As I begin, I can’t help but wonder how many folks looked at the sermon title this morning and then thought to themselves, “Well, I might as well just put my offering envelope up and save the money I was going to give to the church this morning. How dare anyone put such a title as their sermon?” Before you actually void or tear up that check or put that cash back into your pocket, I hope you will bear with me as we work our way through my sermon this morning. Perhaps you will understand and then, at the end, be even more willing to give than before.
Just over 100 years ago, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche helped lay the groundwork for many of the ways our current culture acts. I can hear a few of you moaning in your heads right now. “Pastor’s going to get all philosophical and stuff. We will never be able to understand this stuff. We might as well go to sleep right now.” Believe me, I understand. You see, they didn’t have a Nietzsche for dummies book, so I actually had to wade through some of his writings. More than a few times, my eyelids had to work double time to stay open!!
But that is not the point. The point is much more important, one that I hopefully can give you some time to ponder. For you have undoubtedly run across more than one of the consequences of what Nietzsche taught. You have undoubtedly encountered someone who adheres to at least part of his philosophical system. You have undoubtedly run across someone who says, “There is no absolute truth. What is true for you is true for you, but it’s not true for me. That is just your opinion because no one can really know the truth.” You see, Nietzsche proposed that there is no such thing as absolute truth. He proposed that since there is no absolute truth, the concept of the ideal is irrational. There is no such thing as justice. There is no such thing as ultimate kindness. There is no such thing as good. There is no such thing as evil. It is all a matter of one’s perspective. Therefore, if something works for me and is good for me, then I can continue to pursue it–because it is good for me. That it might be bad for you is only a matter of perspective, and it shouldn’t really matter too much to me because there is no ultimate judge of right or wrong.
Are you with me so far? I hope so. I hope you haven’t gotten too lost because the next part is pretty crucial. If there is no right and no wrong, what then is our motivation for doing things? Why do we engage in the things we do or think the things we think? Nietzsche offered up this thought: it is all about power. It is all about how we obtain what we want. It’s all about how we further our own position and basically survive in this world. It’s all about our own self interest, making our self more powerful and ultimately, putting ourselves in the most advantageous position possible. Chew on this for just a second. I mean, really chew on this. Without any sort of transcendence; without any sense of something beyond ourselves; it leads us directly to relativism–no right and no wrong and unbounded self-interest. Do you see how our society today has been impacted by Nietzsche? Do you see how such things infest our culture? If you need any further evidence, I point to this past political cycle and the fallout from this past Tuesday’s election. Have you noticed all the spin put on the results? Each side is trying to manipulate what happened to its own advantage with the goal of obtaining more and more power to accomplish its own agenda. Nietzsche nailed it.
There is a bit of a quibble I have with Nietzsche; however. Nietzsche was famous for stating that “God is dead,” and it was from this starting point–the lack of anything transcendent–that he arrived at the conclusion that everything was all about power and self-interest. I personally don’t believe you need to get rid of God for folks to continue to act in their own self-interest and to engage in all sorts of power plays. Even if one believes there is a God, that person can still do exactly what Nietzsche proposes and try to manipulate things to his or her own advantage. What do I mean by that?
Let’s take a quick walk through our Old Testament reading this morning from the book of Amos. Here’s a little background. Amos was a prophet who was called from shepherding to confront the injustice in Israel. Much like our own situation, the rich were getting richer. The poor were getting poorer. But unlike our situation, there were no programs, no initiatives to help the poor and the needy. They were basically on their own, and they were suffering. The poor were suffering badly.
And Amos holds nothing back. He brings the Word of the Lord with conviction and with words that proved very, very unpopular. “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? 21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”
Let’s work our way through these verses. I will come back to the day of the Lord stuff momentarily because it is important. But before I do that, let’s concentrate on what Amos says about the peoples’ offerings and their worship. See, my sermon title doesn’t come from me: it comes directly from Amos. The Lord says, “I hate your festivals. I will not accept your offerings–they are worthless. I do not want to hear your worship.” Why? Why is God saying such things? Some point to the next verse to bring it all to a close. God doesn’t want offerings. God doesn’t want worship. God doesn’t want festivals and assemblies. Instead God wants justice to flow like a mighty water and righteousness to flow like an ever flowing stream. This is what really counts. This what is really important. So, go out and do justice. Go out and make righteousness happen. Sermon is over. Be happy it is shorter than normal! (Psyche!)
Let’s re-think this for a moment. Because God commanded festivals and solemn assemblies in the Law. God commanded the people to bring Him offerings. The Law is explicit about this too. God also commanded the people to worship Him. These are things that God wants!! So why is He rejecting them? Why does He say He hates them?
Let me illustrate it this way. I remember vividly growing up as a kid. More than once I heard one of my friends say, “It doesn’t matter that I am going out drinking this weekend. I’m going to go to confession, and it will all be forgiven.” Or, “It doesn’t matter if I’m having sex with this girl. I’m going to confession, and it will be forgiven.” Hearing folks say this always bugged me. It didn’t seem right. And it’s not. Why?
This is why: because by doing the rites and rituals, the folks who said this believed they were making a claim on God. They believed that if they just did the proper things–offered the appropriate worship; offerings; or confessions, then God would have to forgive them. Essentially, they were saying, “God, I know you really don’t want me to do those other things, but you said I would be forgiven if I did x, y, and z. I’ve done x, y, and z, so you cannot be mad at me. You cannot punish me. I’ve jumped through your hoops, so you have to forgive me.”
Let me stop for just a second and see if you can see how this is a power play. Can you see how this serves a person’s self interest? Can you see how this is ultimately about getting the better of God? Can you see how this is not focused upon God and what God wants but is focused upon what I want and how I can obtain what I want without any consequences?
And this stuff was going on long before Nietzsche penned his works. It’s exactly what the Israelites were doing. They were disobeying God’s law. They were not letting justice flow like mighty waters. They were not letting righteousness flow like ever flowing streams. They were abusing and using the poor. They were trampling them underfoot and destroying them. They were padding their bank accounts at the expense of others and laughing at how blessed they were. And then they would go to the temple and offer their sacrifices. They would chant their prayers. They would sing their songs. They would make their offerings convinced they had done their duty and God would love them and bless them because they had given God what He wanted. They’d satisfied Him by their worship and offerings and sacrifices. They were good to go. They’d done their duty.
And God says, “I hate, I despise your assemblies. I hate, I despise your offerings and do not accept them. I hate, I despise your singing and your worship.” Why? Because the people are trying to make a power play on God. They are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They are thinking that by worship and sacrifice and offering, they can excuse their behavior even though they know it’s wrong.
And they are looking forward to the Day of the Lord–yes, the day when God comes to restore everything to the way it should be and justice will be meted out. They are looking forward to this day thinking they will have a grand time because they’ve worshiped; they’ve put their money in the plate; they should be good to go. But God says, “Think again. You have not even come close to satisfying my demands. You have only and have ever only looked out for yourself. My wrath will burn against you. Why do you want the Day of the Lord. It will be darkness not light!”
Scary stuff. Very scary stuff. And so, what do we do about this? Do we stop here and think, “Wow! I hear what Amos is saying. Our offerings; our worship; our singing; all of it is for naught. We need to stop this stuff right now, and we need to go out and do justice. We need to work for righteousness. We need to throw ourselves into these things because the Lord demands this of us.”
Stop right there. Stop right there and think about where you are headed with this train of thought. For if you think that you will satisfy God by doing justice and making righteousness flow like an ever flowing stream, what are you doing? Or better yet, why are you doing it? If you are scared that your offerings aren’t satisfying God and that you need to throw yourself at doing justice because that is what God requires, then I’d submit to you that you are attempting your own power play. You are attempting to satisfy God with your actions once again and save yourself from the coming wrath. You are not focused on God, you are once again focused on yourself and your own best interests. I’m doing what God commands because I don’t want to face the darkness on the day of the Lord. We are right back to Nietzsche.
Can anything break us out of this self-centeredness? Can anything get us away from focusing on ourselves?
How about this?
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all 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 that the world may be saved through Him.
You knew I was going to get to Jesus somehow. At least I hope you knew I was going to get to Jesus. For you see, Jesus is the one who acted completely the opposite of what Nietzsche proposed. Instead of seeking His own self-interest; instead of seeking His own power; Jesus sought to fulfill the will of the Father. Jesus sought complete obedience to the one He was equal to. Jesus sought to become powerless even though He had access to absolute power. And instead of kingdoms, Jesus found the cross where He endured the wrath meant for us. He became the blameless offering and sacrifice to end all offerings and sacrifices. There was no longer any need to offer sacrifices of atonement to get ourselves right with God. All was accomplished by Jesus.
And that completely changes things for us. No longer do we have to worry about a power play
with God. We do not have to seek to save ourselves and act with self interest. We can seek God and His righteousness for His sake and not our own. We can seek to let justice flow like a mighty water and righteousness flow like an ever flowing stream not because this is what God demands lest we be punished, but because we know it is something near and dear to God’s heart, and in thankfulness we wish to please the one who acted on our behalf. We gladly lift up our voices in praise and worship not because it’s going to affect our salvation, but in joyful thanksgiving that our salvation has already been accomplished. We give our offerings of time and talent and money not to satisfy the commandment, but to show our gratitude to the God who took on human flesh and died for us. And we now await the coming Day of the Lord with joyful expectation. We no longer have to save ourselves. We no longer have to worry about whether or not we have done enough good; or worshiped enough; or gave enough. Jesus already gave it all. Amen.