The Sheep and the Goats | Proper 29

Matthew 25:31-46

31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.” (CEB)

The Sheep and the Goats

This last of the four Advent Parables in Matthew tells of Jesus’ return and the ensuing judgement of the world. Christ the King Sunday gives us permission to hold an early celebration of the universal rule and reign of God and the coming Kingdom of Heaven. I say it’s an early celebration because, while the kingdom is here in part, the kingdom is not yet here fully. While no earthly power can match the power of the reigning Lord, we’re reminded that much is yet promised. Right now, we live in a sort of interim—a time between the times.

The surprising thing Jesus teaches here, which really shouldn’t be a surprise for those who’ve been listening, is that the King of Kings is revealed to us among the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. That notion still tends to surprise us even though Jesus was notorious for welcoming prostitutes and other stigmatized sinners into the kingdom of Heaven and telling those who presumed themselves to be righteous that they could go to Gehenna. The judge who sits on the throne surprises because the judgments of Jesus are unlike ours.”

One thing that strikes me every time I read this Great Judgement passage is that neither the blessed nor the accursed realize anything about what they had done or failed to do: they’re all surprised! When Jesus calls the blessed into the kingdom and tells them, “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me’” (Matt. 25:35-36 CEB), their response will be one of surprise, “Lord, when did we see you?”

When Jesus commands the accursed to get away from him he’ll say, “I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me,’” (Matt. 25:42-43 CEB). The response from those who are accursed also will be one of surprise, “Lord, when did we see you?”

How is it that neither the blessed nor the accursed came to realize what they were and were not doing? I think part of the answer has to do with habit. When a practice becomes habit we often fail to realize that we do the practice. When I’m lost in thought I often pick my lip with my finger. Sometimes, when I unconsciously raise my hand to my mouth in an act of deep contemplation, my thoughts will be suddenly interrupted as Joy smacks my hand away from my mouth and says, “Stop picking your lip.”

When children are learning to tie their shoes they often begin with difficulty, but with practice they can learn to tie their shoes without even thinking about it. When was the last time any of you tried to tie your shoes and had to think it through? It’s just habit: something we can do with our eyes closed.

It seems as though the accursed became so hard, so callous, so indifferent, and their religion so apathetic, that they never recognized the fact that Jesus identifies with other people in love. The accursed closed their ears to Jesus’ command that we act toward others in sincere deeds of compassion—that we take care of each other. The people who were among the goats were not necessarily ignorant concerning Jesus, but they were surprised to discover—just as the blessed were surprised to discover—that they had met Jesus many times along the way and didn’t recognize him in the faces of the poor, downtrodden, and rejected.

Again, the difference between the blessed and the accursed was how they acted toward others. Apparently, the accursed had never developed their faith or love of God beyond their first confession of believing in Christ. Their faith became an empty and dead faith—empty ritual and correct creed—instead of a full and living faith. And while there’s nothing wrong with ritual or creed—which can be wonderful and deeply powerful expressions of faithfulness—there is a problem when we separate Jesus from what we do: when ritual and creed—when faith itself—become empty and removed from Jesus Christ. A citizen of Heaven must be more than this.

For the blessed their habit was doing. Their habit was living out their faith so that it permeated into every part of their being. In Matthew 13:33 we’re told, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough” (Matt. 13:33 CEB). A little yeast permeates throughout, and leavens the entire loaf. As Christians, as citizens of the Kingdom our faith cannot merely be viewed as a part of our lives. Our faith must become our life! Our faith must permeate throughout every part of our being. It should affect us in all that we do, and cause the practice of our faith to become our habit. This habit, however, can only come about with practice.

Practice forms habit. The two go hand in hand. We have to practice our faith in order to allow it to work its way into every aspect of our lives, or we will end up like the accursed do and allow not doing to become our habit. Doing nothing, after all, is the easiest habit to form. It is called sloth.

Some people have taken what Paul said about Justification by faith and twisted it a little too much. We need to understand that Paul was saying that we’re justified by faith, not works of the Jewish Law. He never wrote against the loving, mercy-giving, and justice-seeking works we Christians ought to be doing. If he had, he would have been teaching something in direct opposition to Jesus.

Paul was saying that circumcision, sacrifice, and dietary customs—some of the concerns of the Law of Moses—will not save you. Sometimes we fail to make this distinction between those specific works of the Law and works of love, mercy, and justice. It’s not unheard of for Christians to accept a lazy theology in which we think that because we believe in Jesus and have faith we’re all set. Anyone who falls into this kind of thinking misses the point of being a Christian: serving God through being servants of each other and the world, loving God and neighbor. Our faith is missional by design.

After Jesus washed the feet of the disciples he commanded them to wash each others’ feet. When Paul wrote down those words about how we’re justified by grace through faith in his Epistles to the Galatians and the Romans, he wasn’t sitting on his couch. He was out ministering to an empire! Paul went on three missionary journeys that we know about as Luke recorded in The Acts of the Apostles. He traveled almost Ten Thousand miles preaching the Gospel throughout Asia Minor, Greece, Cyprus, and Italy. He mentioned in one of his letters that he would like to go to Spain to preach Christ there.

Paul’s the one who said, “I’m in trouble if I don’t preach the Gospel,” (1 Corinthians 9:16b CEB). He knew that if he wasn’t living out his faith in what God had commanded of him then he wasn’t living. This is why James wrote, “As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead,” (Jas. 2:26 CEB). Or as the late Rich Mullins once wrote, “faith without works is like a song you can’t sing… it’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”

Our faith grows and is built up not by saying ‘I believe,’ but by what we do with the Gospel, this rich treasure that God has given us. Faith grows out of our experience. Saying ‘I believe’ is only the beginning of faith, not the end. If we have faith in Jesus Christ our actions should be those that please and honor God—by doing no harm, doing good, acting out of love and charity, working for the sake of mercy and justice. It’s when we do these things that we’re proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our actions.

Jesus Christ tells us, in no uncertain terms, that he identifies himself with the poor. Christ places himself among the least, the poor, the marginalized, the needy, and the oppressed, even prisoners justly convicted of crimes. In other words, we should recognize Christ in people who are on the fringes of society because that’s one place where Christ, undoubtedly, is.

We see this throughout the Gospels as Jesus touches the untouchables, loves the unloved, and gives hope to the hopeless. Jesus came into this world as a poor Jew. He lived among the poor and oppressed every day. He suffered among them. He was judged by them. He shared in their pain and agonies. In Matthew 25 Jesus says, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me,” (Matt. 25:40 CEB).

What we do to and for others is what we do to Christ because Jesus identifies with each one of us, and especially with the poor. In the same way, when we fail to do for others, we fail to do for Christ.

How different would the world be if every time we saw a person we recognized Jesus in that person? How would the world be different if every professed Christian saw his or her Lord in the face of every person they encountered in their every day? “Lord, when did we see you?” “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matt. 25:40 CEB). This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

The Valuable Coins | Proper 28

Matthew 25:14-30

14 “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. 15 To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

16 “After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. 18 But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

19 “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

22 “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’

24 “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. 25 So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? 27 In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. 28 Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. 29 Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. 30 Now take the worthless servant and throw him outside into the darkness.’

“People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth. (CEB)

The Valuable Coins

This is the third of the four advent parables in Matthew. This parable, like the previous ones, also emphasizes in its own way the delay of the Kingdom of God. Jesus really wanted people to understand that, while the kingdom of God is indeed coming, the time of its arrival is completely unknown to us. We, therefore, need to be ready for it to come immediately, but also be prepared for the possibility of delay.

It is important to note that the valuable coins, often translated as a talent, is a very large sum of money: about fifteen years’ wages for a typical worker. It is perhaps unfortunate that it’s been called a talent for so long, because it tempts us to confuse this with the ordinary definition of talent and leads to a common misinterpretation of this parable.

Often times, this parable is taken as an encouragement to discover what gifts and talents we all have, and to use them for God. Taken this way, the parable teaches that everybody has a talent; some have many, others have a few, but all of us have at least one. Maybe one’s talent is playing the piano, or perhaps it’s the gift of hospitality or the skill of organization, or playing quarterback, or point guard. Regardless of how many talents we may have, and whatever those talents may be, God wants us to use them wisely and not waste them. So goes the conventional interpretation.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the idea of using our talents to glorify God. Indeed, we ought to use our God-given talents in that way. But that idea alone is much too tame for this parable. The parable is not a gentle tale about what Christians should do with our individual gifts and talents, as helpful as that may be. Really, it’s a disturbing story about what Christians do or do not do with the gospel—the Good News of Jesus Christ—as they wait for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The first two servants are called “good and trustworthy” because they set out immediately to work with the treasure entrusted to them. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this treasure is the gospel—the teachings of Jesus—and these two “good and faithful” servants symbolize all wise and faithful disciples who hear Jesus’ words and act on them. The third servant is called “evil and lazy” because he’s a living embodiment of Jesus’ warning that “everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built his house on sand,” (Matthew 7:26).

The reason it’s good and faithful to act on the gospel is not simply that Jesus said so and the disciples need to learn to be obedient and to follow orders. Living out the truth of the Gospel—living lives of mercy, peace, and forgiveness—is wise because the future belongs to God. Mercy, peace, and forgiveness are the values of God’s kingdom. The master will return. The promised Kingdom is coming. And its advent will render all the false values of this age—the accumulation of power, wealth, status, and possessions—obsolete.

Sometimes we look back on the anger, the harshness, the indifference toward others in our past and say, if I had only known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have treated anyone like that. One purpose of this parable is to say that we can know now what we will know in the future. What will stand at the end is the gospel. One might call it true wisdom to live out God’s future, today.

So, the parable is about wise and foolish disciples—those who live the gospel now, and those who don’t. But the parable also cuts in another direction. It is not only a story about the moral character of disciples, but also about the moral character of God. What kind of God do we serve? The voice of the one-talent servant is trembling and full of fear: “Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid,” (Matt. 25:24-25 CEB).

The thing is, at this point in the parable there is no basis whatsoever for this kind of depiction of the master. Quite to the contrary, the master has entrusted his servants with vast sums of money, not just for a night or two but for an extended period of time. Moreover, in a culture where servants were expected to do their duty without receiving praise, pats on the back, brass plaques, or trophies, this master astonishingly gives them extravagant tribute, increased authority, and apparently, with the words, “Come celebrate with me,” he welcomes them into his home as members of the family. There’s even the implication that he lets them keep the money entrusted to them along with all the profits they made.

In other words, everything in the story leads us to see the master as an extraordinary person—trusting, welcoming, generous, and benevolent. That’s the way the first two servants view him, otherwise they wouldn’t have been so free to risk and act, and that’s the way the master conducts himself. Clearly the one-talent servant has badly misjudged the master, distorting the master into a tough, uncaring tyrant, and has acted accordingly.

When the master finds out that this servant has buried the money entrusted to him and why, the master responds, “You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest,” (Matt. 25:26-27 CEB). This reply exposes the one-talent servant even more. Even if the one-talent servant missed all the trust, joy, and generosity in his master, he could still have done a little low-risk investing.

However, the man’s problem with the master goes deeper. He viewed the master as evil, not just tough. In this servant’s twisted mind, the master is so pernicious that there’s no room whatsoever for freedom or responsible action; only paralysis. He’s so afraid of this terrible master that the only choice left to him is to shove the talent back as soon as possible and have nothing to do with this master that he perceives as a spiteful tyrant.

We may know people like this. I remember that one of my fraternity brothers thought God was out to get him. He thought God was some big ogre in the sky who was trying to send everyone to hell. I don’t know that I ever convinced him otherwise, but I sure tried to talk about the loving God that I know whenever he would listen.

The tragic news of this parable is that the one-talent servant pronounces his own judgment. He gets the master he believes he serves; he gets only the master his tiny and warped vision can see. In theological terms, he gets the peevish little tyrant god he believes in.

The story is not about a generous master suddenly turning cruel and punitive; it’s about living with the consequences of one’s own faith. If we trust the goodness of God, we can boldly venture out with eyes wide open to the wonder of grace in our life, we can discover the joy of God’s providence everywhere. But to be the child of a generous, gracious, and life-giving God and, despite this, to insist upon viewing God as oppressive, cruel, and fear-provoking, is to live a life that is tragically impoverished.

There is a kind of theological economy at work here. For those people who live in the confidence that God is trustworthy and generous, they find more and more of that generosity everywhere they look; but for those who run and hide under the bed from a bad, mean, and scolding God, they condemn themselves to a life spent under the bed alone, quivering in needless fear. Verse 29 sums up the whole parable, “Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them,” (CEB).

God is a God of deep love, generous beyond measure. We’ve been given a Gospel—Good News—about salvation through Jesus Christ. This isn’t something we bury in the ground, but something we shout from the mountain tops. God has given us a great treasure—God’s only Son—so we could be redeemed from the power of sin and live forever with God. It’s something we ought to joyously celebrate and share with everyone we know.

When our master returns, what will we have to say? Will we dig up our talent and say, I didn’t want to bother with all this, here’s your gift back. Or will we say, Here’s what you have given me, and I’ve made this much more!

We don’t know when our master will return, and it’s not our job to worry about the timing of Jesus’ Second Advent. The kingdom may come before our worship service is finished, or it may not come until my great-great-grandchildren are all in their 90s. Our job isn’t to worry about when. Our job is to work for God’s kingdom until the master returns and we finally see our trusting, welcoming, generous, and benevolent master face-to-face.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


The Day of the Lord | Proper 27

Amos 5:18-24

18 Doom to those who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or sought refuge in a house, rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Isn’t the day of the LORD darkness, not light; all dark with no brightness in it?

21 I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. 22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food– I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. 23 Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.

24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (CEB)

The Day of the Lord

I took Old Testament Prophets with Dr. Louis Stulman at The University of Findlay, and Amos was the first book we covered. When I tell people that Amos is one of my favorite books of the Bible, it’s passages like this one that might make them ask, “Why?”

For one thing, I like the guy’s style. The dude can preach. He doesn’t care if the message is unpopular, when God gives him something to say, he says it without holding back. And, Amos has the coolest similes and metaphors: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

For another, Amos has a way of irritating us that can’t be denied. Jesus had the same habit of irritating people. The problem with religious people is that, little by little, we forget the enthusiasm we once had and slip into various degrees of apathy. If Amos’s words do annoy us, it should give us pause to consider whether we’ve come to accept that apathy as normal and okay.

Honestly, apathy needs a little irritating. Sometimes we need to hear a challenge to our comfortable status quo, or have our feathers ruffled, or get our underwear in a twist. If we need a spiritual wedgie, Amos is ready to provide. If the kingdom of God is to come, then God’s people need to hear Amos’s challenge and get busy.

Let me tell you a little about Amos. He was a street preacher. He was a shepherd and trimmer of sycamore trees who went from his home of Tekoa, probably the one in Judah, to the capital of Israel to tell them they were worshipping and living wrong. For some perspective, we might appreciate that about as much as a migrant agricultural worker from Mexico traveling to Washington D.C. to tell the American people off. To get the people’s attention, he started out by preaching against all of Israel’s enemies, even his homeland of Judah. You can almost hear the people saying, Yeah! God’s gonna bring the hammer on ‘em.

Then, suddenly, Amos turned on Israel. And he kept going for seven more chapters. It was a scathing indictment, but Amos had their attention. In fact, Amos 5 begins this way: “Hear this word—a funeral song—that I am lifting up against you, house of Israel:” (Amos 5:1 CEB). This is doom and gloom. This is apocalypse. And Amos voices the rage of God against a people who should have known better.

The Kingdom of Israel broke away from Judah and the kings of David’s line because of Solomon’s corruption. For a wise guy, he did some really stupid things, and God told Jeroboam that he would take ten tribes from Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, and give them to Jeroboam because the people had abandoned God under Solomon’s reign (c.f. 1 kings 11:26-39). They broke away from Judah so they could be faithful to God. They rejected Solomon’s innovation of worshipping only in the Jerusalem Temple for the older shrines of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha at Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-Sheba (c.f. Amos 5:4-6).

Roughly 170 years after they broke away, Israel had slipped into unfaithfulness and apathy for what’s right. Prosperity and comfort can do that to people. The wealthy had grown wealthier, and the poor had grown poorer. The Kingdom of Israel was at the height of its prosperity and power. The King at the time of Amos’s preaching, Jeroboam II, had pushed the boundaries of the kingdom out to an extent larger than any previous king. By some standards, the kingdom was doing well. They projected a sense of power. King Jeroboam II had made Israel great again.

At the same time, the people were not living out God’s expectations for justice and righteousness. Amos points out that Israel has done things like selling the innocent for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, crushing the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth, and pushing the afflicted out of the way. They’d also turned to some business practices that God had outlawed, (c.f. Amos 2:6-8). The wealthy had built lavish summer houses and winter houses with beds of ivory by cheating the weak and crushing the needy (c.f. Amos 3:15-4:1). They’d corrupted the judges against justice, crushed the weak, taxed their grain and used the proceeds to build houses of stone. They’d afflicted the righteous, taken money on the side, and turned away the poor who were seeking help (c.f. Amos 5:10-12).

It’s this lack of justice and righteousness on the part of a people who are supposed to be holy that has the God who made the Pleiades and Orion seething with anger. The people who think they want the Day of the Lord to come might want to get their act together first. The people of Israel likely assumed the Day of the Lord would mean victory for them over every enemy. When God comes in judgment, that judgment will be inescapable. The people seemed to assume that they had nothing to fear on such a day because they were on God’s side.

God, however, seemed to have a different idea. Another prophet, Joel, described the Day of the Lord this way: “Blow the horn in Zion; give a shout on my holy mountain! Let all the people of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is near—a day of darkness and no light, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread out upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes, unlike any that has ever come before them, or will come after them in centuries ahead. In front of them a fire consumes; and behind them a flame burns. Land ahead of them is like Eden’s garden, but they leave behind them a barren wasteland; nothing escapes them,” (Joel 2:1-3 CEB). Joel presents this army as coming for Israel, too. But he also tells them that the people can return to God and live because God is merciful, compassionate, patient, faithful, loving, and ready to forgive (c.f. Joel 2:13).

Joel and Amos both suggest that God is going to judge the world fairly and, whether we’re a part of God’s chosen people or not, our actions of justice and righteousness are what matter to God. If we’re on the wrong side of that, we should expect darkness, not light; gloom and not brightness. We can run, but we’ll be caught. Like a person who fled from a lion only to be met by a bear, or like a person who fled into the safety of a house and rested against the wall only to be bitten by a snake.

Then, Amos tears into Israel’s worship. God says, “I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps,” (Amos 5:21-23 CEB).

These festivals included the three annual pilgrimage feasts of Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Harvest mentioned in Exodus 23, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 16. The joyous assemblies are the times of festival and breaks from regular work so the people can celebrate and worship God as mentioned in 2 Kings 10:20 and Isaiah 1:13. The offerings of the people no longer please God, and every kind of traditional offering is rejected: the whole burnt offering, the grain offering, and the peace or well-being offering. God even refuses to listen to singing and harp-playing. The Hebrew word used here is the title for the Book of Psalms. God doesn’t want to hear the hymnbook of the Scriptures! And the question is, why?

Earlier in the chapter, Amos mentions three ancient sanctuaries: Bethel, Gilgal, and Beer-Sheba. Bethel was the site of Abraham’s altar, Jacob’s ladder, it’s where the matriarch Rachel died. It’s where Deborah sat as a Judge, prophet, and administrator over Israel. It’s where Saul went to seek the Prophet Samuel.

Gilgal was where Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan so the people could cross over into the Promised Land. It’s where Samuel had abandoned Saul as king over Israel in favor of David. It’s where Elisha turned poisonous gourds into something edible. Beer-Sheba was where Hagar had her second theophany (Genesis 21:14-20). It’s the site of Abraham’s well and Jacob’s altar. It was where Elijah hid from Jezebel.

These are holy places to Israel. Significant places in the history and life of the people. It almost sounds like God is rejecting Israel’s worship as a whole. But a complete rejection of worship is not the case here. We have to look at the whole of Amos’s message to understand why God has gotten so angry. All those things I mentioned earlier about Amos’s message: cheating, selling, crushing, and pushing away the poor, the needy, and the afflicted tell us that, although the people participated in the correct liturgies, sang their favorite hymns, participated in all the wonderful holy days, and gathered together every Sabbath to worship, that worship didn’t affect how they lived.

In other sermons, I’ve preached about how our worship of God is more than gathering together in this building. Our worship of God is also how we live our everyday lives outside of these walls. How we treat others is our worship of God. What we give to others is our worship of God. How we speak about others is our worship of God. Our everyday actions reflect our worship of God.

At the same time, our worship of God, here, is supposed to shape and influence our everyday actions so that what we do, what we think, what we say, are holy and righteous and just. If it doesn’t… If our worship doesn’t shape and influence us so that we speak and act like God’s people in our everyday, then what’s the point? If we don’t offer ourselves to God when we come here, if we don’t seek a change of heart and mind for ourselves so that we can live according to God’s ways, then we aren’t worshipping as we ought. It’s at that point that coming to this place is pointless.

And, to be clear, any lack of being shaped or changed or influenced to righteousness is not something we can blame on the preacher or the choir or the liturgy or the hymns. Worship in this place is what we, ourselves, give to God. The question we may need to ask is, are we really giving ourselves? The difficulty with any living sacrifice is that, no matter how many times we throw ourselves on the altar, our tendency is try and crawl off before our lives are no longer our own.

Yet, it’s when we give ourselves to God that we worship as we ought because our life, itself, becomes worship. That’s when we live in such a way that justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God wants our actions to be righteous. God wants us to seek justice for those who need it. Our relationships need to be set right.

Amos reminds us that, as much as God loves us–as deeply as God loves us–God also expects certain things from us. In fact, I would argue that God loves us so much that God will not let us ignore justice and righteousness without saying something about it. God speaks strong truth when it needs to be spoken so that we can turn back to God and live lives that are holy, righteous, and just. That’s why Amos preached this stuff. If God didn’t love us, then God probably wouldn’t bother. I would argue that the fact that God speaks these difficult words to us is proof that God does love us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay

God’s Children | All Saints’

1 John 3:1-3

1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are! Because the world didn’t recognize him, it doesn’t recognize us. 2 Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself even as he is pure. (CEB)

God’s Children

Anyone who’s ever been to a United Methodist funeral service might recognize part of this text. It’s included in the liturgy for services of death and resurrection. One of the reasons for that inclusion is the fact that these words from First John remind us both of our present reality and that there’s more to come. In one sense, on All Saints’ Sunday, we remember those faithful children of God who have crossed over the great divide and now stand before the throne of God as we await the resurrection. At the same time, this is a day where we renew our call to holy living because we are children of God and we anticipate the day of resurrection.

This gift of being called God’s children comes to us, first and foremost, because God loves us. John says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children,” (1 Jn. 3:1 CEB). The idea that human beings could be called God’s children goes back to the Old Testament. There are references to the whole people of Israel being described as a child of God. Hosea 11:1 says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” (CEB). Deuteronomy 32:18 speaks of Israel’s divine birth when it says: “You deserted the rock that sired you; you forgot the God who gave birth to you!” (CEB).

Then, texts like Jeremiah 31:9 speak of God’s relationship to Israel as a father: “With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back. I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble. I will be Israel’s father, Ephraim will be my oldest child.” (CEB).

There are two important things to note about this idea of Israel being God’s child. First, it’s a covenantal relationship. Second, because it is a covenantal relationship, Israel must live as if they are God’s child. As any child can tell you, the real bummer about parents is that they have expectations. Parents demand certain kinds of behavior. Sometimes, they don’t let the child do whatever the child wants to do. When the child acts in ways contrary to the expectations of the parent, there are consequences that the child probably won’t enjoy.

For example: when I catch my children playing Minecraft on their Kindles at 10:00 p.m. while hiding under the covers, that Kindle belongs to me until I decide to give it back. When I find Halloween candy wrappers on the floor instead of in the trash can where they belong, the candy and the Kindles are mine until I decide to give them back. You see, we parents know what our kids value, which means we know how to motivate good behavior in our children by taking away the things they value. It doesn’t always work, especially when children forget that we have that parental power, but all it usually takes is a gentle reminder.

The stress on that covenantal requirement of living as a child of God brought about the idea that not every Israelite was worthy of the name, child of God, just because they were Israelites by blood. What began to matter more was how each person walked with God. It’s an idea that Jesus likely held when he said that God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones on the ground (Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8). One’s ancestry mattered less than one’s ethic: how you live, how you speak, what you do.

In Christian writings, such as the Gospel of John, the matter of who is included under that title children of God was broadened. It wasn’t only Israel, nor was it only faithful Jews, but everyone for whom Christ died (John 11:52). Since we believe in a universal atonement, that Christ died for all, it means that everyone is a child of God because of God’s great love for each one of us, and everyone has the potential to live as such by walking in God’s ways. Both the giftedness of the designation and the ethic of living it out still have to be held together.

John insists that we are God’s children. But there’s also the admission that those outside of the church, the world, doesn’t readily recognize this designation in us or in themselves. How can the world recognize anyone as a child of God if they don’t know God? These words imply that our ethic of walking as children of God—of living out the love, mercy-giving, and justice-seeking of God—has a missional aspect to it. Ours is the responsibility to share this very Good News. If we’re living out the love of God and love of neighbor as we ought, then we are bringing the Good News to the world and inviting others to be a part of it by our action.

John repeats his insistence about our designation by saying, “Dear friends, now we are God’s children,” in verse 2. But he also adds an element of mystery to it by saying, “and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is,” (1 John 3:2 CEB).

Christians have long speculated about what the “will be” will be. Several modern scholars insist that John cannot mean that we’ll become like God. But that idea wasn’t a problem for scholars and saints of ages past. Some of them, like Saint Ireneus of Lyon who lived in the 2nd century, and Saint Athanasius of Alexandria who lived during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., spoke of a future deification (θεοποιήσθαι) in which we are made like God.

Ireneus said that God had become what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.” Athanasius went even further by saying, “God became human so that humans might become God.” The idea is that God made us to ultimately dwell fully in the fullness of God. Medieval scholars like Saint Thomas Aquinas suspected we will experience a kind of beatific vision that would allow us to see God’s essence.

In the theology of Eastern Christianity, they teach something called theosis, becoming like God, is very much in line with the teachings of Ireneus and Athanasius. Theosis is the goal of the Christian life: to become like God.

Then, there’s some Biblical evidence that suggests something along those lines. After all, the temptation of the serpent in Genesis 3:5 was, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” (Genesis 3:4-5 CEB). The thing is, we don’t know whether this kind of being like God was outside of God’s plan for the human race, or if the way Adam and Eve lived in the Garden when they fell was only temporary as part of a trial period before coming into the full inheritance God had in mind for them. C.S. Lewis seems to have thought along these lines, too, since he wrote about the idea of a trial period in his book Perelandra.

The hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 says this of Christ, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” (CEB).

If we look at the hymn as a contrast between Adam & Eve and Jesus Christ, it suggests that, because of Christ’s obedience to God and ensuing crucifixion, he was exalted and given the name that Adam and Eve did not receive because of their disobedience and fall.

In Methodism, we have similar theology to theosis in John Wesley’s ideas of Sanctification and Christian Perfection. We believe that the purpose of every Christian life is to more perfectly reflect the image of God in our lives. It’s not something we accomplish on our own but, by God’s grace, we hope to grow more like God every day.

We have to live into God’s grace, and we do that in very practical ways: by doing no harm, by doing good, and by attending to the ordinances of God which are the means of grace (baptism, Holy Communion, worship, prayer, Bible study, fasting and abstinence, and Christian conferencing, to name a few). It’s not only who we are and what we believe, but the ethic of how we live that makes us children of God.

As much as Christian Biblical writers and theologians have speculated, we don’t know exactly what “will be.” What we do know is that whatever form that glorious thing called resurrection to eternal life looks like, we’ll be like Jesus, and we’ll see Jesus as he is. It’s not unlike Paul’s idea in 1 Corinthians 13: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known,” (1 Corinthians 13:12 CEB).

John sums all of this up with the word hope which, in the Greek sense, includes a nuance of having confidence that it will be fulfilled. Those who have this hope in Christ, this confidence that we are children of God now and that we will be in the future, purify themselves as God is pure. That purification also comes to us as a gift from God. Christians don’t live out our faith in a system of rewards, but we live with the confidence that God continues to love us with a love we didn’t earn. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children,” (1 John 3:1 CEB).

Our response to God’s love for us is to share the love of God with our neighbors across the world. The world needs us to live that love. It’s a rough, tormented, hurting place, so we walk in the ways of God as those who have gone before us have done. In so doing, we hold God before the eyes of the world so the world, too, can know the love God has for them, and the world can come to know that they, too, are God’s beloved children.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay