Those of you who have been following my journey know that I keep on stumbling into Biblical passages that talk about the “fear of the Lord.” It actually started this summer with a sermon I preached in the Dominican Republic on the fear of the Lord in Isaiah 6, even though the phrase didn’t actually appear in the text. Then, in the fall, I came across Acts 9:31: “Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, [the church] increased in numbers.” Then I encountered Psalm 19:2: “The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever,” which prompted a longer meditation contrasting the fear that leads to wisdom with the fear that has to do with punishment. More recently I discovered in Psalm 25 the strange statement that God offers “friendship to those who fear Him.” My latest milestone in this journey came this past weekend preaching on Isaiah 11, in which verse 3 says that the messiah will “delight in the fear of the Lord.” I think there are two ways to understand this statement: one is perverse and the other beautiful.
One of the struggles I have with the word “covenant” is that it seems to be used to describe two entities which are quite different: God’s unconditional, unilateral promise to Abraham and the elaborate set of rules and practices given to the Israelites in the Torah. In Romans 4, Paul pits these two “covenants” against each other in order to radically redefine what it means to be God’s people. Paul argues that God’s people are more essentially those who share the faith of Abraham than those who follow the law of Moses. If we understand righteousness to mean trusting in God’s unconditional generosity rather than following rules flawlessly, this means replacing an ethos of retribution with an ethos of mercy. I think that the reason evangelicals so egregiously misinterpret Romans is because we don’t want Paul to be replacing contractual rules with trust, since that means giving up both retribution and our autonomy; we would rather make “faith” into a new rule that we get punished for not following, so that we can continue to deny our dependence on God and judge others, which completely sabotages Paul’s entire point.
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. [2 Corinthians 5:17-21] Continue reading
Sermon for Advent, 12/18/2010
Text: Matthew 1:12-25
Joseph was a righteous man. The word “righteous” has gotten a bad rap in our day, because righteous and self-righteous have come to mean the same thing. Our world has reduced morality to a set of either-ors. Either you stand up for what’s right and you’re a merciless judge of others, or you’re an easy-going person who doesn’t have any moral convictions. Either you see the world in black and white terms that anybody ought to understand or you see gray everywhere and feel like we need a doctor of philosophy to sort it all out. Joseph didn’t live in our world of either-or. He was a different kind of righteous, a kind you don’t find often anymore.
Some of you might say it was easy for Joseph to be righteous. He had an angel of the Lord come to him in a dream to tell him what to do. So what do we do now that Michael Landon’s no longer with us and even Touched by an Angel is off the air? If someone with wings and a halo came and told me what to do, it wouldn’t be that hard to obey. But we have to look a little more closely at Joseph’s story, because Joseph decides to be righteous before the angel comes to visit.
Now if Joseph was a righteous, devout Jew, he would have known that Leviticus 20:10 says very clearly that the punishment for adultery is stoning. And if Joseph had been one to stone first and ask questions later, then he would have had Mary put to death before any angel had a chance to get a word in edgewise. But because Joseph started in a place of mercy, he was able to hear God’s word and follow it with integrity. We may not have dreams of angels, but we can follow the basic model of Joseph’s righteousness – if we start with mercy, we will be able to hear God speak and then obey His command.
It’s very important to recognize that Joseph did not know Mary was innocent when he decided to treat her with mercy. When he found out Mary was pregnant, Joseph wasn’t going to move forward with their marriage as though nothing had happened, but he also wasn’t willing to turn Mary into the authorities. Maybe he sensed that there was more to the story than what it seemed. Perhaps Mary told him that she’d had a visit from an angel herself. The Bible doesn’t say. All that we know is that Joseph refused to rush to judgment.
Joseph almost ended his engagement to Mary, but he was also willing to break the law of the Torah so that Mary’s life would be spared. To Joseph, righteousness meant more than just following the rules and making sure that people get what they deserve. Joseph’s different kind of righteousness meant seeking after the heart of a God who tells us in the Bible that His ways are not like our ways, because He is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Joseph did not yet know the full depths of mercy that God would reveal through the baby who would come into the world because Joseph refused to have His mother stoned for adultery. But the life and death and resurrection of the savior child who was soon to be born would create a kingdom of mercy for which Joseph’s act of mercy was only a foreshadow.
Mercy is what it’s all about, folks. It’s what the Word of God became flesh to instill in us. Jesus did not die for our sins so that we could go around criticizing other people for their sins. He died to show us God’s mercy so we would show each other mercy. And we live in a world without mercy, a nation of bloggers and soap-box-jumping ranters and ravers who know exactly what’s wrong with other people and consider it their divine mandate to broadcast their opinions to the world. I know because I’ve been one of them and I’m still learning how not to be. As long as we’re spouting off, as long as we feel sure that we know how it is, God could send a whole hallelujah chorus of angels to change our minds and we wouldn’t hear them. Instead, we’d spin their hallelujahs into praise for our own ideas.
But Joseph didn’t live in the world that we’ve created today. Because Joseph was humble and merciful, his heart was open enough to receive God’s word when the angel came into his dream. He knew somehow that he hadn’t gotten all the facts, so he waited patiently, and God honored his patience by showing him the truth. What was not possible had in fact happened. This amazingly virtuous woman he had fallen in love with had not cheated on him. Mary really was still a virgin and somehow Joseph was going to be the step-dad of the savior of the humanity.
Now we can say that God doesn’t send angels to people anymore, but how do we know? Maybe we haven’t been listening. The word “angel” is transliterated from the Greek word angelos, and all that means is “messenger.” God speaks His message of love to us through every means that God can. God has sent us many messengers; many of you in this very room have been God’s messengers to me because God has spoken through you.
There are two types of messengers that Jesus especially calls our attention to. He says in Mark 9, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me.” And in Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Whatever you have done for the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done for me.” Jesus is saying that if we want to meet Him, if we want to seek His face, if we want to hear His word, then we would do best to look for Him in the company of children and anybody who needs our help.
What do we learn from hanging out with children and helping other people? We learn mercy; we learn patience; we learn to listen without jumping to conclusions too quickly. And using these gifts that we receive, we are able to listen for the still, small voice of God. Now please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Children say plenty of nonsense and sometimes you get cussed out by people you’re trying to help. But if you receive it all in mercy, knowing the mercy that God has given you, then God will speak to you through whatever you experience.
And when your heart has been opened enough by mercy to receive God’s word, then it’s easier to submit yourself to God’s will. By following God’s command to take Mary as his wife and perform the definitive ritual of naming the boy Jesus, which legally made him Jesus’ father, Joseph essentially gave himself a shotgun wedding and implicitly confessed to a sin that he didn’t commit to smooth out the story for a community that would not have understood a virgin birth. Joseph was willing to receive public dishonor for acting in secret with true honor. This was truly a different kind of righteousness. And because Joseph obeyed God, Jesus was not only the Son of God but the son of Joseph’s ancestor David also, which legitimated his claim to Israel’s throne. Even though Jesus didn’t have a human father, nobody needed to know that Joseph wasn’t his daddy, not till much later.
Yet, as much of a hero as Joseph was, I don’t think it takes a superhuman amount of character to follow his model. We just need a little mercy. And in fact, we’ve got a leg up on Joseph because we know the mercy that his stepson Jesus would later show us in dying for our sins. What makes us resistant to obeying God’s will is when we think we’ve got the world all figured out, when we’ve got our own agenda, when it’s more important for us to look like we’re right than to actually do something that’s righteous but impossible to explain to a world that can’t understand. People who live under God’s mercy don’t have an agenda; they’re not trying to prove their worth to anybody because God has proven His unconditional love to them. And that’s why they can do what God tells them. God doesn’t beat us down into a sulky, begrudging obedience. God wins us through His mercy so that we will not just do what God says but want what God wants, which is what makes us able to hear and obey Him at all, still, small voice that He is.
When mercy reigns in your heart like it reigned in Joseph’s heart, then you too will hear God speak through the many messengers that He sends you, and you too will want to follow the command of the God who loves you, even if it means risking the world’s dishonor just as Joseph faced dishonor in claiming a son that wasn’t his and just as Jesus suffered the greatest dishonor of all so that we might know God’s mercy. Don’t let the world tell you what is and isn’t righteous. Be like Joseph; start with mercy and be a different kind of righteous.