Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - July 30, 2006

What is the chief purpose of human life in this world?  That’s a heavy question for a summer Sunday isn’t it?  You probably didn’t wake up this morning thinking about it, perhaps you have never thought very much about it at all.  For a lot of people they’re mostly concerned with just trying to make it through the day, trying to survive, trying to make ends meet, then they get up the next day and do it again. They don’t have time for such heavy philosophical questions.  Or have we already answered the question?  Is the chief purpose of human life simply to survive? 

If that’s the answer, that would mean we’re not a whole lot different from all other living things, animals and plants.  My days as a middle school science teacher tell me that every living thing has been given or has developed or has adapted the genetic make up that enable it know what its basic needs are and any species that survives has managed to take care of those basic needs. If the obstacles to those needs become too great and adaptations can’t be made, the species dies out, goes extinct.   

But we’re talking about human life here.  Survival is basic and it is certainly something we do have in common with other forms of life, but isn’t there something that separates us from them?   We’re supposed to have a greater sense of self awareness than other living things so shouldn’t we have a purpose apart from merely surviving? 

I don’t want to belabor this but I would guess that as you think about possible answers to this question your mind might be running toward our purpose having something to do with others; that we are about more than just our own survival, that we are to serve others, care for others, be a blessing to others in whatever ways we can. 

That would certainly be a more churchy answer and we are in church after all.  Or maybe you’re thinking, this is church so the answer must have something to do with God.  Obviously there is no one right answer to this question; it’s one that can be answered on a variety of levels.  Since we are in church, we must be looking for a theological answer; but there’s no one theological right answer either.  There are a lot of wrong theological answers as many of them seem to have to do with the purpose of human life being to convince everyone else that your thoughts about God are right and theirs are wrong which has been and continues to be the cause of much bloodshed throughout the world.  So I’m pretty sure that’s the wrong answer, but what might the right answer be?

I don’t know if Martin Luther ever raised this specific question about the purpose of human life in this world so I can’t say for sure what his answer would be.  I can make a guess though.  Looking at his catechism explanations to each of the commandments, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to say that his answer might be that the main purpose of human life is to fear and love God.  He starts every explanation with those words:  We are to fear and love God so that we do or don’t do whatever.  To fear and love God; that’s one possible answer.

Here’s another, perhaps more interesting answer provided by the Westminster Shorter Catechism which is one of the teaching documents of the Presbyterian Church.  The first question in the Shorter Catechism is this precise question; What is the chief purpose of human life?  And the answer this catechism gives is, “The chief purpose of human life is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” 

I think it’s kind of an interesting answer because it makes the purpose of human life an activity that could be called useless in that it has no practical, utilitarian value.  Luther’s “You should fear and love God” statements are all directed at something else; there’s always a “so that” connected to it, a “so that” which can be seen in how one lives their life.  In the Westminster catechism though, there is no “so that.”  Praise and enjoyment of God accomplishes nothing apart from praise and enjoyment of God.

We need both of these answers; it’s not that one is right and the other is wrong.  They both have to do with being in relationship with God and sometimes that relationship, our faith in God, should have a “so that” component to it; our faith should be reflected in the way we live the rest of our life.  But sometimes we just need to offer joyful praise as we consider the presence of God in our lives and in the world and give thanks for the many ways that he has blessed us.

Old Testament biblical faith was certainly aware of this.  If you were to read through the Psalms thinking about this purpose of life question you might conclude from reading all of them that the purpose of life is to be in relationship with God;  that’s what they’re all about.  But it’s a pull no punches relationship.  Among the psalms there are some that lash out at God for perceived injustice; there are some that call for vengeance on one’s enemies; there are some that are prayer to God to pull one through a difficult time and thanks to God for doing just that.  And there are some that are just pure unadulterated praise.  The people of Israel were not afraid to rail at God when things were not going as they thought they should, but there was still an underlying trust in the order and goodness of the created world and God’s continued governance of that world.

Today’s Psalm 145 is a good example of this.  It is just a statement of joyous and grateful trust in the Creator God.  We only had a portion of the psalm today but what we read is representative of the whole thing which in no particular order states what is enduringly true about God and the world.  Actually there is an order to it in Hebrew as the first verse starts with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the second verse with the second letter etc.  All of which just underlines the wholeness and perfection of this stated truth.  Fundamental to that truth is that the Lord is securely in control and his presence and control are things that can always be counted on. 

The people of Old Testament Israel were not naïve.  They knew that bad things could and did happen to good people.  They knew that life could not be lived without sadness and loss.  But again, they trusted that even if they couldn’t see it or understand it all the time, God’s hidden, powerful, sustaining, generous care was always at work.  “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.  You open your hand satisfying the desire of every living thing.”

With this and other statements in this psalm, Israel asserts that all of life is held in God’s hands.  As the church today we continue to express this confidence.  We’re not naïve either.  We know that bad things can and do happen to good people.  We know about sadness and loss.  We watch and listen to and read the news.  But with the psalmist we also say, “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and loving in all his works.  The Lord is near to those who call upon him, to all who call upon him faithfully.”  We offer prayer and praise because that is our purpose as people in relationship with God.

Don’t underestimate the significance of this.  Our prayer and praise, with no “so that,” with no strings attached, with no effort to get God to do our bidding, our prayer and praise simply for the sake of prayer and praise is one of the clearest statements we can make about the reality of the God we believe in.  Most of the other things we do as a church, our good work in service and outreach and mission, most of it can be and is done by other agencies and groups, often better and more effectively than we can do it.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do those things.  We should because Jesus calls us to do them. 

But our prayer and praise is our testimony to our faith in God and our faith that this God, revealed in Jesus, represents a different order than the one that assumes that all the answers are found in ourselves and in the usual forms of worldly power.  Don’t underestimate the power and significance of such prayer and praise.

From a practical point of view, this praise and enjoyment of God is useless; it doesn’t seem to accomplish anything.  On the other hand it may be the most important thing we do in fulfilling our purpose as human beings.  We glorify God and we orient ourselves in his order of the world and we witness to others that this is who we are.  We witness that while we do a lot of things with our lives that may be deemed more useful, this glorifying praise and enjoyment of God is our chief purpose.   
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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