Tag Archive | obedience

5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 2017

5th Sunday after the Epiphany, year A (preached 2/5/17)

first reading:  Isaiah 58:1-12

Psalm 112:1-9

second reading:  1 Corinthians 2:1-16

gospel reading:  Matthew 5:13-20

Sometimes preachers look at the readings for the coming Sunday and pray, “Oh God, what am I going to say?”  Other weeks we look at the readings and pray, “You’re speaking to me in a million ways Lord.  Help me choose!”  This is one of THOSE weeks.

Each of our readings today are wonderful – challenging to be sure, but also filled with amazing imagery, and profound truths.  This week I have been especially drawn to the prophet Isaiah.

In our reading from Isaiah today the people have been through a tremendous ordeal.  They have been oppressed and conquered.  They’ve been in exile, are “home” now – physically restored.  But something is still not right.

“Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways… they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.”

They are fasting as the Lord requires, they’re doing all the “right” things, but they’re not seeing any “results” from their fasting.  Why?  Something is missing.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  Through Isaiah, God tells them.  God tells them that their relationship with God is made up of more than just their individual actions towards God.  Through Isaiah, God tells the people that they can’t have blinders on, only looking to heaven, and be faithful.

And as the prophets often are when speaking for God – Isaiah is blunt – not so kind.

I read part of verse 2 a moment ago, but let me read the whole verse:  “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, AS IF they were a nation the practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…”  OUCH.

And there’s more.  The people ask plainly, “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

I think we have all asked these questions at times in OUR lives.  I know I have.  Times when we pray and plead for God to help us or to give us a sign that we haven’t been abandoned.  Times when we feel like we’re doing all the right things but we’re still not getting anywhere.

I’m not saying that God’s answer to us in every time of OUR questioning is the same answer that God gives here, but I believe it’s worth looking at.  Because when the people pose these questions, Isaiah DOES give them an answer, and perhaps it’s not the one they wanted to hear.

“Look, you serve your OWN interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”

God tells the people that they may be following the rule that tells them to fast, but they’re going about it all wrong.  God tells them to look in a mirror and watch themselves – to see that as long as they perform this outward action to God, but mistreat one another, the action isn’t faithful.

Simply bowing one’s head and putting on sackcloth and ashes aren’t enough.  Going to church and praying on Sunday then going to work and being unkind on Monday isn’t going to cut it.  It’s not that God didn’t see their fast – God DID see how they were treating each other, so the fast meant nothing.

What’s the saying?  “Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.”  In powerful words God then tells them what a FAITHFUL fast looks like.  It’s a powerful litany.

THIS is the fast:

  • “to loose the bonds of injustice
  • to undo the thongs of the yoke,
  • to let the oppressed go free, and
  • to break every yoke –
  • Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and
  • bring the homeless poor into your house;
  • when you see the naked, to cover them, and
  • not to hide yourself from your own kin…
  • remove the yoke from among you,
  • the pointing of the finger,
  • the speaking of evil…
  • offer your food to the hungry and
  • satisfy the needs of the afflicted…”

It’s not that God didn’t see their fast.  God also saw how they were treating each other, and mistreating each other, but also ignoring each other’s needs.

Last week, I preached about how in the Beatitudes Jesus blesses us for who we are and what we do.  That who we are is reflected in what we do, and what we do is a reflection of who we are.  This is what God through Isaiah is saying to the people here too.  Our faith is more that just coming to church and praying, or saying our prayers at night before we go to sleep.

As Lutherans sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that because we don’t have to earn our salvation, because Jesus has gone SO over the top in loving and rescuing us, we can be lazy in loving our neighbor.  Isaiah – and Jesus, especially in today’s gospel – tell us that our actions towards our neighbors, near and far, DO matter to God.

The fast that God wants from us, the fast that God sees and loves – is the giving of ourselves, in God’s name, in serving one another.

Then there are wonderful promises.  The images that Isaiah paints are profound and beautiful.

  • “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and
  • your healing shall spring up quickly…
  • you shall call and the LORD will answer…
  • Your light shall rise in the darkness and
  • your gloom be like the noonday.  
  • The LORD will… satisfy your needs in parched places, and
  • make your bones strong; and
  • you shall be like a watered garden,
  • like a spring of water, whose waters never fail…
  • Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
  • you shall raise up the foundations of  many generations;
  • you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
  • the restorer of streets to live in.”

I’ve got nothing to add to that.




law and gospel

As I shared in a post last week, for part of my Lenten discipline this year I’m taking time for personal devotional reading each day.  Specifically I’m focusing on  Daily Readings from Luther’s Writings, selected and edited by Barbara Owen, published by Augsburg (Minneapolis) in 1993.  As I was reading this morning, I came across the following entry and was instantly drawn in (it’s found on p. 98).

“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  John 1:17

“It is proper that the Law and God’s Commandments provide me with the correct directives for life; they supply me with abundant information about righteousness and eternal life.  The Law is a sermon which points me to life, and it is essential to remember this instruction.  But it must be borne in mind that the Law does not give me life.  It resembles a hand which directs me to the right road… Thus the Law serves to indicate the will of God, and it leads us to a realization that we cannot keep it.  It also acquaints us with human nature, with its capabilities, and with its limitations.  The Law was given to us for the revelation of sin; but it does not have the power to save us from sin and rid us of it.” Luther’s Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John (1537-40) LW 22, 143-44

Law and Gospel

We talk a lot about “Law and Gospel” especially in the Lutheran branch of Christianity.  It’s an eye-opening way to look at Scripture, a profound way to orient our thinking and believing, and it is the foundation of my preaching. Clergy use the phrase frequently, but I wonder how good we are at actually explaining it to people.  As I read the above passage from Luther slowly and quietly this morning, it struck me that a lot of the chaos that exists in our culture and in our lives is there because we have lost sight of the distinction between law and gospel – because we think one can give us the other.  

Basically, VERY basically, the Law is that which convicts us, while the Gospel is that which saves us. The Law is the rules, the Gospel is the love.  Some incorrectly reach the conclusion that the Law is the Old Testament, while the Gospel is the New Testament (to be clear, there’s plenty of gospel in the Old, and a boat load of law in the New).

It’s a huge part of our cultural psyche that we’re self-sufficient and independent.  We pull ourselves up by our boot straps. We’re told that we’re rewarded justly for the effort we put into something.  Behave, play by the rules, work hard – and we’ll get what we deserve.  This thinking filters down to our lives as individuals as well.  We worship at the altar of “merit.”  We work hard to “deserve,” “earn” and “justify” the benefits of our hard work.  It seems natural then, that we apply this cultural worship with our religious faith.  Now, there are many faiths which DO focus on how our actions impact both our earthly and eternal fates – but Christianity is NOT one of them.

Christianity tells us that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation; our salvation comes through Christ’s sacrifice only.  And that can be hard to swallow.  There is a huge chasm between the “do it yourself” culture and Christian faith which says, “you can’t.”  Many have tried to bridge this chasm by blurring the distinction between law and gospel, believing that somehow our actions DO impact on our salvation.  Others live with a certain contradiction – saying “Jesus saves,” while also saying that if a person behaves a certain way they aren’t saved.  Luther’s quote above is very helpful, because it doesn’t negate the power of the Law.  But it puts the power of the Law in its proper place.  I want to highlight a few key words (at least key for me):

The Law is a sermon which points me to life, and it is essential to remember this instruction.  But it must be borne in mind that the Law does not give me life… The Law was given to us for the revelation of sin; but it does not have the power to save us from sin and rid us of it.

We NEED the Law; the law holds a very important place for us because it guides us in life and faith.  It holds up the ideal to us of community and individual life.  As Luther described, the Law is the hand which directs us.  And because the Law is the ideal, its function is to show us where/when/how/who we have failed.

The Law does not give me life – it does not have the power to save me from sin.

The Law guides my life, shows me where/when/how/who I’ve sinned, but can’t save me from it.  That function belongs the the GOSPEL.  The Gospel proclaims God’s love for us even while we sin.  The Gospel tells us that through Jesus sin and death have no power over us.  The Gospel tell us that precisely because of our inability to keep the Law, Jesus died and rose again for us.  The Gospel proclaims God’s love and grace in both the Old and New Testaments.  The Gospel is also the very person of Jesus Christ. Without the Law, the Gospel means nothing – we have no need of it.  Without the Gospel, we are utterly condemned by the Law.  They each have their place in our lives, but it’s dangerous to confuse them. When we do we can become selfish, not caring about our actions, thinking “anything goes” – or we shut doors on people, hurting them with our judgments; also hurting ourselves, when we’re left wondering if we’re good enough, if we’ve done enough, if we’ve believed enough for God to save us.

The Law is certainly an indispensable part of the word of God, but the Gospel has the LAST word.

Obedience gives Freedom?

This is part four of my reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet.*  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.  While the parts relate to one another, they can be taken separately, so it’s not necessary to read the other posts as a prerequisite to this.

imageOBEDIENCE is a nasty word.  We like to be in control of our lives, of our destiny.  No one likes to be told what to do.  Our life of faith, however, IS a life of obedience – of listening, paying attention to the One who has called us to life.  “In the Bible, obedience takes the form of listening.  The obedient life is one in which Israel listens, attends to, and responds to the voice of God”(p. 81).  Most of what WE call listening is really just being quiet as we form our next sentence and wait to speak it.  Real listening is hard.  And listening for the purpose of obedience is even harder.  Our culture pushes against it.   Again, we like to be the ones in control.  “The preacher, in speaking about obedience, speaks against our modern ways of knowing and controlling.  [It] violates the way we think and know and believe in our culture”(p. 82).

The other reason listening is difficult for us is because we are “greedy children of disproportion, caught in an ideology of acquisitiveness”(p. 82).  That’s a mouthful.  Brueggemann explains, “…social good, social access, and social power are not equally distributed.  Some have too little.  Some have too much.  That some have too much is intimately related to the fact that some have too little….  This economic reality among us impinges on our capacity to hear and respond when we are addressed by God’s voice of command”(p. 82).  We are socialized to always want more and to rigorously protect what we have, so as not to lose it.  This requires a lot of energy on our part.  This energy, this desire to constantly acquire, makes us restless and anxious.

This greed pits us against one another, because it impacts on our ability to make sure that everyone has enough.  Our current political climate reeks with the arguments of those who “have much” not wanting to give anything to make sure that those who “have nothing” can have a little more.  The rich see the poor as lazy and undeserving of more, while the poor see the rich as hoarders (of money, power and opportunity) and themselves as stuck.  Both of these groups of people fill the pews – sometimes even together.  “The congregation addressed by the preacher is thus a strange assembly.  It includes those who guard the disproportion as benefactors.  It also includes those who suffer from the disproportion as victims”(p. 84).   How do we encourage listening when speaking of obedience, knowing it is problematic for all who gather in this “strange assembly?”

Pointing-Blame-Finger pointing isn’t helpful and actually discourages real conversation and listening.  What is perceived as a command, “YOU MUST DO THIS!” only serves to have folks “dig in” and shut down, a pushback against losing control.  Brueggemann reflects, “I have found myself discovering that mostly I do not need more advice, but strength, I do not need new information, but the courage, freedom, and authorization to act on what I already have been given in the gospel”(p.84).  I think what Brueggemann is trying to say here is that rather than having the preacher stand in the pulpit, point a finger and say, “This is what you SHOULD do!” it is more constructive, more conducive to listening, more empowering to say, “This is what you CAN do through God who strengthens you!”

Preachers are to extend an invitation to imagine a life beyond the restlessness and greed, beyond the disproportion.  Both the hoarders and those in want come seeking hope that God has provided a better way.  Because left to their own devices, without the listening that forms obedience, both groups (ALL of us) will die.  Those trapped in restless greed will work themselves to death, not realizing it’s NOT the acquiring of things that will give them peace.  Those who have “too little” will die from neglect.  In the gospel we hear that God is freeing us from that bondage!  When we are able to listen and understand that this is God’s Will for us to be freed from our restlessness and our greed, into a life that has much deeper meaning, we are joyfully and willingly obedient.

Since I used the word bondage above, I will take the time to point out that bondage and willing obedience are NOT the same thing.  Bondage is a forced obedience – the obedience of a slave or prisoner.  Willing obedience is listening, attending and responding to that which we trust will give us peace.  Brueggemann asserts that this call to obedience is rooted in baptism – “Baptism that renounces the old ways of death and embraces a new life,” and, “all our talking and listening is out of baptism and into baptism.  We are a people that is every day summoned to die ‘to the vain glories of the world,’ and to be raised to new life”(p. 85-86).

Brueggemann then takes a look at two of the Ten Commandments (only for space/time constraints, NOT because they other eight don’t apply!).  His treatment of Sabbath and coveting are wonderful, but rather than focus on his always impeccable scholarship, I want to focus on the grander theme of the Commandments as they relate to obedience.  So many times people look at the Commandments as prohibitions, plain and simple.  “THOU SHALT NOT.”  They sound so authoritative, so stifling!  When viewed that way, they certainly are.  God becomes big brother.  Obedience is an oppressive burden in such a mindset.  But when we think of the Commandments as rules that bring order, peace and harmony to our relationships with God and one another, then obedience can become something we desire.


The Commandments create a community in which our priorities regarding the importance of divine and human things are well defined, where there is balance between work and rest, and where there is a culture of respect and honor between neighbors.  We respect and honor our neighbor’s very lives, their spouses, property and reputations.  We respect and honor our parents and our spouses.  And because we not only HAVE neighbors, but ARE neighbors – OUR lives and property and reputations are respected and honored, and our spouses and children honor and respect US.  We love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves(Matthew 22: 34-41).  What freedom this obedience gives – the freedom for our neighbors thrive, and for us to thrive as well!

questions to ponder:

  • What can I do to contain my greed so that I am less afraid/restless and can live more freely?
  • How does serving my neighbor help me fight my greed?
  • What are some guidelines that help us distinguish between obedience and bondage?
  • Does my view of the Ten Commandments change when I see them as rules that create freedom instead of simply things I “can’t do”?


*Finally Comes the Poet:  Daring Speech for Proclamation.  Walter Brueggemann, Augsburg Fortress:  Minneapolis, 1989.

quid pro quo

I saw a statement on twitter yesterday that made me sad.  Sad for the untold number of people who actually believe it.  Sad for the preachers and spiritual leaders that don’t have the audience or the “reach” to combat it.  Sad for Jesus, whose sacrifice is rendered useless if the statement is true.  The statement?

God’s promises hinge on our obedience.

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve come across a statement like this, or heard preaching with this slant, but for some reason today I felt like I had to write a response.

Praise and thank God that God’s promises do NOT hinge on our obedience.  Our obedience has nothing to do with it.  There is no quid pro quo with God.  You see, that’s one of the basic differences between God and human beings.  WE operate constantly on an “if/then” basis with one another.  Many times we’ll only do something nice or generous if we’re going to get a public thank you – one of the reasons why so many churches are filled with plaques of folks who have donated stuff, and why a hospital I walked through the other day had a HUGE wall of names of donors.  God doesn’t operate that way.

In reality, God’s promises are true and sure despite our LACK of obedience.  Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that we could perfectly follow God’s Will – he died precisely because we are NOT perfect and consistently sin and do NOT act in obedience.  THAT’S CALLED GRACE.  You and I don’t deserve a thing from God except condemnation.  But what does God give us?  GRACE.  FORGIVENESS.

I’m wondering what this person considers to be “God’s promises?”  Oftentimes when we hear phrases like this, what the people are really referring to are not God’s promises, but earthly “blessings.”  If I follow rules A, B and C, then God will give me D.  This my friends, is baloney (to put it nicely).  There are many preachers out there these days who are spouting this nonsense because IT’S WHAT PEOPLE WANT TO HEAR.  Of course we want to hear that if we play by the rules we’ll be rewarded.  Of course we want to hear that if we’re good little boys and girls God will get us a new toy.   We DON’T want to hear that bad things happen to good people.  We DON’T want to hear that we can be faithful and love God and still have a life filled with hardship.  We want to believe that we are somehow in control of our own destiny.  The idea that we are NOT in control is downright frightening.  But my friends, that’s the truth.

Another truth is that faith and material success or “worldly blessings” are often at odds with one another.  They can be a trap, a very dangerous trap.  If we’re not VERY careful our worldly blessings can become other gods for us.  What we have is never enough – whether it be money, power, respect, popularity etc… And for every successful person who thanks Jesus in some television interview, there are MILLIONS struggling to get by – struggling materially, struggling politically, struggling in their careers, struggling in relationships.  Does their lack of “blessings” signal that they are somehow disobedient to God or that God loves them less?  ABSOLUTELY NOT.   You know, the weak and heavy laden, the hated, the mourning, the sick, the little ones, etc…?  Jesus constantly reached out to those on the margins, touched the untouchable, even ate with sinners.  Our earthly blessings are not a sign of our obedience (or lack of it).


That’s the way it goes.  God gave us some promises, and because God MADE the promises, God will KEEP the promises.  You know why?  Because unlike human beings, when God makes a promise God will never break it.


God makes NO promise that we will be loved by others – only that GOD loves us.  God makes NO promise that we will be wealthy.  No promise that we will be respected.  No promise that we will come first by worldly standards.  No promise of physical health.  No promise our relationships will be stable or healthy or even SAFE.  But God DOES promise us that we are forgiven, that we have a place in heaven, and that while we’re still in this life on earth we are NOT alone, but are always held in God’s arms.  And because of THESE promises of God we can have strength to cope with our challenges, strength to try to make our earthly life better, and peace that no matter what life throws at us, no matter how much we screw up, God will always love us, because the following is also true.