A Sermon inspired by Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 and Luke 12:32-40
As we were driving through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania this week, we passed a lot of churches. For the most part, they had the usual signs out front: “All are welcome”, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” “Jesus Saves.” But we saw one that really stood out– and I have to use a special voice to read it– “Prepare to meet thy God!”
On the one hand, it was an absolutely ridiculous sign. There was no part of me that wanted to go into that church. On the other hand, it actually did get me thinking. Am I preparing to meet my God? And then the Gospel reading from this week came to mind. Jesus says, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
How do we get ready for Jesus’ coming? That the question that I’d like for us to consider together this morning.
We read a difficult text from the prophet Isaiah. As a prophet, his job was to serve as God’s mouthpiece. Isaiah spoke during the 8th century BC, which was the end of a period of prosperity, and the beginning of a period of foreign takeover. He speaks to a people who have forsaken their relationship with God– a people who have rebelled against instruction of God, who taught them as a parent taught a child.
In speaking to them, God addresses a deep problem– a problem that has frequently plagued those who are called “God’s people.” Their lifestyles were not consistent with their worship practices.
In other words, there was a disconnect between what happened in the sanctuary and what happened in the world. As a concession to reality so that we might move forward, I think we must admit that this is sometimes true of ourselves.
Frequently there is a gap between what we proclaim and profess in church and what we do when we leave this building. There is a difference between what we confess with our lips and what we confess with our lifestyles– a gap between who we aspire to be and who we actually are.
Just as this can be the case for us, so it was for the people of Jerusalem and Judah. But God provides some simple instruction to them and to us that holds out the hope of the people turning back to loving their God and loving their neighbor. I want to draw our attention to the 16th and 17th verses of the first chapter of Isaiah:
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
“Cease to do evil.” “Learn to do good.” It’s so simple, right? Two rules, essentially. Later on in the scripture, we can discern another rule: be obedient. — more on that last one in a minute. With those three rules, three guidelines for faithful living, we have nothing less than a basic method for becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.
I know, I’m about to get shouted at. “No, Pastor David, being a Christian isn’t about what we do, it’s about faith in Jesus! Our works can’t save us!” Of course. But if we really believe that what we do doesn’t matter, then we’re forced to throw out most everything that Jesus says. It’s easy to laugh at these rules– cease to do evil!– as if obeying them were no problem. But consider this seriously: Is God’s grace powerful enough to defeat sin or is it not? Is the Holy Spirit powerful enough to transform a person? Or not?
Romans chapter 8 puts this quite simply: “if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” We must allow God’s Spirit to become the driving force in our lives and stop living for ourselves. Of course, we ourselves have no power to turn to God. But by the grace of God given to us by the Holy Spirit, we can be saved from our sins, not only when Christ judges the world but here and now.
The early Methodists were not just people who liked the movement’s founder, John Wesley. They were people who were deeply hopeful and optimistic about God’s grace. They came to Methodist meetings expectant that God could and would transform them.
And because of their faith in God’s power, they committed themselves to live according to three rules, that come roughly out of this scripture from Isaiah. Wesley called them General Rules. 1) Do no harm. 2) Do good. 3) Attend to all the ordinances of God. They also committed themselves to watch over one another in love as they lived them out. In fact, this is what it meant to be a Methodist. If you weren’t committed to following the rules, and watching over one another in love, you weren’t a Methodist. Sure, you could go to church, but you weren’t a Methodist. Membership in a Methodist society signified a true commitment to being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Why did the Wesleys ask people to submit themselves to this? Because their goal was not simply to extract a “sinner’s prayer” from people, but to cultivate and grow people who would live out their whole lives trusting in Christ. Methodists were people who were committed, by God’s grace, to continually grow in their love of God and their love of neighbor– people who were yearning to have their hearts and lives be made holy, as God is holy.
The General Rules are printed in the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Most people simply read them and laugh. They think that they’re a cute reminder of some really uptight 18th century people. But that is because they misunderstand the spirit in which these rules were undertaken, and the Spirit through whom these rules were undertaken. Printed before each of the rules is the following phrase: “It is expected of all who continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation…” and then the rule is stated.
… “by doing no harm.” The second is “by doing good,” and the third is, “By attending to all the ordinances of God.” (again, more on that in a minute). These rules are not legalism, and they’re not “works righteousness.” They’re the evidence of the individual’s desire to be saved.
So back to the first rule, which corresponds with God’s command through Isaiah, “Cease to do evil.” We might say it this way: “Do nothing that leads you away from God.”
Can you all help me out for a second? If you have ever driven a car with a manual transmission, can you please raise your hand?
I confess, I’ve never needed to drive one before, but a few years ago, before Caleb was born, Katie and I decided to take a trip to Great Britain. Although I’d reserved a rental with an Automatic, my internet research told me sometimes the car rental places wouldn’t deliver on their promise, and American drivers would end up with a manual anyway. So for the sake of preparation, I asked a friend from work to teach me how to drive one.
One day after work, he took me out in his old VW Bus from the early 80s. He warned me that it was probably the hardest possible vehicle to learn to drive on since it would stall out very easily if I didn’t do what I was supposed to.
After I had gotten the hang of the basics, he said that I should try to stop and start on a hill. So I drove the car to a hill and stopped. Then to start again, I had my left foot dealing with the clutch, my right foot dealing with the gas, and… I was out of feet for the brake. I started to roll backwards. Good thing there wasn’t a car behind me!
So that day I learned that an important component of moving forwards is making sure that you don’t move backwards.
Doing harm– doing evil– is doing something that moves you away from God. We generally know what it looks like to do harm. On rare occasions, there is some ethical gray area that requires discernment, or some times when our intentions are good but we end up doing harm. For the most part, though, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know if we’re doing the wrong thing.
This first General Rule recognizes that growing toward perfect love of God and neighbor means moving in the right direction. Moving toward God means not moving away from God. It’s simple. It’s obvious. And yet taking these backwards actions seriously is an essential part of living out the Christian life. Recognizing and confessing the actions that lead us away from God is the first step to allowing God’s grace to come in, not just to forgive, but to heal you and to empower you to go and sin no more.
The second General Rule is another rule that we pursue with the hope that God will use it to transform our hearts and lives. It comes from God’s command, “learn to do good.”
Why “learn” to do good? The problem for the people that Isaiah was speaking to then is the same problem that American Christians frequently face today. We rest on our status as God’s people and think that we don’t actually have to live out the lives that God commands. But our reading makes it very clear: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. The general command to love our neighbor means reaching out to those who are powerless to help themselves, regardless of how they got into that situation. We must learn to do good!
There is another sense in which we must learn to do good. How many times have we decided not to participate in some service opportunity because we were afraid of how it might change us? You know what I mean. How many times have I chosen not to interact with a homeless person simply because I was afraid that I would actually be able to help him, and that it would mean I would need to do something. That I would need to change. Learning to do good is an evidence of our desire for salvation because it means that we believe that God actually can transform us. By the Spirit we can do the things that we are not predisposed to doing. The second General Rule is a challenge to not quench the work of the Spirit.
Now rule number three. It doesn’t obviously come from this particular scripture, but it’s related. John Wesley said that those who wanted to continue being Methodists should evidence their desire of salvation “By attending upon all the ordinances of God.” I have paraphrased this as “by practicing the spiritual disciplines.” This means the private disciplines of praying, reading and studying scripture, fasting. It also means the public disciplines of not missing Sunday worship and receiving communion as often as it is available.
This rule is the recognition that we need God’s help– that we can’t live out the Christian life on our own power. We need God’s grace. We need the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
So generally speaking, how do we put ourselves in a position to encounter grace? By practicing these private and public spiritual disciplines. These are the times and places where Christ has told us that he will meet us, so it just makes logical sense that we would do them regularly and often.
When we pray, we tell God what we need. When we read scripture, we listen to what God says. And when we receive Holy Communion, we meet with Jesus– and sadly, we only do this once a month!
Jesus has said that he is present in the bread and the wine. So we can come to the table expecting to encounter Christ– expecting to receive grace from God! As we share in that meal together shortly, I encourage you to use it as an opportunity to encounter Christ.
Here’s the point of all of these: being a disciple of Jesus isn’t all that complicated, but it does require commitment.
The good news is that God helps us even to make that commitment. God enables us to put our trust in Christ. You are able to trust Christ, because God always acts first. We only need to respond to the grace that God has given us.
When we commit ourselves 1) not to do things that lead us away from God, 2) to doing all the good we can, and 3) to practicing the spiritual disciplines, we open ourselves up to be transformed. And while we are awaiting the transformation that comes from God, we become powerful witnesses to the world. We grow more and more into being people who practice what they affirm in worship.
Can you imagine the power of God that would be unleashed through the United Methodist church if every single Methodist committed themselves to these rules and to one another? I believe that precisely the same thing would happen that happened in 18th century England. A breathtaking, life-giving revival.
This is how we prepare to meet our God. This is how stay watchful for Christ’s coming. Let’s get ready!