Sunday, February 05, 2017

February 5, Proper 1, Righteousness #5: The Wisdom of God

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-10, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

This is the fifth sermon in our series on Righteousness. Our question is always this: What do our lessons tell us today about this important Christian theme? Today in our lessons the word occurs seven times: three times as the adjective “righteous” and four times as the noun “righteousness.”

The seventh occurrence is that alarming last thing we heard the Lord Jesus say: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” How could Jesus say that? Doesn’t that contradict everything else he said?

What a difference from the feel of the Beatitudes that come right before this lesson in the same chapter. Last week we heard that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, it’s among us, we don’t have to build it or advance it, we just receive it, in our poverty of spirit, in our meekness, even in our mourning. Not that we exceed at righteousness but that we desire it, that we hunger and thirst for it. But now he seems to say that we do have to achieve it, we do have to earn our entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.

I believe that the Lord Jesus is here evoking a larger debate about righteousness within the Bible. The Bible doesn’t offer us one straightforward and consistent teaching about righteousness, but an ongoing conversation about it among its different authors, a conversation that is often a debate, and sometimes a heated one. You see one side of the debate in the Psalm, and another side in Isaiah.

In the Psalm, you get a sense of righteousness as following the commandments. Doing the right thing at the right time according to the laws of God. If you do this legal kind of righteousness, you get blessed, you will be powerful in the land, and beat your enemies, and you even get to be rich! Of course you’re going to be merciful and compassionate, and generous, especially with the poor. You are honored for being righteous. You keep things on the up and up. You keep things up.

This is the familiar kind of righteousness. Upkeeping righteousness, dishes washed, kitchens cleaned, Dutch Reformed righteousness. This is the righteousness of cause and effect: you observe the commandments and God rewards you. Don’t be too hard on the scribes and Pharisees, they got this from the Bible! This is what they looked for when they looked for the Kingdom of Heaven.

The other side of the debate we heard last week from the prophet Micah, and today we hear it in the voice of Isaiah. He castigates the righteousness of cause and effect. Keeping the Sabbath, observing the required rituals, even fasting in sackcloth and ashes, forget it all. God’s not blessing it.

God wants a righteousness not upkeeping but outgoing. A righteousness that gets you nothing back and even costs you. Into your nice clean houses you take the homeless. You go out to find poor people to deliver a share of your food to. You pay your workers a living wage, which of course cuts into your profits, and that’s the point. This kind of righteousness you would call mission. Not just loving your neighbor as yourself, but loving your enemy as your neighbor.

So do we have to choose between this social action of the prophet or the commandments of the law, commandments written by God’s own finger at Mount Sinai? No, it’s a false choice. You do both. But if you do only one, the ritual, liturgical one, and not the social action one, then your very ritual condemns you doing it. Your cultic and liturgical observance condemns you while you’re doing it. Your righteousness is worse than nothing because it lacks integrity. So the point is to have a cultic and liturgical observance of the commandments that is proven by its mission to those in need. An upkeeping for the purpose of outgoing.

Thus the mixing of the metaphors of salt and light. Just one of them will not do, you need them both. You have to both blend in and stand out. A lamp is useless unless it stands out, but if salt stands out it does no good, it has to blend in.

Yet their effect is similar: illumining and seasoning, but neither for themselves. The light is not for itself, but for what it shines on. The salt is not for itself, but for what it seasons. Your righteousness is not for yourself, but for your mission in the world. Sometimes your righteousness must be a standing out, and sometimes a blending in, but always for your mission in the world. An outgoing kind of righteousness.

Jesus is not here talking about mission as converting the nations of the world. At this point he’s still working with the Old Testament sense of the mission of God’s people being examples to the nations, demonstrating by their very culture God’s ideas of morality, justice, generosity, and peace; like a lamp in showing other nations how to live.

This mission the scribes and Pharisees could agree with, but they believed that do it they first had to get their independent kingdom back, kicking out the Romans and all the Gentiles living among them to set up the literal Kingdom of Heaven, and do the mission from a position of wealth and power and prestige. Make Judea great again!

So they hate it when Jesus keeps saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, among them, already, wherever the Lord Jesus is. What are you waiting for? Don’t only be a lamp, but also be salt, blend in as well. Do your mission already among the Roman soldiers and the Gentiles who are in your Promised Land.

And not from power, for blessed are the meek.  Not from wealth, for blessed are the poor in spirit. Not even in your success at morality, justice, generosity, and peace, but in your hungering and thirsting after righteousness, especially how you still hunger and thirst for righteousness when they revile you and persecute you. Blessed are you. What are you waiting for?

So we have no truck with those people who are saying it’s getting harder to be a Christian in America. Like it’s a complaint. Like we have to get the government on our side to make it easier. From what the Lord Jesus says, the harder it is the more blessed we are. I’m not saying we should hope for persecution, but if what we stand for is not being opposed by people in power, if they’re not reviling us, then are we doing our mission? The case of Jesus shows us that the opposition and reviling can come from people of our own religion, so we will be opposed by other Christians, especially those who think we should have national power and prestige. Blessed are you.

Weakness and fear and much trembling. That’s how the Apostle Paul first came to the Galatians, as he reminds them. He did it this way as a self-imposed strategy, he had to learn this strategy and make himself one with it, lest he try to get results by being winning and impressive, and thereby get in the way of the wisdom of God. He did not want to be persuasive in argument, or plausible in explanation. As if the wisdom of God is comparable in any way to human wisdom. As if the wisdom of God can be explained to the satisfaction of the critical human intellect or sensibly to the wise.

No, the wisdom of God has no comparables in human wisdom, that you can extrapolate from human wisdom to the wisdom of God, just as the power of God has no comparables in human power, but looks like human weakness. The wisdom of God speaks to the philosopher only if he takes his place with the homeless and the poor. The wisdom of God is a total mystery to the best and highest human thought.

And yet the wisdom of God is for the world, it is God’s creative and loving engagement in the world. The wisdom of God is the mystery that in the salvation of the suffering sinner gets revealed, and in God’s mercy to the penitent it gets explained. The wisdom of God is the righteousness of God embracing you whose only claim to righteousness is that you desire it, that you hunger and thirst for it.

Accept that embrace, and the free and loving and lavish righteousness that embraces you far exceeds the righteousness of any scribe or Pharisee, that is, any religious professional; accept God’s embrace and already you’ve entered the Kingdom of Heaven. I invite you to believe that the righteousness of God flows into you by the power of God’s Spirit, whenever you find yourself desiring God, and desiring most of all the love of God, and desiring to express that love yourself in every difficult relationship that you have.

Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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