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07 Pentecost 03 Fourth Sunday After Pentecost Hosea 6.1-6

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                Perhaps it was like a confirmation open house.  Well, maybe not exactly, but it would be close.  Earlier Jesus saw Matthew sitting at his tax collecting booth, and said to him, “Follow me.”  And Matthew got up and followed him.  Now, latter, Jesus is sitting in Matthew’s house having dinner.  Not an uncommon kind of thing.  And a bunch of Matthew’s friends are there.  Also nothing out of the ordinary, and yet, the religious leaders of the day have a fit over the situation.  Do you know why?  Because Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners.  So what’s the big deal? 

                Well in those days sitting down to share a meal with someone was not quite like it is here today.  You didn’t just run through a drive through or grab a quick bite, this is a more intimate and social event.  It would be a challenge to over emphasize the importance of sharing a meal in the day and age of Jesus.  It was not everyone shoveling food in their mouths before they run off to their individual activities.  These were complex events that took place on a daily basis.  They had a whole form, almost a liturgy to them.

                For the religious leaders of the day, a group called the Pharisees, the sharing of a meal was an important event that had to do with the identity of the people as God’s chosen ones.  Therefore the purity of both the food that was eaten, and the company that it was eaten in, was of the utmost importance.  So what’s the big deal with Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners?  According to the religious leaders, he is messing up big time.  He is committing a major sin in their eyes.  This is certainly scandalous.  They want to be sure that they are right.  And living their lives in the right way. 

                So what do they do?  They go to Jesus’ disciples, “why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  Matthew spares us the details of the disciples reaction.  And instead he simply tells us that Jesus got wind of what the leaders were asking.  And he says, “The ones who are healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do.  Go and learn what this means , ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come to call not the righteousness but sinners.” 

                These are not uneducated people that he is talking to here.  These guys went to seminary, they studied, they know their religion inside and out, they know the scriptures well, they know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.  Expect, what they don’t know is that there is a major danger when it comes to religion, and that danger is when the actions, that is the prayers that we pray, the songs that we sing, the teachings that we learn, and the deeds that we practice, the danger is when these things become more important than the relationships that we have with our God and with one another. 

                When the things, which in and of themselves are not bad, they are good things, they are things that need to be part of our lives, when they become more important than the relationships, then there is the danger of those actions being an empty shell, a mask, a façade, it is not really as it appears.  You see when Jesus told the religious leaders to go and learn the meaning of “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,”  He wasn’t telling them to go jump in a lake.  He was making a very important point, and that point is a warning against the danger of religion becoming empty actions.  And the actions of religion are empty when the hearts of those who perform them are no longer in those actions. 

                “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”  is a quote from the Old Testament prophet Hosea.  This dude is not as popular as Isaiah or Jeremiah, but he is no less important.  Hosea did his thing in the mid-8th century B.C.  That was a long long long time ago.  This was at a point in the life of God’s people where the nation that had been one under the reign of David and then his son Solomon, was now two separate kingdoms.  The kingdom to the north was Israel, the kingdom to the south was Judah.

                It was an age that was, politically speaking, a mess.  The northern kingdom went through 6 kings in 25 years.  4 of them were murdered by their successors; 1 was captured in battle; only one was succeeded by his son.  Looming in the distance was the nation of Assyria.  Their capital of Nineveh is the place that Jonah did not want to go to.             And though we don’t have the time to get into the details, the people of Assyria, were not known for their goodness, mercy and generally making the world a better place to live.  In fact, quite the opposite was true. 

                On top of the political scene, religiously speaking, things were also a mess.  Religious pluralism was all over the place.  And the people did not seem to comprehend the fact the Lord God, is their God.  He is the one who brought their ancestors, and thereby them, out of the land of Egypt.  He is their savior and no one else.  But that was a fact that seemed to be easily forgotten by them.  And they would go after other gods, gods who were not really alive, they were false gods.  Gods who did not rescue their ancestors from slavery to Egypt, and yet, the people forsook the one true God for the false gods of their neighbors. 

                But it was not like this was a onetime kind of a problem here.  Things got to be so bad that their hearts were no longer in their actions.  Their attitude was, “Hey, we are in good with the big guy.  We are his people.  He made promises to our ancestors, and so as long as we keep doing these sacrifices, we can do whatever we want, and he’ll be happy.”    But that wasn’t the case.  Their relationship with their God, from their end, had become empty actions that did not have their heart involved. 

                Did the Old Testament lesson sound a little odd to you?  Did it leave you thinking to yourself, “What in the world?”  or perhaps, “That was sure strange?”  Knowing what you know now about the emptiness of the actions, our lesson begins with God saying in response to one of the people’s bought with emptiness, they were looking to Assyria to help them, and not to the Lord.  So he says, “I will return to my place until they admit their guilt to me for as soon as trouble comes, they will earnestly seek me.” 

Then they respond by saying, “Come, let us return to the Lord.  He has torn us to pieces; now he will heal us.  He has injured us; now he will bandage our wounds.   In just a short time he will restore us, so that we may live in his presence.   Oh, that we might know the Lord! Let us press on to know him.  He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn or the coming of rains in early spring.”

                These are the words of a beautiful confession.  And we would expect that everything would be great at this point in time right?  Expect, remember, that this is a point where the actions and the words of the people are empty.  They are not saying these things because they mean them.  They are saying them, because they figure that they can tell God what he wants to hear and then they will be good to go.  Their hearts are not in it, because if their hearts had been in it, if they meant the words that they were speaking, then their actions would have been much different.  You know how it is.  Have you ever had one of those experiences where you knew that if you just said the words, “I’m sorry.”  That the situation would change.  You certainly didn’t mean them, but you said them so you could get on with life.  That is kind of what this was like from the people of the kingdom of Israel.  So that is why the response that comes from God, comes from God. “O Israel and Judah, what should I do with you?” asks the Lord. “For your love vanishes like the morning mist and disappears like dew in the sunlight.  I sent my prophets to cut you to pieces—to slaughter you with my words, with judgments as inescapable as light.  I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.  I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.” 

                Cam you imagine what it would be like to hear on a Sunday morning, after making confession of your sins. “O Our Father, what should I do with you?  Your love vanishes like the morning mist and disappears like dew in the sunlight.  I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.  I want you to know me more than I want building campaign donations.” 

                Can you imagine what that would be like?  I think it would be awful, it just gives me chills thinking about it, but what it says to us is very important.  Our relationship with our God can never become an empty shell of actions.  Being a Christian for us can never be about going to church or Sunday School, and going to this meeting or that meeting.  That was the trap that the people of Hosea’s day fell into and also the religious leaders of Jesus’ day fell into.

                The trap of falling into the actions of religion becoming empty is one that is a danger for everyone, no one is immune from it.  Thanks be to God that we have the Holy Spirit who works through the Scriptures and through communion and baptism to keep our faith strong, and to prevent it from being empty religion. 

                I found a shirt that illustrates this beautifully.  On the front, “Christianity is not a religion.”  And then on the back, “Religion is humans trying to work their way to God.  Christianity is God coming to men and women through a relationship with Jesus Christ.”  Now usually I don’t look to T-shirts or bumper stickers for that matter to find theology.  But this is a really good thought. 

                What happens here, in this place is not about you and me.  It is about our God, restoring us to himself through the death and resurrection of his son Jesus.  And living in relationship with us.  It is about him pouring out into our lives his love and grace and mercy.  And filling us with those things, not just until we are full, but until we are overflowing, and they spill out of our lives into the lives of our neighbors, into the lives of the people God has placed into our lives.

                God loves us, and we respond in love for him, in relationship with him.  We respond in worship, in song and praise, in prayer and in service and living our lives in a way that proclaims his great love and mercy and grace. 

                When we live in these things, then we are living in relationship with our God and then we don’t get stuck in actions that have become empty religious actions.  Instead those things are life strengthening participation in relationship with the God who loves you and so much that he sent his son to make us his own dear sons and daughters and to live with him forever. 

                So in those moments that we find ourselves caught up and stuck in the actions, there are the words of our God, “I want  you to know me more than I want offerings.  I want you to show love more than I want sacrifices.”    They remind us of the most important things, and are a gracious call back to God, and hopeful promise of life that is full true and never just empty actions.

                May you know the joy and peace of this relationship this life this awesome God, now and always.  Amen.           

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