FAITH WORKING ITSELF OUT IN LOVE
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
September 25, 2016 Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
Lections: Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91;1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
In a variety of ways, we are planning for the future – or having our futures planned for us – all our lives; parents plan for daycare, school sports, college; children plan for making money, saving for travels, getting married and having their own children. As we grow older, we plan for retirement, paying doctors and care bills, etc. Last we heard, in the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, planning for the future is commendable. Today, however, we hear clear teachings that some future plans are better than others. Specifically, we are taught to plan for eternal life, that is, for an invisible reality, and to be wary of all plans that get in the way of this master plan.
Before we take up our scriptures for the day, however, I would like to begin by re-visiting a couple of points we discussed last week. In particular, I want to stress that the point of ministry – of teachers, preachers, priests and laity, of all the saints – is to bring about obedience in the nations (Rom 1:5; 16:26) – the obedience that comes from faith – for “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). Only by faith and the obedience that comes from faith will we counteract sin and evil, and God situates the Christian in the midst of this struggle, to accomplish his purposes, not ours. This is why it is said, faith goes public in obedience; in Christ, what matters is “faith working itself out in love” (Gal. 5:6). “Commands are given to provide shape and structure to that love … As our faith goes public in obedience, we trust God even to show us how to express our belief in action. We turn to him for concrete moral guidance, and we pass that word on to each other in exhortation.”[i]
In today’s reading from Jeremiah, the public expression of faith is very much at issue. Here we find, as in many examples throughout Scripture, God’s Word communicated using legal principles. For instance, teachings about covenants and justification frequently are illustrated by examples drawn from law. In Jeremiah, the kinsman has legal obligations to family members; land can only be redeemed from debtors and reclaimed under certain conditions. We also notice protocols have been developed around establishing the authenticity and storage of legal documents. Here, the details of establishing a legally binding claim or title to property are by way of establishing a much greater claim: Jeremiah is warning us not to discount our hope for the future. Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in a land where buildings and homes are being destroyed and the population is being re-settled in a foreign place.
Lamentations is not a book we often hear in church, but listen to these verses, which poetically convey the necessity of always keeping the future in mind:
In the days of her affliction and wandering
Jerusalem remembers all the treasures
that were hers in days of old.
When her people fell into enemy hands,
there was no one to help her.
Her enemies looked at her
and laughed at her destruction.
Jerusalem has sinned greatly
and so has become unclean.
All who honored her despise her,
for they have all seen her naked;
she herself groans and turns away.
Her filthiness clung to her skirts;
she did not consider her future.
Her fall was astounding;
there was none to comfort her.
“Look, Lord, on my affliction,
for the enemy has triumphed.”
There is a healthy and an unhealthy way of preparing for the future. In Jeremiah and in Lamentations, we see that the people who God has sanctified– that is, set apart from the world to witness to his righteousness – have rejected that thing the French call “their reason for being.” They have made a contract, as it were, with God, and they have failed to live up to their part of the agreement. “Filthiness – that is impurity, or unrighteousness – clung to the City, because “she did not consider her future,” so God repossesses the grants he made to it. God, however, is both just and merciful, and the justice he exercises is restorative; the Babylonian captivity, intended not as retribution but as rehabilitation, won’t last forever.
Jeremiah’s text addresses the circumstances of God’s relationship with His people; the mantle we as Christians have inherited. Israel is supposed to set an example for Babylon, not adopt its “foreign ways” as its own. Babylon has no future. Only the hope of Israel has a solid foundation – the righteousness of God – and the nations of the world are without hope, unless Israel – today we would say the universal Church – shows the way.
Jerusalem, during Jeremiah’s lifetime, was a besieged city, not unlike those in Syria today: no food, no water, rubble everywhere, in what had been neighborhoods, disease spreading, and nothing to buy with money. We do not belabor the point to remark that the nations today, such as the U.S., Russia, and Turkey, even Israel, are all fairly characterized as ‘resembling’ Babylon. Given this appalling picture, shouldn’t we ask, Where do the children play? Or have we not heard the words of the Psalmist?
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
There is a wise way and a foolish way of planning for the future. The foolish plan for the future by buying and selling and saving; they place their hope in themselves, and work to guard their security. The wise place their trust in God; they are drawn to holiness, and live to be pleasing in the sight of their Lord. Two very different ways. And who does God promise to protect?
“Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”
Paul in his letter to Timothy brings this point home: “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” he writes, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”Paul sounds a familiar tone: live simply, and be content; don’t fall into the trap of wanting to be rich; money is the root of all kinds of evil; wandering from the faith, you pierce yourself with grief. Instead, Paul counsels, “flee from all this.” Planning for the future, we are to “take hold of eternal life.” We are to do exactly what Jerusalem and Babylon have not done.
This is the message of the Gospel story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. The one wears fine robes, the other wears sores; the one eats in luxury, the other eats not even crumbs. Yet dogs show Lazarus more compassion than the rich man. When Lazarus and the Rich Man die, however, the tables are reversed. And why is this? Because the rich man, in planning for the future, did not listen to Moses and the prophets. The way of the righteous was the way of a stranger to him. He lived sumptuously and had no compassion.
In conclusion, we go back to Jeremiah, who God has voice a promise: “the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the peoples of Israel and with the people of Judah. I will put their laws in their minds and write it in their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer 31:33-35). The words had one meaning for the exiles in Babylonia and another today for the followers of Jesus. Christian faith is nothing else than trusting God to keep his promises, and his greatest promise is to reconcile all creation with himself. If we have faith, that is, if we believe the promises of God, we can already be found, not in Hades, but beside Abraham. When “We obey God because our greatest delight is in his promises and his presence,” our “future is secure in Christ Jesus,” and we are free to give ourselves away “to others in selfless service.” Praise be to God! Amen.
[i]Michael Allen, “Evangelical Holiness: Sanctification By (But Not Of) Faith Alone”