I want to begin this morning by telling you how pleased, excited, and blessed I feel to be a small part of what God is doing in and thru you all here at Faith Church! You are not the norm! You are growing! Growing because you are involved in so many avenues of mission and ministry, of reaching out, and being ambassadors for the Kingdom of God! So, I thank God and I thank you for allowing me to become a part of it all.
Now I almost feel the need to introduce myself to you to some degree. I was born and raised in Altoona, PA, on 2nd Avenue. In fact, it was not far from the UMC that Pastor Andy served when he was in Altoona. And all during my early years, I always said; “When I grow up I want to be like Pastor Andy!” No, I didn’t grow up as a United Methodist. I grew up in the First Church of God. Not the Second Church of God! The First Church of God! And I learned that God is a wrathful God! It seems to me, as I think back, that my pastor there, God bless him, was stuck on the “Thou Shall Not’s”! You remember them from Exodus 20:
Thou Shall Not’s:
Thou shalt not kill.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Thou shalt not covet …
So,my recollection is that Sunday after Sunday, the pastor preached about hells fire and brimstone! About God’s righteous judgment! And about God’s watchful eye! So I learned, or at least I thought I learned, that God was watching every move I made and if He caught me doing what I was not supposed to be doing; actually it was more like when He caught me doing what I was not supposed to be doing, He made note of it for future punishment! Now as you already recognized, these are part of the 10 Commandments, the very foundation of God’s Law for we humans. God gave this Law, these 10 Commandments, so that we would know what it was he expected of us, how he expected us to live in relationship to one another and in relationship to Him. Some have looked at these “Thou Shall Not’s” as if God were saying; “Whatever you do, DON’T do this!” Well, as you might imagine, viewing God as this Great Score Keeper in the sky who is watching and waiting for you to make a mistake can cause one to very cautious and to try very hard to be as good as they can possibly be. It also brings a measure of anxiety and dread. But, there I was, trying to make sure that I did not violate any of God’s commands. Wow! That is a very nervous and intimidating and immobilizing place to be. Trying to be as good as you can possibly be. Trying to be GOOD ENOUGH. Good enough to be accepted by God. Good enough, in the end, to be welcomed into heaven. In other words, to be good enough to be saved. That was the situation I was in. Trying to be good enough by being obedient to God’s Law.
Then I left Altoona & moved to State College after accepting an offer of employment with what was then known as HRB Singer. Of course the love of my life just happened to live in State College and that may have influenced where I had gone job hunting. In any case, we started to attend church and since there wasn’t any “First Church of God” in State College and my soon-to-be wife had been raised in the Methodist Church, we attended St Paul’s UMC in State College. We married and settled into that blissful, married life; well she settled in, and began the work of trying to settle me in; but that’s a story for another time. Fast forward a few years and two daughters later. In our neighborhood, we had a Christian couple who lived only a few houses away and who had two children of similar ages to ours. They were really nice folks. But they kept asking us to come and join in their weekly Bible study. Well, we were already going to church, and I was trying my best, mostly, to be good; good enough to be accepted by God. Did I really need to be going to a Bible study? I mean, between bowling, basketball, volleyball, and softball, my evenings were all pretty well accounted for. Besides, Bible study, really?! Well, I thank God for folks who care enough not to give up. Connie and I started attending these weekly Bible studies and I could tell that these folks needed some help. You see, they were talking about a God who LOVED me! So I knew they weren’t talking about the God I knew, the God I had been hearing about all during my growing up years. They just don’t know the God that I had come to know. The God whose rules and regulations I felt compelled to try to obey in order to be seen as good enough. Well, in this Bible Study, these good, loving, folks were presenting me with Scripture verses like 1 John 4:16; 16And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.And, of course, they brought outJohn 3:16; For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. They placed a heavy emphasis on the phrase “God so LOVED the world …” Well,here I was trying to be good; trying to be good enough, and now I’m faced with this idea that God loves me. I’m feeling a little confused. Fortunately, Jesus speaks to my confusion of being good enough by keeping all the rules and regulations in our text from the Gospel of Mark. Mark 7:1 – 8. Here Jesus is trying to teach these “experts” in the Law that the Law is not what will save them. Even being as obedient as they can be! They have been so observant and obedient of the laws on ritual sanitary washings that they have lost contact with God! Jesus, quoting Isaiah, says these words: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” That’s the voice of God speaking thru the Prophet Isaiah and thru the voice of Jesus, that what God really wants is a relationship based upon love! A heart based relationship! Not a relationship based on rules and regulations! You see, trying to be good enough just doesn’t work because none of us can ever be good enough! Thank God for His GRACE! God loves you and me and He wants us to love him enough in return to be obedient to Him! You know, some children try to be obedient to their parents out of a sense of fear. Fear of the punishment the parents will administer to them. While some other children will try to be obedient to their parents out of love and respect for them.
The best example I have encountered in my life was the relationship I saw between my wife Connie and her Dad. She knew that her Dad loved her, he loved both she and her sister, and Connie loved him very deeply in return. As a result, Connie was a very obedient daughter. But is was not an obedience out of fear. She would never do anything that would disappoint her father. She never wanted to cause him to be embarrassed by the way in which she acted or behaved. Now, was she perfect? No, not really. But she loved her Dad so much that she wanted him to always be pleased and proud of her. Their relationship was solidly built on mutual love and respect and commitment to each other. She was LOVINGLY OBEDIENT! And that is exactly the type of relationship that God, our Heavenly Father, wants to have with each and every one of us, we are His children.
It is not fearful obedience to the rules and regulations. It is God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s love that provides us the opportunity for eternal salvation. God is good! … Now I want to pause here a moment to invite you to an interactive type of worship. I want to refer back the VBS and to a message from Pastor Andy a few weeks ago. Pastor Andy spoke of a worship setting that I believe is known as “call and response”. We actually used it in VBS where when the leader said; “God has the power to comfort” the response was given: “Hold on!” “God has the power to heal” … Good, now there is a call and response that I am particularly fond of that goes like this: when I say, “God is good” you respond with “All the time!” then I call with “All the time” and you respond with “God is good”. Now, let’s see how we are at call and response worship. God is good! … All the time … So, now when you hear that phrase, “God is good”, you will respond with “All the time”. And won’t it be interesting the next time Pastor Andy unknowingly says that phrase; God is good, and you all respond with All the time!
Ok, so now, back to loving obedience. God does not want a relationship with us based upon keeping a set of rules and regulations. God wants a relationship with us based upon love! It is a matter of the heart. That is the very reason why God gave us free will! He gave us the ability to choose so that we could choose to love him in response to His great love for us. God took this risk of allowing us to choose to love Him at a very great cost, as the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 5:8 “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In giving us the opportunity to choose, to choose to love Him, to choose to place our faith in Christ Jesus, God has taken a risk! Not everyone will choose as you and I have chosen! And then in Matthew 22:37 we are invited to enter into a loving relationship with God as Jesus responds to a question as to which is the greatest commandment: “Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is not so much a command as it is an invitation. An invitation to participate in a loving relationship with the Creator of the Universe! An invitation to be lovingly obedient!
Borrowing the title to an old Tina Turner song; “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” The answer simply is EVERYTHING! Love changes things! Love changes people! Love changes relationships! And it is the power of that transforming love that God wants each of us to experience! At a former church I was serving, I was talking with a young man about this transforming love of God. And he said: “But Pastor Terry, you said that God loves me just as I am!” To which I responded: “Yes, but He doesn’t want you to stay that way!” God loves you! God loves you just the way you are! But he wants you to experience the transforming power of His love! It is in this transforming love of God that we can begin to become all that God has had in mind for us to be! Along with that the one thing God most wants is for you to love him in return. That is the reason He gave us free will; so that we could choose to love God in humble, thankful response for the love He has shown toward us in the giving of His Son! The evidence, the proof, of our love for God is shown in our loving obedience to God’s will, to God’s purpose, for our lives! The way I have come to understand and summarize this is in this saying: “Our good deeds do not cause our salvation. Rather, our salvation causes our good deeds.” What that means to me is that if we are doing our good deeds; even in trying to be obedient to God’s Law, but doing it/them in order to be “good enough” to be accepted by God; we are doing the right things for the wrong reasons. We can never be “good enough” to earn, or to merit, God’s acceptance. That’s what grace is all about! Getting what we do not deserve; and not getting what we do deserve! By our faith in the atoning work of Jesus the Christ, and our loving obedience to God, we can experience a personal, a loving relationship with God-in-Christ Jesus! It is a matter of the heart; a matter of our will; a matter of our faith. May the words of God, spoken thru the Prophet Isaiah and repeated by Jesus in our text, NEVER be true for you and me. God said of those who tried to be right with him simply thru the keeping of rules and regulations: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Perhaps you’ve known the chaos of trying to live by your own set of rules and regulations, or of trying to live with no rules at all! Perhaps you’ve known the frustration of trying to live by God’s rules in order to be good enough. Or, perhaps you may have known the peace of living a life of loving obedience to God; even if it has been inconsistent. Whatever your life has been like in trying to live out your faith, at whatever level that faith may be, take this moment now to open yourself to a relationship with God, your Heavenly Father, a relationship demonstrated by your loving obedience to the One who loves you so very much and desires your love for Him in return.