Obedience begins with Awe!

EC Connection 2013 Keynote by Ralph Blair

(PDF version available here)

Here’s how Jesus wrapped up what’s called, “The Sermon on the Mount”.  Let’s hear God’s Word.

“Don’t sit in judgment on others, unless you want to be judged with the same harshness.  For, it will be on the basis of your judging others that God will judge you. The same measure you use on them will be used on you.

“And, how can you see a speck in the eye of a brother or sister when you don’t see the stump in your own eye?  How can you say to them: ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, while, look, there’s that big stump in your own eye?  Hypocrite!  First, get that stump out of your eye. Maybe, then, you’ll see clearly enough to get a speck out of the eye of a sister or brother.

“Don’t give what’s holy to dogs.  Don’t show your pearls to pigs.  They’ll trample them. Then they’ll turn on you and slash you with their teeth.

“Ask, and you’ll receive. Seek, and you’ll find what you need.  Knock, and the door will be opened for you. For, all who ask will receive, all who keep on searching will find and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Who among you, if your child asks for bread, would give him a stone?  Or, if your child asks for a fish, would you give her a snake?  Even though you’re evil, you know how to give good gifts to your children.  Then, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask!

“Therefore: Whatever you want others to do for you, do the same for them.  This is the whole point of scripture, the Law and all the Prophets.

“Enter at the narrow gate, not at the wide road to ruin.  Yet, many do choose the way that’s wide, for the narrow path that leads to real life, is difficult.  Only a few find it.

“Watch out for false prophets.  They’re ravenous wolves disguised as harmless sheep.  Recognize them by what they produce. You don’t get grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles, do you?  Likewise, good trees produce good fruit but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit. And a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. Any tree that fails to produce good fruit is cut down and burned up as useless. So, be discerning in dealing with prophets, taking careful note of what they produce.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter into the heavenly kingdom, but only those who continue to do what my heavenly Father wants them to do.  On Judgment Day, there will be many who’ll say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we preach in your name!  Didn’t we exorcise demons and didn’t we do many miracles in your name!’  But, I will tell them plainly, ‘I’ve never known you.  Get away from me, you evildoers.

’“So, everyone who hears and obeys what I say is like a wise person who built a house on rock.  Rains came down, floods came up and winds blew and beat against that house. Yet, it did not collapse, for its foundation was on rock.

“Everyone who hears what I say but doesn’t obey is like a foolish person who built a house on sand.  Rains came down, floods came up and winds blew and struck that house. It collapsed. And, it was a total disaster.”  (Matt 7:1-27)

May God bless our hearing of these words of warning, comfort and call and may God help us to obey what we hear.

Well, this world’s in a mess! Have you noticed?  This is no Golden Ruled world.  Ever notice we, ourselves, are a mess?  How do we live the Golden Rule – treating “them”, as we want “them” to treat us?  Do we seek justice for “them” or just us?

Throughout the Bible, the story of God’s people is one of complaint and noncompliance, griping and ingratitude, sin, recidivism and one excuse after another.  It was true in Jesus’ own circle.  It was the case, too, in 1st century Christian assemblies.  And it’s been the recurring theme throughout church history.  People who claim to be Christians have had to be warned again and again against their self-righteous self-centeredness.

Nostalgia claims that, in her day, things were in less of a mess.  But, of course, Nostalgia’s memory has always been a mess!

After the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon, Governor Cuomo said it “reflected the ‘new normal’ ”.  Well, we know what he meant, but, what’s really new in yet another blast of “same old, same old” self-indulgence and self-righteously rationalized revenge?  What’s new about what Jesus called this world’s routine – “wars and rumors of wars” – wherever in the world or in our own backyard or bursting from the backburners of our own bitter minds?  What’s new about sin?

Now, there was enough of a remnant of God’s image in folks that some in Boston risked their lives to rescue victims and capture the culprits. Still, the aftermath prompted the predictable culture war commentary, the “same-old, same-old” self-serving, self-indulgent self-righteousness with little, if any, self-awareness or self-criticism.

There is, however, something new about sin today. It’s an elitist twist on depravity – a postmodernist denial of undeniable evil – though, even in the ‘50s, Sondheim had the savvy, and so did his Jets, to mock this diagnostic drift: We’re “depraved on account of [we’re] deprived.”

  One perceptive critic of such PC re-branding of evil is Columbia University humanities professor Andrew Delbanco.  He’s a Jewish secular liberal who laments the loss of a sense of radical evil that remains, in his words, “an inescapable experience for all of us … in ourselves as well as in others.”  He sees that we’ve lost even a basic vocabulary for evil, and that, what he calls the “liberal psychologizing” of evil, explains it away as mental disorder.  He regrets that, now, there are “only symptoms – symptoms and no sins”.  In a PBS interview, he warned: “If you see the world through a psychological frame of mind, a circumstantial frame of mind, then your impulse is going to be to understand [evil] from the perspective of the evildoer.”

Walker Percy, Southern novelist, physician and devout Catholic convert, also found this newly entrenched sophistry disheartening.  He said that, in spite of the experienced enormity of 20th century evil, things were evidently going to “have to get even worse before people realize that they don’t have the faintest idea what sort of creature man is.  Then, they might want to know.  Until then,” he said, “one is wasting one’s time” trying to tell them.

The DSM-V, latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual of mental disorders, adds to this liberalizing confusion by adding psychiatric nomenclature for what’s been, throughout human history, “simply part of the human condition”.  The wise chairperson of DSM-IV warns there’ll be “many harmful unintended consequences” of DSM-V, among them, “a reduced sense of personal responsibility.” (Allen J. Frances)

Well, we all try to explain away our misbehavior any way we can. But, in that evil effort, we confuse ourselves.  So, we fail to come to a realistic diagnosis of our evil as well as the evil of others.  Thus, we fail to come to a realistic solutionDefensively we render ourselves defenseless.  In denial we fail to deal with deadening, and finally, deadly dangers we need to face.

Now, our defensive denial shows that it’s not hard to see that we’re at least some of the world’s mess.  But denial also shows that it is hard to admit that any of the mess is our fault.  And, this makes our mess, messier.  It’s made still messier when we blame others for our messing up.

G. K. Chesterton knew better.  A London newspaper had asked readers, “What’s wrong with the world?”  Chesterton wrote back: “I am.”  If each of us would admit, “I am what’s wrong with the world”, there’d be less wrong with the world.  And, recognizing our responsibility would empower us to have some control over the mess.  Responsibility is the ability to respond well.

Unlike Chesterton, we tend to be quick to reply, “I am”, to very different questions. “What’s right with the world?”  “I am!”  “Who is wronged?”  “I am!”  But, to claim, “I am what’s right with the world” reveals that I am part of what’s wrong with the world.  To admit: “I am what’s wrong with the world” reveals that I am part of what’s right with the world.  To claim, “I am the wronged of the world” reveals a pathetically pinched perspective on the world.  So, if we really want to be in the right, let’s do ourselves the favor of readily admitting when and where and how and why we’re in the wrong.

In fact, why not do ourselves a really big favor and insist on our right to all the advantages of seeing and admitting our wrong?  If I can admit that I am part of what’s wrong, then there’s something I might do to solve the part of the problem I am.  But, if I say that, even here in the backwater of my world, what’s wrong is always someone else’s fault, I give up whatever I might do to get on top of my part in the problem.  After all, I can’t change him or her or them.  And waiting for those we blame to change for the sake of a blamer will do nothing to make things better for the blamer.  So, blaming gets us more frustrated.  We then get even angrier as we miserably fail to get on top of the problem.  Failing to get control over our self-defeating habits, we fail to get control over our undesired circumstances.

Thus, we make of ourselves even more of a mess as we try to do what does nothing to clean up any mess.  Strange as it sounds, nobody appreciates being blamed – especially when they’re at fault.  So, the more we blame them, the more they’ll retaliate in defensiveness against us.  Isn’t that nice!

And, the more we blame others, the more we reinforce our own sense of guilt and fear.  After all, defensiveness knows it’s not innocent.  So, inside our own cover-ups, we experience exposure.  This gets us even more anxiously angry.  The first mistake is failing to see that, dressing up in camouflage created by one’s self, one’s going to see through the cover-up.

But, wait!  Seeing through our cover-up is a very hopeful sign!  It means we can see where we’re in the wrong.  So, we can do what we can do – indeed, what we ought to do – to move toward what’s right, what’s just and what just might help.

Now, all alone, we aren’t all that’s wrong with the whole world.  Too bad!  All alone, we’re not even all that’s wrong in our little corner.  Too, bad!  See, we can’t fix any other’s mess.

But, we can realize we’re all in this mess together since we’re co-conspirators: we all try to have it our way.  And, we’ve been co-conspirators against each other – and against our Creator – ever since Eden.

The Bible story of Adam and Eve is the story of Adam and Steve and Amy and Sue and Tom and Dick and Harry, too.  It depicts the self-centeredness we see in others while we’re busy judging them from within our own self-centeredness.  So, it takes no imagination to see how others misbehave and how they defy even God. They define reality to suit themselves – as we do.  We’re trying to suit ourselves all the time.  So, we can readily identify with this misbehavior in others.  However, we refuse to identify ours with theirs, for their wrongdoing is too close to our own. So, we make a big deal over theirs.  That seems like a better deal than making a big deal over ours.  But it’s not.  Thank God, a troubled conscience can free us to take charge of our misbehavior.

As the residents of Eden did back then, and as all around us do today, we intend self-improvement. However, how good is our aim at self-improvement when we ignore reality and improvise to suit ourselves?  There we go again, trying to suit self!  The Creator has written reality into every square inch of the universe. He’s revealed reality in writing and in the Word made flesh.  Do we improve ourselves by erasing what he’s written?  Do we improve ourselves by replacing it with our scribbles?

Today, we have cool clichés, miscalculated to do just that.  Few catch on to the fact that these catch phrases are lies. People say: “Well, that may be your reality, but it’s not my reality!”  Are they coming from beyond time-space or simply from the crawl space of a cramped mind?  People who make use of this chichi irrationality seem oblivious to they’re imposing their own dogmatism on all whom they accuse of dogmatism.  And, what could be more stupid than creatures contriving to correct their Creator?  No wonder the psalmist says: “Fools say ‘No!’ to God.”  And, rightly, he goes on to see that we’re all such fools. (Ps 14:1ff)  But, don’t try telling that to fools – to any of us.

Grabbing for fantasies, we’re the first to be fooledLatched to fantasies, we’re the last to admit it.  It’s all so predictable, yet it’s unpredicted.  Blindsided, we lead ourselves into even more unintended consequences: disappointment, disillusion, despair and, ironically, into either a more hell-bent determination to grab at further fantasies or an ill-advised self-preservation via cynicism.

Tempted to defy God by redefining God to suit ourselves, we’d better be able to hear the hiss of a snake.  For, when we assert an arrogantly assumed autonomy, setting up ourselves as self-sufficient, it’s a set-up for the same disaster that befell the man and woman in Eden?

The creatures tried to counter their Creator’s claim with counterfeit claims.  Their Creator, who’d later identify himself as Yahweh, I AM, was defied by creatures with an “I am” of their own.  But God, alone, can be described by the indicative of the verb, “to be”: I AM!  I will be who I will be!  Period!

Derived from nothing, dependent for everything, yet brought into being in God’s image, humanity rebels and postures a pretended autonomy. “I am self-made!  I am my own!”  Jean-Paul Sartre boasted: “Man is nothing else than what he makes of himself!” Not true!  Man’s so much more than the mess he makes of himself.  But, left to himself, this so-called self-made man makes of himself a self-deceived fool, ever trying and ever failing to impress himself, others and even God. All the evil affectation! – as if no one sees through it, as if God is not omniscient!

So, as we damn ourselves daily, we damn well sense it. That’s why we’re so damned defensive and why, left to our own devices, we’re adrift and damned, alone on our own.  No wonder we’re anxious!

Choosing our way to save us from the emptiness and the chaos we sense, trying to make us safe from our self-centered selfdoubts, we’re stuck in a mess that’s pervasive and persistent.  Every foolish effort to save one’s self only reinforces the sense of danger that fuels the fears.  We fear we’re not who we should be.  We fear we don’t have what we need.  We fear that, at this rate, we won’t ever have what we need.  And, we’re so self-deceived we call all this bizarre self-centeredness: “low self-esteem”?  We try to cheer up with me-centered mantras and solicit affirmation from others. But, since me-centered mantras are the problem, they can’t be the solution.  And since others are suffering from this same self-centeredness, so-called “low self-esteem”, they can’t afford to affirm us with much more than their own solicitation of affirmation from us.

So, we keep looking in wrong ways, wrong places, to try to find, fake, buy or steal the coveted self-esteem.  But look, if we’d have any more of this foolishly self-centered esteem, we’d be in more of a mess than we sense.  It’s esteeming ourselves with obscenely misplaced self-centeredness that rewards us with so-called low self-esteem.

Is there anyone over whom we loose more sleep than ourselves?  Is there anyone’s welfare we worry more about than our own?  Even in most of our worry about others, don’t we intrude at the very center of what we worry about?  So, what but deepest anxiety can we expect if we have but self to bank on after having banished   the God of all glory and grace, the only One who does love us unconditionally and rescues us from ourselves and from evil itself.

Still, all these fears of ours are helpful clues that, by ourselves, in ourselves and on our own, we’re not safe. We’re not who we need to be. We’re not who we ought to be. And all of this is very good to know.  It’s very good to know that we don’t have and won’t have and can’t have what we need to have, in and of and by ourselves.  But it isn’t good enough to know only this.

Scripture tells us why we’re not who we ought to be, who we need to be, and, who God meant us to be.   Here’s how a Hebrew prophet put it: “Like sheep, we’ve all gone astray. We’ve all turned to our own way.” (Isa 53:6)  There it is again: our own way!  Yet, thank God, all of our self-doubts say that, down deep, we’ve no doubt we don’t measure up. All our defensiveness says the same thing.  We’re lost and we know it!  Admitting it is another matter.

But, failing to do what Jesus said was the point of the Law and the Prophets – i.e., treating others as we want to be treated – we’ll be cannibals, chewing on our indigestible self-obsessions while devouring others and spitting out what’s left of them when we’ve no longer any use for them.

Well, how can we turn from suicidal and homicidal self-centeredness to self-giving love?  How can we use our sense of need to clue us into seeking the welfare of others in need?  Good questions! And, the scriptures offer good prescriptions!

A 1st century writer to Jewish Christians quotes King David’s exclamation of amazement: “What is humanity that You, O God, are mindful of us, that You, O God, care!” (Heb 2:7; Ps 8:4f)  As a young shepherd, David had stared in awe at the stars.  Now, as monarch, he writes of the Majesty on high. What he saw in those night skies over Bethlehem and Jerusalem was brighter than what we see of those same stars through all the distracting glow of city lights. Yet, what we see of those stars – and far beyond them – is informed by what he could not even begin to grasp: how unimaginably vast is what he was looking at.  The distance to the edge of our presently observable universe is nearly 50 billion light years. Some light beyond that can reach us some day. But light at greater distances is flying away from us, flying faster than even the speed of light itself.  We’ll never see that light. David knew none of this.  Yet his view was informed by what we so easily blind ourselves from seeing: How unimaginably glorious is the Creator who declared, “Let there be light!” and there it was.

David contrasted the spacious skies above him with the selfish humanity around him and within him. Yet, in awe of the God he knew, he trusted that, humanity was somehow even more significant to God than all those stars.

In English translation of that New Testament quote from David, we read that, “God made humanity a little lower than angels.”  The later writer did use the Greek word for angels.  But what David wrote in Hebrew did not refer to “angels”. He wrote that humanity was created “a little lower than elohim.”  Elohim!  God’s magnified name!  We’re made a little lower than God!  In his culture’s three-tier cosmos, David saw us on earth as but a little lower than the One who resides in the heaven above the firmament of those awe-inspiring skies.  David, the king, recalls that God crowned humanity with glory and honor and enthroned us with vice-regency under God, over all the earth.

Yet, as scripture says, each of us falls far short of what God intended for us from the beginning.  And, since every human group is comprised of human beings, every human group falls far short of what God intended for human society.  This includes every race, ethnicity, class, political party, religion and so on. Neither gender nor sexual orientation is excluded from the population of the self-preoccupied.  So, neither gender nor sexual orientation can save us from ourselves.

When asked who he was, Chesterton replied: “Whoever I am, I’m not myself.”  None of us is who he or she was created to be.  None of us is who God meant him or her to be.  Do we each have Chesterton’s good sense to know that, “Whoever I am, I’m not myself.”  There’s another, far better me, who God has had in mind for me to be – from the beginning of the world.

Well, how did our forebears in Eden fix their own foul-up?  They didn’t.  Oh, they tried.  As we do, they tried a cover-up.  But, as we know, cover-ups are done in distress and under duress, so that, there’s not a lot of time to cover up all the embarrassing parts. Their few fig leaves left a lot exposed.  And, they felt exposed because they were exposed. So, they hid out.  But even forests of fig leaves can’t hide us from our own sensed shame.  In all our postured pride we’re privy to what we pretend isn’t exposed. And, surely, we can’t believe we can hide from the grieving wrath of Omniscient Love!  So, the blame games began early on.  The woman blamed the snake and the man blamed the woman. The man blamed God, too, for giving her to him.

Still, though, God loved them and set into motion their future redemption.  He began by clothing their shame and graciously driving them out of Eden lest they do themselves even more damage than they’d already done to themselves.

In the fullness of time, Jesus, God’s Son, came to earth to face temptations on our behalf, living the obedience we fail to live and, on the cross, he laid down his own life on our behalf, paying the penalty we’d not survive if we had to pay it ourselves.

Says the writer to Hebrews: “Christ came into the world, applying a Psalm to himself: ‘You, O God, do not delight in ritual offerings, but You prepared a body for me.  And I said, “Here, I am …I come to do your will.’ ” (Heb 10: 5ff; Ps 40:6f)  For ages, Jews offered animal sacrifices for their own sin, but with no further obedience. (Jer 7:21-24; Hos 6:6; Amos 5:21-27)

In full obedience down to death, Christ sacrificed himself to atone for our sins.  Neither celibacy nor reparative pretense, neither orientation-discordant nor same-sex marriage substitutes for Christ’s substituting himself for us at the cross.  Christ’s death was our death. Christ’s resurrection was our resurrection.

Now, with but a hint of this mystery of God’s unmerited mercy to us, we can be awakened to awe and gratitude, freed in Christ’s righteousness and freed for the praise of obedience to his call to love one another from the rich bounty of his own unfathomable love for us and for “them”.

But, the Hebrews pastor says: If we claim Christ as “Lord” but keep on refusing to obey him, he’s not our Lord.  If we persist in neglecting discipleship, failing to meet together to encourage each other in faith and love and, rather, go our own ways, prioritizing the things of this world from which, to save us, Christ sacrificed himself, we trash his gift of salvation. (Heb 10:29-31)  How is he our Lord if he’s not Lord of our lifestyles, Lord of our daily lives?

God’s old Covenant commandments were prefaced by that Covenant’s preamble, recalling God’s rescue of his people from Egypt.  The imperatives for human action were based in the indicative of God’s action.  What we ought to do is rooted in what God did.  “I am the Lord, your God, who saved youSo, don’t count on other gods!” (Ex 20:2)  In awe of God’s rescue and wise warning about useless idols, his people ought to respond with the gratitude of obedience. Ought begins with awe!

Lost in the wilderness of this world’s ways, everything everyday is, at best, a bad mixed bag.  Freed from hostage to Egyptians, they hold themselves hostage to selective memory and fantasies of garlic and onions in “the good old days” of slavery. (Num 11:5f)  Instead of awe, they awfulize!  They gripe over God’s daily provision of manna, missing the point that, had they been given a more mouthwatering menu, they’d have had yet another excuse to remain mired in the wilderness and not move on to God’s Promised Land.  What are our own foolish fantasies of lost garlic and onions?

We’re lost if we count on daydreams to save us from ourselves.  We’re lost if we count on others to save us from ourselves.  We’re lost if we count on ourselves to save us from ourselves. And, we’re lost, too, if we try merely to grunt up some grudging gratitude by “counting our blessings”. Our coveting idols of fantasy will always outrun our counting.

But, we need to see that every mixed bag in this world is a Godsend that says: “Not here!  Not in this!  However good, this isn’t it!  This isn’t why you were created!  This won’t do for your deep need!  Well then, what will do?  No. That’s a stupid question.  Here are wise questions: Who will do?  Who has done it?  We need to know God intimately and experience his unmixed love. We can’t buy his love.  We can’t earn his love.  We can’t forge it.  We can’t fake it.  God’s love is freely given, though the cost to him is beyond our comprehension

   Knowing God’s amazing love, his welcoming embrace in Christ, we’re safe with the One we always were meant to be with.  Here is Presence more powerful than any problem. Here is perspective deeper than all our self-focused and petty complaining permits us.

This writer to Hebrew Christians told them: “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and accomplisher of our faith, who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame.” (Heb 12:2)  We are that joy that was set before him, for whom he endured all!  Are we in awe at this or are we indifferent to this?

Listen to some lines based in this Bible text, written by a woman after her wealthy husband left her when she went blind. “O soul, are you weary and troubled? / No light in the darkness you see? / There’s light for a look at the Savior / and life more abundant and free! / Turn your eyes upon Jesus / Look full in His wonderful face / and the things of earth will grow strangely dim / In the light of His glory and grace.” (Helen Howarth Lemmel)

David had confessed his own depravity: “My evil deeds overwhelm me … they’re more than the hairs of my head!  Please, O Lord, deliver me!”  But redeemed by God’s grace, David rejoiced in grateful obedience rather than in all of Israel’s religious rituals.  In joy, he exclaimed his praise: “I can’t keep quiet about your righteousness, O God!  I don’t keep your salvation to myself!  I tell the truth of your loving-kindness to all!” (Ps 40:9-12)

As David humbly wrote of God’s care for him in spite of his depravity, so Rusty Goodman did when he wrote these lines: “When I think of how he came so far from glory / Came to dwell among the lowly such as I / To suffer shame and such disgrace / on Mount Calvary take my place / Then I ask myself this question, ‘Who am I?’ / Who am I, that a King would bleed and die for / Who am I, that he would pray, ‘Not my will, Thine, Lord’ / The answer I may never know, / Why he ever loved me so / that to an old rugged cross he’d go, for who am I.”

Who, indeed!  Who are we?  David answered: “a little lower than elohim!”  Said John: “Dear friends, we’re already God’s children. What we will be isn’t completely clear.  Yet we do know that when Christ appears we will be like him for we’ll see him as he is.” (I John 3:2-3)  As Chesterton knew, whoever we are, we’re not yet ourselves.  Said Paul: “We know that all things are working together for the good of those who love God – those whom he has called according to his plan.  He’s known us all along and has appointed us to be conformed to the image of his Son, the firstborn among many children.” (Rom 8:28-29)

Is our awe of God and his love profound enough to prompt our glad obedience, grateful enough to want to please him above all else, rejoicing enough that we can’t keep quiet about the great Good News of God’s amazing grace?

Today, this world’s mess includes a sadly vocabulary-challenged sense of awe.  Anything but God is touted as, “awesome”. Cindy Adams says she’s had it with the overuse and misuse of “awesome”.  So has British poet and painter John Tottenham.  Unfortunately for him, he now lives in L.A.

We’re spammed with: “Awesome Results!  Melt your fat!  Must watch video!”  “Fifteen awesome things you can make out of a pizza box” – like wall art or a pizza bib.  Next time you hear someone say, “It was, like, awesome, man!” feel free to ask, “You mean, like a pizza bib?”

It gets worse.  Thousands of American teenage girls are tweeting their infatuation over that self-confessed Islamist terrorist in Boston.  They insist he’s innocent. They say he’s too “awesome”, too “cute”, to be guilty.

That’s a tricky thing about evil.  Paul says the Satan shows up “as an angel of light”.  The Satan cited Psalms to tempt Jesus to sin. (II Cor 11:13f; Matt 4:6)  And wasn’t that snake said to have been the shrewdest? (Gen 3:1)

Now, we may roll our eyes at foolish teenagers, look down our noses at the verbal deficiencies of Californians and think it’s ridiculous to call a pizza bib “awesome”.  But, frankly, are our claims to be in awe of God any less ridiculous?  Just how is our claimed awe of God lived out daily, nightly?  Do we communicate Jesus’ love to others?  How is any awe of God prioritized in us?

So, let’s revisit those verses from the Sermon on the Mount – in awe and awareness of God’s holiness, glory and amazing grace.

In awe of God’s holiness, can we see how it makes no sense to sit in harsh judgment of others when we could not stand such scrutiny?  F. D. Maurice, 19th century theologian, confessed: “Ah! … The sins of others produce such sin in me, and stir up my unsanctified nature so terribly.”  In awe of the holy grace of God, can’t we see that our nitpicking at others is nothing but self-serving rationalization for our own self-righteousness?

In awe of his atonement, aware of offense others take at Christ’s cross, why would we look for hospitality from hostile secularists?

Why continue sharing the gospel with those who keep on rejecting the gospel?  Why entrust gospel ministry to any who downplay it?

In awe of God’s goodness, do we see the wisdom in asking our heavenly Father for what he knows we need, seeking him who sought for us and saved us from our sinful, selfish self-seeking?

In awe of God’s grace to us who are unworthy, can’t we show grace to all others?  Maurice Boyd said it often: “God loves us into loving and smiles us into smiling.”  Jesus noted that we know very well how to treat others since we know very well how we want to be treated.  That’s empathy.  Jesus said it’s the whole point of the Law and Prophets.  Knowing we’re loved so richly, can’t we afford to love others  – aware that, there’s plenty more love where our love comes from?

And, in awe of God’s grace, why would we not go with him on his narrow way that leads to life, for the wide road’s lifestyles lead to ruin. Why would we not go with him?  Why?  Well, when we’re all tied up in ourselves, we really don’t give a damn about him.

In awe of God’s grace, why would we waste our time listening to false teachers who impugn the Gospel and push their propaganda that, though popular and even PC, will soon pass away as other fads now passé.  So, why would we listen to them?  Well, maybe we prefer preachers who pander to our priorities, our prejudices, our plans.

And, in awe of God’s glory, aware of God’s grace, why would we settle for pious prattle instead of the privilege of gladly obedient action?  Why?  Well, maybe we think it’s more fun to fight culture wars.  But such a self-indulgent adrenalin rush cannot match the joy of thankful, awe-inspired obedience to our Lord.

In awe of God’s glory and grace, apathetic “obedience” is no obedience.  Blasé believers don’t serve the Lord!  Their priorities aren’t his.  Obedience to the Lord is a lifestyle under his Lordship. Persistent indifference ends in exclusion from Christ’s kingdom. Posers may use the lingo, “Lord, Lord”, but Jesus says, he’ll say to them: “I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you evildoers.”

Jesus’ words were David’s words once.  Agonizing in illness, he’d soaked his pillows in tears, deeply troubled by an “insidious suspicion that [advisors] were right, perhaps God had indeed deserted” him!  (Peter Craigie)  He mourned that, “In Sheol [death] he’d no longer be capable of praising Yahweh!”  Then, recovered, he dismissed those self-righteous advisors: “Get away from me, you evildoers.”  Note well: David’s anticipatory grieving was over his fear of the loss of awe for his Lord!  (Ps 6)

So, where are the mourners among us, sorrowing over our sins, despairing of doing better and fearing our loss of daily fellowship with the Lord?  Jesus called these folks, the “fortunately poor in spirit” who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:3)

Saved from the sands of self-righteousness and safe on the rock of God’s grace, we can hear and do what Jesus said: “As I have loved you, love each other.” (John 13:34)  Wesley put it like this: Let’s “do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can, to all the people we can, as long as ever we can!”  That’ll keep us busy.  That’ll keep us safe from cesspools of self-pity.  Jesus said it’s by our loving each other that friend and foe would know we’re his. (John 13:35)

Recently, a “Reflection” page of Redeemer Presbyterian’s order of worship carried a quote from Wendy Kaminer of the Secular Coalition.  She asserted: “As an article of faith, this doctrine of salvation by grace and grace alone is remarkably unappealing to me.  It takes, I think, remarkable disregard for justice to idealize a God who so values belief over action. I prefer the God who looks down upon us and says, ‘I wish they’d stop worrying about whether or not I exist and start obeying my commandments.” She misinterprets what she belittles, sets up an incoherent either-or, fails to see the basis for obedient action and preaches her dogma while damning a caricature of them and their dogma. Well, so do we all!  That’s why we all need God’s mercy.

Directly under Kaminer’s opinions on Christian faith, the church posted these words from the 1561 Belgic Confession: “It is so far from being true that [salvation by grace alone] makes us remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it, we would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.  Therefore, it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful; for we … speak of a faith which is called in Scripture, a ‘faith working through love’ which excites us to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.  [Otherwise] we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed if they relied not on the merits of our Savior.”

So, we don’t obey God to pay Him off.  We don’t obey God to pay Him backGiving is God’s gift!  And, gifted with gratitude in awe-fueled awareness of God’s saving grace in Christ, we’re freed to obey our Creator, Savior and Lord.  To know him is to obey him and to obey him is to love him, for he, it was, who first loved us, giving us ourselves and giving himself for us.

One of the first songs I ever sang in Sunday school was, “Trust and Obey”. After D. L. Moody closed an evangelistic meeting in 1887, a young man stood up to share his witness. As he spoke, it was obvious to many that he knew very little about the Bible or Christian doctrine. But, what he said, touched everyone: “I’m not quite sure, but I’m gonna trust and obey.”

Deeply moved, Moody’s music director jotted down his words and they became the hook for that new hymn, “Trust and Obey”.  That humble young convert knew that, to obey starts in a trusting awe of God!

In 1956, I was a freshman at Bob Jones University and in my first class of New Testament Greek.  I learned that, of the two Greek letters rendered into English as our letter “O” – the letter, omicron, had the “aw” sound while the letter, omega had the “oh” sound.  We were told to pronounce words beginning with omicron with an “aw” sound and words beginning with an omega with an “oh” sound.  Sounded right to me. But, according to the textbook, that “aw” sound should resemble the sound at the beginning of the word, “obey”?  “AW-bey”?  Back in Youngstown, we’d always said “OH-bey”.  I now had to learn to “AW-bey”.

Well, that’s the way it is with obedience.  Doing it our old way, beginning in our own strength of will, we’ll likely abort obedience.  But, in the awe of the Lord, we’re moved to the joy of a grateful obedience.  Obedience begins with awe!

 

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