Monday, August 15, 2016

Forget God

Forget God
Psalm 50[1]
We who claim to follow Christ as our Savior and Lord face a constant temptation. It is incredibly easy for us to forget God in the midst of all our religious activities.[2] How often do we lose sight of the basic affirmations of our faith! The Bible teaches us that all that we are and have and ever will be come to us as a gift from God who is the creator of all things and all people. Our faith is in the good news that through Jesus the Christ we have been given the freedom to live our lives without fear or guilt or shame. And the Bible consistently instructs those of us who have received the love of God to relate to other people—all other people—in a manner consistent with that amazing grace.
Despite all that, we have an unsettling tendency to simply “forget God” and go about our lives as we see fit. Of course, given the pace of life these days, even the best of us can lose focus when it comes to our faith. Between our jobs and our homes and our families, it seems like life is a never-ending roller-coaster. But this is more than just a matter of slipping into a routine that empties our religion of any real meaning. I don’t think I have to remind you that when the church has forgotten God, it has been capable of committing horrific atrocities. This is not a matter of ancient history. All you have to do is turn on your TV to see Christian people “forgetting God” and acting in ways that contradict our faith.
That is the point of our Psalm for today. If you read the history of Israel, it’s not too hard to discover that they forgot God many times.[3] And when they did, they fell into a pattern of worship and living that dishonored God. For a time, God would be patient with them, attempting to draw them back to the commitment they had made to him. But when their walk didn’t match their talk, and their standards for living fell to a level where they betrayed the love he had poured into their hearts, he broke silence and called them to account.[4] This psalm is unique in that it constitutes a summons by “The mighty one, God the Lord” to the people who had pledged their love and loyalty to him to answer for the fact that, once again, they had forgotten God.
In the Psalm, God calls his people to account for this in two ways: their worship and their lives. When it came to their worship, it would appear that they had fallen into the pattern that so many have over the ages: thinking that somehow our worship, and specifically our offerings, are a “gift” we give to God. And, of course, we believe we deserve credit for being so generous toward God.[5] But in this Psalm, God reminds his people of all ages once again that because he is the one Creator of all things, “the world and all that is in it is mine” (Ps. 50:12). That includes us and everything we think we own! For that reason, the kind of worship that honors God reflects our ultimate dependence on God for everything—for all that we have and all that we are, for life itself. Anything less constitutes a “trampling” of God’s courts, according to the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 1:12).
Equally problematic was the fact that they had fallen into a pattern of living that contradicted their  profession of faith.[6] And so it was that God’s people had gone from being his “faithful ones” (Ps. 50:5) and had become the “wicked” (Ps. 50:16).[7] That wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last. The prophets had repeatedly rebuked Israel for claiming to be God’s people while blatantly violating God’s commands. Here, the psalm singles out the commandments regarding stealing, adultery, and bearing false witness. But as the witness of the whole Bible bears out, any time those of us who have vowed to love and serve God live in a way that betrays our faith, we are guilty of having forgotten God.  And Jesus made it clear that this is not just about our actions, but also about what’s in our hearts. As he interpreted the command against murder, we violate God’s will when we even speak to another human being in a demeaning way.
In this unique Psalm, “the mighty one, God the Lord” calls out to us all to put his justice into practice.  What God wants from us is not ritual or lip service, but a heart that is open to God’s truth, eyes of compassion that see the needs around us, and the will to work for God’s kingdom in the world.[8] It is the same message the prophet Micah had:  “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” (Micah 6:8).  Throughout the Bible, what God desires from us most of all is compassion and kindness toward the most vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant are most frequently named in the Bible, but we could add others to the list, like the unjustly convicted or the mentally ill.[9] When we turn our backs on them, we forget God.
We live in a world where God’s name has been invoked to justify some of the worst of atrocities. We live in a world where God’s name is invoked on a regular basis to justify hatred, violence, and injustice. And when we condone that kind of thing, we indict ourselves as those who have forgotten God—or at least the very basic principles the Bible teaches us about God. I think that in these matters it might help us gain clarity if we simplify it. One time-tested principle we can use to measure our lives is whether what we do and say matches what Jesus would do and say. Perhaps, though we need to put it on a more basic level: can we honestly say that our lives match up with what we teach our children? Those are both hard tests for any of us, but I think if we pay more attention to them, it will help us avoid the temptation to forget God.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/7/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:883: “Good faith is always in danger of becoming bad religion—a mechanistic system to put God at our disposal and to give us the illusion of merit and self-control. If we think that we are deserving, and if we think that we have things essentially under control, then there will be no need for us to call upon God or to live in dependence upon God.”
[3] Cf. J├╝rgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, 39: “To say that Israel ‘forgets’ God means that the people are disregarding God’s covenant and precepts; but it also means that they are forgetting God’s history with Israel: Exodus, covenant and election.”
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 195: “The patience of God with his people, the forbearance of the LORD in the face of misunderstanding and faithlessness, could lead to a terrible conclusion”: they may “think of the LORD as one like themselves” instead of recognizing “the revelation of God and the covenant to be the determination of life”. “For that reason God must break silence in the face of error. God must judge.” Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:882: “we should remember that God’s purpose in judgment is to set right people and things—that is, to establish justice.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1 278: “In sacrifice Israel—fallible, sinful and unfaithful Israel—is summoned to bow beneath the divine judgment, but also to hold fast to the divine grace. Of course, this living meaning of sacrifice can sometimes fade. It may become a mere religious observance. It may be understood as a do ut des [tit for tat]. It may become an attempt on the part of the people to acquire power over God, to assure oneself before him, to hide one’s sin instead of acknowledging it.” Cf. also Mays, Psalms, 195-96: “The indictment of worship is not a rejection of sacrifice as such. … The problem is a misunderstanding and misuse of sacrifice. If sacrifice is brought as a gift to God … and offered as something transferred from their ownership to God’s possession, that sacrifice is rejected. Such a sacrifice denies that God is creator and owner of all … . If sacrifice is brought to God as something that God needs and is dependent upon the people to bring, that denies God’s absolute sovereignty … .”
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 196: “The problem with the people is that “there is a disparity … between confession (v. 16) and conduct (v. 17). They recite the statutes and ignore the commandments. They confess the covenant and reject its discipline.” Cf. also McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:881: “The mention of a covenant ‘by sacrifice’ recalls the covenant ceremony following the giving of the Decalogue (Exod 24:1-8), where sacrifice accompanied the reading of ‘the book of the covenant’ (Exod 24:7 NRSV). In that setting, the people promised, ‘We will obey’ (Exod 24:7 NIV). Psalm 50 suggests that God’s people have not obeyed; rather, they have violated the covenant.”
[7] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:882: “it is precisely God’s people who have become ‘the wicked.’ They apparently say the right things (v. 16) but fail to act in accordance with their covenant identity (v. 17).
[8] Cf. H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-59, 495-96: “The judgment speech in vv. 16-21, …, rules out all external piety, even formal lip-confession, as ungodly and godless ‘religiosity.’ Yahweh is not silent over against the hypocritical measures of his covenant partners.”
[9] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

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