“Course Requirements: Following Jesus on the Narrow Road”
Matthew 7:13-14; Micah 6:8; Micah 4:3-7
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
September 9, 2018
On any given day most of us do the opposite of what Jesus teaches here in Matthew 6. He has come to the end of his Sermon on the Mount and he offers these directions: take the narrow gate; take the rougher road. Go the way everyone else isn’t going. Transportation-speaking, we never do this. If we are heading somewhere and the crowded highway becomes a 2-lane street becomes a gravel road becomes a dirt path, we take any opportunity we have to turn around.
Something like this happened driving with the kids to a presbytery meeting at Lyon College in Batesville. We sped along Highway 40 noting all the different license plates we saw. We turned north toward Searcy as the sun began to dip in the sky and the traffic thinned. Finally, somewhere in the middle of nowhere on route 167, it was growing dark and we hadn’t seen another car for miles. From the back seat, Calum spoke up. With a worried voice, he said, “Mom, are you sure you trust the people who told you this was the way?” In his mind, the Presbytery had led us to this desolate place as a terrible trick!
And we don’t just choose the well-traveled road in our cars. We would prefer to choose it in our lives. We want to be part of a community and have plenty of friendships and we don’t want to rock the boat. So we head the same direction they do; we go where there’s lots of traffic.
And Jesus says: where the traffic is where the wide gate is and where the easy road is. Don’t take them. Don’t take the well-marked path where everyone else is headed. Take the one no one else is on.
Which begs the question: how are we supposed to find the gate or know which road if it is not well-trod and if its traffic is thin? Many generations of faithful people have tried to answer just that question: what route does God want from me? That question was answered in this way: there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament, follow them. It was answered this way: drink and dancing and even gambling with dice, those are the paths to sin so choose the road that does not have them. It was answered in this way: vote for one political party and you will be on God’s route. Not only are all of these answers confusing but they are also overwhelming. And they do not get to the heart of God’s requirement for us.
Jesus has only one command for us: to love God and to love neighbor. That is a requirement for us. And, if our entire Judeo-Christian ethic could be put on a bumper sticker, it would be this greatest commandment and then it would be Micah 6:8: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. All of the commandments, all of the cultural norms, all of the religious ethics come down to these two verses: the command to love and the three requirements.
Before we move forward, I want to say something about grace. We talk about grace a lot in church as well we should. If not for the grace of God shown to us in his son Jesus, we could not even stand. But that grace is showered on us, God has chosen us so that we will live a different life. God’s grace is not just a nice gift: it is given with the great hope that then we will live as God calls us to live. So, yes, there are some ways we are commanded to live, some behaviors we are required to have. If we do not live them or have them then we have not yet understood God’s grace and what it means that he chose us.
These next few weeks we are going to deeply consider God’s three requirements, the first of which is this: do justice. We are not to do just any old justice, we are to do what God says is just. The prophets have a lot to say to us about what these are. Micah himself gives a blistering attack on the people for what is unjust. When you trample the poor, that is not justice. When you are given trust and responsibility in the community and you choose getting paid off instead, that is not justice. When you steal someone’s land or use your power to treat the powerless like meat in a kettle, that is not justice.
Justice is when the poor are given respect and dignity. Justice is when leaders earn the trust of their people. Justice is when weakness is not pounced upon. Justice is not just a list of our own pet beliefs either. Justice is what God wants for this world and, more often than we would like to admit, our beliefs and God’s desires are not the same.
When senator Jesse Helms died, this scripture was read at his funeral: “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” One person rose to eulogize Helms and said this was the perfect scripture for him because he was a man who stuck to what he believed in, even when it wasn’t popular. If this is what we think justice is we have missed the point completely! God’s justice is not us sticking to what we believe in. God’s justice demands we make his ethics our ethics and his moral concerns are concerns. Whether we want to or not.
It is clear that this first requirement has already begun to narrow the gate, has begun to make the road hard. For we don’t usually ask what God’s justice is and, even if we do learn it and know it, that is not the same thing as doing it. And that is the requirement: not to know justice but to do justice. To even begin, there are two things we must do. First, study God’s word and pray to him asking for a changed heart. Scripture talks about it with this image: circumcise my heart, Jeremiah asks. He wants a heart that is forever marked by his relationship with God. So pray for a circumcised heart. Ask God to make his justice important to you.
And second, allow your changed heart to change your actions. Let’s take one example happening in our community right now. We have a debate going on in our town about how panhandlers should be handled. In God’s justice, the poor are to be given dignity and respect and access to abundant life.
For some of us, being part of God’s justice means we will roll down our car windows and pass money to every panhandler we see. For some of us, we would never do that but we will give our money instead to organizations in town that serve those in financial need. For some of us, we will write to our city council to pressure them to offer more job training in our community. For some of us, we will volunteer at an agency or serve on a Board or pray for a change. All of these routes are doing God’s justice and show a circumcised heart. But hear this: saying that the poor are of no interest and do not matter anyway, that is not God’s justice and so it is not an option for us. The poor may be of no interest to you, or perhaps widows do not interest you, or refugees or children or the outcast. But they are of interest to God. And he has set some requirements for us. Pray for a changed heart and then have that change show in your actions.
God says to Micah, “You know what the Lord requires.” You already know it but you must then also do it. To walk this narrow and difficult road we cannot rely on the crowds for we are not going where they are headed. Instead, we need large signs that constantly remind us of the route and this is one of the largest. It says in its white painted letters: The Lord requires you to do justice. Let’s stand it up high on the side of this road so we can look at it again and again as we make our way. Also, on this less crowded road, we could use a few fellow travelers. It is hard to walk it alone, away from everyone else. We can be that set of travelers for each other. Covenant with your spouse that you want to follow these signs on the more difficult road. Make promises with your best friend or with the person you sit within church. We can travel this path together which will make our travels easier and will make a more obvious path for others to follow behind us.
For the road that Jesus calls us down is difficult and very few want to walk it. But remember that, even if it grows dark and even if you haven’t seen another car for miles, you can trust the one who told you this was the way. His direction is good and his road leads to life. Amen.