< back to Sermon archive

Sermon for Sunday 29 January 2017


1Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel. 3O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me! 4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord. 6With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?


PSALM Psalm 15

1Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? who may abide upon your holy hill? 2Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart. 3There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend; he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor. 4In his sight the wicked is rejected, but he honors those who fear the Lord. 5He has sworn to do no wrong and does not take back his word. 6He does not give his money in hope of gain, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. 7Whoever does these things shall never be overthrown.


SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

18For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”


GOSPEL Matthew 5:1-12

1Seeing the crowds, {Jesus} went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.2And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.



There was a concert in Philadelphia, PA and one of the pieces played by the orchestra featured a flute solo. This solo was played offstage so that it would sound as if it was coming from a great distance. The conductor instructed the flutist to count the measures carefully, in order to come in at the precise time. Remember, with the flutist offstage, there was no visual contact between the two. On the night of the performance, when the time came for the flute solo, the flutist counted perfectly and came in precisely on time.
The light, lilting notes floated out beautifully across the theater. Suddenly, however, there was a terrible shrieking noise and then the soloist went silent. The conductor was outraged. At the end of the piece he rushed off stage to find the poor flutist. The flutist was ready for him. “Maestro,” he said, “Before you say anything let me explain what happened. As you are well aware, I came in precisely on time and everything was going beautifully. Then suddenly–this enormous stage hand ran up and grabbed away my flute. He then pushed me back and snapped at me saying, “Shut up, you idiot!” “Don’t you know there’s a concert going on out there?” We have to feel for the flutist. He was only doing what he had been told by playing off-stage.
I don’t know about you, but there’s been times in my life when I thought I was doing all the right things and then suddenly life took a sharp turn and I was as startled as that flutist. During those times, I was tempted to ask, “What in the world am I doing here? What does it all mean? What’s really expected of me in this situation?” “Things aren’t going the way I expected,” I think to myself. And there have been occasions when I’ve even questioned my Christian walk. How much does God really demand out of me?” Am I really expected to set aside my desires for that of another? Of course, to answer these questions, all we need to do is turn to the Bible.
I suppose that are few verses in the Old Testament or the New Testament for that matter, that are better known than Micah 6:8, particularly in the Revised Standard Version translation: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And I suspect this text is well known for a couple of reasons.
One, it has three easily discerned sections which make it easy to deal with–do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. This of course makes for a nice outline for a sermon. But secondly, it deals in a simple way with that age-old question, “What does God expect of us?” One of the reasons I like this text is that it’s as relevant to our world today as it was to the world in which Micah lived.
Micah is considered one of the Minor Prophets. We don’t know a whole lot about him except that he was a prophet in the 8th century, a contemporary of three better known prophets–Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. Micah was called by God to speak out for the downtrodden and exploited people of the Judean society, particularly for the poor farm workers who were suffering at the hands of powerful landlords. Knowing this may be helpful for us to better understand the three Biblical demands God places upon us: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
As I mentioned a moment ago, this makes for a great outline so I’d like to start with second of these expectations, the call to love kindness. Here’s the most basic, the most minimal requirement of all religion–that we should treat other people as we would like to be treated. Now if this somehow sounds a lot like the Old Testament version of the Golden rule found in Matthew, (7:12) you’d be correct. A great Quaker gentleman expressed it well over two centuries ago when he wrote: “I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Paul emphasized this further in Ephesians (4:32) when he said, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” We’re called to show kindness because God extended mercy to us first. It’s also worth noting that all good religions begin here.
We may not be able to agree with other religions on everything, but on this subject, we can. Indeed, we may have some areas of our lives in which we’re in sharp conflict with one another, but we can at least treat each other with civility, and with simple human kindness.
There was an article in Reader’s Digest not too long ago about a man named Patrick Connelly. Connelly is a fan of country star and TV celebrity Blake Shelton. In fact, Connelly was fortunate enough to attend a Blake Shelton concert in Overland Park, Kansas. Unfortunately, Connelly is in a wheelchair. All he could see at the concert was a sea of people. Then the most amazing thing happened. Without being asked, two strangers hoisted Connelly aloft on their shoulders and they held him there for over 20 minutes in grueling 100-degree heat, long enough for the disabled man to watch his favorite musician perform. That’s kindness. To be kind is the least we can do in this unkind world. Of course, the Bible places no limits on our kindness.
We’re even to be kind to those who are unkind to us. Exodus 23:5 required the children of Israel not to oppress strangers–with the reminder that they were once strangers themselves. Jesus, of course, went even farther than that: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . . .” (Matt. 5:44) There are to be no limits placed upon our kindness. We’re to pour out acts of love and generosity even toward persons that we may deem undeserving. For Christians, this is particularly significant because we believe that God poured out His love on us when we were undeserving. Kindness is among the most basic requirements for the believer. There are times, of course, when our acts of kindness are meet with only cold ingratitude. And that’s okay. That’s on them. We’re called to obey God and kindness is the first order of business for a follower of Jesus.
Someone once asked, if you were given a dollar for every kind word or deed which you said or did, and then had to give back fifty cents for every unkind word or deed, would you be rich or poor? It’s a sobering question. We’re commanded to love kindness which means showing kindness toward others is to become second nature; an automatic response. Second, we’re also called to do justice
Now justice is a much larger and more complicated concept than kindness. Kindness is an individual act. When we see a person in need, like the Good Samaritan, we’re to try to help. That’s kindness. However justice, on the other hand, is the passion that followers of Jesus have for making certain that every person on earth has a decent opportunity for a healthy, wholesome, rewarding life.
Abraham Lincoln once saw a slave girl being sold on an auction block. She was being sold away from her family and friends. Lincoln saw the fright and terror in her eyes. Referring to the institution of slavery, he said, “This thing must go.” From that day forward he dedicated his life to the destruction of that institution. That’s doing justice. No concept is more Christian, or more American, than the demand for justice. Anytime we find people being oppressed–whether it be political oppression, economic oppression, racial oppression, or whatever form that oppression may take, we must raise our voices.
Pastor Ed Markquart gives one of the best examples of the difference between kindness and justice that I’ve ever read. He reminds us of a story from Charles Dicken’s England some two hundred years ago. At that time, many twelve-year-old boys were working down in the dangerous coal mines. Their life was miserable but that was what was expected of twelve-year-old boys from poor families in England at that time. The church tried to be kind to the boys. They would offer presents at Christmas time. Their families would receive charity and holiday turkeys. The church would offer prayers for the little boys working in those coal mines. However, one day some determined leaders in that island nation passed a much-needed law.
The law said that young boys could no longer work in coal mines. The law also insisted that these boys go to school. That’s the difference between acts of kindness and doing justice. Kindness is giving Christmas presents to disadvantaged boys in coal mines; kindness is giving their families turkeys during the holiday season, and kindness is praying for them. Doing justice, however, is working to change the laws so that it’s illegal for young boys to work in the coal mines in the first place. I’m concerned that we’ve forgotten the difference.
Now please don’t get me wrong. Kindness is what we’re called to show. It’s the first step in following Jesus, but it’s only the beginning of that journey. You could say that it’s the bare minimum. We’re commanded to love kindness, but we’re also instructed to do justice as well. Kindness in many ways is easy, but to work for justice on the other hand takes considerable more effort.
Someone else illustrated what doing justice is with another fable. Two people are strolling by the riverside when suddenly they see a baby in the river. They jump in, rescue the baby and turn him over to a kind stranger who rushes the baby to the hospital. The next day they see two babies in the river. Once again, they rescue the babies and give them to 2 strangers who rush them to the hospital. The next day they see more babies in the river. They call Emergency Medical Services and rescue as many as they can, but many of the babies struggle and drown. The first man says to the other, “Isn’t it wonderful that through our faith we’re here during this tragic time of need?” “Yes,” says the other man, “but I think we’d better get moving and go to the head of the river and find out why all these babies are getting thrown into the river in the first place.”
Rescuing the babies is obviously important. It’s an act of kindness. But going to the head of the river to stop babies from getting thrown into the river is an act of justice. And we need both. We need to be kind, but we also need to be champions of justice. This is true whether it’s in Syria or the Sudan or here at home. Anywhere there are people who are being treated cruelly or unjustly, we have a mission. We have a call. Doing justice is much more complicated than loving kindness–but it’s just as important and an equally important part of our Christian witness.
The problem is that doing justice isn’t a popular theme in our present world. “It’s easier to say that it’s not my problem, let some other agency deal with it. After all, isn’t that what we pay taxes for?” But for people who recognize that their lives have been bought with the blood of the cross, such an attitude is inconceivable. We’re here today because God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. (Jn. 3:16) We’re here today because a Man from Galilee “emptied Himself” (Phil. 2:7) and cared more about us than He did Himself. If our response to injustice is to shut ourselves off in our comfortable homes with our luxury automobiles, expensive high-tech toys, and big screen TVs while the rest of the world goes to pot, then we’re in deep spiritual trouble. What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.
The third requirement God places on His children is to walk humbly with Him. There are few characteristics as appealing in a person as is genuine humility. However, Micah here is talking about a special kind of humility. It’s like the meekness Jesus praised when He said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5). Jesus wasn’t talking about the shy, timid mouse of a person who is content to serve as the world’s doormat. Rather, He’s talking about people who are so committed to serving God and serving other people that they have an astounding impact on our world.
John Killinger once told about an article that appeared years ago, in the Atlantic Monthly. It was about a little burro that was employed in the heyday of the great western cattle ranches to help tame strong and rambunctious steers. Here’s how it worked. The steer, bucking and convulsing like a raging sailor, was haltered to the little burro, and the two were turned loose together onto the desert range. Like a scene from an old Laurel and Hardy comedy, the giant steer and the little burro would be seen disappearing over the horizon, the great steer tossing the poor burro about like a streamer in the wind. They would sometimes be gone for days. But eventually they would return, the little burro in the lead, trotting along for home with the submissive steer in tow. Somewhere, out there on the desert, the steer would become exhausted from his strenuous attempts to rid himself of the burro; and at that point the burro would take mastery and become the leader.
The little burro might appear to be meek or humble, but through its determination and persistence it conquered the mighty steer. The meekness or humility that Jesus and Micah are talking about, is the person who has surrendered their life so completely to God that they develop a fierce determination and persistence in seeing God’s kingdom realized. That kind of humility or meekness leads to tremendous power and effectiveness in life. Pastor Tony Bland once described such a humble person.
Bland begins by telling about a statue, the largest cast iron statue in the world that sits atop Red Mountain overlooking the city of Birmingham, Alabama. What you may not know about Birmingham is that, like Pittsburgh, it once was a major center for the production of iron and steel. The 56-foot tall statue that sits on Red Mountain depicts the Roman god Vulcan, god of the fire and forge. It’s a symbol of Birmingham’s past, reflecting its roots in the iron and steel industry. But there’s another statue in town as well.
Down from atop Red Mountain, in the heart of this industrial city, is a park in front of a church. In that park is a statue that portrays a little man on his knees with his hands raised to heaven. This man was known simply as Brother Bryan. Bryan had been the pastor of a small Presbyterian Church. Brother Bryan was a humble pastor who was often seen kneeling hand in hand on a street corner praying with someone. He pastored in Birmingham for more than a quarter of a century. He was a servant to all. He was a meek and humble man. But when he died, businesses closed, flags were hung half mast, and the whole city wept in sorrow at his departure. They built a statue to serve as a memorial to this humble pastor.
Tony Bland writes, “When the statue of Vulcan has tumbled to dust, and Red Mountain is worn flat, the witness and work of Pastor Bryan will remain.” Brother Bryan was a humble man, but he moved an entire city through his devotion to serving God and others. That’s the kind of humility or meekness that God seeks in us. So, what are we being called to do as Christians? We’re commanded to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
Kindness is easy, this congregation demonstrates that all the time. But we’re called to do more. We’re also commanded to do justice and walk humbly with God. These last two require a lot more effort because it requires more than a single act. Justice and humility requires us to reach out, to speak up and engage with others and do what’s needed to correct the injustice in this world. And walking humbly with God calls for a lifetime commitment of obedience and service to God and to others.

< back to Sermon archive