When I sit down to write a sermon, I begin by asking God what He wants me to know about Him, and what He wants you to know.
I read the collect – the theme upon which the readings center: “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy.”
“the proud who confide in their own strength”
King Nebuchadnezzar immediately came to mind. The portion of his story told in Daniel chapter 4 is a perfect example of God resisting man’s pride and of man boasting of God’s mercy.
Nebuchadnezzar, as you might recall, was the king of Babylon. He was at home in his palace, contented and prosperous. But he had a bad dream. The images that passed through his mind terrified him.
So he summoned all the wise men of Babylon to come interpret it for him. Magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners came, but they could not explain it.
Finally, Daniel came.
King Nebuchadnezzar said, “Belteshazzar (aka Daniel), chief of the magicians, I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you, and no mystery is too difficult for you.
These are the visions I saw while lying in bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.
I looked, and there before me was a holy one, a messenger, coming down from heaven. He called in a loud voice: ‘Cut down the tree and trim off its branches; strip off its leaves and scatter its fruit. Let the animals flee from under it and the birds from its branches. But let the stump and its roots, bound with iron and bronze, remain in the ground, in the grass of the field.
‘Let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him live with the animals among the plants of the earth. Let his mind be changed from that of a man and let him be given the mind of an animal, till seven times pass by for him…… so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people.’
That was my dream, Daniel, now tell me what it means, for none of the wise men can interpret it for me. But you can, because the spirit of the holy gods is in you.”
Daniel was greatly perplexed for a time, and his thoughts terrified him. Neb said, “Do not let the dream or its meaning alarm you.” In other words, “Don’t be afraid to tell me.”
Daniel answered, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies! The tree you saw, which grew large and strong, with its top touching the sky… Your Majesty, you are that tree! You have become great and strong; your greatness has grown until it reaches the sky, and your dominion extends to distant parts of the earth.
“Your Majesty saw a holy one, a messenger, coming down from heaven. The decree he issued is against you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven for seven years – until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and He gives them to anyone he wishes. The command to leave the stump of the tree with its roots means that your kingdom will be restored to you when you acknowledge that Heaven rules. Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”
But old habits and old personality disorders die hard.
Twelve months later, as Neb was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”
Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven.
Immediately the terrifying dream was fulfilled. Neb was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird.
Seven years later, When Nebuchadnezzar finally raised his eyes toward heaven, his sanity was restored. He praised God, acknowledging that “His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth.
Everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”
Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy.
Sometimes God’s messages – His reprimands, warnings and promises – are for individuals, as in the case of Neb, and sometimes they are for nations.
It’s important to keep straight what promises are specifically for us and which ones aren’t. It’s important to keep straight which ones are literal and which ones are metaphorical.
For instance, two weeks ago we heard these words from Isaiah:
“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong;”
“And make your bones strong?” My ears perked up.
You mean all I have to do is stop pointing my finger and my osteoporosis will be healed? Well Alright!
Except God wasn’t talking to me about my osteoporosis.
He was talking to Israel about the bones of their nation.
No doubt heeding Isaiah’s words will bring me blessings, but God didn’t make me any specific promises about my bone health.
How do I know heeding Isaiah’s words will bring me blessings?
Obedience always brings blessings.
God broke and reshaped Neb into a better, more useful vessel, and He promised to do the same for Israel – allowing them to suffer long years of slavery, wilderness wandering and even captivity if that’s what it took. And it did.
Which brings us to Deuteronomy 30: After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Israel was about to finally cross into the promised land. Moses – who wouldn’t be going with them – announced to all Israel the words which the Lord commanded him, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments I am giving you today by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”
Just as I can’t apply Isaiah’s words to the health and strength of my bones, I can’t apply Moses’s words to my personal longevity – plenty of obedient people die young. Moses died relatively young. He was only a hundred and twenty years old when he disappeared from the earth. Scripture says his eyes were not yet weak nor was his strength gone when he died. 120 was young back then – Methuselah, for example, lived 969 years.
Moses was talking to the people of Israel and not us when he announced God’s promises, but we can still apply his principles as we stand at our thresholds.
The threshold of a new school, a new school year, a new job or ministry, a new marriage, the threshold of parenthood.
If we obey God, He will bless us as we enter into the new thing He has put before us.
“But,” Moses continued, “if your heart turns away and you are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you (as a nation) shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
God wanted Israel to stop and think about the foundation and habits they were going to establish in the land He was giving them.
He wants us, as we stand at our particular thresholds, to consider the path we’re going to take – to choose honesty and integrity, loyalty, fidelity and charity so that we and our children, our spouses, co-workers, classmates, communities may live, loving the Lord, obeying Him, and holding fast to Him; for that means life to us and length of days.
There is a pleasant fiction circulating among some, a theology that says, “It’s all good.”
Our obedience/disobedience doesn’t really matter because God will redeem it all.
In the end, He will.
But, as He spoke through Moses, our choices do make a huge difference while we’re here on earth – a huge difference in our physical, spiritual, emotional and mental health.
The words He gave the writer of Psalm 1 concur:
“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on his law day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.”
Often I have prayed those words for my daughter, and now for her husband and his family, too – planted by streams of living water, with roots of faith that are deep and wide, that everything they do shall prosper.
“It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, nor the sinner in the council of the righteous. For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.”
Our obedience, our love for God makes a difference.
Even Jesus used “ifs” and “thens.”
John 15:5 “If you remain in me and I in you, then you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
John 14:23 “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
I can’t think of anything better than the Father, Son and Holy Spirit making their home with me.
There’s a cause and effect.
And a cost.
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and He turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…
…You must first sit down and count the cost, figure out whether you have what it takes to go the distance…
“…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Our lectionary reading stops just short of the end of the chapter. Here’s what it left out:
“Salt is good,” Jesus continued, “but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
I googled, “How does salt lose its saltiness.” I figured it’s important to know since Jesus warned against it.
Water. It loses its saltiness when it is diluted in water.
Why did Jesus add that last bit?
Large crowds were following Him, marveling in His miracles, enjoying free bread and fish, talking about how great it is – you don’t have to do anything except show up at mealtimes and reap the benefits.
I imagine some in the crowd were promulgating a pleasant fiction that threatened to water down His gospel, take the tang right out of it.
So He set them straight.
Discipleship isn’t a free lunch, He explained. It will cost you something. Your behavior, your choices, your obedience and your disobedience will matter.
He wants us all in.
Listen to this: Recorded in John 6, Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will lift them up at the last day.”
On hearing it, many of His disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
From this time many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him.
I always strikes me that He didn’t run after them!
He didn’t run after them to sugar-coat His message, make it more palatable, water it down to woo them back.
Instead He turned to the twelve who were all in (well, eleven who were all in because Judas) and asked, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?”
Simon Peter answered, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
What about that hating your parents stuff?
Don’t do it. Jesus was not being literal.
Hating your parents does not line up with the fifth commandment.
It doesn’t line up with what Jesus said about loving one another.
But it does line up with what He said about money.
The love of money is the root of all evil. Not money itself, the love of money.
Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
God doesn’t want us to hate money – He rewarded Solomon with a ton of it. He gave a ton of it to His friend, Abraham, too.
And He doesn’t want us to hate our people.
It’s a matter of loyalty.
A matter of who/what you love more.
Following Jesus would have meant huge familial sacrifices back then.
Think about it. Everyone who was anyone followed the Law. To follow Jesus would have been treasonous.
It would be like a Catholic child leaving her parish to become a Protestant.
A former co-worker, who is a Messianic Jew, told me she knows many people who secretly believe Jesus is the Messiah but would never say so publicly or set foot in a church because they don’t want to lose their Jewish community.
For me, following Jesus might mean giving up weekly worship with my daughter and wonderful new son in law.
It might mean giving up the pleasure of preaching an occasional sermon.
Jesus said, [I’m paraphrasing] “If you’re going to follow me it’s going to cost you.”
But let’s do it anyway.
Because there is nothing as soul-satisfying as being His disciple. As having Him make His home with us.