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Sermon for January 13, 2019

Texts: Psalm 45:1-2,6-9/James 1:17-27

Title: “The Doer’s Guide”

      There once was a man who was more diligent than most in pursuing that question.  Mark’s Gospel tells us that a man approached Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Though we are not told why he believed Jesus might be the source of such information, there he was.  Assuming the role of a good rabbi, Jesus pointed him to the commandments:

 

“You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”  A faithful and obedient Jew, the man could confidently report that he had obeyed the commandments to the letter.  Mark tells us that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

      Experiencing a surge of pride that he had won the Lord’s favor, the man’s self-confidence soared.  Yet its ascent was quickly interrupted, because Jesus had more to say.  You see, apparently obedience to the commandments, as valuable as that was, merely propped opened the door to eternal life.  More was required of the person who hoped to enter and enjoy its fruits.  But what more could there be?

      “You lack one thing,” declared the Lord; “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  “One thing you lack.”  No, that was not at all what the man expected to hear.

Here was a man who was prepared to receive a solid gold commendation. He thought he had won the race. Unfortunately, that was not what Jesus thought. The man had not crossed the finish line as he had supposed, but had only completed the first leg of the race with the much more challenging section up ahead. 

      “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  How orderly and rational things would be if we were given a checklist against we could measure our progress toward that ultimate prize.

      The commandments provided just such a checklist for many of the people with whom Jesus related.  Be right with the commandments and you will be right with God went the thinking.  Only in human hands the religious law became perverted, and was used as a justification for other laws and protocols promoting works righteousness. Because he deemed himself righteous under the laws he so scrupulously obeyed, the believer felt no compulsion to pursue righteousness elsewhere.

      Scripture tells us that the priests, teachers, scribes, and other functionaries who represented the religious establishment of Jesus’ day jealously guarded their authority under the law.  Sought out to instruct, counsel, and judge, their authority, indeed their reason for being at all, derived largely from the law.

      The fact that a Jew would come to Jesus seeking counsel on theological/legal questions threatened those who wielded religious authority. Who was this Jesus, his adversaries demanded, and what was the source of his authority? He was not part of their religious guild. He was an outsider and uncredentialed.

      That Jesus did not have the stamp of authority the priest or scribe of that day possessed did not seem to bother the man in our lesson however. We do not know why he sought out Jesus when he could have gone to the professionals in the synagogue. In fact, why even consult the professionals on the matter of eternal life if he was satisfied that his resume was already stamped “approved?”

Yet here was a man who was suspicious that there might be something hidden in the small print that he had overlooked. Might Jesus be someone who could identify what that might be? A “dot the i, and cross the t” guy, the man was determined to do anything it might take to earn eternal life.

When I was in college and seminary in the majority of my professors typically handed out a course syllabus at the first class meeting. [Many of you remember those.] The syllabus identified the required reading, the content and length of the papers to be written, the exam dates, and often gave a percentage breakdown of how each requirement would count toward the final grade. 

Occasionally, however, a professor deviated from the normal practice, and chose to evaluate us by more subjective standards, basing our grade on a single project or on class participation.  Now that didn’t satisfy the majority of us. We preferred to have our performance measured by the traditional means, rather than the more loosely composed standards.

      “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”  “Professor, what must I do to earn a good grade?”  If there are specific things I can do I can control outcomes. If there are regularly scheduled exams and graded essays, I know exactly what it will take to succeed. But what if other expectations are levied that can’t be tallied as neatly as commandments obeyed or tests passed?  What then?

      “Look at me, Lord, look at how worthy I am?  Check the resume, you won’t find a blemish.  I have obeyed every commandment. I have not neglected a single law.”  Professor, I have aced all the tests, written thoughtful essays, and led many of the class discussions.  Look at how worthy I am.

      It is striking, isn’t it, that those who come to Jesus with the most going for them in the personal righteousness department, most often leave his presence disappointed?  They are not condemned as sinister or bad people, rather they learn that all the things that count for so much to them and to the world, really don’t count for that much in Jesus’ eyes.  What really counts in Jesus’ eyes is to trust him, trust that may extend to the surrender of the very things we most tightly grasp. The message of Jesus is quite consistent on the matter of surrender when he declares, “put everything aside, and follow me.”

      Salvation on defined terms, that’s what the man wanted. Jesus, however, set other terms that superseded the religious law.

      To those Jews who believed that adherence to the law was priority number one, the Apostle Paul said, “think again.”  In his letter to the church at Rome Paul offers perhaps the single best treatment to be found on the issue of law, what we do, and grace; what God does.  “But now apart from the law [Paul writes], the righteousness of God has been disclosed… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is no distinction, since all sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  In sum, Paul is saying that while the law has its place, but it is grace that saves.

      If this business of doing things like following the law or attempting through other means to win God’s favor is jettisoned as a strategy for this life and the life to come, can we really ignore doing altogether?  We face a conundrum don’t we?  Though we perhaps cannot “do” our way into the kingdom of God through obedience to laws, we cannot entirely ignore doing either.  “Give up your riches and follow me.”  No, adherence to the commandments was not enough, more doing was asked of the man in our lesson.

      Of all the writings that collectively comprise the New Testament, the Epistle of James, more than any other, stresses the Christian’s obligation to act upon one’s faith.  In fact, on the surface it appears that James is advocating works righteousness.  That may have been reason enough for the great reformer Martin Luther to denounce James as “an epistle of straw, destitute of evangelical character.”  Be that as it may, James earned a place in the New Testament canon, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”  [repeat]

      The root of hypocrisy is talk unsupported by action—the “do as I say, not as I do” thing.  Yet insofar as our standing before God is concerned “works righteousness” is a more dangerous, and common, failing.  The apostle Paul took to task those who sought to justify themselves through their works. While Paul did not deny the importance of work undertaken to build the kingdom, the apostle stressed that it was the personal motivations that inspired the works that mean most in the eyes of God.

      “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”  The word, of course, is God’s word, the “doing” is everything that might give the word visibility in the world.

      The gospels repeatedly remark on the large crowds that gathered around Jesus to hear him preach and teach, the likewise report how quickly the attraction wore off when Jesus charged his audience to act upon his message.

      Jesus’ ministry was all about equipping people to do the work of God’s kingdom, and when ministry today draws its authority and power from the risen Lord it has the same aim.  It is easy to lose focus in ministry, to mistake the satisfaction of personal ambition and needs with the goals to which Christ points. 

It is one thing to hear, it is another thing entirely to do.  It is one thing to display piety and use Christ’s name in the public square, it is quite another to make common cause with the poor, the marginalized, and those deprived of justice and human rights to whom Jesus ministered.  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this [James declares]: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We would call that faith in action, the kind of faith that stocks the food pantry, provides Christmas gives to needy families, and supports worldwide Christian outreach.

      A North American missionary went out one day to preach in a barrio in a Brazilian city.  Taking John 3:16 as his text, he stood on the corner proclaiming the love of God for all people. A crowd gathered. One man in the crowd interrupted the missionary, ‘You are wrong, Señor, God doesn’t love us.’ But the preacher was adamant. ‘Oh, yes. God does love you. God gives all good things, including the Christ, for you.’ The Brazilian, waving his arms at the squalor surrounding him, replied angrily, ‘Then somebody has been messing with the love of God!’ If God gave the earth for all people to share and enjoy, someone has been ‘messing’ with God’s plans.

      The point the epistle of James is attempting to make is that someone is “messing with God’s plan” when the sincere sentiments and righteous indignation expressed from the pulpit, and in the church mission statement, don’t find their way into plans to implement Christ’s vision for the world.

      “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”  Jesus is the doer’s guide.  You will not find the zeal of Jesus committed to insuring that people like us maintain our comfortable lifestyles. Nor should it be. His zeal is reserved for every child of God’s creating who is needy or oppressed. His zeal is directed against human hypocrisy, self-righteousness in its near infinite variety. His zeal is committed to transforming this world by transforming each of us.  Christ challenges us to be doers, and there is a whole lot of doing that needs to be done.

      Works cannot justify us in the eyes of God, that proposition is central to the faith you and I embrace.  But what is faith if we show no inclination to follow where Jesus is leading? 

The Lord’s agenda is quite clear, the implementation, the doing, is the challenge you and I are called to meet. If we are open to the challenge God will provide the tools we need to meet it.

PRAYER

      In gratitude for the gift of this day, and the privileged good fortune we enjoy, we who have gathered here this morning pledge to love and serve you as your will directs. Grant us wisdom and courage to fulfill your holy calling with seriousness, but also with joy and laughter. Often reticent to share the good news you have given us, we pray that you will help build confidence to take your good news with us wherever we go.

Lord, we are often burdened by personal doubts and inadequacies for we know we have failed both you and neighbor.  We have enjoyed opportunities and advantages in abundance but we have neglected to acknowledge the source of our blessings.  We have accumulate things we believe will enhance our lives, but we remain hungry and unfulfilled.  Grant us wisdom for the living of these days, the ability to distinguish the superficial from the eternal.

      Lord, what is the value of our good deeds, all our displays of piety, if love for you does not inspire them? Preserve us from hypocrisy, the self-conceit and self-deception to which we are so prone.  As we begin a new year help us to shape a new perspective toward our goals and ambitions, even as we challenge ourselves to break free of ingrained habits and prejudices.

      In gratitude, O God, we remember a man of peace who gave his life in the cause of peace and justice. The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. lives on as we observe his approaching birthday. May that legacy continue inspire men and women to adopt his goals and methods.

      O Spirit, to whom all hearts are open, and all desires known, you know us better than we know ourselves. Help us overcome our doubts and fears of the future. Strengthen our faith that we might be more diligent in prayer, and more prepared to serve after the example of Jesus.

      As part of your great body, the Church, we gather today, O Christ, praying that you would empower us to be the force for righteousness you created us to be.  We pray these things in your blessed name, using the words you taught us…