Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Finding Life

Finding Life
Micah 6:1-8[1]
  We as a people are, I think, tragically confused about how to find life.  I think we’re not even sure what we’re looking for in life.  But whatever it is we’re looking for--happiness, fulfillment, success, or just pleasure--it seems to me that we’re looking for it in all the wrong places.  And we look to all the wrong people as our examples of what it means to be happy.  The rich and famous and beautiful have become the inspiration for many when it comes to how to find the life they’re looking for.  And yet the path many of them have shown us is that the way to be happy is to do whatever we please.  The sad truth is that when we turn freedom into a license to do as we please, the end result, time after time, is that people get hurt.
  But the lessons of prophets and sages of all the ages is that we do not find life by indulging the will to do whatever we please.  We find life by following the truth of what is right and good and beneficial to us all.  I believe our lesson from the prophet Micah points us in this direction:  “He has told you, O mortal, 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?” (Mic. 6:8). I realize this flies in the face of the “freedom” we think we have to do as we please.  It talks about what God “requires” of us.  It sounds like the way to bondage, repression, and restriction, rather than happiness in life.
  But if we were to conclude that, we would be missing one of the central points of the whole Bible.  From Moses to Micah to Matthew, the witness of the Scriptures is that we find life through our obedience to God’s principles.[2]  We find happiness and true freedom through the “truth that sets us free.” And an integral part of that truth is that we find fulfillment in life when we do what is right, when we treat others with love and kindness, and when we recognize that we are not the masters of our own fate.[3]  But the converse is also true: when we live for ourselves and our own selfish desires, when we treat others as a means to attain only what we want from them, and when we place ourselves on the throne of our lives, we become slaves to our selfishness, and lose the chance for true freedom and happiness in life.
  Essentially, this verse from the book of the prophet Micah is an eloquent summary of the commands of God throughout the Bible.[4] There are others: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), which serves as the conclusion to an alternate version of the Ten Commandments in Leviticus.  The prophet Isaiah said this: “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:16-17). Our Psalm for today says this way of life is demonstrated in “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart” (Ps. 15:2).[5]  And, of course Jesus said it this way: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). 
  In all of these summaries, the same premise serves as the foundation for a way of life that is very different from the one many of our cultural icons hold out for us.  It is the premise that we find true freedom when we surrender our will to the will of God.[6]  It is the premise that we find true happiness when we give up the folly of “going our own way” and we follow the truths that have been handed down to us for generations (which happen to be many of the same truths that have been handed down for generations in the other major religions).  It is the premise that we find what we’re looking for in life when we give ourselves away in kindness and compassion for others, rather than trying to take as much as we can get for ourselves.[7]
  Ironically, this is the essence of the “Law” in the Bible.  The Torah, which basically means teaching or truth, is not about preventing us from doing all the things in life that make us happy.  A quick survey of some of the commandments makes it obvious that they only prohibit what hurts us and what keeps us from finding life.  And so it is that throughout the Bible, the heart of what the prophets and apostles have taught us is that it is through obeying these spiritual principles that we find the true freedom and true happiness we’re looking for in life.[8]
  That’s part of what Jesus’ message was in the Beatitudes.[9] When we look at them, we see a reflection of a way of living that is different from the self-gratification of our culture.  He talks about the happiness of those who are meek, while we give our praise to the proud.  He talks about the happiness of those who are hungry for God’s justice, while we  indulge in obsessive pleasure-seeking.  He talks about the happiness of those who are pure in heart, while we seem to think that purity is a quaint and obsolete notion.  If you’re looking to Jesus for an excuse to ignore the truths that have been handed down to us in the Bible, you’re looking in the wrong place.[10]
  It seems to me that when the advocates of doing what you please run into criticism, they inevitably turn to Jesus to defend themselves.  Or at least something like his principles of tolerance.  But those principles are part of a whole way of life.  The tolerance that Jesus and other prophets and teachers advocated is a part of a way of life that is very different from self-indulgence.  The kind of life that Jesus advocated, along with many prophets before him and after him, is a way of life that finds happiness and freedom and life through “Seeing that justice is done, letting mercy be your first concern, and humbly obeying your God” (Mic. 6:8, CEV).[11]  It seems to me, if we want to find life, that’s the path we need to be taking.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/2/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] It is essential to recognize that in this passage from Micah, as well as in all the summaries of God’s “requirements,” God’s gracious deeds of salvation always precede the demand placed upon those who benefit from them.  Cf. on Micah, Hans Walter Wolff,  A Continental Commentary: Micah, 183; and Daniel J. Simundson, “The Book of Micah,” New Interpreters Bible VII:582.
[3] Cf. Simundson, “The Book of Micah,” 582-83, where he points out that “what the Lord requires” is both easier and harder than the questions in Mic. 6:6-7 imply.  He says, “It is easier because there is nothing that we need to do (or are able to do) to make ourselves sufficiently worthy to approach God.  It is harder, because what God expects of us is a dedication of our whole lives, not just outward and occasional acts of piety.”
[4] Cf. Wolff,  Micah, 183; cf. also James Limburg, Hosea-Micah, 192, where he says the answer to the question “What does the Lord require” is “He has showed you ... what is good”; in this “one thinks of the whole tradition of the commandments and also the wisdom directives, long known in Israel.”  Cf. similarly, Simundson, “Book of Micah,” 583.
[5] Psalm 15:3 elaborates more specifically what it means to “do what is right, and to speak the truth from the heart”: they “do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors.” Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 84, says that the character traits listed there “belong to the established tradition of right and wrong in Israel’s religion” and that they are “cases of conduct that effect the well-being or shalom of the various levels of the community.”  Cf. also H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 228-29.
[6] James L. Mays, Micah, p. 136, suggests that the point of this passage is that it is not a “what” but a “whom” that the Lord wants.  He says, “It’s you, not something, that God wants. 
[7] Cf. James Limburg, Hosea-Micah, 193, where he says the call to “walk” is “similar to the call of Jesus, whose most characteristic invitation was not ‘believe’ but rather ‘walk’ or ‘Follow me.’”  He also says that Micah 6:8 “describes a step-by-step living with God and living for others, acting as advocate for the powerless and showing care for those who are hurting and need help.”
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:566: “it is the grace of God which expresses itself in” the claims made upon us in the commandments. “It is always God in Jesus Christ who, as He puts these claims, wills to have us for Himself, to call us to Himself.”
[9] While Jesus was primarily proclaiming the good news of what God was doing through him to bring the peace and justice and freedom of the Kingdom, not teaching us a list of character traits that we are called to embody, I think we can also see the way of life summarized by the prophets and apostles reflected here.  Cf. W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 440, where they point out that while the primary function of the beatitudes is not ethical, “it would be foolish to deny the imperatives implicit” in the beatitudes.
[10] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:567: Jesus “Himself is the claim which God has made and continually makes upon all men.”
[11] Cf. Simundson, “Book of Micah,” 583, where he says, “If one is in right relationship with God (walking humbly with God), one need not worry overmuch about what to do to win approval or forgiveness for sinful indiscretions.  If one is not right with God, no liturgical ceremony, sacrifice, act of generosity, or rigid adherence to theological absolutes will be sufficient.”

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