Sermons

By Pastor John Johnson

March 18 "Without Penalty"

March 27, 2018

I will put My Teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts. Then I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, "Heed the LORD"; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall heed Me -- declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquities, And remember their sins no more.

Inscribe it upon their hearts. Is that enough? Shouldn’t there be some fear of punishment for not following God’s teaching?

It would be some years before I was to face parenting and the child-rearing opinions of Dr. Spock and those who either agreed or disagreed with him, but when I was in high school, I loved a shtick from the old “Bob and Ray” radio show, to which we would listen a few moments in the late afternoon, before dinner. In one repeated radio skit, the ever-present radio announcer Wally Ballou, one of Bob Elliot’s characters, would interview one of Ray Goulding’s characters, the fictitious Dr. Herman Zickening, author of the book, Raising Children in a Zickening Manner. Wally Ballou would ask a question such as, “What do you do if your six year old wants to run away to join the Marines?” To which Dr. Zickening would reply, “You explain to the child in an adult, conversational manner how six year olds cannot join the Marines; and if that doesn’t work, you whack ‘im.”

“You wack ‘im.” Punishment, or more properly, fear of punishment, as a way to get the desired behavior out of a child. The theory that there needs to be a penalty for bad behavior in order to discourage it.

. . . and so, I suppose, many Christians — and for that matter, Muslims and some Jews — find it necessary to believe in the idea of scaring the hell out of people with images of hell in order to discourage them from undesirable behavior.

But is such fear necessary, or even helpful? And, conversely, is the promise of paradise enough to deter bad behavior and to encourage good? It certainly, I would say, is not enough, but is it any less effective than the threat of hell-fire and damnation for an eternity?

In the Tuesday Bible Study at Florence, where we are just about done for the season, having finished the entire Bible — more or less — over about five years including spending until the past two weeks of this season on the Book of Revelation, we have been looking at whether God would punish innocent people for the sins of their larger community or nation, looking at that in the context, or hypothesized variations of the context, of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and in revisiting the profound, even if at times somewhat too wordy, Book of Job, in which Job has been “punished” — or so he thinks, without having done anything wrong — which is true. Sodom and Gomorrah is a legend that is possibly — or possibly not — based on an unrecorded natural disaster; Job is a straight out extended parable designed to ask the question, “if God is just and God is all powerful, why do bad things happen to good people?”

But that question, in Job is not really to my point, other than that not being sinful does not guarantee Job a reward nor avoid misfortune, but I mentioned Job because in one publisher’s version of the New Revised Standard Bible translation, an editor makes this comment:
The central theme of the book of Job is the possibility of disinterested righteousness. . . . If people will serve God without thought of the carrot or stick, then religion will outlast any eventuality.”

Neat sounding words that basically mean, do we seek to follow God’s will because of expectation of reward or fear of punishment, or is there something else? And it there is “something else,” what is that “something else”?

The non-believer would say that it is simply — not that there is anything simple about — simply virtue, that the virtuous person will seek to do what is right. Yes, a non-believing righteous person can abstractly seek to do what he or she concludes is right, but the religious person will go considerably further: he or she will seek to do what we believe God has declared right and to avoid what is not right because he or she wants to follow God, to follow God because. . . because the person knows that God loves him or her!

One can be a “good person” without being a person of faith, and yet, even many of those whom we would so label get their concepts of right or wrong from, well, from the Christian and Jewish faiths; even post-Christian Europe owes gratitude to Christianity according to a prominent German political scientist.

But can the sense that one is loved by God, or that one loves God, which in either case leads to a desire to follow God’s will, can desire to please God, a desire to thank God for what God has done, can that which comes from loving God or from knowing one is loved by God be as effective as, pardon me, being afraid of Hell or desirous of Heaven?

Last year, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of his legendary nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of the cathedral church at Wurtenburg, I frequently mentioned Martin Luther. One of only three quotes of his I know, and the first I knew, is, “Love God and do as you will!”

“Love God and do as you will.” That is in fact a very constraining statement, even if in my case, I am certain this is not true for any of you, even if in my case, because of my human weakness, my sinfulness, loving God is not constraining enough! But whether fear of a future hell would constrain me more, I rather doubt; my desire to please God and my desire not to disappoint God are constantly before me.

What I am saying — and what is implicit in that book of Job — is that we should follow God because we trust in God, and adding the Christian spin to that old Jewish work of 2400 or more years ago, we should follow God because of, and in gratitude for, the love God has shown us by sending Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.

What?!? Love and the desire to please are enough? Needn’t there be a reward and punishment, a carrot and a stick?

Well, the cat owners and lovers among you are deprived of one of life’s great joys: owning a dog. While dogs do want their treats and dogs do not want to be punished, what seems most to please dogs is pleasing their masters and mistresses — just as we seek, or should seek, to please God.

Is love strong enough to direct human behavior in the absence of reward or penalty? I am reminded of a precious experience back when my older son was about 2 - 2-1/2. We lived outside of Pittsburgh in an apartment with a small kitchen. Michael had a set of plastic “potty people,” plastic toy pans that had faces on them, and he would be in the kitchen playing with these “potty people” if Carol was working away there. One time while he was so playing, she opened the refrigerator, and he happened to reach in and pull on a jar of applesauce that fell on the floor and broke, spreading apple sauce all over the place. I know that Carol would have been very restrained in any scolding she would have done; it was no big deal.

A good six months later, out of the blue, Michael said, “I’m sorry, Mom.” “Sorry for what?” she asked. “I’m sorry about the applesauce.”

We did not know whether to laugh or cry, but the point is, I think, worth considering: seeking to please or to thank another is a far more important and ultimately far more Christian driver of attitude than any other incentive of reward or deterrent of fear of punishment to which humans respond. Indeed, our Hebrew Bible reading from Zechariah sort of hints at this:

I will put My Teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts. Then I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, "Heed the LORD"; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall heed Me -- declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquities, And remember their sins no more.

When the basis of our obedience is to please God and to seek not so much to curry favor from other people as to bring joy to them, when we do not fear a “wack,” but rather fear disappointing God, we come closer to behaving as God truly wants us to behave, indeed, to disinterested righteousness, to Serving God without thought of the carrot or stick. And our faith will outlast any eventuality.

I need to talk to Dr. Herman Zickening in an adult, conversational manner about that. But I don’t want him to fear that I’ll wack ‘im.

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