Monday, February 3, 2014

Religion Versus Grace

    When I was in first grade, I didn’t have any of my closest friends in my homeroom class.  This made life particularly difficult at lunch since I didn’t have anyone really to cut up with and talk to at the lunch table.  I longed for a friend to share that time with.  I don’t know if Jimmy picked up on my desires or if it was something else, but one day, as he sat across from me, he said, “Kevin, I will be your friend...if...if you give me your dessert.”

    You see, when I was in first grade, I wasn’t necessarily enthusiastic about eating in the cafeteria too often.  My mom fixed me a lunch most of the time.  There was always a sandwich and some chips, and for dessert, I usually had one of the several varieties of Little Debbie snack cakes.  For the early months of first grade, this was usually enough to satisfy my hunger easily, and to begin with, I felt like I could spare the calories.  I wanted a friend, badly, so I gave up my dessert.

    Each day, I’d give Jimmy my dessert, and each day he’d proclaim his friendship of me.  But then there came a day...  Yes, then there came a day when my stomach cried out in hunger.  I was a growing boy, and I had played to my heart’s content at recess, and I wanted to eat my dessert.  “Jimmy, I am really, really hungry today.  I really, really want to eat my dessert.”

    “But then I won’t be your friend.”

    “But I’m hungry.”

    “I won’t be your friend.”

    I thought for just a few moments.  I desperately wanted a friend, but I was hungry.  As I thought, I also came to the conclusion that I was tired of giving Jimmy my desserts. 

    “I’m going to eat my dessert.”

    “I’m not your friend.”

    And so it is with much of life.  For the most part, if we want to receive anything, we have to pay a price for it.  If we want a particular item in the store, we have to pay money.  If we want a good paying job, we have to pay to go to school or spend years climbing the corporate ladder.  If we want to be respected by others, we have to accumulate wealth or wisdom.  If we want to be loved, we have to show love to another.  There always seems to be strings attached–with a price tag–for things and for relationships.  Some even extend this particular aspect of human life to our relationship with God.

    The thinking goes, “If I want God to love me, then I have to be obedient to Him.  If I want to get God’s attention, then I have to do the things He commands me to do.”  This is what is at the heart of what many people in our society today consider religion.  If I am obedient, then I will get the blessings. 

    If I believe enough in God and trust God enough, He will bring me wealth.

    If I pray a certain amount each day, my sickness will be healed.

    If I put enough in the offering plate, the Lord will multiply it 10 fold.

    If I work hard enough for justice, the Kingdom of God will come to earth.

    If I use my prophetic voice and speak against wealth and privilege, then people will see how radical faith is and flock to church.

    If we do the right things, then we will experience the blessings.  Do you see how this supposedly works?

    In many congregations today, our first lesson will be read, and many will pick up on the final verse read.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this verse repeated by colleagues who are focused almost completely on the concept of justice, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  Micah 6:8 This is what the Lord requires of us, and we have to do it!  All the focus and attention will go here, and many will begin proclaiming their vision of what it means to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  Many will talk about feeding the hungry, combating systemic poverty and racism, and treating others with kindness and respect.

    These are not bad things in and of themselves.  In fact, these things are indeed part of the Christian walk.  These are things we are called to do, but because our society today is so biblically illiterate, they come to think that this is what faith is all about–they come to think faith is about what we do, and they miss something so precious, so central, so important to what it means to be a believer in God and a follower of Jesus Christ.

    So much attention will be drawn to Micah 6:8 that Micah 6:3-5 will oftentimes be overlooked.  “O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me!  4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

    What is going on here?  Why are these verses so important?  They show us God’s actions toward Israel.
They show us what God has done for the people:

    1. He delivered them from Egypt and the house of slavery.

    2. God sent them leaders who gave them law and order.

    3. God delivered them from King Balak when Balak ordered Balaam to curse them.  God appeared to Balaam and prevented this from happening. 

    4. God gave them the land from Shittim to Gilgal and helped them conquer it, aiding Israel against their enemies.

    In each of these instances, God blessed His people.  God freed them, supported them, guided them, and established them.  God showered His blessings down upon them time and time again, and it is only after the blessings that the words are uttered, “what then does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” 

    The blessings come first, obedience follows.

    That is the tremendous difference between religion and grace.  Religion says, “Do this and you will be blessed.  Be obedient, and you will receive blessings.”  Grace says, “You are accepted, now do this.  You are blessed, then be obedient.”  Religion requires someone to work toward God and emphasizes our actions.  Grace celebrates what God has done and then asks for a response to what God has done. 

    And what has God done?  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.

    The grace and mercy of God was poured out for all of us on the cross where Jesus hung and died to redeem us from our sin.  On that cross, God paid the price for healing broken relationships, and three days later, God showed us the promise of eternal life.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has opened the kingdom of Heaven to all who are brought to faith by His Spirit.  God has revealed and given His blessings to each and every one of us, and He didn’t even ask for even as much as our dessert before giving it to us. 

    These are the blessings of God showered down each and every one of us.  Grace.  Pure and simple.  And how will we respond?  Will we seek obedience?  Is God’s mercy and grace and sacrifice enough to cause us to seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?   Sure.  At least it should be.  And it is definitely a part of how we Live God’s Word Daily.  Amen.

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