Texts: Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:-12
“Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.”
I’m a big fan of quotes. I like to write them down for inspiration, and this one is in the top 5 of my all-time favorites. The idea that adversity is not some test where we make ourselves better – building character – but rather it simply reveals what’s at the center of who we are. That actually sounds a bit theological, doesn’t it?
But before I go there, let me pose this question to you: what is adversity revealing about our society these days? Now maybe you disagree with me, but I think we are facing quite a bit of adversity in our nation these days. And that adversity is revealing something about our collective character. We’re obsessed with human character.
We’re preoccupied with human character: namely, the complete poverty of others’ character and the not quite as impoverished state of our own. I think we see that playing out in society….on a large scale, it’s over the social and political issue of the day. Or on a smaller scale, it’s that random driver who doesn’t let us merge onto I-64 on the way to work on any given day. (Ok, that’s really about me….but I’d like to think I’m not the only one!)
Here’s the thing: this obsession, this preoccupation with human character colors our worldview, how we see things. It also colors who we interpret things…..take scripture, for example. Take our texts for today. If we think they only reveal something about human character, then these texts are either a definitive list of who’s side God is one or a set of rules to make ourselves better people, namely, a better Christian. The Beatitudes in Matthew, the call to “love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with God” in Micah, and the “wisdom of suffering” in 1 Corinthians are nothing more than ways to validate ourselves while at the same time cast absolute judgment on others.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine this past week about the joys and valleys of marriage. He and his wife have been fighting over the past couple months. At first, he was judgmental, pointing out to his wife the ways she wasn’t measuring up. That in turn led to him beating himself up, and thus trying to please his wife…but really trying to absolve himself of his guilt, which would eventually make him feel resentful and the cycle would begin all over again. The cycle: character assassination, which lead to character suicide, and then circling back and repeating itself. It drove my friend and his wife further and further apart. But then my friend had a revelation: he decided to stop trying to please his wife, and please God instead. When he did that, he remarked, things got better in their marriage.
Now, my friend is Pentecostal, so my cynical, Lutheran side says “it’s not that simple; it’s never that simple!” But what if today’s texts are not so much fixated on our character, but rather the revelation of God’s character? It is a God who loves kindness, a God who is just, and who humbles Godself in in Jesus Christ in order to walk with us. It is a God who blesses people in their weakness and vulnerability, not their self-seeking and self-sufficient ways, blessing them in the recognition of their own poverty of spirit and body. It is a God who regards vulnerability and weakness as power that draws us closer to each other and to God. God’s character in the face of adversity is total, unconditional, complete love, mercy, and grace for those who know all too well the impoverished nature of human character.
Which brings me back to the adversity we face these days. A new President has been sworn in and already in his first week in office the country is deep in controversy that’s revealing the darker side of human character: injustice, hate, fear, and violence towards others. There are a lot of preachers this morning, and rightly so, who are boldly proclaiming to their congregations to take a definitive stand against injustice and hate, telling them exactly what that looks like and what is Christian or unChristian. Funny thing is, that message sounds exactly the same from both sides of the argument. It an obsession with human character.
Well, I’m not going to do that this morning. I’m not that good of a preacher to pull it off but if I’m really being honest, it’s because I realize the own impoverished state of my own character. Life is complex, life is messy, decisions have consequences we and others have to struggle and live with, often for a long time. So as I thought of what I could offer you this morning, I thought the best thing I can do is leave you with this question:
What would it mean as people of faith – both individually and as a community – to fixate on God’s character? It probably doesn’t lead to a whole lot of answers, but in my relatively short life I’ve learned this much: when we receive God’s love, we become more capable of loving others. When we receive God’s mercy, we become merciful towards others. When we accept God’s justice, we in turn become more just towards others. When we accept God’s graciousness, we become more gracious towards others. We become less fearful, and much less fixated on our own goodness and the not-so-goodness of others. We fixate on the character of God….and our character is changed.
What would it mean to fixate on God’s character? In the face of injustice and hate, perhaps our words and actions reveal the very character of God. In the face of adversity and all the uncertainty of what we should do….perhaps that is enough. Amen.