This month we in the United States have been celebrating our national independence, going back to the time of our infancy, remembering our national beginnings, acknowledging our uniqueness as a nation, hopefully confessing our faults and our failures, and giving thanks for our freedoms (with many among us praying to be delivered from the threats from within and from without that threaten our liberties in these frightening and fearful times). One of the freedoms guaranteed in the founding documents of our nation is religious freedom.
However, this does not mean that we value all religions equally, believe all religions worship the same god, share the same values, seek the same goals, and are different roads leading to the same destination. There is a plurality of gods and goddesses in this world, and the fact that our nation practices and promotes religious freedom should never be interpreted to mean we believe religion is always a good thing, that all people of faith believe in equal rights, in racial equality, in gender equality, or that all religions seek to do justly, to show mercy, to pursue peace, to pull down the strongholds of evil in this world, to relieve human suffering, to labor for the common good, to seek the welfare of all people, regardless of their color, their culture, or their class.
Many people assume that all religious persons are good people, or at least are supposed to be, and should be, if they abide by the beliefs in their sacred writings. However, any student of world history, and any informed person aware of the religious wars and senseless violence sanctioned by radical religionists and fanatical fundamentalists (in the past and also in the present), has to acknowledge that so much suffering in this world has been caused by religious fanaticism. Those of us who are Christians must confess that Jesus Christ has been dishonored by many things done in His name, and the inter-faith communities in this nation and abroad should also be willing to acknowledge that no religion is exempt when it comes to the kind of righteousness that is wrong, the kind of religious prejudices and practices that have caused so much human misery in the past, and continues to this day, including widespread anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian attitudes, fueled by age-old religious hatreds.
In our own time we are witnessing senseless acts of violence caused by religious bigotry, the growing number of refugees who have been driven from their own homes and homelands, displaced and disenfranchised because of religious wars, racial conflicts, even so-called wars of “ethnic cleansing” – the slaughter of innocent people, including children – in the belief that the god these religious fanatics worship not only sanctions such violence, but actually rewards such inhumanity.This depravity is as current as today’s headlines and our daily broadcasts. As a Christian, and one who believes in the authority of both the Old and New Testaments, I am immediately reminded of some of the strong biblical indictments of religious leaders who pray on their knees in the temple on their feast days, but prey on the poor and powerless the rest of the time. Almost anyone familiar with the Old Testament prophets are acquainted with such passages as these: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals, your solemn assemblies are a stench to me” (Amos 5:21) – strong words from someone speaking as “Thus saith the Lord,” hate and despise!
“Hear this…you who push the afflicted out of the way…who profane my holy name…who lay yourselves down beside the altar, and in the house of your God drink wine bought with fines you impose…because you trample on the poor…because I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins…Even though you offer me your offerings I will not accept them…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your instruments. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an over-flowing stream!” (Amos 2:7-8, 5:11-12 and 22-24).
Yes, it is possible for religious people, with all of their rituals and rules, all of their prayers and practices, all of their loud music and melodies, as well as all of their offerings, to still incur the wrath of Almighty God! Why? Because their hearts are far from God, because they have behaved unjustly, because they have ignored the needs of the poor, because of their indifference and lack of compassion, because they are just going through the motions of worshiping God while their hearts are far from Him!
Those of us who are Christians dare not forget these words of Jesus, who was also quoting another Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, when he pronounced His “woes” on those religious people who were praising God with their lips only, while their hearts were not really fixed on Him (Matthew 15:8-9). He said, “Hearing they do not listen, seeing they do not understand…do not understand with their heart, so that they might turn that I can heal them” (Matthew 13:13-15). According to Jesus, it is possible to be very religious, to participate in worship services, to join in singing hymns of praise, to listen to the prayers and even pray, to give and even give generously, and still be very far from God (see Matthew 6:1-7). Jesus warns us, “Do not be like them” (vs. 8).
Let’s face it, so much worship in our own time is self-centered rather than God-centered. I am not talking now about any religion other than my own. A lot of people go to church to be entertained, or to be inspired, but is that the purpose of worship? Should worship be self-centered? Of course not! For the purpose of Christian worship is to give God praise, to give God the glory God alone deserves, to give God thanks. But many people participate in worship services today for the purpose of “getting” rather than “giving.” They go to some church primarily to receive something from the experience, from the music, from the preaching, and if the preacher is not inspiring and the music is not satisfying they feel cheated when they leave the church.
Yes, to be sure, we should hope every person in any congregation on any Lord’s Day will hear something, will experience something, that will inspire, comfort, encourage, and challenge him or her. However, the question everyone should ask following any worship service is not, “What did I get?,” but rather, “What did I give?” Did I truly give God worship? Did I truly praise God? Did I give God thanks? Did I love God with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my strength? Was my heart truly fixed on God?” Whenever anyone can respond “yes” to these questions, he or she can leave any worship service with a sense of mission accomplished, even if the preacher is dull and the choir sings off key!
Furthermore, we should always ask ourselves if we were really listening to the sermon? Was my mind open, was my heart open, was there any true sense of awe and wonder as I shared in offering praise to God? Was I making the prayers offered my own prayers? Was I offering myself as a living sacrifice to God, which is true spiritual worship (Romans 12:1)? Did I have “ears to hear” and “eyes to see”? Then, when the worship ends the service should really begin! Is the religious experience going to make any real difference, any practical difference, in the way I live – in my home life, in my workplace, in all of my relationships, in my conduct, in my character, in my actions and reactions, in my words and in my deeds?
Permit me to speak as a Christian to other Christians who may be reading. Is your Christianity more than a religion? True Christianity is relational! First, it is a personal relationship with the person of Jesus, the unique and solitary Son of God, a relationship that should shape and transform all of our other relationships (with our self, with the significant others in our lives, with all other people, and with the world we live in). Every other religion has one basic characteristic – its followers or devotees are trying to find God, by their own efforts, and they hope to please God by what they do. On the other hand, Christianity does not tell us how to find God, but wants us to know what God has done to find us! Christianity does not teach us how to find God, or how to please God, by our own efforts. Every other religion is a hand reaching up to God, but Christianity is a hand reaching down to us.
Yes, God is seeking us! We are the lost ones; God is not lost, waiting for us to find Him. In the garden of Eden, it was not Adam crying out, “Where are you, God?” No, it was God crying out, “Where are you, Adam?” (Genesis 3:9). Then, in the fullness of time, the Eternal Christ came into the world in the person of the historical Jesus “to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10). Jesus compared God the Father to a good shepherd seeking one lost lamb that had strayed from the fold, to a woman sweeping the floor to find one lost coin, and to a sorrowful father waiting and watching for a lost son to come home (Luke 15:1-24). Jesus tells us God is like that!
My friends, religion is not enough! Respectability is not enough! Perhaps you are one of those who has failed to find God by your own efforts, and are therefore even now questioning the existence of God — or perhaps you have tried to substitute a religion for a real relationship with God (i.e. an intimate relationship), for you are afraid of what that might mean, what that might require, what God might demand. Perhaps God will want to change your life too drastically. Perhaps God will put His finger on desire too relentlessly. Perhaps God will demand too much of you continuously and consistently. So, perhaps you have been settling for religion for too long. Religion is what many people prefer, for that is self effort.
Are you such a person? Have you perhaps been disappointed with your religious experience?.Then I encourage you to find a Bible and turn to the story of Nicodemus, a very religious man, who was not satisfied with his religious experience, and went to Jesus (Gospel of John, chapter 3, verses 1-15 – also follow the spiritual journey of Nicodemus in John’s gospel, chapters 7:37-53 and 19:31-42). For it is so important to understand that religion can be dangerous to your spiritual health! This fact comes as a surprise to many religious people, and is even a crushing blow to some, because they want to do everything on their own, in their own way, and in their own good time. So, they prefer coming to God on their own terms, if they have been trying to come to God at all. This puts them in control, and that is where they want to be!
People can even feel pretty good about being religious, for they can convince themselves that they have done their duty. when they share in worship from time to time, when they say grace at mealtime, or send a check occasionally to the church of their choice. But their hearts can be far from God! Most of the time, day after day, they are indistinguishable from the average run of decent pagans! Once again, I am primarily speaking as a Christian to others who claim to be Christians, but I do hope that those of you who belong to another faith community will also pause long enough to take a hard look at your own spiritual life and spiritual health. Ask yourself this question: “Have I substituted a religion for a close personal relationship with God?” Or permit me to ask you this question: “When did God become more than just a word to you?” And finally, “What practical difference is my religion making in your life, week in and week out, in your behavior, in your relationships, in your lifestyle, in all of your decision making?”
Is it possible that you are just a “cultural religionist?” That is what Saul of Tarsus was before his conversion, before he had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, the resurrected Lord, the very One he had been persecuting, before he became the Apostle Paul! What happens when a cultural religionist becomes a convert to Christianity? All things become new! Old things pass away! Paul says, “I regard all other things as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…I regard them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own (i.e. is a righteousness “given,” rather than a righteousness “gained,” by following all of the religious rules and observing all of the religious rituals), a righteousness that comes from the law, but one that comes from God” (Philippians 3:7-9 – i.e. that comes from God as a grace gift, that comes by grace alone through faith alone – read Ephesians 2:4-10), We are His “workmanship” ( i.e. “what He has made us” – Ephesians 2:10).
THINK ABOUT THESE THINGS!