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Without Thee, Unable to Please Thee...
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
Trinity XIX - 10/10/10
Jer. 30:12-22; Psalm 99; Eph. 4:17-32; Mt. 9:1-8
The title of the sermon comes from the collect for today, the 19th Sunday after Trinity: "O God, for as much as without Thee, we are unable to please Thee; Mercifully grant that Thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord."
We acknowledge that we are unable to please God without His help, and ask that He in all things therefore directs and rules our hearts. We need His direction and rulership.
That may seem all quite self-evident and natural to Christians, but to the world it sounds suspicious. And, to tell the truth, is sounded suspicious to me as I was growing up -- which, I suppose, shows how much I was still "in the world".
The suspicion comes from not trusting that God is playing fair with us. Why do we need His help to please Him? Are we defective? Are we incompetent? Is God in some way "putting us down"? Is this another case of, If you exalt God, you put man down, and if you exalt man, you put God down?
Why do we need God in order to please Him? We often please our human friends without their help. We just choose to do something for family or friends, sometimes without them even knowing. Why is it so different with God? Is He extra hard to please?
In order to please God, we must know what would please Him. But that is like anyone else. And, God has made it much more clear what pleases Him than most persons, even than family and friends. He has gone to great trouble to make Himself clear precisely because we seemed to be so inept or unwilling to do what He says pleases Him.
God tells the Hebrews in the desert, "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 do it?' But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it." Deut. 30:11 ff.
There are mysteries to life, but we Christians sometimes make too much of mystery, as though understanding God were indeed one of those "hard" things. The word of God, taken as a whole and in context, has an extraordinary unity and common-senseness about it. As Billy Graham reportedly said, "It is not those things in the Word of God that I do not understand that bother me, it is the things that I do understand." God challenges us in ways we do not like.
Truth be told, there are several ways in which we might come to not appreciate the word of God to us, and find it difficult to please God. It is often not just as easy as "doing something nice" for someone. Even when we fully understand what God is saying. Sometimes, as Billy Graham notes, precisely because we do understand God's intent for us.
So in what sense to we need God in order to please Him. First of all God needs to exist. We need to know and believe that He exists. That is obvious. We need to know what might please Him if we should happen to be of a mind to do so.
If one reads the story line of the Bible carefully, one realizes that God is not trying to make things difficult for us, that He goes to unbelievable lengths to make it possible for us to please Him, and indeed, as easy as possible, without compromising the integrity of His relationship to us, nor of us to Him. God wants our relationship to Him to be one of personal integrity, living in the Light, living without compromise -- intellectual, moral, or spiritual. He does all of that from His side, and is asking us to do likewise from our side. That may be where the problem lies....
It has to do with the very nature of the Fall and of Salvation. It has to do with those two stabilities we have been discussing. I hope that you will get those two stabilities under your belts and become familiar with using them in your conversations because stability is something everyone understands. You do not have to go up to heaven or sail across the sea to understand them. Every human being on the face of the earth struggles with personal and moral stability.
We all know that we need the first, personal stability. We may not think God is involved, but we know we need it. Our lives depend upon it. Some reject the second, moral stability, declaring themselves morally independent, trying to make up their own morality as they go.
The whole law of God can be summed up in those two stabilities: Depend on Me for your personal, ontological stability, and obey Me for your moral stability and direction. They are about as common sense as laws can get. None of us can supply either of those two stabilities by ourselves. And nothing else in the whole of the universe can supply either of those for us. They are incapable, even if they wanted to.
We can help each other out a bit, by being kind and loving, but the world without God is not well-known for doing so. The world typically, beyond a certain point, tells us, you are on your own. Fend for yourself. And then you have to scramble as best as you can.
We in the West have been blessed with a surplus of material wealth, so that it gives the illusion that we can stabilize ourselves with material wealth. People really believe that getting more money will solve their basic problems. Or throwing money at problems will solves them. It will not do that. It will only divert us from the real solution, which is spiritual, not financial. The significant question we must all ask when facing a problem is: Whom do I worship? That will direct you down one road or the other -- to God or to the world.
God warns the Hebrews that after they get into the Promised Land and plant vineyards and other crops, build cities, or occupy those of the defeated pagans, that they should not get proud and think that their own strong right arm has gotten them their wealth. God has given it to them. He was confirming His covenant promise to them.
America became wealthy because America, to a significant degree, followed the law of God. But just like the Hebrews, we have become fat and sassy, thinking literally, that our own strong right arm has gotten us our wealth, that we can establish our own independence and stability. We are fools to believe that.
We are, as we worship here this morning, in the midst of the fracturing and erosion of Western Civilization -- built originally on the law and grace of God, but now in full rebellion against that law and that grace. Our government has openly at the highest levels of government, repudiated its dependence upon God and its loyalty to His purposes for us. It has, in effect, declared itself to be God, and declared itself to supply those two stabilities to the citizens. It will meet our needs, and it will give us direction. Not God.
That is ignorance and stupidity, or brazen deceit. Or all of the above. The fool is still saying in his heart, "There is no God." Or more often -- saying there is a God, but acting in the exactly contrary way. There is no reasonable evidence to show that such a course of action is the truth. We are being misled, often systematically lied to, and must learn again how to find our stability and moral direction from the only source which can supply it. God Himself.
The primary question of all life is, "Whom do I worship? My answer to that question will decide whether I will indeed be stabilized personally, and find a moral direction with integrity. Not all the civil governments in the world can do that for you. They are deceived or lying when they pretend to. They do not want your welfare, they want to sluice your welfare into their coffers.
Maybe the answer to the Question: "Why, without God, can we not please Him?" is becoming clear. God wants to save us from our own self-destruction. That would please God. And we cannot save ourselves. We cannot supply our own personal or moral stability. We cannot stabilize ourselves within the world, and we cannot find our way out of the world, into His Kingdom. We must do it His way, or it will not be done at all. Nothing would please God more than our own cooperation with our own salvation, and helping others with their salvation -- evangelism.
Our Jeremiah lesson begins with four verses of unrelenting condemnation of Israel. "Because your guilt is great, because your sins are flagrant, I have done these things to you..." God is saying to them that they have put themselves so deeply and so far away from God that they are beyond His help. There is no hope for them, they have passed the point of no return.
And then a total about-face: "Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured, and all your foes... shall go into captivity... For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord." And then five more verses of promise of good -- ending: "And you shall be my people, and I will be your God."
There is always a remnant. God knows that there are some who will repent, who will see the point of the punishment, and turn back again. There is always hope for those who will take an honest look at themselves and at God.
But clearly, they cannot do that without the help of God. They may be unable because of ignorance, because of their own internal brokenness, or because of rebellion -- an ill will toward God. Rebellion is the key, the willful desire to remain independent of God, to value their independence more than they value their own lives. Once they repent, then the healing and the teaching can begin, and the restoration back to health, wholeness, and holiness can begin.
In Psalm 99, we read, "The Lord is King, be the people never to impatient; He sitteth between the Cherubim, be the earth never to unquiet." "Between the Cherubim" means "on His throne..." God does not fall off His throne because we rage. The world can rage and rant, but the stability of God is what guarantees the ability of ourselves to return to our right minds and repent of our raging and ranting.
"The King's power loveth judgement, thou has prepared equity, Thou hast executed judgment and righteousness in Jacob." The moral stability of God is His guarantee that He will never divert from His purpose to bring about the Kingdom of those who are always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful, the Kingdom where there is that unity for which Jesus prayed in His high-priestly prayer (John 17), the unity of faith, love, and hope which the world cannot produce.
If God were not faithful to His own purposes, there would be no hope for us. We would have no way out of our self-destruction, and would continue downwards to the final end.
"Thou heardest them, O Lord our God, thou forgavest them, O God, though thou didst punish their wicked doings." If God had not punished them for their wicked doings (not to destroy, but to purify, to wake up, to point in a new direction) -- then God would not be able to draw us back to Himself. Our punishment is part of our salvation -- when we depart from our own trust and obedience to Him.
This salvation thing is not easy, but that is true because of the depth of the Fall, not because God is vindictive, but because He must deal strongly with rebellion. For our sakes, not to gratify His own anger. Sometimes there is no other way we can learn that God means business.
In Ephesians, Paul describes the condition of the worldly. They are "alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them..., being past feeling (they) have given themselves over unto lasciviousness...."
Or in our contemporary language, they devote themselves to "feeling good" rather than to good relationships with God and their fellow men. There is nothing wrong with good feelings, God wants us to feel good. But if we put good feelings ahead of good relationships with God and each other, then we will destroy the relationships and lose the good feelings as well. Stable good feelings come only from good relationship. Good feelings are the product of good relationships, not something we can aim at for themselves.
The fallen world focuses on power and feeling good. It wants to power so that it can control the sources of good feelings. But that kind of good feelings burn them out, and they fall into the opposite of what was promised -- the incapacity to have much feeling at all. Only feelings given by good, honest, Godly relationships can bring enduring, rewarding feelings. All other ground is sinking sand.
Paul ends this passage: "...be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you." That makes no sense in the dog-eat-dog world of the Fall. Without the two stabilities given only by God, one cannot afford to make himself vulnerable by being loving, tenderhearted, or forgiving in the way Jesus showed.
The Gospel lesson is one more powerful example of why we cannot make it without God. Jesus says to a sick man, "Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee."
The Jewish officials understandably found fault with that. They were right, of course, that only God can forgive sin. But they did not realize that God was standing right before them. But then Jesus just makes matters worse, He does something else that only God can do -- He says, "For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thy house. And he arose and departed to his house."
"But that ye may know... that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive ..." Jesus does two things that no one there could do, forgive sins and heal the sick. And a third, give evidence of the love which God has for each of us.
None of us can do any of those things without the help of God. Jesus only occasionally said that He was the Son of God. Mostly He just did those things that only God can do -- and waited for them to catch on.
So let us catch on! We serve the living God! Let us rejoice, rejoice that God is our helper, doing things that we cannot do, not just in time of trouble, but always, always affirming His love for us, always supporting and stabilizing our personhood, always giving us moral direction, direction toward His Kingdom and eternal life.
We each personally have many things to do which we cannot do without God. We have many things as a church to do, to reach out to the unsaved -- which we cannot do without God. So, let us get continually more trusting and obedient to Him so that we at St. Luke's can fulfill our mission.
Lord, teach us how to talk with each other and our friends and neighbors about You, about your love for us, and realistically about common our need for You.
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