Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23
1The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.
3Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.
4He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5“Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
6The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. Selah
7“Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.
8Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.
22“Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
23Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.”
32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
When I was selecting texts for this morning’s lessons, I had a difficult choice to make. One of the other Old Testament readings in the Lectionary for this week is from the first chapter of Isaiah, and it includes verses 10-13:
1:10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
1:11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
1:12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more;
1:13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
God strikes the same tone in Psalm 50, acknowledging the frequent sacrifices made by Israel, yet rebuking them all the same. The main charge against Israel is that the people are not making their offerings with thanksgiving. Rather, they are just going through the motions—sacrifice is an empty observance and God is not satisfied by this. The people of God have forgotten God; the price for this forgetfulness? God has the right to tear Israel apart. And the ending for today’s reading from Isaiah is about the same, as God says to Israel, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.” That’s pretty scary stuff.
This language of charges and rights and judgments almost seems to be borrowed from the courtroom. In fact, this is a common device in the Old Testament. Biblical scholars call this form a covenant lawsuit. God is placing the people Israel on trial for not living up to their obligations. Another place where you may have noticed this is in the Book of Micah, chapter 6, verses 1-8. In that passage, God lists many of the things that God has done for Israel, and then God demands that Israel answer for its shortcomings. I mention this because the answers to the charges that God raises against Israel are remarkably similar. In Micah 6:8, the prophet exhorts Israel to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Similarly, Isaiah instructs Israel to: “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
It sounds easy, yet Israel seems to have trouble living into these instructions… and so do we. I think part of the problem, which is reinforced by these scriptures, is that God offers us heaping helpings of fear. Fear can be a great motivator, but sometimes it motivates us too well; it distorts the larger picture. For centuries, the Church has taught us that our main purpose here on Earth is to get into Heaven when we die. And if we obey what we’re told in the scriptures, and we live right, then we’ll get in. That’s it! Oh, and we should also be scared of going to Hell. Really, really scared. Fear helped to keep us in line.
And then some crazy people came along and challenged some of these teachings. Crazy people, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who didn’t believe in works righteousness, the idea that you or I could work our way into Heaven by doing good deeds or perfectly observing all of God’s commandments—if such a thing were humanly possible. Don’t worry. It’s not. Don’t worry.
This is how Jesus begins this morning’s lesson from Luke: “Do not be afraid, little flock.” Jesus begins by dialing down the fear: “Do not be afraid, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Wow, that’s really happy and hopeful. Then, instead of telling us to be afraid, Jesus tells us how we should live, and that’s truly frightening: he tells us to sell all our possessions. Sell all our possessions!
I can’t believe that none of you jumped up and ran out of here. You’re all going to wait to sell all your possessions until after church, right? Yeah, me, too.
And this is where the widows and the orphans and the thankfulness come back into the picture. What Jesus is talking about, what Isaiah is talking about, what Micah was talking about, and what the Psalmist was talking about was living in a right relationship with God. To do this, we must thank God for the love that God has shown us, and then we must love one another—completely and unconditionally—just as God loves us. We call this agape love. I’m sure you’ve heard this term before.
A great example of this can be found in Mark 12:29-31, when Jesus answers the scribe’s question, which is the greatest commandment: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Caring for the widow and the orphan, providing for the poor, advocating for the homeless, feeding the hungry, these are acts of love for our human family. We all talk about doing these things, and some of us do these things . . . some of the time. So let me ask you the uncomfortable question: When is the last time one of you sold an extra TV set, or an old car, and gave the money to charity? When’s the last time you went out to a restaurant and ate a really expensive meal? Could you have opted for a less expensive mean, and then, maybe made a donation to your local food bank?
Before you start squirming in your pews, do not be afraid. I am not here to condemn you. I am no holier than any of you. I have also missed countless opportunities for acts of charity; I have failed, time and again, to live into that right relationship with God. And God loves me still, just as God loves each of you. Do not be afraid.
Jesus is not calling for each of us to sell all our earthly possessions, though he is calling for us to let go of our greed and give freely of ourselves. Greed is an easy trap to fall into. Anxiety and fear can lead us to believe that we won’t have enough: enough food, enough money, enough love. So we hoard them when we can find them. This is a problem. The Apostle Paul might call this idolatry; at the very least, it seems that we are putting goods in the place of God, and in our hoarding, we disregard the needs of others.
In our disregard for the needs of others, we fail to practice agape love. Our failure works on another level. If our desire to hoard comes from a fear of scarcity, then we are also failing to fully trust in God. We’re not alone in this. Think of the Israelites, wandering through the desert. God led them out of Egypt, sent them manna, yet they complained about the accommodations on the trip. Even worse, they worshipped a golden calf while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai. They were not willing to trust completely in God. I think it’s safe to say that fear can interrupt a healthy relationship with God.
Yet God did not let the Israelites perish in the desert. As many times as they turned away, God welcomed them back. What’s more, when the people of Israel continued to have trouble living in a right relationship with God, God entered the world in the person of Jesus. God’s only son was sent to teach us how to restore our relationship with God. What an amazing act of grace!
And that restoration begins with prayer, as we were taught by Jesus. Let’s look at the language of the Lord’s Prayer. I do not ask God to provide for me. No. Collectively, we ask for God to provide for us just what we need—and nothing more! We do not ask for an abundance of resources; we ask for our daily bread. Our daily bread.
It strikes me that the Lord’s Prayer is also a prayer of trust. By voicing this prayer, we are saying that we trust God to feed us, to take care of our needs. We ask God to provide for everyone; sometimes we are the instruments by which God provides for others, it is part of the cycle of trust and agape love. We trust that God loves us enough to provide for us, and we reflect that love and trust to those who cannot care for themselves. All the time, Jesus reminds us, “Do not fear.” This is the grace of God. “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace,” in the person of Jesus, “my fears relieved.” And with deepest thanksgiving, I say, thanks be to God! Amen!