14th Sunday after Pentecost

August 21, 2016


The meaning of life

The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.

Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.

Our God comes; he does not keep silence;

before him is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest.

He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:

“Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”

The heavens declare his righteousness,

for God himself is judge!

“Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.

Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.

I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds.

For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the hills,

and all that moves in the field is mine.

“If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.

Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High,

and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips?

For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.

If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers.

“You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.

You sit and speak against your brother;

you slander your own mother’s son.

These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself.

But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.

“Mark this, then, you who forget God,

lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!

The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me;

to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”

(Psalm 50 ESV)

We can understand and possibly relate to the following scenes …

– the disruptive classroom where the students are supposed to be working silently but they’re not and the teacher, after some calls to focus, loudly reminds them of what they should be doing

– cadets talking while staff are talking or not attending to tasks – not once, not twice, but a lot – and then there’s a roar of ‘Pipe down!’ and a long explanation of the bad behaviour and what needs to now happen

– a loved one who has promised not to do something again – it’s serious – maybe drinking, drugs, porn, gambling – and it is evident that they’ve ‘fallen’ and you’re frustrated and hurt and angry – and the words that come out are not quiet and thoughtful – you want to shake sense into them verbally – and often physically

We can understand such situations. Such is part of life because not everything goes smoothly all the time. There are times when our behaviour is called to account. The goal of parenting is to teach our children to become self accountable – to do the right thing without any external voice or coercion – which is laudable even though we know that we still, at times, have trouble doing it! It’s a funny world when we know the right thing to do and don’t do it – or know something isn’t right or good for us or others and we still do it – and threats, punishments and fear might work to curb such behaviour but even these have limits and people say, ‘Tough! I don’t care! I’m going to do what I want!’.

We can understand all of this.

What we have today in Psalm 50 is God calling his people to account for their behaviour. He is not reading the riot act. He is not shouting. This is a psalm – sung in the temple worship – recalling the time when the people were at Mount Sinai and they were terrified by God’s presence in the storm and turbulence on top of the mountain (but remember that even that didn’t stop them later making a golden calf!). The words of the psalm might transport the people to a heavenly courtroom but they remain in the temple precincts and hear what God who judges them says – who calls creation itself to bear witness that God has been faithful to his people, to the covenant he made – but his people … and that’s the point … what will his people do?

What they are doing isn’t smart. They have turned God into their own version of him. They warp the relationship with God into something they find palatable – so if God wants sacrifices – they sacrifice away and buy into the ideas of the world that God ‘must be hungry’ – that there is magic power in the sacrifice – and this then develops into ‘we do things for you, God – now you do things for us’. And so the worship rituals God did establish so that God could be present among his sinful people become ritualised as a false piety because people ignore the words God has spoken. Do the deeds, forget the words – the world thinks. What is really happening is that people want to forget the relationship with God – and keep God at a distance.

Of course worship is physical – it involves us doing things – but we are never in charge – we are always responding to what God has said and done. But God calls his people to heart – the rituals lead to a sacrifice of thanksgiving, a sacrifice of praise – that is what God has always wanted from his people – that they live in his blessings. Instead people have always wanted the gifts of God but not anything to do with – or as little as possible with – the Giver.

Not only does God call out people’s worship, he also judges – speaks very clearly – to those people whose lives away from the temple show no links with God whatsoever. These people might say the right words in the temple but the words have no impact on their daily lives for they do their own thing – in their relationships, with regards to authority, with property – theirs and anyone else’s they can get, and with reputations – with all the words about people that can make people’s lives ‘blessed’ or ‘cursed’. There is a disconnect between temple and their ethics, their behaviour. And God calls it for what it is – evil – and they are ‘wicked’.

So what now? Pull your socks up?! Do better from now on?

How long will that last? If God shouts and scares us, will it make us behave better for longer?

Many in the world today think so. I still hear it from time to time that if I don’t preach ‘hellfire and brimstone’ then I’m not doing my job. Religion, for many people, is about being good – or being controlled – both of which want to ignore and rebel against God. But religion is really about relationships – and yes, relationships do govern our behaviour – but the key to a religion is God and his relationship with us.

Which god do you want to follow? Any god made in our own image will never be sustaining or comforting and will lead us to either fear or despair. That’s why we need to hear what God says about himself. And in the God of Israel in Psalm 50 – and revealed fully – in human form – according to Christians in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, we have a God of grace and mercy – who has taken upon himself to rescue rebellious people from sin, death, and a full eternal separation from life and love – the consequences of us wanting to be in control and ‘do our own thing’.

And this God never stops reaching out to people – establishing a relationship with people – shielding them from his holiness when it would destroy them – rescuing them so they could be with him through the blood of sacrifices – and giving them life with him. That is the story of both the Old and New Testaments – of God reaching out to his people – and pointing out the reality that to push God away, to reject his rescue, to claim all religion is too hard to fathom, and to want to do their own thing will reject the victory over sin, death, and hell.

This isn’t a choice between options for us. Christians are those people who are brought to life in Christ – in baptism, by the Holy Spirit, through Word and Sacraments – and now they decide how to live and will they commit spiritual suicide? Reject God? Deal with him on their terms?

Does God come along and shout and spit and threaten? His ego is not hurt by human rebellion but he is desperate that people not be lost – he wants them to live not die – and that is why God doesn’t shut up! He isn’t silent! Even creation itself declares God’s glory and then the words flesh him out. Will fear help people follow God? Maybe. For a little while. But not for long.

The only thing that reaches us – changes us – shapes us – is love and when we are in that love relationship then we are different people.

Yes, there is hellfire and brimstone at the end of this world but that knowledge doesn’t really change us.

Did you hear the last verses of Psalm 50?

“Mark this, then, you who forget God,

lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!

The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me;

to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”

We can hear it as a threat – do better or else – but we miss the message when we forget who exactly is speaking. This not a generic, All-Brand God. This is the God of creation, the God of the Exodus, the God of a new covenant, the God of rescue, the Word made flesh – who has already rescued and given salvation to his people. Salvation is not a prize to struggle for but a gift you live. That’s why the sacrifice God wants – not because he needs it – but because it best reveals what is going on inside of us – is our sacrifice of thanks and praise.

Why would we do that?!

Because a cross and an empty tomb declare we are loved with such a love that there is no other relationship we want to live in, to shape us, and to guide us.



Bible References

  • Psalm 50