Sermon for 20th Ordinary, Pentecost +12 lectionary year B, August 19, 2012
5 See, just as the LORD my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
John 1:1-5, 14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of
grace and truth
“With-ness, Goodness, and Compassion: The Words of the Revolution”
Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; that was the three word slogan of the French Revolution, and many revolutions since that time.
I think there are three words that sum up a far greater revolution (though I’m not sure one of them is a real word): “With-ness, Goodness, and Compassion”. (Is “with-ness” a word?).
You have heard me say that the most important word in the bible, more important than the word love, is the word “with.” One of the biggest ideas in the bible is that God seeks to be with his people, with us. Of course love is the reason, but “with” is how “love” looks in action. This is what we are going to be seeing over and over as we read the bible in 90 days. From the creation of the world, in Genesis, to the end of time in Revelation, God’s purpose to be with his people is a hugely thematic goal.
It’s also a huge problem to solve. God created a perfect world and topped it off with humans, made in his own image. As the story tells it,
God meets the original pair of humans in the garden at the time of the evening breeze; God is present with them. Everything is as it should be. But once they assert their autonomy and reject God’s will, they are no longer fit to stay in his presence. They cannot be with God directly any more. They must leave his presence; they must leave the garden.
Why? This brings up the second revolutionary word: Goodness. God is good. Most of the gods of the pagan world were not good and did not care about goodness. If you think it’s odd to say that, it’s because you are living after the revolution. The gods of the pagan world, sun gods, storm gods, fertility gods, never cared about human goodness. According to pagan religions, these gods did not care who you lied to, stole from, slept with or even killed. They didn’t care if you helped the poor or watched out for orphans and widows.
What the pagan gods wanted was that you feed them. They mainly liked meat, prepared in exactly one way: burned up. When you put the
meat on the sacrificial altar and burn it, you turn it into smoke. The smoke goes up, the gods take a deep breath and ingest your offering. Then they are nice to you, for a while, until they get hungry again, and so it goes. In the pagan world, they did not care about your goodness, as long as they were fed. (I’m being slightly facetious, but only slightly).
Israel’s God, named YHWH, translated in our English bibles as “the Lord,” is radically different. Israel’s God both is good, and cares that humans be good.
This one word, goodness, changes the entire religious landscape. Now, for the first time, the whole religious project has shifted. Now God cares deeply how we live. Our behavior is not just a matter of concern between ourselves (I don’t want you to hit me), it has ascended to the level of a divine concern (God doesn’t want you to hit me, or the reverse). So now, it matters to God who we lie to, steal from, sleep with or kill. In fact, it’s not a slight concern, it is at the heart of God’s will whether or not we care for the poor, the orphans and widows.
This was the massive revolution that Moses proclaimed. Unlike all the other pagan gods, the Lord is best loved, not just by the religious ritual of sacrifice, but the Lord is Loved when his people are good; which of course includes being good to each other. For the first time, morality is a religious issue.
From now on, sacrifices are not meal-bribes to get a hungry God on your side. Rather, sacrifices are gifts that honor God. Notice, in the story, how God responds to Noah’s sacrifice after the flood subsides: it is a pleasant aroma to him – he is duly honored.
But this is the heart of the “with” problem. Humans are not good. Humans, when given a choice, do just what the story of Adam and Eve predicts: we assert our own autonomy. We think that we know better than God about how to get our needs met, and so we reach for the forbidden fruit and take a nice bite. We humans in fact do lie, cheat, steal, kill and commit adultery. We duck out of our responsibilities to the poor, the orphans and the widows. We are not good. How can God be with us as he wants to be when we are like this?
This brings up the critical issue of purity. In the ancient world, people had a deep sense that being in the presence of a god was
dangerous. Gods were powerful in ways that made humans tremble in awe. So, temples were typically designed concentrically, to have rooms inside of rooms. In the center was the statue or shrine of the god. Only the high priest could go into that room, and only on special days and only after elaborate preparations. Those preparations ordinarily included special clothing worn after ritual bathing and sacrifices. The inner sanctum was a holy space that required holiness to ward off its danger. Clearly Israel embraced these concepts.
How could a person who is not good and a holy God co-exist under these circumstances? The solution which the Old Testament presents is an elaborate system that structures all of the life of people, as individuals and as a community, in such a way as to promote purity and to remove impurity. Purity was a core value.
So every meal a person ate had to be Kosher. Everything edible in the world was divided up into pure and impure categories. People too, could be pure or impure (non-Jews were automatically impure). Touching anything related to death like corpses and carcasses made a person impure. Even bodily fluids related to reproduction were included, since the loss of them implied the loss of life-force; closeness to death. Elaborate rituals were necessary to
remove impurity, including ritual washing and a complex system of sacrificial offerings.
Purity is about Access
Purity is all about access to God. We are back to the word “with.” How can people who are unholy be with a holy God? Only by elaborate methods to deal with the problem of impurity. And if God is good, then moral concerns are important here too. It’s a sin to break the sabbath or touch a dead dog, and it is also a sin to lie, cheat and steal, and it all creates impurity which requires ritual sacrifice to undo.
This is where the revolution comes to a climax. Hints at a developing revolution can be seen within the Old Testament, especially in the prophets. A trajectory was forming in which the concept of purity begins to focus on moral behavior, rather than ritual preparations and solutions.
Micah famously asks the question,
“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
The answer should be “yes of course. These are exactly what impure people need to bring as offerings if they want access to God – to be with God who is good and who demands goodness and purity of them.” But Micah reflects on this issue deeply and considers the ritual sacrifices insufficient. Even if they were offered in exaggerated quantities they would not solve the problem at its root. He continues,
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
No, he is saying, not even the ultimate ritual of human sacrifice would not be enough to solve the problem. A good God requires a life of moral goodness of his people, that includes all aspects of their lives.
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?
This prophetic counter-point to the ritual actions of the temple, reflected a deeper concept of purity, summed up by justice, mercy and humility. What was it that made people impure, Micah asks?
Was it not the lack of moral goodness which bears the bitter fruit of injustice in the community?
Is it not the merciless exclusion of human beings whom God has made in his image?
Is it not the arrogant me-ism, the selfish neglect of the weak and vulnerable?
Micah saw that compassion was a deeper core value than purity. Rather than bringing another ritual sacrifice, instead, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”
What we see here in Micah is not a repudiation of the ritual conducted at the temple, but an understanding of its meaning at a far deeper level.
Following the Trajectory to Jesus
This is exactly the same trajectory that the Lord Jesus himself followed. Jesus finally brought the whole program of purity as a core value and world-organizing principle to a grinding halt. For Jesus, purity, as the means by which a person is able to be with God is finally replaced by compassion.
Following Micah’s trajectory to its end, Jesus said:
“There is nothing outside a person which by going in can defile; but the things which come out of a person are what defile” (Mark 7:15) [things that “come out” here was specifically referring to words that come out, revealing what is really going on in the heart of the person]
Who gets to “come before the Lord?” Who gets to be with God? Isn’t purity, which has been so important for so long valid anymore? Yes, Jesus says, but now it is not external ritual purity, but rather:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matt. 5:8)
This is the final revolution. Compassion replaces purity as a core value; compassion becomes the organizing principle for life.
God wants desperately to be with his people. He made us. He loves us. And he wants to be our God and we to be his people. This is desire is what the 23rd Psalm is all about, and this is also why God makes covenants with his people. God is morally good, unlike the gods of the pagan world. And because we humans are not good, there is a problem about being with God.
The solution that the Old Testament worked out was the purity solution. Even so, the prophets (at least) knew that the real issues were deeper. Following the prophetic trajectory, Jesus finally breaks through the fog, proclaiming compassion as the means by which we are able to find access to God’s presence. He famously summed up the whole law and all of its purity regulations saying:
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the
greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40)
We, who will be reading the bible in 90 days, will have front row seats for this amazing revolutionary drama of with-ness, goodness, and finally compassion.
But all of us can rejoice that Jesus has come and has shown us so clearly how God’s ultimate purpose of being with the people he made can be fulfilled.
Now we, as people whom Jesus has redeemed, are charged with the mandate of being instruments God’s compassion: in our homes, in our community, and especially to people who are weak, vulnerable, and suffering.