If I stood at center ice of Bridgestone arena, grabbed the microphone and said “I believe that hockey is the greatest sport in the world” would that make me a hockey player? Or would I need to learn how to ice skate? Would I need to understand what the blue line is for? Shouldn’t I know how to put on all that protective gear?
What does it mean to be a Christian? Is faith just something we profess or is faith found in the things we do? How long can I remain a Christian and bear little resemblance to Jesus Christ? Does Christianity require an intentional lifestyle or is it just a set of beliefs divorced from everyday living?
I felt led to preach this sermon series because I fear our churches have entered an age where we substitute low cost faith and easy grace for a Christ-like lifestyle. The church is not striving to emulate the practices of Jesus Christ.
Let me give you a few examples of how Christians divorce faith from everyday actions. I hear Christians argue that cheating is just part of the big time college sports. Christians will stand by their candidates arguing that lying and ugly attacks are just part of politics. Frankly, I am shocked at the ugliness and vindictive messages that Christian folks will post on Facebook. Christian people speak of cutting ethical corners as the price of doing business these days. If my preacher friends preach about welcoming the stranger, loving our enemies (through redemptive Goodwill), seeking peace, forgiving, defending the poor, paying our taxes, or taming our tongues, we meet resistance for teaching simple New Testament concepts. The current church culture is so focused on what we believe not how we live.
Perhaps in our desire to grow has eased the church into a worldview that asks very little of us. We want to make people comfortable. Comfort is a strange value for people looking to the cross. The church adopts the market language of “having our needs being met.” The NIV only uses the word needs 21 times and prescribes meeting the needs of others. The church has forgotten ethics-which are the building blocks constructing Christ-like character.
The truth is that God cares deeply about our everyday actions. God may care more about what we do than what we say. Jesus came not just to save us but to teach us how to live. The word Christian means little Christ. Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24-25). “Follow me” means doing the things that Jesus did. And Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 NIV). James is blunt-Faith without deeds is dead (James 2:26 NIV).
Christians are people doing things that Jesus did. We need everyday ethics- the building blocks of Christian character. We need a few life rules to keep us on the straight, narrow, difficult, upper-ward, less taken, and more challenging path that leads to God. God loves us, forgives us and calls us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Now there is a version of Christianity that is all about rules. We do not need a new legalism. Christianity is not a set of rules. God did not endure the cross in order to give us another set of rules. Paul warns “God has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)
So let us consider being in-10intonal in our living, so that our everyday living might begin to look at least a little like the life of Jesus.
Pray with me.
There are certain life rules that we just have to keep. Now as free people we cherish our freedom but the rules apply to us whether we like them or not.
- Wash your hands
- Take a bath
- Brush your teeth
- Eat right
- Learn something
- Work hard
- Get your rest
- Play nice
- Be careful (don’t run in flip flops)
- Do your best
Now some version of these apply to us all. We may choose to not brush our teeth and one day we will lay our teeth in a cup at night. We teach our children to do their best because we deeply love them and we want them to succeed. We tell teens to be careful because we know that cars are dangerous and powerful, and a few minutes of distraction or disorientation can alter their lives forever. We make children sleep because we know they need it. We give children rules because we want them to miss the painful lessons life dishes out. Indeed, rules indicate our love for our children, they speak of relationship.
Hear the first few Rules a loving God offers to us.
The Lord our God made a covenant with us….“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Deuteronomy 5:2, 6-10 NIV)
1) I am the Lord your God…. You shall have no other gods before me.
2) You shall not bow down to any idol or worship them
These first two commandments are a bit of a puzzle for sophisticated twenty first century people like us. “No other gods and no idols” seem like relics fitted for ancient peoples who bowed down to the sun, moon, mountains, cows and kings. Surely we know enough to never bow down to lifeless bronze statues.
But listen to the intimate language inside the commandment: “I am the Lord your God.” It’s more announcement than a rule. It is personal and possessive. There is a possessiveness in the first two commandments. There is a sense of belonging to one another. God says “I am Yours.” The first commandment commands us to be in a relationship with God. I am the Lord your God. Our relationship with God is not expressed in a series of laws but on personal terms. God commands a relationship.
Listen to Moses’ introduction found in Deuteronomy chapter 4 “Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you… if you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul…. For the Lord your God is a merciful God; God will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant….God loved your ancestors…Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God.” (Deuteronomy 4:23, 29, 31, 37, 39-40 NIV)
There’s even a reference to history in the first command. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” The first commandment is not about intellectual assent or theological agreement as much as personal relationship.
There is an imperfect anthropomorphic expression of jealousy in the second commandment “You shall not make for yourself an image… for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 5:6-10 NIV). Now jealousy is a sin. So how can God call godself jealous? Perhaps God is simply speaking to us in the language we can understand. “It pains me” the Creator laments “when you love the things I give you more than you love me!”
It is one thing to believe in God- to say there is “no God but God” or “there is one God, ruler over all.” It is quite different to bow before and worship the God that declares “I am the Lord your God.” The knowledge that there can only be one God does not require relationship. Jews and Christians begin our creed with personal pronouns- I am … The lord your God.
The heart of the law is being in relationship with God, Jesus said. “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.”
God is not calling for theological ascent or intellectual knowledge- in these first few commandments. God is calling for relationship. It is one thing to believe in God; it’s quite another order our living around a personal relationship with God. Answering the question do you believe in God, “yes,” is not the issue. The first commandment calls us to order our lives around God!
Life rule number one is have a relationship with God
Ethical principle number one, put nothing in between your soul and God.
The second commandment reinforces the first, stating “put nothing in the place of God”- no object, no image, no person, no relationship, no power, no possession- put nothing in the holiest space between you and the universe. Your soul belongs to God alone. God made you to be you; do not sacrifice your soul for some possession. Do not love the things that God gave us more than the God who gave them. Do not dwell in the created, but seek to abide with the Creator. Do not value the stuff God made more than the values of God. Live for eternal things, for goodness, righteousness, forgiveness, honor, mercy, compassion, grace, faith, hope and love!
You shall have no other Gods before me. Put nothing in the holiest space between you and the universe. Your soul belongs to God. It’s personal.
Now we moderns who would never bow down to a bronze statue often live for things that crack, rust, fade, and end. We put possessions, positions, achievements, titles, riches, and things in the Holiest space between our souls and God.
What if we live our lives outside of a relationship with God? What if we put power or possessions at the center of our souls? If we do not center our lives in God, then what will center our lives? Will we bow down to stuff? Will we live for achievement? Will we exchange our values for stuff? Will we spend our passion on things that will not endure beyond our life? To live for objects is to die long before our lives end.
What does “you shall put nothing before the Lord your God” mean for our day-to-day living?
It means we are defined by our relationship to God.
It means we put nothing in between our soul and God.
It means we live our life for and through and with God.
As I pondered this question, I got up and took a little prayer walk. So as you walk around the block, when you see a tree you don’t say that is my neighbor’s tree or that is my tree. Nor do you calculate the value of the lumber or think how the tree improves resell value. If there is nothing between our souls and God, somehow we see through the tree to the Creator, who said “I am Lord your God!”
So on a damp blustery January day when the wind cuts through your jacket and the sky is a charcoal gray, you might see the tree branches reaching up towards the heavens waiting for Easter. You might see how the artist of the universe paints beauty in lines and curves even without colors. Or if you are the more left brain type you see the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen, and praise the Engineer Of It All. Or if you are a child, maybe you thank God for a tree shaded playground.
When you see your neighbor you don’t say there is my neighbor who blows his leaves onto my driveway…you remember the one who said “I am the Lord your God, don’t put a pile of leaves before Me.”
Rev. Dietrich Boenoffer, in the closing days of his life was tormented by the Nazi guards who kept him in the concentration camps, mocking this pastor who dared first call out and then actively resist Hitler. Dietrich saw everything stripped away; his position at the University, his church, isolated from his loved ones, his nation torn apart by one who others would not resist. He would die days before the war ended. In prison facing death, he asked “who am I?” Hear a portion.
Who am I? They often tell me,
Who am I? They often tell me,
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me,
Am I really then what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and another tomorrow?
Am I both at once? In front of others, a hypocrite,
And to myself a contemptible, fretting weakling?
Or is something still in me like a battered army,
Running in disorder from a victory already achieved?
Who am I? These lonely questions mock me.
Whoever I am, You know me, oh Lord, I am yours. I am yours oh Lord!
Friends, let us put nothing between ourselves and God. Let us remember the first life rule is to live in relationship with God, the Almighty, the Lord, pure love, amazing grace, name above all names, Prince of peace, Jesus, the Christ, the Savior our Lord, the one who will hold our souls after our life ends.
Let us never live for less than the eternal.
Let us never put something between our souls and God.
Let us love God more than the things that God gave us.
Let us live with the Creator instead of living for the things God created.
Let us value God more than the stuff God made.
Let us live first in relationship with God, who loves us and gives us life!
Let us live for eternal things, for goodness, righteousness, forgiveness, honor, mercy, compassion, grace, faith, hope and love!
Let us live remembering “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery.” Amen