Reformed Matters - Culture
©May 25, 2014 ~ Tom VanderPloeg
Pay it forward Even apart from the church or religion our society has some idea of what it means to pay it forward—you know, the idea that if you have been fortunate or blessed in some way that you have some kind of responsibility or privilege to pass it along as a gift of service to someone else. Even in our consumerist culture, marketing companies have recognized that tugging at our heart strings with a message that appeals to this notion of what is good and right for us to do as human beings can create a positive association with whatever product they are trying to sell—regardless of whether or not the association is true or accurate.
It’s hard-wired into us. And that’s no mistake since—as we know in the church—we are hard-wired in the image of God. So of course this kind of selfless generosity rings true and resonates within us as a noble quality. So as Christians it’s no wonder we embrace this kind of idea.
But even so, we struggle, don’t we? You see, it seems that if you look at popular Christianity today you find examples of this that swing to the extremes and leave us confused. We have examples of churches today like the Westboro Church in Kansas that seem to proclaim a message of hatred for other people. And the media seems to constantly find examples of other churches that get caught in fraud, embezzlement, and conflict. And we also have examples of churches today that have reduced the entire gospel message to nothing more than doing good for other people. These are churches who define Jesus as nothing more than a positive role model who showed us how to live a good moral selfless life. Yes. We do know that Jesus lived a perfect life and does provide us with a perfect example. But we also know there’s more to the gospel message than a moral example.
So where does this all leave us this morning? How should we think about living good moral lives? What does God actually want from us? The great differences in the examples of churches here in America that I’ve just mentioned here today tell us that we are asking this question and not all coming up with the same answer, are we. So what does God want our lives of morality and personal piety to look like? What does the Bible and our theological heritage have to say about that?
The Divine Lawsuit
What we see here in Micah 6 is the scene of a courtroom. God is brining a lawsuit against his people Israel. All the language of a court proceeding is here. The first two verses announce the case and call forth the jury. Here the mountains serve as the jury as they were witnesses to all that Israel has done to wrong the LORD.
In verses 3-5 God makes his charges against Israel by proclaiming all that he has done for Israel to keep up his end of the covenant agreement that he has made with them. Exhibit “A” the rescue from Egypt, exhibit “B” deliverance from the Canaanite king Balak, and exhibit “C” the crossing of the Jordan river near Gilgal. And this is only to name a few examples, but it’s enough. The prosecution rests, your honor.
Now in verses 6-7 the prophet Micah makes a hypothetical defense for the people. Israel is saying here, “wait a minute. But didn’t we bring all the appropriate sacrifices?” Israel is claiming innocence because she has performed all the required religious duties in bringing offerings to the LORD. And beyond that, she asks in verse 7, “What more do you want?” And with exaggerated examples of thousands of rams and rivers of oil Israel proclaims her righteous piety before God in doing all that the covenant requires. It’s as though Christians today come before God and say, “LORD, I regularly come to church, I give my tithe, I pray at mealtimes, I do devotions every day, I even teach a Sunday school class and serve on a ministry team. What more do you want? The defense rests, your honor.
And now in verse 8 God stands up as the plaintiff once more and declares where Israel has gone wrong. It’s not about personal piety in keeping requirements of sacrifices and offerings to God. And it’s not about how much you bring to God. Those were all things required by God, but just those things alone with nothing else meant nothing to God. Did you catch that; those things by themselves mean nothing to God. It’s not about how much I go to church, or how much I give to the offering, or how many ministry teams I serve on. God requires our involvement and participation in the life of the church; but those things by themselves mean nothing to God. Do you hear the prophet saying that here today? Just showing up for church and being involved in church—if that’s all you do—is not what God is looking for.
So this brings us back to the question be began with this morning. So what does God want from us then? Micah says, you already know this. The prophets have already declared this message. The prophet Amos has already told you that God requires you to act justly. The prophet Hosea has already told you to love mercy. And the prophet Isaiah has already told you to walk humbly with God. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. This is what God wants. It’s what God requires. The Hebrew word here for “require” should not be taken as a duty. Because that was Israel’s defense; they were maintaining that they’ve done their required duty. No, this is requirement that carries more of the sense of a petition. This is what God seeks, what he is looking for. So what is God looking for from us? Let’s unpack this and then take a look at how this shows up in our world today.
First of all, justice. The Hebrew here literally means to make or do justice. It’s not just observing the rules. If that was the case then Micah would have used the Hebrew word “shemah” meaning to hear, observe, keep, or obey. But Micah uses a more forceful word meaning to create, make, engage, activate. This isn’t just about responding to God, it’s about being pro-active to own it as yours—as part of your own identity. Justice isn’t just something God wants me to follow, he wants it to be a part of who I am.
And justice. The Hebrew word is “mishpat” and is used to describe the entire system of government in the Old Testament. Israel did not have branches of government like we do today. So justice in the Old Testament refers to judging, governing, and ruling. But beyond that, “mishpat” or justice referred to the rightness of God’s character. This wasn’t a democracy where majority opinion of the people defined what was right. No, what was right was defined by God and was held as an expression of his very character. So to embrace and uphold justice in Israel was to embrace and uphold the very character of God himself. That’s what it means to act justly.
Love mercy. We actually encountered this last week when we looked at Jeremiah 31. The Hebrew word here for mercy is “chesed” meaning great love, loving kindness, or covenant affection or loyalty. God says I want you to love with the same affection and loyalty that I love with. And this is a loving mercy that does not come from obligation or duty. It comes from affection. You show this kind of mercy because you choose to love in this way. It is an expression of the true heart.
This is loving kindness that is not earned or deserved. That’s what mercy is, after all. It is an expression of love that is not deserved. That’s what it means to love mercy.
And walk humbly with your God. The Hebrew word for humility here literally means to be careful or wise. So the idea here is to proceed with careful or wise attention to God. That’s what true humility is. It is taking the necessary and appropriate pause to see that I am truly walking in the will of God. That God’s will and God’s plan are always placed higher than my own will or my own plan.
And once again, this is not something that comes from obligation or duty—we are not bound to it as though we are slaves and have no choice. But rather we willingly submit to God’s will. In other words, it is a humility that is not shallow expression, but comes from the heart. To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God is to live in this world in a way that comes from the heart and embraces the very character of God. This is what God wants from us.
Worldly Holiness & Holy Worldliness
So what does all of this have to do with culture? Let’s make that connection right now so we know where this all fits together. Perhaps we often think of culture as being narrowly defined as having to do with things like music and art. And while music and art are part of culture, we want to understand culture as being something more than that. Culture is really a catch-all term for anything and everything we do as humans that interacts with other humans and is generally accepted by others as normative, or normal. So while things like music and art certainly fit this category, so do things like governments, scientific exploration, sports, economies, books, architecture & building. Our accepted normal habits for how we behave toward one another and how we treat one another are all part of what make up culture. In fact, a dictionary definition of culture sates that culture is, “manifestations of human achievement regarded collectively.” And think about it. Anytime a person does something or behaves in a way that is not generally accepted as normal, we call that “counter-cultural.” – against culture. Families have a culture, churches have a culture, nations have a culture. It’s everywhere around us; we all exist and participate within culture.
Alright, let’s start to bring these ideas together now. All of us are involved in making and shaping and participating in culture every day. No matter how old you are, no matter how young you are, we all participate in culture. Remember the question we are looking at today. So what does God want from us? What is God looking for from us? Micah answers act justly, love mercy, walk wisely with God. In other words, God says through Micah, “What do I want from you? I’m giving you some guidelines for how to make and shape and participate within culture. I’m laying out some boundaries for how your interactions with other human beings should go.”
So all those things we included as part of our definition of culture—music, art, governments, scientific exploration, sports, economies, books, business—all of it falls within the guidelines of acting justly, loving mercy, and walking wisely with God’s will. All of it. There is something of a worldly holiness here. Or to say it another way, God wants us to participate in this world in a way that comes from the holiness he gives to us. Worldly holiness is the way that my faith informs—or shows up in—the shaping of culture and world.
And God says this is something that comes from the heart. It is not something done out of sheer obligation or duty. It is something that is rooted and based in our religious habits. All those things that Israel gave as a defense—offerings and sacrifices—they are not an end in themselves. But they are the means to an end. It is the foundation and the training ground for pursuing a heart like God’s heart. And so too all of our religious activity. Coming to church and regularly worshipping with God’s people, practicing our generosity here in church—all of those things are not ends in themselves, but the foundation and training ground for pursuing a heart like God’s heart. Isn’t that the goal of true worship—to worship in Spirit and truth is to pursue God’s heart.
But it’s just the foundation. It’s just the training ground. All of this is meant to mold us and shape us and change us as people who can then go out from here and make culture out there in the world in a way that honors and glorifies our creator.
And when we do that, it’s no surprise that we encounter not just a worldly holiness, but also a holy worldliness. When we strive to follow God and live in faith by making and creating culture that acts justly, loves mercy, and walks carefully in God’s will, it’s no surprise when God in fact uses the redeemed parts of culture in this world to also shape and mold and build my faith. That’s a worldly holiness. That even as I’m trying to live out my faith in this world, God uses the things of this world to build and strengthen my faith.
Take It Home
Let’s take this home. What does this look like in everyday life for us? What exactly does it look like when we engage culture in a way that acts justly, loves mercy, and walks wisely in God’s will?
There are two questions on the bottom of your outline today that have to do with our regular everyday engagement and interaction with culture in this world. I’m going to list some examples of what this looks like. But here’s what I’m asking you: don’t try to write all of these things down. Don’t take all of these examples away from here today as a checklist of everything the pastor says I have to do this week, alright? These are just examples to get you thinking about what this might look like in your own life.
Children. For you parents and grandparents, and those who have opportunity to work with kids, there are ways we can help children to make culture in a way that honors God. Perhaps on of the greatest gifts children have is their boundless imagination. Kids can dream and create things like none other. So as much as you can encourage kids to imagine and create by giving them the tools to express their imagination. Let them draw and paint and build and make-believe. And then help them find ways to share it. Take those beautiful pieces of artwork, put them in an envelope and mail them to someone who will proudly display them on their refrigerator door art gallery. Make their day. Teach kids what it means to play fair and respect others.
Students. Okay, I know some of you here today might be a little old to be coloring pictures and mailing them to grandma [although I bet if you did, she would still put it on her fridge]. But here’s what you can do: reach out to others who you know are lonely. You know that one of the highest concerns you carry is just to have friends and be accepted for who you are. So start by showing that kind of acceptance to others—especially those who you see at school or in your neighborhood who don’t get it. Yeah, maybe it’s hard, maybe they don’t deserve it. But remember, you did not deserve the love and acceptance that God gives to you. But still he chooses to love you.
Adults. Let me give you an example that hits one of my personal pet-peeves: tipping. There is an expectation to leave a tip for certain services in our culture. It’s a part of our culture. But more than once I’ve been out to eat with other Christian people, and maybe the food took longer to arrive, and maybe it was not as hot as I would have liked, and maybe the service was not so great refilling my drink, and someone says, “we’re not leaving a tip.” Because somewhere in our culture it became acceptable to think of the tip as something that has to be earned and deserved by making me happy and satisfied. But if I’m going to make culture that acts justly [in the rightness of God’s character], and loves mercy [extending grace based upon affection and loyalty, not duty or obligation] then I’m going to leave a tip no matter what. And I’m going to leave a big tip no matter what. I’m going to seek to transform culture in such a way that I acknowledge this server who makes minimum wage and is perhaps struggling to make ends meet is someone who is loved by God. And that has nothing to do with how quickly my meal was served or how it tasted. That’s simply a way of taking the truth of grace as it has been extended to me and applying that truth to the culture I live in. Plain and simple.
Consider a few other examples. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Take the opportunity this week to seek out someone whose spouse is currently serving and deployed—just bring over cookies or something simple like that as a way of saying, “I know it might be difficult living alone while your spouse is deployed.” Or maybe you know someone who has lost a family member—spouse, child, grandchild—while serving our country. Memorial Day is also a time when it seems many of our neighbors tackle some around-the-house outdoor projects. Keep your eyes open for an opportunity to go out and see if you can help a neighbor, or lend a yard tool, or something like that. Or consider how you might be able to serve others in your workplace this week.
There are other examples too of things that we can collectively do together to impact and change our culture. Every month our missions team here at Horizon provides opportunities to get involved and serve or donate items for a local cause. These are local ministries that seek to make life a little bit better for others by helping people find jobs, or providing them with a much-needed meal. These are things that we can do together to change our culture. Another great opportunity we enjoy is the democracy of this country. We get to participate in our system of government. That is a huge privilege, and it also provides us with a huge responsibility. We can collectively let our voice be heard to lobby and support our elected lawmakers for causes that we know are good and right, or oppose laws that we know are wrong. Let me give you one example. Recently in Denver, our sister church Third CRC ordained and commissioned pastor Victor Perez to plant a Spanish language church among the hispanic community here in Denver. Victor will tell you that one of the largest concerns facing the hispanic community in joining and associating with organizations such as a church is the issue of citizenship. Immigration reform is a huge issue for those who desperately want to participate in the freedoms and opportunities we have in America, but cannot because of unjust system that denies accessibility to those freedoms. Those of us who are citizens have the power of our vote, and the ability to contact our lawmakers and let our voice be heard.
So pick something to write down this week as one way that you will seek to engage culture for justice, mercy, and humility to make the world a better place for someone. Just one thing. It doesn’t count to pick something you are already doing. God wants us to grow and change, you have to reach out and pick something new.
And whatever you do, don’t pick something and write it down just because the pastor told you that you had to do something this week. Then it becomes a duty and an obligation. The hinge of this entire passage for us this week is that it has to be something that comes from the heart, not a forced obligation. No. Making culture is not about us doing things for God, it is about God using us to do things for others.
God’s grace has been freely given to us even though we have done nothing to earn it, even though God was never obligated to give it. Grace comes from God’s heart, from his great love. Let our actions and our culture always and in every way be a reflection of that grace, so others may see God though the lives that we live.