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The Rev. Dr. Daniel Vestal The Rev. Dr. Daniel Vestal

The Rev. Dr. Daniel Vestal is the coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, headquartered in Atlanta, GA, and former pastor of churches in Atlanta, GA, and Texas.

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Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

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Cooperative Baptist Fellowship


A Rediscovery of Biblical Religion

Micah 6:8

First Sunday after Christmas

December 28, 2003

Os Guinness tells this story about a furniture factory in communist Russia. It seemed that the stealing was so bad that guards were posted at every exit. One day a worker exited the factory with a wheelbarrow full of sawdust and shavings. The guard stopped him and said, "What do you have in that wheelbarrow, comrade?" to which the worker replied, "There's nothing in here but sawdust and shavings."

"OK," he said, "dump it out." Sure enough, there was nothing in there but sawdust and shavings. Well, this went on day after day with the same routine, the same questions and answers, the same dumping out of sawdust on the floor. Finally, the guard became frustrated and could stand it no more. He said to the worker, "Look, I know you're stealing. And you know you're stealing. If you tell me what you're stealing, I promise I won't arrest you." The worker smiled and said, "Wheelbarrows, comrade. Wheelbarrows." He was stealing right before his eyes.

There is a great concern across our land about the problems of our society and our nation, and I share many of those concerns. But while we're concerned about what is happening in our society, I am particularly concerned about what is happening in the church of Jesus Christ. Right before our eyes, a kind of deceptive shift has taken place in much of the church. Right before our eyes, the church has lost its influence on a materialistic and consumeristic culture because we have become so much like that culture. We define ourselves too much by what we acquire or what we achieve or what we accumulate. We are obsessed with things and comfort while most people in this world struggle just to survive.

Today I want to call for a rediscovery of biblical religion. And I want to do so from an ancient text that summarizes the essence of biblical faith as succinctly as anywhere in Scripture. The prophet Micah asked the question, "With what shall I come before the Lord?" What is it God really wants of us? Is it adherence to religious ritual? Is it observance of elaborate ceremony? Is it self-abasement or even self-sacrifice? The answer is that God requires of us justice, mercy, and walking humbly with God. Justice, sometimes called righteousness, is an important word in the Scripture. It is concerned with doing what is right both personally and socially.

In 1994 Jim Wallis wrote a book entitled "The Soul of Politics" in which he called for prophetic spirituality and suggested that it is an alternative to the current manifestations of both conservative and liberal religion. Prophetic spirituality will cause us to hunger and thirst for both personal and social transformation. Prophetic spirituality or justice demands that things change.

Mercy, that other word in this definition of biblical religion, means being big-hearted, tenderhearted, generous, giving, and forgiving. I'm sure you've heard the story of the woman who went to a photographer, and after her pictures, she said to the photographer, "These pictures don't do me justice." "Madam," the photographer said, "you don't need justice; you need mercy."

Well, we all need mercy. Mercy means getting and giving not what we deserve but what we need. Mercy is probably best illustrated in that parable of Jesus where the good Samaritan stopped on the side of the road to Jericho to help a man who had fallen among thieves. Jesus said of him, "He showed mercy."

Biblical religion is doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. That last phrase implies that God is more than an idea or a philosophical construct. God is a living reality, an eternal vow, who invites us to worship, commands us to obedience, and offers us relationship.

Several years ago I was in Calcutta, India, and I walked in off the street to where Mother Teresa lived and worked. I asked the receptionist if I could meet her; and, sure enough, in a few minutes, she came out and spent some time in conversation. I shall never forget it. I really only wanted to ask her one question, and that was about her personal experience of prayer. Anyone who knows anything about Mother Teresa's life and her justice and mercy knows that all of it proceeded out of a deep walk with God. After our conversation, she gave me a little card and said, "This is my business card." On it were printed these words:

The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.

Biblical religion is justice, mercy, and walking humbly with God. It is the essence of biblical faith and the great need in the church of Jesus Christ. But how do we do it? How does all of this become more than rhetoric or sentiment or wishful thinking? How do justice, love, and walking with God become a way of life? Well, let me suggest that biblical religion becomes a way of life only after profound and continuous conversion--conversion made possible by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Not long ago I was staying in the home of a young couple who had a five- or six- year-old little boy. One morning at breakfast his mother had poured him a bowl of cereal, and while no one was looking, he deliberately took the bowl of cereal and turned it over. Milk went all over the table and all over me. His mother took him in the other room and disciplined him. I went to my room and changed clothes, and then we all came back to the table. His mother poured him a second bowl of cereal, and while no one was looking, he did exactly the same thing. This time his mother was exasperated beyond words. He was smiling. I just sat there. She looked at him and she said, "Johnny, why did you do that? I told you not to do that. I spanked you for doing that earlier." He answered, "Mother, I do what I want to do." Well, in the words of a five-year-old boy is a description of all of us and a definition of what the Bible calls sin.

A fundamental problem of human nature is that we are selfish and self-centered. We do what we want to do. In our hearts we need change. If justice and mercy are to become a way of life for us, then our hearts must be changed and must always be being changed by the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

In 1954 Carlo Caretto, an Italian intellectual, resigned as president of the Italian Youth League and joined a religious order called the Little Brothers of Jesus. He lived the rest of his life in the Sahara Desert. He was also a prolific writer, and in one of his most popular books, "The God Who Comes," he writes the following words about justice:

God did not wait until the coming of Christ to send his message of equality and justice to the people. He sent it at the creation. Man as created by God is already capable of understanding that one must not live on the blood of the poor and that white skin is not more precious than black.

Jesus drives home the concepts expressed by the Father at creation; He insists on them with greater strength, but His message goes further...

He takes man who is part of the earthly city and says to him, "Remember the heavenly city which you must reach, and from now on build up justice and love within yourself."

But not only must our hearts be changed if justice and mercy are to become a way of life; our minds must be changed. For most of us, our thinking is shaped more by popular culture, family, and friends than it is by Christ. We think with the prevailing prejudices that surround us. We harbor the same stereotypes and have the same blind spots as everyone else, and so our way of thinking needs conversion.

Jesus said, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me."

St. Paul said, "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus." And on another occasion he said, "Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."

The very word disciple means learner; to be a follower of Jesus means that we will always be learning, growing, expanding, and, thereby, changing and being changed in our minds. In Christian discipleship, the goal of learning is not just information but transformation. The purpose of learning is that our way of thinking becomes more Christ-like--not only what we think changes but how we think changes.

Finally, if justice and mercy are to become a way of life, our behavior must change. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians fled to the Syrian and Egyptian deserts to learn and practice biblical religion. They're often called the desert fathers and mothers. They talk a lot about those patterns of behavior that keep us from loving God and loving neighbor. They describe them as the passions. For them, the passions were those actions and attitudes that are the result of heredity, choice, and the demonic that take hold of our lives and control our lives. What the desert fathers and mothers teach us is that our behavior is a lot more injurious and complicated than many of us want to admit, and it's going to take more than our own will or the power of positive thinking to change them. It's going to take the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

So, if justice and mercy and walking humbly with God are to become a way of life, our hearts must change. Our minds must change. Our behavior must change.

I began this message with a story by Os Guinness. I want to close it with another one.

It seems that the queen of the Belgians was visiting Poland while Poland was still under communist rule. Everywhere she went she was accompanied by a guard of the secret police. Since she was a Catholic, she often attended mass. On one occasion while she was kneeling in prayer, she noticed that the guard standing beside her was moving his lips and saying the prayers. She was surprised and asked him, "Oh, are you a Catholic?" to which he responded, "I believe but I don't practice." She asked, "Then are you a Communist?" to which he answered, "I practice, but I don't believe."

In biblical religion belief and practice come together. Heart and mind and behavior are in concert with one another. Justice, mercy, and walking with God are intensely personal before they are social, and they are the result of spiritual transformation.

An old tale from the desert fathers related by George Maloney in his book "Why Not Become Totally Fire?" tells of a disciple who went to Abba Joseph and said, "Father, according to my strength, I sing a few psalms, I pray and fast, I meditate, I try to cleanse my thoughts. What more can I do?" Abba Joseph stood up spreading his hands toward heaven, his fingers were like 10 lamps of fir and he said, "If you want, why not become totally fire?"

God's desire for the church is for us to be so changed that we become a burning bush that is aflame with the glory of God. God's desire for each one of us is to be so changed that we become a river of living water out of which life and joy floods to others. God's desire for the church and for us individually is to be so changed that we become a people who are passionate about justice and mercy and who discover how to walk humbly with God.

Incredible good news revealed in Jesus Christ is that this transformation is a possibility for all and for each who will receive it.

Will you join me in prayer?

O Lord, I wish you would change the whole world, but maybe I need to begin by asking you to change me. That's the hard part. Change me. Please. This prayer I offer to you in the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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