August 5, 2012

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a
Ephesians 4:1-16

As we continue through our summer Sundays, we are following through the biblical stories about King David of Israel. I understand that Jim McKay, who filled in for me last week, preached about David and his affair with another man’s wife. And next week, Gerry Kraay will be picking up the next part of the story. Today’s reading from 2nd Samuel is not so much a time of action in David’s story as it is a moment of reflection in his life.

If you were at worship last Sunday, you will know that although David was a pretty good king, and a king who had received God’s blessing and approval, David was not always a good guy. In fact, last week we heard about what may have been the lowest point of his leadership as he had an affair with Bathsheba, another man’s wife. And then David used his political power to have her husband, Uriah, sent to the front of the battle lines where he would undoubtedly be killed. All this, so that David could take Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, to be his own wife.

It’s hard to imagine how David could believe that his behaviour was appropriate. After all, he’s just broken two of the big ten commandments. He’s committed adultery, followed by murder, and at first, he doesn’t seem to get it. Maybe he’s blinded by love… or least blinded by lust and greed. Or maybe he’s been in the position of king for long enough that he’s started to believe that he’s above everyone else… that the rules don’t apply to him, that his needs and desires trump everyone else’s, and that he can do whatever it takes to get what he wants.

By the end of the reading, with the help of the prophet Nathan and a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s only sheep, David does come to realize what he’s done. It can’t be “undone” of course, but David can be forgiven, and he can avoid making the same kinds of mistakes in the future.

When I was re-reading this familiar story this week, the line that I found myself focussing on was one near the beginning of the text. Just after we learn that David has taken Bathsheba to be his wife, we are told: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”

What an interesting measure for the king’s behaviour! The author doesn’t delineate a list of David’s sins, or pause to weigh his good deeds against his recent bad ones. He doesn’t say that David has turned evil or turned away from God. But in a very straight-forward and clear way, the author points out that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”

And it made me wonder if our lives and our decisions today could be directed by something as simple as learning to pause and consider whether the things we are doing are pleasing to God.

Some people might keep going back to the ten commandments to measure their lives. But just managing to avoid breaking commandments seems like just the bare minimum, I would think. Others, when faced with a difficult decision, have started to ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” and that may help some of the time.  But I wonder if this question of whether or not we are pleasing God might be more helpful, more broadly applicable, and more focussed as we seek to be followers of Jesus in the world today.

Those of you who are old enough to have learned the questions and answers of the catechism back when you were in Sunday School may remember the very first question that you had to memorize. I think it’s the only one that most people can still remember: “What is the chief end of man?” Or in today’s language, “What is the purpose of humanity?” And the answer was… “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

Our purpose as human beings, as children of God, is to glorify God, to honour God, to please God with our lives. And as the simple catechism question makes clear, we’re not supposed to be miserable wretches while glorifying God. Pleasing God doesn’t mean ignoring our own needs or being content with suffering. We are to glorify God and enjoy God forever. Our lives should bring joy to God, to ourselves, and to others whom we encounter.

I have a friend whose brother is a much more conservative Christian that she is, and that difference puts some strain on their relationship. Recently she commented to me, “I love my brother, and I know he loves me. But he disapproves of me and my family because of our ‘sinful lifestyle’.”

Maybe she has a glass of wine with dinner once in a while. Maybe her kids go out to watch secular movies. Maybe she’s been known to pick up some groceries on a Sunday evening.  My friend’s brother must have looked at her life and concluded that her decisions were displeasing to God. But he focussed on very different things than the things I see when I look at her life.

I notice her commitment to worship and the time she spends preparing music to lead her congregation in praise. I notice the way she interacts with people in her work and in her daily life – treating everyone with care and respect – loving her neighbours as God in Christ has loved her first. I notice the way she keeps her eyes open and is ready to help someone in need – to pray for another’s concerns, to provide a meal for someone who is grieving, or a babysitter for the neighbours who really need a night out.

I could go on and on, listing the things in my friend’s life that I am absolutely sure are pleasing to our loving God. But I won’t, because I’d rather encourage us each to think about our own lives. What is it that we do, that we offer, that we contribute to the world that pleases and brings glory to God.

This week I received an email with the latest book by Reginald Bibby – a short 75 page e-book with his latest research on the state of the churches in Canada. Bibby is a Canadian sociologist of religion who has been researching and analyzing statistics about faith, belief, and church attendance and participation over the last several decades.

One of the things that Bibby is often counting is how often people attend worship. Do they come to church once a week, once a month, or once a year? Of course he asks other questions on his surveys too, about what they believe and what their faith means to them, but what seems to be highlighted as most important is how often they come to worship. And I agree, worship is important, especially when you’re measuring the health and well-being of the churches, the number of people at worship on a regular basis is an important indicator.

But if we want to measure something about faith (rather than something about church) then we have to go beyond just coming to church. Our duty as Christians is not complete when we come to church for one hour each week. Our worship is just the beginning. It is a moment to draw close to God and to each other, and an opportunity to be equipped to live lives that please God throughout the week and throughout the year.

In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Christians, he begins by begging the Ephesians “to live a life worthy of the calling to which [they] have been called.” In other words, their lives should look different because of the faith to which they have been called.  Their decisions and relationships and interactions should all be impacted by the fact that they are now followers of the Jesus way, and the same should be true for us. It is not just our Sunday morning schedule that should set us apart from our neighbours, but the fact that our lives are aimed at pleasing God rather than simply pleasing ourselves, or even pleasing others.

Paul suggests that the Christian’s life should be characterized by four qualities: humility, gentleness, patience, and loving forbearance. These are qualities that we can work on and develop in our workplaces, in our families and extended families, in community groups to which we belong, and of course, we can practice them in our churches.

Indeed, the apostle Paul makes it clear that there are two important ways that we can please God with our lives as Christians. God wants us to do more than simply avoid breaking the commandments, but God calls us to live together in unity, harmony, and peace between Christians and in the church. Christian unity comes as a gift from the Spirit. And yet, Paul encourages his readers to “make every effort to maintain” such unity – to put our humility, gentleness, patience, and loving forbearance into practice for the sake of unity and peace.

The second thing that we can do to please God is to use our various gifts for God’s good purposes. Paul mentions those gifted to serve as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, but we could expand that list also. We’ve all been gifted in different ways – some with music, some with administration, some with hospitality, some with generosity, some with encouragement… and on and on… And when we use our gifts in the church and in the world for God’s good purposes, I am quite sure that God is pleased.

One of the songs that I grew up singing in church and at camp about Christian unity was, “We are one in the Spirit.” The chorus of that song played a part in shaping my understanding of what it meant for me to be a Christian. You remember how it goes… “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t Jews and Muslims and Hindus and people of no particular faith who are loving also. And of course, for all of us, there will be days when (like king David) we don’t do very well at loving one another or our neighbours at all.

But today’s texts suggest at least one radical change that we can make in our lives, something that will automatically set us apart from the general society that we live in. And it won’t just be that we come to worship on Sundays. We can begin right now to ask ourselves, “How am I pleasing God today?”

Instead of always working on pleasing ourselves, like the media encourages us to do… Instead of always working on pleasing other people in our lives, like our desire to be liked prompts us to do… We can begin to ask ourselves, “How am I pleasing God today?”

Am I working on my humility, gentleness, and patience? Am I learning to love more and more and contributing to the peace and unity of the church or the community? Am I discovering my gifts and beginning to use them towards God’s purposes?

We don’t have to have it all together yet. None of us do. And we have people like king David to remind us that we’re human and we all make mistakes. But let’s keep learning and growing together, learning to love more and more each day and each week. And as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, let us grow up in every way into him who is [our] head, into Christ. Amen.