August 27th, 2018

Walk Humbly

What we can never do about injustice is nothing.

Job 31:13-28; 1 Timothy 6:17-19


The most dangerous threat?

Today is the fourth and final sermon on “Gospel Justice,” which has provoked a good bit of thought, conversation, and feedback. Next week we’ll include in the bulletin the ideas for action on “gospel justice” that have been submitted by the congregation. It’s not too late to add yours. Note carefully the criteria.[1]

I don’t go looking for what’s trendy in churches, traditional or contemporary, mainline or conservative. The focus on “Gospel Justice” emerged from a discussion at our Consistory retreat in January. But apparently, everyone’s talking about justice.

A couple of people sent me a link to the Babylon Bee, a web site of evangelical satire. A post titled “The Bee Explains: What is Social Justice” begins,

If you want to cause a ruckus at your local church, just walk right into the middle of a service and whisper, “Social justice.” Almost immediately, everyone will begin arguing with one another about what exactly social justice is…. Pointy objects might be thrown in your direction. Particularly enraged churchgoers might sneak up behind you and conk you over the head with a folding chair.

The other web link shared with me was a blog by well-known pastor and author John MacArthur. In a post called “Social Injustice and the Gospel,” MacArthur recites his own personal history with the civil rights, which includes being arrested and briefly jailed in Mississippi in the 1960s when he partnered with a black evangelical pastor on a preaching tour in segregated high schools. MacArthur says, “I deplore racism and all the cruelty and strife it breeds.” But, he says this new fascination with social justice in the church is not the same as justice in the Bible. He writes,

Over the years, I’ve fought a number of polemical battles against ideas that threaten the gospel. This recent (and surprisingly sudden) detour in quest of “social justice” is, I believe, the most subtle and dangerous threat so far.

MacArthur is responding to initiatives by well-known evangelical pastors like Matt Chandler and David Platt. In response to MacArthur, others such as Ed Stetzer of Lifeway reacted strongly. Anthony Bradley of The King’s College tweeted this:

John MacArthur face plants in a pile of ideological conservative rubbish. If evangelicalism is going to have a future that reflects the Bible’s teachings, nearly everything about this post must be in its past. Terrible.

All of that makes me sad. Two things bother me. First, Jesus said the way the world will know we belong to him is by our love for one another. That these strong words are aired out on the Internet undermines our witness.

Second, it seems to me that these are very arrogant statements from those who are so sure their understanding of the Bible completely lines up with God’s. They believe God is smiling when they write and very disappointed with the others.

Let me tell you what I hope you’re thinking right now:  “And who are you, Bob Thompson, to call them arrogant? Are you not just suggesting that you’re the one with the balanced, humble, correct approach?” If that’s what you’re thinking, touché. Pride is so very sneaky. As soon as I think I’m being “humbler than thou,” I’m not.

And so it is that we return to our key verse for the month of August. Micah 6:8 says, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” After an introductory sermon on “gospel justice,” I preached a sermon on “act justly” and one on “love mercy.” Today we come to “walk humbly with your God.”

Is John MacArthur walking humbly? Anthony Bradley? In today’s Scripture readings, were Job and Paul humble? Are you humble, when you think about justice? To “walk humbly with your God” is something God requires of you. What does it mean?

Job’s extremes

Job doesn’t sound very humble in chapter 31. He claims directly or indirectly to be blameless in matters of justice and mercy. He’s never denied justice to his servants, never turned away from the poor or widow or orphan. He has clothed the naked and defended the defenseless. He’s never trusted in his wealth, even in his heart. Who among us could say that?

Had we read the whole chapter, we would see more of the same – only not as much about money and justice. Job doesn’t lust after women. He doesn’t lie or deceive. He doesn’t gloat over what he has or hide secret sins. He’s so confident that he invites God himself to accuse him of whatever he did to deserve his pain.

Most of you know the story of Job, but it’s important that I review it briefly as context for today’s reading from chapter 31. In short, the story of Job is this:  he had everything, he lost everything, he got it back. Job’s struggle is that he doesn’t know why he is suffering. He insists he did nothing wrong to deserve this level of pain.

Chapter 1 says Job “was the greatest man among all the people of the East” (1:3). He not only owns land and livestock; he is rich at home as well, with one wife, seven sons and three daughters. He is wealthy socially, with a regular calendar of parties hosted by his sons. He is rich spiritually as well, fearing God and shunning evil, even atoning for the sins of family members – not just the actual sins but the possible and hidden sins. Even God calls him “blameless and upright.” So, then, Job wasn’t wrong when he claimed he hadn’t committed all those sins. God backed him up.

Then he lost everything in a series of horrible disasters. Enemies swept in with force, slaughtered his servants and stole his oxen and camels. Lightning created a brush fire that burned up his sheep. A tornado leveled the home of his oldest son during a party and all ten of his children died. Not long after, this formerly vigorous man lost his health to painful boils. His wife, the sole survivor in his family, urged him to curse God. Three so-called friends showed up to “comfort” him, but only deepened his misery by accusing him of having done something in secret to deserve all this disaster. The backstory is that all this came about in a heavenly council between God and Satan that Job never knew anything about.

Chapter 31 is the last chapter in the long dialogue between Job and his friends. Job is longing to have God himself show up for a face-to-face and point out his flaws. So God does speak. God doesn’t say, “Hey, Job, sorry about all this. I was just trying to prove to Satan what a great guy you are.” Instead God chastises Job and says, “Who do you think you are? I made the heavens and the earth and the great sea creatures and giant land beasts.” Job answers, “I’ve got nothing to say. I repent in dust and ashes.”

It turns out that the story of Job is not just about suffering. It’s about humility. The man who God himself had said did everything by the book was proud of it. When he finally gets a chance to defend his record before God, it turns out that all the things he thought were going to be on the table weren’t. His case fell apart in the presence of the Holy One. The lesson Job needed to learn in his wealth and in his poverty was “to walk humbly with your God.”

Commands to the rich

When we turn to 1 Timothy 6:17-19, we find the Apostle Paul instructing his mentee, Timothy, on how he should pastor “those who are rich in this present world.” Let’s pause for a moment and remember what I think we all know. We are basically all wealthy. I found a web site that allows you to enter your income and family size and learn how rich you are compared to the rest of the world. If you earn $50,000 a year, your income is 13 times the world average and you’re in the top 10%. If your household income is $100,000 a year, you’re in the top 1% globally.

Those numbers likely put you in what I have called “But Mode.” “But a dollar can buy a lot more in other places than it can buy in the U.S.” Fair enough. Overall, though, in terms of meeting our basic needs of shelter, clothing, and food, and enjoying the luxuries of transportation and entertainment, compared to the rest of the world and even in our own American history, almost all of us are “rich in this present world.” Let’s read this as if Paul is speaking directly to us, not someone else.

Paul gives six commands to us through Timothy, three in v. 17 and three in v. 18:

  1. Do not be arrogant. The literal translation is “high-minded,” the opposite of humility, which is “low-minded.”
  2. Do not put your hope in wealth. In other words, don’t take your current sense of security and stability too seriously. It can all change in a moment.
  3. Put your hope in God. No matter what else happens, keep your focus on the end game, where God will be your reward because of what Christ has done.
  4. Do good. This is what we mean by justice and mercy, doing the right thing and the kind thing.
  5. Be rich in good deeds. Here Paul plays on the word “rich.” If you are rich in this present world, then be rich with your goodness.
  6. Be generous and willing to share. Yes, you have much, but at least part of the reason you have much is so that you can help those who have less.

What I find even more insightful are the reasons Paul says those of us who are rich should do these things.

  • Job is Exhibit A that “wealth is so uncertain,” but most of us know this from first hand or observable experience. I remember the Corinth member a number of years ago who divorced the mother of his children, married a trophy wife, and told me in five years his new business idea would let him retire early. A couple of years later, everything had fallen apart and he asked for help to make his house payment.
  • Paul says, “God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” This is one of the many biblical reasons we say it’s not a sin to have more money or stuff than people in Africa or even people who live down the street. Neither is it a sin to enjoy it. The sin is not to recognize that all of it is God’s gift. When Jack McGrath got a liver transplant from his mother Julie last week, it was just a reminder that he owed all of his body parts to his mom in the first place! Every blessing we have along the way is one more token that all we have is from God.
  • Jesus said not to lay up treasures on earth, but to create a storehouse in heaven. Why? Because, in Jesus’ words, “moth and rust do not corrupt” and “thieves do not break in and steal.” Paul’s version is that a heavenly treasure is “a firm foundation.”
  • Paul says, “You can take hold of the life that is truly life.” When you get to be my age, you realize how the years simply pick up steam when you’re over the hill and going down. While we have a responsibility to prepare for the future, we have to resist the urge to keep accumulating more while our remaining years grow fewer. Instead, our focus must be eternity.

Paul is asking you to imagine yourself in both parts of Job’s story. First, imagine yourself as wealthy and secure as Job was in the beginning and end. Job could be compared to Jeff Bezos of Amazon or Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Imagine yourself there, and remember that you can’t put your hope in stuff.

Paul is asking you also to imagine losing everything, like Job did. What if you went from your present state of wealth and stability to losing all of your family, all of your friends except critics, all of your possessions? Would God be enough? Would eternal life be worth it? Yes.

Walk humbly

Micah again:  “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Act justly. The Hebrew word for justice is mishphat. Do the right thing. It’s not just the right thing for an individual. It’s the right thing for society. We are called to address the reasons so many people do not have a fair chance to change their circumstances. The call to action for justice is a consistent theme throughout the Bible.

Love mercy. The Hebrew word for mercy is chesed. It’s a relationship word. God loves his people because he’s in covenant with them. It required of God that he become one of us, and then humble himself to the point of death. Our call to mercy is to be in relationship with those who are needy, and to sacrifice ourselves in love.

Walk humbly with your God. Humility begins with remembering I’m not God. I can’t fix everything. I don’t have God’s powers, don’t have his knowledge, and don’t have his resources. I’m not even going to right my community or right the church I’ve shepherded for a quarter of a century. Neither am I responsible for correctly expressing the biblical imbalance, if there is one, for John MacArthur, Ed Stetzer, Anthony Bradley, or anyone else. I won’t write a blog about them or even tell you I think they’re wrong.

It’s not because I’m more humble, or because I’m more right than they are. It’s because I think they all have things to say we need to hear. John MacArthur is right:  if in doing justice we take our focus off the Gospel, we offer no real and lasting hope.  But Bradley and others are reminding us that too many of us for too long have assumed, like Job, that just because we were doing some things right we get a pass on the rest.

To “walk humbly with God” comes down to about three questions.

Am I doing the right thing? When I have a chance to make a difference, do I seize it? When I know there is injustice, and it is in my power to expose it or even right it, do I do nothing or do I act?

Am I doing the kind thing? When God puts a need right in front of me, do I start making excuses or just say, “Lord, here am I, send me”?

What will matter when I face the Lord? Don’t misunderstand me. This is not about my salvation. I’m counting on Jesus’ sacrificial death for my sins, because I don’t want to have to defend my own record. But I do think it is helpful for me to imagine myself before God, like Job did, giving account for my words and actions. If I have to make a hard decision about whether to engage with someone in need, I want to make that decision as if in the next moment Jesus and I were going to have a talk about it.

Job comes to the point of his humility in chapter 31. He finally wearies of his self-defense. I see him as cracking, in the spirit of Psalm 139:  “Search me, O God, and know my heart…. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” God answers that prayer, doesn’t he? He calls him on his pride.

One of the Bob-isms my family knows well is, “All you can do is what you can do.” I try to remind all of us there will always be more problems and issues and tasks that are beyond us.

The flip side is, “I must do what I can do,” especially when it comes to Gospel justice. No person who has fully grasped the grace of God in Jesus Christ can let “But Mode” rule the day when confronted with need and injustice. Sure, there are lots of reasons not to get involved, not to help. Some of them have to do with politics, some with religion, some with our limitations. What we can never do is nothing. We look for the chance to do the right thing, the kind thing.

You’ll be hearing the next week or two from our Board of Elders about what we might do together in the cause of Gospel justice.  Join us in doing that.  Or do something else.  Engage with something that will enable to you to say with Job, “If I have ignored the poor or looked the other way when confronted with injustice, I want you to expose me and hold me accountable. Change my heart and open my hands. When I see you face to face, I want to hear you say, ‘Well done.’” That’s what it means to walk humbly with your God. Amen.

[1] Ideas should address a human need among vulnerable people in our area, focusing not so much on immediate relief or short-term assistance. We are looking for ideas to promote development and reform, that address underlying causes of poverty and need. We would also like ideas that have the potential to engage a wide and broad spectrum of our congregation, that are consistent with a Gospel-focused church.

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