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Sermon, F. Earle Fox
St. Luke's Reformed Episcopal Church, Santa Ana, CA
Sunday, August 30, 2009
[COMMENT: This sermon raises some of the deepest issues
Christians must address -- about our witness, about our failure to stand
publicly for God, and what we can do about it.
Pentecost 13 - August 30, 2009
Lessons: Deut 11:8-21; Ps. 72; 2 Cor. 3:4-9; Mk 7:31-7
There is an assumption abroad in our land that knowledge of God is just a guess, totally up in the air -- so that when you say something about God, especially something that might obligate another person, or cause another person to question his own moral integrity and accountability, you will get looks of scorn and perhaps public rebuke. "Who are you to think you know the mind of God? Who are you to impose your ideas of God on the rest of us?"
Never mind that most of those doing the criticizing will try to force their views on the rest of the world.
So we have taken refuge in the notion that truth is relative, that you can have your view of the matter, and I can have mine, and we are both right for ourselves. We think now, that that is the "nice" way to do things.
That, of course, is true in matters of taste. As they say in Latin, de gustibus, non disputandum. About culinary tastes, as about favorite sport teams, there is no disputing. Or at least no intelligent disputing.
Most of this relative truth nonsense is pointed at moral and religious issues. Few would claim the question of a traffic light to be relative, that you can have it green while I am having it red at the same time and place. You won't get that opinion from the judge. Law is either/or, not both/and. And so is paying up the fine. Or going to jail.
And so is theological truth, and so is Godly revelation. Either Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, or He is not. And if He is, then He is king over all of us, even though we may not yet know that yet..., or maybe never in this life. And it is true even if we are unwilling to believe it.
And if Jesus is not King of kings, then He is probably king over nobody at all -- again, no matter how much you believe it. You are then believing a falsehood.
If that is the case, then we had best find some way of finding the truth of such important matters.
2. The Bible...
What does the Bible have to say on the matter? Well, relative truth had not yet been invented, but God is quite clear on the matter of the objectivity and availability of truth in His dealings with His people. And that includes us.
In the verses just preceding our Deuteronomy lesson, we hear Moses telling the people to remember that they have seen the mighty works of God with their own eyes for the last 40 years in their trip our of Egypt to Canaan. They have seen the hand of God saving them from Pharaoh, they have seen the Hand of God punishing them for their faithlessness and return to idolatry, and, against all reasonable odds, they are now standing before the entrance to Canaan, the Promised Land. They have a powerful testimony to give to anyone who will listen about the reality of God.
Our lesson begins: "You shall therefore (because of the evidence to which you were witness -- your testimony!) keep all the commandment which I command you this day, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land..., and that you may live long in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to give to them and to their descendants..."
And then the verses just after our lesson: "You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be a frontlets between your eyes. And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way..."
Moses is saying to his people: These things which I am commanding you to do are not great mysteries, they are the common inheritance of your lives together. You have seen them first hand, and you have no reason to doubt their reality. They are life and stability to you. They are the foundation of your continued happiness and holiness. Do them!!!
And then toward the end of Deuteronomy, Moses says to his people: "For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say 'Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear and do it?' But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it."
There is nothing in all of Scripture which suggests that God is either incapable of being clear, or that He does not want to. Revelation does not reveal anything if it is not clear. Revelation is not Foggy Bottom. Clarity always favors truth, and unclarity always favors falsehood. God means to convey truth, and therefore He means to be clear and precise. We are the problem, not He.
3. the Mistaken Search
There is a theme common to pagan mythology and literature of a heroic figure going on a quest to find the secret of life. Sometimes it is a potion, it may be a magic bush, some item which will give life, health, perhaps riches, perhaps even eternal life with those riches.
But universally (so far as I know), though the hero may succeed for a time, in the end, he always fails. Some trick of fate, some nasty intervention of the gods, takes away his longed-for success. And he must return to his people unsuccessful.
And many Eastern religions believe the state of heavenly bliss comes from a search within oneself, to find that deep inner divine core of oneself, and to live in that mysterious inner place rather than in the world of space and time, rather than in the world of personal relationship. That state of consciousness would be indeed a mystery inaccessible to our understanding. But that is not where God is leading His people.
God is leading His people into a reasonable, rational relationship with Himself. It can be put much stronger than that. God is leading His people into the only possible reasonable and rational state of life. God is leading His people into the best of all possible worlds.
4. Thought, Action, & Relationship
A Scottish philosopher of about 1900, John Macmurray, said that all thought is for the sake of action, and all action is for the sake of relationship.
That is not the kind of assertion that one finds often in philosophical discussion. Thought tends to remain in the abstract realm rather than enter the hurly-burly of personal relationships.
But Macmurray was a Christian who understood the Biblical way of doing things. Thought is indeed for the sake of action, and then relationship. The law of God is for precisely that. We are, as God commands His people, to think about, discuss, meditate on, teach to our children -- the law and nature of God precisely so that we can act upon it and so that our actions will build toward healthy, and whole, and holy relationships -- first with God, and then with one another. That is the Biblical way of living our lives.
Logical clarity is not forced upon anyone by their abstract philosophical efforts. Philosophy and abstractions do not force us to do anything at all -- because we can get along, we can live without any such philosophical efforts at all.
But we cannot get along without relationships. No matter how you twist and wiggle, relationship turns out to be central for any of our lives. And it is relationship, down to earth, common, practical relationship which forces us to be logically consistent.
If you become self-contradictory in your relationships, such as marriage, with your children, or your best friends, you will end up destroying your relationship. If you become logically inconsistent with God, you will end up destroying that relationship. When you are inconsistent, people cannot trust you. Your word begins to mean nothing.
5. Grammar & Logic
One of the most common virtues attributed to God is "faithful and true". It may not sound like it at first, but that means "logically consistent". God does not speak with a "forked tongue". God does not promise one thing and deliver another. That is being logically inconsistent. Moral inconsistency, or breaking one's promise, are just different ways of being logically inconsistent. Logical consistency is as important in relationships as it is in philosophy or logic.
We should be learning that early in school. How many of you learned to diagram sentences? I do not recall at what grade I learned sentence diagramming, but I do remember being taught it, and I recall the light-bulb discovery of how much it helped make sense of difficult and complex sentences.
Sentence diagramming is drawing the sentence structure so as to reveal its logical connections. You put the various parts of the sentence together in a diagrammatic form.
Grammar is the first and most fundamental way of teaching logic. But we are seldom told that. Grammar in any language is the way that culture formulates the logical connections necessary to make a meaningful sentence. Without an understanding of grammar, there is no possibility of serious teaching of logic.
And therefore, if we do not learn good grammar, we may be hindered from building faithful and true relationships. Any God who speaks to His people through a written word is going to want His people to understand grammar and logical consistency. That is a fundamental aspect of understanding revelation. That does not make understanding revelation "academic" in a professional sense, but it does mean understanding openness, honesty, and clarity of thought. Especially one's own thought.
If all thought is for the sake of action, and all action for the sake of relationship, we do well to begin with a good foundation -- clarity, which includes logical consistency of thought.
6. Triple Dissolution
When we humans begin to lose faith in objective truth, we search for other ways to make up for the loss. That search almost always leads, sooner or later, to Eastern religions, many of which deny the ultimate importance of objective truth, and seek that ultimate "experience", that ultimate good feeling in which they hope to dwell eternally.
But that quest is always at the expense of intellectual, moral, and spiritual integrity. Once we break free from honest and concrete truth-seeking, we drift and fade off into the bottomless pit of subjectivism and feeling good. It is all braced up with religious-sounding language, but the language cannot be given in logically consistent terms. That is the first sign of falsehood.
Not only do intellectual boundaries begin to dissolve, soon to follow are moral boundaries. The difference between right and wrong is, as they say, transcended. That is a second sign that it is not the truth of God.
And then, thirdly, spiritual boundaries. The distinction between ourselves and God begins to dissolve as we conclude that in our inner being, we really are God. If we are God, then, of course we have the authority of change the moral boundaries as we see fit.
The same three steps of dissolution follow whether in the pagan world or the secular world. Truth, morality, and spiritual integrity dissolve.
7. The Splendor of God
In I Cor., Paul talks about the splendor of God which was revealed in the face of Moses as he came down from Mt. Sinai. He says that that splendor of the Law was a fading splendor, and that the splendor of the Spirit makes the splendor of the Law pale by comparison.
But the splendor of the Spirit is a splendor of clarity, not of the dissolution of all intellectual, moral, and spiritual boundaries and distinctions.
Spiritually, God is clearly God, and we are clearly ourselves. He is the Creator, and we are the creatures. We do not merge with God.
Morally, right and wrong will not dissolve into each other, they will be resolved (like a high-resolution graphic - resolving from a blur into a clear picture) with the growing clarity of light and truth. We will come to greater, not less, understanding of the moral issues of the law and grace of God, and of our personal and corporate relation to Him.
And likewise, intellectual clarity will be resolved as the mental fog created by the Fall is dispersed and lifted. We will know who we are and where we are going, and our minds will have a clarity which the fallen world cannot attain.
Will there be things which we do not understand. No doubt. We do not understand all there is to know about a grain of sand or an gnat's eye lash. How can we expect to understand all there is to know about even ourselves, let alone God.
But, we can and will know what we need to know to fulfill our reason for existence, our mission in life -- which Jesus tells us is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbors just like we love ourselves.
Relationship needs clarity, behavior needs clarity, and obedience needs clarity. And we shall have it.
And because we do have it and can demonstrate it, the law and grace of God are suitable for public presentation and consumption. What, indeed, are the alternatives?
The alternatives are of human, not divine, origin, and it is they which lack the intellectual, moral, and spiritual credibility, not the Biblical worldview and the Biblical Good News. It really is good news, and the world has nothing at all to compare with it.
So, let us get on with gracefully presenting our challenge to the world, God's Message of Hope, His Message of Salvation, both personal and public, both individual and corporate. God is the Lord and Savior of all situations and circumstances.
And, as God told Moses at the burning bush, he will do that through us if we will obey Him and be His witnesses at all times, in all places, and with all persons -- as led by His Holy Spirit.
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