01/29/23 – Is Anyone “Right with God?”

GETTING RIGHT WITH GOD

January 29, 2023
Epiphany 4A
Micah 6: 1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Cor. 1: 18-31; Matt. 5:1-12
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

If I had to pick an Epiphany theme that ties our Old Testament reading from Micah with our gospel passage from Matthew, I would say both of them shine a light on the path to “getting right with God.” Micah speaks to ancient Israel when Judah, threatened with domination by other nations, feel God has abandoned her. Jesus speaks to his disciples as he launches his public ministry in a Jewish province dominated by the Roman Empire. In the same way God, through the prophet Micah, lays out the path for faithful living with obedience to God’s sovereignty, Jesus, in the opening of his Sermon on the Mount, reveals the way of faithful living in what he refers to as God’s Kingdom.

The Apostle Paul also addresses the issue of faithfulness to a new Christian congregation, stressing what is made known in Micah and Matthew’s Jesus – God’s ways are not our ways. Getting right with God appears foolish by the standards of worldly wisdom, but God has never altered God’s vision and demand for doing things God’s way. Micah makes it clear that God’s plan has always been for reconciliation and redemption for God’s people; but through Micah God tells Israel: ‘Work with me folks, I need a little cooperation!’ In terms of Christian doctrine: we could say, God saves, redeems and justifies us through no merit of our own, but truly accepting God’s gracious gift is evidenced in our faithful obedience, which we call sanctification. The twentieth century theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained: ‘Justification without sanctification is cheap grace. Jesus informs his disciples that “costly grace” is what God desires from us.

Our reading from the prophet Micah is written in the style of a courtroom drama. Micah was a prophet and community activist who spoke up for the oppressed and the poor. He spoke out against the powerful and privileged who oppressed and exploited others to enhance themselves. The greed of those at the top trickled down hardship and hopelessness where it puddled at the bottom of Israel’s socio-economic ladder. In this scene Micah presents, God serves as the prosecuting attorney and plaintiff with Israel the defendant, charged with breaking the covenant. The jury is all of God’s creation. God demands the defendant to “plead your case.”

But then the courtroom proceedings become more conversational. God lectures Israel like a judge before sentencing a repeat offender. “Why have you wasted your opportunities. I have shown you mercy when you got into trouble. Remember how I freed you from slavery in Egypt. Remember how I turned the curses King Balak sent Balaam to deliver upon Israel into blessings. And now you behave like this!?’ Israel responds petulantly: “So what do you want from us? How big of a sacrifice should we bring to you to get into your good graces again? God, the wise judge answers: ‘What I want from you is for you to be good people. Treat others with the kind of justice, mercy and loving kindness I have shown you. And do not presume to follow your own authority. Follow me, not the devices and desires of your hardened hearts.’

What God was asking of the recalcitrant Israel was a change of heart and a change of direction. Tempted away by worldly pleasures,  Israel had stopped worshipping God above worldly gods – you know them — wealth, power, prestigious titles, national security, personal security, luxurious houses, fancy cars, trendy clothes. God seemed to have moved farther and farther away from the Israelites, when in fact, it was Israel that was doing the walking, none too humbly, away from God.

The Israelites ceased to feel God’s presence and despaired, but it was Israel who had stopped looking and listening for God. When going their own way, they lost their identity as a people in relationship with God. We read in the Hebrew Scriptures that God is known by God’s love, justice and mercy. To experience God’s presence, we must walk the path God has set before us. In the gospels we read that God sent Jesus to us to embody God’s love, justice and mercy. Jesus walked with God in total obedience, and in so doing illumined the path for us. Each of our scripture readings, including the Psalm 15 , affirm God’s promise that justice and kindness – read also mercy and compassion – will ultimately prevail because that is who God is and that is what God does.

The Galilean audience to whom Jesus spoke were not living a life of comfort and ease under the Roman Empire. It was difficult to feel God’s blessing. It was hard to remain faithful as a religious minority in an empire of pagans whose values were in opposition to their own. The empire honored power, dominance, wealth and violent aggression against anyone who threatened their security of privilege. We saw in living color the horrific consequence of “might makes right” in the beating death of Tyre Nichols by 5 Memphis police officers. By whose authority did the officers act? Not by the law and definitely not God’s authority. They made themselves the authority and used their presumed authority to kill a man. Assuming one’s own superior authority leads to justifying atrocities such as mass shootings, invading countries, and even genocides. Assuming superior privilege and authority may also be non-violent, but equally oppressive and death-dealing. For example, political leaders spreading lies and otherwise acting dishonestly to win elections. Whenever humanity creates its own authority without justice, compassion or the common good of society, the consequences are dire – poverty, oppression and death. What God desires for us is abundant blessings, freedom and life.

The word, “beatitude” comes from the Latin word “beatitudo.” Matthew was not the first to include beatitudes. You will also find them in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, particularly in Proverbs and Psalms. Matthew never used the term, ”beatitude,” but he does use the Greek word, “makarios,” translated as “blessed.” There are many possible translations for the Greek word used here. One of the more popular translations is “happy.” In the “honor-shame” culture of the first century, the word “honored” might be a better translation than “happy.” Jesus was bestowing honor on people that the rich and powerful of society shamed. To be obedient to God, especially when obedience was costly, was to walk humbly with God.  Jesus was affirming the path to sanctification. In this week’s Epistle, Paul asks rhetorically: “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” The Beatitudes turn worldly wisdom on its head and make it wise to be a fool for Christ.

By worldly values, no one would choose to be one of those Jesus called blessed. The poor in spirit. Those who mourn. The meek. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The merciful. The pure in heart. The peacemakers. Those who are persecuted.  Jesus told the crowd gathered that these are the ones upon whom God would bestow honor and make inheritors of the kingdom. Jesus was not calling his disciples to purposely become victims of society; he promised that those whom society victimizes, do not suffer in God’s kingdom. Jesus makes this promise to all people in every time and place who put loyalty to him before that of the state, culture, political ideology, or material wealth.

At the time Matthew wrote, many of the early Christians believed that the kingdom of God would be ushered in by a great war and a mighty show of force, but Jesus reveals the nature of the kingdom of God is not one of domination, but of God’s mercy and justice. Today, we see the world pushing closer to a competition of domination. With each broken promise, with each temporary alignment formed based on exploitation rather than mutual well-being, the world becomes the battleground of a few nations competing against one another at the expense of all others. But Jesus tells us the kingdom of God is for the humble, those who have total dependence on God. The kingdom is marked by obedience to God and peaceful interdependence with one another, demonstrated by kindness and mercy.

When Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, he was not talking about the distant future beyond the world. He proclaimed that with him, the kingdom of God had already entered the world. To make his point, Jesus followed his Sermon on the Mount with a demonstration. The first thing Jesus did when he came down the mountain was to heal a leper. (Matt. 8:1-4) Jesus tells us we are blessed when we follow God rather the devices and desires of our own hearts and when we glorify God by our actions to promote peace, justice and mercy among God’s children. God blesses us to be a blessing to others. Who are the poor, the persecuted, the ones who mourn and hunger and thirst for righteousness in our community? These are the ones Jesus calls us to feed, to free, to comfort, to heal.

The Apostle Paul delivers the most counter-cultural, anti-empire message yet. The cross, that brutal tool used by the Romans to inflict death and humiliation to secure its domination, is the source of God’s redemption. In a pastoral letter, Paul attempts to address some of the sources of conflict in the Corinthian church. The unity of the congregation had been broken over arguments about when and who should eat meat, the meaning of the Lord’s supper, about the gifts of the Spirit, the work of the cross, the triumph of love, and the diversity of the body of Christ. With a “my way or no way” attitude, the congregation had lost its focus on Christ and concentrated on bending others into submission over self-centered issues concerning doctrine and worship practices.

Paul saw the need for individuals to be “right” or “superior” had caused the congregation to turn in the wrong direction. Paul countered with the message that Christ had taught them it is a blessed gift from God that we need each other. Paul refuted the social, political, and economic systems of the empire with Christ’s example that the power of God is stronger than human strength and God’s wisdom is wiser than human wisdom.

By Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we have been saved, redeemed, and reconciled to God. But if we are going to bring others to Christ with us, we must heed the warning of a philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche, who famously said: “I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.” We testify to our sanctification, our acceptance of God’s gracious gift of salvation and redemption, by doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.”

 

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2023, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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