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Two Big “Ifs” of Christianity
August 07, 2022*
By Pastor John Partridge
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 Luke 12:32-40 Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
If you have ever programmed computers, you know that on the first day of your first programming class, you learn about the IF-THEN statement. It is just what it sounds like. The IF-THEN statement asks the computer to check some value and if that value is what you want, then you instruct it to do some other thing. For example, IF the turnstile rotates one time, THEN add one to the memory location tracking the number of customers.
But outside of computer programming, we deal with if-then situations all the time. If I want to earn interest on my savings, then I need to take our money out of my mattress and put it in the bank or invest it somewhere. If we want to have a less difficult visit to the dentist, then we should brush our teeth every morning and do the things that our dentist asks us to do. If we don’t want to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere, then we need to stop and buy fuel when the needle moves to toward empty.
We understand if-then decision making because we make those sorts of decisions every day. But sometimes those “ifs” can be big and dangerous. If we smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, then we run an exceedingly high risk of cancer and other health problems. If we drive our automobile over one hundred miles per hour, then the odds of dying in the event of an accident are almost 100 percent.
We can find if-then choices throughout our laws and in every contract ever written. They say, if you do this for us, then we will do that for you. Or, if you do this to us, then we will do this to you. And, not surprisingly, this is also the kind of language that God uses to explain our choices to us and, in Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, we find two really big “ifs” in God’s words to Israel, and despite the passage of time and the coming of Jesus, they remain important advice and instruction to which we should listen.
1:1 The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 “The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;
20 but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
By describing Israel’s leaders and people as Sodom and Gomorrah, God accuses them of all sorts of sin and injustice. And because of their actions, God says that he doesn’t care about their sacrifices, gifts, offerings, religious holidays, festivals, celebrations, meetings, gatherings, or even their prayers.
What God really wants is for his people to stop doing evil, to defend the oppressed, to speak for the legally voiceless such as widows and orphans who, without a male family member, couldn’t even speak for themselves in court.
After that, God presents the two big “ifs” to his people. “If you are willing and obedient,” then “you will eat the good things of the land.” “But, if you resist and rebel,” then “you will be devoured by the sword.” If you follow God, and do what God commands, then he will give you all sorts of blessings. But, if you choose to ignore God, and do things your own way, then God will withdraw his protections and his blessings and let you face the world, and all the evil in it… alone.
The temptation for the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah, as well as the time of Jesus, is a temptation that still afflicts us in the twenty-first century, and that is to deceive ourselves into thinking that God isn’t watching, or that the return of Jesus Christ won’t happen any time soon. Sure, we understand that Jesus is coming back, and we say that we believe that he is coming back, but do we really act like we expect that to happen any time soon?
That is exactly the point that Jesus is making in Luke 12:32-40 and as he makes his point, Jesus offers a warning to the people gathered in front of him that is just as relevant to us today. Jesus said…
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near, and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35 “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, 36 like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks, they can immediately open the door for him. 37 It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. 38 It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. 39 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Jesus cautions us that we cannot act as if we are going to live forever. When we say that we trust God, we must act as if we trust God, and that includes how we treat our wallets and our giving to the poor. God’s call isn’t for us to give what is leftover or, only what we feel that we can spare, but to give to the poor as if we trust God to care for us like we say that we do.
That hits kind of close to home, doesn’t it?
Jesus continues by saying that we cannot act as if the master isn’t coming back until tomorrow, or next week, or next year, or sometime after we die. We must take God at his word and behave as if we expect Jesus to return at any moment. We must act as we would if we genuinely intended for Jesus to find us busy with the work of his kingdom upon his return.
Paul revisits this same idea in Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 by reminding his listeners about people who had great faith such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham, and using those examples to illustrate how faith might look if applied to our lives if we choose to be obedient.
11:1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.
3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed, and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
God promised Abraham an inheritance that only his descendants would see, and yet he persisted and remained faithful. And through that, and other examples, Paul reminds us that our promise is for a future that we may never see in this lifetime. We look forward to something better, we look forward to a better future, but it is a future in a kingdom that is not of this world. We may never see health, or wealth, or prosperity in this world, we will face trials, temptations, loss, betrayal, and all sorts of struggle in this life but through these examples, Paul reminds us not to give up hope.
Instead, we, like Abraham, must remain faithful as we hope for a future that we might only see in brief glimpses or shadows in this life. We must act as if we trust God. We must give to the poor, share with others, and seek justice as if we believed what we say that we believe. We must keep watch for the return of our master, Jesus, and conduct our affairs as we would if he might return this very afternoon and we wanted him to find us busy caring for his kingdom and his kingdom business.
Because, in the end, we still face those two big “ifs” that we heard in the words of Isaiah.
“If you are willing and obedient,” then “you will eat the good things of the land.”
But, if you choose to ignore God, and do things your own way, then God will withdraw and let you face the world, and all the evil in it… alone.
Where will Jesus find you when he returns?
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.