Pastor Rick Mixon

On Being God’s Person (7/17/2016)

Earth in your handsA sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Texts: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Micah 6:1-8; 1 Peter 4:7-11

What does God require? Well, really, who cares? We’re free, independent people, right? We get to live our own lives however we please. What does God have to do with it?

“Who cares?” might be the cynical response of one who finds the “God question” irrelevant and believes he is on his own in this world. Even if there is a god, where is he? What has he done for me lately, let alone what has he done for this poor old world? Looking at the state of the world today, even people of faith may question God’s presence, let alone God’s relevance.

To ask the question, “What does God require?” And to care about the answer, of necessity, means that there is a relationship with God on which to ground the concern. If I am not God’s person, if we are not God’s people, then concern for God’s requirements is meaningless. I suppose I am stating, maybe overstating, the obvious, but I don’t think it hurts to be reminded that, for the most part, we gather here week after week because we are or want to be God’s people. And if that’s true, what God requires of us is critical, perhaps even a life and death matter.

I came to this question because, in our search for biblical texts that address welcoming the stranger, we found Deuteronomy 10:12-22. It is not familiar as a text though it certainly contains language and ideas we have heard before. It’s so obscure, it doesn’t even make the lectionary. Still, the opening line – “So now, O Israel, what does your God require of you?” – rang a bell. This is the same question the prophet Micah asks at a later date in Hebrew history – “God has told you, O mortals, what is good; and what does God require of you…?” So apparently this has been an important question for anyone who wanted to be God’s person, for people of faith for a long time.

The passage from Deuteronomy comes just before the text lays down the law. What does God require? Well, the writer is going to take the next 14 consecutive chapters to make it plain for the questioner. Generally, Christians have not held a very high opinion of the Jewish law. We have used the critique of Jesus to ignore it or largely write it off, except, perhaps, for the 10 commandments. And even those, we would rather carve in stone and set as a misunderstood and misused monument in front of our public buildings than actually study and practice. It is true that there are elements of the Torah that are outdated, though they are sometimes still applied literally, thoughtlessly, and cruelly. I am no expert on the letter of this ancient law and will not try to unpack it this morning.

What is striking to me about this passage is the way it grounds one’s approach to the law. What does God require? “Only to fear God, to walk in all God’s ways, to love God, to serve the Holy One with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of your God and God’s decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.” Before we ever get to “commandments and decrees,” we are encouraged to “fear God” – that is to recognize God, to hold God in the awe that God deserves as the Creator of all that is, to worship God in the beauty of holiness. Next, we are to “walk in all God’s ways” – “Lead us Lord, lead us in your righteousness.” Then “love God” – who is love and who first loved us. It all leads to serving God “with all your heart and soul” so that you might experience “your own well-being.”

I am not saying these instructions are easy. I am saying that there is a whole lot of groundwork to be laid before we ever get to the decrees and commandments. In this morning’s Words of Preparation Eugene Peterson says, “If we don’t have a sense of the primacy of God, we will never get it right, get life right, get our lives right. Not God on the margins; not God as an option; not God on the weekends, God at the center and circumference.” Because Jesus does this groundwork, he is able to sense God’s primacy in his life and the world around him. He places God at the center and the circumference of his being. Thus, he can sum up the law in two Great Commandments – to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself. Yes, I’m sure we still need rules and regulations, instructions and guidelines, but those are always to be understood from a place of love and compassion.

So, let’s get a little more specific. Long before Jesus, the prophet also summed up God’s requirements this way. God’s person is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” Again, the requirements are not easy, but they are clear. It doesn’t take a doctorate in theology or scriptural studies to figure out doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. These requirements are the labor of a lifetime and they require commitment – perhaps the same covenant between God’s and God’s people that the Holy One has been trying to put into practice since the beginning of time.

We live in such a disordered and difficult world. Too many of us are sure the law is on our side. We are even eager to claim God is with us and our particular view of the law. As a result, bullets fly, bombs burst, trucks careen into crowds, angry curses and bitter hatred is hurled across barriers, walls rise, divisions deepen. We weep in grief and despair as the streets run red with blood. Mothers wail, fathers crumple, children flee. It seems there is no safe place on all this earth.

In such terrible times, what does God require of us? What does it mean for you or me to be God’s person? I posted a meme on Facebook this week that encourages, “Don’t be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love kindness, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” As someone who wants to be God’s person, I find hope in these words. I can’t do everything but it is important to do what I can and to bear the witness that I have.

So Micah says if you want to be God’s person you do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God. The Deuteronomist says you fear and love and serve God with your whole being and you commit to walking in God’s ways, which, by the way, includes, executing “justice for the orphan and the widow,” and loving “strangers, providing them food and clothing.” The writer of First Peter, who faced some pretty terrible times of his own, exhorts, “Stay wide-awake in prayer. Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. Be quick to give a meal to the hungry, a bed to the homeless—cheerfully. Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it…” These are all things we can do, if any of us wants to be God’s person, or if all of us together want to be God’s people in the world. For certain, to do what God requires is counter-cultural, but is there any hope otherwise?

In his commentary on Micah, James Nogalski writes, “It is not enough to long for justice. We must practice it, and we must demand it from those we put in office. It is not enough to feel bad for those in need. We need to love kindness; we need to live our lives in relationship to God in ways that show that the relationship affects our lives. We need to give to those in need (economically, emotionally, and spiritually) because of what God has provided us…It means to act concretely, in a way that shows our actions result from our relationship to God…Our lives become our testimony to God and others” (James D. Nogalski, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary: The Book of the Twelve, Micah-Malachi, p. 583).

What does God require? Who cares? I hope you do and I hope I do. It is not an easy way to walk, to be God’s person in this world.  Nor is it easy to come together as God’s people. It cost Jesus his life. Who knows what it might cost us, but we are desperately needed in a world so torn by anger and hatred, bitterness and strife, violence and killing. God’s way of justice, kindness and humility, of compassion, care and love is the only way I see out of our present state. Let our lives become testimony to God and others.

Let me close with some lines from poet Todd Jenkins on prayer and being God’s person in these difficult, tragic times. He writes:

When, “Our thoughts and
prayers are with you.”
becomes the end and
not the means,
we have lost
our spiritual momentum.

Too often, we see prayer
as a request for God
to move, so we don’t have to.

The core of prayer is
a shifting of hearts;
primarily our own.

We speak our angst,
cry our frustration,
groan the unspeakable;

and in the stillness between
syllables, tears, and breaths,
a different note vibrates.

Maybe it’s a new note,
perhaps a dissonant one;
but, always, it calls us
toward the circle.

Whatever else we imagine
it to be, prayer is a request
for inclusion in the sacred journey.

If you’re willing to move,
but don’t know where or how,
let your heart speak.

The rest is not up to you,
but you will likely
find yourself up to it.

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We are a progressive Baptist Church affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA. We have been in Palo Alto since 1893. We celebrate our Baptist heritage. We affirm the historic Baptist tenets of: Bible Freedom, Soul Freedom, Church Freedom, Religious Freedom

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