Monday, January 29, 2007

A Sermon: on Religion vs. Repentance

INTRODUCTION: When [our] Pastor . . . asked me to prepare to speak this morning, she pointed out that our focus is on Christian character. Now, such topics and the texts are very challenging, especially given the warning in James 3:1 that we should think twice before presuming to teach the scriptures, as teachers “will be judged more strictly.” I therefore confess right away that if this message could walk up here and deliver itself, I would be happy to let it do so. But, alas, it cannot. So, it is I who must speak what I believe the Lord is showing us out of the scriptures today, trembling as I remember all the while that I too am under the force of the Word of God – not just the Amen parts, but the Ouch ones too! So, let us now focus on . . .

1] Focus text:

2 Chron 7:12 – 14, when the Lord appeared to Solomon after he built the Temple:

12 the LORD appeared to him at night and said: "I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices.

2CH 7:13 "When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land . . . .

2CH 7:17 "As for you, if you walk before me as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe my decrees and laws, 18 I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father when I said, `You shall never fail to have a man to rule over Israel.'

Right away, we see the gap between religion and repentance. Religion builds wonderful temples or churches – just as we have all across the lovely islands of the Caribbean -- and has beautiful rituals. And yet, with the temple in the midst, the covenants, the scriptures and the history of what God had done for Israel, it was possible for God to have to in his mercy judge Israel in order to draw their attention to the urgent need to turn back to him. And, this is what repentance is all about: humbling ourselves, praying, seeking God's face and -- by his grace -- turning from our “wicked ways.”

Yes, this speaks to us too – OUCH. For, we can name God's name, have lovely churches and rituals and the scriptures and so on, and still be living in wicked ways and holding wicked attitudes, so that God shuts up his ears to our prayers and shuts up his umbrella of protection over us. For:

ISA 59:1 Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save,

nor his ear too dull to hear.

ISA 59:2 But your iniquities have separated

you from your God;

your sins have hidden his face from you,

so that he will not hear.

2] Acts 27 – A case study:

In modern education, we hear a lot about case studies, which lay out a real [or sometimes made up] example, so that we can learn some lessons from it – those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. So, I was happy last week to see that we took a look at just this text, which is so illuminating on how we often live and govern ourselves in a democracy – and how that can lead to judgement and God's gracious intervention for the sake of his remnant.

As we will remember, Paul had been put on trial in Israel, and when he saw that his opponents were hell-bent on injustice, he had to appeal to Caesar. So, late in 59 AD, he was on ship board on the way to Rome on a ship in the service of the Roman Government's Wheat Trade Department. (Yes, to give the dangerous mob in Rome their free bread for the “bread and circuses” they demanded, there was a whole Government Department for importing Wheat into Rome!]

Now, the ship had had a hard time in the face of opposing winds, and was in Fair Havens, Crete at the time when sailing was dangerous due to impending Winter storms out of the Northeast. But, the harbour was open mouthed so the ship's owner was concerned to save his investment. The Pilot [not quite Captain as we have it] of course went along as technical adviser. The argument was that they could quickly slip down the coast just a bit to a safer, more comfortable port, Phoenix. Paul, of course, bravely prophetically warned them that this was dangerous, not only to the ship but to their lives.

But, such voices are seldom popular, and “the majority” had their way under the influence of the voice of wealth and the advice of “the experts.” So the Centurion went along with the majority, not the prophet. (In short, we see here a character test: who will dare to be an unpopular Daniel, in the face of the voices of wealth, the experts and the majority, with the power of Government lurking in the background . . .)

Then they got that sweet little south wind, and thought they had what they wanted. They slipped out of the harbour and glided down the coast. Then – BAM! -- a wicked Nor'easter caught them and blew them about for two weeks, so that it was only by God's mercy that their lives were saved, and the ship and cargo were of course lost. (Notice how we never hear form the Owner and the Pilot in the storm – except for the crew's secret plot to abandon the passengers and make an escape for themselves. What a revelation about character – err, the want of it -- under fire!)

Key lesson: King Jehoshaphat after seeking God at the Temple in the time of distress when the nations were invading Israel to wipe it out:

2CH 20:20 Early in the morning they left for the Desert of Tekoa. As they set out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, "Listen to me, Judah and people of Jerusalem! Have faith in the LORD your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful."

We can easily enough see that if our own democracies in our region are to prosper under God, we must seek and heed the voice of God through his spokesmen, not that of those who tickle our ears with what they think we want to hear. Second, we must dare to be Daniels, willing to stand up with the voice of God – tempered by tactful good manners as he was famous for! -- despite what people and rulers may want us to tickle their ears with. So, as we too, seek God to heal our own hurting lands here in the Caribbean [and in the world beyond], let us humble ourselves, pray, seek God's face and turn from our own wicked ways.

3] Digging deeper – Rom 2:

Just his past week, a Rastaman in (if memory serves) a Haile Selassie T-shirt asked me at the gas pump, what I think about the church of Rasta. I answered, that I think about it in light of Rom 2:5 – 11. He was not at all pleased that I answered in that way, but I think that this text is a key as we try to live and share the gospel and its blessings as Christians in a region that is more and more diverse and confrontational on issues of God, godliness and doing the right thing – whether over “stigma” and AIDS (even as we hear mention of of eighteen new cases here over the past couple of years), or what to do about our secondary school, or what to do about evacuation to save lives and prevent people from being impoverished (as our CM almost in passing says that our mountain has now reached 250 million cu m), or whatever the headlined issue of the day is. Let's look:

RO 2:5 . . .because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God "will give to each person according to what he has done." 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil . . . 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good . . . 11 For God does not show favoritism.

In short, attitude – thus, character -- counts for more with God than doctrine. But equally, a sinful, rebellious attitude leads us to seek our own – not the right – way, which makes us reject the truth when we hear it, and then we follow what we SHOULD know is evil. Such an attitude and behaviour in the teeth of what verse 4 calls “God's kindness” that “leads [us] toward repentance” plainly merits God's wrath.

CONCLUSION: So, now, are we willing to listen to that “still, small voice” that calls us to the truth and the right that are in Jesus – him who died for our sins, was buried, rose as Lord and Saviour, and is shortly to come ad Judge -- even if it is unpopular? Will we heed him and turn from our wicked ways? Are we willing to seek God's grace and anointing to live by the truth and the right in the power of his Spirit?

So, now, let us humble ourselves and seek his face in prayer . . . END

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