November 19, 2017

Be Imitators of God

Passage: Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, Ephesians 4:17 – 5:7, Matthew 25:14-30

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Psychology Professor Dan Ariely wrote a book titled The Honest Truth about Dishonesty. He undertook a study to try and understand why some people lie, cheat, and steal. Ariely and his team went to college campuses and offered to pay students for every math puzzle they could solve in five minutes. At the end of the five minutes, the students were asked to grade their own papers and shred them in the back of the room. Then the students stood in line and received money for every right answer. But the students didn't know that the shredder didn't actually shred their papers so the researchers could check to see if they were telling the truth. Ariely found that, on average, students reported solving six problems, when in fact they solved only four.

Over the course of their research, after testing 30,000 people, Ariely found only 12 "big cheaters," compared to 18,000 "small cheaters." The big cheaters stole a total of $150, while the small cheaters stole around $36,000—just one or two dollars at a time. Ariely did this research project all over the world—in the United States, Western Europe, Turkey, Israel, China, and many other countries—and the results were always roughly the same. Ariely concluded that most dishonesty happens among ordinary people who think of themselves as basically honest. But when added together, all this "little" dishonesty has a huge impact.

In February 2017 reporter David Burke posted an article at CBC news titled, “A company's most costly thieves already have keys to the building.” According to the Retail Council of Canada, the theft of goods and cash by employees is costing Canadian businesses $1.4 billion a year. And most of this theft occurs one small item at a time. A little dishonesty has a huge impact.

So, who pays for all this dishonesty? The loss gets accounted for in the price that a company charges for its products. A company, in order to pay all those employees (some of whom are stealing), needs to operate at a profit. Thus the price of an item they sell goes up incrementally to cover theft. Now picture a young mother on a limited income buying groceries for her family. She has only so much cash in her hand to spend. She is adding up what she is putting in the shopping cart as she goes so that she won’t have to suffer the embarrassment of putting something back at the checkout because she hasn’t enough to pay for all the groceries. Imagine her making choices as she goes around the store. The prices, inflated because of theft, directly impacts what she can afford. It is easy to see how such dishonesty harms the poorest among us.

1. “Thieves must give up stealing,” writes the Apostle Paul, “rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” We are exploring the section of letter to the Ephesians where Paul describes what living as a Christian in the world looks like. Many around us may be pilfering small items for personal use but we are to live differently. Give up stealing. Why? Because this is to imitate God. God doesn’t steal from anyone. Think about the day he has given us. As Jesus pointed out, your Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) Further, the scripture tells us that God watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and widow. (Psalm 146:9)

I kept an article about a 2012 study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame. The study found that most Americans lie about 11 times a week. They studied a group of 110 people from age 18 to 71 and asked half the group to reduce their lying over a 10-week period. Those participants who stopped lying—exaggerating their accomplishments, making false excuses for being late and evading uncomfortable questions—had a significant improvement in their health. Their social interactions also went more smoothly, the study found.”

I am always cautious about putting too much emphasis on these kind of studies that link Christian virtues to healthier living. I don’t want to give the message that following Jesus means healthy life or a better quality of life—though honesty has benefits. We need to guard against self-serving motives; the Bible isn’t a self-help manual, though it contains much wisdom for life. I point out to you that the most honest person among us, the Lord Jesus, ended up crucified on a cross. Generally, speaking honesty eventuates happy outcomes—but not always. The believer’s motivation for honesty doesn’t arise out of a calculation of benefits; it arises from a relationship with truth himself.

The believer is not to live as the world lives. And here is our motivation. “That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus.” (Ephesians 4:20-21) Jesus is the one who said he was way, truth, and life. It is because of Jesus that the Apostle wrote that the believer is to put away falsehood. Because Jesus is truth—the one who gave up his life for us—because Jesus is truth falsehood ought to have no place among us. To follow Jesus is to imitate God.

In our era where the individual is considered highest authority; where nothing is above personal choice in value; where I am my own truth; in such an era the Biblical axioms to put away falsehood is a nonstarter. The idea that God has a legitimate claim on my life—that Jesus is truth and not me—likely does not resonate well. Our culture resents being told anything is out of bounds. Christian faith sounds like a series of negative pronouncement in such a culture. While it is true that the scriptures points us away from certain things, living the Christin life isn’t primarily a list of what not to do. When Paul calls the believer to “putting away falsehood” he uses a word that was used to describe taking off clothing. The point I make is that God doesn’t leave us naked, so to speak, but the positive of what clothing to put on is always in view.

For example, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Imagine a world where we thought before we spoke and limited our conversation to things useful for building up. While our motivation for obedience to this gospel call is gratitude to our Saviour Jesus Christ there is great wisdom for life contained in theses admonitions regarding the shape of our Christian life. I invite you to reflect with me on some of this wisdom.

2. Consider the wisdom in this admonition regarding dealing with anger. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” You would do well in life to keep this text of scripture tucked in your mind so that you might act upon it—it makes for much practical peace in a household. You will notice that we are to be careful to put limits on anger. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” There is wisdom that can be discerned here in parenting, for example. Many children today are up early in the morning to go to pre-care before school begins and then after care until picked up; by the time they get home they are, on occasion, at the end of their emotional capacities to be civil and anger can bubble up between siblings. A mistake, I think, is to expect them to immediately jettison anger. We are better to help them “not let the sun go down on their anger”; there will be opportunity before bed to help them lose that anger.

No doubt you have noted that the text says “be angry;” anger is understood, at times, to be the appropriate response to things. Since “truth is in Jesus” we look to him and his life and recall that he himself was angry. We remember his display of anger when he drove the money changers and animal sellers from the temple. He was angry because a place of prayer was turned into a market place. The court where the Jewish people set up the market was the court of the Gentiles; this was the place where the alien and stranger was welcome to approach God—where they too could know of the steadfast love of God. The Jewish people were to be a light to the Gentiles—instead they turned the place for light into a noisy market for their own purposes. Jesus was angry at practices that discouraged people from knowing God. He was angry whenever he saw helpless people exploited; he was angry at disease that crippled people. SO, there is a place for anger.

In lucid moments I must admit that much of what makes me angry is when I have been slighted or mistreated or disadvantaged. I note that Jesus’ anger was when others were being harmed. And so surely one of the limits we are to put on anger besides duration is what anger is appropriate. A little later in this paragraph the Apostle Paul calls us to put away anger—the kind of anger that accompanies bitterness and wrangling and slander and malice.

You may have heard of the story of the day when the sun stood still. It is a Bible story. (Joshua 10:13) We are told that, “The sun stopped in mid-heaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.” When it comes to not letting the sun go down on our anger I fear that too often I would prefer to have a repeat of that day the sun stood still so I can hold on to my anger just a little bit longer. Do you find this to be so? We like our anger, partly because we feel righteous at being angry about injustice or harm of another. But anger is a poor motivator because of the other things it opens us up to; things like harbouring bitterness (Harbouring bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.) So we need to set limits on the duration of our anger. There is an enemy of our soul who would exploit our anger—“and make no room for the devil,” writes Paul. Remember that Paul was no stranger to personally suffering persecution so knows of what he speaks.

Permit me a brief aside here. You have heard it often said that the God of the Older Testament is harsh compared to the God of the New Testament. I point out to you here that the Apostle Paul is either citing or most certainly referencing, Psalm 4:4. “When you are angry, do not sin: ponder it in your beds, and be silent.” In other words the wisdom of God’s love that is articulated in this sentence of Paul’s Ephesian letter as an instance of how to imitate God has been known for a long time. It was known in the time of the Psalmist and then demonstrated by God in the coming of Jesus among us.

But the question we may be asking is about the practicalities of implementation. It is all well and fine to set the objective of not letting the sun go down on my anger but how does one execute the same; what strategy will help us. Some wisdom for us on this point is already in our text of scripture. We noted already that with the admonition to stop doing something is the positive side of what to do. We are to refrain from stealing and instead to replace that with “honest labour and work with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” We don’t sit around focussed on what not to steal; to focus on not stealing keeps us in falsehood’s vortex. Instead we do what is honest and positive so we can, like God, bless others. We see this same wisdom imbedded in the admonition regarding our speech. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

A strategy for dealing with the duration of anger is to soon get focussed on what to do. Being angry about injustice is appropriate; helping someone negatively affected by the injustice that angered us is how to “not let the sun go down on our anger.” Recall again the Lord Jesus and his outburst at the temple. The next day he was found in the temple teaching the people. Teaching them as he has done his entire ministry. Teaching them of God’s love for people and to repent because the kingdom of God had come near in him. Teaching them that God’s love extended to the whole world; the love that the unjust commerce in the court of the Gentiles has so utterly contradicted. Here we see our Lord engaged in doing what he knew made for resolution—preaching the love of God. Preachers who seem angry all the time betray the nature of this love. The fact that when Jesus preached people crowded to hear Jesus witness to his winsomeness—that he showed the love of which he spoke.

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” It is part of what it means to imitate God.

We observed in our text today that there is a Christian way of life—it is a life of imitating God. Our motivation for living this way is gratitude for the one who rescued us by giving his life for us. Truth is in Jesus. And while our motive isn’t to gain the benefits we note that there is great wisdom for life in imitation of God. Through a people given to this way of life God bears witness of his love for the world.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.