his people. No, the people were satisfied that what they were doing in God’s name satisfied their obligations.

The prophets challenged the Israelites to up their game, to move beyond a spare change commitment to their God. The prophets’ challenge is one all believers need to hear. But who among us wants to hear that we are coming up short, even missing the mark?

Life under God is rigorous. God does not accommodate self-righteousness, sloth or indifference. God’s uncompromising standard is articulated in the “great commandment”, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all soul, and with all your mind.” That primary commitment was foundational for the ancient Hebrews, and remains so for the Christian today. It is a commitment, frankly, that has humbled even the most devout.

Like Micah and the prophets before him, the great commandment was for Paul the centerpiece of his life. Moreover, Paul strove to make that the centerpiece of the lives of everyone he touched. He faced a different challenge, however, in presenting his message than the one Micah faced. It was not so much that the people of Corinth were making a unsatisfactory commitment to God—-we don’t actually know much about their level of commitment—but [in their case] they were miss-directing their commitment.

Paul was writing to a fragmented church in upheaval. The congregational had become factionalized. Some declared their allegiance to him, others to another stalwart of the fellowship, Cephas. Still others backed another church leader by the name of Apollos. Another group sneered that their commitment was more informed than the others. This group declared that THEY belonged to Christ.

Factionalist has been a recurring threat to the peace of the church. The sixteenth century saw the Catholic church based in Rome undermined by Martin Luther and subsequent factionalists who would be labeled reformers. But even before that, in the eleventh century, the church was severed into two with the Greek Eastern Orthodox Church centered in Constantinople and the Catholic Church in Rome.

In more recent days factionalism in our churches has revolved around such thing as qualifications for ordination, mission agendas, attitudes involving social justice and human rights. Battles over such issues have divided all of the major church denominations.

What does the Lord require, the prophet Micah asked. From his standpoint the answer should have as plain as the nose on their faces. “What does the Lord require but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” which is essentially a restatement of the
Great Commandment.”

Micah and the apostle Paul confronted people who had prioritized pet prerogatives and parochial issues over the fundamental commitments that God enjoined them to keep. Throughout the centuries right up to the present day that has been a consistent failing of those who take God’s commandments seriously and would presume to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

Plain as the nose on our faces.  The God who loves and sustains us unconditionally wishes to be loved unconditionally in return. Loved, mind you, not on our terms, with the spare change of our lives, but loved with a commitment modeled after our
Savior, Jesus Christ himself.

Plain as the nose on their faces, at least that is how Micah and Paul reasoned.  But the people whom Micah and Paul sought to influence had lost the message, as we in latter days have done, allowing our own agendas and preferences displace those of God.

Wise, sure they were wise.  In their self-conceit those Jews Micah addressed, and those Corinthians Paul addressed, believed that they the lives they were living were consistent with God’s will. It was a form of nearsightedness to which we are all prone. We have these extraordinary filters that filter out all that is uncomfortable and unpleasant, things that might expose things that are hurtful to us. We were not created, however, to live in the shadowlands of our own self-indulgence. We were created to live in the light of God’s truth.

God sends his prophets to lead us into the light, and it is in many instances it is a process that exacts a toll on us. Assumptions upon which we founded our lives and by which we measured our self-worth are subjected to severe scrutiny. Our prejudices and self-righteousness are exposed.

With what shall I come before the Lord?  Micah looked out across his audience and he saw a multitude of banners proudly announcing: I pray regularly, I tithe, I do good works. Micah was moved, and who wouldn’t be? The people were practicing the disciplines that God commended, but they failed to acknowledge the basic values; justice, humility, and kindness, that those disciplines were meant to support.

Plain for God isn’t always plain for us, if it were so the church and its message would be superfluous and unnecessary. No, we do not see ourselves and the world as God does. We make mistakes. We easily lose sight of what God expects from us. But then we are only human, and humanly flawed.

The good news is that the scriptures, prayer time, and worship time like this Sunday morning present us with a multitude of opportunities to work on those flaws and make changes consistent with a more faithful obedience to God’s will.

God wants us to succeed. So dedicated is God to that outcome that he sent Jesus to show us the way.

Life under God is rigorous. That, clearly, IS as plain as the nose on our faces. But, then, God’s love that supports us in our trials is so great and enduring that he was willing to surrender his only son to death that we might prevail. I submit that that is some very good news to carry into this new year.

Amen.

PRAYER

Eternal God, you are the peace we crave, the hope that sustains us, the truth that undergirds our lives. We gather today to honor you, the quiet and solemnity of this place providing a welcome respite from the noise and distractions we experience elsewhere. A needy people, we seek your presence, your comfort and consolation, O God.  The brave front we so often erect for ourselves, our public face, is but a moveable prop we use to conceal the pain and frustration that so often undermines our personal happiness and strains our relationship with others.

O Lord, you have taught us that your strength is perfected in our weakness.  Why, then, do we find it so difficult to admit that we are weak?  That we are needy?  We bear our burdens alone, in silence, and call it virtue.  We maintain our guard, keeping a tight reign on the controls, and call it prudence. Grant us wisdom, O God, that we may understand more clearly what the Scriptures and the your Spirit are prepared to teach us about ourselves and our world.

Abide with all your children, O God, who are threatened by danger this day.  Protect and preserve the innocent, particularly those brave women and men who refuse to be intimidated by their persecutors.  We give thanks for the hundreds of relief agencies and churches that support humanitarian efforts around the globe. Their selfless acts of compassion bear witness to a hope that will not be defeated by any adversary.

We give thanks for the woman and men who serve our nation in the armed forces. Their dedication and patriotism reveal our country at its best. We give thanks for the civilian employees of our government who perform essential, yet often anonymous duties that are essential to our nation’s wellbeing. Even as we pray for them, we pray that the political impasse that has seen so many of them deprived of their paychecks may end very soon.

Lord, as we enter this new year we pray for strength and courage to live life from the freedom your Son’s resurrection won for us. May this fresh start embolden us to set aside habits that undermine our ability to enjoy life to the full. By the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, O God, help us to establish and maintain new disciplines of prayer and service, even as you challenge us to reach out to others in your name.

O Lord, our Lord, these prayers but imperfectly represent the content of our hearts, or adequately express the gratitude we feel for the lives you have given us to live. We are but pilgrims on the journeys you have established for us. We do not fear what is to come, O God, for we know that through all seasons of life your hand will support and guide us.

With confidence and thanksgiving borne of the hope we have found in Jesus Christ, we unite our collective voices into one unified voice praying…