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Following God in an Unstable World: Sermon #3

Following God in an Unstable World – Unstable World, Just God -  Sermon #3

Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Jan 24, 2016 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor

 

Preamble

Good morning and welcome to the Vineyard!

 

We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your first time or 100th, we are honored that you are here today in our community. Whether you arrived here this morning because of an Internet search, because you were invited, or because you already knew the way, we are grateful for your presence. Our simple prayer for you is that you would experience peace, welcome, and acceptance. We also pray that you would find space to encounter the loving presence of the living God during your time with us this morning!

Introduction

I’m continuing our on-going sermon series on Following God in an Unstable World.

 

In the opening sermon in this series, I offered some questions that we should consider in this series, especially in face of tragedies that occur all around us. As I recalled the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in June 2015, I realized I had questions and many of these questions were mainly for God. Chief among my questions, was “Where are you God?” and its companion, “What am I supposed to do when the world in which I inhabit seems to be falling apart all around me?”

 

God does hear the cries of injustice and as much as he hears, he also acts. As He acts, he invites us to join him already at work.

 

An Unstable World - The Problem of Evil

Initially, I attempted to avoid one of the elephants in the room with us, the particular elephant, being the questions we have around evil and justice of God. I owe NT Wright, the New Testament scholar a debt of gratitude for his work in this area. I tried to avoid addressing the issue of evil because I don’t have any answers for us. Only more questions to join the chorus of humanity that has asked, and asks God, “Why is there evil in your good creation?” And once you ask the first question, others quickly follow like,  “What is evil?” “Where did it come from?” “Why has it been allowed to continued?” “How long will this go on the way it is?” And finally, “Will God finally defeat evil?”

 

Theologians, seminarians, and pastors all wrestle with these same questions. Some have attempted to explain the problem of evil in simple terms, offering that evil is simply the result of the first humans taking from God what didn’t belong to them (what would later develop into the theology of original sin), but that answer is too neat and tidy for me. Plus it doesn’t address the other questions of “Where did evil come from, in the first place?” and “Why has God allowed it to continue in his good creation?” Then there’s the bigger question of why God has decided to get his “boots muddy and his hand bloody” by joining humanity in its struggle with evil.

 

When we turn to scripture to query it for an answer to the problem of evil, scripture seems to oscillate around three responses:

 

  • Evil is the result of dehumanization and evil as a form of idolatry
    • Dehumanization - which is our refusal to see each other as God’s image bearers
    • Idolatry - think of it as the result of worshiping something or someone other than God, which distorts and deforms you
  • Evil is what “wicked” people do and what those “wicked” people to “righteous” people.
  • Finally, Evil is the work of the accuser, or the “Satan.”

None of these responses are really an explanation, however.

 

As we continue to probe scripture for an answer, we may observe dark inklings about wickedness being allowed to go on for a while, so that when God finally judges it, that judgment will be seen to be just.

 

Then there are also fleeting glimpses that evil is to be considered an intruder into God's good creation, though this is never really expanded or explained.

 

Even the Psalms, the emotional handbook of the Bible, regularly ask how long this wretched state of affairs will go on.

 

It seems that scripture is more interested in telling us what God can do, has done, and will do about evil, instead of what God says about evil.

 

A Witness and Invitation

It’s annoying that God will not simply abolish evil from his good creation. Which leads me to the question, “Why not?” Again, we don’t get an answer, what we get instead is a witness and an invitation.

 

Let me start with the witness. The scriptures and the people of God bear witness to God’s presence at work with us. God is active in the midst of evil, containing, restraining, and preventing it from doing its worst in us and others. We see this unfold within the story of the people of Israel, we see this all through out the prophets as they raise their voice and cry out, and we finally see it in its fullness in the person of Jesus.

Now onto the invitation, here we turn to the prophets of God. He calls on them to remind us who we are, and who he is. He calls on them to remind us that he is indeed at work in his creation restraining, containing, and preventing evil from doing its worst. This may not resonate as we look out at evil at work in our own lives and in the lives of those we love, but it’s true. As much as we imagine a world without evil, we have no concept of a world where evil wins.

 

When Jesus stands in Luke 4, and reads from the scroll of Isaiah, Jesus is invoking the vocation of the prophets of old.

 

18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

 

These prophets were fully aware of the instability of the world, they were living within its instability. Jesus lived under the rule of the Roman Empire. His people were oppressed, marginalized, and persecuted. This was the very picture instability. Yet Jesus invites us to carve out a new reality in the midst of an unstable world. A new reality where God is at work. Here’s the invitation: to live within the world as if the world is as it should be, not as we find it. But this requires that we are able or are at least willing to trust that God will take care of us, even if we fear that he won’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

We Need a Mirror

In some sense it’s easier to deal with the evil of others, not the evil we commit or participate in. This is especially true since we all live in the connected age, where it’s super easy to see the evil and injustice committed by others. And as social media warriors, we can craft the perfect 140 character response, fire it out, and sit back and watch the magic happen.

 

But.

 

But, the prophets don’t invite us to get on our moral high ground, instead they invite us to consider own sin, our own failure to act justly, our failure to trust God and live within the world as it should be, not as it is.

 

Consider the prophet Micah, responding to the lack of faithfulness among the people of God, Micah doesn’t raise his voice against those evil-doers, out there, instead he gets a mirror and places it in front of the people of God and he reminds them of their vocation:

 

6With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)

 

Let me take a moment to unpack this interchange.

 

The people of Israel are echoing the existing ways of addressing and interacting with the gods. The approach that they offer is the expected one, sacrifice. In answer to the question, “What does God require from me?” Their answer is, more sacrifice, greater sacrifice, as if God is running short of supply.

 

 

Micah pivots, he rejects their offer for more sacrifice, instead answers in verse 8,

 

8He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)

 

Micah is essentially saying that God requires that you treat people appropriately. Act justly. Love Mercy. Walk in peace and humility. This is how we follow God in an unstable world.

 

This is significant because Micah is sorta rebuking the people.

 

The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; (Psalm 24:1)

 

So, he’s saying that you can’t bargain with God because God doesn’t need anything.

 

8He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)

 

Last week, Nigel invited us walk in peace and humility, echoing the words of Paul,

 

18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)

 

Next week, I’ll look at what it means to love mercy and compassion, for now, let’s continue our conversation about justice.

 

Simply put, God’s justice is a “saving, healing, and restorative justice.” It’s saving, healing, and restorative because it reveals the God to whom justice belongs. He’s the Creator God, and he is on a rescue mission to save, heal, and restore his creation, his entire creation from the effects of evil and injustice. And he invites us to join him in his endeavor.

 

What Does It Mean for Us to Do Justice?

I think we want to try to see if we can connect our heart with God’s heart. Have we put ourselves in places of openness that allows God’s spirit to fill us? Can we unite our spirit to God’s spirit and feel the pain and suffering that injustice causes God? Can we feel what God feels? There’s a temptation here to want to hate the things that God hates, (but we can hate without ever acting) we even have songs that we sing about this, but I think the road less traveled is the one that allows us to feel the pain that God feels–the weeping that God does for the those who are ignored, oppressed, exploited, and marginalized.

 

He’s calling us to respond in kind.

 

We are invited to act justly, we are called to do justice.

 

When we do this, we proclaim that the Creator God is real, active, and concerned. We proclaim that the Creator God is personal, that the Creator God is involved in our suffering, that he hears the cries of the oppressed, weak, the left behind, and the excluded.

 

Friends, God will not rest until justice reigns on the earth.

 

Everyone of us is being invited to reflect God’s kingdom and do justice in the spaces within which we operate. Whether that’s in the classroom, in the boardroom, in the courtroom, on the playground, or at the dinner table.

 

A word of caution as we make our way, remember that we need a mirror, otherwise we will see more clearly the evil that others do while ignoring our own participation. When we start with ourselves before judging others, there’s space for compassion, which Micah says is needed. This is where we come to realize that all that we have is a gift from God. We didn’t earn it, no matter what the Empire tells us. When we start from this position, all that we have is a gift, the question is never, “Am I doing as much as the next person?” But, “Am I using God’s gifts well?”

 

Throughout the New Testament, we see Jesus using the gifts he received to enact justice, whether it’s standing in the gap between the woman caught in adultery and those who sought to kill her. Whether it’s the woman with the issue of blood, who gets healed by touching him.

Or the disciples, who we were called to follow Jesus into life through the narrow gate. Or those who he raised from the dead to life again. Or the paralyzed man, who before healing him, Jesus forgave him, restoring him to community again.

 

The spiritual tool that we need here is discernment.

What are we being called to do?

How are we being called to live?

How are we being called to do justice?

 

Jesus identifies with the lowly, the poor, the sick, the outcast. He invites us to do the same.  This obviously includes all of our actions towards such people, but it also includes all of our indirect actions, as well. Like what we do with our money, and what we do with our stuff. How do we live within the Empire, do we just go along with pull and tug of the Empire and live as the Empire instructs us, or do we resist the Empire and live within the Kingdom of God? This affects how we look at the local, national, and global economy, this affects our politics and who we vote for and who we support. Acting justly affects everything.

 

This is why we need spiritual discernment because none of us can do everything, but all of us are being invited do something.

 

Practical Tip: Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk in Peace & Humility

This can feel Intimidating. We may feel ill-equipped. And in one sense that’s the right response. We can’t do this on our own. We need God and we need each other to make our way forward.

 

In the first sermon, I mentioned the four spiritual dimensions of our Belong class: Active (Do), Contemplative (Be), Biblical (Learn), and Communitarian (Join) and that I would use this structure to frame our practical tips.

 

Nigel is launching our membership class, Belong on Sunday, January 31st.  If you have not taken this class already, you should sign-up and participate whether this is your first Sunday here or you have been attending the church for decades.

 

The Belong class is our attempt to help us understand what it means to be on an active spiritual journey with Jesus. For many of us the first step in our spiritual journey is realizing that we Belong. That’s why it’s helpful to engage in the class even if you have been attending for decades. We all seek belonging and our Belong class is the first step in the process.

 

This morning, I just want to focus on the contemplative:

 

Contemplative. Almost all of us are having our heart strings tugged, either directly by God, or indirectly by the injustice we observe. I want to invite you to take some time this week, and create some space to sit and ask some questions,

“How should I feel?”

“God, how do you feel?”

Then, ask God to join his spirit to yours?

 

We need to create space in our spiritual walk to connect our spirits to God.

 
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