Responding To God
This is the last message in a series we are calling ‘Common Threads’ which focuses on several readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. Our goal in this series has been rather basic. Every week we look at a handful of passages that come from the Old Testament, Psalms, and Gospels; and we try to identify themes running through these passages that span across the biblical literature—we look for the common threads woven throughout the Bible. It is an exercise we are practicing here in church on Sunday morning together. But it is good practice for us to do together so that we can each have a habit in our devotional times of simply letting the Word of God speak for itself.
This week the lectionary passages take us back to the prophet Hosea, a few verses from Psalm 49, and to a parable from the gospel of Luke.
1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. 3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. 4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them. 5 “Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent? 6 A sword will flash in their cities; it will devour their false prophets and put an end to their plans. 7 My people are determined to turn from me. Even though they call me God Most High, I will by no means exalt them. 8 “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. 9 I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again. For I am God, and not a man— the Holy One among you. I will not come against their cities. 10 They will follow the Lord; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. 11 They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows, from Assyria, fluttering like doves. I will settle them in their homes,” declares the Lord.
Psalm 49:1–12 (NIV)
1 Hear this, all you peoples; listen, all who live in this world, 2 both low and high, rich and poor alike: 3 My mouth will speak words of wisdom; the meditation of my heart will give you understanding. 4 I will turn my ear to a proverb; with the harp I will expound my riddle: 5 Why should I fear when evil days come, when wicked deceivers surround me— 6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches? 7 No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them— 8 the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough— 9 so that they should live on forever and not see decay. 10 For all can see that the wise die, that the foolish and the senseless also perish, leaving their wealth to others. 11 Their tombs will remain their houses forever, their dwellings for endless generations, though they had named lands after themselves. 12 People, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like the beasts that perish.
Luke 12:13–21 (NIV)
13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Let’s do two things today with these passages taken from the Bible. First, since this is our final week in this series using the lectionary passages, let’s workshop these passages a bit to pull that common thread through. And second, let’s see how that common thread from within God’s word still speaks to us today and makes a difference for our lives and in our world.
see in these messages a walkthrough for noticing themes that come from our Bible reading
Start with the workshop. One of the lessons I sincerely hope we pull from this short series using the lectionary passages is that we can gain a new appreciation for Bible reading. This is my encouragement for all of you. It is my hope that what you get here in church on Sunday is not the only Bible reading you do during the week. It is certainly one of my desires that every one of you leaves this place equipped to knowledgeably open and read the Word of God on your own. This series has been practice for how you can do that. The weekly lectionary passages are not the only tool out there for Bible reading. But more than that, I hope we see in these messages a little walkthrough for noticing themes that come from our Bible reading.
take some steps forward in figuring out how to read the Bible well
You see, having a habit of reading scripture every week just to check off a box and say you did it is only the beginning. More important is the issue of letting God speak to your heart and soul through these words. This is why it is so good for us to spend some time working through a few passages and asking the right questions so that we all take some steps forward in figuring out how to read the Bible well. Every single one of us can do this. What do you think, then? Did notice anything from these three passages that might jump forward as a theme woven throughout?
Hosea — God is faithful; people respond with unfaithfulness
people responded to God’s mercy by continually focusing all the more on themselves instead of humbly opening in submission to God’s will
Hosea 11 includes very persistent language of God’s commitment towards his covenant promise with his people. But notice this, Hosea 11 also includes an observation about the people’s response. Even though God chooses to remain faithful (and we talked a lot about that in last week’s message), the people still have it within their hearts to walk away. Even though God spares them from the path of destruction again and again, the people still keep choosing to go down that same path again and again. This is a passage that challenges us to take notice of the ways in which we tend to respond to God’s gracious faithfulness. In particular, God’s words through Hosea draw a contrast between the way God would lead for us to respond to his goodness, and the way many times people actually respond to his goodness. In the case of God’s people during the time of Hosea, it seems that people responded to God’s mercy by continually focusing all the more on themselves instead of humbly opening in submission to God’s will. God’s mercy is given, and the people respond by making it all about them.
Psalm — God blesses his people with abundance, people respond with selfish greed
Can we see any part of this theme confirmed by what the psalmist says in Psalm 49? It seems that Psalm 49 steers this response to God in the direction of wealth and possessions. Our view expands just a little bit from Hosea in which we only had God’s mercy in mind. Now we add God’s blessing and abundance into consideration. Does the blessing we receive from God in the form of wealth and possessions elicit a response from us to God the same way in which the mercy of God elicits a response?
so many people tend to make wealth and possessions all about themselves
In the case of Psalm 49, the question is posed but a specific answer is not given. There is a question we ought to naturally ask when reading a psalm like this. What should my response be to God for the blessings of wealth and possessions he has given? This psalm never answers that question. I think it is intentionally that way; there is no answer given because that is a question that remains for each one of us to consider and answer. We all must give a response to God for the blessings he gives. The observation of this psalm is to note the way in which so many people tend to make wealth and possessions all about themselves (much like we saw as the response of the people in Hosea 11).
But hang on. Before we get caught thinking this is just a rich person issue, keep in mind that Psalm 49 begins as a call to all people.
Psalm 49:1–2 (NIV)
1 Hear this, all you peoples; listen, all who live in this world, 2 both low and high, rich and poor alike:
every one of us must give a response to God for the blessing received
This is not a response that applies to only the wealthy. It is a reminder that all people enjoy a measure of God’s blessing at various points all throughout life. It is an observation that every one of us must give a response to God for the blessing received.
Luke — parable illustrates our wrong responses to God
all three passages focus our attention on a response given to God
This lands us today in the parable Jesus tells in Luke 12. Look at how it starts; two brothers arguing about the distribution of family wealth. Jesus answers with a parable about an exceedingly blessed man who sees himself with a problem. The problem he sees is that he does not have enough storage space for all that he has. Jesus tells us that the man wrongly thinks his solution is more storage. Let’s be clear; the problem here has nothing to do with people who are abundantly blessed. The abundance of blessing is not the issue. This parable is all about the response given on account of the blessing (no matter what the blessing might be). All three of these passages we see today focus our attention on a response that is given to God.
the observations tell us about the wrong response given
Isn’t it interesting that here again—just as we saw in Psalm 49, and just as we saw in Hosea 11—the observation tells us about the wrong response given. Jesus tells us in this parable that the man with all the abundance pursues the wrong response by simply building larger storage barns. But Jesus never tells us what the right response ought to be, just like Psalm 49 never tells us what the right response ought to be, and just like Hosea 11 never tells us what the right response ought to be. All three passages today make reference to people who approach God with the wrong response to God’s blessing, grace, mercy, and covenant. All three stories show us a response from people that just focuses everything back on themselves.
common thread — question: How should my life respond to God?
What should we say, then, about the common thread woven through these passages? What is God trying to say to his people through these stories? What is God telling us today? Perhaps these passages form a corrective pattern for people; perhaps it is a reminder to stop making everything about us all the time. No, that seems far too moralistic. The Bible is not a self-help book intended to give you tips for better living. The Bible is always intended to reveal God—it tells us about who God is, what God has done, and what difference that makes for us and our world. But what are we supposed to make of the lack of answers in these passages? We are shown three examples of the wrong kind of responses to God in these stories—self-centered responses. But we are never given any explanation of the right responses.
question is left unanswered because it is meant to be a question for us to wrestle with ourselves
not to have nailed down any one answer, but rather to be continually wrestling with the question
I think that is intentional. The biblical writers do this on purpose, and it is actually something which happens frequently in the Bible. There are times in the Bible when a question is left unanswered because it is meant to be a question for us to wrestle with ourselves. Perhaps the point here is not about the answer, but about the recognition and searching and contemplating for each one of us to be faced with that exact same question in our own lives. The common thread woven through these passages today is the question itself. How should my life respond to God? And the point here, I suppose, is not to have nailed down any one answer, but rather to be continually wrestling with the question.
remind us to not become so focused on where we are going that we lose sight of how it is we get there
Maybe this leaves you a bit unsatisfied. We are people who like to find answers and come up with solutions and fix problems. We like resolution; we like completion; we like to meet measurable goals and set achievable benchmarks. Why would the Bible take us down a path without clear expectations for answers? Why would the Bible leave us wondering for ourselves how our lives ought to be responding to God? In this case the journey is more important than the destination. These stories in the Bible remind us to not become so focused on where we are going that we lose sight of how it is we get there.
The continual wresting with the question is the very thing that keeps my attention focused on seeking God and following Jesus
Here is what I mean by that. All the wrong responses given in these passages today have something in common: they are all self-centered. They are responses that focus on me and on my place and on my stuff and what’s in it for me and what I get out of it. But look at this now. By always wresting with the question of how God wants me to respond to him, by always searching for an answer that seeks after God, by constantly keeping in front of me the consideration of how my life can best follow Jesus; by doing that I take the focus off me and place the focus upon God. The continual wresting with the question is the very thing that keeps my attention focused on seeking God and following Jesus. It is not by accident that in the Old Testament God gives his people the name Israel. The name Israel literally means ‘struggles with God.’
always opportunities to respond to God by continually seeking his face
in a life that responds to God by always seeking to follow Jesus, he promises to always hold you in every step of that journey
Those of us who have been around for a while know that life changes, circumstances change, the world around us changes. And today we are reminded in scripture that in every twist and turn our lives may take, there are always opportunities to respond to God by continually seeking his face, by always searching out the best ways for us to continue following Jesus. Let me tell you, this is actually very comforting to know. It is comforting to remember that I don’t always have to know all the answers all the time, just that I keep seeking to follow God. It is comforting to know that I don’t need to have every mystery in life figured out, just that I keep my steps focused on God. He will remain faithful to abide in his covenant love for you. In a life that responds to God by always seeking to follow Jesus, he promises to always hold you in every step of that journey.