Summary: Religion does not create a relationship with God, nor does ritual. It is refinement born of repentance that shapes that relationship. Repent, relate, and receive.
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Famous words supposedly spoken by journalist Henry Morton Stanley somewhere in Tanganyika at the end of his expedition to find the missing explorer. “I presume”. It means, “I think I know what I am doing. Would you please confirm it for me? You look like what I came to find; please tell me I am right.” When we presume something, we are already rather well convinced we are right, but we want somebody to confirm it for us. Presumption; what we think we already know.
There is a Sufi saying, “Those who do not know that they do not know are ignorant: Pray for them. Those who do not know that they know are asleep: Wake them. Those who know that they do not know are children: Teach them. Those who know that they know are realized beings: Follow them."
But I have a problem with the Sufi saying. (And by the way, please do not ask me to repeat it!) I agree that not knowing is a situation that calls out for remedy. Teaching, waking, praying. But I do not agree that those who know that they know are always those who should be followed. I find that those who know that they know are presumptuous. They are self-contained. They can even be arrogant. Those who know that they know are presumptuous, and expect others to confirm them and applaud them. There is a problem with that. There is an issue with presumption. And that issue becomes a very serious one when it is turned toward our relationship with God. If you and I become presumptuous about God, we are far off the mark, and need serious correction.
I want to introduce you this morning to a preacher who made very certain that his audience got serious correction. This preacher was unmistakably clear with his assessment of those who presumed to know that they knew. This preacher is likely not a candidate that your Pastor Search Committee will bring before you. For one thing, his wardrobe is well out of style; I know that you have no dress code, and am happy that here people can wear jeans or be as casual as they like. But really, camel’s hair? Wardrobe does not measure up. And then there is the issue of diet. I have been to several of the Sunday night suppers, and even if you have not attended those, you have heard Jim Kirk bellow out the menu; never have I heard him announce that locusts and wild honey will be served at 5:30 tonight! No, neither the wardrobe nor the diet will do, and maybe we would even quarrel with this preacher’s theology. Maybe we wouldn’t like to listen to what he has to say. Yes, he is a Baptist; but somehow what he is preaching is not what we expect to hear from Baptist pulpits. Is this the message you would come out for, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”? Is this the flavor you prefer, “You brood of vipers”? And all this stuff about fire? Too negative for our tastes, right? Too extreme.
But, brothers and sisters, therein lies the issue. Therein is our problem. It is easy to be guilty of presumption. It is easy to presume that we are on the right path. We readily presume that we are signed, sealed, and delivered before God. “Once saved always saved” is our favorite doctrinal statement. But here comes one John the Baptist, all unshaven and unwashed, wagging his bony finger at us, and fairly shrieking, “Do not presume.” “Do not presume to say to yourselves …”
Let’s understand that John’s audience was made up of good people, religious people. The Pharisees and the Sadducees – kind of the Baptists and the Methodists of that day. They knew their religion. They did church. They knew that they knew. They presumed that they had it right, and came out for the preacher to confirm it. But they got an earful, and it was not pleasant.
For one thing, they presumed that the religion that they had inherited and had practiced all these years was a guarantee of salvation. Their standing as Jews and their leadership in the religious community was unquestioned. And so, the presumption was that they were in good standing with the Lord.
What a shock, what an insult, then, to hear John cry out, “Do not presume”! “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
Friends, being conventionally religious guarantees us nothing. Doing church as church is normally done in our time gives us no advantage before God. In fact, it may even harm our standing before Him, because we persuade ourselves that we deserve salvation. We convince ourselves that God owes us redemption. We act as though we are doing God a great favor to show up at church and pitch in some offering. It’s just what decent folks do.