Hellfire & Brimstone: or Why I Won’t Win the Joel Osteen Smiles & Winks Award for Positivity

I do love the people in my church.  As much as I love them, however, I must confess, I’m not entirely confident in their judgment with regard to certain things.  For example, I am slated to preach again on Sunday, the 16th.  This will be the third time that I have been asked to “preach” to the congregation.   Anyone that knows me knows I have absolutely no business “shepherding” anybody.  I’m less a shepherd and more a wild-mannered billy-goat with an inability to stop bleating about everything that comes through my feeble brain.

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Despite my concerns that selecting me as one of the laity that fills in as substitute in the pulpit from time to time, I’ve always said yes when asked.  My agreement is tied directly to my affinity for the people of the church and my desire to help the real ordained ministers who regularly run the show.  This time was no exception.  As a matter of fact, I hesitated less this go around simply because standing in the pulpit has become easier and more comfortable for me each time I’ve been asked.

The last two times I’ve been asked to speak (I don’t like the phrase “preach,” because it sounds too much like I have some sort of business being in the pulpit), I’ve managed to find a topic, formulate my thoughts, and deliver it without much difficulty.  I assumed this time would be no different, but rather than go rogue and pick up a topic with which to run, I opted to use the lectionary provided by the Church as the primary scripture on which to base a topic.  I figured that if this is going to be a regular thing, then perhaps I should learn to stick with the Revised Common Lectionary that is provided to most mainline denominations.

Ecumenical unity.  I has it.

Of course, like most of my decisions, this, too, seemed like a good idea, right up until I read the lectionary texts. According to the Revised Common Lectionary, I was to take verses from Deuteronomy, Psalms, Matthew and 1 Corinthians and somehow weave them into a thesis that was both intertwined, seamless, edifying and entertaining.  After reading the pre-selected scriptures, all I could think was, “well, that ain’t gonna happen.”

The first set of scriptures, from Deuteronomy 30:15-20, is part of one of three sermons delivered to the Israelites by Moses just before they enter the promised land of Canaan, and it read like a parent reminding their child that they are about to be bestowed with a long desired gift, and the appropriate discipline, respect, and behavior is expected in return.

The second reading from Psalms 119:1-8, while less solemn, was more of the same.  Another admonition to act right, wrapped attractively in the cloak of cheerleading the benefits of a righteous life of adherence to God’s commandments.

This was beginning to look like a set of signs directing me to one of those very difficult, very unpopular sermons on why we’re all worthless sinners.  While I like a good conscience searing sermon, Hellfire and Damnation is so not in vogue right now, and congregations don’t like the preacher that pounds the pulpit while they sear the souls of the faithful.

“I don’t want to preach this lectionary,” I grumbled to myself.  “Hellfire sermons screamed amidst sweaty admonitions to behave lest God put you in eternal time out, are totally not my style.  I only scream at the kids.  Besides, sweat doesn’t look good on me,” I continued to rationalize.

crazy-preacher

Nope.  I was not diggin’ the brimstone feel of the sermon texts as I glanced over them.  My cool mellow was seriously beginning to be harshed.

In hopes that the rest of the lectionary would provide a way out, I turned to the #3 scripture reading: Matthew 5:21-37.  As I read, it realized the passage was a familiar mosaic indictment of murder, adultery and easy oaths, radicalized by the Christ and internalized as a holiness heart problem, rather than the behavioral sin of others.  So much for easy reading.  Now I had a radical call to holiness that begins with self to add to my pocketful of fire and brimstone act-rights. Jesus is calling for a new standard, a higher level of righteousness, like an amped up version of the first two reading selections. Somehow, I had a feeling the final scripture selection wouldn’t be much better.

I timidly turned to 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.  As I began to read the passage, I suddenly felt like the little kid who’d opened the closet door, hoping not to find the monster hiding inside, only to be greeted by glowing eyes from behind the coats. Again with the admonitions to stop acting like petulant, unholy children.  This was not a theme that, on the surface, I really wanted to address.

I considered briefly tossing the entire RCL askance and going with a peppy piece that could be given the Official Joel Osteen Smiles & Winks award for positivity.  JoelOsteen_FINAL_COLOR_ongrey

That consideration was dismissed more expeditiously than it had come, thankfully.  No, I determined, I needed to just buckle down, study the lectionary, spend some serious contemplative prayer time, and then just “preach” the sermon, doing my best not to sweatily pound the pulpit or take on the persona of George Whitefield frantically gesticulating to call in the lost.

As I began to do just that – the reading, studying and praying thing, not the George Whitefield theatrics thing – I discovered a very common theme of repentance, and a call to be set apart.  If repentance is to be the message, then a grasp on what repentance is must be had.

The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah, or shuv, meaning “to turn back, to return to, or to turn around.”  The Hebrew context of the word, is important, considering the origins of our faith and the Bible are both Judaic.  Modern translations of the Bible, however are often derived from Greek.  In the interest of fairness, I looked for the greek translation of “repentance.”  What I found was metanoia, the meaning of which is a little different to the Hebrew.  The Greek word for repentance is translated to mean, “a change of mind.”

The more I began to think about the definition of repentance, both as it applies in the Hebrew, and the Greek, the more I thought about being set apart.  One cannot have one concept, without the other, it seems.  The passage in Deuteronomy and Psalms both were not a call to repentance, they were a reminder to remain in repentance.  The Israelites and the Psalmist David had already been chosen and redeemed by God.  Yet, they are reminded that they must remain faithful and obedient in order to remain under divine blessing.  This meant staying in a repentance mindset, checking each step they took to insure it aligned with the commandments that had been set before them, and being willing to “turn around and return to” the right path when they managed to stray.  The obedience to the repentance mindset automatically sets them apart.  As believers ourselves, we, too are called to be set apart, repentant. We are different, called to a higher standard, and in our separation, are to be righteous and holy – adhering to the commandments and ordinations of the same God that had redeemed the Israelites, the Psalmist, the Gentiles and ourselves.

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Redemption. Repentance. Righteousness.

Over and over again, the Creator tells us to choose righteousness – to be holy because He is holy.  Like a mother that repeats her edicts time and time again to wayward and seemingly deaf children, God tells us to remain faithful to Him, to keep His commandments.  In return, He promises to keep His promises to bless us, to give us life and hope.

As I pondered how the New Testament selections fit in with the Old Testament admonitions, it became clear.  Jesus tells us, basically, in Matthew that our problem is not just with following the law.  Plenty, he suggests, can keep the law, but choosing “life and good,” is less about keeping the law and more about keeping the heart.  Murder and adultery and all other manner of sin begins in the heart, with our attitude.

Unresolved anger against a brother or sister is murder.

A lustful dialogue of thought is adultery.

Paul continues on with the indictment of attitude in his letter to the Church at Corinth.  As we read in Chapter 3, Paul basically tells the church that, perhaps they are believers, redeemed and converted, but their actions reveal a heart and attitude that hasn’t changed – repentance isn’t complete.  Carnal attitudes, infighting, strife are all common among the believers in Corinth, and Paul calls them out.

As if multiple calls to “act right” aren’t enough, now I’ve got Jesus and Paul both telling me that I have to “think right” as well.  Pressure, much?

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How, I pondered, do I go from merely obeying the law, to changing my attitude and living it out?  Repentance was the answer, “to change the mind.”  My mind must be transformed and changed, not just my actions.  As I rolled all of the chastisements, admonitions, encouragements, instructions and corrections found in the lectionary through my head, something seemed to stick with me.  1 Peter 4:10 says, “But ye are the chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, an acquired people, that ye should show forth the virtues of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Repentance. Redemption. Righteousness.

Those words are not intended to be conditions of the soul, or descriptions of the “chosen.”  They are intended to be verbs, the commission of the chosen.  My repentance comes out of action.  Redemption is paid forward. Righteousness results.

The call to active and constant repentance is not just an act of belief by those already redeemed.  Matthew 28: 19-20, best known as “The Great Commission,” tells us as followers of Christ to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  Later, the Beloved Apostle (John) recounts Jesus’ words: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (13:35).

To repent requires action on our part, and that action is not just the obedience to commandments.  To repent means that we go.  We seek the lost, comfort the hurting, feed the hungry, touch the untouchable.  We show forth the virtues of Him who has called us out of darkness. 

When Jesus spoke about our heart problem in Matthew, he understood that in order to change our heart, we have to learn not only to accept Him as the Christ, but to do as he did.  Our hearts change when we put love in action as Christ did.  Repentance does, because repentance is love in action, and love does.

That’s when it clicked.  We are not called just to live a life of active repentance (turning around, returning to God), but to bring repentance to the lost.  Screaming “feed the hungry” will no more bring a warm bowl of soup to a rumbling belly than shouting “repent” will bring salvation to the suffering.  To feed the hungry, we have to get in the chow line and serve soup.  To save the condemned, we must serve them.

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Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Pastrix, includes an example of our choice for righteousness and life bringing repentance to the lost. As she discussed their annual Operation Turkey Sandwich project wherein congregants take turkey lunches to those working on the holiday, she had this to say about repentance:

“…When the clerk in the adult bookstore on Colfax tears up as we hand him an OTS bag and says, ‘Wait, your church brought me Thanksgiving lunch? Here?’  That’s repentance.”

Jesus understood how repentance, redemption and righteousness worked.  He was the perfect example. The passage in Deuteronomy says, “I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways.”  We, as a set apart and chosen people of God, have the power to speak life, and to bring it to fruition.  When we walk in “his ways,” we learn to walk in love with one another, as John 13:35 spoke of.   That is where the amazing thing happens, because we can spend our whole lives obeying commandments and still failing to change our heart if we never act on our repentance.  If we never turn around, and then go to “change someone’s mind,” with the love of Christ, then we will always struggle with that heart problem.

But when we reach out and we “love one another” (John 13:35), “do to the least of these,” (Matthew 25:40) and “do good to those that hate” us (Luke 6:27), then our heart changes. 20130204-100148

By doing so, we choose life and good.  We live by His ways, and we show others His virtues.  Righteousness becomes our crown, and we invite others to share it with us.

The lectionary for this sixth week of epiphany calls us, as believers, to repentance, to righteousness, to a full commitment and change of heart to our Redeemer.  As a result, the lectionary also calls us to stop spouting “what would Jesus do,” as we sit in Bible study and twist our WWJD bracelets, and to get up, go, and follow the Nike Commandment: JUST DO IT.™

“Blessed are the undefiled… who walk in the law of the Lord!  Blessed are those who keep His testimonies… They walk in His ways.”  (Psalm 119)

Let’s get to walking.

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