8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I’d like to begin this morning by seeing how well you listen to my sermons. In a sermon I preached earlier this year I stated that of all the classes I took in all my years of schooling my least favorite subject was what? Raise your hand if you think you know the answer to that question. My least favorite subject was HISTORY. So it might come as a surprise to you that I’m going to begin my sermon with a little bit of history that comes out of the Civil War.
When we think of that huge blemish on our nation’s historical record we can’t help but think of the man from Illinois who served as President during that critical time. His name was Abraham Lincoln. And when I think of Lincoln, I can’t help but think of a quote he made when he was asked by someone if he believed God was on their side during the war. His response was classic. He said: “It matters not if God is on our side. What matters is whether we are on His side.”
This morning I’d like to take that quote and modify it just a bit. And I would like to say this to all of you today: My friends, it matters not whether God is our friend – that’s already been established. He’s proven it over and over again. What matters is, are we his friend? You see, you are as close to God as you choose to be. Like any friendship, you must work at developing, maintaining, and deepening your friendship with God. It won’t just happen on its own. Rather it takes time, desire, energy, effort. So that’s what I want to spend my time talking about this morning as we continue our look at how to live a good news life in a bad news world. I want to examine how each one of us can have a deeper, more intimate, more fulfilling relationship with the One who longs to have a relationship with us.
And the 1st point that I want to make is that this deeper friendship with God begins with us being honest with God. And here I’m talking about complete honesty, especially when it comes to our faults and failures, or what the Bible calls our sins. Please understand, God doesn’t expect you to be perfect. Oh, I’m sure he would love it if you were, but he knows better than that. He knows that because we human beings are born with a sinful nature, we are going to do what comes naturally to us. We are going to sin. And sure enough, when we read the Bible we quickly discover that none of God’s closest friends was perfect. I mean just look at Noah getting drunk in his tent following the Flood; Abraham lying about his wife Sarah in order to protect himself while putting her in danger; David lusting after and committing adultery with Bathsheba; Peter denying Jesus 3 times; and the disciples pridefully arguing among themselves as to which one of them was the greatest. Yet God still loved them. He was still their friend. In fact, in Matt. 11:19 Jesus even acknowledges one of the nicknames that his enemies were derogatorily using for him, though I believe he wore that name like a badge of honor. They were calling him a “friend of sinners.”
But not only were the friends of God in the Bible honest about their faults, they were also honest about their feelings, sometimes brutally so. Some of them complained to God. Some accused him of being unfair. Some argued with him. But amazingly, God was never bothered by their frankness and honesty. In fact, he encouraged it.
For example, he allowed Abraham to question and challenge him over his decision to destroy the 2 cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. If you’ll recall in that story Abraham kept pestering God over what it would take to save those cities since his nephew Lot and his family lived there. Read the account in Gen. 18 and you’ll see Abraham being very respectful yet very honest with God as he negotiates with him to spare the cities if 50 righteous people could be found in them, then 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, then finally 10. At no time does God say: “Now hold on there, Abraham. You’re pushing this a bit too far, don’t you think?” Instead each time God responded positively to the pleas of Abraham.
God also listened patiently to David as he spouted off in the psalms from time to time and accused God of not paying attention to what was going on in his life. What has become one of my favorite psalms is Psalm 13 where David cries out to God with these words: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.” Have you ever wrestled with God like that? Have you ever been that brutally honest with him about how you were feeling? Perhaps not for fear that God would strike you dead on the spot. But David shows us over and over again in the psalms that God can handle our rantings and ravings, as long as they are done respectfully.
So a deeper friendship with God begins with being honest with God. Then it continues with obeying him out of love. Now that might strike you as rather odd because normally we don’t think of obedience as a characteristic of friendship. Rather that’s something reserved for relationships where one is in authority over another – parent/child; boss/employee; king/citizen. However, Jesus made it clear that obedience is a condition of intimacy with God. In John 15:14 he told his disciples: “You are my friends if you do what I command.”
But this is where we need to understand that our obedience to Christ is not something that we do out of duty or fear or compulsion. That’s the problem Martin Luther had early on in his life. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Luther” which, by the way, we have in our church library, you might be able to recall the scenes of young Martin expressing fear and even hatred for this God whom he believed demanded more out of him than Luther felt he was capable of giving. In fact, on one occasion when Luther was asked if he loved God he responded by saying: “Love God??? I hate God!”
But once the Holy Spirit opened Luther’s heart and mind to understand the love and mercy and grace God had shown him in his Son Jesus Christ and how through Jesus all of his sins could be forgiven and he could be clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ, Luther felt as though an enormous burden had been lifted from his shoulders and that he had been set free – free to serve and obey God, not out of duty or fear of punishment, but out of love.
And so it is with us. Our obedience to God flows out of our love for God. And while we may often times feel as though we must do really big things for God in order for him to be truly pleased with us, I can assure you that he is just as pleased with the small things we do for him when they are done out of a loving, believing, and trust-filled heart. Sure they might be unnoticed by others, but he sees them all and takes great joy and delight in them. How do I know that? Because in the great Judgment Day scene that Jesus describes for us in Matt. 25 what does he say to those on his right, those who are headed for an eternity with him? He says, “`Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” And when the righteous ask when they did all these things for Jesus, he will reply: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
So to have a deeper friendship with God, I must with the help of the Holy Spirit be honest with God, especially about my faults and feelings, and I must obey him not out of fear, but out of love. Then lastly, I must also value what he values. For that’s what friends do, don’t they? They care about what is important to the other person. Can you imagine having a friend who always and only talked about himself or herself? I mean every time you’d get together, they’d go on and on about their job, their family, their home, their problems. And whenever you’d see an opening and try to share something about what’s happening in your life, they’d quickly interrupt you so that they could get the subject back to themselves. Maybe some of you don’t even have to imagine a friend like that. Maybe you have a friend like that. And it’s frustrating, isn’t it, when all they want to do is talk about themselves and show no interest in you.
The point I’m getting at here is the more you become God’s friend, the more you will care about what he cares about. The more you will grieve over the things he grieves over. The more you will rejoice over the things he rejoices over.
And what do you suppose God cares about the most? Believe it or not, it’s not about your personal comfort though he does care about that. It’s not about who wins the World Series, the Super Bowl, or a gold medal at the Olympics. It’s not even about the fear of terrorism that is currently sweeping across our world. But what he cares about more than anything else, what is by far the deepest passion of his heart is none other than the salvation of sinful human beings. That’s the whole reason Jesus came to earth so that lost people like you and me could be found, sinners could be redeemed, and those who were headed for an eternity in hell could be placed on the path to eternal life with him. So doesn’t it stand to reason that those of us who would call ourselves friends of God should care about the same? That we should share that same passion, that same love for the lost? Or to put it another way, friends of God tell their friends about God.
So let’s go back to that statement I made earlier in this sermon when I said that you are as close to God as you choose to be. I can’t help but feel that all of you here this morning want to be closer to God because otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Well, if you want to enjoy a closer and deeper friendship with him, then put into practice what we’ve talked about this morning. Be honest with him, especially about your faults and feelings. Obey him not out of duty but out of love. And value what he values most.
Also understand that human friends come and go. When I look back to the guys I called my best friends in high school, it’s sad to say but I have had little and in some cases no contact with them for the past 43 years. I don’t even know where some of them are living or what they are doing with their lives. But that’s not the kind of friend God is. He’s not the type of friend who drops in and out of our lives periodically or who calls only when he wants something from us or who talks only about himself and shows no interest in our lives. Rather, he’s what the wise man in Proverbs calls “a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” And in Jer. 29:13 this special Friend says to us the very same thing he said to the Jewish captives in Babylon: “When you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.” (The Message) Or to repeat the words of our text for today, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” That’s a promise you can definitely count on no matter how good or how tough life gets for you!