The Good Work - Week One: Serve
Today we are launching a brand new series that will take us all the way to the season of Lent---a series entitled "The Good Work."
We hear a lot about spiritual disciplines in Christian circles—things like prayer, Bible study, and the like. But there are other disciplines—obvious ones that we tend to neglect. And when we learn to practice them well, they have the potential to change our world.
That's what we'll be focused on over the next several weeks---developing this behind the scenes, foundational disciplines that have to be in place for us to move forward into spiritual maturity.
If these disciplines aren't in place--it's difficult to develop others.
So we're going to be talking about what it means to develop the spiritual disciplines of service, discernment, speech and movement---all of which are foundations for a full and vibrant spiritual life.
Today we're going to be talking about developing the discipline of service.
In 1521 there was a rather important debate that took place in the city of Worms which is in modern-day Germany. On one side was Martin Luther, who had dared to speak out against the excesses and wrong-headed theology of the Catholic Church.
Essentially, the debate came down to whether someone could be granted grace, redemption and ultimately eternity in heaven simply through faith. This was Martin Luther's belief, which he based on Scripture.
Pope Leo X however repudiated Luther's teachings and declared them heretical. The Church's argument was that since even the worst heretics could appeal to Scripture as a basis for their heresy, the Church had to be final arbiter of what was right and what wasn't.
And the Church's official position was that you couldn't really be saved by what Luther referred to as Sola Fides or "faith alone." There had to be works involved, things that you did---like attend church, confess, do penance, give money, pray, etc.
It got so serious that Luther was eventually excommunicated, and his life threatened with a "bounty" from the Church. He would go on to launch a movement, however, that changed the world---the Protestant Reformation.
And so the pendulum of what people came to believe about redemption and salvation swung hard all the way toward Sola Fides and stayed there...
But what happens when the pendulum swings too far, and stays there? What's the unintended result? You develop a faith that lacks purpose that is beyond the self. You have a faith that is self-centered, focused on personal piety, guarded by behavior modification, and marked by individualism.
Which is a shallow kind of faith that doesn't accurately reflect the teachings and example of Jesus.
It's interesting that when Martin Luther was working on his translation of the Bible, he (and others) purposely left out many books that are still part of the Catholic Bible. But he also desperately wanted to leave out the book of James.
And here's why... James the brother of Jesus broke it down like this when it came to the balance of faith and action:
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. James 2:14-16Listen, it's important to have spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible study, devotion, church attendance, self-improvement... all of those things are good things.
BUT if all you do is focus on improving yourself, and have little care beyond the six inches in front of your face... you're missing the point.
Talk about church members who were takers and not givers...
This is what it comes down to---the one thing that I want us to hold on to throughout this entire sermon:
God needs steadfast servants, not pompous pietists.
Our conversation partner for today comes to us from the prophet Micah in the Hebrew Scriptures. We'll be taking a look at Micah 6:6-8:
Micah is widely believed to be a prophet who was prophesying around the year 722 BCE, around the time that the Assyrian Empire as at its apex.
The Assyrians had already destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, and then the great king Sennacherib invaded Judah years later, ultimately making them into a vassal state.
Micah predicts the destruction of Jerusalem and Samaria--focusing primarily on Jerusalem, calling out the leaders and the rich for excesses that impoverished the working class. He also calls out prophets for accepting money to give oracles to the king that are basically what the king wants to hear.
And he also calls out hollow worship that is all for show with no substance.
6 With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
There is so much in this text---all connected to issues with worship, and questions about what constitutes right worship. There's also questions underneath the surface of this about the very nature of God.
Take a look at this:
calves a year old
thousands of rams
ten thousand rivers of olive oil
my firstborn for my transgression
What would you say about this list? It's an escalation, isn't it? And at the very top of this list is child sacrifice, which the pagan world that surrounded Judah in the 7th century BCE would have practiced.
If you don't get what you want from the gods... you escalate.
But the God Micah is speaking for is different. This God isn't about the escalation. This God isn't about dramatic gestures, over-the-top piety, showy effects... This God is about something else.
Let's break down Micah 6:8 and figure out what the prophet believed was required:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
These three things---this is what God requires according to the prophet. So how does right worship happen? It happens, the prophet tells us, when our faith is put into practice.
At this point, I need to say something. The prophet wasn't saying that people should give up on corporate worship. He wasn't saying that people should stop trying to keep God's commandments. But he was saying that:
The worship God desires is marked by service, not by piety. It's a doing, not just a believing kind of faith.
Or to put it another way with a quote one of our own modern day prophets:
“If you keep staring at the sun you won’t see what you’ve become”
- Post Malone
God needs steadfast servants... and the blueprint for being a steadfast servant is right there in Micah 6:8... Act Justly. Love Mercy. Walk Humbly.
First, Act Justly.
The question that we must ask ourselves here is: "What am I doing to bring equity to the world?"
The world is out of balance, isn't it? There are all kinds of spaces and places that are out of joint, and we have a calling upon our lives to bring balance where we can.
We can't solve every problem, but we can do everything we can to live in such a way where we are more about the solution than the problem. We can be steadfast servants who desire balance and equity, justice in our world.
It might mean that we have to ask more questions about the things we buy. It might mean that we dig deeper into our political leanings to determine which candidates are actually concerned about the greater good.
It might mean that we give ourselves over to missions and causes that are about bringing equity to the world, which in the Hebrew Scriptures is called, bringing shalom to the world. The peace of God.
Second, Love Mercy.
The question we ask ourselves here is: "What am I doing to show mercy to others?"
What is mercy anyway? Here's a working definition:
Mercy is love that responds to need in an unexpected or unmerited way.
I believe that God is love---that is the very essence of God. Mercy is a natural outpouring of love, and each and every one of us has received it. Jesus taught that his followers were to show mercy in the same way that they had been shown mercy--in unexpected and unmerited ways.
Tell the story of the Ungrateful Servant
Mercy forgives debts that cannot be repaid. Mercy commutes unjust prison sentences. Mercy drops weapons to end the cycle of violence.
Mercy can change the world. Mercy triumphs. Mercy wins. If we want to become steadfast servants we need to love mercy.
Third, Walk Humbly.
The question that we need to ask here is: "What am I doing to rid myself... of myself."
Jesus once told his followers:
23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.First of all, here's what Jesus didn't mean when he said take up your cross daily. He didn't mean that we have to walk around bearing burdens that we ought not to be carrying... staying in relationships that are destructive... Saying things like, "Well, that's just my cross to bear."
What he meant here was that you carry with you a willingness to die to your self, to be in complete surrender to what God would have you to do.
If you want to be a steadfast servant, you have to be willing to walk humbly. To put the needs of others ahead of your own... to realize you may not have all the answers, but you can humbly enter into service.
You can give yourself more freely when you have let go of your need for affirmation, accolades and the spotlight.
Story of the church pantry and refrigerator.
When we figure this out... It changes everything. Imagine what it would look like if Jesus' followers embraced this. It would transform churches. It would change the way people feel about Christianity. It would change the world.
Service is a foundational discipline.
Because God needs steadfast servants, not pompous pietists.